27 July 2007

Giving back to the community

For the first time in a while, the Liberal Democrats are making political headlines in the cut and thrust of local government. The election of Cllr Myrna Bushell to Bideford Council has recently caused a schism within the local party; three fellow Lib Dem Councillors, including the deputy Mayor, have resigned in protest, and now sit as independents. The reason for this blackballing? Mrs Bushell earns a living as a stripper.

Given the Liberal Democrats' recent troubles over senior members being accused of the vices of alcoholism, rent boys, coprophilia and The Cheeky Girls, you'd think they'd positively welcome someone as normal as an ecdysiast. Apparently not, though they were at pains to point out that the resignations were not about personal issues. In a joint statement, the three Councillors said: "We believe that our integrity and principles will be compromised if we stay."

Before Mrs Bushell's victory, they were though apparently happy to stand for election as proud members of the same party as Norman Baker, MP for Lewes, who admits earning up to £10,000 by writing articles for the Mail on Sunday (q.v.). While we all have to earn a shilling somehow, given a choice between the two, I know who emerges with greater moral standing.

23 July 2007

Face the music

Do you have trouble remembering the names of your friends? Then what you need is an entry on facebook.com. Facebook describes itself as "a social utility" that "connects you with the people around you", creating the image of a metaphorical water company, pumping gallons of networked greetings across the country. This seems to be another way of saying it is the new Friends Reunited.

Either way, it has attracted a remarkable amount of attention in recent weeks, especially when its systems start to leak metaphorical raw sewerage over the carpets. Recently a group of Facebook users got together to form a social forum on the site with the sole aim of saying rude things about a librarian at the university that they all attended.

But it's not all bullying - there's also artless boasting about illicit behaviour. Oxford University used photographs taken from Facebook profiles to discipline some students it accused of anti-social behaviour. It seems the witless participants recorded their unruly behaviour and posted it onto a "secure" area of their site profiles, only to be caught out when University authorities posed as students to access the images. Clearly destined for careers in MI6, the students professed astonishment at the university's "invasion" of their privacy.

I'm not sure which is more stupid - posting the evidence or complaining about being busted. It certainly shows a frightening degree of naivety about the online world, as though the Internet is somehow not real and anything you do or say on the web doesn't count.

Another way of looking at this is as part of a long-established tradition - the egomaniac criminal who is undone because he can't resist boasting about his deeds. Maybe in the future we won't need bobbies on the beat, but have them treading the information superhighway instead. The police will become like the rest of us office drones - instead of doing any original work, they'll end up Googling for results instead.

19 July 2007

History is Balls

Like his boss and mentor Gordon Brown, Ed Balls, the new Secretary of State for Schools, is making policy pronouncements at a furious rate of knots. Having denounced over-protective Health & Safety policies in schools one day, the next he is complaining of an over-trendy curriculum that finds no room for Churchill. However, it would seem that Sir Winston himself has become more than a mortal human being - he has become a subject in his own right, like Physics.

According to The Sun, Balls insisted: “Churchill should be taught to all pupils and I shall be taking steps to ensure it is.” I'm not sure whether that means "it" is now something taught according to set principles - Laws of Churchill, or Winston Theorems. Keen not to be out-Churchilled, the opposition has also joined in this non-debate; Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove said: “Winston Churchill is the towering figure of 20th-century British history. His fight against fascism was Britain’s finest hour. Our national story can’t be told without Churchill at the centre.”

At the risk of introducing a sense of perspective here I was rather under the impression that it was the people of Britain under Churchill's leadership who stood up against fascism - certainly it was they who fell in their thousands, at home and overseas. Not to mention a few Americans and Russians. For a number of years, history teaching in schools was accused of a 'Cult of Personality' - overly focused on 20th century giants such as Stalin and Mao as simplistic embodiments of complex forces and political ideas.

Churchill himself once wrote: "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." He may not have realised he would have so many keen publishers.

15 July 2007

Sign o' the times?

The artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known As Prince has now entered the third stage of his pop career, where his status is now bigger than the actual number of records he sells (the fourth being death and posthumous critical acclaim and record sales). After the heady peaks of Purple Rain twenty years ago, nowadays his ability to shift units is somewhere between The Kaiser Chiefs and the Cheeky Girls. But unlike fellow Third Stagers, such as Michael Jackson or Paul McCartney - or The Kaiser Chiefs, for that matter - he still retains the potential to be interesting.

Today he has tried to boost a fifteen year decline by giving away his record free with copies of a UK national newspaper, rather than selling it in record shops or available to download online. This could be necessity acting as the mother of invention - an acknowledgement of his recent selling power; maybe he was tired of people telling him his recent work was so terrible that you couldn't give it away. Whatever his motivation, it was amusing to hear music retailers whining about this betrayal after the years of "support" they had given Prince - presumably in the same way that crack dealers feel let down every time the Colombian government impounds a shipment of cocaine.

Perhaps the most lamentable part of the story was the fact that Prince fans would have had to buy a copy of the Mail on Sunday to get the album - possibly the nastiest, splenetic, small-minded, vindictive, peevish, curtain-twitching publisher of bile of all British newspapers. The sort of organ that has been reviled by every challenging piece of art and popular culture in the last 100 years. For those of you unfamiliar with Prince's oeuvre, here's the first verse of a song called "Nikki" from the above-mentioned Purple Rain (with apologies to the easily offended):

'I knew a girl named Nikki
I guess u could say she was a sex fiend
I met her in a hotel lobby
Masturbating with a magazine
She said "how'd u like 2 waste some time?"
And I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind'

Not sure how that would go down behind the lace curtains of Middle England. When the day comes when your work is so ordinary that you're forced to give it away with the Mail on Sunday, I think it's time to throw in the towel. Either Prince has now become so mainstream as to be utterly irrelevant or he must really hate his fans.

08 July 2007

How many pop stars does it take to change a light bulb?

There's been some speculation about the amount of carbon expended on "Live Earth" in order to warn us of the danger of global warming. It may have had some effect, as I decided to keep my television "carbon neutral", via the off switch, lest I should accidentally become exposed to James Blunt. Organisers offered a lame statement about the event being "as carbon neutral as possible", in much the same way as the 2003 invasion of Iraq aimed to kill as few civilians as possible.

I'm intrigued by the way that, it seems, young people can only grasp political issues in terms of pop concerts. Do teenagers only understand the Common Agricultural Policy in terms of Foo Fighters albums? When the government wastes millions of pounds on a hare-brained IT scheme, does the Daily Mail, tell us it's the equivalent of 300 Arctic Monkeys concerts?

Maybe that's where the Stop The War coalition went wrong four years ago. Instead of organising a million people to march through London, they should have got Joss Stone on stage to denouce the American political hegemony through the medium of limp soul music. That would have showed 'em.

How healthy are your clothes?

I had an eye-opening time at ASDA today - even more eye-opening than a visit to ASDA normally is. It's the in-place to buy school uniforms, so, as my first born is due to start school in September, I was duly dispatched to buy the final item not already purchased: polo shirts.

Gone are the days of ties and poly-cotton - these days its all sweatshirts and soft collars. Gone too are the days of "official" school uniform shops in these globalised times of free markets. And the benefits are certainly plain - at £1 per polo shirt, my son's school uniform is actually cheaper than my own school uniform was, purchased some thirty years before. Not just cheaper in relative terms, but absolute terms.

Our friendly Walmart outlet clearly hopes we don't question how this counter-inflationary, not to say counter-intuitive, price shift is possible. My pound-per-shirt outlay is clearly not enough to sustain a minimum wage in the UK, so I wonder how much of that ends up in the hands of the sweated labour in Asia who undoubtedly made the garment? At a time when many products are undergoing heavy scrutiny as to their provenance, I think we should be allowed to know the same about clothing.

Take food. Most supermarkets are falling over themselves to show exactly how many calories, grammes of fat or likely coronaries are in their food. But they'd never think of doing it with other products they sell. I think ASDA should be made to show where, of the £1 per polo shirt, the different parts of that quid are spread along the supply chain from cotton bush to shelf. Like Sainsbury's, maybe we could adopt a "traffic lights" system: red for clothes made predominantly by 5-year-old orphans in China, amber for adult labour, green for where more than 10% has been earned by the manufacturer.

Across ASDA stores, carrier bags and advertisements, it asks: "Why pay more?" With such a scheme, we might finally get the answer to that question.

04 July 2007

hostage latest

No news today on the fate of five British hostages held in Baghdad by Iranian-back terrorists. But not being journalists, they are not entitled to disproportionate news coverage by their friends at taxpayers' expense. Welcome though Alan Johnson's release is, was it really the most important thing in the world to have happened today?

To play the King

With ironic timing President Bush has commuted the sentence of Lewis Libby just ahead of the 4 July holiday. The day when Americans remember the principled stand against tyranny, and in particular against a British king who was said to have "obstructed the administration of justice" in that famous document of 1776. Two hundred years later and new country that was born has a head of state who can arrogate the rule of law for reasons of blatant personal expediency. I'm not sure what John Hancock et al would have made of that.

02 July 2007

The price of liberty is eternal legislation

I suppose I should feel encouraged that, after a potentially explosive weekend, it wasn't just the bombs that failed to go off. The government managed not to promise to enact a new raft of legislation in response, in an attempt to Be Seen To Be Doing Something. If the Brown era is truly one without spin, then this was its biggest test - to resist to temptation to shout: "WE'RE DOING SOMETHING RIGHT NOW".

Having said that, it is difficult to think of many more anti-terror measures the government could take that they haven't already. Having suspended habeas corpus, allowed indefinite house arrest for foreign nationals, attempted to remove trial by jury, the right to silence, the right of public protest and "only" imposed the longest period for arrest without charge of any western democracy, probably the only things left are military curfews and shoot-to-kill policies. And ID Cards, of course, but we can't afford both them AND the Olympics.

And sure enough, before long, the new "calm" Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, was telling MPs: "There may well be a case for looking very carefully at the amount of time that we are able to detain people pre-charge in order to ensure the very best opportunity to bring convictions." Note how being arrested without charge has become "pre-charge", as though those banged up for 28 days "pre-charge" were simply on phase one of the inevitable march to justice. Lest anyone should dwell on the fact that only 4% are ever charged with anything.

Mr Brown, like his predecessors, says he refuses to be intimidated by terrorists. Maybe he will be the first PM to recognise the irony of introducing the sort of laws that intimidate the British people, just to show the terrorists that we're not intimidated. But I'm not holding my breath.