Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Nominees: The Final Episode

There was a structural difference between Summer Heights High and The Nominees which ended this week on FX channel.
All the characters and action in Summer Heights took place in a school, which I suppose qualifies it as a 'sit-com' although I prefer to call it a 'comedy drama'. Or, to be strictly accurate, a 'mock-doc comedy drama.'

In contrast, The Nominees followed the lives of six characters living in different parts of Australia and only put them under the same roof at the awards nomination ceremony in the final episode. Chris Lilley teased us here by having Daniel eyeing up Ja'ime and describing her as a "hot-looking chick". I thought some interaction was going to follow, no doubt with Ja'ime dismissing him as a povvo bogan, but it never happened.

Perhaps the fact that the six characters were only linked by their nomination for Australian of the Year is why it was less successful than Summer Heights. It's slower, gentler, more discursive, with fewer breathtaking moments. If it has its occasional longueurs, then so do real documentaries. "The Family", currently on Channel 4, which I mentioned recently is surely one of the most boring documentaries ever made. But I still think The Nominees is a very impressive piece of work that merits more than one viewing to appreciate the detail and sharp observation that's so characteristic of Chris Lilley.

In this last episode, Ricky Wong, torn between physics and acting, finally opts for the latter. He auditions for the part of a lifeguard in Home and Away and this reminds us of a memorable line in an earlier episode: "Sometimes I forget I'm Chinese." Many of Chris Lilley's characters are studies in self-delusion and here the skinny, glasses-wearing Ricky believes he'll be chosen for the part rather than the all-Australian surfer hunks who are his fellow auditionees.

Chris Lilley brings not just realism but humanity and even love to many of his characters. This contrasts with many British character comedians whose characters are either one-dimensional caricatures or downright vicious, often class-based, mockeries of stereotypes.

Pat Mullins and her husband Terry are an affectionate celebration of the odd and the ordinary. One almost feels guilty at laughing at Pat and her disability-conquering endeavours at the bizarre and hitherto unknown sport of long-distance rolling. Perhaps more than with any other character, I experienced a 'suspension of disbelief', able to forget that this was Chris Lilley playing a middle-aged woman. She and Terry are an odd couple but no odder than many of the people in one's own street. No odder perhaps than you or I. Like most things, oddness and eccentricity are relative.
The revelation in the final episode that Pat had died was the occasion for a brilliant and moving performance by Mick Graham as her husband Terry.
As in Summer Heights, the supporting cast are uniformly outstanding. Talking of which, how long did they search to find Ja'ime's mother? In both series, she has hardly any lines but - and this is cruel to the actress who played her - you only have to look at her pinched, sucking-on-a-lemon face to start laughing.

After the pathos of Pat's death came the bathos of the final scene.
That final scene is an example of Chris Lilley at his absolute best.
Daniel and Nathan and their brothers and sisters are in a field letting off the last of the fireworks they bought in Canberra. Stupidly, they are doing so in broad daylight. The camera pans across the sky vainly searching for invisible fireworks. Then, with one final raised finger to the camera from Nathan, they walk off across the cornfield, accompanied by the choral music that Chris Lilley likes so much.
That final wide shot of them receding into the distance lasts for over a minute. A minute is not particularly long in a feature film. But in a half hour television programme, a minute is an eternity. If you're brave enough to do it, holding a single shot that long is a perfectly simple thing to do but the result in this case was simply perfect.

This final scene is a fine example of the power of calculated anti-climax. What Chris Lilley does is a subversion of the obvious. If you or I, or just about anyone else, had been writing that scene, we'd have gone for some spectacular pyrotechnics lighting up the night sky. For, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, this is not how to end a series: not with a bang but a whimper.
But if those dismal, unseen fireworks were a metaphor for the preceding litany of unfulfilled dreams and self-delusion, the cheerful resignation of those kids trudging home across the fields to resume their ordinary, uneventful lives unseen and unchronicled was somehow more triumphant than tragic, a statement about the unrecognised, everyday heroism of making the best of things and finding pleasure where you can.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

For Those Of You Watching In Black And White

I'm pleased the BBC have noted my recent reminders that millions of people are not on the internet.
On tonight's One Show, Dom Littlewood said this:

"If you're not on the web, there's a free phone number which we'll put on our website."

Most helpful.
I hope other programmes follow this example and start putting telephone numbers on their websites for the benefit of those who do not have access to websites.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Brown's Conference Speech

Firstly, a word about the BBC.
It remains a mystery how the BBC squares its duty of impartiality with its employment of right-wing Andrew Neil to anchor these party conference programmes and allow him to make snide comments in his voice-over both before and after Brown's speech. He might make equally snide comments about Cameron next week but he shouldn't be editorialising at all.

The BBC News channel has just informed viewers that it received over 600 emails from viewers during Brown's speech and 90% of these were negative.
Have they never heard of organised emailing campaigns? It may simply be that the Tories are more efficient at this than Labour. I have no evidence for this. However, the only people watching the speech live would be the unemployed and the retired. Only a tiny number of such people would actually be motivated to sit and watch a political speech. And how many of those would be sitting at their keyboard emailing BBC News even while the speech was being given? You'd be unlikely to get 600 people contacting the BBC in an hour if someone said 'cunt' during Songs of Praise.

As for the speech, it was almost certainly the best of Brown's career although cynics might say that's hardly high praise.
He didn't speak about his parents again, thank God. Nor his moral compass. But he did again mention losing the sight of one eye. He said he hadn't told them before that he almost lost the sight of his other eye, at which I half expected the audience to shout "Oh yes you did!" For I'm sure that he's mentioned that in other speeches.

The problem with politicians talking about their integrity and their values is that it can come across as sanctimonious. And Brown has now done it rather too often. I'm always reminded of the phrase "the more he talked of his honour, the faster we counted the spoons."
I happen to think that Brown is a person of integrity and strong moral values. Unfortunately, the people who do most boasting about such things are usually the biggest rogues.

When it comes to judging someone by their actions rather than their words, the verdict with Brown is mixed.
Today's speech did contain some meaty new policies, such as free prescriptions for anyone with cancer and eventually free prescriptions for anyone with a serious long-term condition. It remains to be seen what counts as a 'serious long-term condition'. I knew someone on a low wage with debilitating irritable bowel syndrome who was spending thousands of pounds a year on medication. And one has to ask why this Government still hasn't done much about the crisis in NHS dentistry.

Free health check-ups for everyone over 40 sounds splendid. "The first country in the world to do this", claimed Brown.
But hang on. My local NHS surgery was offering this years ago. I know because I had one. But then it was discontinued. And we don't yet know the detail. Will it be just a blood pressure check, a blood test and a urine sample? Or something more thorough? To be truly effective it needs to include an MRI scan and a heart scan. Is there both the funding and the facilities for that?

Having recently written about the 'digital divide', I can hardly complain about the Government paying for poorer families to have free broadband and vouchers to buy computers. But I don't entirely share the Government's enthusiasm about the educational value of the internet. Potentially, yes. But it's like saying "travel broadens the mind" - it depends who's doing the travelling.

We also had the announcement today of a million free theatre tickets for people under 26 because not enough young people go to the theatre. It's well-meaning social engineeering but all a bit silly. When I went to the theatre and to symphony concerts as a child there were very few other young people there. On that evidence and on the Government's reasoning, live theatre and concerts should have died out by now. Let's invert the reasoning: how about free skateboards and free admission to nightclubs for the over 50s?

Brown also announced the extension of free nursery places to foetuses. OK, I exaggerate slightly. But, as evidence mounts of the harmful long-term effects of slinging young kids into the care of strangers in baby-farms, I'd prefer Oliver James' suggested policy of paying mothers a salary to look after their young children themselves. It would be vastly expensive but James reckons it would be cost-effective by reducing crime, low educational achievement and mental illness.

The most glaring omission from Brown's speech was any help for those on low incomes and benefits with their fuel bills this winter. I had a slight hope that he might have had a change of mind on this. His failure to do more than say "lag your loft" makes a nonsense of all his talk of doing the right thing and helping the vulnerable.

It was a successful speech on the day but it won't help him much in the medium term if the polls still show Labour heading for oblivion.
55% of people think Cameron is a 'lightweight' and I doubt that many could name a single Tory policy. But I don't think Brown can grasp the fact that this won't necessarily stop people voting Tory. As the cleverest Prime Minister since Gladstone, I don't think Brown understands the irrationality of many of his fellow citizens nor the fact that most of them have little knowledge of, nor interest in, politics.

The oldest saying in politics is that Oppositions don't win elections, Governments lose them. And if times are hard and the economy's fucked, it's curtains for the Government, regardless of whether they were to blame or whether Gordon followed his school motto and 'did his utmost' or whether the Tories would make a much bigger mess of things.
You can aspire to 'The Fair Society', Gordon. But life's not fair. Life's a bitch.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Read This Blog Post For Me

About three years ago I wrote this:

"........the medical profession have long been fond of popping. Maybe it's something they teach them at medical school.The doctor will 'pop you up on the couch', ask you to 'just pop your pants down', tell you he's about to pop a bloody great needle into you and then 'pop a plaster' on the wound. Then he'll tell you to 'pop round to the chemist' with his prescription and 'pop back' to see him in a week or two.
But now, like some mutating virus that has crossed species, 'pop' has exploded throughout the general population.The woman in the shop today asked me to pop my debit card into the card machine. Then, to just pop my pin number into the machine. When I'd completed all this popping she told me she was just going to pop my purchase into a bag for me

I omitted to mention that, in medical contexts, 'pop' is nearly always followed by "for me".I was reminded of this when attending the hospital this week."Could you just pop onto these scales for me?"............."Just come into this cubicle for me"............"pop your jacket and shirt off and lie on the couch for me"............"piss into this tumbler for me". For you? Fucking hell, are you going to drink it?

After the 26th "for me" I was tempted to start singing the Bryan Adams song: "Everything I Do, I Do It For You." However that particular nurse looked as though she might be the Gold Medal holder in the Lesbian World Kick-Boxing Championships, so I thought better of it.

Whilst my admiration for NHS staff is boundless, I am not going through any of these indignities for them. I am doing so to prevent what the consultant euphemistically called "an event". (By which he meant going belly-up clutching my chest and screaming "put a notice on my blog for me, otherwise dear old Vicus and the others will think I've had a hissy fit over one of their comments.")

There's something infantilising about that "for me" phrase. It's what a mother might say to a small child: "put these dishes away for me.........put your foot up for me while I tie your shoelace." The sub-text being "you'll do this for me because I'm your mother and I love and care for you."
They may be the 'caring profession' but it doesn't reflect the kind of relationship I have with them.
In any case, even the receptionist was at it: "just take a seat over there for me."

Not content with the maternal approach, many of these people adopted a priestly role for I was also blessed a good many times.
A comment like "I was in hospital a few weeks ago" would bring forth that fucking patronising: "Ah, bless you!"
What? Had I sneezed without realising it?

On a more positive note, when I said "If I'd known I was having another ECG I'd have shaved my chest", the nurse said that she'd carefully arranged my chest hair to minimise contact with the sticky tape.
Ah, bless!
She'd done it for me.
When all's said and done, aren't the NHS staff wonderful?

The Family

The first 15 minutes of The Family (C4) were surely amongst the most boring introductions to a series ever shown. I wonder how many people switched off at the first commercial break.

This is supposed to be a 21st century version of Paul Watson's ground-breaking fly-on-the-wall documentary of the same name. But Paul Watson is a brilliant documentary maker - more specifically, a brilliant editor of documentaries and a documentary stands or falls by the editing.
Last night's episode had little narrative, plot or tension. It consisted almost entirely of tedious arguments between one of the teenage children and her parents.

There are some very odd elements in this documentary. The lush orchestral music that is used on some scenes is quite bizarrely inappropriate. And there's an occasional voice-over by one of the family.
At one point, the 14 year old boy told us his mother was depressed because she had reached the age of forty. But this wasn't to camera. It sounded as though he'd gone into the editing suite and read it from a script. It doesn't seem at all like an observational documentary and some of the scenes feel staged, regardless of whether they are or not. At times, it almost feels like a 'mock-doc' but without the laughs.

We're told this is a 'typical family'. What the hell is that?
The Guardian's Sam Wollaston says today that they are "quite posh". Don't know how he works that out. They're reasonably affluent but eating roast duck for dinner and sitting round a dining table doesn't make you posh. They're more like ersatz chavs with enough money to shop at Ikea rather than Argos. I don't mean that as an insult because I like chavs. Real, honest, proud-to-be-chavs, chavs, that is.

The main question this series prompts is Why?
For those who like a voyeuristic peep into other people's lives, there's Wife Swap. That's getting a bit tired now but at least it has a structure to it which provides entertaining conflict, forces you to take sides and sometimes changes people's attitudes for the better.

Both Wife Swap and The Family do have a value for the millions of us who live alone: they make us count our blessings.
You suddenly notice the total absence of conflict and shouting in your own home. I sometimes call myself a stupid prat when I've brewed the tea and forgotten to put teabags in the pot. But it's said affectionately and never provokes a bad-tempered response.
I never have to wait to use the bathroom, I'm never kept awake by someone's snoring, I can watch what TV programmes I like and I can eat what I like at a time of my own choosing. I forget what bliss it is until I watch films of families fighting like ferrets in a sack.
It's a miracle there aren't more cases of familicide.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Gaffe That's Off The Graph

Remember Charles Kennedy getting in a terrible muddle during an election campaign over the details of his party's local income tax?
We now know that he was probably suffering from a bad hangover at the time.

Then there was George Bush, during a a Presidential election, being asked to name the President of Pakistan and only managing to repeat "He's a General.....he's a General....."

Both these examples are the small-fry of slip-ups compared to the fucking great Blue Whale of Bloopers made by LibDem leader Nick Clegg yesterday.
Asked what the state pension was, he said it was about "thirty quid".
For a single person, it is actually about ninety quid a week.

I don't want to gloat (well yes, I do actually) but what joy to see the posh, public school Cameron clone, the shallow, ambitious, careerist, rightwards-tacking, tax-cutting, 'I'm a liberal atheist but my children will be brought up Catholic' pretty-boy phoney fall flat on his smug face.

Nobody cared much that Charles Kennedy stumbled over the minutiae of complicated tax policy. And most Americans didn't care that Bush didn't know who was President of Pakistan since many of them wouldn't know which continent Pakistan was in.
If Nick Clegg had been £5 or £10 out in his guess at the state pension that wouldn't be a hanging offence either. But out by £60 on such a fundamental element of domestic policy?

LibDem press officers said it was a "simple error".
I'd say it was an error of gigantic proportions made by a simpleton whose level of ignorance makes him unfit to be leader of a political party.
And it raises the question of what else he doesn't know. If he thinks that pensioners live on £30 a week, does he think a loaf of bread costs 15p, that half a dozen eggs costs 40p and that if you're a pensioner the supermarket gives you milk for free?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Class and Morality

This morning's episode of Michael Buerk's series The Choice (Radio 4) was not one of the better ones. It was about a man from a well-to-do English family discovering that his grandparents were Jewish. I don't think I'd find it at all traumatic if I discovered that any of my ancestors were Jewish. I'd probably just shrug and think that might explain why I like Jewish humour so much.

This man, now a Rabbi, was also gay and my reason for mentioning the programme is a wonderful quote from his mother when he revealed his sexuality to her:
"Why can't you be a normal man? Get married to a woman and keep a boy in Soho."
It's a wonderful example of the distinctive moral norms of the English upper classes.

Historically, mistresses were tacitly accepted as the prerogative of aristocratic married men and were also a 'royal prerogative'. I say 'historically' but of course it's a tradition that was continued by our own dear Prince of Wales - and Camilla is a descendant of the mistress of one of his predecessors.

Divorce was also available to the upper classes - at a cost - long before it became a universal right.
Even the Catholic church has its own version of divorce, called 'annulment', which is not widely known about and this too was most likely to be used by wealthy, upper class Catholics.

The same pattern is manifested in relation to prostitution. When my father was in the RAF during the war, a public school friend of his told him that when he was a teenager his father took him to his own regular prostitute in Mayfair. This was considered as normal a rite of passage as being taken to the family tailor in Savile Row to be measured for his first suit.

When we hear wealthy Conservative politicians in preaching mode, prattling about the 'broken society' and 'broken families', it's worth remembering that class in this country is not just about wealth and privilege but about brazen and hypocritical double standards in morality.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Nominees

The Nominees is the series Chris Lilley made before Summer Heights High and is currently showing Thursdays on FX.
It goes without saying that it's not as good as the masterpiece that was Summer Heights but it's still one of the highlights of my week.
The original title used in Australia better explains the subject: "We Can Be Heroes: Finding The Australian of the Year."
Chris Lilley plays all five nominees.

Coincidentally, a new British mock-doc, The Cup, is showing on Thursdays on BBC2, about a junior football team. The comparison is interesting because The Cup has been widely panned by the critics and is indeed a supersize turkey.
There have been several real documentaries about junior football teams over the years - more specifically, about the obsessive parents of the players. These have all been much funnier than The Cup. I can still remember one overweight father who did a bizarre sideways dance up and down the touchline in one of these programmes and who seemed in danger of an imminent heart attack.

There are two lessons to be drawn from the comparison.
The first is that a mock-doc has to get the 'grammar' and style of the documentary format exactly right. Chris Lilley and his production team do this brilliantly. The Cup does not.
The second is that the person playing the lead character(s) has to be surrounded by outstanding actors who can talk to camera in a naturalistic way without appearing to be working from a script. Again, Chris Lilley's ensemble are brilliant at this and you'll often see them hesitating and interrupting each other as 'real people' do on television.

Unlike Summer Heights High, The Nominees has a voice-over and this perfectly captures the cliche-ridden banality of documentary narration. I laugh as much at the voice-over as anything else in the series:

"While the family celebrate the success of the operation, Daniel still waits for Nathan to thank him for giving up his eardum."

"The Chinese Musical Theatre Group's production of 'Indigeridoo' opens in two weeks and has run into trouble."

"If the Dingo cage works, Pat will be one step closer to fulfilling her dream."

All credit to Jennifer Byrne for getting the slow, deadpan intonation exactly right.

I haven't space to describe all the 'nominees'. But Phil Olivetti, a former police hero retired on medical grounds, stands out for his similarity to Alan Partridge. Indeed, you could say that Chris Lilley is the Australian equivalent to Steve Coogan for his ability to create convincing characters.
Like Alan Partridge, Phil Olivetti is stupid, self-obsessed and jaw-droppingly tactless. Quizzing some dinner guests on why they have no children, he remarks that his brother-in-law has a low sperm count, followed by a knowing "hmmm."
He gives a staggeringly mis-judged talk to some local cub scouts before showing them how to deal with an emergency situation, a boy trapped under a fallen tree. Unfortunately, the boy really does become trapped and crushed under the tree and has to be taken to hospital. Not Phil's fault, of course. He simply chose the wrong boy for the demonstration. His son had always told him that boy was a 'wuss.'
He's a well-established type of comedy character: blissfully unaware of his own stupidity, incompetence and crassness. But done well, it's a formula that has always worked, from Pooter to Partridge and right back to many of Shakespeare's characters.

I must also mention Daniel and Nathan (pictured), twin brothers who live on a farm in the fictional 'Dunt' in South Australia. They can be regarded as forerunners of Jonah in Summer Heights High. Chris Lilley seems particularly good at portraying teenage boys.
Daniel is donating one of his eardrums to the deaf and retarded Nathan, hence his nomination for an award.
As always with Chris Lilley, there's a lot going on below the comedy surface. In this case, it's mixed motives for acts of altruism. Daniel thinks he might have more success with girls if he has a disability himself. Apparently girls are quite indulgent towards Nathan, even if he does follow them along the street pretending to masturbate (I think he was pretending; it was filmed in long shot). Daniel is also looking forward to his stay in hospital because he's heard that if you feign incapacity, the nurses will sometimes wash your balls.

But there's also the inability of the two boys to show their affection for each other. The pathos that Chris Lilley unleashed to such devastating effect in the final episode of Summer Heights, was used at the end of this week's episode when Nathan, unable to say thank you to Daniel, eventually sat by a stream and wrote him a poem.
'Sick' was Daniel's only comment on reading it, another piece of emotional repression, before Nathan climbed on to the pillion of the motorcycle, put his arms round Daniel and they rode off across the fields.
Poignant yet understated, this is writing and performing of the highest order.

Maybe it is as good as Summer Heights after all. You'll certainly search in vain for any current British television comedy that has the same intelligence, perception and acute attention to detail.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

End of Evan's Honeymoon?

Evan Davis has had a charmed life in broadcasting and I was one of the many who welcomed his arrival on the Today programme on Radio Four.
But this morning he made a bad error of judgement when interviewing Hilary Benn.

I think someone must have told him that, in his political interviews, he was giving people an easy ride. So today with Hilary he offered him outside, as it were.
If he thought he was hard enough.
He repeatedly said "If you don't know the answer, that's fine" which might sound mild but, believe me, was actually more insulting than anything that Humphreys has ever said. It was like a teacher being sympathetic to a special needs pupil. Hilary, who didn't have an answer to some of the questions, was being patronised to within an inch of his life.
And Hilary,who, according to 'insiders', has a fiery temper, was not amused.

But worse was to come. When Hilary tried to give the phone number for an energy-saving advice line, Evan shouted him down. "Please don't give the number. It's a waste of valuable time. We can put the number on our website."
Hilary tried to give the number but Evan talked over it.
Later, probably following complaints from listeners and Hilary banging the Today editors' heads together, Evan gave out the phone number and said he was 'pleased to do so.'

The stupidity of this was that the people most in need of help with energy costs, the elderly and the very poor, are the very people least likely to have access to the internet.
There's not just a 'digital divide'. There's a yawning chasm of incomprehension. Much of the media and political elite just don't get the fact that millions of people in the UK do not have a computer. And whilst most libraries now offer free internet access, people still have to know how to use it.

One entertainment at my local library is to spy on the internet classes they run for senior citizens. Some of the poor old souls look terrified, their fingers hovering over the Enter key as though pressing it might launch the UK's Trident missiles.
I don't wish to generalise. I'm sure there are some nonagenarians posting videos on YouTube of themselves singing The Batchelors' Greatest Hits or playing the spoons whilst farting there'll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover.
And I know of affluent middle class families whose houses are a computer-free zone, possibly from fear that their children will be groomed by paedophiles or that they will post an open invitation to a house party on MySpace.
So for many people the oft-repeated phrase "you'll find more details on our website" is about as useful as an invitation to a beach party in the Bahamas.

As for Evan Davis, he has yet to find a style of political interviewing that is rigorous but suits his personality. Hilary Benn deserved a rough ride because today's package of energy measures will be little help to people struggling to pay fuel bills this winter. Unfortunately, attention was focused on Evan getting it badly wrong.
Not that there are many good examples for him to follow. Sue MacGregor was the worst interviewer ever. James Naughtie can never ask a concise question. And John Humphreys often veers into downright rudeness.
Given time, maybe Evan will crack it.

England: 4 Croatia: 1

The scoreline suggests that the chaps at CERN did create a parallel universe yesterday. It lasted from 8pm to 10pm BST yesterday evening.

This parallel universe also revealed the existence of the Higgs Boson of English football: in Theo Walcott we discovered something the existence of which had been doubted by many: a young footballer who is not only extremely gifted but intelligent, good-looking, fluent in interviews and modest.
It was Roy of the Rovers stuff and it's difficult to believe that Theo is not, like Roy of the Rovers, a fictitious character.
Know what I mean? Which Theo didn't say once in post-match interviews.

As someone who saw the entire match (thanks to Virgin giving me Setanta free of charge), I do have to sound a note of caution and give some reasons not to be too cheerful. Not yet, anyway.
In the first fifteen minutes Croatia put England under a lot of pressure and could easily have had two or three goals.
In the final half hour, Croatia seemed to have almost given up and sat back and let England knock the ball around. Not every team is going to roll over in the face of impending defeat.
Not one of England's goals would elicit the comment: "the goalie didn't have a chance." They were well-taken goals but I honestly think a better goalie would have saved some or all of them.
Finally, England have a track record of unpredictability and inconsistency. They've sprung these kind of surprises before. They're masters of the flash in the pan before going down the pan.

So today is a day for cautious optimism and the adoption of a new motto for the England team: Spero in Theo.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Still here.............

.............but for those who cling to the Doomsday scenario, it may not be be until February that CERN collides particles at almost the speed of light. If I've understood correctly, today was about ensuring that the trains would run round the track. Putting them on a collision course comes later.

I'm more wound up by the fact that the 12 noon news on the BBC News Channel interrupted its report on the CERN experiment to show live pictures of the Prince of Wales and Camilla emerging from a service at St Paul's Cathedral.
Further comment is pointless.
No amount of indignation or sarcasm could do justice to that grotesque distortion of 'news values'.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

New Palin Family Revelation!?

Waking at four this morning (possibly because of the torrential rain) and finding I had no Red Boxes to go through because nobody has yet had the sense to make me Prime Minister, I decided to catch up with last Sunday's Observer.

On Page 31 of the main section were two photos side by side, one of the pregnant French Justice Minister and one of Bristol Palin and her boyfriend.
A single caption ran underneath both photos:
"French Minister of Justice Rachida Dati and Bristol Palin, pregnant by Levi Johnston."

For an eighteen year old in Alaska who probably doesn't own a passport, young Levi certainly puts it about a bit, doesn't he?
His MySpace page apparently stated: "Ya fuck with me, I'll kick your ass."
If the Observer is to be believed, people on two different continents have fucked with him, all too literally.

And why would a French 'cheese-eating surrender monkey' surrender to the dubious charms of an immature, right-wing, Alaskan redneck?
Of course, it might just be a cock-up.
In the Observer's captioning department, that is.


Meanwhile, on Page 15 of the Observer, another startling photo:
What looks like a picture of the pattern on a tie-and-dye T shirt (remember those?) has the caption "Dark matter, pictured".

Since nobody has ever seen dark matter and its very existence remains an hypothesis, it's very clever of the Observer to have obtained a photo of it.
Has anyone told Professor Brian Cox or Professor Stephen Hawking?

Twenty years and four billion pounds spent on the Large Hadron Collider, and all the time the Observer picture desk was sitting on a photo of the fucking stuff.
Maybe if they rummage around they'll find a picture of the Higgs Boson and tomorrow's experiment can be cancelled, to the relief of those who think we're all doomed.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Boom Bang-a-Bang With Brian

If you can bear to forego the Eurovision Dance Contest and the England/Andorra match tonight, BBC4 is repeating its two excellent programmes on the Big Bang and the CERN experiment. If not, I'm sure the last two will be on the invaluable iPlayer.
If you can only watch one of them, I recommend The Big Bang Machine. The preceding one is mainly clips from old BBC science programmes though still worth an hour of your time.

I was struck by the fact that so many leading physicists have astonishingly bad teeth. Never mind gift horses, never look a physicist in the mouth.
The exception was the presenter, the young British physicist Professor Brian Cox. He has teeth that would qualify him for a role in an Osmonds tribute band. And we see a great deal of his teeth because he's always smiling. I don't normally trust people who smile a lot, particularly those who are able to smile and talk at the same time. I'm always reminded of Shakespeare's Richard III: "I can smile and murder whilst I smile."
But I like Professor Brian. I've seen him on science programmes before and I have to say that, for a physicist and for a Professor, he's decidedly fit.
Well, not unfit. OK, that might be partly down to context: surrounded by elderly physicists with grey beards and rotting teeth, even I might appear telegenic.

Anyway, if I were going to be sucked into a black hole, Professor Brian would be the perfect companion. Not only would he gently talk me through the experience and the science behind it but he would rhapsodise on the sheer beauty of what was happening.
A Byron in T shirt and jeans, he talks a lot about the beauty of physics. Maybe he ended up on a science course through some administrative mix-up in Freshers' Week and couldn't find his way back to the English department.
And if he looks like a rock star, that's because he was a rock star. He's been in two rock bands, including D-Ream, most famous for the song "Things Can Only Get Better."
Cooler than the -250C in the Hadron Collider, he should be given a long sabbatical from Manchester University and tour the schools of Britain. The flood of applications for science courses would probably send the university clearing system into meltdown.

Professor Brian roamed around CERN with the excitement of a small boy in a chocolate factory. He showed us something called the Theory Corridor. As the name implies, this was a series of rooms where leading physicists sat and theorised.
As the camera panned along, we saw some of them in conversation with a colleague standing in the doorway. As there was no sound, we couldn't tell whether they were talking about gluons and leptons, borrowing some sugar or asking "have you heard whether Kevin Keegan has left Newcastle yet?"

On the question of whether the forthcoming experiment will destroy the world (which the media is so obsessed with), a physicist said they had conducted a thorough risk assessment.
I found this reassuring until I remembered the creative risk assessments I used to knock out at work in a spare ten minutes and the fact that a risk assessment is about 'due diligence' rather than the complete elimination of risk.

Having reeled you in with this personality-based froth, I will now explain string theory.
Only joking.
Let's stick with the Big Bang. For that is based on simple and compelling logic. It has been proven beyond doubt that the stars and galaxies are moving away from each other (the Expanding Universe). It follows that if you were to rewind the process they would move towards each other, contracting to a tiny speck of matter and the 'explosion' called the Big Bang.

But there's something I should like to ask Professor Brian if he wishes to drop in for a cup of tea and a plate of Gypsy Creams.
Neither the Big Bang nor the possible discovery of the Higgs Boson (which gives particles matter) amount to a Theory of Everything nor an ultimate explanation. We are told that before the Big Bang there was Nothing. But I have not heard of any theory that explains how Something can come out of Nothing. Well, not a scientific theory as opposed to a religious one.
To say 'In the Beginning was the Big Bang' may be more evidence-based than saying 'In the Beginning was God'. But for me, it is no more satisfying as an explanation. We're back to the old problem that a First Cause that does not itself have a First Cause is a logical dead-end.

In that respect, I think that some scientists over-egg the pudding in talking up the significance of next week's experiment. Maybe you have to if you need five billion pounds of public money to create the largest scientific experiment the world has ever seen.
That's not to say it isn't hugely significant and exciting. It may well produce more questions than answers but, given the nature of science, scientists will be happy if it shows they've been asking the wrong questions or if it provides new lines of enquiry.

If you are a scientist, I think you have to proceed on the basis of a belief in incremental steps towards Understanding Everything. Otherwise, why bother to understand anything?
Similarly, those who seek to improve human societies must cling, however tenuously, to a belief in a forward-moving arrow of progress.
It may well be that both the Good Society and an Understanding of Everything are hopelessly Utopian will-o-the-wisps pursued by creatures of limited ability on an insignificant planet in one of a hundred million galaxies. But you either believe in the nobility of the endeavour or succumb to a nihilistic cynicism.
Or possibly join the Conservative Party.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Fire and Steam

Terry Coleman's wonderful work of social history The Railway Navvies was first published when I was a teenager. A teacher spent an hour enthusing about it, even though it had nothing to do with our syllabus, and ever since reading it I've been fascinated by the incredible engineering feat of the building of our railway network in the 19th century.

You might think that there was no call for another history of the railways - for the general, non-nerdish reader - but Christian Wolmar has produced a splendid one in Fire and Steam (2007).
It's amusing to discover that in 1868 Parliament legislated to force the railway companies to provide smoking cariages. Once all carriages were enclosed, the railway companies had banned all smoking as a fire risk but Parliament felt this was unfair to smokers, particularly on longer journeys. The rail network finally became entirely non-smoking again in 2005.

A more macabre story that I'd never heard before relates to a service that railway workers called the "stiffs express".
With the growth of London in the nineteenth century, burial space was running out and cemeteries were developed outside the city. Train services were developed to carry bodies to these cemeteries, particularly after the cholera epidemic of the 1840s. A special terminal was created for this purpose - Waterloo Necropolis.
A developer opened a vast new cemetery in Surrey and went into partnership with a London railway company, buying special new rolling stock for the purpose.
These trains were not only divided up into three classes, both for the dead and their friends and relatives, but there were two different stations at the cemetery - one for Anglicans and one for non-conformists. (I'm not sure whether Papists were totally barred from the service). It was a logistical challenge to divide up the corpses into six different categories but the company running it - called London Necropolis - was soon running a 'stiffs express' every single day.
It's a remarkable tale of a capitalist exploiting an opportunity and of class and religious divisions persisting beyond death.

The book also exposes a number of myths, for example the so-called Golden Age of the railways prior to nationalisation. By the 20th century the private railway companies had become adept at spin and PR. They heavily promoted their premium express services like The Flying Scotsman which are now firmly entrenched in popular memory. But this obscures the fact that the majority of services that most people used were slow, dirty and often unreliable.

Another myth is that, prior to the Major Government's privatisation, British Rail was a basket case. In fact, during the 1970s and 1980s it had become increasingly efficient and successful.
I was pleased to have my own impression confirmed because in the 1970's I was commuting to London from my home 120 miles away. At the time, we moaned about every minor delay but the reality was that, compared to today, the punctuality was incredible. Although I lived further away than anyone else I was nearly always the first person in the office in central London.

Christian Wolmar has written a separate book about the privatisation of the railways but the final chapter of Fire and Steam provides a good summary of that particular ideologically-driven disaster. Not only was billions of pounds of taxpayers money wasted on the initial process but Government subsidy of the railways is far greater today then it was under British Rail.

Fire and Steam is a terrifically readable overview that may well be enjoyed more by anyone who likes social history than by those who have spent hours of their lives on railway platforms writing down train numbers, something my best friend and I did for all of two weeks before deciding, even at the age of ten, that life was too short.


I consider myself lucky that I'm old enough to have caught the end of the Steam Age.
When I was a small child, on Sunday mornings my father sometimes took me to the local station to watch an express steam train thundering through at around 100 mph. It was an awe-inspiring experience unmatched by any contemporary technology. The ground beneath your feet would start to tremble when the train was only just visible in the distance. I remember total silence, then the buzzing and vibration of the rails, a few seconds of enormous noise, steam, wind and terror, then total silence again. That the memory is so vivid is partly to do with scale: I was little more than a toddler at the time.

Because of my father's business, we could rarely go on holiday. So on those Sunday mornings on a deserted station we would make fantasy railway journeys.
This involved getting into one of the empty carriages that had been parked at a platform for the weekend and pretending we were hurtling along the tracks to the coast. (My father has always had a cavalier attitude to the concept of 'trespass'). I still recall my deep embarrassment when we were brusquely evicted from one of these carriages by a cleaner, not least because we were both making choo-choo noises when she opened the door.

I was slightly consoled by my weekly go on a weighing machine on the platform. You put a penny in the slot and it printed your weight on a cardboard ticket. I'm not sure why it was thought that railway passengers might be overcome by a sudden impulse to weigh themselves. But that magical machine gave me more pleasure than technologies yet to be invented. Unlike those, it did one small thing very well and never got above its station.

A man and a small boy at an empty, windswept station in the 1950s going on a make-believe journey in a grubby yet strangely cosy railway carriage with thick upholstery and framed scenes of Britain above the seats: I'd like to say the memory is sepia-tinged but I'd be lying because I can still see the colours. The cream zig-zag-edged awning over the platform, the dark green seats of the carriage, the bright red weighing machine.
Above all, those fantasy journeys we took were an introduction to the potency of the fourth dimension: the Imagination. Not a place to live your life - particularly as Reality is liable to burst in wielding a disapproving broom - but an essential part of being human and the crucible of creativity.
I doubt that CGI and cyber-worlds will provide quite such fond memories for today's children as that image of a father and son sharing an imaginary journey to imagined places in a deserted railway siding.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Wednesday Warblings

John Motson popped up as a pundit on BBC News yesterday. In an attempt at self-parody he said something along the lines of 'Hurricane Gustav is blowing through the world of English football.'
But I mention this in the context of the current criticisms of the fact that older men are commonplace on TV as presenters and newsreaders but never older women. Unless there's a change of attitude, it's unlikely we'll ever see a wizened old Gabby Logan appearing as a sports pundit.
It's also unlikely that Gabby Logan would appear on our screens today if she were the female equivalent of Adrian Chiles in the looks department. (I know that some women have the hots for Adrian but that doesn't alter the fact that even if all the studio lights went out, you'd never mistake him for Tom Cruise).
I don't always march in step with the Sisterhood, but this is one inequality that's been ignored for too long. The number of unseen women in senior executive positions in the BBC in no way counterbalances the almost total absence of interesting, talented, older women from our screens.


Why do so many people - many of them BBC reporters - say 'under-estimate' when they mean 'over-estimate'?
I've heard this several times in the past two days alone.
This morning the BBC's Technology Correspondent said "you can't under-estimate the inertia of computer users."
Yes you can. That was his point.

I'm not sure whether the confusion is between 'under-estimate' and 'over-estimate' or between the verbs 'can't' and 'shouldn't'.
'You shouldn't under-estimate.....' or 'You can't over-estimate....' are both fine. The other way round is nonsense.


I have so far failed to exploit my recent hospital stay in this blog because I prefer to wipe it from my memory. Also, I would lay myself open to the charge that I was exaggerating the trauma of the experience given that, unlike many people, I was not in any pain nor 'fighting for my life'. Actually, when that is the case you probably don't notice the petty unpleasantnesses of hospital life so much.
But a number of things were eligible for inclusion in the Talbot Rothwell Memorial Column, despite the fact that doctors and nurses have evidently now been trained not to use the term 'prick' in relation to injections.

Never before had someone said to me "I'd like to feel the pulse in your groin" before sliding their hand down my underpants. Should this ever happen to you, I suggest you follow my example and refrain from saying "I bet you say that to all the boys."
Quite a few male nurses are straight and, if it's a junior doctor whose hands are heading south, some of them are already striving to affect the God-like demeanour of a consultant and are too far up themselves to be up for a bit of saucy badinage.

It was my first totally sleepless night since I stopped clubbing. Mercifully, I had both my reading glasses and that day's Guardian with me. I read the entire Guardian at least three times, including the sports supplement and the world weather reports.

At three in the morning, a young male nurse arrived at my bedside and said "Can I fiddle with your connections?"
This was also a new one for me but I said "Do what you like. It will help pass the time."
So he sat there moving the electrodes around on my chest. I don't think this had any medical purpose. He was simply as bored as I was. But removing the strips of sticky tape from a hairy chest is like a slow and painful waxing. He kept saying "Good man!" and I kept saying "Argh!" People must have wondered what we were doing behind the curtains. There are those who would have paid good money for the experience but since my fantasies have never involved male nurses nor the slow deracination of my chest hair, I'm not one of them.

Because some older people dislike over-familiarity, nurses now establish at the outset what form of address they should use. I opted for them using my Christian name. This proved to have been a pointless exercise since my designated nurse unfailingly called me "Sweet Pea".
I like Sweet Peas and usually grow some from seed each year but as a pet name it had more than a soupcon of campness about it. But I don't think this was intentional because when she stuck a needle in my stomach she exclaimed "You're very manly! You didn't even flinch!"
Yeah, right, I thought. You should have seen me last night when young blondie was ripping out enough chest hair to stuff a set of pink scatter cushions for his sofa bed.

Am I the first case of hospital-acquired alopecia of the chest?
"Count your blessings", I hear you say.
Well, yes. But only because my shirtless clubbing days are over.