Monday, 5 March 2012

NYT: Know Thy Contributor

Ever wondered how people get in to writing for newspapers?

With some people it's easy. They study some sort of journalism course then apply for jobs. Lots of jobs. They eventually get one of them then start tapping away at the out of date computer on their new desk.

But these sorts of people just write news. What about the columnists? The opinionistas who write leaders and the middle sections of the quality press. Where do they come from? Some of them are experts in the field they cover who have written books and get asked to contribute to the press. Others just appear like a nineteenth century party leaders or England cricket captains.

The spotlight that the Olympics has cast on London has inspired the New York Times to publish a handy guide for its readers entitled 'Explaining Londoners.'

Although I only have access to the online version of this the main piece seems to be an amazingly long essay by novelist China Mieville (me neither) who is from Norwich and writes Science Fiction.

You might think a SF writer a strange choice to write about the current state of London and you would be correct.

So what made the NYT choose Mr Mieville for this task? At the foot of the article they merely describe him as an author or several books who lives and works in London. It doesn't even say that he's a SF writer in case this would lead to readers not taking him seriously enough.

What they fail to mention is that he is a member of the Socialist Workers Party who has even stood for them at a general election. That he achieved 459 votes in a Labour constituency tells you all you need to know about how in touch with the real London they are.

Unsurprisingly, Mieville's never-ending piece paints a grim picture of London. He uses the classic Chomsky method of half truths and shameful exaggeration to suit his political ends. He knows the majority of the American readers will have no idea about the truth or even controversial nature of what he is saying so he can push is distorted reality on them with ease.

I won't go through all the errors he makes or lies he tells as that would require a dissertation and this is a blog not a PhD.

Speaking of PhD's Mieville's is a good example of his take on reality.

When speaking about the rule of law he claims that 'A world structured around international law cannot but be one of imperialist violence. The chaotic and bloody world around us is the rule of law.'

If you can't see how the law protects the weak from the strong you should move to a country without it for a few months.

There are plenty of people in this country who believe the same sort of nonsense as Mieville but they at least have the chance to see things in context even if they choose not to. What chance do American readers have? None. In the same way we could not truly appreciate Obama's rise or Tea Party lunatics.

The New York Times should be ashamed of itself. Printing a communist diatribe full of rewritten history that its readers will not be able to interpret with any sort of balance.

You wonder at their motives might be for commissioning this most biased and ignorant of writers. There surely must be more than the sour grapes from a failed Olympic bid as the Telegraph supposes.

Though as Tim Stanley points out in the same paper New York, it could be argued, is faring no better than London. He claims that against the U.S.'s national trend murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault all on the rise in the Big Apple. Murders up 14 per cent.

Perhaps the NYT just wanted its readers not to feel like they were the only city with problems.

If that's the case they should have sent a correspondent rather than a propagandist with an axe to grind.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Feliz Año Nuevo: parte dos

A head rests on the hotel bar.

Sevillanos looking for a drink
Hope? Despair? Relief?

The only sniff we'd had of a drink since dinner was bottles of wine sold in a bocadillo shop near Plaza Nueva. For this there was a queue round the block.

It was relief. Two-fold relief. When we saw that the bar was open the BH gave voice to what we were both feeling. "Thank fuck! I don't care what it costs. A bottle of Rioja please." The barman, startled by this Celtic outburst, needed some help translating this. Relief dropped the head to the bar when it only set us back €14.50. It was a touch dry. Crianza, so what can you expect?

Safe in the knowledge that we would at least be somewhere for the 12 bells we started to take in our surroundings a little better.

Despite the many miles trodden by these ol' feet I've not actually spent much time in hotel bars. Although new years eve and fairly late the bar was far from full.

Quiet though it was not. Thumping, dreadful, loud, Europop was disgorging from the speakers. The place was called the piano bar. There was a white grand piano in the corner. A folded piece of A4 rested on the keys asking no one to play it. One can only presume it was out of tune.

We decamped to a hall type area that was next to the bar. The music was not so loud here and a television had been set up for those who wished to watch the Spanish new year show.

Currently this was myself and my BH. New year's television in Spain appears to consist of a live music show which bears a resemblance to Eurovision. It is presented by an extremely friendly woman (she smiles a lot so she must be friendly) who changed her outfit after every song. At first this stuck me as a miraculous act of re-habiliment. After about the first half dozen changes I came up with the theory that she probably had a sound proof dressing room and the more time in there the better.

The hotel had organised a new year party for guests who had nowhere else to go. When we learnt of this we scoffed that it was unlikely to be the sort of event such cultured types as us attended. Now we were starting to worry that we might have missed out on the best the evening could have offered us.

As we were now about 20 minutes away from the year of London's Olympic glory this party should have been in full swing. We therefore thought we'd stick our head in and see what our snobbishness had caused us to miss out on.

Peeking through the open door of the party revealed about 20 tables with about four to six people sat around each one. Some had party hats on. Some did not. Some had smiles on their faces. Some did not. There appeared to be no correlation between party hats and smiles.

The BH utter the most complete two word description I've ever heard.

"Bad wedding."

We had not long retired back to our comfy sofa in front of the tele to admire the presenters latest dress when we both suddenly checked our watches. Not an unusual thing to do on new years eve, I grant you, but it was triggered by a most unexpected event.

Everybody left the party. Everybody. It was clearly not a nice day for a bad wedding.

What was going on? A mass walk out of revellers? Striking merrymakers? No.

It seems the metaphorical bride and groom were due to leave at ten to midnight and the party was over.

Their polythene partybags had not appeared to cheer them up. Not much anyway.

Everyone now preceded pick up a glass of cava from the (non) piano bar and drag chairs in front of the tele. Presumably so that they could see what the nice lady on the tele was going to be wearing at midnight.

At least the Europop had been removed from the bar's stereo to be replaced by more televisions. Some sort of improvement anyway.

The time came and grapes were eaten (in the Spanish style). Children who really should have been in bed went a bit mental, stuff happened on the tele and whatever the star had on couldn't have been that memorable because I don't have even the faintest recollection of it. But I'm sure it was interesting.

With so many people now in the bar it at least felt like a party. Though the chap in the kilt looked like he felt hogmanay was one time when Dundee had something over Seville.

Our televisual host seemed to have run out of dress changes so she wasn't allowed to be on tele any more.

Was slightly surprised by what replaced her on the box. It was a tour through the pop music history of different European nations. So no sooner had the new year's show ended that we were greeted by Sir Cliff's toothy grin belting out 'Congratulations' followed by Sandie Shaw's 'Those were the days'.

Things were looking up. They'd even run out of the dry wine and started selling us one even nicer.

There were some famous acts on the TV now but not always performing their biggest hits.

So to a background of 'Johnny and Mary' by Robert Palmer and Dire Straits' massive 'Tunnel of Love' we settled down to an evening of people watching. By that I mean sneakily making rude comments about our fellow guests.

It was excellent.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Feliz Año Nuevo

I never thought it would come to this. New year’s eve in a hotel bar listening to jingle bells. Still, we were grateful for it after the couple of hours we’d had.

It all started so promisingly. The BH (Better Half) and I had arrived in Seville on the 30th after finding a deal on and had found a bustling city centre where each narrow street was filled with table of people eating beautiful looking tapas.

After getting over the shock of seeing people eating outside in late December we found a table of our own and stuffed our faces.

I was preparing myself mentally for the problems one might face on new year’s eve in London. I made a note of as many interesting bars as I could so that we would have options on the big night. After all, we might not be able to get in to our first choice. They’ll probably be rammed with fiesta-ing Sevillianos right? Wrong.

The BH and I hatched a foolproof plan. We would head in to town, pick one of the many restaurants offering new years eve set menus and soak up the ambiance and see what goes on when the bell strikes 12. If there wasn’t much atmos in the restaurant we’d track down a bar full of locals and see what they were up to. Seville has loads of bars and hardly any non-Spanish tourists so we were guaranteed the real deal. See? Foolproof.

We got all dressed up in the hotel and I have to confess my mouth was watering at the prospect of all the Iberian culinario delights awaiting us. Bussed it in to Santa Cruz with that excited feeling you get before something great happens. Christmas morning as a child, parties as a teenager and food and wine as an adult.

I was imagining that there would be all sorts of Spanish stuff going on. Singing and jolliness or something. I suppose I only had a nebulous idea of what it would be like. Just something I hadn’t seen before.

It turned out that a bit more research was needed.

We’d been in Seville for about 30 hours and been mightily pleased with how cheap all the glorious food was. We were flabbergasted therefore to see the restaurant known to us as ‘Cow Place’ wanted €92 for a tapas meal with one glass of wine. One glass.

We had christened it ‘Cow Place’ as there is a life sized statue of a cow in the restaurant staring down at those eating its non-papiermaché cousins. A touch eccentric I’ll grant you but it looked cute and we had thought we would go there if we could get a table. The normal menu, displayed outside, was reasonable enough and it had seemed popular the night before so it seemed like a good plan.

This night it wasn’t very busy and we can all guess the reason. After all, we’d need a lot of wine to get over paying so much and God knows what a bottle of vino tinto would have been. On December 31 anyway.

Eventually we found a place for €40 for 3 courses. It was Italian. So much for an authentic Spanish new year but we were lucky to get in. A couple were um-ing and ah-ing about whether or not to go in and we nipped in and got the last table for two.

The decor was modern. Black walls and mirrors. The floor looked like party poppers had been popped.

It turned out that this €40 deal thing involved us sharing a pizza. So I guess €40 for two and a half courses and a glass of Lambrusco.

The second phase of the foolproof plan was starting to look more likely.

The food was all right. Nothing special. The service was pretty awful. Very inattentive and definitely getting the vibe that they wanted us to leave as soon as possible. They even seemed reluctant to let us buy more wine than the afore mentioned glass of Lambrusco. For once this had nothing to do with our behaviour. We found out why when we had had enough and paid up with a suitably tiny tip.

There was a huge crowd outside. I say ‘crowd’ rather than ‘queue’ because this is Spain and therefore ‘queue’ is not appropriate. They swamped us as we came out. They were so pushy I wouldn't be surprised to learned my phone had been hacked.

Phase two had its problems too.

Prepare yourself to read something truly shocking.

Are you prepared?

Every bar in Seville was shut. That’s right. New Year’s eve. Every bar. Shut.

I guess I was looking forward to something I’d never experienced before. It took about an hour to work out that every single thing was shut. I think it really sunk in when we saw the Scottish bar was closed.

Some of you are probably thinking 'Ah, but things open late in Seville. If you'd have hung around for a while you'd have found something great.' Well, maybe. But it was gone 11 and if they're not open by then they should see a business advisor.

Time was starting to run out and we needed to see in the new year somewhere. Somewhere with a bar. It was going to have to be the hotel.

We had no problem getting a cab as everyone was still fighting over our table in the restaurant.

As the cab pulled up a group of people were waiting to take it back to town. Surely this couldn’t mean even the hotel bar was closed? Or that things were about to liven up in town?

Find out in the next installment: Feliz Año Nuevo Dos - This Time It’s Hotel

Monday, 11 July 2011

A Victory for Public Decency not Celebrity Anger

I read the News of the World. At least I used to. I didn't read it every week but that doesn't really matter, does it? Plenty of people will judge me just for occasionally going near the previously best selling paper in the English language.

Until recently disapproval of the NoW and its followers has come in two forms. Firstly the (not necessarily religious or partisan) puritan element of society (as pointed out by Toby Young) or a snobbish tut-tutting at the working classes' choice of newspaper (see Brendan O'Neill for details).

That all changed with revelations about Milly Dowler and the families of bereaved armed forces personnel. And fair enough. Not one person has offered a defence of such heinous behaviour and it cost a lot of innocent journalists, subs and auxiliary staff their jobs.

Since the paper's demise the criticism has changed once again. Poor Millie Dowler and her family aren't getting much of a look-in.

Instead of hearing from the innocent we are being lectured by those whose guilt was uncovered by NoW (among others).

Hugh Grant (soliciting a prostitute), Steve Coogan (drugs and several affairs), John Prescott (affair), Chris Bryant (posed in underwear online), Max Mosley (S & M orgy) have all been celebrating the fall of the NoW with a mixture of glee and bile that they can barely contain.

They are now leading the charge for tighter regulation of the press. It's as if they have won a great victory are now writing their own treaty of Versailles to impose on the vanquished.

Should these new champions of morality stop to consider for a moment they will realise they have won no victory at all. Their complaints about media intrusion have been going on for years and the public did not care enough to put Rupert Murdoch off his breakfast nevermind buying B Sky B.

Then the NoW treated innocent people the way it had previously treated the guilty and the public turned on them. The tabloids' critics scent blood and want them regulated without thinking for a moment that it was investigative journalism that exposed the NoW in the first place.

Saint Hugh told Question Time that he was not in favour of regulating the broadsheets just the tabloids. This shocking piece of snobbery conveniently forgets that the NoW uncovered and campaigned on issues that meant a lot to its readers. From naming paedophiles to stories about bank robberies. Not just shining a light on celebrity naughtiness and hypocrisy.

His Hugh-liness was probably remembering his claim in May that celebrity injunctions were "fabulous", that successful men were naughty by nature and deserved privacy while forgetting that tabloids have their role too.

If the public were to lose the right to learn about celebrities misdemeanours (or worse) all we would ever know about famous people is what their expensive PR people tell us. They could then profit from this image and no one would ever know the truth.

The Guardian has done its job splendidly by revealing a scandal and letting the public make judgement. Just like the NoW used to do.

Steve Coogan told Newsnight that the NoW was in the gutter before the recent scandal. The public should remember who they found there and ask if they are the best judge of decent behaviour.

Thursday, 30 June 2011


There has been a status going around on facebook and Twitter asking: "Remember when police officers, teachers, nurses, binmen etc crashed the stock market, wiped out banks, took billions in bonuses and paid no tax? No, me neither."

That's not an exact quote by the way but Johann Hari told me it was okay to paraphrase.

Obviously this ties in with the unions line that the public sector is not to blame for the current financial situation and therefore should be allowed to pretend it doesn't exist. Nevermind solidarity with workers in the private sector who have a far worse deal than the new one put before public sector workers. Or that no recession in history has only been paid for by those perceived to have caused it. The public sector didn't cause the crisis so they should be untouched.

So who is responsible? Let's find them and make them pay!

Ah yes, the bankers. A difficult group to defend seeing as they are a pretty odious bunch. Gambling all that money. Leveraging far too many times their equity for greater and greater profits.

What on earth inspired them to be so reckless? Greed, clearly. The wish for more and more seems to be a required qualification for investment banking. That is the public perception of bankers and who would dispute it?

If bankers are so inherently rapacious why weren't they behaving in this way before?

The simple answer is that they weren't allowed to.

When Labour came to power in 1997 Blair and Brown were faced with a dilemma. They represented a 'New' Labour Party that was not going to raise taxes and was business friendly. No more socialism for them.

Their new way was to have as many people as possible employed by the state and give them wages that were better than the private sector and still have great benefits. Whatever their reasons for this (bribing the electorate, inherent love of a large state or improving standards of living depending on your point of view) it needed to be paid for.

Mr Blair was the smiling face of this new business friendly Labour Party and he found a way of getting business to pay for it. Not by taxing them more of course, that would never do. How else then? By deregulating banks and allowing them to take bigger risks and make bigger profits. This way the Exchequer would receive larger sums of tax revenue without putting taxes up, bankers would make a fortune and public sector jobs would suddenly become very desirable.

It worked brilliantly. All the gambles paid off or were covered up with no effective regulation to uncover the losses. People got used to the idea that it was affordable to have a public sector where people retired early and received the same wages as an equivalent private sector worker who retired later.

Then, as with all gamblers, the banks eventually lost. With this there was suddenly no way of paying for such an expensive public sector.

Seeing as these risks were taken to pay for public sector salaries and pensions perhaps people facebook status should read: remember when the demands of the public sector caused the banking crisis?

Friday, 29 April 2011

Unelected Yet Unpolitical

A million people lined the streets to cheer them on. That's according to the police anyway. I've often wondered how they calculate figures like that. Well, not that often.

The royal wedding brought with it the typical twitter polemic. I'm not in the habit of quoting tweets and I'm not going to start now. I will quote a hashtag though. #ashamedtobebritish started trending as a response to the #proudtobebritish trend turning peoples collective stomach.

It was the ideas of deference, class privilege and unelected power that was getting the former's goat and the flag waving romance and fairy tale nature of the thing that was doing whatever the opposite of getting one's goat is for the latter.

Personally I find all the hysteria a little hard to bear and I am incredulous at people lining the streets for hours or days on end. Honestly, what do they do all day?

Although it might not be my cup of tea at least they were getting in to the spirit of things. The #ashamedtobebritish crowd missed the point.

The idea that Britain has something to be ashamed about by having an unelected head of state is way of target. There are lots of reasons why it's so wide of the mark but let's stick with the biggest reason. Royal's don't have any power. I know, weird isn't it? Some part of our consciousness will always struggle with this notion but it doesn't stop it being true.

The role of the monarch is not to wield power of any kind. Should Liz II disagree with anything Parliament wishes to do she can do nothing about it. In fact, she has less power than an ordinary citizen (that's right, not subjects. Another anachronism used by the #ashamed crowd). She can not make her voice heard on any political issue.

The monarch's role is to represent the nation. By this I do not mean represent every individual or group in the country. That should be Parliament's job. Would you feel better represented by a President Blair or Cameron? The royal family represent Britain's historical institutions and what has made Britain the country it is today and what will shape its future.

With a monarch as non-executive head of state politicians are reminded that their glory is transient. Their careers will end but the country will endure. A non-political, unelected head of state reminds the Government that it is the country that they serve not just their political supporters and short term goals. Let the politicians fight for our affections while the country rises above it all.

Once you realise this the other criticisms such as deference and privilege can be seen in a different light. Your are not bowing or curtsying merely to a posh individual. You are showing respect to the nation itself.

So congratulations to the happy couple and may they ensure the continuation of the family. Just don't expect to see me lining the Mall. I wouldn't know what to do with myself.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

An Alternative to Remember

Ever met a friend of yours a couple of days after a party and said to them: "What a great evening so and so's was. I had a lovely time." Only for them to tell you that it was a dreadful evening and recite a list of things you didn't think made any difference but clearly ruined it for them?

It's hard to imagine how you can both remember the same night so differently.

I imagine this must happen to Lib Dem President Tim Farron quite a lot. Not that I've ever been to a party with him or even had the pleasure of speaking to him but going by how he remembers his history I think it's a fair guess.

I had always reckoned that Britain's political system had played a key role in making her the first major nation to permanently abolish slavery. I say permanently because France re-introduced slavery after deciding egalite only goes so far.

Mr Farron remembers things a little differently.

He seems to think that the British electoral system hindered the process of abolition despite being the first to introduce it and then vote through colossal amounts of money to promote the cause throughout the world. I suppose his point is that if other countries had had AV they might have beaten us to it.

Perhaps when people seem to remember things differently they're just being dishonest. You know what I mean. The people who have to dislike everything to appear cool. A good way of spotting this is a general inconsistency in their opinions. Now that band has become popular they no longer like them, that sort of thing.

In the case of the Yes campaign this inconsistency is starting to show. I don't just mean Farron's strange interpretation of history but that now AV is being sold as a way of keeping the Tories out no matter what. So a system that was originally sold as representing all voters is revealed as nothing more than partisan opportunism. One that is now finding all sorts of excuses for why they're so far behind in the polls. Though you can always rely on Polly Toynbee to add to the bitterness of a campaign.

They seem to have given up on debating the issue of voter empowerment and are just hoping that turn out will be low and that enough Labour supporters will follow their party line.

As Robert Colvile points out in the Telegraph the Yes campaign has not been entirely honest in it's campaigning particularly how it tries to make out it has less funding that the No campaign. Colvile has a series of articles explaining why you should vote no. Along with an excellent Evening Standard piece by Matthew d'Ancona the argument against is outlined far better than I could ever hope to.

Byron once said that hope was the paint on the face of existence, the least touch of truth rubs it off. He could have been speaking about the Yes campaign.