Monday, 30 July 2012

Lighting up our territory - thanks Danny Boyle!


The opening ceremony of the Olympics has rightly snatched patriotism away from those who've never understood what it truly involves.

The little-Englanders, the Tory pipsqueak tendency (note: not all Tories), the feeble-minded royalists, the culturally insecure, the racists and the fascists who were never really going to understand Danny Boyle's masterpiece.

And make no mistake, this was a masterpiece - a great work of art, passion and humour. It lit up a stadium in celebration of our territory, our history, our people.

The ceremony will be talked about for a long time to come. Its legacy is already working to unite the people of our country; and already changing, for the better, the view of us held by people across the globe.

And, paradoxically, the ceremony was all the more precious for the fact that it was organised to celebrate something as overblown, corrupt and stupid as the Olympics movement.

Now, there were a few elements of the opening bash that I didn't like much. Seb Coe's ridiculous speech (more about that later); international liberal bores from Central Casting carrying the Olympic flag (honorable exceptions being Muhammad Ali and Doreen Lawrence); the pompous swearing of oaths; the announcements in French; and the anti-doping cant.

But I don't wish to carp. I intend to be positive about something that was a glorious triumph.

So, let's consider that opening ceremony...

It was visually stunning - the rising of those massive industrial chimneys, the cycling doves, the forging of the Olympic rings, the lighting of the cauldron, the fireworks, the beauty of London itself, the giant Voldemort and Marry Poppinses ...

It was aurally exciting. The Jam's 'Going Underground' really got me going, and what a glorious showcase of British pop followed. Hey Jude? Well I don't like it much, but it is great emotional glue for the British, especially when sung by Macca (even though, sadly, his voice is weakened now).

It was deeply spiritual. As someone who has sung along to Abide with Me at Wembley at several Challenge Cup finals, I valued its prominent inclusion at the Olympics. It's a Christian song, of course, and so very suitable for an event which celebrated and narrated Britain's remarkable story - given the enormous role Christianity has played in building culture and morality across our land. Well, where do you think that morality came from? It didn't float down the rivers on punnets of strawberries!

It was multicultural. Hooray! It's about time we got everybody in the mix. What's so hard to understand? What matters is NOT the colour of a person's skin or their faith or their cultural differences; what matters, what bestows dignity, is the simple fact of being HUMAN. All humans are intrinsically worthy of respect and dignity - which is why racism is so vile and / or stupid.

It was patriotic. Yes, Danny Boyle proved he understands what patriotism is about. It's about the people and what is dear to their hearts - like the NHS, music, the countryside etc. No doubt Danny was having a dig at the Government with the NHS tableau, but David Cameron and Boris Johnson are both intelligent guys. They are not going to let that bother them.They recognise Boyle's northern English genius.

But enough of the glorious opening ceremony. What about the games themselves? Oh dear God! This is where I strongly disagree with the synthetic and bland cheering that goes on relentlessly (particularly on the BBC) as people strive to run faster, jump higher and do things stronger than others.

It is not good for a person to obsess about sport and push themselves to physical extremes. It is not a good way to build a proper, rounded human personality. This problem is getting worse. Sports training techniques are becoming ever more extreme and, frankly, weird.

The whole industry of sports training and sports development is wrong. It is psychologically damaging for many. There is no point being a brilliant athlete on the park if, as soon as you open your mouth to speak, you demonstrate that you are staggeringly thick.

And you're thick because you've allowed winning at physical feats to dominate your life and to distort your formation as a human being.

The important things in life are not, in the main, anything to do with winning. Deep down, most people realise this. The important stuff has to do with losing, mainly. We learn a lot from losing. It makes us grow in wisdom.

And the life-affirming aspects of living are much more closely connected to art, poetry, heroism, philosophy, love, science, creating things, healing and caring etc (as the opening ceremony rightly showed) than they are to sport.

And when, in his opening speech at the ceremony, Seb Coe said "in every Olympic sport there is all that matters in life" my heart sank. If he believes that, he is stupid, but I don't think he is stupid. Maybe he's misguided. Or maybe too easily influenced by all the politicking, PR bull***t and capitalist sponsorship that the Olympic movement is all about these days.

Yes! Yes! The Olympics are mainly about politicking by the fat cats of the 'Olympic family' (quick, pass the sick bag!), dreary public relations twaddle, corruption (a huge record of corruption) and doping abuse (another very big problem).

But, as I've intimated, one brilliant thing has come out of these London Olympics - the opening ceremony that might yet change the world. Thank you, Danny Boyle.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

This ghastly blizzard of digital infotainment crap


Sometimes it is clich├ęs such as Stop the World – I Want to Get Off that best capture the zeitgeist.

In the turmoil of the 1960s, even as a small child, I realised there was something profound in that phrase, which was oft-uttered back then.

The phrase retained some popular currency down through the decades, though not because of any great fondness for the show, which is a piece of cheesy sentimental claptrap – as is most musical theatre output, in my view.

The show is about a man dissatisfied with his life, seeking solace in the arms of various women. He’s searching for something better than he has, only to realise, eventually, that it’s the love of his wife that matters. Talk about conceptual mediocrity …

But, now, when I’m in my mid-50s, and the world rushes by in a blizzard of trashy images and infotainment crap, I realise that Stop the World – I Want to Get Off is a neat way of summarising how so many humans feel about living today. We are fatigued by the relentlessness and increasing infantilism and narcissism of digital communications.

I remember the moment, a couple of years ago, when the phrase re-injected itself into my consciousness with renewed vigour for the modern age.

Stop the World – I Want to Get Off, I thought as I handled newswire copy about Lady Gaga dressing up in strips of meat to make a point about human rights, apparently.

She was parading around draped in offal at the MTV awards in LA.

“If we don’t stand up for what we believe in and fight for our rights pretty soon, we are going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones,” she cooed. “And I am not a piece of meat.”

Er, yes love, all right, you’ve made your point, now move along, you’re beginning to stink the place out.

As a craft-trained newspaper journalist, I feel the news has gone weird, with celebrity crap everywhere, thick tarts (men and women) on and off football fields, and telly programmes designed for morons.

We’re heading to Hades in a Ferrari.

When I first started in newspapers, there was a typewriter and an ashtray on every desk, a bollocking editor in every newsroom, union posters on the walls. If the masters upset us hacks, there’d be an immediate mandatory disruptive meeting on the company premises.

It was real. We journalists were in control of the information back then in the 1980s and for much of the 90s.

We were professionals, trained to block out bullshit. We weren’t amateurs like most people now in the digital age. That’s what the web is in essence – publishing for amateurs; all the bonkers bloggers, the posters of emotional diarrhoea on Facebook, and all those tits-in-trance on Twitter.

We real hacks were battle-scarred from all the death knocks we went out on. You don’t know what a tough job is until you’ve stared into the eyes of a mum whose sons have been killed in a road traffic accident on the mean streets of … Colchester, Hackney, Hull and Stirling in my case, plus a few other places.

And we were thumped and spat at by the wrong-doers occasionally, threatened by the powerful and wealthy, but we didn’t care. We got to the truth and told it.

Now, look at the newspapers, full of TV-related trash and public relations drivel.

Years ago, journalists used to talk about the SFW factor. SFW – a test we applied to all potential stories. SFW. So F***ing What? Years ago, most stories that ran would pass that test. But on the day of my writing this a national newspaper breathlessly reports that Jodie Marsh is considering ‘going gay’ because she can’t find love with a man. SFW!

Elsewhere there is much commentary about Jessie J being bisexual. Again, SFW!. It just means that girls don’t fancy her either. (OK I nicked that line from Frankie Boyle.)

The news was real back in my prime as a hack, and newspapers were best at providing it. Generation after generation within the same families had gone out day after day to buy their evening newspaper. That’s how much they valued it.

Imagine if people had to pay to listen to local radio! What a massive turn-off there would be. It’s the same for websites. Very few websites can sustain a paywall. It’s because they’re not loved in the way that newspapers used to be. They don’t have soul, in the way newspapers used to have soul – and proper columnists and colour-writers who’d come up through print journalism rather than being cherry-picked fluff-heads off the telly.

The media. I still work in it, and I have seen it expand massively in quantity and decline hugely in quality simultaneously.

This is not all sour grapes from an auld curmudgeon. There’s a serious point. The explosion in web and mobile phone-based communications is causing human relationships to fragment and weaken, and that's encouraging superficial thinking, stupidity and social isolation. Soon the iPhone is to get an APP for loneliness, I hear.

We've created a world of far too much communication without considering the consequences. No wonder we feel jaded. Stop the World – I Want to Get Off.

What we are gradually losing in the printed word is something resembling truth and beauty, achieved through proper, professional fact-checking and editing. And that is much more valuable than what we're gaining – instant publishing open to virtually all – even the barely literate and the staggeringly thick.

In terms of images and sound (music, film, and spoken word) the digital revolution has led to a terrible dumbing down and coarsening. Ever more startling presentation does not necessarily mean better. That much is clear, at least to me.

As a hack, I’m not just worried about the future of newspapers. I think local radio is dying too.

I’ve been experimenting with my car radio, picking up Heart FM, a programme sponsored by Birds Eye Potato Waffles and hosted by the inane drivel specialist Toby Anstis, who used to be on children's telly. Toby's voice … the adverts for stupid social engineering projects by ‘the government of the Welsh Assembly’ … the crap music. It’s torture beyond endurance.-

And from the BBC my local Radio Merseyside is just as bad. It’s become a glorious self-parody. The “flagship” breakfast show goes like this …

“And just before we have another go at guessing this week’s mystery giggler, here’s travel news from Laura Wannabe…”

“Thanks Snelly. We’re getting reports of major delays … in Greasby where NHS Wirral have been digging a big hole for their unused Quit Smoking press releases. More details as we get them. And if you know something, give us a call, if it’s safe and legal to do so. Laura Wannabe, BBC Radio Merseyside Travel! Now back to Snelly.”

Oh no. Now I’ve gone and done it. I’ve mentioned smoking, and the smoking ban. Stop the World – I Want to Get Off. I love smoking, and I think it was an act of neo-fascist violence by the State to ban smoking in workplaces – particularly in pubs and restaurants. For me it has ruined pubs and restaurants.

The publicly funded anti-smoking campaigns in the UK are truly sinister in their attempts to rewrite cultural history and force people to stop taking part in a long-established social pleasure.

Not since the Nazis ruled Germany has there been such a determined attempt to stigmatise smoking.

The Nazi anti-tobacco campaign included: banning smoking in trams, buses and city trains, promoting health education, limiting cigarette rations, organising medical lectures for soldiers, and raising the tobacco tax.

The Nazi authorities also imposed restrictions on tobacco advertising and smoking in public spaces, and regulated restaurants and coffeehouses.

But Hitler's henchmen never went as far as the last Labour Government did here – helped by its cronies in councils, schools and the NHS.

The Nazis never managed to ban smoking totally inside virtually all workplaces, including pubs and restaurants.

No-one points out the undoubted health benefits of smoking, Yes, that's right - the health benefits!

Smoking is the best reliever of stress we have. And stress is a killer. By their campaign of pressuring and persecuting smokers, our modern-day health Nazis have added to the stress of millions of good people.

Millions die unnecessarily because of the efforts of public health zealots – including all those employed to wage war on smokers by local councils.
I’ve no doubt that many more people will now suffer fatal strokes and heart attacks while under stress because they have been coerced into giving up smoking.

Also a massive problem for our country is obesity. People who are pressured into quitting smoking start snacking on crisps and cakes as a replacement for ciggie breaks. The result – more fat, unhealthy people.
Not that this is primarily a health issue – it's a freedom issue, and that’s more important. There is little point being healthy if you have your freedom taken away.

Stop the world. I want to get off, but not just yet, eh?

Time for a bifter break first…