Friday, April 29, 2016

Extreme Opinions

Well, it's all kicking off, isn't it?  What with this alleged 'civil war' in the Labour Party over anti-semitism.  I say 'alleged' because, outside of overheated media reports (mainly the mouth pieces of the Tory Party, let's not forget) I see little evidence of a 'civil war'.  What I do see is an unholy alliance of disgruntled Blairites, still unwilling to accept Jeremy Corbyn's election as Labour leader, and the right making political capital out of some very ill judged and ill advised comments by a backbencher and a clapped out former London mayor who has always popular tabloid fodder thanks to his often bizarre utterances.  But let's look at some of the accusers: David Cameron, who, despite condemning alleged anti-semitism in Labour's ranks, seems to be perfectly happy with the bunch of racists, bigots and homophobes who fill the benches behind him in the Commons.  Then there's Labour MP John Mann - a Blairite who, let' not forget, had real problems grasping the nature of democracy during the Labour leadership campaign.  Certainly, he seemed very unwilling to accept the overwhelming democratic mandate the party's membership gave to Corbyn.  Moreover, regardless of the utter foolishness of  Ken Livingstone's recent comments about Hitler being a Zionist ('before he went mad'), Mann's thuggish public berating of him (in front of TV cameras who conveniently happened to be there - as if they'd been tipped off, perhaps?) was equally disgraceful and clearly calculated to embarrass his own party's leadership.

Anti-semitism is often used by the unscrupulous as a convenient allegation to smear opponents, (much as witchcraft was in the Middle Ages and peadophilia has been in more recent times).  It is an utterly heinous crime, invoking memories of the holocaust and concentration camps and, rightly, seen as being completely beyond the pale.  Consequently, it is an accusation difficult to defend against or recover from.  The problem nowadays is that it is frequently (and deliberately) confused with anti-Zionism, (which is somewhat different) or simply being critical of the Israeli government.  Personally, I'm critical of some of the Israeli government's policies with regard to the Palestinians and the occupied territories.  But that doesn't mean that I hate Jews, Israelis or even the Israeli state itself, which I believe has a right to exist and defend itself.   But I sometimes fear that we're getting to a stage where expressing such opinions might become next to impossible for fear of being labelled an anti-semite.  But it isn't just with regard to Israel and the Jewish people that there are attempts to restrict the expression of some opinions through allegations of racial or religious hatred.  We already have some groups telling us that we shouldn't make blanket condemnations of the activities of ISIS as it implies a belief that all Muslims are terrorists.  Utterly nonsensical, but incredibly, such a view has gained currency in some quarters.  You'll see a similar situation across a whole range of issues where various interest groups are attempting to narrow the debate to what they have decided is an acceptable range views - all dissenting opinions will be shouted down and those who dare to express them condemned as extremists.  Sadly, you can find these self-appointed thought censors on both the left and right.

But we've drifted away from the original issue of alleged anti-semitism in the Labour Party.  Is it a problem?  I have no doubt that you can find people holding such extreme views in the Labour Party, just as you undoubtedly could in any large organisation, but I'd be very surprised to find that it was widespread.  Of course, the left's traditional championing of the cause of the Palestinians has always laid them open to allegations of anti-Zionism and anti-semitism from their opponents.  But that isn't a problem confined to the Labour Party: traditionally, the UK political establishment has been perceived as more pro-Arab than pro-Israeli.  To return to the original point, I guess that what I want to say is that when allegations of this type start flying around the media, we always need to be careful to check who is making them and what their motivations might be.

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Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Ballad of Tam Lin (1970)

The only film directed by actor Roddy McDowell, The Ballad of Tam Lin, (also released as The Devil's Widow and Tam Lin), is nowhere near the disaster that many commentators would have you believe.  Very much of its era, (it was filmed in 1969 and released in the UK the following year), with it's visual style, fixation on the 'jet set' and bright young beautiful people doing bright young beautiful things, the film comes over as achingly 'swinging'.  But as an example of British 'folk horror', it wears surprisingly well.  Not as dark and disturbing as The Wicker Man, perhaps, but nonetheless quite effective in places in evoking the darkness which underlies many archaic rituals and beliefs.  Tam Lin is, in essence, a contemporary retelling of a traditional Scottish folk tale of a knight enchanted by a faerie queen, who subsequently falls in love with a mortal girl and attempts to escape the faerie realm.

In the film, 'Tom Lynn' (Ian McShane) is the current paramour of Mrs Cazaret, a fabulously wealthy, but ageing, jet setter played by Ava Gardener.  She 'collects' young people, recruiting them into her retinue, which accompanies her from one venue to another, living a life of leisure and wealthy indolence.  After traveling to Cazaret's Scottish mansion, Lynn meets the local minister's daughter (Stephanie Beacham) and starts a relationship with her, drifting away from Cazaret's retinue in the process.  After the girl falls pregnant by him, Lynn - after stopping her from having a termination - leaves the retinue to live with her in a caravan.  Cazaret, however, is still determined to draw him back to her circle.  Dismissing all but one of her young followers, she replaces them with an altogether more sinister coven of acolytes, who are sent to kidnap Lynn.  The film climaxes with Lynn being fed hallucinogenic drugs by Cazaret before being hunted through the woods by the coven, (Cazaret believes that the ordeal will finally bring Lynn back to her).  During the chase Lynn hallucinates first that he is a bear, then that he is on fire as he stumbles into swamp, before wrestling with an imaginary giant rubber snake.

All of which follows the basic outline of the original legend, albeit substituting the magical elements with what McDowell clearly saw as modern day equivalents.  Most obviously, the world of the ultra rich becomes the faerie realm and magical potions are replaced by narcotics,  Whereas in the legend Tam Lin actually transforms into various beasts and experiences an ordeal by fire, in the film these occur only in his head.  On the whole, these substitutions actually work quite well.  The film's main problem - to contemporary eyes - is the dated visual style alluded to earlier.  Many sequences wouldn't have looked out of place in a 1970s TV commercial: lots of soft focus shots of beautiful young people running through fields, for instance, which feel as if they belong in a hairspray or shampoo advert.  The romance between McShane and Beacham is likewise presented in the style of a  glossy magazine shoot.  That said, one sequence, their first romantic encounter, is surprisingly effective, with the scene dissolving into a series of still shots, before returning to a normal visual flow, suggesting a breaking of Cazaret's 'spell' over Lynn.

Arguably, though, choosing to adopt the visual style of contemporary TV commercials is actually the point of the film.  After all, aren't they a form of enchantment?  Isn't advertising the modern witchcraft?  Offering us a whole fantasy lifestyle if we just give into temptation and buy the products they are peddling?  I well remember those Martini TV ads from my seventies childhood, which seemed to offer a glossy jet set existence - drinking Martini on sun drenched Mediterranean terraces with other beautiful people, toasting each other on luxury yachts in the Caribbean or even racing air boats in the Everglades - if you drank their product.  It all seemed hugely enticing to me as a child.  And perhaps McDowell is trying to show us what enchantment of this kind is really like: endlessly engaging in utterly meaningless games against a background of fabulously well appointed mansions.  An utterly empty existence which might look tempting from the outside but is, in reality, stultifying.  Cazaret's replacing of her 'hippy dippy' retinue with the more sinister coven effectively demonstrates the darker side to this 'enchanted' jet set existence, with mesmerised followers who will do anything, even kill, in order to maintain their empty, but luxurious and privileged, lifestyles.

A much maligned film - mainly by people who have never seen it, incidentally - much of Tam Lin's historically poor reputation apparently stems from the re-edited version released in the US by AIP under the title The Devil's Widow.  This was accompanied by a salacious marketing campaign the film could never live up (or down) to.  Seen today, the film (in its more-or-less it's original edit) comes over as an entertaining, if somewhat lightweight, piece of folk horror, with a suitably ethereal musical score and generally good performances from the cast, (especially Richard Wattis as Cazaret's creepy secretary).  The soft-focus style eventually gives way to full blooded horror at the climax, with the whole chase sequence presented in an effectively nightmarish and disturbing style, racking up some genuine tension.  Long overdue a proper critical reappraisal, The Ballad of Tam Lin is well worth seeking out.  


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Black Day for Boris

Sometimes you think to yourself that you are going to create something that is just bound to offend someone.  Preferably the sort of someone you generally hate.  So, conceding defeat on the issue of amusing captions for yesterday's giant ant pictures, I instead came up with the above image and tweeted it with the caption 'Brexit Campaign's Reasoned Reaction to President Obama's Intervention'.  Hell, I thought, that's bound to set the web on fire and upset some right wing reactionary bastards.  In fact, I thought, it's the sort of thing that might just get me banned from Twitter.  Which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, as I can never quite work up the moral courage to actually close down my account as I know I probably should because social media so winds me up.  So, getting banned would make the decision for me, relieving me of the burden.

So, I eagerly checked my Twitter feed this morning to see the shit storm I'd kicked up - however, the very fact that my feed was still up was a bad sign in itself.  To my dismay, there was no reaction to the picture at all.  Not even a single retweet.  For fuck's sake, what do you have to do to offend people these days?     I mean, half the world seems to spend at least half of their time being offended by something or other these days.  But give 'em something which not only implies that Boris Johnson is an outright racist, but also makes a satirical side swipe as to the imperialist overtones of the whole Brexit campaign and they just ignore it.  OK, I know that I only have a handful of followers and the chances of any of them either seeing the picture in their feeds, let alone retweeting it were pretty slim, but damn it, they could at least pretend to be offended, just to humour me, couldn't they?

Clearly, I'm just not cut out for this social media business.  Besides, what ever happened to the good old days of the web when you'd just post something on your blog or site and people would find it and share it through forums and emails and stuff?  I miss those days when it required minimal effort on your part to disseminate something, the days when search engines actually returned results based on relevance.  Now we have to waste all this bloody time tweeting stuff or sharing it on Facebook, (generally to little or no effect).  God, I'm getting old, aren't I?

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Monday, April 25, 2016

Empire of the Ants

I really must get back to the pop culture stuff - I've been watching loads of old Westerns lately and they've really set me thinking about a possible posts concerning the way Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the OK Corral have been portrayed on screen, or an analysis of the three different versions of Law and Order and how their treatment of the various plot elements reflect the different eras they were produced in.  But right now, I'm not in the mood.  I'm feeling very listless at the moment, unable to settle to anything.  So I thought that I'd share some another picture from my week off with everyone.  In actual fact this is the picture I was thinking of sharing on Twitter with a suitably hilarious caption in the hope that it would get retweeted and start trending (or whatever those crazy kids call it).  So, here's the first one:

As you can see, it's a giant ant.  (In fact, it's the ant picture I previously mentioned as having texted to my friend).  To be precise, it's a giant wooden ant, its body carved from a log, situated in some woods not far from me (they have all sorts of stuff like this there).  I've always been fascinated by giant ants.  I put it down to having seen Them! at an early age. The question is, however, what would be a suitably 'whacky'  caption for all those people out on social media?  I could make some reference to my previous problems with household ant infestations - maybe something about needing a bigger can of insecticide spray.  Or something about the ants retaliating.  The problem with that approach, though, is that just about nobody else on Twitter would get the reference as they wouldn't ever had read my posts here about my ant problems. 

The more obvious thing would to be caption it with something along the lines of 'I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords', thereby getting in a 'Simpsons' reference which most people on Twitter would understand.   Well, while we're all pondering which caption would be best, let's look at that ant from another angle:

Big, isn't it?


Saturday, April 23, 2016

An Angry Apology

I really feel that I should apologise for yesterday's post.  I was being petulant over something utterly trivial.  My only excuse is that I was feeling frustrated over other issues and, instead of addressing those issues, I took my frustrations out on easier targets.  So what if people haven't been getting back to me this week?  They've got lives just like me and it is unreasonable of me to expect them to drop everything just because I've got a week off from my job.  In my defence, part of my irritation was fueled by the events of recent weeks, when I had people contacting me out of the blue, expecting me to come up with all sorts of answers for them, making vague promises to meet up, then vanishing into silence again - especially when I then try to contact them.  I wouldn't mind,  but the individuals in question generally have even fewer commitments and responsibilities than me, not even working full-time, as I do.  Moreover, as I did think to point out yesterday, my friend who was on the receiving end of the giant ant picture (don't ask) was always exempted from my generalised whining: to be honest, I never take it for granted I'll get timely responses from her: she really does have more important things to deal with than me, but remains a much valued friend.

As for the things which were really frustrating me - one was simply lack of sleep.  After a late night, I'd been forced to get up early on Friday morning to give access to some guys from the electricity company for them to do some rewiring of the mains supply.  Consequently, I had to stand around for an hour with a cold wind blowing in through the open front door.  Not a great start to the day.  But that was a relatively minor irritation compared to what was to come.  I'd been involved in another of those bogus copyright disputes on You Tube, where some 'rights management' company tries to claim a piece of public domain music is actually something by one of their 'artists' and tries to monetise your video. In the past, I've won every one of these disputes.  This time, however, despite citing not only the real composer (who I actually know quite well) but also the public domain sites where the track is available, adding that the video in question was over five years old and the music even older, so if anyone was plagiarising anyone else, it was their 'artist', my counter claim was rejected.  Whilst You Tube/Google allegedly allow you to appeal this, they also make all sorts of threats against your account if you have the audacity to do this and fail.  Moreover, you can only follow this path if you 'verify' your account which, bizarrely, requires you giving them your phone number.  Good to see Google taking fraudulent copyright claims so seriously that they use them primarily as attempt to harvest further personal data from their customers.  I have a Gmail account which is used as a login for my You Tube account, why do they require further 'verification' of who I am?

Anyway, as I'm unwilling to give out my private phone number to a tax-evading multi-national for no good reason and bearing in mind that the fact that I can prove the track I used is in the public domain wasn't sufficient in the first instance, I really don't see the point in pursuing the issue.  Instead, I've made the video in question private, so that nobody but me can access it, (thereby rendering their attempts to monetise it futile - it's only ever been viewed twelve times in five years as it is), and I'm now in the process of uploading all my videos to Vimeo.  Once I've completed that exercise, I'll delete them all from You Tube and close my account.  I use You Tube to host my home movies, not to be bullied and harassed (with the collusion of You Tube itself ) by copyright sharks making fraudulent claims.  Google clearly doesn't give a shit that this is happening, so as far as I'm concerned the can go fuck themselves.  I know that they will give even less of a shit that I'm abandoning their service, but if enough people follow my example, then maybe they'll realise how disgraceful it is that they expose their customers to these fraudsters.  And for that, I'm certainly not apologising.


Friday, April 22, 2016

Social Pariah?

(An important qualification regarding the following post: it obviously doesn't apply to my friend I sent the ant picture to - you know who I mean.  Moreover, the fact that I've only just realised that I've had my phone switched off for most of today could be a factor in my apparent social isolation).

Have I become a social pariah?  I only ask as, being off work for a week, I tried contacting various friends and acquaintances to see if they were around - I haven't receive a single response.  It's as if my number has been blocked by nearly everyone I know.  It isn't just texts to friends and acquaintances which have been ignored - it's been the same story with e-mails to various people I sometimes have dealings with online: totally ignored.  I'm really beginning to develop a complex about this.  Hell, I know I'm not the most popular person in the world at the best of times - and frankly I don't care - but these are people I generally get along with!  I've been left racking my brains to try and figure out if I've done, said or written anything which might have offended them, either individually or collectively - and I've come up with a blank.

I'm well aware that I'm not always particularly good at keeping in touch with people, so a text or e-mail out of the blue from me might be met with a certain degree of scepticism in some quarters, with recipients perhaps assuming that I'm after some kind of favour, but that really isn't the case.  In any case, it would be nice to have my existence acknowledged, even if it is just to tell me to 'bugger off'.  I'm also well aware that many people I know have far more complicated and busier lives than me, having to juggle multiple responsibilities and commitments, both at home and at work. But, again, it would still be nice simply to be acknowledged by them.  I know that I'm sounding all whiny and sulky, but this is an issue which has marred an otherwise great week off of work.  If it had just been one person, I wouldn't have thought anything of it, but it's the fact that it has been across the board which has left me feeling like a social leper.  That said, I still seem to be on good terms with the people of interact with socially on a personal basis, so clearly I haven't become totally obnoxious overnight.  Anyway, I'm not singling anyone out and if you read this and you are one of those people who didn't respond to one of my recent attempts at communication, it's OK.  I'm sure that you had perfectly good reasons for not doing so and I'm not trying to shame you into responding, I'm just feeling sorry for myself right now and this is as good a way as any of getting it out of my system!


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Star Whackers?

So, another one bites the dust.  Well, two actually, as Victoria Wood died yesterday and Prince turned up his toes today.  By my mother's reckoning, of course, another celebrity death must be imminent in order to fulfill her observation that 'they always go in threes'.  But so far this year, it's been far more than three - it feels like there's been a celebrity holocaust.  But is there something more sinister behind this sudden increase in celebrity mortality?  Are all these deaths down to illness, accidents and natural causes?  Was crazy man Randy Quaid right - are there professional 'star whackers' out there?  If you recall, some years ago Quaid and his wife used the 'star whacker' allegations as a defence for fleeing to Canada after arrest warrants were issued against them for, as I recall, an unpaid hotel bill in, I think, Texas.  Their claim was that stars were being 'whacked' in fake accidents and illnesses so that shadowy Hollywood movers and shakers could get their hands on their extortionate insurance pay outs.

So, are some shady agents currently enjoying an insurance wind fall?  Perhaps their investments haven't been going well, so they've had to 'cash in' some of their celebrity investments.  Maybe there's something even more sinister going on, though.  What if it isn't about money at all?  What if this is some kind of cull?  Perhaps this year's wave of celebrity deaths is actually the result of some kind of secret moral fundamentalist group trying to purge popular culture of 'unsuitable role models'?  I mean, just look at some of the casualties:  Lemmy from Motorhead, David Bowie and now Prince.  All of them have courted controversy over the years, frequently outraging the moralists.  I'm sure that many concerned parents out there were dismayed to find their sons' putting up posters of cross-dressing Bowie over the years, or hard drinking, hard smoking and hard swearing Lemmy, for that matter.  OK, I know what you are thinking - how could Victoria Wood ever have been seen as an unsuitable role model?  Obviously, she incurred the secret group's wrath by encouraging women to be emancipated and independent, telling them that they were the equal of men.  Besides, there's bound to be some collateral damage in a large scale operation like this celebrity cull.  Plus, they have to do in a few celebs who don't fit the profile, so as to throw everyone off the scent.  Believe me, this conspiracy isn't over yet - brace yourselves for many more celebrity deaths over the next few months!

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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Rural Ramblings

In between attending to various DIY projects this week, I've also managed to find time to get out and enjoy the relatively good weather.  Judging by the amount of bluebells in evidence, Spring has most definitely sprung. Anyway, as I really can't be arsed to write a proper post toady, I thought that I'd subject my faithful reader(s) to the equivalent of a slideshow of holiday pictures.  So, let's start with a look at some of those bluebells:

These were in a wooded coppice, or was it a spinney?  Does anyone know what the difference is?  Actually, it might have been a full fledged copse for all I know.  Then again, the trees covered quite a large area, so they might even count as a wood, but definitely not a forest.  Prominent in this wooded area (I think that's probably the safest term to use), is an area of water.  I hesitate to call it a pool or a pond, as it is really just a natural hollow which fills up with water in the rainy season.  It is often dry during the Summer.  But today, it wasn't:

There were a couple of new additions to the bank of the  'area of water'  - I say 'new', but they might have been there for years, I only noticed them today - in the form of two benches carved from large logs:

This one features a carved squirrel and, too small to see in the photo, a carved mouse on the other leaf seat.  The other bench features a duck, a frog and an owl:

Finally, leaving the woodland, I found myself facing the vista of a solar panel farm on the opposite slope, (the panels don't show up as well as I'd hoped on the photo, but trust me, the dark stuff on the far slope are solar panels).  These are becoming an increasingly common sight locally and are undoubtedly the face of the future.  They seem to attract less hostility than wind turbines, despite taking up more space.

Despite the sunshine and clear skies, the skeletal state of the trees gives away the fact that we're still only in Spring and that Summer is some way off yet.  There are more pictures, but I'm going to take pity on everyone and save them for another day.


Monday, April 18, 2016

The Power of New Pants

It's amazing the difference wearing new underwear can make.  I recently invested in several new pairs of boxer shorts as many of my existing stock were wearing thin.  In fact, some of them were in pretty poor condition, sporting large holes.  That said, none is in as bad a condition as the Y-fronts one of my older brothers 'wore' back in the seventies - one pair was reduced to basically being the elastic waist band with a few bits of material attached to it.  Quite how, or why, he was wearing them, I don't know.  Nor do I know why he didn't just buy new pants.  It got to the stage that my mother - said brother was still living at home at the time - refused to have them hanging on the washing line after he'd put them through the wash, (again, I don't know why he was bothering), for fear of what the neighbours might think.  There have been times in my life when I've been rock bottom financially and have had to wear old underwear in poor condition as I couldn't afford to replace it, but I've never subjected my actual bottom to anything like those Y-fronts of my brother's.

But, to get back to my new boxer shorts, since Saturday I've been wearing the new ones: I thought that I would kick off my week off from work in style.  There's something about the feel of a brand new, pristine, pair of boxer shorts - so clean, so comfortable, so secure.  There are none of those vague stains you can never seem to wash out which seem to linger in old pairs.  There's also none of that slight coarseness which sets in after they've been washed a few times, not to mention the way they start to lose their shape.  Best of all, there aren't any of those worrying holes - not being able to feel the inside of the seat of your trousers is a wonderful experience, not to mention being able to zip up your flys without fear of inadvertent damage due to holes and tears.  So, all weekend I've felt incredibly safe and secure and now I've kicked the week of feeling the same way.  First time new underwear engenders an incredible sense of confidence - I feel like I could take on the world an win.  Best of all, I've got another three pairs of brand new boxers to go - so that hairy peasant whose car is currently squatting in my parking space without a valid permit had better look out, as I'm likely to confront him and pull his stupid hipster beard out hair by hair.  Well, any when between now and Thursday, that is, after which the power of the new pants will start to wane.   


Friday, April 15, 2016

The Personalised Experience

I recently bought a tablet, mainly to take some of the load off of my badly overworked laptop, but also make things like watching catch up TV in bed easier.  As with all such devices, the tablet comes preloaded with lots of apps, most of which I have no use for whatsoever.  That said, there's a surprisingly good news aggregator app from Google, (that's the surprising thing, a Google product which is quite good), Newstand, which I've been using quite a bit, as it brings together stories from a wide variety of news sources in the UK and globally.  (It also has an excellent graphical interface).  The one thing about it which bugs me, however, is the way in which it keeps asking to use information about me that it has collected from various bits of my use of other Google products in order to 'personalise' my experience.  In other words, to show more news stories selected from sources whose sites I've visited most often, more stories on subjects it 'thinks' that I'm interested in and more stories based on what it 'thinks' I might be interested in based on my previous news reading history.

My problems with this are twofold.  Firstly, Google's track record in successfully predicting what I want to see is very poor.  I've already posted on You Tube's viewing recommendations for me including such things as breast-feeding videos, despite the fact that I don't have children and have no plans to have any.  Moreover, looking back on my You Tube viewing history, I really couldn't see what would have led to Google's algorithms suggesting such viewing matter.  Whilst the breast feeding videos seem to have disappeared of late, the viewing suggestions haven't really improved in relevance: right now I'm being urged to look at something about Amazon tribes and the 'Top 10 Celebrities With the Worst Plastic Surgery'.  Where these are coming from, I really don't know.  My other big problem with 'personalisation' of the news app is that it will effectively ensure that I only see things i already know about and am likely to agree with.  Personally, I like being confronted with the unexpected (as long at isn't breast feeding videos) in terms of news stories.  I enjoy being exposed to news sources whose content might challenge my existing views and prejudices.

I always thought that was a large part of what the internet was about - this process of discovery of new perspectives and information.  At least, it was back in the early days of the web.  Sadly, the contemporary internet seems obsessed with this idea of 'personalisation' in order to make your entire experience of news feeds, social media and the like 'safe' and to protect you from being offended.  Which is all bollocks - being offended never hurt anybody.  On the contrary, it's character building.  Of course, the likes of Google would undoubtedly tell you that it is all about improving the user experience by ensuring people see more of what they like. Unfortunately, the end result is an increasingly mediocre experience as anything which falls too far from the 'norm' or which might offend someone is excluded.  In reality, the likes of Google should be trying to give web users not just what they think they like, but what they didn't know they liked.  (Although I can safely say that I know for sure that I wouldn't like those breast feeding videos).

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

You Can be Sure of Shell

Whilst I'm still feeling nostalgic having revisited my childhood 'Wandering Star' obsession, I thought I'd revisit another childhood favourite: the early sixties Shell Petrol ad featuring Bing Crosby.  I say featuring Bing Crosby, in reality it is only his voice featured, with an anonymous pipe fondling extra standing in for him behind the wheel of the car. As it's all shot 'point of view', we never see the driver's face, with the aforementioned pipe and the bag of golf clubs in the passenger seat acting as visual cues to identify him as 'Bing'.  So the real Bing Crosby didn't have to travel further than his nearest recording studio in the States in order to make his trip around the British Isles.  Although first aired in the early sixties, I remember this ad still being run on British TV in the late sixties when I was a kid.

The 'Bing Sings Shell' advert was one of a series which ran on UK TV from the late fifties onward, usually featuring Micheal Holliday's vocals on the 'You Can be Sure of Shell' song.  Each one featured a 'point of view' journey in a convertible through various parts of the UK.  The Bing version was a one-off special, although I have read that there was another special version featuring Sammy Davis Jr's vocals, which played across Europe, (part of the deal with Crosby, apparently, was that his ad would only be shown in the UK).  Unfortunately, I have yet to find a copy of the Sammy Davis version, or even confirm its existence.

The 'You Can be Sure of Shell' series of ads are quite fascinating to view now - they belong to an era when car ownership was still a novelty and most people hadn't traveled that widely in the British Isles, let alone abroad.  Hence, these mini-travelogues of Britain were showing many viewers parts of their own country that had never visited.  Driving was still an adventure back then.  Indeed, back in the late sixties I can remember even the journey from Salisbury to London being a massive trek in those pre-M3 motorway days, when you had to follow the old A3 through what felt like every town centre in the Thames Valley.  Which is probably why this advert always appealed to me as a kid - it showed driving as a relaxing, trouble free adventure on empty roads winding through beautiful scenery, rather than a slog through Staines. 

I still find it more engaging than most of the ads currently running on UK TV, which all seemed to be aimed at people with no attention spans, garishly shouting out their messages.  (I especially dislike those bloody adverts which try to use the 'vlogging' format - clearly some ad executive somewhere has discovered You Tube).  It's certainly far more gentell, reflecting an era when the pace of life was commendably far slower.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Wandering Star

I really don't like musicals.  They test my willing suspension of disbelief to the limits.  Whilst I'm watching a film, I can temporarily accept, for the purposes of the drama unfolding n front of my eyes, all manner of absurdities.  I'm prepared to accept that men can turn into wolves, that the blood-drinking reanimated corpses of nobility terrorise Transylvania, even that Robin Askwith was apparently irresistible to women in the 1970s.  But I just can't handle people spontaneously bursting into song and performing dance numbers in the middle of the street, or an office, or anywhere, really.  I've often thought that my dislike of musicals might have been triggered by having seen the opening of Oklahoma on TV when I was very young - I just thought it was a western. I mean, it opens with a cowboy riding into shot then, for no good reason, he starts singing.  I found it deeply disturbing: cowboys were meant to be drunk and violent, not singing.  It was horrible.  Yet, despite this dislike of musicals, when I was four or five I became obsessed with a number from the film version of a famous musical western.

Back in 1969, when Paint Your Wagon was released, 'I Was Born Under a Wandering Star', as performed by Lee Marvin, incredibly became a chart hit.  I use the term 'performed' advisedly, as he certainly doesn't sing, instead speaking, or rather growling, the lyrics over the music.  But those were the days when they tended to cast actors rather than singers in film musicals, often making this the only option.  Clint Eastwood did the same thing as Marvin's co-star in the same film.  Richard Harris and David Hemmings did something similar in Camelot.   It wasn't confined to film musicals, either:  Telly Savalas had some chart success talking over music in the seventies and William 'The Shat' Shatner has become a legend with his musical spoken renditions of classics like 'Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds'.  Of course, these days we have a whole musical genre - rap- dedicated to those who can't sing and instead just talk over a record, but back in the day it was a real novelty.  But to return to the point, aged five or so, I became obsessed with Lee Marvin's rendition of 'Wandering Star' and drove my mother up the wall by continually attempting to replicate his growling performance.  Except that, for some reason, I thought it hilariously funny to replace the word 'star' with 'cow' which, in turn, just wound my mother up even more.

Whilst I eventually grew out of this fixation, I've remained fascinated by the song, (not to mention becoming a Lee Marvin fan), despite still finding the film all but unwatchable.  As someone once remarked about Paint Your Wagon: 'Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood sing.  It really shouldn't be allowed'.  I've often wondered just why that particular number has had such an effect on me.  Perhaps it is because, secretly, I envy those who, like Marvin's character in the film, drift endlessly from place to place, never staying long enough to develop ties.  God knows, there have been times in my life when I've badly wanted just to walk away from my life and all of its complications and encumbrances.  But I never do - I'm one of those people who likes to have some fixed points in their life, including a permanent home.  I guess I just wasn't born under a wandering star.  Or cow.

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Monday, April 11, 2016

Sleight of Hand

Stage magicians refer to it as 'distraction', when they deliberately and persistently divert the audience's attention away from the main piece of trickery they are performing toward something else happening on stage, so as to hide the mechanics of the actual trick.  There seemed to be a lot of 'distraction' going on in the media over the weekend, as they desperately tried to divert viewers' attention from Dodgy Dave's tax troubles.  They spent a lot of time dangling the Archbishop of Canterbury's true parentage in front of us, as if it was some kind of huge historical sex scandal.  Frankly, it would have been a better story if it had turned out that his real father had turned out to be Winston Churchill himself, rather than just his private secretary.  These sorts of things only really take off if it involves some famous historical alcoholic drunkenly fumbling some young innocent in the stationary cupboard at the 1955 Downing Street Christmas party.  You could even spin out a bit, implying that this drunken liaison was the cause of Churchill's subsequent huge heart attack.  

But I digress.  This non-story, which is really of little interest to anyone other than the Archbishop (and presumably his mother) was pushed incredibly hard over the weekend, even taking precedence, at one point, over the fact that thousands of people had marched on Downing Street demanding Dave's resignation.  Even when the march was mentioned, it was only in passing, with the implication that it was utterly unimportant that so many ordinary citizens were so angry about their rulers' tax hypocrisy.  When it became clear that 'I cuckolded the Archbishop's father' story wasn't going to take off, the media instead resorted to that other standby: the Royal family.  Sunday saw the news dominated by coverage of Kate Middleton and whichever Prince it is that she's married to wandering around India.  At one point on the BBC News Channel, I thought that we were actually going to cut to a more important story, when the presenter suddenly interrupted the wall-to-wall deference to Royalty with news of a breaking Tweet(!).  But it turned out that it was just some Indian cricketer on a bout his meeting with the Royals.  He didn't even tweet anything controversial, like 'Kate Middleton's arse not all it's cracked up to be'.  (It is her arse the press like to drool over, isn't it?  Or am I confusing her with her sister - is it her arse that people like to sycophantically rave over just because she's related to somebody who married into the Royal family.  In either case, their behinds are decidedly average - I've seen far better on commoners).

The worst thing about all this sleight of hand was that one of the worst culprits was the BBC which, bizarrely, was one of the news organisations which had broken the 'Panama Papers' story in the first place!  Yet here they were, effectively attempting to sabotage their own story.  Mind you, from the outset, much of the British press tried to shift the focus of the story onto all those horrible foreigners who had been involved in these dodgy financial affairs, rather than the links to UK politicians and businessmen.  They seemed especially keen to try and link Vladimir Putin to the revelations.  But, despite the media's best efforts to divert our attention, Dodgy Dave and his tax affairs have caught the public's attention, just as the pig business did, in the face of the media's attempts to bury it.  Let's just hope that this story actually goes somewhere. 

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Friday, April 08, 2016

Taxing Times

It's all a bit reminiscent of Al Capone, isn't it?  I mean, after all those years of racketeering, all the rivals he had rubbed out, in the end it was tax evasion that they got Al for, wasn't it?  That's what he got sent down for.  It was the same for Mickey Cohen, in fact, they got him twice, in 1951, when he got four years and again in 1961, when he got ten years.  Now we have David Cameron, strolling Prime Minister of Great Britain, embroiled in allegations of having benefited from his late father's tax evasion schemes.  Obviously, I don't expect him to be banged up.  After all, he hasn't actually broken any laws. If we're lucky, he might have an attack of conscience and resign, but I doubt it - he'll just brazen it out like he did the pig business and every other piece of sleaziness he's been involved  with. Whilst I'm always happy to see Cameron squirm, there's always the danger that if his authority is undermined enough, it might also discredit, by association, the pro-EU campaign Cameron is fronting in the run up to the EU referendum.

But to get back to the matter in hand, Cameron's main crime is that of hypocrisy: after all, he's been quick to condemn the likes of Jimmy Carr for their participation in the kind of schemes that his own father used to devise and keeps promising us that his government is going to close those legal loopholes which allow giant multinational corporations to avoid paying corporation tax on their UK operations, yet has been happy to profit from the proceeds of tax evasion schemes himself.  To reiterate though, he hasn't done anything illegal.  Immoral, yes.  Illegal, no.  When I say tax evasion is immoral, I'm taking my cue from the Prime Minister himself and his Chancellor, both of whom have stated that this is the case.  They are, of course, correct, even if they aren't sincere when they say these things.  Taxation is, after all, the price we pay for living in a civilised society, it pays for all those services which ensure our safety, our health, our education.  It pays for those services which ensure that the poor, the sick, the disabled and the disadvantaged have a chance in life and aren't trodden underfoot.  But that's not something that Cameron and his pals are actually interested in - they don't care about maintaining a fairer society and a level playing field, they're just interested in extracting as much profit as possible from society and to hell with the consequences.  But at last, it seems, things are beginning to become unraveled.  Still, if it's any consolation for Cameron, between and after his two jail stints for tax evasion, Mickey Cohen did enjoy celebrity status and ran a string of businesses, including florist shops, petrol stations and even an ice cream van.  So perhaps you'll see Dave selling 'ninety nines'  on a street near you sometime in the near future.     


Thursday, April 07, 2016

A Hundred Issues of Sleaze

Another landmark achieved for The Sleaze - if we still ran the old numbered issue system, the most recently posted story would mark the beginning of our hundredth issue.  Which probably requires a degree of explanation for those who don't recall the earliest days of The Sleaze. Back when the site started, some sixteen years ago, the web was still young and nobody had any idea how publications should be run online - the current convention of sites being updated on a post by post basis wasn't universal, (the rise of the blog probably helped cement this convention).  Consequently, some of us initially tried to replicate the offline print conventions of sites being published as 'issues', entirely updated on a monthly basis, like a magazine. Whilst The Sleaze was originally monthly, it quickly moved to bi-monthly, as writing an entire issue's worth of stories and editorial content in one go was just too time consuming.  After a couple of years we finally adopted the blogging convention of publishing one article at a time.  However, the old system was still reflected in the numbering scheme for the stories and the publishing schedule for editorials (which still appear every other month). 

So, with 'Issue 99' having encompassed the stories published during February and March, (all of their suffix numbers in their URLs started '99', with the the third digit reflecting their place in the running order, although I sometimes get confused and assign the wrong running number), we must now be at 'Issue 100'.  Which is quite an achievement, considering that when we started, I thought that I'd be lucky to come up with enough material for ten issues.  Of course, The Sleaze has changed a lot since the first issue, most notably in having shifted from being a series of static pages to the current Wordpress-based site, but so has the web itself.  Back in April 2000 when the site first went live, there was no social media: no Twitter, no Facebook.  The mobile web didn't exist, connections were all dial up, speeds snail like compared to today and the idea of streaming audio or visual files online seemed a distant dream.  Nowadays, even my TV is internet connected and I regularly watch films  streamed from the web on it.  But some things never change:  The Sleaze still doesn't allow commenting on stories and makes emailing the editor as difficult as possible and I have no plans to change this.  Some traditions have to be adhered to...


Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Games That Lovers Play (1971)

Back to the pop culture today, as we leave behind current events to take a brief look at the 1971 British sex comedy Games That Loves Play.  Written and directed by Malcolm Leigh, the film is decidedly livelier than his black magic documentary Legend of the Witches, released the previous year.  Shot in colour and, unusually for a sex comedy, a 1920s setting, (low budgets tended to dictate contemporary settings), Games That Lovers Play moves its straightforward plot along at a reasonable clip, delivering some reasonable entertainment, but no real surprises.  The film sees two rival Madams, Mrs Hill (Diane Hart) and Lady Evelyn (Nan Munro) make a wager over which of their top girls can seduce the most un-seducable man.  The girls in question are Fanny Hill (Joanna Lumley) and Lady Constance Chatterley (Penny Brahms), who are tasked with seducing Lady Evelyn's gay nephew Jonathan and a chaste Bishop, respectively.  Both succeed in their missions, making the wager a draw, so. as a decider, they are both tasked to lure Lothran (Richard Wattis), an upright and apparently highly repressed wine merchant, with whoever succeeds first being declared the winner.

Nowadays chiefly remembered for Joanna Lumley's numerous nude scenes, perhaps the most interesting aspect of  Games That Lovers Play for contemporary audiences, (aside from Lumley's knockers, that is), are the typically confused early seventies attitudes toward homosexuality it displays.  Whilst not as overtly homophobic as many of its contemporary sex movies, it still confuses homosexuality with transvestism and transsexuality, with Jeremy Lloyd's camp Jonathan wearing women's clothes and being seduced by Fanny Hill after she lies to him, telling him that she is a post-op transsexual.  All of which, in today's somewhat more enlightened time, seems highly bizarre.  That said, Jonathan is at least played as a more-or-less sympathetic character rather than as the usual comedy homosexuals of the era, who were generally portrayed as predatory opportunists fixated o seducing young straight men, (see Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served? for one the milder examples of this caricature).

Most disturbing for those of us of a certain age, though, is the sight of Richard Wattis, an actor best known for playing fuddy-duddy establishment types in British movies and sitcoms throughout the fifties and sixties, (and, for many of us, a familiar childhood fixture on Jackanory, where he read the 'Mary Plain' books), cavorting in bed with two naked women at the film's climax.  It really isn't the sort of thing I'd ever expected to see him doing, but Wattis seems to be enjoying himself immensely (as well he might), after his character reveals that he likes nothing better than a threesome, rendering the contest a draw as he apparently takes both Fanny hill and Lady Chatterley simultaneously.

The names of the main female protagonists, (the film was released in the US as Lady Chatterley Versus Fanny Hill), seems to have caused some confusion among some viewers, with many assuming that they are meant to be the actual literary characters - in reality these are simply the working names of the prostitutes, reflecting the fact that one Madam, Lady Constance, likes to see herself as being 'high class', catering to the well heeled, whereas the other, Mrs Hill, is something of an upstart.  That said, the film makes a mod to D H Lawrence by having Lady Chatterley servicing various upper crust clients (all dressed as gardeners) in the garden maze of a stately home.

Made a time when the format of the British sex comedy hadn't yet been fully formulated, Games That Lovers Play makes an interesting diversion from the usual modern day suburban escapades of the likes of Robin Askwith and Barry Evans.  What it lacks in laughs compared to some of the later sex comedies, it makes up for with a very nicely realised period setting and some elaborately staged set pieces - most notably the gay ball where Fanny Hill picks up Jonathan.  Not a classic, but still a diverting ninety minutes of entertainment, Games That Lovers Play turns up every so often on Talking Pictures TV.   



Monday, April 04, 2016

Intolerant Bastards

I've really got to stop reading tweets by those middle class reactionary 'liberals' I hate so much - it really isn't good for my blood pressure.  On the other hand, reading them does help reassure me that I haven't yet turned into a complete knee-jerk reactionary myself.  But to get to the point, I know that you are now wondering exactly what has got me riled up with regard to these middle class twitter twats this time?  Well, we're back to that old favourite Charlie Hebdo and the contention by some of these middle class reactionaries that the satirical magazine is actually a horrible anti-Muslim organ, spreading hate speak. (Implicit in this view is that they had that terrorist attack on them coming, as they were clearly asking for it).  These were the people who completely missed the point of the whole 'Je Suis Charlie' thing, refusing to participate because of the magazine's alleged anti-Muslim rhetoric - the point, of course, being that you didn't have to like, or even approve of, anything Charlie Hebdo published, it was a a matter of showing solidarity and acknowledging that deadly violence isn't a reasonable response to being offended by something.

Anyway, after seeing Charlie Hebdo trending again yesterday evening, I investigated, to find the usual suspects denouncing a blog post by the magazine, alleging that in it Charlie Hebdo came out in its true colours as a Muslim-hating rag and crowing about how they had all told us so.  Except, of course, that it was nothing of  the sort.  Reading the post in question revealed that it was actually a call for the reassertion of secularism in civil society, with religion and its symbols, (all religions, not just Islam), confined to the private sphere.  The article tried to make the argument that it has been the failure of us secularists to press for religion to be more firmly contained like this, instead allowing ever greater public displays of the religious symbols and practices in the name of 'tolerance', which had allowed the growth of radical religious-inspired terror organisations in Western societies.  Which isn't a rabidly Muslim-hating stance.  It's a perfectly legitimate argument.  Not one that I entirely buy - the reality is that a series of increasingly disastrous political and military interventions by both the West and the USSR/Russia in various Muslim countries since the end of World War Two have been the real cause of the rise of radical Islam, with many in the Muslim world perceiving these interventions as attempts to impose alien values and political and social structures on their societies.  The failure to maintain the secular nature of our own societies might have facilitated the rise of Islamic radicalism within our own borders, but it isn't the root cause of what we're seeing now.

Although I don't actually agree with the opinions expressed in the Charlie Hebdo article,  I don't feel the need to misrepresent it in order to justify denouncing the publication as anti-Muslim.  People are allowed to have opinions which differ from our own.  But you wouldn't know that from following the social media utterances of these self-styled 'liberals'.  I find it deeply ironic that people who spend so much time making pronouncements about 'tolerance' show so little of it themselves whenever they encounter dissenting opinions.


Friday, April 01, 2016

Fooling Nobody

Having transitioned completely into a curmudgeonly old git in yesterday's post, denouncing modern 'humour', I thought that I might as well turn my attention to this year's crop of mainstream media April Fool's Day 'jokes'.  The problem is that I've had a hard time spotting them.  I did think that announcing Ronnie Corbett's death was in poor taste as far as April Fool pranks go - until I remembered that he really had died yesterday.  So clearly that wasn't a press prank.  I thought that maybe the story about the obese outnumbering the underweight in the UK was the joke story, but apparently, that too was on the level.  The one that I was sure was an April Fool gag was that story about the Business Secretary Sajid Javid meeting soon-to-be-unemployed steel workers in Port Talbot and telling them "We are on your side".  I mean, really, that has to be a joke, doesn't it?  If this is the government's idea of being on someone's side, then I'd hate to see how they treat their enemies.

But no, that was also, incredibly, true.  In the end, I couldn't find a single story that was obviously an April Fool's Day joke.  Which, as far as I'm concerned, is no bad thing.  Hopefully the news media have finally accepted that when most of us tune into the news or read the papers, we want to read something which has some connection with real events, rather than having to wonder if each story is actually an elaborate lie.  (Of course, it might just be that I've completely lost all of my critical faculties and every news story I saw or read today was a gag).  Mind you in recent times every day has felt like April Fool's Day in the British press, with the tabloids dominated by completely made up scare stories involving immigrants, extreme weather, bird flu and the EU.  So I guess that the apparent lack of special prank stories this April Fool's Day might have less to do with the press having had a Road to Damascus conversion with regard to the veracity of their reporting, than it has with the fact that they know that nobody can tell the difference between their April Fool gags and their regular shit.  God, I really am becoming an old curmudgeon, aren't I?  

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