52% intelligent. 9% modest. More monkey than bear.

Friday, December 31, 2004

the reason for my heart's fragility

UK private donations to the Earthquake disaster have now topped £32m - all raised in the 48 hours since the appeal was launched.

The death toll from the earthquake has now soared to 124,000 but many nations around the world have now donated £259.1m towards the world's largest-ever relief effort; that's half a billion US dollars from 30 countries.

There's naturally a lot of debate about how stingy the governments of some of the richest nations in the world are being, and how they ought to be giving so much more... I've said it before, but whilst I recognise that this money will be making an immediate impact on the lives of some of the millions of people affected by this tragedy, we still need to give more; we need to do more.

Something else has been nagging me though:

Over the course of the next year, around 11 million people, most of them in developing countries, will die from preventable and treatable infectious diseases.

That's 30,000 people per day.

[source: Oxfam "How world trade rules threaten the health of poor people"]

PREVENTABLE and TREATABLE. That means that those deaths are avoidable.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), some two billion people in developing countries lack regular access to vital medicines:

"This year alone, there will be over 40 million deaths in developing countries, one-third among children under age five. Ten million will be due to acute respiratory infections, diarrhoeal diseases, tuberculosis, and malaria -- all conditions for which safe, inexpensive, essential drugs can be life-saving. Simple iron-folate preparations can reduce maternal and child mortality from anaemia of pregnancy; treatment of sexually transmitted diseases reduces transmission of the AIDS virus; and treatment of hypertension reduces heart attacks and strokes."

Access to essential medicines should be guaranteed as a critical component of the human right to health [source: MSF]

The illnesses that make up 90 percent of the global disease burden get only 10 percent of the research money because they primarily affect poor countries. [source: New York Times]

There are more than 36 million people in the world living with HIV/AIDS. 90% of them live in developing countries. 22 million people have died of AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic. In sub-Saharan Africa, UNAIDS and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that today some 26.5 million children and adults are living with HIV. The treatment of HIV/AIDs has come on in leaps and bounds in the last few decades, but access is restricted. Of the 5.5 million HIV-positive people in need of treatment globally only 440,000 are receiving it. In Africa, not more than 4% of people living with HIV/AIDS are on ARV treatment [source: MSF]

So what's my point??

Well, although I think it is brilliant that we are collecting money together to send to the site of a massve catastrophe that is affecting millions of people, we must NEVER lose sight of the fact that there are things that we can do EVERY DAY OF EVERY YEAR to ease suffering and to prevent needless deaths and the spread of disease. Millions of people are continuing to die of treatable diseases.

This is wrong, and WE CAN MAKE IT STOP.

Save The Children
Give As You Earn

it's not hard to find a charity. The difficult bit is deciding to sign up to regularly give them some cash.

Happy New Year.

Make 2005 the year that you make a difference.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

take one bite now, spit out the rest

Britain has bumped up the Disaster fund from £15m to £50m.

This is fantastic news. Why do I feel that this is a cynical gesture brought about solely as a response to the fact that the British public has raised £25m? Feeling a bit embarrassed by this spontaneous generosity in the face such a massive human tragedy were you Tony? Slightly ashamed that your bluff has been called by the public response? Feel that your hand has been forced? Made you look a bit mean, didn't it? And the longer it went on, as the money kept pouring in on the phones, and into banks, and via the internet, the meaner it made you look.


All the politics of this are beside the point; this is £35m extra that will help ease the suffering, that will provide food and shelter where it is desperately needed, and that's what is really important here.

So come on Dubbya - when are you planning to see Tony's £50m and raise him?

If a pissing contest means that more money will be sent to the scene of this terrible tragedy, then so be it..... over to you George.

I work all night, I work all day, to pay the bills I have to pay

Lots of bloggers have been talking about the aftermath of the Tsunami, so this is not going to be the most original post you will ever read on this blog. I will not apologise for the repetition though.... I cannot watch bodies being hurriedly bulldozed into mass graves, I cannot read the stories of the survivors or listen to the anguished, desperate appeals from people looking for news of their loved ones without saying something, without doing something....

But what can we do? What can we possibly do that might make a difference?

All I currently feel I have to contribute is some money, and so I have done this. I have given £25 to Oxfam.

It doesn't feel like enough. I feel gulity, I feel like I should give more. It's not enough. It can never be enough.

Ibrahim makes a great point over on his blog - Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Wars -

"Pick your tragedy and if you have anything left after the recent orgy of consumerism, alleviate your conscience by donating some of next week's cigarette/takeaway/petrol-that-you-use-on-journeys-you-could-walk money to some people who suffer that we may live these revolting, decadent lives."

He's quite right of course, but at the same time, I can't help but be heartened by the response of the Great British public to the images of the disaster beamed to them on their television screens and displayed in graphic detail in full colour from the front of their newspapers. £5m was raised on the phones before Wednesday's TV and Radio appeals, and another £10m was raised overnight. More money should flood in as the money paid directly into banks and building societies starts to be counted and collected.

Of course, this £15m matches (and will soon exceed) the sum pledged by the British government. The USA has pledged $35m and has sent the navy to try to help. All of this will help. Aid agencies will be able to purchase supplies with this money TODAY that will enable them to start directly helping people TOMORROW. I can't help but see this as being a tiny drop in the ocean.

Here are a few other stats that I have found:

The current cost of the War in Iraq to the US: $147, 511, 100, 000 (and counting)

Total contributions to candidates in the US Presidential elections 2004: $880.5m

Cost to the public of the London 2012 Olympic bid: £2.4b (stolen from the Urban Fox)

Federal Aid granted by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks: $40b (thanks Jim)

Number of deaths in the 9/11 attacks: about 3000 (that "about" is just heartbreaking, isn't it?)

Estimated number of deaths as a result of the Tsunami SO FAR: 112,000

Estimated number of people in the region without adequate food, water or sanitation: 5m

I'm not trying to trivialise the deaths in Iraq or in the 9/11 attacks, I'm just trying to put a little context onto the amount of money we are talking about here. The scale of the disaster is enormous and I think we should be expecting our governments to do more to help. The money they have pledged is welcome and will be helpful, but they must do more, they must give more.

Hats off to the public though for their generosity. I hope it shames the government into giving more. Even the Queen is going to be contributing "a substantial amount" (whatever that means).

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all mankind.


Tuesday, December 28, 2004

You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light, feeling pretty psyched

"These are the last things, she wrote. One by one they disappear and never come back"

These are the first words of one of the most haunting and bleakly beautiful books I have ever read: In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster. It tells of the odyssey of 19 year old Anna Blume in a shattered, dystopian city. The city is a place where hope has all but died. Society as we would understand it has completely collapsed: food is scarce and prohibitively expensive (people are regularly lured into traps where they are butchered for meat), people scratch out a living by sifting through rubbish looking for anything worth salvaging, muggings are commonplace, no children are born, and governments only exist to collect human waste and corpses to burn to produce energy. It is a world where life is insufferable, and where the pursuit of death has become an industry; from euthanasia clinics where you can live out your dreams before the injection is administered, through to the cult of 'runners' who run through the city until they drop dead. Anna wanders through this blasted, hopeless landscape in a futile search for her lost brother.

It's a grim book with little hope, and yet I was gripped by it.

For all that this is a post-apocalyptic vision of the world, a world where all our certainties have been smashed, where life is a constant struggle to survive... it has given me a lot of food for thought - especially when we see tragedies on the scale of this earthquake, where the death toll is now 60,000 people and rising, and when I look around and I see the suffering happening in Darfur and in Iraq, and in the Middle East and in many other places across the globe.

"Life as we know it has ended, and yet no one is able to grasp what has taken its place ... On the one hand, you want to survive, to adapt, to the make the best of things as they are. But, on the other hand, to accomplish this seems to entail killing off all those things that once made you think of yourself as human ... In order to live, you must make yourself die."

The way that people are forced to behave in order to survive had some uncomfortable echoes for me of the way that humans treat other humans in this world, of man's inhumanity to man. On the one hand it's a dystopic vision of the future, but on the other hand some of it is frighteningly believable ... it is not set in the distant future, but in a recognisably Twentieth Century city (the book was published in 1987 - I read the city as New York).

It is a bleak book indeed, and Auster does not give his readers much hope for the future, but that is not to say that he gives us no hope at all. Throughout everything that happens to her, through all of the hardships she suffers in this city that attempts to brutalise her, Anna retains her capacity for love. Where there is love, there is hope.

Where there is love there is hope.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Bring down the shadows of my mind

23,500 people are now thought to be dead in the Asian Earthquake disaster. The Earthquake has been measured at something like 9.0 on the Richter scale.

Coincidentally, at exactly this time last year, we were digesting the news that there had been an Earthquake in Bam in Iran - both struck on 26th December. In Bam, the earthquake was measured at around 6.5 on the richter scale.

I cross-checked the definitions of eathquakes of this strength and found this (here the richter scale is cross-referenced with the modified Mercalli scale):

An earthquake at 6.5 on the Richter scale is described as: "disastrous: ground badly cracked and many buildings are destroyed. There are some landslides".

The final death-toll at Bam was thought to be something in excess of 40,000 people.

An earthquake at 9.0 on the Richter scale is: "Catastrophic: total destruction. Objects are thrown into the air. Much heaving, shaking and distortion of the ground".

This is one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded. I know it took place under the ocean and not in a populous area, but the Tsunami it created was devastating and over the next few days and weeks we are going to see the death-toll continue to rise.

Never mind the wars we insist on fighting, sometimes the everyday business of survival in the face of nature seems difficult enough.

There's not really much I can add to this, except that you can donate here.


Sunday, December 26, 2004

Feigning Joy & Surprise....

Well. That's Christmas more or less over for another year.

To be perfectly honest I managed to spend a lot of the day hiding in my room reading a book (again - this is getting to be a habit. Last year was "Googlewhack", this year it was "The Nation's Favourite - the true adventures of Radio 1" by Simon Garfield - an account of Matthew Bannister's dismantling of Smashie & Nicey era Radio 1. Pretty interesting, actually, but more importantly, an easy read)

I love my family, and I don't want to seem ungrateful, but it can just be too much to bear. In the nicest possible way, it's like being locked into a particularly benign open prison with a good line in psychological torture - and I'm not talking about the sprouts.

I think the thing I particularly enjoy is the tyranny of the TV set. At least this year my elder brother spared us from his usual trick of taking a pen to the Radio Times - thus fairly effectively putting his towel down over the remote control for the evening. There's always a flare up over this at some point, and this year was no exception. I had escaped to the sanctuary of my room, my book and "Up" by R.E.M. when there was a tap at the door. My mother. Would I care to come down for a bite of something to eat. OK. Everyone was watching "Who Wrote The Bible?". Not OK - if I wanted to eat, presumably I would have to sit and watch this too. Sigh. My parents have sort of rediscovered religion. My dad was something of a bible-thumper when he was a medical student, but I think he lapsed somewhat as a result of a falling out with the vicar at the local church (seriously - I'm not making this up). After 20 years, this vicar finally retired a year of so ago, and was replaced by Father Gary. Father Gary is a wholly different kettle of fish - and before I know where we are, my mother is some sort of church warden, conversation is somewhat dominated by Gary said this and Gary said that (this year's nugget was his desire to put the "Christ" back into "CHRISTmas" - do you see what he did there?), and he was even invited to Christmas dinner last year (tactfully turned down). This is of course fine. I am not a religious man, but each to their own, eh? What I don't like is having it rammed down my throat. You can see my trepridation at the idea of having my tea in front of that particular programme.

As it happens the programme was quite good - a genuinely questioning approach to the study of the bible, and an attempt to understand who put it together and why (there was one priceless moment where the presenter said to a biblical scholar "So, did Moses really write the first five books of the Bible?" to which the reply came "No, because one of the books deals with his death". I love the fact that in Christianity this is still an issue up for debate). Anyway. The combustion point came with the fact that this programme clashed with "The Vicar Of Dibley" - something that I can't abide, but apparently everyone else likes. The original plan was to change over channels, video the rest of the Bible programme and watch Dibley. Dibley starts, the channel is changed, and everyone bar my dad gets up and walks out of the room to watch the rest of the Bible programme.... not exactly the ideal of the family Christmas where everyone does everything together all day, and this sends my dad into a rage. Net result, a lot of shouting, a last minute change to the videoing plans and everyone (bar me) relocating to their seats. I took the opportunity to get back to my book. Funny.

At about 10pm though, I did find myself wondering what to do with myself. I had finished my book and didn't want to start another one but had no intention of going back downstairs to watch the Absolutely Fabulous Chrismas Special. I just don't get that programme - lots of shrieking and a serious case of diminishing returns. I even thought about going to bed. In the end I played scrabble with my mum, which was actually excellent fun, in spite of the fact that I was robbed of my chance to put "Quidam" down on a triple word score, and my little brother won by making up words and then checking to see if they existed in the dictionary before putting them down! Grrrr.


Food consumption on the big day appeared to not be as grotesque as usual this year:

- the traditional ham for breakfast and some kind of low fat croissant (don't ask - everyone seems to be on the weightwatchers diet in my family)
- mulled wine
- turkey with sausage stuffing, roast potato, boiled potato, brocolli, cranberry sauce, bread sauce, chipolatas and sprouts (obviously)
- pudding, brandy butter, rum butter
- cheese and crackers (nice bit of Comte and some smoked applewood cheddar)
- Xmas cake
- beer
- wine
- bourbon (Maker's Mark that I gave to my dad - quite disappointing actually. Give me a nice peaty malt or some Elijah Craig any day)

In my defence, I did get up and get out for a 4 mile run before breakfast.

Disgusting really though, isn't it? They reckon the average consumption on the day in 7500 calories. Enough to keep a child in Africa going for a week (according to the front page of The Independent on Christmas Eve anyway) How did you do?


In other news, it turns out that my dad has a wireless network. Who knew? Very handy when trying to escape the tedium of the Rupert Everett Sherlock Holmes thing on the telly tonight. I think Conan-Doyle would definitely NOT approve, and Ian Hart is so, so much better than this.... I also got to watch something I wanted to: The Return of the King special edition. Pretty good, but I think I need a second viewing to see if all of those added scenes were really necessary. First viewing suggests that about half were, but the rest were right to be cut. Still that's 4 hours of my life where I won't be watching Xmas specials, and that has to be a good thing, right?


C. always spends Xmas with her family in France. I really miss her.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Tonight thank God it's them instead of you

Before we all disappear off on our Xmas breaks.... some food for thought:

UN Plan for Darfur “Not Working”

The world’s worst humanitarian crisis – 1.7m people have fled their homes and 70,000 dead since the start of the conflict

Horrific human rights violations in Darfur - Justice in a state of emergency

20,000 - 30,000 people living in squalor in refugee camps in West Darfur

Aid Effort nowhere near enough

Save the Children withdraw from the Sudan after the murder of 4 aid workers in 2 separate incidents

MSF worker killed and aid workers increasingly at risk in the Sudan

This is just one region in the world - the West Darfur region of the Sudan. I could easily have picked somewhere else.... Iraq perhaps?

We can help to make a difference.....



Buy a Goat

Fax your MP from your PC - let them know what you think (I've just faxed Ken Clarke)

Register with TimeBank and volunteer your time to help make a difference.

Help Make Poverty History in 2005

merry christmas!

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Just lookin' for some play

The Kings of Leon @ Nottingham Rock City, Tuesday 21st December 2004

Before I can talk about the gig, I think I am obliged to tell you a little bit about the history of this band. You’re probably already aware of it, because everybody seems compelled to mention it, as it’s so perfect. You really couldn’t make up the Kings of Leon, because I’m not sure that anybody would believe you. The band is made up of three brothers (Jared, Caleb and Nathan) and their cousin (Matthew), the brothers the sons of an alcoholic, itinerant Pentecostal preacher. They grew up roaming the Southern States of the USA, spreading the gospel and living out of a car. Sounds like the kind of mythical back-story that the White Stripes wish they had.

They come from a long-tradition of southern rock bands, and if you were being harsh, you could probably describe them as nothing more than a Lynyrd Skynrd or Allman Brothers covers band. They certainly look a lot like they stepped out of the 1970s. Some of the more ridiculous facial hair from their debut album has now gone, although I’m pleased to report that Nathan, the drummer, still sports a fantastic bit of facial fungus. They are also all extremely young – I don’t reckon that the guitarist would be allowed to drink in the US…

Rock City was absolutely rammed; packed to the rafters. As a venue it has a capacity of 1900, and has a dance floor, a balcony and a slightly raised area on each side with a bar. When it’s this full it must look like a bear pit from the stage, with the dance-floor jumping, people hanging off the stairs up to the balcony, and people jostling for space on the couple of steps around the dance-floor leading up to the bars. Because I am tall, it basically doesn’t matter where I stand at a venue like this, as I am always able to see the stage. C. is less fortunate though, and at Interpol we had been just slightly too far back for her to be able to see much. As a result, for the KoL we fought our way to the edge of the little steps down to the dance-floor, because this is the best spot for getting an uninterrupted view of the stage. We weren’t the only people to think like this though, and it was something of a battle throughout the night, with people jostling past, trying to get to and from the dance-floor and the bar, and a real battle for space on the steps to get a decent view.

Support was The Features – another band from Tennessee. The best way I can think of describing them is of a cross between the classic southern rock of bands like the Kings of Leon and a band like the Eels (the singer’s style was slightly reminiscent of E). They were pretty good, and it’s always nice to see a backing band that somehow makes sense in the context of the headline act. All too often you get a band that look as though they have been booked by the record company (didn’t Talvin Singh once back Suede?), but this time it was conceivable that The Features had been booked by the KoL themselves. It’s also quite sweet when you see a band who set their own gear up before they perform, and when they have finished, put their guitars down and start tidying up after themselves.

The Kings of Leon themselves were brilliant of course. This kind of dirty, swampy rock sounds fantastic live. Caleb Followhill is only in his early 20s, but he sounds as though he has been smoking 2 packs a day and drinking moonshine for years – he has a fantastic raw, drawling singing voice. He also appears to be blessed/cursed with a pitch perfect ear, judging by the frequency with which he made tiny little adjustments to the tuning of his guitar – compulsively at the end of every single song. “This is our last show in the UK for a little while”, he announced to the crowd a little way into the gig, before adding “….except for London, but y’know…” [makes the little wrist motion that is the universal sign for wankers]. How can you not love a band that hates London?

I didn’t bother making a list, but they played a good selection of stuff from their debut album, and most of “Aha Shake Heartbreak”…. They’re a good live band, and as the material on the albums is good, perhaps it isn’t too surprising that it was an excellent show. As a band they aren’t all that prone to small talk or smiling, but they really seemed to enjoy themselves… Caleb even announced that “we don’t normally have fun on stage, but you guys are a blast” and told us later on that it was the best gig of the tour so far. For all I know, he might say that every night – but frankly I don’t care. I saw them at Glastonbury this year, but this was loads better (although, to be fair, have you ever been to a show that wasn’t better than a band’s festival performance?). Someone even threw some knickers on the stage, much to the amusement of the band.

My only whine…. £16 for a ski hat?

They were ace. Great show.

To round the whole thing off perfectly, during the encore performance of “Spiral Staircase” I learned that I had got some tickets to the Saturday and Sunday of the Old Trafford Test Match next year against the Australians. Nice.

[credit also due here to the Ultimate Olympian for the photo – he used a very similar one on his blog last month. He may have stolen it from the BBC website himself, but credit where credit’s due…] Posted by Hello

Monday, December 20, 2004

Ignorance has taken over...

I've been inspired (and not for the first time) by The Urban Fox - this time by a thoughtful post on the issue of ID Cards . For those who don't know, Parliament are voting tonight on a plan to introduce these cards into the UK. There's a good Q&A here on the issues involved, but basically the idea is that they will:

"strengthen national security and protect people from identity fraud and theft by providing them with a convenient means of verifying their indentity in everyday transactions"

This is obviously nonsense, but Fox explains all of this, so I won't repeat here.

This all got me thinking about the British Constitution. Basically (and you politics graduates please bear with me.... especially you and you) A constitution is a document that establishes the structure and principles of a government; it outlines the form of govenment, the structure and powers of the governmental institutions and usually talks of the rights and duties of the citizen. Probably the most famous of these is the Constitution of the USA. Why is it famous? Because it is always being harped on about - especially people who like guns (who puts that they are a multi-method deer hunter on their CV? )

The British Constitution is different. In the British Constitution, instead of the three branches of government being separate (legislature, executive and the judiciary), in Britain they are concentrated in Parliament. Parliament is sovereign and cannot be limited (in the way that, say, the US Congress can be limited by the Supreme Court). That's not the biggest difference though. Unlike the American Constitution, the British Constitution has never been written down. You cannot take it out of a library and have a look at it. In fact, you pretty much have to be a constitutional expert to have any real idea of what it is. This makes it an inherently flexible system, although its critics would say that never writing it down means that the citizens have no real idea what their rights are or when they are being violated.

This brings me to ID Cards.... (as well as the government's other proposals, like detaining terrorist suspects without trial, planning the removal of trial by jury in some cases... as discussed on this very blog)

If the Government can muster a majority in parliament for these reforms, then basically, they will end up as law. Yes, the House of Lords can hold the law up for a while, but they do not have the right to halt legislation that has been passed in the House Of Commons. We can get out onto the streets and protest if we like - as happened with the opposition to the War in Iraq and opposition to the ban on hunting with hounds. Oh look. That got us nowhere. We are fighting an unpopular war in Iraq and fox hunting has been banned.

So what can we do? Wait for a credible political party to come along that takes a responsible view on these issues, listens to what the people want and comes to a sensible, rational and practical decision? Hm. I'm not holding my breath for that one.

Don't get me wrong. I think we basically have a fantastic political system. We have liberties and freedoms that (we like to think) are the envy of much of the world. I'm just wondering how this system has allowed us to get to a place where some of these freedoms and liberties can be signed away. Where the opposition party find themselves falling over themselves to agree with the policies of the government. Where the government can ignore the vocal protests of millions of citizens. Where a Labour prime minister can cosy up to a Republican president....

How did we end up here?

The roots of our parliamentary democracy can be traced all the way back into the middle ages and beyond. It has traditionally been believed that the primacy of parliament began when a succession of kings in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were deposed "by the authority of Parliament" ( a phrase actually used in the confirmation of the claim of Henry IV to the throne).... This view of the "Lancastrian constitutional experiment" is dented somewhat by the fact that Edward IV seized the throne from Henry VI in the traditional way - by battle - and Parliament had nothing to do with it. There is however a substantial body of evidence to suggest that people in the middle ages had a real sense of their historical past and a notion of constitution. This awareness only increased with the advent of the printing press, and is reflected in the popularity of the theories of kingship and law found in "mirrors of princes" manuals (like 'De Regime Principum' by Giles of Rome that had been translated into 10 languages by the end of the fourteenth century). This popularity shows that, amongst the political nation represented at parliament at least (we're not talking about the Monty Python peasant here), there was a notion of a consitution dealing with law, justice and property. Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI - the 3 deposed kings - aroused the anger of the political nation by breaching this notion of constitution to such an extent that parliament acquiesced to their deposition. It is this notion of constitution that still underpins the authority of the British Parliament today. It is the bedrock of the constitution.

Why am I telling you this?

We might have an unwritten constitution, but that doesn't mean that we should simply allow the government to roll through their vile reforms. We, the political nation of the UK, the electorate, have a strong sense of what we believe is right and wrong. We have a sense of law, justice and property. This Labour government, and the pathetic, toadying opposition are making me angry and they are failing to meet what I believe are their obligations to us. For me this justifies their removal.

We must act.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that we sharpen our axes or stick a gibbet onto Parliament Green (attractive though that idea sounds). Our next chance will come at some point in the next 12 months and will come at the ballot box. Labour look nailed on to win again, but we have to take our chance to make our feelings known. We need to get off our arses and make ourselves heard. We don't have to lie down and die and let them get away with this. We've got to take the power back.


Shall I start my letter writing campaign now?


Sunday, December 19, 2004

Everybody start to lose control / When the music is right

I saw Interpol playing at Nottingham Rock City this evening.

As I think I’ve mentioned several times already, Interpol have been my musical discovery of the year, bar none. Snow Patrol are great, but something about Interpol really chimes with me in a way that Snow Patrol never will.

The first time I heard them was when Zane Lowe played “Slow Hands” on his show one night in July as I was driving home. It must have been fate. I like Zane’s show but I almost never have my car radio tuned into radio one – for me it’s either 5 Live or whatever is in my CD player (which according to my blog entry was apparently either the Kings of Leon or Keane, but that’s not important now…). That weekend I popped into Selectadisc in Nottingham and bought “Turn On the Bright Lights” (also picking up the new Hives album, and deciding to postpone purchasing the Futureheads album – BIG mistake – that’s also in my top 5 albums this year). It doesn’t happen to me all that often, but it was one of those albums that I more or less fell in love with at the first listen.

I’m not sure what it is really. In some ways my music taste is quite predictable (witness me blind purchasing “No Cities Left” by the Dears on Lord Bargain’s recommendation, loving the album, and then subsequently reading them being compared to Morrissey). From this point of view, Interpol are something of an identikit of my music taste: Skinny white guys with guitars, a vaguely doomy sound and lyrics about self-loathing. In a good way….

Thanks to the tip-off from Capt.Damo, I snapped up tickets to the Rock City gig pretty much as soon as they came on sale – ignoring the fact that the timing meant I was going to have to bomb back from Oxford after an enormous Christmas Party on Saturday night to get there in time, and that there was the distinct possibility that I might be feeling, er, a little under the weather.

As it turns out, I was feeling fine and I got home about 7pm and had plenty of time to grab a quick sausage and roast butternut squash & sweet potato sandwich with onion marmalade, and head into Rock City. A couple of friends who had attended the Steve Earle concert the week before had warned me that Rock City had been refurbished (what?) and that there was now even a man in the toilets with various perfumes etc. (what??). I have to say that I didn’t notice any significant differences, which is a good thing in my books, and if there was a man in the toilets waiting to pounce on me as I washed my hands, I didn’t see him (although let’s be honest, I didn’t spend a great deal of time hanging around in there looking for him).

The support was The Secret Machines. I don’t know anything about them, except that the free CD that was thrust into my hand informs me that they received a KKKK album review from Kerrang (“like Pink Floyd minus all the noodly bullshit”) as well as lots of **** reviews from people like Q, Uncut, The Times, Radio Times, Model Railway World…. That sort of thing. They were alright. One of the singers (they are a three piece, but the bassist/keyboardist and the guitarist swap vocal duties) sounded a bit like that bloke from Gomez, which isn’t much of a recommendation I know, but the were okay. I’d give their album a go. They kicked up a hell of a groove, and had a comedy drummer, which always gets you a few points in my books.

Interpol came on all dressed in black and wearing ties, as is their wont, and launched straight into “Next Exit”, the first track from their current album “Antics”. They were fantastic. What can I say? It’s true that they wear their influences on their sleeve (mainly English indie from the 80s - Joy Division, the Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Psychedelic Furs). However, Paul Banks, the singer, has a splendid monotone that makes him sound like a cross between an undertaker, a lawyer and a dalek, but is an absolutely crucial component in their sound and one that makes them sound pretty unique. Speaking of 80s bands, Carlos D the bassist, looks like he should be in Sparks (basically he’s only missing the little moustache). They rock though.

This was the last date of a pretty long tour, and it shows in the way that the band is so tight. They played most of “Antics” and a pretty good selection from “Turn on the Bright Lights” (although not my 2 favourites – Obstacle 2 and Stella was a Diver, but you can’t have everything, right?). “Evil” the new single, and “Slow Hands” the last single were both particularly good. Banter was limited, although Paul did look up at one point when he caught something that someone in the crowd had shouted “What was that? God Bless John Peel? Hear hear. God bless John Peel”. There was a BBC outside broadcast truck outside, actually, so I hope they were there to record the gig. They finished with an absolutely barnstorming version of “Roland”

“My best friend's a butcher, he has sixteen knives
he carries them all over the town
at least he tries
oh look it stopped snowing
my best friend's from Poland and oh he has a beard
but they caught him with his case in a public place
that is what we had feared”

Absolutely brilliant band and a brilliant show. Catch them if you can.

Special shout out here to Gaye B and to her family. Gaye emailed me a little while ago having found a link to this blog via google when looking for someone who had videoed Interpol on Jools Holland. She asked me very nicely if I would send her the video so that she could use it to create a DVD to send to the States for her daughter’s Christmas present (she’s a huge fan, apparently, but had missed them when they were playing in New York). I was happy to oblige, and bless her if she hasn’t made me a copy of the DVD, and as well as the Jools Holland performances, has added on a whole pile of other live performances. The internet is a strange and wonderful place, but you do run into some lovely people. I hope your daughter enjoys the DVD Gaye and Happy Christmas!


As I mentioned above, I went to the 7th annual Christmas Party hosted by my friends in Oxford on Saturday. It was fantastic as always but one moment in particular stands out for me…. We had just finished dinner (turkey with all the trimmings) and were sitting around the table chatting and listening to music… suddenly we all spontaneously burst into song. If you had walked past the window at that moment you would have been confronted with the slightly bizarre sight more than 20 thirty-somethings sitting around a table wearing party hats and singing along to “Dancing on the Ceiling” by Lionel Richie, which was then followed up with “500 Miles” by the Proclaimers and a cheeky burst of Ray Parker Jr.

Busting makes me feel good!


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Saturday, December 18, 2004

War, friend only to the undertaker

Despite all appearances to the contrary, I'm something of a soppy bugger. I cried during BBC sports personality of the year when they showed that little girl winning the Helen Rollason award. I'm also a total sucker for war films. The beginning of "Saving Private Ryan" always makes me blub, and I was a dead loss during "Band of Brothers", especially in the episode set in the Bastogne starring the Easy Company medic, Eugene Roe.

Talking to that cabbie the other day about the first world war brought to mind a story told to me by my girlfriend. C.'s maternal grandfather was a glider pilot during D-Day. On D-Day itself, his glider was released in the wrong place, and was forced to crash land deep behind enemy lines. C's grandfather was shot in the stomach by the Germans as he left the glider, but was lucky enough to be found by the teenage son and daughter of a french farmer who lived nearby. The Germans discovered them, and tried to force the son & daughter to bury C's grandfather whilst he was still alive. To their great personal risk, and to their eternal credit, they refused, and instead tended for the dying soldier for the rest of the day until he passed away.

A tragic story, I'm sure you will agree, but surely not unique in this global conflict. What makes this story personal for me is that last year, C. and her mother made a trip to the village where this brave man died. C's mother had only been very young when her father had died, and had never really had the opportunity to get to know him. As it happens, they now live in France, and so they made something of a pilgrimmage to see where her father had died. When they reached the village where he had been killed, they met the farmer's son and daughter who had risked so much and much to their surprise, they discovered that every armistice day the entire village still turned out at C's grandfather's grave to lay a wreath - he had been the first liberating allied soldier that they had seen since the german occupation- and as such they still honoured his sacrifice every year in the same way that we honour the tomb of the unknown soldier.

I find that story intensely moving. Every time I tell it to someone, I find myself on the edge of tears. It is a very personal story that tells of the suffering and sacrifice that an ordinary person can make at a time of war.

I am opposed to war in general, and to the war in Iraq specifically, but this should not, and does not get in the way of the massive respect that I have for the soldiers that are fighting in this, or in any other war. On any side.

I was reading the other day about the Christmas truce that took place in 1914 between the allied and German trenches in the First World War - the one where the troops on either side laid aside their differences for a few hours, put down their weapons and played a game of football in No-Man's land. For me, it's a powerful reminder of the fact that whatever the politics of the situation, whatever the rights and wrongs, we must never forget that ordinary people, on both sides, are fighting and dying.

Whatever your politics, whatever your religious beliefs, whether you believe that what they are fighting for is right or if it is wrong, let's try to remember the sacrifices that ordinary people make at a time of war, on both sides.

Damn - I'm feeling sentimental this evening.

Friday, December 17, 2004

For millions of girls and for millions of boys....

Festival of consumerism and greed that it is (see Graham's comment below), this week I got a brief glimpse of the magic of Christmas through the eyes of a five year-old.

A colleague of mine came up to me at work on Thursday morning and asked to have a look at a sample of my handwriting. She looked at it (a scrawled football teamsheet for that evening's 5-a-side game) and then disappeared. A little later on she came back and asked me if I would write a letter for her. Why certainly. She went over to her desk and reappeared with a blank sheet of paper with a freshly printed reindeer motif at the top and the slogan "from the desk of Santa Claus, the North Pole".....

It turns out that her eldest daughter Hannah had submitted a Christmas list to Santa up through the chimney as usual, but just after Santa had been out to buy gifts from the list, Hannah submitted a second list having changed her mind. Clearly some expectation setting was going to need to be done and so Santa was going to have to write to Hannah and give her a taste of what was, and more importantly, what was not likely to be coming her way on Christmas Day.

The gist of the letter was to thank Hannah for her letter ("I particularly enjoyed your story about me getting stuck in a chimney. I am happy to be able to tell you that this hasn't happened to me for a little while"), to let her know what was on the way ("Mrs. Claus is getting on really well with those dressups you asked for, and they're looking really nice") and to begin to prepare her for what wasn't coming ("I'm afraid the elves aren't having much luck with that Doll's House you asked for and we may not be able to get it ready in time. Was there anything else that you wanted instead").

I got my fountain pen out (as I did essay subjects throughout school and university, I have always written with a proper ink pen) and I wrote as neatly as I could.

Later on, I met up with my colleague again at a Christmas Party (I survived, thanks for asking). She beamed at me and told me how she had put the letter in the chimney breast and had sent Hannah in there on a pretext.... Apparently when she found it, her little face lit up and she was so thrilled that Santa had personally sent her a letter that she didn't much focus on the content. My colleague told me that if Hannah received nothing else this Christmas other than that letter, then she would still be completely made up. She was so excited that she didn't care about the Doll's House and was just itching to get to school this morning so she could show the letter to her friends.

I know that this story is rooted in the consumerist wishes of a small child, but I prefer to focus on the joy that Christmas can bring. It's easy for us cynical adults to forget, but when my colleague told me this story it brought a little part of that magic flooding back for me.


Hannah thought Santa had really nice handwriting, by the way.

And You'll Believe What They Say...

I was given a presentation the other day called “Empowering Young People to be safe on the Internet”. This was part of the day that I spent in London on Wednesday, and the audience for the presentation was made up entirely of IT professionals who are mentoring a child as part of my work’s mentoring scheme. No children or teachers were in the room. The presenter was some big cheese from my company’s community department.

What did I learn?

- 95% of children ages 15-19 have gone online (The Kaiser Family Foundation 2002)
- The average age of first internet exposure to pornography is 11 years old (familysafemedia.com 2003)
- 90% of 8-16 year olds have viewed pornography online – most while doing homework (familysafemedia.com 2003)
- The number of “hate sites” advocating hate or depicting violence rose from 8,667 at the end of 2003 to 10,296 by the end of April 2004. Hate sites are showing up at a faster rate than pornography (Surfcontrol)
- 15% of young people have received mean or threatening messages while on the internet (i-safe)
- Over 40% of children under the age of 14 with internet access have received invitations from strangers to meet face-to-face (2003 survey conducted by E.KAT.O Austrian Partner LAK)
- 44% of junior high school children (ages 10-14) reported receiving emails with adult content (Warsaw Voice)
- FACT: 66% of online sexual solicitation targets girls (no source quoted)
- FACT: Boys are as likely as girls to be targeted for violence (threats or efforts to humiliate) on the internet (no source quoted)
- 53% of parents say that they have limited ability to shelter their children from inappropriate internet material. 40% do not know a lot about where their children go or what they do when they are online, and of those, 10% know very little or nothing at all about their children’s internet behaviour (no source quoted)

It went on and on like this for over an hour. The speaker slowly worked herself up into a frenzy and concluded by telling us that if we thought this was bad, we should see the presentation that they give to the parents.

I was appalled.

Firstly I had no idea what the hell she thought she was trying to achieve by giving this presentation to a roomful of adults who all work for a technology company. I am 30 years old, and I know my way around the internet thanks very much. You don’t need to try and scare me away from online content.

Secondly (and this is the historian in me), what the hell are those sources? The Warsaw Voice? Some Austrian survey? Vast sweeping generalisations about the numbers of children on the internet (95% of all children aged 15-19? Internet facilities in sub-Saharan Africa must be a whole lot better than I thought then). My personal favourite is that “The number of “hate sites” advocating hate or depicting violence rose from 8,667 at the end of 2003 to 10,296 by the end of April 2004”. Prove it. Presumably in a world where it takes 5 minutes to create and publish a weblog, we are supposed to think that 2000 is a lot of sites and that 8,667 is a vast number? A search for “Race Hate” on google gets over 4m results. You can’t just go to google and take the first statistics you find as fact, you know. Any sensible 14 year old could tell you that. Von Ranke was wrong. There is no such thing as a fact.

And of course, as Vic Reeves said, 89.9% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

Lastly, and I think worst of all, is the tone of the presentation. The internet can be a dangerous place for children. It is all too easy to accidentally stumble across content that you would not want to put in front of a child. We all know that not everybody is who they say they are. We’ve all heard the stories. What we also know is that the internet is an amazing resource. For the dissemination of knowledge, it may just be the single biggest step-forward since the printing press (yeah ok, maybe radio has a claim). What pissed me off was that here we have a presentation that makes no mention of the positive aspects of the internet and the benefits it can have to a child’s education, and instead chooses to pass out a Daily Mail message about what an evil and dangerous place it is and how we must protect our children from it.

There are threats, and children can be vulnerable if they aren’t supervised. But this is as true in the real world as it is online. You can be bullied in the playground as well as in chat rooms. You can talk to strangers in the street as well as online. Not a single word was spoken about things you can do to protect your child online, about sensible, common-sense steps you can take to make the whole thing that little bit more secure.

Dreadful. If this presentation is given to parents, then I’m pretty sure they would abandon the internet altogether, and if that happened I think we would be doing our kids a disservice.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

There's too much for me to know about

On a serious note, this blog would like to offer up its best wishes for a speedy recovery to Wee Jimmy Krankie.

I know you shouldn't laugh at this kind of thing, but I'm sorry. I can't help it.

Nothing at all weird about the Krankies is there? I think it's perfectly normal for a man to perform with his 57 year old wife dressed up as a schoolboy. Perfectly normal.

Nothing to see here. Move along.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Teach them well and let them lead the way

For once I think I'm going to be positive about something.

I've just had a hugely encouraging day. I am now genuinely hopeful that the future of this country is in good hands. And before you ask, no. I'm not talking about any government or any politicians. Not yet anyway.

I've mentioned here before that I am part of a mentoring scheme that my work runs and act as the mentor to a kid from a local school. Today we went down to our offices in London with the kids to have a couple of talks, meet the UK managing director and to take the kids out on the London Eye (the idea is to encourage the kids and to fire their enthusiasm, as well as to get some feedback from the teachers and the mentors).

That was all very nice (and the London Eye is great. It's the first time I've seen the gherkin, and it looks fantastic). The real bonus of the trip for me though was getting to spend some time with a bunch of bright 14 year olds. As we were on the way back to the train station in the taxi, we were chatting with the cabbie about the usual stuff: how he had had that David Dickinson in his cab the other day, how Johnny Vegas was just like he is on the telly (i.e. drunk) and of how he was really interested in the First World War and has been researching the history of one of the regiments (his grandfather had been in the Irish Guards and had been shelled, shot and gassed during the war - but even that wasn't enough to stop him and he lasted well into the 1950s). This led us into a conversation with Michael (my mentee) about the first world war poets. They have been studying Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and have been comparing the optimism and patriotism of a poem like "The Soldier" with something like "Dulce et Decorum Est". I did something similar when I was at school, and I was pretty impressed.

This led me to ask what other books the kids were reading in English, and Michael told me that they had been reading a book on terrorism by a Polish author, and a post 9/11 book on terrorism by an American author, and had been discussing the importance of perspective (one man's terrorist being another's freedom fighter) and how a single event could dramatically shift that perspective.

Again, very impressive.

As the school they attend is a faith-based Church of England school, I asked if they had spent any time studying other religions like Islam. Apparently not, but this was because they were spending their RE classes looking at ethics at the moment, and were looking at the issues and controversy around abortion.

We live in a world where Darwin's theories of evolution are not taught in some places because they are deemed somehow threatening to our christian certainties about the world. We live in a world where in some places we are taught to believe that Islam is a threat to our democracies. We live in a world where people are murdered for their belief in the right of a mother to terminate a pregnancy. The list goes on and on. We seem to be making such a mess of the world, don't we?

I was so, so encouraged that the kids in this school are looking at some really big issues and are not being taught the answers, but are being taught to think for themselves.

As Snow Patrol say: mums and dads of the world be patient with your children...

Without wanting to be all corny about it, they are our future and all that.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Any fool can think of words that rhyme

I've got a couple of gigs coming up in quick succession, starting with Interpol on Sunday. It got me thinking about all of the concerts I have been to this year. Because I'm a man, here they are in list form:

- The White Stripes - Nottingham Arena, 23rd January
- Athlete (& Snow Patrol) - Nottingham Rock City, 28th January
- Snow Patrol - Oxford Brookes, 13th March
- The Glastonbury Festival, 25/26/27 June
- Morrissey - Blackpool Empress Ballroom, 4th September
- The Hives - Nottingham Rock City, 22nd September
- The Bees - Oxford Zodiac, 16th October
- The Darkness (& Ash) - Nottingham Arena, 24th November
- Snow Patrol - Birmingham Academy, 28th November
- Interpol - Nottingham Rock City, 19th December
- The Kings of Leon - Nottingham Rock City, 21st December

Not too bad. Not a ridiculous number, but not too bad.

A couple of years ago, I made the resolution that I should go to more live music. I think I'm doing OK. No idea how that compares to last year, but perhaps we can have another look at how 2005 compares this time next year. I already have R.E.M. booked up, and I hope it will be the year I can cross U2 of the list (finally).

This got me thinking about the CDs I have bought this year....

(now you'll have to bear with me here, as I don't record when I buy these things, so this list is going to be done by scrolling through my IPod and trying to work out what wasn't on there last year... so it's not in the order I bought them, but alphabetical by band)

- Ash - meltdown
- Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - BRMC
- British Sea Power - The Decline of British Sea Power
- Carla Bruni - Quelqu'un m'a dit
- The Dears - No Cities Left
- Devendra Banhart - Rejoicing in the Hands
- Devendra Banhart - Nino Rojo
- Dido - Life for Rent
- Embrace - Out of Nothing
- Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand
- The Futureheads - The Futureheads
- Green Day - American Idiot
- The Hives - Tyrannosaurus Hives
- Hope of the States - The Lost Riots
- Interpol - Antics
- Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights
- Jet - Get Born
- Kasabian - Kasabian
- Keane - Hopes & Fears
- The Killers - Hot Fuss
- Kings of Leon - Aha Shake Heartbreak
- The Libertines - Up the Bracket
- The LIbertines - The Libertines
- Morrissey - You Are The Quarry
- Muse - Absolution
- Muse - Origin of Symmetry
- The Pixies - Surfer Rosa & Come on Pilgrim
- R.E.M. - Around the Sun
- Razorlight - Up All Night
- The Reindeer Section - Y'All Get Scared Now, Ya Hear?
- The Reindeer Section - Son of Evil Reindeer
- Snow Patrol - Final Straw
- Snow Patrol - Songs for Polar Bears
- Snow Patrol - When It's All Over We Still Have To Clear Up
- The Streets - A Grand Don't Come for Free
- Supergrass - Supergrass is 10
- Throwing Muses - The Real Ramona
- U2 - How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
- The Vines - Highly Evolved
- The Von Bondies - Pawn Shoppe Heart
- Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Fever to Tell

That's absurd.

At least I know where all my money goes. I'm not even going to think about DVDs.

I can see how I buy music too - you know that bit in High Fidelity where he talks about arranging his records autobiographically? Well if you did that with me, you'd see clumps of purchasing... like all the Snow Patrol & Reindeer Section records... and I'm also in the middle of a Pixies clump: Surfer Rosa, the Throwing Muses, I downloaded some Breeders.... might buy "king" by Belly, that kind of thing.

A lot of the rest is new releases or bands I heard somewhere and loved (I saw Devendra Banhart on Jools Holland, and I heard Interpol being played by Zane Lowe). I'll also usually buy a bunch of records after gigs when someone really impressed me live. Often this is at Glastonbury, where I try and watch lots of people I don't know. This year I think it was the Von Bondies, although the no-show by the Libertines piqued my interest.... This year I also discovered Snow Patrol when they supported Athlete (although I think they might have been hard to avoid anyway)

I bet I've missed some off as well, and I haven't even included stuff I bought for anyone else (I bought the whole Snow Patrol back catalogue + the Reindeer Section + Belle & Sebastian's "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" for one lucky friend on his birthday this year.... he did get me a share in a beer fridge and some golf lessons for mine though, so I felt I owed him)


I'll leave my "best of 2004" lists for another day, I think. This post is silly enough already.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie

I'm staying with my parents in Milton Keynes this weekend. C. works for a major UK retailer, and is 'encouraged' to spend a couple of days each year helping out in a store. This year she is choosing MK, and as it seemed ridiculous for us to take 2 cars down from Nottingham, and because I had a bit of shopping to do, I have ended up wandering up and down the shopping centre, desperately killing time until she knocks off at 6pm (having arrived a little before 9am). I am currently sat in the lobby of the "Easy Cinema" in their "Easy Internet" bit waiting for the start of "Bad Santa" in a couple of hours... that should take me through the rest of the day. I spent hours and hours of my life in here as a teenager, in the days when it was UCI The Point - the UK's first multiplex cinema. I saw my first "18" certificate here (Tango & Cash !).

It looks a little run down now. The main cinema seems to have migrated over to the X-Scape snowdome place over the way, but they only had the enormo films on, and I really wanted to see this one.


I had a letter from my old school when I got home. They seem particularly self-satisfied that they have been held up by the Daily Telegraph as an example to other independent schools. Why? Well. It's something of a long story... so bear with me... Entry to an independent school like Rugby is usually done via an entrance exam called the "Common Entrance". In theory this is to make sure that you meet the required academic standard for entry, but in practice (at least in my day) if you were good enough to put your name down for the school, they didn't knock back your fees, whatever your score. An alternative to this was the Scholarship exam. If you were bright, you were put forward for this... the prize was a number of entry scholarships i.e. money off your bill. The top scholarship was worth 80% of the fees - so not to be sniffed at.

I believe the school considered this charity.

The reason they school are feeling smug, is that they have decided to change this system, because apparently they have come under some criticism for offering these scholarships to people regardless of how well-off their parents were: your intelligence was the only criterion. Under the new proposals, the maximum scholarship award will be a reduction of 10%. To get a scholarship worth more than that, your parents will have to be means tested.

I think this is a way of the school showing how much effort the are making to encourage the children of less privileged backgrounds; of showing how great their largesse is by generously offering a place amongst the elite for the lower classes. After all - as they say themselves in the letter, they reckon it costs about £23k a year all in to send a child to Rugby (hell, considering what we have been saying about the UK average salary, that's an awful lot of money...)

As you know. I'm a cynic, and I knew there must be something in this.

For starters, the school are asking for MY money to help them fund this. They also sent this letter to my parents. Frankly, I think my parents have given enough to this lot. They "suggest" £20 a month should do it. I suggest they piss off.

What's their real motive for this sudden wish to spread their wonderful education around? I wonder if it's anything to do with the fact that Rugby, like other independent schools in the UK, is a registered charity. Yes, that's right. In terms of tax status, Rugby School gets the same breaks as Oxfam. They are EXEMPT from tax because "the advancement of education is a charitable objective". How ridiculous is that?

Pretty ridiculous. In fact it's bloody scandalous. How the hell can they justify that?

Oh look. It turns out that the government is looking to challenge this status unless the school can demonstrate that they pass a "public benefit" test.

So the cause of Rugby School's smugness? They are taking TINY steps to open up their education to less well-off kids. And what's more, they're trying to fund this by getting money by asking people like me.

They can piss off. If I have a spare £20 a month, I can think of MILLIONS of better ways to make it available to the needy.



I can't believe their bloody nerve.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

And I love to live so pleasantly

I had my review at work today. You know, one of those end of year chats with your boss about how you've done, and how you're not going to be getting a payrise this year?

It went pretty well and I got a really good grading, which was nice, although I have no idea what it means really or what difference it will make to my life. I won't be getting a bonus, I won't be getting a pay rise and pension contributions have gone up by 1%.

In real terms I will be worse off next year.

I spend more than 50 hours a week at work and I don't get any overtime.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not moaning. The hours are my choice - I only HAVE to be there for 37 hours a week. I also get paid pretty well in the grand scheme of things and so I don't really have much to complain about on that front... I think that my company is getting a bargain, but that's a different thing altogether.... compared to the UK average, I'm doing pretty well (nevermind the average wage in Africa. I'll say it again: 247 million more people in sub-Saharan Africa will be living on less than $1 a day in 2015).

It's just that, well, there has to be more to life than this doesn't there? I don't want to sound like I'm approaching a mid-life crisis, but why am I giving so much of my time and energy to a giant corporation? What does that add to the sum of human achievement? Shouldn't I be doing something more worthwhile? Couldn't I contribute somewhere else? Can I not be something other than a consumer?

C. has talked about us jacking it all in and heading out to work for VSO or someone like that.... I have to say I'm not all that keen. I quite like my job. I like the stimulation and I like the challenge. I also like being paid. I like travelling and I want to be more useful, but I'm not at all sure that I want to hand all this over to go and do something more 'worthy' (and I'm also not sure what use I would be either....)

Middle-class liberal guilt - that's what it is. I'm trying to compensate by giving more money to charity, by giving my time to charities and by looking to see what else I can do to get involved.

I'm officially open for ideas and suggestions.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

What the hell am I doing here?

Christmas is nearly upon us. Without wanting to sound too much like Eberneezer, it's a time of year when the roads are choked, the shops are full and the weather is cold, dark and miserable. Even the adverts on tv get worse, if such a thing is possible. I swear Currys are repeating their adverts this year. Did they really bring back Linda Barker? It is also the time of year when my diary starts to choke up with various unavoidable commitments. Now, family and friends at the weekend I can just about cope with. That's okay. They're good people, people I choose to spend my time with. Okay, so I lose a bit of sleep and don't get my usual lie-in on weekend, and have to spend time travelling about the place, but that's alright. The bit that I struggle with is the work stuff. Those parties, those lunches and dinners that I get invited to because of where I work and the people that I work with.

I'm shy.

C. has the kind of job where she has lots of suppliers, and for those suppliers she represents by far and away their most important customer. If C. doesn't list some products, they stop making them. As a result of this, these suppliers fall over themselves to get into her good books by giving her stuff, and by inviting her to major sporting events or swanky society dinners. I'll give you a couple of examples: England vs Greece 2002 world cup qualifiers. England vs France in the Six Nations at Twickenham. Hairdresser of the Year.

Ok. So I'm not really expecting anyone to be that bothered about the last one, but the other two are things I would quite happily attend. I'll go further. I pay to go this sort of thing. I stay up late at night and try to get hold of tickets. I enter ballots 18 months in advance to get tickets to that sort of thing.

Anyway. In my job I get nothing like that (well, I occasionally get bought a coffee, sometimes a nice coffee, one not made by Klix). Actually that's okay. The sporting events would be fine, but I would really struggle with the rest of it - for the same reason that I tend to struggle with parties at this time of year.... I have minimal social skills in this sort of context and I have absolutely no ability to make polite small talk.

I think it's something to do with being introverted (in a myers-briggs sense of the word that is, I'm not a shrinking violet). I am not frightened of large crowds of people. I cope quite happily at Glastonbury with 120,000-odd other souls and no decent sanitary facilities. What does alarm me though is when I am expected to spontaneously make polite conversation with people I do not know well. Somehow its easier to talk to someone that I don't know at all than to talk to someone I half-know.

You know the old conundrum about what to when you see someone you know walking past you? Do you smile broadly and say hello? Do you smile in half acknowledgement? Do you ignore them? Do you suddenly pretend to be interested in your mobile phone? (and don't you just HATE those people who don't just say "hello" but feel the need to say "how are you?" as well? What's with this follow-up question? that requires a response, but you've now already walked past me and I have to turn around and call out after your back... but you knew that. You only did this to humiliate me and make me feel socially inadequate, didn't you?)

How are you supposed to talk to someone you don't have anything to talk to about?

How am I supposed to pretend to be interested in what you have to say, when I can barely hear you over the music and think you are a moron?

Oh. And I'm not interested in cars either. As a man, this is something of a conversation stopper. I can talk about football. I can talk about cricket. In fact, if you have an interest in any kind of sport at all, I bet I can have a conversation with you (albeit one where you may end up hearing more statistics than you are generally comfortable with - I think that's why I like cricket). Cars? Forget about it. X3, MR-2, 2CV, C5, TT? Gibberish. Couldn't care. Sorry.

Worse. I'd probably look at you like I thought you were a brainless shitheap.

That's another talent I have that tends to kill conversation. I wear what I am thinking of you clearly on my face. I have no guile. That's great if I like you and I'm enjoying talking to you, but less great if I just want to run away and hide (actually, this gift does me no favours at work either).

It's funny. When I was at school, we used to have prospective parents or eminent visitors come round to our house for lunch, and my housemaster always used to take me to one side and ask me to make sure that I was sat next to them. Perhaps this was because of my dazzling repartee, although I think more likely it was because I was because I could be relied upon to at least be polite - there was a rather unfortunate trend at my school to completely ignore the person who sat at the end of your table. Some days a poor soul could sit through lunch and not exchange a word with any of the people who were sitting next to him. I was a nice polite lad, a scholar, I could be relied upon to smile weakly and talk about the weather or something. Same thing happened at forum. This was an alternative to chapel (which we were occasionally spared on a Sunday). This was where someone came and gave the school a lecture about, say, mountaineering, or the perils of smoking. They would often have a sprititual theme, but were in the main infinitely preferrable to the constant standing-sitting-kneeling of chapel. Of course, we were always desperate for them to finish. It had to be shorter than chapel, else what was the point? The speaker would eventually wind down and would ask if there were any questions. It took a brave boy to ask anything (or a stupid one - and I'm thinking here of a chap call Hugh Huxley). They would stand up to ask their question, and a 100 pairs of eyes would be throwing daggers at them.

Of course, the school were embarrassed if there were no questions asked, as it made it all too obvious that we would far rather be somewhere else. Anywhere else (except chapel). Inevitably this meant that some people would be given questions to ask as they trooped in for their talk. The questions had to be given to someone who could be relied upon to ask it, but could also be relied upon to ask the question without reading it off the little piece of paper it came on, word by painful word.

Yes. Of course I always got given one.

Yes. Of course I always asked it.

It was a fine line you know.... asking the question in such a way that made it look like I had just thought of it, but to make it clear to my fellows that this was not MY question.

Anyway. Christmas parties. A room in a pub is okay, I suppose. You can sort of find someone you know and try and spend the whole evening with them. Mingling is not something I do. I can't walk up to a group of people and impose myself on them. Why would I do that? Why would anyone? Why do people do that to me when I'm talking to my friends, well, the people I'm hiding in the corner with? Sit downs are worse though. I always end up sitting right at the end of the table with some people I barely know, while all the people I do know end up sitting at the other end of the room, at that part of the table that I will end up calling the "fun" part. Meanwhile, I'll have a polite conversation with someone about the hotel they stay in during the week, or (as on one excruciating occasion) their passion for growing orchids.

I don't know why I'm like this.

Everywhere I go, everything I do, I have this ability to step outside of myself, look down at what I am doing and think "Wanker". I find this inhibiting. I know when I am bullshitting. I know when I have nothing much to say to someone. They don't know it, but I know it and that's enough.

Words. They're the thing. Why do you need a phone? Why go and see people when you can say it so much more articulately in an email?

It's pathetic, and I try to fight it. I make myself ring people up. I force myself to get up off my arse and try to talk to people. I'm 30 years old dammit. I can pretend I'm as socially skilled as the average 10 year old can't I?

Everyone else can.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

We always did feel the same

I feel like I've been hectoring you the last few days.... sorry about that.

Some of the issues we have been talking recently about (both here and elsewhere) have really fired me up - be that Iraq, David Blunkett, poverty and debt in Africa or the musical merits of the Band Aid single.

Please, please tell me if I'm starting to rant though.

Wounds that heal and cracks that fix

Further to yesterday's post, I was reading in the paper today that:

- 45m children will die by 2015 because of the cuts the world's richest nations are making in their donations to tackle poverty.

- 247 million more people in sub-Saharan Africa will be living on less than $1 a day in 2015

- 97 million more children will still be out of school in 2015

- 53 million more people in the world will lack proper sanitation facilities.

Barbara Stocking, Oxfam Director, said:

“As rich countries get richer, they’re giving less and less. This is a scandal that must stop. The world’s poorest children are paying for rich countries’ policies on aid and debt with their lives. 2005 offers the chance of an historic breakthrough, but unless world leaders act now, the year will end in shameful failure.”

Britain is about to take on the presidency of the G8 - the gathering of the world's richest nations (the US, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Canada and Russia) and pressure seems to be mounting to force Blair to do something constructive with this platform.

The problem is that G8 has a pretty poor record at doing this. As Oxfam point out in their report "Paying the Price"

"In 1970 G8 countries agreed to spend just 0.7 per cent of their incomes on aid. Thirty-four years on none of the G8 members have reached this target and many have not even set a timetable.

"In addition, only 40% of the money counted as aid actually reaches the poorest countries, and when it does it is often arrives late. For example, 20 percent of the European Union’s aid arrives at least a year late and 70 percent of American aid is spent on US goods and services.

"At a measly 0.14 per cent of national income, US spending on foreign aid in 2003 was one-tenth of what it spent on Iraq. The US won’t reach the aid target needed to halve world poverty until 2040. Germany won’t reach the target until 2087 while Japan is decreasing its aid commitments."

That's pathetic.

All of this made me think of the Band Aid single again. I just watched a really interesting, and yes, moving documentary on the making of this record. The first "Feed the World" single and Live Aid raised about £84m between them. It's hard not to be cynical about that in the face of the statistic that the interest on the African debt is growing at a rate of $100m per day. True, but Bono talked passionately about how he has met doctors who had been put through medical school in Ethiopia because of the Band Aid Trust. Rather than ranting at the musicians and make accusations of tokenism though, I think we should be saving our anger for the governments that refuse to drop these debts. The British Government has dropped the VAT on the Band Aid single and the Live Aid DVD, which was nice of them, but nowhere near enough.

We should be angry. I'm angry. And dammit. I'm going to do something about it.

Starting here but I'm determined to get off my arse and have started looking into this. We can do something about this. We can make a difference. Instead of the usual collection of CDs and DVDs on your christmas list, ask your family to give you a goat, or a brood of chickens (thanks to C. for that link). It's got to be better than a pair of socks, anyway.

I was going to end with a quote from Bono - a tireless and visible campaigner for Africa. I've changed my mind though, and I'm going to finish with the Edge, who came up with this pearl of wisdom whilst watching Bono rehearsing before laying down his vocal for the Band Aid Single:

"If you look after the consonants, the vowels will look after themselves"

Sleep tight.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Our inclinations, are hidden in looks

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice - not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God: I am a christian because of Owen Meany."

So begins my favourite book, "A Prayer for Owen Meany".

Why is it my favourite book? Well, I am a big fan of John Irving. With the possible exception of Paul Auster, he is my favourite author. I love his characterisation, the way he weaves his plots, the way his characters are rounded and yet not always entirely likeable. Hell, I even quite like the way that all of his books seem to have a protagonist called John who likes wrestling and usually feature a bear in some capacity or other. I had enjoyed a good run of Irving's books when I picked up this one. But all the way through the book, I was mildly disgruntled: it just didn't seem quite right ("not as good as 'The Hotel New Hampshire'" I grumbled). It was good, but not as good as some of his other books, and I wasn't sure why. Then I got to p.632 - pretty much the last page in the whole book - and it all clicked surely into place. I spent ages just sat on my bed, playing the whole thing back in my mind. Totally the most satisying end of any book I have read, and what a master craftsman Irving was to hold the whole thing together and bring it to such a conclusion. Brilliant.

John Irving reckons that line is the best opening sentence of any of his books. If I was writing a book, I think the opening line is where I would start. For this book, above all other books that I have read, this just cannot have been the case. This book was written backwards and you can tell.... the plot signposts are there for all to see, but luckily for me, I only saw them the second time I read the book.

If you haven't read it, go out and find a copy at once (or you can join the waiting list for one of my copies here and here)

What's your favourite book and why?

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Don't leave your torch behind. A powercut ahead; 1972, you know

It seems a bit trivial to mention it really. What with everything else that is happening in the world. There are wars. Governments are being overturned. People are starving. People are dying. Surely this is insignificant in the grand scheme of things? What right do I have to push this onto you? Do you really need to know it? Do you really need to know every tiny, tedious little detail of my life?

Ah, wait a minute.... this is a weblog. Of course you need to know. You want to know. You MUST know.


We had a proper, full-on power cut this evening - everything went off. Lights. Boiler. Fridge. Radio. Street Lights. Phone. Everything. A few burglar alarms started ringing down the street. A couple of people came out of their houses to either fetch a torch from their car, or perhaps just to have a look to check that the blackout was affecting the whole street.

A quick look out of the window told me that the whole area was out, but that central Nottingham was still an orange glow on the horizon, so I felt I could rule out something really terrible.... which had of course crossed my mind....

I rummaged around in the kitchen draw for a torch and wandered upstairs to look for my maglite ("it's never dark in America!") and some candles. The torch was very nearly out of batteries and was getting dimmer second by second. By the time I got to the top of the stairs, I was beginning to feel like I was in a horror film - you know, where you are alone in the dark, and your only source of light is gradually fading, fading away until you are left all alone in the darkness.... or are you alone?

Anyway - I found the maglite and the candles, picked up the battery radio and went back downstairs to eat some soup and see if there was anything on local radio to let me know what was up.

Local radio is shite though, isn't it? Apparently there was some big bash at the Nottingham Arena today, and we were voting on who was the best act... Lamar? McFly ("they let us play live!") and more unutterable shite (there may have been more than one Bedingfield present, I'm afraid to say..... just how many more of them are there waiting to be launched at us? I feel we have a right to know).

It was all a bit weird actually. I grew up in the 1970s when this kind of thing was quite common, and my mum and dad always had a big box of candles, matches and things handy. Living in a town you are never really in the dark. With the streetlights out, it was quite eerie.

After about an hour, the lights came back on, the boiler fired up, the phone tinkled into life and I went back to ironing my shirt for work tomorrow. End of story. Anecdote over.

We really do lead ridiculous pampered lives where losing electricity for an hour is worthy of comment. Perhaps I should go and buy the Band Aid 20 single to make myself feel better about that. Assuage my mild attack of liberal guilt about my pampered western existence. Yeah, that'd just about do it. Now only 79p on ITunes too.

I've just read that Oxfam have announced that compared to what they gave in the 1960s, rich countries are now effectively giving half the amount of aid . Meanwhile, interest on the debt owed is being clocked up at a rate of $100m dollars a day.

A day!

This has made me feel worse.

Perhaps I should buy 2 copies of the Band Aid 20 single. Or maybe bid £1 for an Ipod or 42" plasma tv? Charity christmas cards this year?

We are clearly not doing enough.

Speaking of shameless consumerism, I bought some CDs this weekend:
The Lost Riots - Hope of the States
American Idiot - Green Day

If I get round to it, and can remember what I got when, I'll do an end of year list or something.

I don't recommend Oxford Street in December, by the way.
For some reason this has inspired me to listen to "Appetite for Destruction" for the first time in YEARS. It's great, isn't it? In 1988 I listened to almost nothing else.