29 April 2009

Here comes The Sun

Like around 25% of the population, I have a photic sneeze reflex - which means on sunny days like today, I regularly sneeze my way down the street. This is not normally a problem, but in these days of Swine Flu frenzy, I expect to be quarantined by vigilantes soon, stoked by the hysteria of the popular press that I might be a carrier. PIG FLU GOES GLOBAL screamed a tabloid headline yesterday, by which they meant NOW WHITE PEOPLE HAVE GOT IT, as a handful of cases were announced in western Europe and Israel.

Nothing the media likes more, of course, than cranking up the hysteria over a health scare, though it is hard to see the fine line between presenting a worse case scenario as likely fact and downright lying. Consider The Metro, which today announced it possible that up to 32 million people in the UK could have contracted the condition by autumn, and presented the London Underground as a natural incubator. This was done in the usual way, by interviewing a scientist and removing all the caveats from a balanced view, emphasising the worst case (but less likely scenarios) and failing to mention any reliable statistics that would allow us to make a balanced judgement.

We've been here before, of course. In November 2002, we witnessed the spectre of a global pandemic, SARS, that threatened to be the fifth horseman of the apocalypse. Millions would die, we were told, and death would stalk the earth like Andy Kershaw after a few lagers. In the end, of course, 775 people perished, most in the country of origin. Or to put it another way 0.000000129% of the global population. Tragic for those affected, but it left most of us to die the way nature intended - cancer, old age, car wrecks, heart disease and diabetes, which don't tend to make the headlines.

And when none of this comes to pass, the papers will shrug their shoulders and move on to the next corpse - where's the harm? Well, if people stop using the tube en masse because of what they read in the press, more of them will drive. And consequently more of them will die or be injured in car crashes from the increased traffic, far more than will ever contract Pig Flu - as we saw after 9/11 when people stopped taking aeroplanes and started driving instead.

I guess you could call it pig ignorance.

26 April 2009

What do they know of England, who only football know?

Today I attended my first ever St George's Day parade, in which members of the various factions of the Scouting movement troop down Colchester high street before attending an outdoor gathering with slightly religious overtones. There has been something of a grassroots movement in recent years to establish St George's Day as a national holiday in England. Having cast off the ingrate Scots and Welsh to their own parliaments, we are now free, apparently, to express our Englishness. But it seems to me the main hurdle to this taking off is knowing exactly what you would do in order to celebrate England's patron saint. Kill a dragon, presumably.

England has long been accused of yoking the Celtic nations with the idea of Britishness, thereby suppressing their ability to express fully their ethnicity. In fact, the opposite was the case - the Act of Union that created Great Britain gave the Scots, Welsh and Irish something to kick against, and so develop cultural ideas and institutions. The idea of Englishness, insofar as it was different from Britishness, didn't really come into it. And by the time you have apologised for the worst excesses of the British Empire, what does that leave of Englishness itself? Drinking tea and taking off your cardigan so you feel the benefit later.

It was a lovely sunny day in town today, and there was a respectable, if not exactly spectacular, number of people lining the streets. Indeed, there was some comment from those around me that the numbers were down on previous years - no doubt in the recession even patriotism is in short supply. I was trying to work out what collected St Georgers about me had in common, something that might be uniting the nation in a passion for Albion. Looking around, it seemed to be mostly a Body Mass Index above 30 and tattoos of their children's names.

The culmination of the post-parade gathering was a muttered prayer and a dismal rendition of God Save The Queen, a downbeat dirge at the best of times, and I was left to reflect on how unnaturally the language of patriotism fits us, unlike, say, Americans who can slip comfortably into eulogies for Uncle Sam from more or less any topic. The only equivalent we have is irony, whose use in England is not so much common as it is a reflex action for any social situation. The trouble is patriotism seems to demand a straightforwardness that many of us find uncomfortable, because we might have to sound like we actually mean it.

This then leaves the only time in which the English are direct, passionate and vocal about the nation as being on the football terraces, as we stagger towards inevitable elimination from biannual football tournaments. Maybe for St George's Days in the future, if given a public holiday, we could reenact losing to Germany on penalties.

21 April 2009

Water on the brain

Some days when the seemingly perpetual story of financial chaos, political graft and illiberalism disguised as protecting the nation seems all-pervading, I actually think I will run out of daft things to write about. And then there comes along something so obviously vacuous it lifts my day.

There is a new organisation launched that goes by the grand title of The Natural Hydration Council, and they have got a website and everything. They exist to promote "naturally sourced water", and to illustrate this purpose have concocted a strange ad campaign featuring people with animal heads clutching bottles of H2O - presumably because there is nothing more natural than a half-man-half-crocodile. You'd think that after half a billion or so years of evolution, we'd hardly need a website to remind us to drink water, but apparently we need help coming to an "informed opinion" about the "hydration".

Not just any old water, of course - "naturally sourced" water. Which in this case has been twisted to mean "bottled water", as you'll understand when you realise the backers of this organisation are the likes of Evian and Highland Spring. Presumably this is to contrast it with unnaturally sourced water - that boring stuff that the regulated water companies sell via the plumbing - and I am guessing must therefore be made from nuclear waste, genetically modified foetuses and Westlife's old underpants.

Leaving aside the laughable content, which I encourage you to explore, the positive outcome from this project is it means the bottled water industry is clearly worried about the negative press surrounding discarded plastic water bottles. Their main concern it seems is that people who worry about that sort of thing should balance any judgement about environmental impact with the fact that water is really, really important. Apparently you could die if you don't drink any, or at the very least lose the ability to think properly, as well as your teeth and kidneys, and suffer from something called "thick blood", which sounds like pretty desperate bullshit to me.

The best bit is the final page, devoted to "Hydration Tips", in case you ever forget how to drink. Apparently it's better to drink water throughout the day, rather than try to drink an entire day's worth in one sitting. And also being thirsty should not be taken as a sign to drink water - you should do that before you get thirsty, otherwise it might be too late. Presumably you could end up with a touch of that nasty "thick blood". So anytime you are not feeling thirsty, you should drink water, just in case - which I guess will stop you from ever feeling thirsty again, in which case you will be permanently drinking water.

My favourite one, though, is the Gillian McKeith-esque reference to urine colour. Apparently a pale wee means you are properly hydrated, though Jane Griffin "BSc RD RNutr, Dietitian and Nutrition Consultant" is quick to caveat this by saying that not having pale wee doesn't necessarily mean you are dehydrated - you could be eating too many beetroots (I promise I am not making this up).

"Even very mild dehydration can impair mental performance", the NHC tells us. After viewing their website, I would strongly suggest they haven't been drinking enough of their own product.

Grasping the nettle

According to a recent report by the government's Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, in recent decades, those who have been independently schooled or who are from families that are better off are more likely to enjoy success in professions such as law, medicine, media, publishing, the civil service and banking. It was found that those educated at independent schools dominate the workforces in over half of professional occupations - despite this group representing just seven per cent of society.

I'm not sure that that is really is news, to be honest. I certainly don't think that it represents a failing of either society or the state schools system; instead it seems to prove the old maxim that you gets what you pays for. After all, what on earth do the government think parents pay all that money for, if not for the chance to get their kids ahead? If we allow private schools to exist and allow people to pay for the privilege, we have to accept the logical outcome, and output, of the system. If you ask people whether we should ban private education, the majority would be against it - it doesn't seem very British somehow.

Instead we'd rather allow people to pay for their children's education, and hope somehow it doesn't make a difference. And we'll set up a Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, under the guise of "opportunity", to pretend that it's a level playing field. As long as we don't actually have to get to grips with what causes the disparity.

16 April 2009

Not what it themes.

At Farringdon Station, there is a poster for the forthcoming movie Good, starring Viggo Mortensen and based upon the C.P. Taylor play of the same name. From what I can gather, it seems to be about one man's gradual slide into complicity with the Nazi regime. But I noticed that alongside its BBFC classification of "15" is a helpful clarification: 'Contains scenes of violence and Holocaust themes'.

I have noticed these disclaimers elsewhere, and previously thought them merely silly - warning me about a children's film that "contains scenes of mild peril" - but I think there is something sinister about the warning in this case. The movie poster itself (above) I think gives a fairly clear indication of the historical era in which the movie is set, courtesy of an enormous swastika.

So would anyone really need the Holocaust clarification, on the off-chance they thought they were going to watch a sequel to Hello Dolly? Why would you need to be warned off going to see a film for fear it exposes you to 'Holocaust themes'? At best it is part of the invidious tendency to sanitise all aspects of life and eliminate any risk of upsetting anyone. At worst it could be seen as pandering to Holocaust-deniers, preventing their fragile minds from a nasty cinematic experience.

And it seems not just to be a one-off. Recently a British movie with a largely disabled cast, called Special People, received a classification of 12A and the patronising rejoinder: "disability theme". For goodness sake, save our children from the risk of witnessing a disability theme, no doubt aimed at all those parents who complained when the BBC employed an amputee to present children's TV.

If we accept the honest intentions of the BBFC to inform rather than patronise or offend, we realise the real problem is describing something that is apparently upsetting, without the description causing upset itself. Hence the use of the mysterious noun "theme", which ends up either creating confusion or mirth.

The other effect it has is - instead of clarifying things - to actually increase the opacity of the material being presented. For example, the Australian TV comedy Summer Heights High carried the following consumer advice - "contains moderate references to sex and disability". Does that mean whispered jokes about people getting their jollies in wheelchairs, or is it two separate topics that are referred to "moderately"?

However, I think there are occasions when it is appropriate, if only the expression of the warning were more clearly stated. For example, if The English Patient had carried the disclaimer: "Warning: this film will make you feel like you wasted three hours of your life", I might have saved myself some money.

14 April 2009


In a slow news week, a new survey published by Theos, a "public theology think tank", has garnered some interest in its findings. Although a number of news sources picked up on the rather depressing statistic that more people now believe in ghosts and the power of Tarot cards than did in the 1950s, one curious fact has been overlooked.

According to the data, 55% believe in heaven but only 53% believe in life after death. That means 2% of the population believes in heaven but not in life after death, which is an unusual theological position to take. I suppose this means that some of the population takes its lead from the famous philosopher Belinda Carlisle, who posited that "Heaven is a place on earth" in her 1987 hit song.

By coincidence, two per cent of the world's population owns about half of all global household assets. The other 98% must be counting on the afterlife.

07 April 2009

Caught in an endless loop of irony

Banner headline on the front of yesterday's Sun: LET HER REST IN PEACE. This was a plea from Jack Tweed, apparently trying to pull down the Big Top at the heart of the Jade Goody Circus.

The only other thing on the front page was a teaser ad: "Inside - special tribute supplement to Jade".

And so it goes.