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Nothing To Fear But…? April 5, 2013

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

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.
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?


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Like Life, Only Better March 10, 2013

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

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.

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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Indian Winter of Discontent February 17, 2013

Posted by markswill in Media, Politics, Schmolitics.

Stuck as many of us are in a freeziferous winterscape™, it’s a little churlish of me to bang on about about my recent trip to India but as ever, that won’t stop me. As per last time I visited that sub-continent, I was riding on my friend D’s coattails, this time chaperoning her to the Jaipur Literary Fest. where she was doing a couple of gigs. But neither she nor I had bargained for the Indian success of her novel Burst Erotic Marigold Yodel and the film that’s based on it despite it being set there,  so endless media interviews and book signings rather kept her (and thus me) at the festival itself, instead of sightseeing and mucking around in downtown Jaipur as we’d intended.

I managed to do a spot of biking in India, but not before consuming a quick snack.

I managed to do a spot of biking in India, but not before consuming a quick snack.

However it must be said that the appetite for culture amongst all levels of Indian society was a huge eye-opener, for not only is English the second language there, but the brilliance of the Lit. Fest. is that admission was free, so it’s not the middle-class poseurs’ paradise that most British equivalents are. It was truly heartening to see numerous school crocs of neatly uniformed kids attending the talks and queuing for autographs amidst the decaying splendor of the Diggi Palace, and equally impressive that the audiences for all the events were packed and on the basis of questions asked, incredibly well–read and –informed.

What’s more, India is one country where newspaper, magazine and book sales are steadily rising due in part to increasing literacy rates, but also the relatively exorbitant cost of tablets, Nooks, Kindles etc. deters people from feeding their reading habits in anything but the traditional manner.

The only downside of the festival was the large and occasionally officious military presence due to the fear of Islamic fundamentalists causing trouble as they had done last year when Salman Rushdie was to’ve appeared but didn’t, although extracts from his Satanic Verses were read out by literary supporters. However this year’s event was not without controversy when one speaker denounced lower caste Indians as being responsible for most of the country’s crime which quickly brought criminal charges against festival boss William Dalrymple and his co-organisers, the appearance of the Dalai Lama, which of course the Chinese contingent got angry about, and journalist/editor Shoma Chaudbury delivering an impassioned tirade against the Tata corporation (owners of Jaguar Land Rover) who’d forced the unpaid displacement of thousands of peasant farmers from their land so that they could build a giant car factory… Tata being the festival’s main sponsor!

But India is mired in all sorts of controversy, from the judiciary’s almost tacit acceptance of gang-rape following recent high-profile cases, to the government opening the door to supermarket giants like Tesco and Wal-Mart which obviously threatens the lifestyle and incomes of literally millions of small food producers and retailers.

Jaipur spice seller – shortly to be outlawed by Tesco?

Jaipur spice seller – shortly to be outlawed by Tesco?

Government corruption is endemic in India, but the people themselves, even when trying to sell you tourist tat or simply begging for coinage, are incredibly cheerful and polite but whom, at least from the few that I managed to discuss such things with, are deeply critical of what is being done in their name to gradually erode their culture.

Back home again, those same supermarkets are now at the centre of a scandal over the horsemeat content of their beef products, which I find both hilarious and venal.  Hilarious because I actually enjoyed the horsemeat I’ve eaten in France and Spain and can’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to, but venal because it’s been passed off as something else, and almost certainly the cripplingly low prices our farmers are forced to accept from the supermarket cartels has much to do with this. An exasperated farmer told the Today programme last week that he’s lucky to make just £100 profit on a beef carcass that’s taken him at least 18 months and several thousand pounds to rear, and whilst well-meaning food writers urge us to buy fresh meat from local butchers rather than processed food products from supermarkets, they ignore the facts that (a) supermarkets have put thousands of butchers out of business in recent years, (b) millions of low-income families couldn’t afford fresh meat anyway and (c) an entire generation educated in schools where cookery is no longer taught wouldn’t know what to do with it even if they could.

A sacred cow goes fashion shopping in downtown Jaipur

A sacred cow goes fashion shopping in downtown Jaipur

As an aside, but I think a relevant one, if the Pope rescinded the 2billion-strong Catholic church’s ban on contraception, just think what pressure that would eventually relieve on food (and water) supplies in this increasingly over-populated world? As a further aside, little or no mention has been made since Pope Benedict XVI resigned last week of his shocking complicity in the cover-up of sexual abuse cases by Catholic clergy when as Prefect of the Congregation of Doctrine of the Faith (and directly responsible for investigating them).  Although when Alex Gibney’s powerful documentary, Silence in the House of God is released next month, conveniently just after he makes his formal exit, that may change. Angry thought it should make you, I urge you to see it, just as I urge you to go to India before it becomes just another satellite for the global supermarkets, and for that matter, Google and Amazon who surely won’t be ignoring the burgeoning Indian economy and its laissez-faire regulatory and tax regimes for much longer.

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The Fallen Mighty January 21, 2013

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

Firstly and very belatedly, Happy New Year. Or if you live in Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali etc., Happy Bloody New Year. Actually, since our wonderful ‘festive season’ I’ve tried several times to pen a tirade, but each time I hit on a suitable subject, something even more terrifying or irritating came along and rendered it redundant. Now however…

I was leafing through November’s Prospect magazine and intrigued by her byline, started reading Hephizbah Anderson (I’m shortly changing my name to Hezbollah Williams) on the ‘Quantified Self’ movement, a bunch of narcissistic  über-geeks who track everything about themselves from how much they smile, shit and sleep to monitoring their blood sugar levels and reading habits using “wearable computer devices”. As Anderson pointed out, although the QSers may be obsessive about personal data capture, anyone with a smartphone has the ability to mine all manner of information about themselves and their circumstances. And then lo and behold the next issue of Prospect contained a whole feature on how Google (of course!) is working on devices that will blur the distinction “between our physical and virtual lives”. Point your iPhone at a restaurant and a ‘Wikitude’ app will reveal reviews of it, download the ‘Fits.me’ app and you can discover whether that saucy little chemise you’re contemplating on Net-a-Porter will both fit and suit you. (This is addressed to my transvestite readers, obviously).

Writing this as I am on George Orwell’s death-day, it’ll come as no surprise that I find this lamentable, especially because the instant availability of great gobbets of information also means that info can easily be manipulated for commercial and/or malign reasons. And returning to Anderson’s piece, even self-accumulated data – which is not necessarily the same as factual information, right? – can be used by data miners, or ‘pirates’ as I call them, to bombard you with sales pitches for anything that might improve your mood, bowel movements or sleep patterns etc., i.e. in much the same way as Google already picks up on the content of your emails, and Twatter your tweets (well not mine, obviously), Farceberk your cute snaps of little Johnny building a snowman and sell it to advertisers who then bombard you etc., etc. We may also become so enwrapped in our virtual or ‘enhanced’ realities that we are unable to distinguish it from the real one, indeed it may become the real one.

Of course as intelligent, self-disciplined individuals you ignore such puffery and dismiss any sinister implications concerning the technology that facilitates it, but I reckon that within a few years you’ll have been brainwashed into surrender, much like the citizens of Orwell’s dystopia. I smelt the reasons for this last week, the day after HMV went into administration and finding myself in the glittering metropolis, I visited its flagship Oxford Street store and witnessed a very sad sight indeed. The place was rammed, largely with badly-dressed men of a certain vinyl buying age (e.g. yrs. trly.), riffling through the racks of now heavily discounted CDs for bargains. Indeed I came away with fifty-quid’s worth of stuff I really, really needed driven, I admit, by a subconscious fear that this truly marked the end of an era when music could be bought in physical form, at least somewhere other than online via mega tax-avoiders, Amazon.

It was, of course, the same week that Comet and Blockbuster also went bust which, quite apart from making thousands jobless and causing glee at Amazon HQ, prompted sage comment in the financial press that this was the inevitable outcome of a failure to recognise and thence adapt to the threat of online retailing (and in HMV’s and Blockbuster’s case, downloading and streaming). Quite how anyone, even the mighty HMV could match Amazon or Apple in flogging cut-price music wasn’t discussed, but some commented, albeit without actual approval, that all this was merely capitalism’s tectonic plates making one of their periodic shifts, just like when film gave way to digital and Tesco et al decimated the independent grocery trade. And that may be true, and we may just have to get used to the fact that consumer choice will be dictated by fewer and fewer mega-corps, many of whom, well Amazon anyway, who’ll rely on another largely privately owned mega-corp we once called the Royal Mail to deliver its goods.

I’m currently reading Mark Kermode’s entertaining treatise on what ails the movie and cinema industry, ‘The Good, The Bad & The Multiplex’ which my sister, who is deeply involved in both, refused to read because Kermode is a critic and “never trust a critic”, but he, too, acknowledges that cinema must adapt if it’s to provide a persuasive alternative to 60inch home cinema set-ups, Netflix and LoveFilm (prop. Amazon), because the film-makers by-and-large don’t care how they flog their wares, just as long as they do. Multiplex traffic is in steadily decline, whilst my sisters’ indie flea-pits do well because they offer a wider variety of fare and a viewing environment not staffed by glorified popcorn peddlers who know and care nowt about films, but the writing could well be on the wall even for her operation, just as it must be for our last remaining bookshop chain, Waterstones (see my last outing).

And to return to where I started, that is partly because the web, cloud computing (which an ad. in this week’s New Yorker claims “will solve the world’s greatest challenges” !!!!!) and most insidiously of all, applications and the miniaturised personal devices that run them will soon be able to deliver direct into our line of vision, and eventually I guess our subconsciouses, exactly what the few mega-corps who own them want them to… Especially when there’s no HMV, Comet or Waterstones left where we can inspect the goods, and indeed the alternatives, in real time… even before going home and buying them online for a few pence less!

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Double Booked. And This Time It’s Personal. December 9, 2012

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Navel Gazing.

Once again I find myself repeating myself, or at least returning to a rant only just posted, but being of an obsessive nature, I just damn well will. (Reminds me of a sign in a Parisian shop a fortnight ago: ‘Okay, I’m addicted to shoes – so what?’). So there I was browsing my local Waterstones, seeking selfish reward after a particularly harrowing dental appointment on Friday and, as anyone frequenting Britain’s sole remaining bookstore chain recently now knows, you can’t get through their doors without tripping over a table full of Kindles. Usually I ignore them, but this time some 12 year-old (© Ed Reardon) actually accosted me and asked if I’d “thought about” buying one.

“Yes,” I replied with all the snottiness you’d expect, “and my thought was ‘not in a million years.’” Not exactly a scintillating response, but as I took my ‘Buy One – Get Another Half Price’ volumes to the dreadlocked Assistant Manager (as his badge so helpfully explained) at the till, I managed something chunkier. “Tell me, “ I asked, handing over my Waterstones loyalty card (yes, I’m that sad), “what’ll happen when you’ve sold all your customers a Kindle… apart,” I added with a triumphant sneer, “from making lots of money for Amazon who won’t pay tax on it?”

Somewhere between sheepish and confused – hadn’t his boss James ‘Turncoat’ Daunt, anticipated his staff being asked this? – he haltingly, if not bitterly replied, “Well I supposed we’ll become a Kindle accessory shop?” Unsure if he was actually being facetious, I parried, “Well then you won’t need all this space will you, or all these staff?”

As it happened, a punter waiting behind me piped up, “But at least it’ll keep people reading, and they’re so much more convenient than books.” I looked round and saw her blanching slightly, perhaps as the import of her words sunk in. Readying her debit card to pay for Hilary Mantel’s latest, this well-groomed, interesting-looking woman of a certain age was perhaps echoing the conclusion drawn in my last blog, inasmuch that digital media is just symptomatic of technology’s inevitable progress, and as bookshops, printers, paper mills, warehouses and all their staff disappear like the quill and the Gutenberg press, society will adjust. Although in this case perhaps just to one or two companies – Amazon? Google? – profiting from and controlling everything we consume.

Which brings me neatly to another regular beef: the changing nature of human communications. I’m actually writing this during the day-long ‘technical rehearsals’ for our town panto, which despite the fluffed lines, wrongly-keyed songs and mis-timed entrances is a terrifically convivial affair and one of the small joys of living in a real community. And afterwards, suitably exhausted and moderately elated, some of us will doubtless repair to the pub, perhaps even staying on ‘til the pub quiz at 9.30.

I’ve actually had some of my best times of my life in pubs and bars, especially this one which luckily is at the end of my road. However I have many friends who never go to pubs at all. And yes, the booze costs thrice as much as at Aldi and if you live in the sticks driving home is risky, but like bookshops (and butchers and bakers), they’re disappearing fast and with them an entire facility for social contact. And how often do you simply phone up your mates for a chat these days? Nah, now it’s Twatter and FarceBerk that evidently sustain us socially and when I sometimes do call someone up for no particular reason, they are usually surprised and sometimes lost for conversation.

But I know people who use FarceBerk on a daily basis to broadcast their little miseries and triumphs (‘Here’s baby Mandy eating her first porridge’), or alert their chums to an hilarious video of a dog farting.  To mention this sounds pejorative and churlish, but like bemoaning the imminent death of the book, it’s a lament for a time when our relationships were more tactile and you could understand so much better how your friends, family and lovers were really feeling across a pub table, or even at the end of a telephone receiver. Okay, there’s Skype, but cowering awkwardly over our keyboards, Skype chats are viewed in blurry, staccato images reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen’s ‘50s and ‘60s stop-motion film animation… i.e. very distracting.

I know I’m riding high on my extremely hypocritical horse here, because I also occasionally delve into FarceBerk, albeit mainly to flog my blog, I use email several times a day, and I’ve been hopelessly flattered by those I respect into joining online business communities such as LinkedIn and Plaxo, naïvely believing it’d help my so-called career, but all they seem to do is encourage members to boast how clever and successful they are and/or spew out acronyms I neither am able nor really want to understand to voice anodyne opinions about the wonderfulness of digital media.

Where will it end? Will human interaction become limited almost entirely to the digital short-form and if so, what will it mean for the depth and diversity of imagination, emotions and intellectual rigour? As ever, I’m keen to hear your views, Orwellian or otherwise. Full of seasonal cheer, that’s me.

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Publish… and be damned December 2, 2012

Posted by markswill in Media, Politics, Schmolitics.

Once, lots of my friends were journalists and editors, now they seem to’ve become novelists and authors. And at a really good party last night I re-acquainted myself with just about the only person I know who could and would talk candidly to me about the industry that all my bookish friends rely on for their living. Hitherto extremely amusing and professionally sharp, he’s M.D. of one of the few remaining independent outfits publishing topical non-fiction, but fast on his feet though he is, he now gloomily observed that book publishing is in dire straits.

The industry, he claimed, couldn’t figure out how to make money out of digital books because Amazon has a virtual (sic) stranglehold on the market thanks to Kindle. And it can’t figure out how to make money out of printed books because Amazon has a stranglehold on the market due to its aggressive pricing. Amazon also announced last week that despite a fall of 7% in U.K. book sales last year (that’s £1.58billion out of the market), they are following their American parent company’s example and starting their own imprint over here, and have essentially warned authors’ agents to fall into line… or else.

Older readers may remember the ‘Net Book Agreement’ which kept prices uniform across the trade but which ended in 1998 and consequently and subsequently some 2000 independent bookshops have ceased trading, as have the Dillons and Books etc. chains. Amazon, and to a (much) lesser extent Tesco have filled the void, the former pushing their downloadable digital book format which obviates the need for print and paper altogether.

My friend bemoaned that Amazon, who remember barely pay tax in the U.K., are so powerful that traditional publishing houses are paralysed by indecision as to how to address the onslaught. For a while it seemed that the other major retailer of digital literature – and indeed everything else – namely Apple, might prove a durable ally in maintaining profitable price levels for e-books, but they broke ranks earlier this year.

And for those of us that still love to browse in bookshops and physically hold a volume in our hands, last night’s prediction was that in five years time there won’t be any except highly specialist bookshops left. And anyway, many book printers are already going bust so who would print them? When I asked why he just didn’t sell up and retire, he looked at me as if I was an idiot and asked, “Who’d buy it?”

Meanwhile even the successful authors I know are being corralled into marketing meetings where bright young consultants, who evidently haven’t (couldn’t?) even read the books they’ve written, instruct them in the mechanisms of ‘author portals’ which will theoretically make them an integral part of the sales effort. (Novelising is a solitary business and they’d much rather go to a good drinks party to hob-nob with their peers and publishers, rather than submit to a sort of literary FarceBerk). The proliferation of these shiny young things is set against a reduction in the numbers of editors, who are so busy running to and from meetings that they barely have time to edit anyway. Sadly, this is a phenomenon replicated throughout the creative industries – just look at the BBC.

I should declare an interest here: I’ve been trying this past two years to find a publisher for the rollicking take of my nosedive from grace which some of you will know about, and although it involves international illegality, corrupt coppers, glamorous women with multiple identities and much double-crossing, I’ve been unsuccessful in my quest. Self-publishing seems now to be the only option and I was surprised that my friend both commended me to take this route whilst also admitting that “the trade is scared shitless” by it “because it plays into the hands of Amazon.”

Which indeed it does. However…

My start in magazine publishing was facilitated by the invention of the IBM golfball typesetter and the emergence of web-offset printing which allowed idealists and scoundrels to produce periodicals outside the grip of the print unions, hence the underground press of the late 1960s. It was a revolution only slightly less dramatic than the Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type printing press in 1440, and my peers and I obviously fully embraced it. So to complain about the demise of the printed word, as I often do in my blogs, is perhaps myopic, if not hypocritical.

What is different now is that the means of production and distribution, like so much of what I whine about, is concentrated in the hands of a rapidly decreasing number of mega-corporations, in this case perhaps ending up with just one, i.e. Amazon. The power they already wield in commercial terms may be as nothing to the influence they could soon have in terms of content. Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brazil… all those 20th century dystopian visions could soon prove prophetic, and with governments and the economies they rely on for their power so emasculated by a failed and corrupt financial system, who will uphold freedom of speech and therefore, thought?

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Arts For Heart’s Sake November 26, 2012

Posted by markswill in Media, Navel Gazing, That's Entertainment.

Returning to Wales today I couldn’t help noticing the contrast between Britain’s post-industrial landscape and the one I travelled through in northern France yesterday aboard Eurostar. Here, nondescript clusters of empty, crumbling brick factories and warehouses sat forlornly skirting Midlands towns, interspersed occasionally with retail park blight, whereas in France the factories were almost uniformly big, white sheds shimmering beyond neatly ploughed fields. Of course those French factories may’ve well been dormant, too, although I rather hope the one whose identifying sign simply read ‘Potato Masters’ still had a life.

The news back home after a few days without it was, according to the Daily Telegraph, predictably grim: flooding across the country – plenty of evidence of that through my Virgin Voyager window – with higher food prices and home insurance premiums ahoy, shipyard closures imminent in Glasgow and Portsmouth, pubs still closing at the rate of seven a week, often bulldozed to make way for supermarkets using convenient planning loopholes and of course the inevitable and continuing recession which, we are now told, may mean wallowing in economic despair until 2018… probably much longer, if we can’t manufacture and export our way out of it, which we can’t. (But I was rather tickled by James Dyson whining about industrial espionage at the hands of an oriental mole, this being the same James Dyson lionised for his industrial savvy but who closed down his factories years ago in favour of outsourcing to… the orient).

Notwithstanding what may or may not have been going on in those shed-like factories, in France, or at least Paris which is where I’ve just been, things appear to be different, although that may well a tourist’s panglossian gaze. The glitzy shops in the Marais, where I stayed in a friend’s apartment, all seemed to be prospering and ditto the myriad restaurants, bars and bistros. The art galleries, which along with serious socialising were the main purpose of my trip, heaving to the extent that after queuing for two hours in the rain for the Edward Hopper show at the Grand Palais we could take it no longer and went round the corner to see The Bohemians after merely a ten minute queue. As my Paris-based companion pointed out, this was hung with a panache that the French seem to do particularly well which made up for the somewhat patchy quality of the works themselves, but there were other treats in store, most notably the Sarah Paulsen show at the very wonderful Maison Europeeene de la Photographie and the ever reliable Musée D’Orsay where a smallish show of Van Gochs, Vuillards and Bonnards (the latter whom I never quite get) alone justified the price of admission.

But slightly hungover from yet another night of over indulgence denied sufficient time to do justice to the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers before hightailing it to the Gare du Nord. This is one of the great neglected musées – it doesn’t even feature in most guidebooks – featuring an extraordinary four centuries-worth of scientific, industrial and architectural instruments, inventions and machinery curated with considerable aesthetic flair and intelligibility.

Now you may say that London and even many provincial British galleries, shops and restaurants are also doing gangbusters business despite the recession, and you may be right. But over here I sense a degree of desperation compelling us to get as much culture under our belts as we can before tightening them even further, and/or the arts lose even more funding and thus public accessibility. (On a tiny scale, I am already involved in trying to replace recently withdrawn government funding for local arts and education institutes here in Wales, with yet more to come).

Enough has been written about the civilising effects of the arts on society, often by me, for such concerns to be obvious to anyone with half a brain, but the plethora of publicly available culture in France – Paris has more museums than filling stations – does seem to be reflected in the mood of the Parisian demi monde who, just looking at the handsome smartly-dressed citizens striding the streets and packing the galleries, seemed somehow happier and more optimistic. Plus of course they let motorcycles park on the pavement – truly the sign of an enlightened society and the reason why so many are ridden round the city.

Still, this year I am again doing my bit to raise the cultural bar by appearing in our local pantomime, on this occasion playing the local county councillor, an aging, eccentrically attired ‘confirmed bachelor’  – typecast again I fear – who dies a hideous death as the second act opens. And talking of ugly demises, I’m currently and simultaneously reading Edward St Aubyn’s ‘Mother’s Milk’ and A.M. Homes ‘May We Be Forgiven’, both darkly hilarious, and both including grandmothers suffering dementia. Add to these ‘Amour’, cheery Michael Haneke’s latest flic which considers the incapacitating aspects of old age… and suddenly cognitive decline seems all the rage. I am tempted to say ‘Bring it on’ as it might provide blessed relief from all that ails us in the world, but for the moment at least, I prefer my oblivion bottle shaped, and let’s face it, the French do produce some remarkably good wines and spirits. Must get back there a.s.a.p.

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Breaking Wind, If Not Silence November 6, 2012

Posted by markswill in About me, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
Tags: , ,

Since my last rant some seven weeks ago, I’ve had a few stabs at composing another but to no avail, obviously.

I don’t know about yours, but I find that in these blighted times and especially if you’re of a certain age and culture, life is an endless tide of disappointment, failure and betrayal relieved only by brief and increasingly infrequent examples of spiritual generosity and soul-stirring creative venture. As such, there isn’t much worth writing about that isn’t just more of the rut-ploughing whining I’ve been doing for years now.

So on the cusp of a right-wing, tax-avoiding, women-hating religious zealot probably becoming Master of the Universe and then bombing Iran, out-sourcing even more jobs to the Far East and ending his female subjects’ right to choose an abortion, I fear we are all in the same bloody boat. But one thing I can be sure of and is perhaps worth noting is that Trouble Rides a Fast Horse.

Which is all you need to know.

And if you can bear to read more of the same, albeit at greater length, check out the column on the right