22 December 2006

Taking a stand

Some might say that tabloid journalists have made a significant contribution to the perceived Decline In Moral Standards over the years – a decline they take so much joy in documenting. Others might say they are the faecal residue that a dung beetle would find untouchable, who even the Necromancer Society would hesitate to invite to dinner.

But never let it be said that The Sun is afraid to speak up on questions of conscience. Take the knotty problem of murder, for example. An editorial recently proclaimed: “The five women murdered in sleepy Suffolk were all prostitutes. But they can’t be dismissed as tarts who asked for what they got.”

Glad we cleared that up

21 December 2006

Pimp my emissions

Harriet Harman has drawn an interesting conclusions from the recent murder of five prostitutes in Ipswich - that the police should devote their resources to clamping down on the clients of street sex workers. Presumably because a similar approach to other vices - such as jailing drug addicts to correct behaviour - has been so successful. "It would be better to target the men who paid for sex rather than criminalising women" she is reported to have said.

Certainly it's hard to disagree with criminalising sex workers, but this surely marks the final delusion of a government that believes it can legislate people into behaving the way they should. The fact prostitution is known as the Oldest Profession doesn't deter them - as if enacting a new Alchemy Law would suddenly increase the production of gold.

The fact that some men pay in cash for sex with consenting women, to me, is no worse than big polluting corporations trying to buy carbon quotas on the sparkly new trading floor of the Carbon Emissions Market. Are those who sell their carbon allowances to serial polluters any better, morally, than people who choose to sell sex? And what does that make those who buy carbon allowances?

Emissions trading is officially "a key instrument in the drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." Sex trading, apparently, is the unacceptable face of capitalism. One man's pimp is another man's facilitator of carbon emission reduction initiatives.

13 December 2006

Dial M for Ipswich

How many prostitutes does it take to set the news agenda? About five seems to be the answer. In my neck of the woods, where nothing ever happens, a couple of missing sex workers barely raised a mention in the local press. Three becomes four and then five - now suddenly there is a serial killer on the prowl. And just to add to everyone's fears and worries, people are being stalked by news crews and reporters, eager to fill the vacuum of hard facts with the oxygen of speculation and "reaction" - as though the citizens of Ipswich had been granted peculiar insight by proximity to murder.

Last night things had reached such a state of importance that the 10 O'Clock news came live from Ipswich. Huw Edwards was standing in front of a police station in Ipswich, presumably hoping to catch The Suffolk Ripper in the act, figuring that a criminal from East Anglia would be even stupider than your run-of-the-mill perp. We also had a reporter on hand to update us with news that the offender was likely to have a history of violence towards women. And to help everybody out, our killer seems to be producing corpses at such a rate that can satisfy the needs of 24-hour rolling news coverage, to allow them to really whip up the populace into a paroxysm of fear.

After the dehumanisation that enables a disturbed man to treat five women as expendable, his victims are dehumanised a second time, nightly across our screens and in the morning papers. Not people, merely tragic actors condemned to play their part in the narrative the press has written for them, right down to the culprit's nickname - even though he seems not to have mutilated any of them. And so Ipswich fears it will join that list of places whose names are synonyms for unspeakable acts: Dunblane, Soham. A brief feeding frenzy for the locusts in the slow news season, and soon all that is left is the husk of a town. A shorthand for tragedy we can file away for later, when we're treated to the follow-up stories One Year On, closely followed by the ITV1 Drama.

11 December 2006

The price of shame

I am intrigued by the government’s idea to “name and shame” absent fathers who do not pay maintenance for their children. This apparently amounts to coming down “like a ton of bricks" on negligent payers, according a spokesman for the Department for Cliches. Given the singular inability of the same people to collect £3.5bn of maintenance payments, I don’t expect absent father across the land to be scouring the skies for falling masonry anytime soon.


Presumably such a page of “deadbeat dads” would be buried somewhere within the Department For Work and Pensions’ website. This should hold no fear for anyone who has ever actually tried to use the DWP website, unless the government is planning to bid for keyword sponsorship on search engines such as Google or Yahoo! in order to really get the shame levels rising.

This rather flaky sounding measure is hot on the heels of “naming and shaming” speed camera offenders that was announced earlier this year, and surely represents a tacit admission of defeat. I’m also not sure what the whole scheme says about us as a nation: presumably the government thinks we will all be logging on to see which of our neighbours is behind in his child maintenance payments because we’re all so mean-minded, suspicious and judgemental.

Coming soon, websites “naming and shaming” everyone who stands on the right in the London Underground; people who mix their recycling; and people who blow their noses just a little too vigorously in the cinema. Brought to you by the newly-created Department of Naming and Shaming.

01 December 2006

Shaken in stir

"I've seen the future, and it's murder". Or so sang Leonard Cohen. But not if the British police have their way. Nor will it be Armed Robbery, Assault With a Deadly Weapon or GBH. Because they have found a way to prevent crime before it even happens, by using a massive database to target citizens who fit the profile of criminals.


According to the police the point of the list is "trying to pick up Ian Huntley before he goes out and commits that murder. Then we have the opportunity to stop something turning into a lethal event.” Quite why we would need a whole database just to stop Ian Huntley from committing murder again, particularly when he is already in prison, remains unclear.

Could it be that the government has finally lost all touch with reality and has taken to basing new policy upon whatever is showing at the cinema - in this case minority report. Presumably we'll get a quick resolution on this recent Russian spy-poisoning episode in London, once Tony gets around to watching Casino Royale.

23 November 2006

Crap names for products # 1

As the Season of Goods is upon us like an attack of bird flu, it's a great time for new product launches, with everyone hoping to cash in on man's desperate need to buy a gift for his fellow man (or woman).

Spotted in the Underground today - a new fragrance from Carolina Herrera: "212 sexy".

Rule number one of advertising: "show it, don't say it" - if you want me to think sexy, don't call your product "sexy", especially something as etheral as a perfume.

Not coming soon to a shop near you: Calvin Klein's "Desperate", Chanel's "Something to cover up the B.O.", and "Slightly pissed and up for a snog", by Givenchy.

22 November 2006

To catch a thief

If advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket, then government advertising must represent the ultimate pig’s dinner. Certainly there can be few practitioners who have rattled the bucket louder, thereby embracing another Orwell maxim that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”.

From the same people that turned passengers into customers, patients into service users and spending into investment, the persecution of newly-identified pariahs starts with a subtle linguistic shift. Today I noticed that in the new “no ifs, no buts” anti benefit fraud campaign, “benefit cheat” had been turned into “benefit thief”. This may be a handy way of stating the truth about a form of fraud that is often seen as “victimless”, but I wondered whether this marked a new approach to fighting crime? Instead of trying to shame perpetrators into ceasing, they have opted for simply insulting them.

This Christmas watch out for the government’s new anti drink-driving campaign: “Oi, wanker – pack it in”.

19 November 2006

Auf wiederswim, pet

British swimming pools have come a long way in recent times. Nowadays at Leisure World, Colchester, you are treated to 30 degree water temperature and 28 degree air temperature (that's Celcius - about 85 and 82 Fahrenheit respectively for North Americans), not to mention wave machines, slides and water jets. You can take all your clobber to poolside - they even provide chairs to sit next to the pool - and allow the sort of inflatables that would have drawn a sharp blast of the whistle at Andover Swimming Pool in 1978.

But I was happy to see a remnant from those over-chlorinated days survives: the universal list of Things You Cannot Do At A Swimming Pool, c. 1973 in its original setting, with black and white cartoons of a sloe-eyed man misbehaving. This edition was chipped, ripped and battered, but still clung to the wall, entreating us to be ever vigilant of those who would run, swim, push, duck, bomb or even smoke, and Ruin Things For Everyone. Not to mention the most baffling swimcrime of all: petting.

As a child I never really understood its meaning - the illustration suggested that our cartoon chancer was giving unwanted attention to ladies in tight bikinis, sweating lovehearts into the air. I was never clear whether large-breasted women were not allowed to swim, whether leering at such females was the verboten part or if some kind of physical contact was required (or, rather, not required). The fact that it was a word that was never used outside of this context made it more mysterious - I do remember at one point concluding it must have something to do with not bringing your dog to the pool, and I had simply misinterpreted the visual. Probably this was reinforced when I finally found another use of the word, during a visit to a nearby petting zoo, where there didn't seem to be much inappropriate physical contact between the sexes. Or at least not between humans.

But it got me thinking about why the poster had never been updated, and if it were, what would be included in today's version. Given than public fornication seems more or less mandatory for the over 10's, I think the quaintness of "petting" means it would be consigned to the dustbin, along with the records of Alvin Stardust and the three day week. Probably replaced with: No happy-slapping.

16 November 2006

Pop goes the planet

Recently the work to try to find life in outer space has focused increasingly on Panspermia: the idea that human ancestors originated elsewhere in the universe and came to earth as bacteria. So if, one day, aliens from another galaxy do try to annex our little blue rock, we shouldn't look on it as an invasion, but instead a long overdue stay from some distant cousins.

Had they chosen yesterday to begin their infiltration, aliens would have been presented with the spectacle of the World Music Awards, who have arrogated the task of defining the best music on the planet. Apparently, the best that 6,000,000,000 of us can manage is James Blunt, Nickelback and Nelly Furtado. If there were ever a case for a suspected alien takeover, you'd surely have to ask the World Music Awards judges what they planet they had been on.

Blues language

Poor old Ashley Cole. As if it weren't bad enough being married to Cheryl Tweedy and having to play for Chelsea, some embittered Arsenal fans have taken offence at his petulant departure from The Gunners and daubed graffiti on his house. According to The Sun, these hoodlums have scrawled the words c*** and w***** on Mr Cole's property.

While I am endebted to The Sun for protecting me from the disgraceful language, a part of me wants to know whether they meant Mr Cole was a c*** or a c***. I've sometimes thought of him as a bit of t***** (but not a t***), but that was probably because he used to play for Arsenal. What puzzles me most, though, was why The Sun thought c*** would be more morally harmful than the contents of page 3, Deirdre's problem page, or the Bizarre column, all of which give quite graphic sexual content on a regular basis. The silly bunch of w*****s.

14 November 2006

100% dubious

100% English (Channel 4, 13 November), was an elephant trap that even an elephant would have spotted. If I were a British racist and Channel 4 approached me about making TV show to explore the genetic roots of my origins, I might be a bit suspicious. An eclectic collection of English eccentrics were asked to explain their Anglo Saxon purity to camera before taking a DNA test. As I'm sure you have worked out by now, the results of this test produced the desired effect of proving they were all composites of European, Asian, African and even North American peoples.

In principle, I've nothing against a TV show holding up racists to ridicule, turning the vapidity of their arguments into a whoopee cushion and asking them to take a seat. But rather than turning their opinions against them, I worry that the use of DNA simply ducks the issue. Far from landing a knockout punch, it uses one facile and arbitrary stick to break another.

For example, one of the participants, Danny, was "proved" to be 10% Middle Eastern, 11% South Asian, 37% south-eastern European and 43% northern European. To me this begs the question: if the point of this programme was to show the nonsense of strict racial and cultural barriers, then how do terms like "10% middle eastern" help this? If we are all a hotch potch of different people who have covered the planet through breeding, trading and mixing, then the whole idea of "middle eastern" or "European" from a biological point of view is contradictory. The DNA shows we are a mixture, and the reason we are a mixture is because we are a nomadic species, but if we are a nomadic species, then how can we define things like "middle eastern" which are fixed geographic terms?

It's using simplistic versions of highly-complex scientific techniques to counter an argument that is self-evidently devoid of merit. Or to put it another way, for "European" "Middle eastern" and "African" above, try substituting the words "white", "swarthy" and "black" and see where it gets you.

13 November 2006

Mortal syntax

BBC website news story: "Man guilty of missing wife murder".

Maybe he didn't realise attending was compulsory?

10 November 2006

I don't get out of bed for less than £103,000,000

No-one won the Euro Millions lottery today. Despite odds of 76 million to one, millions of otherwise sane Europeans parted with their hard-earned in order to have no chance of winning all or part of £103m. Of course you can see the appeal. After all, every week Britons have the chance to not win around £5m at odds of 14 million to one, so surely the chance to miss out on £103m at five times worse odds is worth a go?

I'd like to know at what point, exactly, people would reason that the odds of not winning something are so high, it doesn't matter how big the prize is. Pick 10 correct numbers for the chance of a billion? Get 20 numbers right and you win the annual GDP of Kuwait? There seems a paradox at work here, whereby people cannot reasonably assess the statistical probablity of 76,000,000:1, yet seem able to absorb the implications of gaining £103,000,000 in personal wealth.

And the occasional players whose ears prick up when the jackpot hits £50m; at what point does it become worth it for them? People who wouldn't normally play for £5m, but would stake something on £103m. After all, you get so little for £5m these days.

08 November 2006

Never mind the width, feel the quality...

I was trying to work out just what makes Tesco finest* range so absurd. Was it the asterisk that hints at a footnote but never leaves one? Or the implication that, for the rest of their products, Tesco doesn't quite try hard enough? - between finest* and VALUE is the Tesco "Good enough for you" range.

I think the answer is when they try to extend the range beyond Spatchcock and Honeycomb Fricasse into products where only the terminally insecure could feel the need for an over-the-odds quality. Does anyone's chicken taste that much better for having been roasted in Tesco finest* kitchen foil?

The latest such foray sees Tesco finest* Broadband - when only the choicest, plumpest packets of data carefully packaged and sent down the ADSL will do. If I were to go online with Tesco finest* Broadband, I'd expect to be able to notice an improvement in the quality of all online content. Porn sites would be transformed into pages of medieval love ballads written in Pertrachian verse, sci-fi chatrooms would become philosophy forums and this site would seem to have been written by Tolstoy. So if you are viewing this courtesy of Tesco finest* Broadband, I'd ask for my money back.

02 November 2006

Lock up your daughters (and sons)...

British teenagers are officially the worst in Europe. Too much drinking and sex, not enough sitting around the table eating with mum and dad means our kids have an "increasing disconnect" with the adult population. They're too busy hanging out on the streets, trying to earn ASBOs, to have time to join the scouts, the local opera society or even the Young Conservatives.

The idea of gangs of feral children threatening the fabric of society is at least as old as the idea of the teenager. And there's nothing like demonsing children to give the Daily Mail's readers the thrill of fearing that we really are witnessing the end of society, after all those headlines of false dawns. We're told the answer is more formal, structured activities where teenagers can interact with adults, and so learn to to fit into the adult world instead of just getting in its way.

Here's another answer: how about not creating a climate of fear of child rapists lurking in every corner? How about not blowing out of all proportion the risk to children from unknown adults? Then maybe more adults would feel encouraged to participate in youth group activity with kids that aren't their own without the suspicion that they are sex criminals. That might actually encourage the establishment of more places for kids to learn how to grow up.

Probably not the sort of suggestion you'll read much about in the press. But that's the problem with journalists - they stay out late drinking, are obsessed with sex and suffer an "increasing disconnect" with grown up society. I blame the parents.

31 October 2006

Time for a change?

Climate change is very hot right now. And getting hotter, after economist Sir Nicholas Stern announced that, by 2050, global warming will have been directly responsible for a 20% loss of GDP. After all the scientific warnings these last 20 years, it seems curious to hear global warming expressed in terms of cold cash: "We'd love to take a holiday to Mars next year" my grandsons will be saying in 2054, "but what with the surface temperature increasing by 3 degrees we just can't afford it". Can anyone actually visualise a 20% reduction in GDP in a meaningful, tangible way, in comparison with, say, your garden being flooded, or London becoming a desert? But coming from an economist, we're all suddenly supposed to REALLY take notice this time, and not just switch over the telly to watch X-Factor.

Leaving aside the tired arguments about whether increasing mean temperatures are man-made or, indeed, real, it's a subject that is clearly of the moment. Coming on the back of a "leaked" government memo outling a package of green taxes, and David Cameron's newly discovered floraphilia, it seems that no matter who one votes for, Carbon Tax is to replace Income Tax as the moral source of Inland Revenue. But why now?

I went to work today, October 31, without an overcoat, and in my garden roses still bloom. My August-flowering Clematis is just starting to bud. Finally politicians have the freak weather conditions to background the story of climate change; 20% of GDP in 50 years is a bit obtuse but spring flowers in autumn is apocalyptic in a way ordinary people can grasp. I don't think it's cynical to suggest that had 2006 been the usual dismal British summer, we might not be hearing quite so much about green politics.

26 October 2006


Newsnight yesterday broadcast an interview with the Taleban. Dr Liam Fox, Conservative spokesman for Defence was said to be "disgusted", remarking that it was a part of the "non-stop anti-war agenda from the BBC". Apparently it's the sort of thing that might have turned the entire country into a slavish theoracy, floored by the merciless logic of a stone age regime that doesn't believe in education. If anyone had been watching of course.

I was intrigued that Dr Fox could find time in his busy X-Factor schedule to get so worked up. Inevitably, it had the counterproductive effect of keeping a small story alive in the news, so I thought I'd look at his web page (www.drliamfox.com) for balance, from the non-stop, pro-war agenda. I was greeted with an HTTP Error 403 - Forbidden Internet Explorer message, telling me "You are not authorized to view this page. You might not have permission to view this directory or page using the credentials you supplied." Clearly there is a sinister conspiracy at work to influence the hearts and minds of the British people.

22 October 2006

Nominative determinism

You only get one chance to make a first impression. So goes the Motivational Speaker's maxim, and it's true that the history of marketing is littered with the corpses of stillborn products whose failure seemed doomed by their names. Ideas cast into the waters of the free market with only a brick to keep them afloat. If you can remember Kashmir perfume or Enigma lager, the chances are there's a marketing man somewhere who'd rather you couldn't.

It's also true that the best products will endure despite names that would not now get into, let alone passed by, an agency's focus group. Whether Cilit Bang joins the Kit kats, Marmites and WD40s of this world will largely depend on its performance. And judging by the state of my shower doors, I'm banking on it going the same way as Svit home dry cleaning.

But sometimes the union of name and product seems so right, there's no way it could fail. Today I saw just such a coming-together in the title of a small business in Stratford. I don't anticipate a need for pre-mixed concrete from someone called James from east London. But I think it's almost worth the phone call just to congratulate him for giving his business a name that is marketing-as-poetry: Jim'll Mix It.

17 October 2006

From Madonna to The Madonna

Apparently Madonna's decision to adopt a Malawian baby was to "help one child escape an extreme life of hardship, poverty and in many cases death".

Just how many cases of death one baby would expect to face in Malawi remains unclear. Obviously, muliple deaths in a single lifetime is not a happy prospect, even if the alternative is having Guy Ritchie as your dad.

Does this mean that, having done just about everything else, Madonna is now trying to actually become the mother of God, taking on a child that can achieve The Resurrection? That really would be the ultimate image makeover.

But quite a good look for the new album.

14 October 2006

An unhealthy debate

We are having a national debate, apparently, about the use of the veil by Muslim women. Initiated by Jack Straw, this is supposedly a healthy way for us to resolve this issue, where everyone can take part. Here we should understand the word 'everyone' to mean 'the Daily Mail' and 'take part' to mean 'persecute'.

To paraphrase Dr Johnson, "starting a debate" is the last refuge of the scoundrel. About ten years ago Noel Gallagher got into a lot of trouble by admitting to journalists what everyone knew: that he took a fantastic amount of hard drugs. But before Plod could rattle his handcuffs, Gallagher claimed that he was merely "starting a debate" about drugs. Some took him at his word and tried to have such a debate, but these tended to be somewhat reductive yes/no: "Should we legalise drugs?"; "Should young people's role models admit to breaking the law?"; and "When will Oasis produce another decent record?" Ten years on, and we're no further along, except Noel Gallagher is richer and the answer to the last question is: "not yet"

When I was fourteen I stole some sweets from the school tuck shop. So I am starting a debate about theft. I also look forward to engaging with Ian Huntley about the pros and cons of murder.

About face

Our sagacious former Home Secretary is a great fan of openness. Fearing that a covered face hides a treacherous heart, Muslim women from his constituency are asked to remove their veils before he will talk to them in his surgeries. He claims they are free to refuse this request, presumably in the same way they are free to visit another MP that represents them. So far he has yet to confirm whether he requires any other religious folk to remove random items of clothing to aid his understanding.

Apparently it is difficult for Jack to talk to someone if he can't see their face, so I guess he doesn't take any telephone calls - I'd send him an email to check, but I reckon he might feel threatened by my not asking face-to-face.

30 September 2006

A fete worse than death

Midsomer Murders (Sundays, ITV, 9pm) is curious, even by the standards of Sunday night TV. It suffers the usual imponderables that hobble all murder mysteries when the framework of everyday reality is placed upon them - that given the murder rate in the Midsomer villages, against the national average, you wonder how come the region has not been made the subject of a government Murder Task Force by now. It also allows us to eagerly anticipate which highly-paid A-list TV star will be given a 15 minute cameo to overact the part of a postman.

Of course these things are subject to the Willing Suspension of Disbelief, often the last fig leaf of the desperate, especially when confronted with Nick Moran pretending to be a gypsy. And, in mitigation, what proportion of Oxford has been bumped off by Colin Dexter over the years? Nevertheless there are two trends unique to Midsomer Murders that give the show unintended points of difference from its more celebrated rivals, and probably explain its position in the schedules, where it can sit unchallenged by the brains of viewers already numbed by the prospect of a full working week ahead.

The first is "murder as usual". In the average village, where a murder might happen once every one hundred years, such an event is seismic. It rents great holes in the lives of people, some of whom never really recover. In Midsomer Murders, after the initial shock, everyone more or less carries on, seeming to accept the event as one might a lightning strike on the church steeple.
It is the sort of world where, in the minds of ordinary people, murder is accepted as one of a number of rational choices people can make about more or less any situation. Disappointed in your job? You could discuss it with your boss, call a recruitment agency or kill somebody. It is the mirror of our world except where tutting and the sucking of teeth is inexplicably replaced by bludgeoning to death with a thresher's flail.

The second departure from other cop shows is the vision of pagan England. In the real world, ritual expression of communal belief takes place in the moiety of Eastenders' viewers or playing cricket. In Midsomer Murders we're supposed to believe that it is an everyday fact of life that people dress up and parade heathen totems through the streets, in a mysterious, ancient tradition unique to their village. That England in 2006 is a place where every village has the equivalent of Gloucester cheese rolling, except with elaborate customery and the excuse to carry an offensive weapon.

I lived in a village in the south of England for the first 20 years of my life, and still go back to visit. In the last 35 years, the only person murdered was killed on holiday inThailand, though there was a shotgun suicide about 15 years ago. And the only ritual burnings that take place are when pissed teenagers fall asleep in the streets on New Years Eve with lit cigarettes in their hands.