Saturday, 18 December 2010

Ten years without Kirsty

In early December of 2000 I came home to my parents' house from a not entirely unsuccessful first term reading social anthropology at Sussex.

At the time I was writing a lot; I had recently started writing online for pleasure with a group of friends, and those two weeks would see me spend a lot of time sitting on the sofa by the Christmas tree tapping away on my laptop.

On Monday December 18th I was sitting in the front room with the radio on, and about mid-afternoon, as it was beginning to get dark, the news came on and told me that the singer Kirsty MacColl had died in Mexico.

The story bears repeating; Kirsty had been on holiday with her children, scuba diving at a place called Cozumel. Whilst diving in a restricted zone, a powerboat entered the area illegally and, in attempting to move her sons from danger, she was struck and killed.

It is thought that the owner of the powerboat, a Mexican supermarket magnate, paid off a deckhand to take the blame, and the corruption at the heart of Mexican government means he has never been held accountable for his actions. The family's campaign for justice continues a decade later...

Kirsty was not a particularly well-recognised singer, or even especially famous, but even if you think yourself unfamiliar with her work then trust me, you are not; for example, 'In These Shoes', a track from her last and possibly best album, the Latino and jazz-influenced Tropical Brainstorm, was later used as the theme tune to the Catherine Tate Show.

These days, she is probably best remembered for her collaboration with The Pogues on 'Fairytale of New York', probably my favourite Christmas song and one that I always keep on rotation on iTunes during December.

I prefer to remember her other work. There's not a lot of it; Kirsty did not record extensively, took long breaks between albums, and suffered from terrible stage fright.

All the same she recorded some wonderful, life-affirming and often hilariously funny tracks, from the powerful cry for independence of 'My Affair' to the beautifully observed vignette that is 'England 2, Columbia 0', and more besides, each song delivered in that unmistakable Croydon accent.

I'd love to know what albums she would have gone on to do, what tricks she still had up her sleeve. We'll never know.

Today marks 10 years since Kirsty's tragic death, and like I do every year, I will be playing her music as loud as I can.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

The Borisycle cometh...

On Friday, London witnessed the not wholly unsuccessful launch of the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme, our very own version of Paris' Velib programme and the apparent culmination of Mayor Boris Johnson's avowed desire to get us all on two wheels.

Now, I'm no fan of the big-haired blond bombshell - pictured here by yours truly in Sutton last April, campaigning with the loathsome bigot Philippa Stroud - but I have to say I am, in theory, fully on-board with his big plans for cycling, and I believe it to be a genuine enthusiasm.

However, having thought through the London scheme, I'm not at all convinced it's a good thing. Here's why.

1) The bike docking stations are peppered across a comparatively small area of central London, but Boris has said they are meant to get people out of their cars and onto bikes.

The thing is people do not drive into central London in that way; I believe that without extensive, station-based docking points in the suburbs, the scheme is basically a lame duck. It will achieve nothing more than getting people off the Tube and the bus system and reducing fare revenues.

2) As a corollary to 1), it will find favour among tourists, who are unfamiliar with British traffic law - let's not even get started on driving on the left - and are liable to be a danger to themselves and others.

3) It is indubitably dangerous. The bikes are heavy and hard to move. In thick traffic it will be hard to get out of a sticky situation or manoeuvre around fast-moving vehicles (especially moody cabbies). Frankly I am waiting with resignation for news of the first Borisycle death. Also, no helmets or locks. And a £300 fine if the bike is nicked on your watch? F**k that.

4) The scheme conforms to a Tory ideal of cycling, besuited executives with bicycle clips on their pinstripe suits, pretty girls in summer dresses flying through Notting Hill with organic veg in the basket. It has nothing to do with the gritty, often wet and frequently dangerous reality of cycling in London. It is an upper-middle-class perk that I doubt - although I'd love it to be otherwise - will appeal beyond that group, and a reflection of Conservative ideals.

In my view, there are so many other things that need to be done to make cycling in London a safer, viable option for all before spending cash on a flagship scheme.

For instance.... Why did Boris not consider mandating cycle training among taxi and bus drivers? Why no mirrors at junctions to help lorry drivers see us? Why not enforce advanced cycle waiting areas at lights? Why not investigate the possibility of allowing bikes to left-turn on red, a move that could save lives? Why not refresh the substandard, dangerous, counter-intuitive cycle lane infrastructure that we do have?

A coherent cycle-centric transport policy, combined with effective education of both bike users (stay off the f**king pavement, stop at the lights) and car drivers (at least three feet when passing, keep out of the damn ASZ) could get thousands of Londoners out of their cars and create a virtuous cycle - pun intended - of biking.

I believe - and the example of the Netherlands and Copenhagen is pretty compelling evidence - that when more people take to the road on two wheels, creating a critical mass of bike riders, the net result is that usage of dirty, dangerous cars decreases, and the remaining drivers become used to bikes and drive around them safely.

But the London cycle hire scheme is not going to accomplish that. It wrongly assumes that we have reached that point of critical mass, and that those menaces of London roads, the taxi and van drivers, are going to accept a bike-centric status quo right off the bat.

It's a case of cart before horse if I ever saw one. If anything, inexperienced people wobbling around the city on heavy bikes is going to increase frictions.

Now, this said, I could see myself taking advantage of the scheme. For short trips of under 30 minutes it is free; I am a proficient rider and could probably get across Zone 1 in that timeframe. In nice weather, for a short hop from, say, Chinatown to Oxford Street, or along the South Bank, it makes sense. I could even use it for work; I'm often in town for interviews and briefings and the idea of being able to ride to them is appealing.

Yes, I will probably use the scheme eventually, but at the same time I am really not comfortable with it.

At any rate, I've not signed up for the full £45 p/a membership, I'm going to bide my time and wait for it to be made available to casual users and then, if I get any value out of it, I may consider joining.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Thoughts on Election Eve

Five years ago I wrote a blog on why I intended to vote Liberal Democrat. Well, I wish I could tell you to vote Liberal Democrat again. I was thoroughly impressed with their performance in this campaign and the debates. Many of their policies make sense to me, and it I believe is high time we addressed the thorny question of electoral reform. Nick Clegg has promised this and I wish him luck.

But here’s the Independent’s exceptional Johann Hari on the changes wrought by a Conservative council in West London. This is a story of a council that turfed an eight-month pregnant domestic abuse victim onto the streets, advising her to seek accommodation in the private sector after closing down vital homeless shelters that Labour set up. This is a story of a council that closed a century-old youth club facility that, under a Labour council dispensed CV advice and UCAS forms. Now the kids that used it are on the streets and, oh, here’s a thing, ASBOs are up! Crime is already up under the Tories and if they win the parliamentary election it will rise across the board.

Perhaps most tellingly, this is a story of a council that sold one of London’s most beautiful parks, where local kids played football, to a polo consortium that tore out local facilities and now shuts the park down every so often so that rich Tory yahoos from Eton and Harrow can come in and play a sport that nobody gives a toss about, and then piss off and drive their coupes around west London and get smashed on £200 cocktails in Mahiki!

Who needs a polo pitch in Hammersmith? Get in your bloody four-by-fours and drive to Windsor!

The Conservatives don’t want London to be a city where the rich and poor and local and immigrant live cheek by glorious, messy jowl. They want to force the rest of us out and hand our city over to toffs.

This nightmare vision – which is happening, today, in Hammersmith and Fulham, and Wandsworth, where I live, and other Tory-controlled councils – is what Dave ‘Botox’ Cameron has in store for us all.

The Conservatives have come at us claiming to have changed, claiming to have become the party of tolerance, but that mask of tolerance has not just slipped, it is on the ground in pieces and behind it is the same old, twisted, evil face that stomped on the miners, brought in Section 28 and the Poll Tax and privatised an improving railway system for a quick buck.

That face has taken in many. It’s taken in progressives; it’s taken in people who want to get back at Gordon Brown for being a tad socially awkward at times, or people who are still smarting over Iraq. It’s taken in people who have forgotten the amazing work Labour has done in the past 13 years to make this country brilliant.

That face speaks to a more sinister spectre than closed youth clubs or help for single mums. The Christian right is lurking behind Botox Dave; its candidates, one of whom was linked at the weekend to prayer centres purporting to ‘cure’ gay people, are standing in this election and taking out injunctions to stop our media asking them tough questions.

I can't stand to see the Christian right gain leverage over British politics; even with Barack Obama in the White House their influence still looms large over American politics.

If Cameron gets in, better not be young or gay or disabled, better not be a low-earner, better not get pregnant, or be a victim of domestic abuse. Better not drive while Muslim, or walk down the street while black. You’ll get nothing from them.

If Cameron gets in, kiss bye-bye to the progressive agenda for the next five years, and maybe more for, as Jonathan Friedland wrote in this morning’s Guardian, they will get to work on gerrymandering the country to reduce the number of MPs at Westminster – a stated policy and one you can bet they will follow up – and shore-up a Conservative majority for the next election.

This naked political cynicism scares me silly. In the last few weeks, the Conservatives have laid into people like me and other left-leaning progressives for trying to scare people off them with negative campaigning. But with their attack ads plastered over London they sure can teach us a thing or two about negative campaigning. Talk to the hand, Tory boys. I’m done listening to your apologists.

So here’s my negative campaign. Unless you are rich, white and straight you should be damn scared of a Conservative majority. You should be scared out of your mind.

This is why the only possible choice for me tomorrow is Labour, and if you value what this country has become, fairer, safer and more tolerant, then I believe the only choice for you is Labour.

If, like me, and the majority of Britons who supported a centre-left, progressive agenda in the 2005 election, you’re proud to live in a country that is politically correct, then the only choice is Labour.

If, like me, you have the guts to forgive boobs like Iraq, identity cards and the risible Digital Economy Act, then the only choice is Labour.

Yes, we’ve got problems, but I would prefer 10 more years of Gordon Brown than 10 minutes of David Cameron.

Please vote tomorrow and keep this country on the right track.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Reading List 2010

Hello again.

As vaguely promised before, I'm trying to get myself into the writing mood by sharing some thoughts on the books I'm reading this year. I've been plugging away at Defence of the Realm, a twenty tonne diplodocus of a book that is hard to hold upright, yet alone wave around on the upper deck of a crowded bus, so I'm saving that for home reading and have embarked on some other, more flexible, titles.

At the end of last week I finished Geisha of Gion. This is Mineko Iwasaki's riposte to Memoirs of a Geisha. Iwasaki was formerly one of Japan's most successful 20th century geishas, or geiko, in the 60s and 70s and anonymous interviews with her formed much of the basis of Arthur Golden's Memoirs. Unfortunately Golden is apparently a bit of an arse, and subsequently made it clear that Iwasaki had broken the unofficial geisha code of silence, as well as substantially re-writing her experiences to imply that geishas are nothing more than prostitutes and that Iwasaki had herself been forcibly deflowered at a coming of age ceremony - something that simply does not happen in modern-day Japan.

Having not read Memoirs I'm barely qualified to critique it in any way, but the response paints a far more intriguing, almost feminist, picture of a secretive - and threatened - ritualised lifestyle that blows apart notions of prostitution and shows geisha as empowered, intelligent and successful businesswomen. If you read Memoirs, this should be picked up for an alternative viewpoint.

Yesterday I started The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, which I picked up on a 3 for 2 in Waterstones some months ago and never got around to reading. This is Booker nominated and so far it's very good, pitched as a conversation between a bearded Muslim and an unnamed American in a Lahore cafe, the story is told entirely as a monologue from the Pakistani. In the opening pages of the book, he takes his guest through his experiences as a Princeton scholar and his time as a graduate trainee at a New York finance company up to 9/11.

Hamid has crafted a very well-rounded, sympathetic central character whose speech you can almost hear in your head, which as a reader, is keeping me turning the pages - your experience may vary. As to the identity of his American friend, we are left guessing, but the early implication is that he is an off-duty army officer or intelligence operative. I'm hoping the second half of the book is going to develop in an interesting direction.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Happy New year

Hello, all two of you.

There's lots to get through and lots to plan this year, not least an impending wedding, so at the minute, feeling vaguely energised - which might have something to do with all the coffee I just drank - and basking in the winter sunshine, I'm trying to take the changes that are going to happen during 2010 as a cue to start writing here, and in other places, again. I've been blogging on various platforms since December 2001 and have a pretty thorough record of most of what I got up to between that time and the middle of 2005. It would be nice to keep it going.

I also got given a rather lovely Moleskine notebook by my brother for Christmas - I'm not sure why, he usually gets me a boxset of some kind, but apparently did all his Christmas shopping on a layover at Singapore airport, so that's okay and it really is a lovely gift. I'm going to use it to start writing for my own gratification again.

All this said it looks like it's going to be a pretty momentous year for both of us; we're heading inexorably towards civil partnership and everything that entails. The Boy will start his accountancy training. We'll move to a better flat. It's like the plot of that Tracy Chapman song, in a slightly-but-not-really kind of way.

But what else do people do to keep themselves inspired to continue with this sort of thing. I know a lot of people like to keep their readers updated on their own reading, so ... a reading list? What do I really read that's worth writing about these days? I mostly read non-fiction, but I suppose it might do to keep a tally of the stuff I pick up and - hopefully - make it through this year. Let's give that a go as well.

This year my big Christmas book was Defence of the Realm, Christopher Andrew's authorised biog of MI5. This is a real Billy-bender of a tome and I've not got very far into it yet. I'm still working my way through the early, pre-World War 1 history of the service, which seems to consist of a couple of blokes behind a desk cooking up conspiracy theories about the Kaiser, based mostly on pulp fiction spy novels and with the help of the paranoid Daily Mail owner Lord Rothermere, who later claimed in a series of wills and testaments that the German government was trying to kill him by poisoning his ice cream.

The mistaken belief that Britain had a viable and all-knowing intelligence service was apparently widely-held on the Continent during the Edwardian age, something that prompted the Germans into setting up services of their own to counter it, an interesting nugget of information, I thought.

Nevertheless, this one looks to be a worthy read and I'm looking forward to it. More thoughts, maybe, as they come.

I've also been reading Steve Roud's excellent reference London Lore which I got last Christmas (meaning, at this point, 2008). It's good for dipping into and out of at leisure. Roud, a folklore researcher and apparently former Local Studies Librarian in Croydon, puts a great deal of work into examining not just the telling of obscure London ghost stories or the histories of fairs and traditions long-forgotten, but also their origins and the layers of telling and re-telling and hearsay that surround local myth and legend.

With these layers stripped away, it becomes quite easy to see how an unconnected series of events could lead to sightings of cowled monks in City churchyards or the belief that x and y could prevent z. Now, the foundations of myth and belief were things we touched upon during my disastrously ill-advised stint as a social anthropologist at university, so they still pique my interest today, even though I think I probably should have done English or something.

Friday, 27 February 2009

The art of twitterquette

I had an encounter with an interesting new aspect of the Twitter experience this week, having been pretty much converted to the whimsical charms of exposing my soul to Stephen Fry and wondering if Jonathan Ross might follow me back in 140 characters or less - and what the hell I'd do if he did.

So, to set our scene, a couple of days ago I decided to go through the list of people who I was following and have a bit of a purge. I kept all my strange internet friends and I kept my work contacts, but some of the celebritwits would have to go.

Step up Elijah Wood (never updates his feed), David Mitchell (funny guy but marginally less interesting on Twitter than Mark Corrigan) and Boris Johnson (is Boris Johnson).

"Just purged my following list for the first time," I tweeted. "Farewell Boris Johnson, you horrible Tory oaf. I don't know what I was thinking."

I can't stand Boris Johnson. His policies and his racist, homophobic attitudes appall me. His buffoonish exterior is unbecoming of a career politician and I fear that he is being used as a test-bed by the Conservatives for their style of government when they inevitably walk away with the next election. Perhaps most of all the the god-like 'ironic' regard in which he is held by many of my peers makes me vomit a little in my mouth when I think about it.

Oh, let's be clear that for the record I loathe Ken Livingstone as well, but he used to be my near-neighbour in Cricklewood for a couple of years and you feel more inclined to forget the Marxist past and corrupt present when you've seen him in Martins' paying his paper bill.

Anyway, cue an @ reply from someone who was not following me but, from the looks of his bio found me on one of those 'people who are like you' tools.

"Fell better now you've got that off your chest?" he asked. I assume he meant feel.

Be in no doubt that I don't feel flamed or put upon or insulted, but it put me in an odd position and got me thinking. I didn't know this guy from Adam. Still don't, as it happens. But up he had jolly well popped and at the moment of first contact he'd ... well, I don't really know what he'd done. I guess one of three things. Either it was genuine concern, gentle ribbing, or overt hostility.

From the looks of his profile he seemed to be a reasonably successful businessman, and from the nature of his tweets unlikely to be the sort of man I'd click with - lots of @ replies to people I don't know or care about, little original material. From the evidence I saw, and without wanting to speculate too much on his motives I am drawn to the third possibility.

I'm not a great believer in many businessman's maxims but I am quite fond of 'you only get 10 seconds to make a good first impression' and try to hold to it when I meet people for work - eyes up, nice tie, firm handshake, read the business card, you get the picture.

On Twitter, you could say you get 140 characters to make a good first impression, and by leaving me slightly confused and suspicious of his motives this feller had blown that one.

Twitter is all well and good but the trouble is it doesn't lend itself to in-depth communication. It's fine for pithy one-liners or sharing an interesting link, but you wouldn't want to debate Obama's stimulus package there, for instance. A little over a hundred characters is simply not enough space or time to convey anything other than the barest of contexts for your statement. This is what our chap missed.

The internet's been around a few years now and there's a pretty firmly established code of netiquette that most of us know. We don't use capitals unless we want to appear as if we're shouting, we avoid textspeak abbreviations, we don't post 'FIRST' in comment threads. Above all we take care to consider the context of what we say and how we say it, because it's too easy to forget that at the other end of the phoneline is someone else sitting at a computer, and they have feelings too.

Is it that Twitter is still a relatively new platform and the usual rules haven't been applied to it yet? Or is it that Twitter does not lend itself to the usual rules of the internet?

Let's look at how Twitter is already diverging from the social networking norms of Facebook, MySpace or Livejournal, where the decision to follow or friend - or unfollow - is not taken lightly and can lead to social awkwardness. On Twitter, it is already understood that to follow is not to make friends, and that to unfollow is not necessarily a tacit way of ditching someone. Look at the celebritwits; I know Wil Wheaton won't follow me back and that's cool, but equally if he notices that I stopped following him he won't care. Equally, I would imagine Stephen Fry won't sit at his computer rending his garments and declaiming 'But whyyy!!' if I go on my merry way.

I think that to a certain extent the 'art' of twitterquette is still very much in its infancy. We've seen how a new platform that's gaining mainstream acceptance is rewriting the rules, so why shouldn't the social rules be more fluid as well? It would be interesting to see develop some kind of system whereby people can be more open about their context, or even a code - a Prime Directive - for making effective first contact in an @ reply situation.

Here are my suggested thoughts on random @ replies between regular users, and don't apply to a situation where you might direct a tweet at a popular or famous user. I'd welcome thoughts in response.

1) Firstly, there should be no stigma to replying @ a twitterer who you do not follow and who does not follow you but in this situation, avoid ambiguity and overt emotion; channel your inner Vulcan. Make it clear what you are replying to and what you mean by it. You only have 140 characters to play with so be concise but use smileys to reinforce your point only if entirely unavoidable.

2) Don't tweet and run. Follow up by following the person you tweeted at; someone who follows me will almost immediately get my attention and send me to their profile page or blog. It doesn't mean you're best buddies, but it does mean you're interested in what they have to say and makes them more willing to engage with you. If they follow back you can direct message them, which adds an off-record dimension to your conversation that I believe can make relationship-building easier. I like having some conversations in private instead of in a succession of @s.

3) Learn to sit back and take it on the chin. If you stumble on someone who's knocking something, say, abortion rights, or someone, say, Boris Johnson, that you support, or vice versa supporting something you abhor, give them a break. Either move on entirely, or write the hostile tweet but don't send it, then open a new tab and go and read the Onion or something, and come back in five minutes. I'd stake money that the tweet you wrote will seem stupid.

4) Remember that you have 140 characters to make the good impression. If you come off badly, future tweets directed at the user will get a less objective hearing. The joke, or the debate, can come later in the relationship. Equally if you don't want the relationship, walk on and don't send the tweet.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Snowpocalypse '09

Well, the last time snowfall got this deep in London I was 8 years old and the headmaster caved in and let us wear long trousers - actually the tracksuit bottoms out of our games kit - for a day. This was how hard we were in 1991 in the wilds of north Surrey.

Today I got up, poked L to look at the snow, and then found out that every bus in London was out of action for the duration. L said it much more eloquently than I could hope to, but I'm not so surprised by this; if this is a once in 18-year event then there's no logical way for TFL to make any kind of return on its investment in snow chains, gritters and the like to keep its fleet on the road. Better everybody have an extra day in bed.

Spent a happy hour or so watching the world pass by below me. At about 8:15 a very orange-skinned, spiky-haired air steward tried to drive up the road in a Smartcar and promptly got completely stuck. Five people, none of them me because I was warm and have more sense, helped him push his stranded little car into a parking space, whereupon he unloaded his little trundly bags and attempted to walk back to the tube, pulling the cases through the snow with their handles. A funnier sight to start my day I could not have hoped for.

I attempted to work for a little while but nobody else on the team made it in and there was nobody in the office to help me upload content remotely, so in the end I jumped on a passing PR bandwagon and wrote a short piece about snow and business continuity which I plan to hang over for tomorrow.

However, multiple attempts to contact my editor and various PRs this morning ended in failure because the mobile networks were unable to cope with the sheer volume of calls from home-workers. Now, the mobile networks and various unified communications providers - that's presence, social networking, voice over IP telephones (VoIP) for the unitiated - have built much of their sales pitch around providing a rock solid infrastructure that facilitates mobile working, particularly in scenarios like Snowpocalypse '09, and this morning they failed to come up to scratch.

So I'm going to try and hit up the usual infrastructure suspects this week for some comment on why this happened and what they plan to do about it and, well, let's just say Orange PRs can expect a call from me.

Bizarrely, pretty much the only part of the tube running today was the Northern Line, which I literally live right above, so I made it into town for a very cosy lunch at the Charlotte Street Hotel - incidentally one of my favourite venues for press events alongside the Soho Hotel, where a colleague once swears he saw Richard Hammond, but I digress. Talked business continuity and routes to market with a very new and interesting US IT firm trying to break into the UK. Lots to say around security and virtualisation and they gave me some ideas to work on. The food was good, too; pork belly with roast pumpkin.

Then, with snow flurrying about my ears and taking little mincy steps I half slid, half scuttled back to the tube and made it home without falling on my arse, so I can content myself with the knowledge that unlike most of the rest of the workforce I did actually manage to have a productive hour or so today and did my bit to keep the economy going.

And now I am sitting in the bay window watching people skidding on the Upper Tooting Road.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Why I'm a republican

With just days left before the inauguration of Barack Obama I thought it might be timely to think a little about freedom and aspiration and specifically, freedom to aspire.

I often have difficulty articulating to people why I choose to identify as a republican. Sadly the vast majority of the British public are still either supportive or broadly neutral towards the monarchy, so usually I don't go there.

But now I think I've got something for you, because this Tuesday the US, a country that originally defined itself in terms of freedom and spent the best part of 220 years teaching the rest of us a thing or two about it, is wiping clean its slate after eight years of error. Good job.

In countless stories, songs and movies, the US taught us that it was possible to be who you wanted to be, do what you wanted and make something or nothing of your life. It taught us that it was possible for anybody to aspire to be its leader, and in November it proved it in spectacular fashion. Barack Obama. He aspired to be president and now he is about to become president.

That's bloody fantastic stuff, you know. However, it also saddens me. Stop and think about it; as an American Obama had the freedom and the potential to aspire to something amazing, but his aspiration was one that no black man, woman or child in Britain can ever have. Neither can any white man, woman or child, nor can anyone of any background.

In fact, realistically speaking there are just three men, four or five at a pinch, who can ever aspire to be head of state in Britain. They are all white, they are all from a privileged background and, depending on your point of view, they are all largely idiots.

This is quite simply unfair and undemocratic and while it continues, I believe Britain has no right to call itself a free country.

I don't want these men and their gaffes and scandals and old money to represent my homeland anymore. They are an embarrassment to the society we deserve to aspire to be.

And that is why now, more than ever, I believe it's time for change.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Your Country Needs You! Not quite a liveblog...

So, it's that time of year again when we all come together to select this year's UK Eurovision entry, and this year things are going to be mighty different... ooh yes.

Following our utter failure to get anywhere near the top 10 in recent years, in 2009 Britain is taking this damn seriously. Oh yes, we're stringing the selection process out over two months and the eventual act will get to sing a (Lord) Andrew Lloyd-Webber song in front of millions...

Ahem. Here comes the serious bit. If you've not read up on Britain's dismal failure to get anywhere in Eurovision since 2003, when a combination of anti-war political voting and a duff microphone sent us spiralling out of the contest with nul points, then prick your ears up, bucko; you've probably been living under a rock somewhere - or possibly not in Europe - suffice to say that we've had problems.

In 2003 there was a perception that we were largely voted down by the fact that we'd just invaded a sovereign nation without any justification. I don't know if that's true, but it's undeniable that in the years since then we've consistently run up against the old bloc voting; Germany votes for Turkey votes for Cyprus votes for Greece certainly doesn't vote for Macedonia votes for Bosnia votes for Croatia votes for Serbia votes for Russia votes for Belarus. The Baltic states trade votes, the Scandinavians trade votes and even though they're not in Europe, people still vote for Israel.

The truth is that we Brits have alienated ourselves so much from Europe that we have no friends. Well, I take a very Eddie Izzard riding-a-vespa-with-no-helmet-going-'ciao' type view of Europe. Basically, I like it; I want into the Euro, I think a federal Europe might not be a terribad idea.... I certainly think it would do us infinitely more good to be aligned with a strong European Union rather than the United States - even with Barack Obama in the White House.

You see, Britain seems to think it has a special relationship with the Americans, and for a while back there, we kinda did, but it largely ended in 1945 and the British don't seem to have noticed yet.

The result is we're infatuated with the most beautiful girl at the prom, and we need to get over it. If we swallowed our pride and threw in our lot with nerdy-Europe, we could be going somewhere.

Our other problem is the calibre of the people we send. Last year, a Russian called Dima walked away with the big prize and Dima is, apparently, a massive superstar. The girl who won if for Greece a few years ago is massive and you can't get tickets for Lordi.

But for the last few years Britain has consistently sent no-hopers and X-Factor runners up. I believe that if we sent Leona Lewis, as we have every right to do, we could walk away with it. We have a booming pop industry producing many competent acts that are by far and away better than a good proportion of European acts ... well, have you ever heard French pop, or Israeli disco?

But we're not the Italians, we're not taking our ball and going home, that's the kind of attitude that loses wars, by jove, we're sticking with Eurovision and this year we're jolly well going to send someone worthwhile!

So of course the solution is to have an X-Factor style sing-off. This guarantees that once again, our losing entry will reflect the tastes of the housewives of this Sceptred Isle and not by people who actually have a clue about what might make a European audience vote for us...

Should be a more fun than a slap in the fact with a wet halibut.

Yep, we're fucked, but in a fun way.

Like RAI, Terry Wogan has taken his ball home in a funk this year, so step forward the nation's favourite Irish homosexual, Graham Norton, accompanied by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Lulu and, for some reason that nobody can quite work out, Arlene off Strictly Come Dancing.

And step forward our six acts...

Emperors of Soul

First up, its sarf London soul act Emperors of Soul, aka five guys from Peckham in Topman suits, aka Andy Abraham Reloaded.

Oh, Andy Abraham, Andy Andy Abraham. Lost the X-Factor. Didn't get Simon Cowell hard. Didn't get Europe hard either, as it turned out. I don't think I can remember ever having seen a soul act do well at Eurovision and their inclusion in the final six worries me a little. Oh, Andy had a great song, and these guys can sing too, but they play with a genre that reflects British tastes more than European ones...

They even have a flashing coloured floor, and the different coloured shirts call to mind nothing as much as JLS aged up 15 years.

They're singing something from Motown that I forgot to write down the title of. It's a good song, technically competent, but Motown influence got us in trouble last year and I can't see it ending any differently if the Emperors end up representing us.

Giving the casting vote to actual British people is what fucks us over...


Pretty-boy Mark left North Wales to seek his fortune in London, and not at all because he was the Only Gay etc etc. Oh Gods, he's Welsh, he's going to get a Welsh bloc vote isn't he?

Marky is currently doing panto somewhere in London, apparently with Steve Guttenburg, who pops up in the pre-amble to lend his support. This alone means I cannot vote for him.

And, oh no, he's singing Will Young. His voice is all wrong for it, he sounds like Mick Hucknall circa 1986 and ... are those leather-effect skinny jeans I spy? Christ, Graham Norton is totally banging him.

Let's hope he doesn't make it through, eh?

Next up, it's...


Charlotte has been included purely because the BBC felt they needed a 17 year-old soloist to rival Diana Vickers in the Kate Nash Quirky Stakes, and it really shows. Her video diary shows her making fairy cakes in an open-plan kitchen with her little brother, a tousle-haired nine year-old whippersnapper in a waistcoat. Lots of wood flooring and Le Creuset in evidence. Clearly utterly middle class. Pushy parents, too.

She sings a little ditty by (or possibly not by, possibly just for) Kelly Clarkson, so that needn't detain us any further.

Whenever I hear Kelly Clarkson, I think Jeremy Clarkson. Sums it all up really. Let's move on to...


Satanic spawn of Pub Singer, Damian actually makes his moolah by singing in upmarket wine bars to temps on a night out, which I suppose must be a step up from pubs. (I once walked past the Wheatsheaf at Tooting Bec station late on a Friday and it was awful!)

Nevertheless, he is too old, too unremarkable looking, and too reminiscent of Podgy Daniel off the X-Factor to make it through. That could count in his favour, of course, because he will appeal to The Elderly, which is probably why he's in.

Damian treats us to another slow one - slow hasn't won Eurovision in years, by the way - and also does the funny 'I don't know what to do with my hands so I'll just do emphatic gestures that make me look like a sociology lecturer' thing.

In his favour, he doesn't do that doubled over thing that many amateur male soloists like to do when they get to the high notes. It makes them look like they're trying to squeeze out a particularly troublesome poo.

This may be because Damian can't hit the high notes to begin with, and keeps cutting them off. The worst so far, and bear in mind that I just watched an A-Level student cover Richard Hammond Kelly Clarkson.

The judges reckon he's a safe pair of hands, and Lulu goes so far as to say Damian gave her goosebumps. So they're either fucking or she's crackers.

Now it's time for Same Difference...

Sorry, The Twins

They work in Morrisons. She swipes the shopping, and she bags the shopping. I haven't worked out their names yet, but I do know that one of them is constantly in tears, and the other one is constantly justifying this fact.

They sing Carole King's You've Got A Friend. There's a massive slow, easy listening, soul vibe tonight and that does not win Eurovision. We don't need to know if the acts can do this type of song!

Otherwise, this is a very competent performance, easily the best of the night so far. I like them and with a bit of work and a song that suits Eurovision they could go a long way. I especially like the 1920s dresses.

Arlene says they have weak voices, but then she's a choreographer so what the fuck does she know?

Finally, it's Jade

Jade was a last-minute inclusion when the producers decided during last week's audition show that both the chavvy 'Girls Aloud-style' girl group and the emo 'Gossip-style' girl group were utterly talentless. So as yet, we don't know much about her. We don't know if she can sing or not and we haven't seen any video diaries so we don't know if she's a single mum/Spanish/secretly Jacqui Smith. She does appear to be going out with Scouse crack addict and former Red Dwarf star Craig Charles which bodes ... badly...

Jade sings Deja Vu by Beyonce while togged up in what appears to be a one piece swimsuit with sequins on it, and despite the fact that we do not need to know if this style of music suits her, holy living fuck she can carry it off. Absolutely spot on, as good as the original, and cracking legs to boot.

I'm impressed, and The Lord is clearly impressed too, but can't decide if she's right for it or not. He can't work out whether to write her a simple ballad to showcase her very evident talent, or go for all-out spectacle.

I reckon he should do both. Start off with a simple, piano-led ballad, and then BAM, six boys with silver hot-pants and waxed chests rise up out of the stage on pedestals and start making out to a trance beat. It'll be tops, I'm telling you.

Of course, Lloyd-Webber is jumping the gun, we don't even know if she'll be back next week, but so far she's my top tip.

Arlene, meanwhile, is comparing her to Alexandra off the X-Factor, but senility gets the better of her and she ends up inadvertently comparing her to Alicia Keys...

So, time to go backstage, where Graham Norton has rigged up a Eurovision style green room with squashy sofas and conspicuous flags, and time for the acts to plead for our indulgence. Emperors of Soul reckon they have versatility, so on the strength of that will hopefully be covering Snow Patrol next week. Please please please let them go home. Sexeh sexeh Mark reckons everyone was brilliant and is wearing a very sleek pink shirt. Charlotte the vapid student tells us she 'rilly rilly wants this yar', and the Twins are keen to show that there's 'more to them' than slow ballads. Yes, dears; it's lesbian porn.

The lines are open...

And closed.... So here we are and it's time to send someone packing.

It's The Results!

In no particular order, the country very sensibly and predictably proceeds to save Jade and the Emperors. Mark, still hot, will also be back next week. However, poor ickle Damian is in the bottom two. I'm surprised, I really thought a collective national brain fart would keep him in 'til the last week. The Twins scrape in, and Charlotte is left to join Damian and Andrew Lloyd-Webber on stage. Christ, is she crying, get a grip, woman!

The Lord has the casting vote, and sticking to the script, has a little bitch about how tough this all is and how he wishes it didn't have to be this way. He misses out the bit about how he gets paid thousands of pounds for each show and so doesn't really give a shit, but never mind.

It's Charlotte. Pub singer Damian is going home. The Lord consoles him, saying "you were a safe pair of hands but you don't appeal to our demographics; so sorry, piss off" but being nicer about it than that and poor Damian says "that's all-right, mate" and then he's off. No time for a last farewell song, the BBC has to go to the Lotto draw. Byebye!

See you next week and now we're off to ITV to watch Philip Glennister doing a ridiculous American accent.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Byebye computer :(

At some point on Thursday evening during a not-particularly-heavy Warcraft session (I was in Dalaran picking mushrooms) the MacBook started to make an absolutely horrific something-ain't-right whining noise. It sounded like the fan was throwing its toys out of the pram, and as I was starting to feel that the computer might actually take off I shut down WoW and turned off the computer and that seemed to work. Things carried on as normal for a little while, but then it started up again, so I shut it down and went to bed.

Friday afternoon whilst working from home it started again. This time I did some googling, found a problem that it sounded like it might be and did some kind of reset jobby that involved taking the battery out. The computer seemed to get the message and it worked fine all yesterday evening.

Today, however, it started doing it completely randomly, once or twice when I was in Warcraft, once or twice when I was out of it and doing other things, once when all I was trying to do was stream Radio 4 off iPlayer, once when I was backing up the hard drive and a couple of times when I wasn't actually doing anything at all, and once when I wasn't in the room.

I've been checking the exhaust RPM and various temperatures with a handy little widget, but it doesn't seem to be going crazy with any kind of pattern, everything is "within normal parameters". Right now I have Safari and iTunes open and things are running fine, but five minutes down the line it could well have gone shouty crackers again.

The upshot is I'm pretty sure I have a borked fan. The noise is coming from that general area, and when you put your hand on the underside of the main body the casing is vibrating with a frequency that I would find sexually arousing if this thing hadn't cost me about twice as much as a whore.

It's not that this is going - or has - put me off Apple, quite the opposite, but I'd just like to point out that I took delivery of a Dell Inspiron in September 2000 and it was June 2003 before the screen fell off. I've had the Mac barely 15 months.

This fan issue, together with the strange peeling at the bottom corner of the screen, has convinced me it's time to take it into the shop and get it seen to. That'll be seven to ten days without the computer and possibly more as it's a busy time. It's touch and go whether or not I get it back before my two week holiday time starts, or before Christmas. So likely no WoW Christmas achievement for me, and no interwebs and without the TV working 'til Thursday when the nice man is coming to screw in our Freesat dish, no means of intellectual stimulation through the medium of screens.

So unless I blow the Christmas shopping budget on an Asus EEE or something, it's cheerio for now...