Jacques Brel Revisited: The Bulls

May 28th, 2011

I discovered Jacques Brel in my teens (via Bowie, Marc Almond, Goodbye Mr Mackenzie and the like, no doubt). And each time I go back, I find his songs as fresh as ever.

This song is called “Les Toros”

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Like so many of his songs (The Bigots, The Waltz in a Thousand Time, Amsterdam), it starts pleasantly enough but with lyrical twists and rising musical tension builds to a spine-tingling crescendo of passion or anger.

The Bulls (above) describes a nice day out to see bull-fighting, sunny day, people dressing up; but gradually introduces bloody imagery until it ends:

And when finally they fell
Did not the bulls dream of some hell
Where men and worn-out matadors still burn, aaahh.
Or perhaps with their last breaths
Would they not pardon us their deaths
Knowing what we did at
Carthage, Waterloo, Verdun, Stalingrad, Iwo Jima, Hiroshima, Saigon!


What happened to tripods?

November 9th, 2010

NYPD Blue with its constant camera shake was nauseating when it first appeared. It seemed like a gimmick that would not be repeated, something very specific to that programme. Yet, now it’s become the norm for “gritty” real-life dramas. (It’s not even that new – consider the steadicam use in films like “Scum” in the 1970s – also aiming at gritty.)

I guess there are two changes that have brought this about:

  • cameras are lighter and don’t need sturdy support
  • image clarity has meant that  camera movement doesn’t result in blurry smears

But there’s something else too: a cultural shift. Whereas thirty years ago, it was considered somewhat amateur to have wobbly camerawork, it’s now considered positively, a liberation.

But more than that: it’s now seen as a signifier of authenticity for footage to be handheld. It’s a statement of proof that it hasn’t been faked. Of course this is nonsense: it’s just as easy to add to some fake handheld motion to some filmed animation, 3D model insertion or photoshopped trickery; and 3D model insertion is perfectly capable of following camera movements (see action adventures or even live election night broadcasts)

Watch the video for Hiszekeny by Venetian Snares. Clearly, it’s stop-frame animation but we are asked to accept it’s handheld.

I hate to sound old-fashioned but I miss the stability of fixed cameras.

Television has Changed and I Don’t Like It

July 4th, 2010

For a period of around 5 years I had no telly. My ex had left and got that (I kept the washing machine, so no complaints).

I was surprised at how little I missed it!

You know if you see a child growing up each day you don’t see the gradual changes, but if you meet that child at yearly intervals, the changes seem vast (“My, how you’ve grown!”)? Well, this is how it was for me and TV. It seemed a vast shift had happened in the output. It felt like it was no longer aimed at me.

Four main observations from that period late 90s to early 2000s:

  • the target age appeared to have dropped significantly and now, rather than adults, television treated us as children – or immature, pranky, witless students
  • it had moved from being reasonably intelligent, like a broadsheet newspaper, to totally tabloid, including being in awe of celebrities
  • producers were hellbent on making audience interact, usually in quite desperate ways
  • swearing seemed to be completely acceptable in any context

Target Age

Sure, there had been plenty of silly immature stuff in the early 90s: The Word, James Whale… But rather than being late night, back-from-the-pub fare, it had now seeped into pretty much all programme making. Presenters made a virtue of being stupid or irresponsible, which becomes a bit weary-making very quickly.

Tabloid TV

Maybe this is the same point as above. But more than the infantile presentation, there seemed to be a new focus on celebrities, on gossip, on the lewd or violent.

Interactive TV

There’s always been a bit of of interactivity. I wrote to “Think Of A Number” for factsheets when I was a kid, sent pictures to “Vision On” and collected bottle tops for “Blue Peter“.

And now, with the web, getting hold of programme information should be a whole lot easier/smoother. It should barely be worth mentioning.

Yet, they feel the need to constantly badger us to vote, call a number, email, text, press the red button, whatever. This is just an annoying distraction from programmes. And feels so desperate, which I guess it is: the measures of engagement is based on these interactions and producers need to beg us to validate them.


I’m really not particularly offended personally. And it can be quite funny sometimes, when used in eg. quizzes. What feels wrong is not that they have moved the threshold but that there is no threshold any more, no thought going into whether it’s appropriate. Anything goes; we don’t care.

And there’s more…

This new idea of striping seemed to have come along. Instead of a series which would run every Thursday at 9.30, they’d put the series on over the whole week: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday… get it over with quickly. The chances of me being in regularly on one night of the week was far more likely than me being available every single night of one week.

Had the producers concluded that we no longer can retain a plot over a period of weeks? That we’d forget it if we didn’t the next episode just 24 hours later? Or was this just an aspect of the insanely annoying lack of patience that TV now has?

The Myth Of Strong Government

May 11th, 2010

hitleransmussoliniI keep hearing people on all sides saying what we need is “a strong and stable government. ” By strong we seem to mean unchallengeable: Supreme Power. In a democracy?

Coalition is NOT a failure of politics – it’s a success. We need people talking to each other, checking each other, stopping each other doing stupid things. It’s majority government that fails people by not representing the true breadth of views of the people.

Not that many days ago a few Conservatives and much of the right-wing press appeared to be calling for something like the equivalent of Acerbo Law (look it up). It was essentially a way to strengthen a party who didn’t quite have a majority – so that they do have a majority. Deeply undemocratic. And it resulted in Mussolini’s fascists gaining great power in the 1920s.

I’m finding myself getting extremely angry about the way all this has been conducted. The secrecy. The way politicians seem to have forgotten that they’re public servants. I’m angry with the LibDems for so easily and quickly teaming with the Conservatives. And I’m angry with Labour for being so unflexible and not engaging in discussions.

If we’re going to have coalition government, let’s have proper coalition government - where all the popular parties are represented.

I’d like to hope we’re moving away from majority government and into an era of coalitions. (PR will ensure this.) And if this is the case, then the parties have to grow up and accept that things need to be done differently. A proper democratic coalition would have Lab, Con, Lib around the table, getting proportional amount of seats in cabinet etc. I suspect it will take the British political culture a long time to work this out. But maybe in a decade things will be more civilised and more democratic.

So we have our ConDem government (probably). We can only hope that if Cameron tries to do anything seriously damaging to the country, then LibDems will vote against it. We can only hope that the LibDems have not committed themselves so deeply that there’s no way out. They can bring down this government if they want. Of course, the grim reality is that the LibDems have no money left for another election (unlike Labour and Conservative who can raise money from their rich friends). So they’re stuck there.

Last word to Mark Steel on twitter: “Now I know it’s not entirely your fault, but it’s only fair if all of you who voted LibDem to ‘Keep the Tories out’ lines up for a good slap.”

How to call politicians to order

May 2nd, 2010

There are still things bugging me about the Leaders Debate.

  • The fact that the audience was not allowed to clap, boo, cheer or react in any way. To be honest the whole thing was set up to be so sterile it was close to pointless. The leaders were so busy trying to remember their lines that they didn’t even listen (and react) to the garbage the others were spouting. Or maybe they weren’t allowed; was that the agreed etiquette? (even the ghastly screensaver background made me think someone had made a decision to simply mesmerise us… it was just some ambient TV)
  • Cameron proposed a dole system where, if you were offered a job and turned it down, then you would get benefits cut or removed (the impression he gave was that this problem was so widespread and so damaging that it was destroying society… nonsense, but that’s another issue); Brown, apparently oblivious to what had just been said, pretty much parrotted the same. An no one stopped them to say actually this is already the case! I know this, I was unemployed for a period last year.
  • There was a general agreement on the “need to make cuts” but no willingness to discuss with clarity and exactness where those cuts should be. (“We’ll look after the NHS” – doesn’t seem to turn into an assurance that nothing will be cut there. Or “there will be cuts, but we’ll protect anything important” without specifying what is considered protected)
  • David Cameron believes the banks should lend small businesses more because it’s “our money” the banks have. Great, but what policies will you put in place to force the banks to do this? And how does this fit with your determination to “cut red tape” and remove regulation. It made no sense, and no one batted an eyelid.
  • Commentators discussing as if it’s a debating competition and we’re supposed to award a prize for best technique. Look how confident his facial expression was this time, how his posture has improved, how much more he smiled, how sincere he appeared, or how well he could do passion.

We need to get back to real challenge of what the politicians are saying, and actually expose them when they are saying nothing. There’s been a lot of talk of the power of Twitter in this election, but I see that as fairly marginal (aside from the interesting, and essentially private, viewing experience I had on Thursday following twitter while watching TV) – twitter is brief and silly. It’s not a robust enough form of communication for real challenge.

What we need is the equivalent of scientific peer review: Wikipedia. It gives a structured way to challenge nonsense:

  • require citations
  • forum discussing individual points and challenges
  • no weasel words
  • clear rules about relevancy etc. (prevents sales pitches)

no hiding behind pseudo-semantics.

So we’d have none of this nonsense about cuts, without any substance to the statements – because people wouldn’t let them get away with it!

It’s quite simple. I just want politicians to answer the questions that are put to them. And it’s not good enough for them to act like they think the questions aren’t worth answering.

The other big problem with the way politicians are speaking is that they are not laying out a table of exact programmes and decided policies. They want us just to like them and to trust them. They all want to “get into power” and be left to “make decisions” as things present themselves in the future. In reality there is very little of that in real politics. But people (politicians, managers…), being lazy and arrogant, want to be left to make judgements and choices at the last minute, and not have to commit now. How many times have we heard a politician say “well, I’m not going to answer a hypothetical question!” But that’s exactly what they should be doing. Unless they can be clear about exactly how they will make decisions, they’re not telling us anything!

How they make decisions is a significantly harder thing to express of course. It’s a meta-level. It goes deeper into the philosophical background of people’s fundamental beliefs. It would be fascinating to explore these, but realistically it’s even more an area politicians would not like to discuss. They actually pretend it’s undiscussable. They want to keep things vague, because they think this will make them more powerful (and incidentally explains why they are so petrified of a hung parliament) – because if they’ve committed to everything in advance, then they’re not really powerful decision makers, they’re just slaves carrying out orders…

Bah! Humbug.

Politicians should not be content with the superficial, with half-awake photo-opportunities, with making vague promises, and attention-grabbing unsubstantiated claims.

I’m off to watch the real thinkers on TED.

Politicians deflect

April 30th, 2010

Leaders debate time again. So bland. They all say stuff like “Banks should help small businesses more.” OK, great, but what are you going to legislate to make this happen. It’s that step that’s missing.

I have a picture in my mind of the politicians standing up on stage, holding bats. Members of the audience are chucking balls at them. These guys are well practiced, and hot every single ball back. Wow, we can be impressed by that. But it’s not what they should be doing. The should be catching the balls and investigating them, addressing them. Real engagement, not just Quick-get-rid-of-it approach.

And I can’t help feeling that the people who currently make it to the top in politics are the ones who are best at deflecting, rather than the ones who have clearest thinking processes or best ideas. Sad and disappointing state of affairs. And all the commentators talking about the performances are simply propagating this superficial view of “how well he came across.”

[There were a couple exceptions where real issues/policies came to the fore: Clegg saying Council House schemes should be started again, for example]

An articulate but clearly frustrated woman in Question Time audience tonight derided the panel for never answering questions. People had come to ask questions. And the politicians were insulting us by simply taking those questions as cues for prepared speeched. Or to patronisingly say “I hear what you’re saying.” (when clearly they didn’t listen)

The twitter comments from Chris Addison, Will Self, Charlie Brooker, Mark Steel, Mark Watson during the debates were the most incisive. Maybe comedians and writers feel free to say what they observe. And politicians aren’t. Well, there’s the problem…

Favourite tweets:

  • watsoncomedian:  Ah, at last we’re back to talking about ‘relevant things we’ve recently done’. This week’s theme: ‘I recently went to a factory’.
  • mrmarksteel: “I visited a manufacturer today…” How does that make you an authority? I bet you don’t tell us who you visited yesterday.
  • mrmarksteel: Cameron’s a Tory to help manufacturing apparently. Like his hero Thatcher – manufacturing manufacturing manufacturing – all she ever did.
  • mrmarksteel: “9 energy ministers, 2 of which were the same person.” Well that’s 8 then you innumerate twat.
  • watsoncomedian: Strange remark from Brown – ‘I’m pleased to say a majority of students are now women’. Did some of them change sides?
  • watsoncomedian: Cameron maintains his 100% record of agreeing with the questioner. He has yet to begin a response with ‘well, firstly, that’s bollocks…’
  • charltonbrooker: If only someone would just invent a magic fun-job-creating machine, this bit of the debate would be far shorter.

Last word from Janet Street-Porter, on QT: “I’ll tell you why I want a hung parliament. Because I want all these politicians to Grow Up!”

Gillian Duffy and politicians not paying attention

April 29th, 2010

So… Brown makes a painful gaffe – well, it’s injected some interest into politics – this would make a fab episode of The Thick Of It, if it didn’t seem too far fetched!

I hated his patronising attitude (that stuff about her job) but this is what politicians are pushed into. And his answer was actually very good on the issue of a million immigrants from Europe: he said a million British people were living in the rest of Europe, that this is just how people can move about.

And Gillian Duffy? Well, we’re not allowed to criticise her now. Even quite intelligent commentators are talking about the important issues she raised/questions she asked. She didn’t. Read the transcript. There was no actual question about immigration. In fact what she said was “all these eastern European what are coming in, where are they flocking from?” Er… Eastern Europe? (She’s going to make an est. £250,000 if she agrees to interviews, and is now a part of British political history. A footnote, perhaps, but famous forever.)

He’s clearly been told to keep smiling – but this looked creepy during his apology on her doorstep.

And everyone has said something they’d be ashamed to have overheard. So it seems there’s some sympathy towards him.

[Am I the only one that suspects the whole Gillian Duffy thing was a set up by Labour PR? A fall and a public apology, the human side of Brown? It's all too perfect... (Duffy's careful use of agenda, her scruplulously perfect background...) ...yeah, maybe not...]

gordon-brown-sleeping-6-17-081He has gone away with an impression that she was berating him from a xenophobic point of view, which wasn’t truly the case. But it was an impression. He wasn’t listening. Here’s what that tells us: he’s not paying attention.

And this is what worries me – politicians not paying attention.

The spin is that Brown was out “meeting real people” but the truth is that he’s not meeting, he’s only shaking hands for a photo opportunity. Pathetic.

More on politicians not paying attention:

  • Graham Linehan reports a couple of stunning errors. The letter where “Stephen Timms thinks that the IP in IP address stands for Intellectual Property.  Absolutely no crime in that, unless you happen to be The Minister For Digital Britain, which Timms happens to be. ” He ends noting “These people want to lead us
  • Marcus Brigstocke notices a candidate leaflet which spells Iraq “Eraq”. On the front page!
  • Cameron on that 10 year old navy recruit

Terreblanche and crazy names

April 28th, 2010

The thing that struck me recently about the murder of a South African White Supremacist was his name: Terreblanche. I could be completely wrong but doesn’t that mean something like Land Of The White? Is it just a crazy coincidence that he happened to have this name alongside his political views or did someone in his family choose to change it to match their agenda?

(It looks like he was murdered by one/some of his black farm workers who had a dispute over conditions/pay. Given that Terreblanche had spent time in prison for beating up one of his staff to the point of paralysis, you can see how things might get heated.)

And families (not just royal families) do change their names to fit changed circumstances or changed aspirations.

John Cleese’s father was called Cheese – but he didn’t regard it as a serious enough name, so changed it. He had aspirations for his son to be a lawyer and “Cheese” would make him a laughing stock. Imagine! Cheese would only be a suitable name for someone who went into surreal comedy…

I’d been curious about Chuck Palahniuk (a favourite author of mine). I guessed maybe some native Indian name. But his parents were called Paula and Nick, and made it up. Seems somehow disappointing.

I love the crazy names people end up with… (anyone remember Randy Bumgardner, the Whitehouse spokesman?). Popbitch is good at finding them.

This one got a lot of exposure last week (retweets, mainly, and the Register) but is so wonderful, it bears repeating: an article in the Times about sex abuse in the Vienna Boy’s Choir was written by someone called Roger Boyes! For real.

Meanwhile, the Beaver Magazine in Canada, after over a century, has had to change its name – because of the Scunthorpe Problem.

Armando Iannucci’s 10 Questions for Blair

January 30th, 2010

I’ve been reading Armando Iannucci’s “Audacity of Hype” recently. It’s patchy as you might expect – some throwaway random stupidity but also some really really on-the-ball political and social comment.
(With the launch of the iPad the other day, I coincidentally came across the spoof of the iPhone launch. Hilarious: describing Steve Jobs explaining you don’t even have to touch it, you just wink at this icon here.)

Much more interestingly, he’s been saving the rest of us the trouble and paying very close attention to the Chilcot Enquiry, posting a series of tweets in the run up to Tony Blair’s questioning: http://twitter.com/AIannucci – a list of questions they should (but probably won’t) ask. Questions that really expose the changes of mind and hypocrisies.

I’m taking the liberty of repeating the full set here. I think these really expose the level of scandal that has gone on. (I’ve tidied up the abbreviations and typos a little to make it more readable)

1 Was regime change an aim? Campbell diary Apr 2nd ’02 records you said it was, though Straw agrees that aim is illegal

2 Advisor Manning writes Jan23 ’03 your support for Bush even if no UN vote. Mar ’03 you tell House of Commons no decision taken. Explain.

3. On Sep 24th ’02, you told Commons Saddam could get nuke ‘within a year or two.’ No intelligence ever claimed this. Explain.

4 Between 7+17th Mar’03 Attorney General changed war from illegal to legal. How many helped revise advice? Are you happy they talk to Inquiry?

5 Did Attorney General’s wife play any part in change of advice from Illegal to Legal? Would you be happy for her to speak to Inquiry?

6 Wilmshurst resignation note was censored for “security”. Censored bit referred to 7th Mar advice war is illegal. Not security. Explain.

Q for Goldsmith. Do you stand by claim you changed Iraq advice to “legal” yourself? Happy for wife and Lord Falconer to confirm this?

7 Legal advice was war illegal as self defence as Saddam not planning imminent attack. Why did you not retract 45minute claim?

8 Why did you present Attorney General’s advice to Cabinet, Commons and Military as clear and unequivocal when you knew it wasn’t?

9 Last Dec John Prescott said ‘Bush is crap. You know it, I know it, the party knows it.’ Why were our troops at his disposal?

10. Did you let political considerations delay proper military planning and financing, especially over troop equipment?

I could barely bring myself to listen to Blair’s answers… I will write more on this topic when I’ve calmed down a bit.

Some like it hot; not me

July 5th, 2009

weathersymbolbbcI get laughed at for saying I don’t like hot weather. After all, don’t people pay a fortune to go and sit on sunny beaches far away each year?

And what we associate with hot weather (being on holiday, nothing to do, dressed sensibly, able to sleep whenever we want, air conditioned hotels) doesn’t match the reality of our day-to-day life.

So now that we’ve got horrible hot weather here, everyone complains. “It’s too hot”, “It’s stuffy, close, …uncomfortable!”

And I agree. I’d much prefer some coolness and some rain. See, we’re not really set up for dealing with the heat in Britain. The London tube is like the depths of Hell (temp >40 degrees); we don’t have shutters or siestas… We just battle on as if it was cold weather.