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Chinese Wails January 28, 2014

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Politics, Schmolitics.
5 comments

If you live or spend much time in London, one of the less edifying spectacles of the post-Xmas silly season has been ‘Bonkers’ Boris Johnson and his good pal Dave ‘Posh Boy’ Cameron bigging up London as a magnet for global tourism in the Evening Standard.

To some extent this is a grouchy response to France’s claims that Paris attracts more overseas visitors than our capital city, the dark subtext perhaps being that any country whose leader couldn’t make up his mind between his mistress and his, er, ex-mistress can’t be trusted with anything, even its tourism statistics. But beyond such unspoken ridicule, I find it sad if not pathetic that Britain, and in particular London places so much emphasis on tourism for its economic recovery.

Dropping onerous visa requirements for visitors from China, a country which has already decimated our manufacturing base – admittedly with our short-sighted complicity – so’s to get more of them posing for snapshots outside Buck House would be okay if it was reciprocated. Indeed if the people who rule China weren’t so busy stashing billions (trillions?) of yuan in western tax havens and handing out brutal prison sentences to any of their subjects who dare to criticise them for it, or indeed anything at all, well then I might be in favour of relaxing the restrictions.

And as we continue to sell  large chunks of our so-called public services to the Chinese, e.g. energy, railways and the increasingly privatised  NHS to the orientals the answer to the leftie media’s regular hand-wringing about ‘Who owns Britain?’ seems to be  ‘the Chinese, of course.’ Because in the global economy that we must now accept that we’re but a tiny, wee part of, the Chinese have the biggest chequebooks. It almost makes me wish we lived in North Korea or Cuba where foreign investment can’t have any effect on how the country’s run, because by tacitly accepting the double-standards and oppressive nature of its ruling classes, how long will it be before Boris and Dave start telling us that they don’t really have a human rights problem at all with China and we should therefore welcome their affluent middle classes as our incipient economic masters?

Talking of the economy – which of course  I must – am I alone in pouring scorn on the fashion and ‘lifestyle’ pages of the meeja which almost exclusively feature garments and gizmos that most of us can’t afford?

A darling little lampshade from Rothschild & Bickers may be a steal at just £380 if you’re lottery winner with Barratts mansion to furnish, but frankly when I need a new pair of jeans I’m off to Uni-Qlo with nineteen quid in my fist rather than £135 or even, gulp, £500 for something ‘a little special’ from Scotch & Soda or Levis. From my days as a mugazine editor I of course understand the value of aspirational content, but even for ladeez with rich hubbies surely £199 for a pair of kecks from Sandro or an understated frock from the ever-smiley Vicky Beckham at £1,550 are clear cases of the fashion eds having a laugh?

My own female friends, or at least the ones who’re willing to discuss it with a man who isn’t Gok Wan, tend like me to seek out a nice bargain, and even my WIFE (a term I still find a pleasing novelty), also tends to frequent secondhand shops and the aforementioned Uni-Qlo on a regular basis, for although careful with our dosh and quite ancient, we’re still unabashedly vain.

But if print media readers really can afford to patronise these posho brands, most of whom I’ve never heard of, perhaps I’m dead wrong about the nation’s finances? In which case the far eastern sweatshop owners had better up their game and kill off the Italian, Spanish and few other remaining European garment-manufacturing countries if they want to supply the growing number of British fashionistas…  thus guaranteeing their UK visa status.

Finally, now that I’m spliced, duty obliges me to bang the drum for Kiss Me First, the just launched paperback of the debut novel by Lottie Moggach, who is technically my step-daughter!

Bugger the nepotism, it's a fantastic read

Bugger the nepotism, it’s a fantastic read

Anyone even vaguely interested in how the internet can govern, change and indeed create personalities will be riveted by this hugely original psychological thriller, and especially its narrative tone. Worthily shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Prize, it’s right up there with Gone Girl for its unexpected twists, turns and final reveal. Bugger nepotism, it’s a truly fantastic read. Oh, and you can get a better handle on Lottie and her book here: http://www.picador.com/authors/lottie-moggach …or in her own words, here: www.lottiemoggach.com

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Hippy New Year? January 6, 2014

Posted by markswill in About me, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
20 comments

I stopped making New Year resolutions a long time ago. They always got broken, usually within days. But the early January habit of wondering what the ensuing 12 months might bring persists and, I suspect, for many of you too.

As we continue to suffer the ill- and sometimes disasterous effects of global warming – the river at the bottom of my street has burst its banks – 2014 may be the year that the government gets serious about climate change, although as the waters rose and seas defences were breached around our fragile isle the news that some 1500 jobs are going in the DoE including, “hundreds” in the flood defences department, wasn’t exactly confidence-inspiring.

I’d also like to think that our coalition government may force Brussels to capitulate to our need to free ourselves from some of the more ridiculous and debilitating legislation its unelected bureaucrats oblige us to enact: I’m thinking immigration controls (we live on a small, already crowded, socio-economically divided island), mad health and safety rules and bankrupt carbon trading. But again, the political bombast may well be strident and repetitive, but the reality might be something else. Hello Ukip?

The slow groundswell of anger at the excesses of unfettered capitalism that obliged us to bail-out a busted banking system post-2008 and continues to award fat cats obscene, tax-free rewards for exploiting the vulnerable – I’m thinking the privatised utilities, railways and health services – may also bear fruit especially if, as I suspect, the housing price bubble bursts and throws the financial sector into hock to the poor taxpayer yet again. (There are even mutterings about re-nationalising the railways which, having spent the best part of Saturday traveling less than 250 miles at ruinous cost on three trains all of which ran woefully late, is a notion I’m warming to). And as long as the government rails (sic) emptily against the parlous fiscal legacies of the last Labour government whilst viciously cutting public services, simultaneously ramping up the national debt and championing white elephants like HS-2 there is some chance of this happening.

However offset against these perhaps encouraging symptoms of imminent change, one reluctantly realises that fewer and fewer people can be arsed to vote, especially the young who register whatever dissatisfactions they might have with the status quo via Twatter, FarceBerk and Instagrumble, none of whom have much effect of our so-called policymakers who are too frit of these and other digital giants to pay much heed to their users, much less tax their profits. This very weekend Head Boy Cameron offered an obvious, if desperate vote-winning sop to the one group who do still vote in large numbers, namely the oldsters, guaranteeing them that pensions would rise with inflation for the foreseeable future. But no political party has yet come up with a way to restore, nay instill faith in our political system amongst 18-40 year-olds and get them voting in droves. Ending Punch’n’Judy grandstanding, policymaking on the hoof, empty rhetoric and rampant corruption might be a start, but our public servant/masters, most of whom have never lived or worked outside of politics, still just don’t seem to get it.

But I end this bout of crystal ball-gazing with the hope that for anyone reading this semantic swill the year will at least bring some degree of personal satisfaction and comfort, and that the death-rate amongst friends and peers diminishes a little – too many went AWOL in 2013. After decades of commitment-phobia and recent-ish romantic misadventures – not necessarily one and the same thing – somewhat to my own surprise I recently got married, so I know things can get better if risks are taken.

So at risk of sounding like an old hippy, why not take some yourself in 2014?

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THE WORLD ACCORDING TO CAMERON DIAZ, Pt 2 November 14, 2013

Posted by markswill in Media, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
3 comments

I ended last week’s excursion to the outer fringes of melancholic resignation by claiming that there had at least been some compensation in the shape of cultural nourishment. That said, we’re not out the woods yet but before return to the forces of darkness, I will honour my promise, kicking off with the fantastic Pop Art Design show at the Barbican – a sprawling, comprehensive exhibition taking in pure art, commercial media and even furniture and household goods. A good 90 minutes if not two hours are required to take it all in. Equally uplifting, partly because I was barely aware of his work, was the Daumier exhibition at the RA and rather more for laughs, Michael Landy’s installations based on the martyred saints at the National, even if they do rather ape what Bruce Lacey was doing 50 years ago.

In fact I’m writing this on the train back from King’s Lynn after a jolly works outing to see the temporarily returned post-renaissance paintings acquired in 1779  from Robert Walpole’s ancestral seat, Houghton Hall, by Catherine the Great. Walpole had Houghton built specifically to accommodate a collection that wasn’t uniformly to my taste – although the Van Dycks, Velazquez and Marattas were of a high order – but its scale and décor, still beautifully preserved, are the perfect setting for an assemblage that’s shortly to return to Russia, never to be seen here again. (Also, the warm fruit scones in the caff were the best I’ve ever had  – which is saying something – and we enjoyed one of Griffith’s pork pies, brought all the way from Shropshire, on the train home). Top day on all counts, then.

Only two theatre outings in the last coupla months, but both crackers: Terry Johnson’s clever, archly comic Hysteria at Hampstead with Anthony Sher playing a much put-upon Sigmund Freud (N.B. Naked Old People Alert), and Moira Buffini’s Handbagged at the Tricycle which is a sardonic, brilliantly observed and pitch-perfectly performed imagining of the hostility between M. Thatcher and H.R.H. The Queen. Both still (just) playing so if you live in London, get there quick.

As for films, well obviously I’d advise seeing The Counsellor with Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Michael Fassbinder and of course Ms. Diaz all on topping form. And as they haven’t quite yet been released, I’ll repeat my enthusiasm for All Is Lost (R. Redford, brilliant), Nebraska (B. Dern, ditto… indeed his best since The Driver), Labor Day (Kate Winslet, more ditto), August: Osage County (La Streep outstanding as a drug-addled, vile-tongued matriarch) and the best film ever to come out of Romania, Child’s Pose. Which perhaps isn’t saying much. But then neither am I.

Except on the subject of HOUSING, the price of which if you live in the South East, which I don’t, you’ll know is rising at some 8-10% per quarter. It seems extraordinary that the government tacitly if not actively encourage this by allowing, i.e. without any notable tax deterrents, foreign investors to buy ‘off-plan’ properties they will never live in or mansions they might visit occasionally, indirectly pushing up the cost of rental as a consequence. Then on the other hand the banks, several of whom we part-own and who screwed up the economy by over lending to an over-heated housing market, instead of to business as they were supposed to and which we were told would re-build the economy on sounder basis, are again offering 95% mortgages and often with government backing. In the spirit of last week’s blog, I have tried to overcome my cynical doubts about this by listening to the pundits who, like Thatcher, claim that having lots of rich Russians, Arabs and hedgefund hogs investing in bricks and mortar will have a beneficial trickle-down effect for the rest of us. And maybe this time around I am wrong and they are right?

I’m slightly surer of my prejudicial positions on the ENERGY COMPANIES and the NATIONAL HEALTH, both of which obviously concern me in my twilight years. Much to my surprise I agree with John Major that the cartel which supplies light and heat to our overpriced homes are profiteering cynically and enormously, the huge salaries of their bosses and the ‘enhanced shareholder value’ which they trumpet as their prime motive causing both anger and fear amongst those who increasingly have to choose between adequate heating and feeding themselves. And of course a consistent reduction in either leads to ill-health which disproportionately effects the elderly who of course, because of the deliberately repressed interest rates have found their living standards further reduced. A troll round any branch of Aldi or Lidl witnesses growing numbers of harried looking pensioners debating whether they can afford own-brand ketchup or tinned sardines, nutrition being rather lower down their economic agenda than three or four years ago.

I don’t therefore find it coincidental that the NHS is creaking under the strain of all these increasingly ailing crocs, neither am I surprised that closing down walk-in centres, cutting support to GP surgeries and the A&E units that are having to take up the slack, plus wasting squillions on IT systems and senior management that do sod-all for frontline services results only in weasel words from Cameron and Co.  The contrarian view, which in my new spirit of impartiality I am bound to espouse, is that like many other developed countries we should jolly well pay for some or all of our healthcare, ergo, the rich and entitled would enjoy better health, live longer and contribute more to, erm, offshore tax regimes.

Oh, and one final cause for unfettered joy: Ed Reardon’s Week is back on R4, and on excellent form – 11.30am Mondays.

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THE WORLD ACCORDING TO CAMERON DIAZ November 8, 2013

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Media, Navel Gazing.
16 comments

In The Counsellor, a violent but not unappealing drug trafficking thriller due out later this month, Cameron Diaz’s deliciously villainous character spouts a lengthy homily about change, its inevitability and the smart person’s decision not to fight it. Obviously I am not a smart person because Canute-like, I constantly resist change. I was also reminded of the foolishness of this when visiting the Paul Klee exhibition at Tate Modern, for although in his day (1879-1940) Klee was a serious thinker and teacher about matters artistic, on the evidence of this rather disappointing show he failed to put his thoughts into action, or rather onto canvas. Which in failing to put most of my own stridently voiced opinions into practice, I am also a craven hypocrite.

And it is of course this untypically honest admission that partly accounts for the hiatus in blogging which I whined about six weeks ago, although then I cited the irrelevance of one man’s views in a world where better brains than I have bigger and better fora to disseminate them and the usually despicable acts of mankind that prompt them. So whilst I still advocate Private Eye, The New Yorker and even Prospect if you really want to know about mankind’s horrors and follies, I was moved by Ms Diaz’s, or rather scriptwriter Cormac McCarthy’s observations to re-consider my position on a few matters that had recently vexed me.

HS2   The current political wrangling over the proposed £42billion north-south trainline is characterised by the opposing sides constantly issuing contradictory reports on its viability, cost and disruptive elements. My view is that it’d be a disaster, especially for the citizens of north London whose properties and lives would be blighted for a decade whilst it was built (I spend a lot of time in north London, see), and as a regular traveler on a creaking east-west train service to and from and my Welsh home, I’d far rather see the money used upgrading existing rail routes. But because so much political capital depends on HS2 going ahead, it almost certainly will. Just as it almost certainly will be beset by cost overruns and delays and do nothing for the economies of northern England that are its supposed beneficiaries.

MEDIA & BOOKS   The recent sacking of its arts critics by The Independent and the steady cull of journalists by the Telegraph, Times and Guardian confirm that mass print media is doomed. Ditto the ongoing closure of independent bookshops due to the increase in sales of digital readers with Amazon, the arch-villains of the piece, rubbing salt into the wound with a series of ads showing an ugly man smiling at his Kindle in front of a pile of discarded books. A recent report that children, often encouraged by parents desperate to keep them occupied, just don’t have the attention spans to read anything other than digitized gobbets of information confirms that the printed word is doomed. And with it, probably anyway, the power of the press to challenge authority and commerce to account for their myriad venality. So I’d better get used to that, too. But a bracing if surprising counterpoint came from Murdoch’s News UK paywall-loving boss, Mike Darcey, in the latest In Publishing (print edition, natch): “Papers like The Guardian are eating themselves alive by publishing a newspaper at £1.40 and then giving all the content away for free.” Precisely.

CAR TROUBLE    A rare case of contrition now regarding my unfashionable romance with the internal combustion engine. I got it wrong with the Twingo I irrationally bought in August (because I liked its cheeky looks and supposed economy), and am having doubts about both selling my Lancia Gamma and my continuing ownership of the gorgeous technological marvel/nightmare that is my Citroen XM. Since acquiring it, the Twingo has needed a replacement driveshaft and cambelt, both nightmarish to source because it was never an UK import and Renault UK can’t or won’t identify relevant parts numbers. Ergo many frustrating hours spent badgering confused and irritated friends/mechanics/axe-murderers for help. The Citruin has developed a leak from I know not where, probably because I stupidly let a garage who didn’t know XMs service it instead of doing it myself. And winter’s coming and its bum’s getting rusty. Until I bought the XM, I maintained that one’s ‘daily driver’ should cost no more than £1000 and deliver at least two and usually three year’s virtually trouble-free motoring, after which I’d flog it for a few hundred less than it cost and move onto another cheaply insurable old banger, arrogantly assuming that I knew enough to do rudimentary maintenance and avoid buying a dog. Oh, and I’d keep and cherish a classic for high days and showing off. The XM, glorious to drive though it is, proved the exception in every respect, but I thought I’d box clever by replacing the Lancia with it as my object of automotive lust and make the Twingo my daily driver. Wrong, wrong, wrongity wrong. And worse, when I occasionally drive a modern BMW or, gulp, Ford, I kinda hanker after transport that’s quiet, reliable and economical… even if it has no soul.

TALKING OF SOUL    All of this unrequited resistance to the march of progress has this month been ameliorated by some determined cultural consumption, but as your attention span has probably already been stretched to its limits, the details of which I’ll peddle around early next week in a unexpectedly prompt second instalment.

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Still Scribbling (Just About) September 2, 2013

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Media, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
29 comments

There have, it seems, been 85 of the suckers over the past few years, and almost uniformly bleating about some social injustice, media travesty, political inertia and/or conspiracy blah-blah-blah. My last blog in fact exhorted my reader to simply buy Private Eye whose muck-raking activities are far, far more assiduous, wide-ranging and comprehensive than a lone scribbler’s could ever be, and that remains my position. And in a world increasingly run by giant corporations and their poodle governments, the potential for protest to have much effect is limited. Which is why I haven’t published another one for months and likely won’t do for many more.

Indeed I think it’s fair to say in the world we now blindly struggle through, my generation really had the best of it and I pity the poor blighters following in our wake.

But just for the record, these are the subjects that have me wringing my hands most often and most intensely : Mick Farren’s death; Google; Amazon; virtually all politicians; Syria; fracking; HS2; global energy policies; most electronic media; banks and bankers; my personal finances; human behavior in the digital age; Afghanistan; celebrity culture; finding a garage who can competently tend my Citroen XM. It’s never bloody ending.

And since this will be probably be my last scrawl for ages, I’ll try and counterbalance that litany of despair with a brief list of things that have made life bearable:

DAVID BYRNE and St Valentine at the Roundhouse: 8-piece brass section, quirky if borderline irritating guitarist/chanteuse Annie Clark and Byrne’s magnificent songs. Truly uplifting.

MOVIE BINGEING: Seeing up to seven a week courtesy of my gig with the Picturehouse chain. Yes, there’s dross a’plenty, but some gems too, recently including What Maisie Knew, Closed Circuit, Cold Comes The Night, All Is Lost, Gloria, The Great Beauty, Enough Said, Blue Jasmine and Nebraska… all out now or in the next two months, and all to be savoured before online streaming and home cinema finally kill off real cinema (and I’m out of a gig, again!).

Beefheart Illustration

‘Outsider Artist’ Joe Coleman’s homage to the Mighty Captain

ART: a now not-so-recent trip to Paris revealed some unexpected gems, including Hey! Modern Art & Pop Culture at the wonderfully whacky Hailles St Pierre (a sort of mini-Roundhouse) featuring ‘outsider artists’ from the 70s onwards, including the Clayton Brothers, the biker druggie Joe Coleman, Erik Joyner and dozens more.  Hey! is also an occasional, beautifully produced mag-book worth €19 of anyone’s money whose interested in truly innovative creative mavericks that make the Damien Hirsts, Chapman Bros. and Tracey Emins of this world look like the cynical, minimally talented hucksters that they are.

And the Chagall exhibition, mostly of his bitingly critical anti-war works at the Musee du Luxembourg was moving in a different way.

But most impressive was a trip to the Musee des Artes et Metiers. I was making my third visit there in the vain hope that I might finally work my way through its enormous collection of technical, industrial, consumer, automotive and architectural design exhibits (I failed) when for light relief wandered into the temporary Enki Bilal show. He’s little known (to me) Serbian-born comic book artist and writer – a master draughtsman and fantasist with an agreeably perverse view of the (nether) world, but he’s also made several feature films, unshown in the UK, which despite massively limited resources and zero CGI are incredibly dramatic and graphically imaginative. This I know only because he’d spliced together a riveting and often hilarious assemblage that played on a constant 15 minute loop.

What all the hip Parisian  despatch riders are using these days

What all the hip Parisian despatch riders are using these days

Amazingly, given their no-budget origins, Bilal managed to persuade star names to appear in them, such as Julie Delpy and Michel Piccoli (Tykho Moon), Frederic Pierrot and Charlotte Rampling (the deeply weird Ad Vitam a/k/a ‘Immortal’) and Jean-Louis Trintignant and Maria Schneider (Bunker Palace Hotel). Bilal’s films are available, if hard to track down, on DVD but I recommend that you do. (I also got to bestride Prosper Keating’s meticulously maintained Velocette KSS whilst in Paris, but that was art as ancient engineering).

Lichtenstein at Tate Modern is long over of course, but it’s still zinging around in my head, and the Salgardo photos at the Natural History Museum are pretty damn incredible.

THEATRE: The revival of Gorky’s Children of the Sun at the NT was a timely reminder of the perils of political expediency, thrillingly staged and performed, ditto Chimerica at the Almeida – since transferred to the West End  – which boldly addressed the growing power of China and waning influence of America. More conventional but no less caustic was Noël Coward’s supercharged comedy of upper-class manners, Private Lives at the Gielgud.

MEDIA: Apart from the aforementioned Private Eye, The New Yorker continues to be the source of much pleasure and instructive intelligence. Long, beautifully written articles on subjects as diverse as Louisiana tugboat dynasties, Tibetan politics and the exploitation of African mineral resources by shadowy Israeli industrialists, plus the best film reviewers in the world bar none make the £100+ annual subscription worthwhile… even if, with hideous inevitability, its publishers are trying to migrate us online.

And so finally of course we come to Renault Twingos: I’ve always fancied these cheeky wee-but- roomy French hatchbacks since riding around in a colleague’s during my frequent business trips to Paris in the mid-90s, and having been obliged to sell my beloved Lancia Gamma, I spent some of the proceeds on what is now probably the only one in mid-Wales.

The future is Twingo, at least when I can't afford to fill up the Citruin XM

The future is Twingo, at least when I can’t afford to fill up the Citruin XM

Certainly the only one in metallic gold with a full length sun-roof. What larks… almost as much fun in fact as riding a Honda CBX around in what for once has been a fabbo summer.

The Eyes Have It May 16, 2013

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Media, Politics, Schmolitics.
6 comments

It’s been a good six weeks since I last spewed forth, or rather a pretty bad six weeks if you’re a miserable old doomsayer. Not that there haven’t been a fine moments, the highlight being a high-speed dash across Wales and the Midlands with my friend M aboard a new Honda CB1100 and the latest Triumph Bonneville. We swopped bikes enough both during and the day before to share the conclusion that by a small margin the Trumpet was in fact the better all-rounder, so for once British was best… well British built from numerous Chinese and Italian bits. But the joy of it was just being able to belt along hour after hour at improbably high speeds on lightly trafficked, sun-dappled roads… something I haven’t done in duet for many a year.

Since then I’ve yet again been struggling to come up with something fresh to blog about and yet again each time some news item or personal experience prompts the requisite degree of righteous indignation, before I can find time to sit down and scribble – which frankly is difficult enough at the moment – some further outrage emerges, and so on and so on. For the moment then, I’m stymied… which may come as a relief in certain quarters. But if anyone still needs to feel livid about the state we’re in, then I can do no better than commend you to Private Eye which six decades on is still, in fact probably now even better at muck-raking than when it began in the ‘60s .

Whether it be murky arms deals supporting murderous dictatorships, local government incompetence, ongoing banking malfeasance, officially sanctioned pollution, venal commercial interests on both a national and global scale and most of all the corruption and  gob-smacking stupidity that goes on at every level of politics, the Eye still delivers the goods in pithy, well researched gobbets which no longer seem to attract the libel writs and legal censure they once did… surely proving that most of what they print is true. (And it will be fascinating to see what the consequences are of the major report in the current issue on what “made Britain the capital of global corporate crime”… although see below).

The downside of this of course is that the perpetrators of what ultimately harms and impoverishes us no longer care much about getting caught – look at Chris Hune and his pathetic attempts to cover up a speeding offence. Neither do the Primarks and H & Ms of this world who pride themselves on flogging ultra-cheap, rubbishy clothing produced by near-slave labour in shoddily-built third world factories which, when they collapse and kill hundreds of their workers certainly don’t prompt boycotts on the High Street. We have, I believe, become so inured to the dishonesty and rampant self-interest displayed on a constant basis by those who should be setting the unimpeachable standards of morality and fair-play that we should aspire to – whether they be politicians, business leaders or so-called respected media figures – that we’ve become just as cynical as them.

And that is a cause of great despair and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness that in a somehow justifiable way encourages all but the very, very brave, and possibly Private Eye journalists to pursue the same hang-the-consequences solipsism as our so-called role models.  Meanwhile the national media is busily abandoning investigative reporting in favour of the mindless celebrity bollocks that they mistakenly think will save them from further ruin.

But despair doesn’t really make for good journalism, and certainly not good bloggery.

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Nothing To Fear But…? April 5, 2013

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Politics, Schmolitics.
19 comments

Not that it really matters, but the unusually long hiatus in my bloggery – by recent standards, anyway – is down to the fact that just as I was putting the finishing curlicues to a searing expose of how politicians and commercial interests employ fear to get their way in the world, my friend Dick Pountain did a much better job than I’d just attempted in his newly posted blog, which I commend you to read here 

Admiring though I am of his insight and intellect – and I really do advise you sign up to his regular musings – it left me with a metaphoric hole to fill which happily was remedied by a visit to the Royal Court to see The Low Road, written by Bruce Norris. You may’ve been luck enough to see his last play performed there, Clybourne Park, a brisk, darkly humorous excoriation of racism and property speculation in Chicago, with über-Hobbit Martin Freeman especially impressive. The Low Road fills an even broader canvas, namely the entire history of modern America woven into a neat and devastating parable on the venality of its financial system, with a noxious side-order of religious bigotry and racism. It’s a sprawling, three hour work wryly narrated by a non-judgemental Adam Smith, and it would’ve had even more wallop had it been edited down by 30 minutes, but it had the desired effect of leaving me both highly entertained and very angry.

Coincidentally, novelist Sebastian Faulks vented similar anger in a recent Evening Standard article. As in Norris’s play, he observed that the economic woes caused by a breed of bankers who profited from the naïve trust of their investors hasn’t resulted in a single banker, hedge fund manager or other financial huckster being imprisoned for the misery they’ve caused. He wrote:

“The FSA (Financial Services Authority) which was meant to police the system was too weak to do its job. The ratings agencies misunderstood the products they were rating. The ‘big four’ accountancy firms signed off things they should never have let pass. The ‘magic circle’ law firms helped financial houses construct (their) lethal instruments. Crazed by greed, the traders told us they had spread the risk so thin that it could never come home to roost.”

Well we now know how wrong they were, with almost everyone who isn’t earning a proverbial mint in the City suffering from the consequences. In a week when the Chancellor substantially shrunk the social welfare safety net to the extent that millions of the poorest will lose out, whilst simultaneously he reduced the tax rates for the richest, we are required to accept that such policies are necessary to ensure the future comfort and prosperity for all.

Then we had Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and like his master George Osborne and most of the coalition cabinet, a sleekly-padded upper-class millionaire, telling R4 listeners that lowering the tax rate for high earners would encourage more of them to move to Britain and spend money that would provide employments for others – the same ‘trickle down’ theory that Mrs Thatcher’s last government manifestly proved not to work. On other occasions, Alexander and his cohorts have also defended the apparently obscene bonuses given to executives of the banks that we bailed out and in several cases now largely own, as being essential to preserving Britain, or more particularly London, as a global financial hub vital to the economy. An economy which, although he didn’t mention it, successive Tory (and recent Labour) governments would otherwise have destroyed by letting our manufacturing and energy industries go hang or become owned by foreigners who don’t pay much if any UK tax.

And whilst I don’t want to turn this into a tedious analysis of why this is balderdash, I will say that I just don’t get it.

Personally of course, I’m lucky. I may not earn much, but I don’t pay rent or a mortgage and have no kids to support, but my relentlessly rising cost of living is such that I have to watch very carefully what I spend on utilities, clothing, transport etc. My heart therefore goes out to those less fortunate than me and I believe that all of us would perhaps, possibly, just conceivably be more willing to submit to the strictures of millionaire politicians who understand not a jot what it’s like out in the real world of broken Britain if they brought some of the bankers to book.

It isn’t even ironic that the ‘papers are full of stories about unemployed people who’ve been thrown into jail for defrauding the benefits system of a few thousand pounds when those who brought the economy to its knees, and caused further cuts to that system, go scot-free.

Indeed after a nod to the now dormant Occupy movement, as Faulks also noted, “ It is difficult to understand why there are not peaceful protests every day outside RBS, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and all the other places where a few men conspired to gamble with money that did not belong to them – and got away with it.”

My own theory is that Osborne, Alexander, Cameron and their fat-cat pals in the City have cunningly and deliberately made it obvious that any mass protest or show of indignation would risk the financial security, pathetically limited though it may be, of those who did the protesting.

In other words we are obliged to be afraid, very afraid, of rocking the boat.

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Dubious in Dubai March 18, 2013

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics, Uncategorized.
16 comments
1909 Stag at Sharkey's oil on canvas 92.1 x 122.6 cm

An early Bellows’ work of an illegal NYC boxing bout

Before I get into my brief, gob-smacking trip to Dubai, there’s some unfinished business following the catalogue of cultural recommendations which I unilaterally chose to excrete into the ether last week. Misgivings abound about this, but is it any worse than zillions of my peers’ FarceBerk postings concerning the cute antics of kittens, kids and inebriated colleagues ? Erm, probably.

Anyroad up, there was no room to mention a few exhibitions that have thrilled and delighted recently, and even if you live miles away and/or are ambivalent about art, if you go to only one show this year, make it George Bellows at the Royal Academy. Hitherto unknown to me, in his short life Bellows produced a vast body of work in ever-changing styles (think Lowry, Hopper, Rocker, Nicholson etc) including visceral depictions of illegal boxing bouts in his native turn of the century New York to seascapes to rather formal society portraits but with twists that mirrored his hero Manet at that painter’s maverick best. It’s only a small exhibition in the Sackler Wing but there are some hugely moving works there, including some WW1 reflections that are equaled only by Picasso’s Guernica in their stark, powerful anger.

And talking of Manet, the RA currently has a bigger exhibition of his work, although the numerous deliberately unfinished paintings rather reduced my admiration for him even though his observational eye and subtle use of colour cannot be undervalued. And talking of Picasso, there’s another smallish show of his early work at the Courtauld Gallery which of you’re a Picasso completest (which I am) shouldn’t be missed. Finally in more modern vein the Light Show at the Hayward is worth seeing if only for Anthony McCall’s misty, atmospheric projections and a few pieces by Dan Flavin (who had a literally dazzling solus show there in 2006).  I haven’t yet seen the Lichtenstein at Tate Modern but as someone who sparked my enthusiasm for modern art back in the ‘60s, I’m slavering in anticipation.

And as a postscript to my list of recently consumed literature, I forgot to mention Susie Boyt’s compelling, beautifully wrought new-ish novel, The Small Hours about a plucky, if troubled idealist who in setting up a private school is obliged to confront many of her personal demons.

2013-03-07 05.31.56

Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower – the world’s tallest, obviously

Now Dubai. I’ve been telling everyone that this obscenely rich Emerati state evoked for me the Blade Runner cityscape, but transposed to the desert. The place is awash with skyscrapers, many of which line six lane highways behind which there’s little but desert scrub. Weird. However from the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, even these towering edifices look like bungalows. Unfettered by planning requirements, although some of the architecture is aesthetically questionable, some of it is breathtakingly impressive, especially the buildings incongruously lining the Dubai Creek where traditional dhows load cargoes traded along the Gulf and beyond.

And just in front of the Khalifa there was a huge display of classic cars, all restored within an inch of their lives – mainly big fuck-off Bentleys, Caddies and of course the obligatory Ferraris – because thanks to the talented artisans who’ve emigrated from India and further east, Dubai is a centre for cheap, high-quality restoration work.

This of course raises the ugly issue of immigrant labour without which Dubai couldn’t exist. Living in cramped and inhospitable dormitory suburbs, legions of building and menial service workers spend 50 weeks of their year creating the superstructures and maintaining the lifestyles of the copious ex-pats (some 80% of the 2million population) who’ve made their homes there due to the lack of income tax and a shamelessly retail-driven culture.

Visiting the (in)famous ‘Palm Jumeirah’ estate artificially stretching out into the Gulf felt rather like being in The Truman Show, and then rising surreally out of the shimmering desert, there’s the world’s largest shopping mall, and its largest indoor ski slope… All this said, Dubai’s ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is an apparently canny fellow who seeks to undermine any risk of Islamic (or other) revolution by ensuring all his native subjects are well looked after and regularly turns up unannounced, often driving his own Mercedes G-Wagen, to cultural and other events, such as the poetry evening I attended in a desert encampment where he stayed for a good, er, 20 minutes.

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And the view from the Burj Khalifa

I gather that the Sheik and his family, a/k/a ‘the government’, are tolerant of the many Taliban big-wigs, international criminals and other despots who’ve put their money into Dubai just as long as they cause no trouble or incur debt, in which case they’re out on their ears. Another consequence of his financial strictures was the horde of expensive cars left at the airport, gloveboxes full of maxed-out credit cards, after 2008’s financial crash when their suddenly debt-ridden owners had to flee. And the cars, now covered in sand, are still there…

I spent my final evening with a lively group of young lawyers, digital entrepreneurs  and media-types from China, the Antipodes and Europe who’d made the place their home and who provided sharp insights into Dubai’s still escalating prosperity despite  its lack of oil: it’s become the financial hub of the Arab world, even more so now its troubled neighbours needs somewhere secure to store their capital. But not one of them expected to live there beyond a few more years, and hot, hospitable and intriguingly bizarre though it was, I doubt I could’ve stayed there even a few more weeks.

One final, bleakly instructive thought on where we’re heading economically is prompted by this link (for which I must thank Dick Pountain). How sustainable, I wonder, is a world where such financial inequality continues to exist and indeed, grows?

http://youtu.be/QPKKQnijnsM

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Like Life, Only Better March 10, 2013

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, That's Entertainment.
21 comments

One of the (many) criticisms made of this blog is that it’s almost unremittingly doom-laden. To which I’d say, ‘Guilty as charged’. But as one gets older and from a growing catalogue of experience forms a world view, unless you enjoy great wealth and the insulation from reality it can afford, such pessimism is hard to avoid. Being a life-long, card-carrying hack, this augurs an almost feral need to communicate which ignores such constraints as readers’ sensitivities or sympathies, constraints which the nature of the blogosphere, e.g. no editors, no rules, no overriding context, further renders irrelevant.

But it’s not all gloom and dismay out there and as noted at the end of my last bilious outing, I also sometimes arrogantly feel moved to share some of the good stuff that I’ve enjoyed recently, which invariably means kulcher. So…

Thanks to my current day job, I can recommend some cracking films just about to come out, the best being Steven ‘I’m Giving Up Making Movies to Become a Painter’ Soderbergh’s Side Effects. I’m a huge fan of Soderbergh who’s gleefully defied categorisation with films as diverse as crime capers Ocean’s 11, 12 & 13, disease thriller Contagion, his better-than-the-original re-make of Solaris and even that low-key titillation, The Girlfriend Experience. Although revisiting the corporate malfeasance he reflected in The Informant!, just when you think Side Effects is a worthy treatise on the nastiness of Big Pharma, it suddenly goes somewhere else altogether.  And as a trio of characters in a battle of psychologically troubled wills, Jude Law, having recently snoozed his way through Anna Karenina, Dragon Tattoo’s chameleon-like Rooney Mara and much to my amazement, Catherine Zeta-Jones, have never been better.

Theatre director Rufus Norris’s movie debut Broken also ends up being more than the sum of its narrative twists and turns, namely a meditation on the moral state of the nation, (spoiler alert: it’s not looking good). Deploying his native English accent for the first time in ages Tim Roth plays a well-meaning if slightly vapid father of an adolescent daughter who circumstance obliges to grow up fast. She’s played with great spirit and credibility by newcomer Eloise Laurence and although violent, bleak and prone to arguably gratuitous flashbacks, Broken is well worth the ticket price.

Music video director Eran Creevy’s Welcome to the Punch finds James McAvoy playing a bitter cop out to avenge the crook who nearly killed him during a mega-bank heist (the reliably intimidating slap-head, Mark Strong). Structurally it’s kinda Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels for the internet generation, but despite a low-ish budget, its noir-ish view of a soulless London and excellent turns from all concerned including Andrea Risborough as McAvoy’s professional foil elevate it into something rather superior.

McAvoy’s been a busy boy lately and will shortly turn up as Bruce Robertson, a decidedly amoral detective in Filth, co-written by another newish director, Jon S. Baird from Irvine Welsh’s eponymous novel. Set like Welsh’s Trainspotting in Glasgow and occasionally saddled with the same incomprehensible dialect – bring on the subtitles, please – Robertson is trying to win back a wife understandably estranged by his wilful, often comically OTT misbehavior.

Even more entertaining, uplifting even for men of a certain age (guess who?), is Good Vibrations, a rousing biog of Terri Hooley, the god-father of Northern Ireland’s punk rock scene. I was barely aware such a thing existed, but Hooley’s transformation from hippie-ish record-shop owner to politically savvy pogo evangelist is most affecting, ending with him leading a raucously improbable version of Sony Bono’s Laugh At Me to a huge, ecstatic Belfast audience. Richard Dormer as Hooley and Jodie Whittaker as his more grounded wife are both fab.

But sadly, man cannot live by celluloid images alone, although David Thompson’s masterful The Big Screen is the best book on their development and social influence yet. And here’s a few more tomes I’ve recently read and can recommend especially if, like me, you managed no more than 0-level English. Very different from Whoops!, his razor sharp critique of cowboy capitalism, John Lanchester’s novel Capital cunningly interweaves the disparate, often deeply unattractive inhabitants of a gentrified London street who’re confronted by a malign trespasser. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl on t’other hand is a more straightforward thriller but written in an odd style that quickly turns compelling as the mystery unfolds. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshid Hamid is a thoughtful, cleverly wrought novella whose title says it all, with a pitiless final twist.  Somewhat inevitably I’ll finish with Deborah Moggach’s latest novel, Heartbreak Hotel, which following her movie-inspiring Best Exotic Marigold Ditto gives further hope and hilarity to those of us awash with middle-aged testiness and torpor.

Turning novels into scripts of course courts peril, but having enjoyed Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time I was, ahem, curious to see how it might pan out as a play and given Luke Treadaway’s astonishing performance as the OCD-ridden Christopher Boone, Simon Stevens’ adaptation is just great. Having transferred the National Theatre’s Cottesloe, its stunningly-staged production is now at the Apollo. I’m slightly embarrassed to say that all my other puffs are for National Theatre enterprises, too, although the most extraordinary – and I use the word advisedly – is a walk-around piece performed in the basement warren of Somerset House. In The Beginning Was The End is a witty, engaging and often disturbing examination of corporate and technological dystopia which obviously appealed hugely to this writer.

Also at the NT is Port, a narratively astute celebration of the human spirit, again by Simon Stevens, played across 13 years in a Stockport sink estate with some brilliant performances and a breathtaking stage design. Finally at the Southbank there’s Frances de la Tour’s, ahem, tour de force as the droll, obstinate owner of a crumbling country pile in People. Another magnificent Lyttleton staging, and although some critics disparaged Alan Bennett’s script even my film-fixated sister thought it highly entertaining, infused as it is with his usual subtle poignancy.

But that’s enough niceness for now – next week we’ll be back to grumbling normality with… Dubai!

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The Rise (& Fall) of the Machines March 1, 2013

Posted by markswill in About me, Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics, Uncategorized.
21 comments

Making my journey back home to Wales last Friday, because I didn’t have time to explore the rich culinary paradise that is Praed Street, I found myself buying a sandwich in Sainsbury’s Paddington store. Like its competitors and indeed WH Smith’s cheerless outlet at the same station, Sainsbury’s have replaced most of its human cashiers with automatic scan’n’pay machines. Having a train to catch in ten minutes, I nevertheless ignored the two staffers who urged me to use these machines instead of the lone person manning an old fashioned till, because I prefer to deal with humans wherever possible, and also on the possibly misplaced moral grounds that machines like these deny jobs to people who need them. Indeed it was instructive that it required two people to shepherd customers through the vexatious, time-consuming process of using the computerised facilities, although my principled stance meant waiting ages for a woman who’d apparently done her weekly shop to depart the sole humanly-helmed check-out.

So long, in fact, that I had to leave my sandwich in the rack of chocs and crisps in the checkout area and bugger off to catch my train muttering to myself that had all those three staff been working the tills, I might’ve not ended up lunchless. But I doubt Sainsbury’s management would give a toss as they’re obviously in the thrall of expensive technology that dispenses with troublesome human beings even if the customers might not like it. And as they’re in fact deliberately trying to limit or replace staff with machines, it also renders hollow the supermarkets’ claims about job creation when they’re bribing local councils to allow planning permission for new stores. And then…

My journey home involves changing trains at Newport from the amusingly named Inter-City 125 to a usually cramped, draughty bus-on-rails through some stunning Welsh countryside and last Friday, for reasons involving dentistry, I had to break my journey at Hereford whose gaunt, freezing station I later returned to only to learn that a freight train had broken down outside Abergavenny, thus for an indeterminate period blocking anything else from chuffing north. The dread phrase ‘replacement buses’ had been invoked but the admittedly helpful station staff knew not how long they’d be and having to run the local film society box office that night I couldn’t wait indefinitely: long story short, after 90 mins shivering wait I paid £30 to get to my car parked at the next station, but not before one of said staff admitted that broken down freight trains “are a regular bloody problem.”

A little light internet research, albeit involving many incomprehensible trainspotters’ bulletin boards, revealed that the goods train in question was pulled by a Type 47 diesel owned, like most of the UK’s rail freight business, by the German company, Schenker. The Type 47s were built in the 1960s and designed to last perhaps 30-35 years, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that they keep breaking down. But like America’s Northwest Airlines who, until they started falling out of the sky, continued flying a fleet of creaky old Boeing 727s produced in that same era in the belief that it was cheaper to endure escalating maintenance costs rather than buy newer ‘planes, no one at Schenker seems to’ve done a cost/benefit analysis of that. (Aviva Trains Wales, from whom I’m demanding a refund and taxi fare, probably wished they had). And of course if and when the penny finally drops, Schenker will probably buy replacement engines from a German company, not least because by then our last remaining (Canadian-owned) train builder will have gone bust.

These two admittedly unrelated events happened the same week that we learnt that lack of investment over the past 15 years means that our power stations, one of which the Schenker train was delivering coal to, must be de-commissioned well before enough coal-, gas- or nuclear-powered replacements have been built and the regulator, PowerGen, warned that prolonged black-outs can soon be expected.  And then…

I recently took a friend to see Rust & Bone at Belsize Park’s Everyman Cinema, one of a small chain that charges 50% more than the average flea-pit for the luxury of having over-priced drinks brought to your comfy sofa seats by girls called Clarissa. Having already seen the film in the course of my day job, I was surprised, then annoyed to find that the aspect ratio was all wrong and part of the image area was obscured by the curtains which evidently the projectionist hadn’t noticed. After complaining to the callow youth who purported to be the manager, I was told that (of course) there wasn’t a projectionist because the Everymans only use digital projectors and no-one there could do anything about it. And a phone call to an absent ‘technician’ at head-office yielded no remedy, either. So we walked out. (An angrier, more informed treatise on the death of the projectionist in the name of cost-cutting can be read in Mark Kermode’s excellent book, ‘The Good, The Bad… and The Multiplex’). I was going to cunningly use this cinematic debacle to segue into some movie and other cultural recommendations, but as I fear it might unduly test your patience, I’ll leave that ‘til next week .

Instead I’ll conclude from these recent misfortunes that cost/benefit analyses aside, our captains of industry and politicians can’t grasp that by putting people out of work – skilled or otherwise – who are not able to find jobs in the thrusting new industries we were told would be our economic salvation, they are de facto reducing the nation’s ability to well, buy stuff. And since buying stuff is supposed to be what it’s all about, then where does that leave us?

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