28 May 2008

The book wot I didn't write

Last year, Kerry Katona published her first novel (Tough Love) and I hear the second is due to hit the remainders bin anytime soon. There is little pretence that she has written either book, in the usual sense that ordinary people would understand the phrase: put pen to paper, or fingers to key, to produce an original line of prose. She is simply the brand used to promote a product that Ebury Press no doubt hope will make a lot of money, maybe also becoming unique in the annals of literature for having written more books than she has read.

Ian Fleming also has a new book published this week to mark his centenary. He has had to overcome even greater hurdles than Ms Katona to make it to print, what with him being dead for 44 years. But into his shoes Sebastian Faulks has bravely stepped, and the result is The Devil May Care, which is rather curiously described as being "by Sebastian Faulks, writing as Ian Fleming". Unless Mr Faulks wrote the book while in costume, I'm not sure how he can honestly be described as "writing as Ian Fleming". You'd think he'd have enough trouble writing as Sebastian Faulks, judging from his recent novels. What will be his next turn - staying in bed for 20 years so he can claim to be writing as Proust?

And, so, does the ghostwriter for Tough Love have to claim to be writing as Kerry Katona? That would surely be an assignment too far for even the gamest writer.

26 May 2008

A whinge for Europe

Much muttering amongst the British conspiracy theorists, as once again the UK came last in the Eurovision song contest, something which happens almost as often as Ireland used to win it. I say "used to", for now, according to popular wisdom (or at least Terry Wogan), it would be impossible for anyone outside one of the so-called "regional voting blocks" to win. This means a country outside either Scandinavia, Baltic states or former Soviet Bloc countries.

Actually it's a pretty loose amalgam, but more or less any combination of results can be used to frame the sceptics arguments - thus if Croatia votes for Russia, it's called a slavic fix, or if they vote for Bosnia-Herzegovina, it becomes a Balkan carve up. Never mind that UK and Ireland regularly prop each other's feeble efforts up with maximum points, such sour grapes seems to be overlooking some rather basic points.

First, how many of us could remember what the UK entry was called, never mind hum it 48 hours later? By a singer whose chief claim to fame was not winning a talent contest; as a former bin man, it seems maybe Andy Abraham had been on a busman's holiday. If the UK didn't have a guaranteed bye into the final, it would have pushed Ireland's singing puppet for a less lifelike rendition of a novelty record.

By contrast, the Russian winner, Dima Bilan, is the Robbie Williams of eastern Europe, shifting millions of records as his day job. Is it possible people might have voted for him because he was an already popular singer? Of course not, because we hadn't heard of him. As well as himself, Mr Bilan had a bloke with him playing a 200-year-old Stradivarius AND an Olympic ice-skater doing circuits of the stage; give the guy his dues, at least he made the effort.

According to Terry Wogan, the performance by Andy Abraham "certainly deserved more marks than it got". Truly we must be clutching at straws, the day when we start taking Terry Wogan's views on pop music seriously

Leaving aside the aesthetics of the song contest, it seems our knowledge of recent history is about as attuned as our ear for Slavic pop. According to the conspirators, an eastern European love-in happens every year, simply because they are next door to each other. On Saturday night both Georgia and the Ukraine awarded Russia the maximum 12 points, less than 5 years after nearly declaring war on the former Motherland. Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia all traded points, despite a bitter and bloody civil war in recent memory, not to mention centuries of ethnic tension.

But let's assume the conspirators are correct and Britain will never triumph again. That would explain an entry attaining mid-table obscurity, not last place. Saturday's piss-poor finish by the UK is not explained by Croatia giving Russia 12 points, but rather by nobody at all giving us 12 points. Not even Ireland, a country whose own entry suggests they know a thing or two about singing turkeys.

22 May 2008

Keep music dead

There are sometimes advantages to not having a written constitution. The absence of Freedom of Speech laws enshrined in a codified single document used to mean that busking - the art of public performance - was illegal. But in recent, supposedly enlightened times, local authorities, and in particular Transport for London, have permitted the public destruction of music in the name of local colour.

It's ironic that this should have happened in an era when we least need it. Once upon a time, when musical reproduction equipment was confined to the home, and before the ubiquitous infiltration of muzak into every commercial building, busking might have had its place to cheer people up or help people pass the time, waiting for buses and trains. Staying one step ahead of the police, our peripatetic piper could bash out a quick tune into a world of white noise.

But when every other person seems to own an iPod or MP3 player, the market for gratuitously incompetent musicianship is surely limited. There is no greater irritant, come 6pm, when, having entered the bowels of the London Underground and blocked out the trials of another hard day with music through your headphones, the reverie is shattered by the inescapable cacophony of someone playing "Apache" at top volume on a cheese wire guitar.

The word busk comes from the Spanish root word buscar, meaning "to seek" – buskers are supposedly seeking fame and fortune, though some are clearly looking harder than others. And to the man who insists on singing "Mr Tambourine Man" at Chancery Lane station every evening in the manner of a constipated chicken: please, call off the search.

19 May 2008

No sects please, we're British

Tonight's Dispatches on Channel 4 turned its lens on the rise of fundamentalist Christianity as a political force in the UK. Being Dispatches, it had to ramp up the hysteria, painting the sorry gaggle of would-be Jeremiahs into some sort of fifth column, with the ear of decision-makers, pulling the strings of power.

The reality, of course, was a documentary about a dreary series of meetings, thinly attended by marginal people whose main threat to the mainstream population was forcing a leaflet about homosexual abomination into unwanted hands. The premise of the film - that this somehow constituted a real and present threat to British democracy - was undermined by the sheer numbers of people who failed to turn up to any of their organised protests.

In truth it was a very British form of fundamentalism: a lot of shuffling embarrassment by participants and passers-by. In fact their supposedly explosive views on Islam as apostasy were no worse than I have heard coming back the other way from members of the Muslim Council of Britain, which is supposedly the political mainstream. Certainly there was no Oliver Cromwell amongst this New Model Army.

After the storm

At last some decisive action taken by the government of Burma, to help its cyclone-ravaged population. After 17 days of inaction, it was finally announced there would be three days of official mourning. As the crowds grasp desperately for the sustenance that only a flag flying at half mast can offer, I can only guess that the Burmese authorities had been waiting until there was a really worthwhile number of dead before beginning.

It should be noted that this is official mourning. No doubt the military Junta is vigilant for anyone trying to partake in any unofficial mourning - contraband sadness that falls outside sanctioned parameters. After all, in a country infested with poverty, corruption, starvation and slavery as an official economic model, the living might start to envy those who died.

12 May 2008

Too much information

Privacy and politics do not make for easy bedfellows. From David Cameron's claims on his "private past" to Tony Blair's almost pathological obsession with protecting his children's privacy from media invasion. In 2002 Blair took a stand against media questions about whether his youngest son, Leo, had had the MMR vaccine injection on the basis of the principle of privacy: that we were no more entitled to know than we were entitled to know anything else about Leo's medical records. Presumably it reflected the consensus of Mrs Blair too, as she followed this domestic policy to the letter.

Until today, when, in exchange for a large amount of Rupert Murdoch's money, she was prepared to tell us, in, frankly, unnecessary detail, how Leo was conceived at Balmoral. As you try to remove from your mind that image of Tony and Cherie bumping uglies together in the highlands, instead reflect on what a difference to MMR take-up it might have made to have the Prime Minister publicly endorse its use. In parts of the UK, vaccination levels are as low as 70%, putting all children at risk, both inoculated and non-inoculated.

Is that Tony Blair's fault? Of course not. But, funny as it might seem now, in those days he was a sort of role model. Maybe Cherie was aware of the meaning of 'Politics' as defined by Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary: "(n.) Strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles."

06 May 2008

The book wot I didn't read

Last year Woolworths got into trouble for launching a furniture collection that included a "Lolita" bed for girls (story here). Possibly one of the few occasions when having an English degree would have had a practical workplace application.

I thought of this today when I passed the "Catch 22" employment agency in Victoria, en route to a client. Apparently the agency has been in business since 1982, though I wonder if, in all that time, any of its staff had bothered to read the eponymous Joseph Heller classic? It's not the sort of thing you'd necessarily want associated with a temporary employment agency - being trapped in a hellish existence by the merciless logic of the language of the system.

Or else the sort of place that wouldn't do much business:

"Excuse me, do you have any jobs?"
"Are you registered with us"
"No - how do I do that?"
"Well, first you'll need to have a job"

05 May 2008

Has bin

Story on the BBC Website:

"Downing Street stands by rubbish tax"

It begs the question: Which one?

Hail the victory

Tonight's episode of Waking the Dead was another weekly foray into an extreme environment, this time a thinly-disguised BNP and underground white supremacist activists. Cue the usual American History X-inspired black-and-white flashbacks to neo-Nazi gatherings - bare-chested skinheads chanting in underground meetings.

It reminded me of the one thing that always puzzles me about depictions of UK fascists: why do they always chant "Sieg Heil" at these mini-Nuremberg rallies? Is it that the enjoy either the sound of the German, or the irony of using a foreign language to describe their ultra-Britishness? Or should that be Uber-Britishness?

A third possibility is that they might not know what it means, but figure it sounds threatening enough to the average English ear. Or maybe it is simply a lazy assumption on the part of scriptwriters who don't fancy checking out a White Power meeting in order to sample the tone of voice - and the result is the equivalent of a Stonewall meeting as depicted by Jim Davidson.