Monday, February 28, 2011

Miserable Mail readers

You know when you have an experience where you find that something really is as bad as you think it is, despite thinking “nah, it couldn’t possibly be as rotten as that”. Well, I had one of those today.

It involved reading a piece of news on the Daily Mail website, which is not something I do on a regular basis, although I decided to see what the vibe was on the home of hate. I decided to jump in at the deep end and read a story based on the recent case where a couple has been denied a foster child because they were "not willing to tell a small child that the practice of homosexuality was a good thing".

Now my opinion on this story is that I agree with the judgement, whilst the couple’s opinion doesn’t make them unfit parents or even bad people, we shouldn’t encourage children to be brought up with such a narrow interpretation of a complex issue. After all what happens if the child itself turns out to be gay?

Then however, I got round to reading some of the comments and interesting reading that made, especially when I looked at what got the best and worst reception from the general readership.

The top rated comment read: “Muslims can still get jobs in our public sector, including the BBC, despite holding the same anti-gay beliefs. Their anti-gay stance is more acceptable to the gay community - a discrepancy the gays have yet to explain to the rest of us.” 974 people liked this.

As far as Daily Mail comments stakes go this has got to win a prize, with bonus points awarded for xenophobia, BBC bashing and homophobia all in one short paragraph. The fact that someone managed to crowbar an attack on the Muslims into this debate about homophobia (although to be fair Christianity is heavily featured in this story) is one thing, but to then skew it into a counter attack on the gay community takes a special kind of bigotry. Also where and when have the Muslims ever had a clear preference? Is this based on fact or sheer speculation? This chap has single handedly created a perfect storm of Mail reader “right on” prejudice. All it was missing out on was an attack on ‘benefit scum’ or ‘gyppo’s’.

Unsurprisingly many of the other ‘liked’ comments centered on why the UK is a Christian country and that Muslims aren’t being so hard done by when they adopt.

Yeah of course, because the Muslim community gets such good treatment the rest of the time when they aren’t being blamed for taking our jobs, or getting mixed up with extreme sects or generally being looked upon with an air of suspicion. Of course they feel complacent in the UK right now But wait, no! What about the poor white man, the Christian, or the middle class family with their 3 bedroom semi. They’re the real victims because they have to incur the odd knock in life like a family of a different race moving in up the road.

The worst rated comment meanwhile, got 774 dislikes and simply read: “Bigots should not be allowed to foster children. Well done the high court.”

After all why would the readers of the Mail condone anti-bigotry when they themselves are mostly bigots it would seem according to this brief experiment? I was also saddened by the fact that many comments were disliked whilst making the valid argument that a homosexual child being brought up by a homophobic foster family could face mental health problems if it turned out to be gay and was chastised for this.

It’s sad really as I would like to think that the majority of Mail readers, whilst having questionable – in my mind anyway – taste in news reporting and commentary, were probably perfectly nice people and not as bigoted as their reading preference would make out. Unfortunately it's the idiots who chose to stand up and be counted.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

First Impressions: The King of Limbs

A lot has already been written about the new album from Radiohead, The King of Limbs.

The band’s eighth studio album has been released digitally a day earlier than planned and attention has already been turned to the first music video for the song Lotus Flower, which features lead singer Thom Yorke dancing as if he’s been possessed by the ghosts of Charlie Chaplain and Michael Jackson.

The King of Limbs, like other works by Radiohead, follows a new musical direction to the band’s last work, In Rainbows, resulting in a complex and haunting feel to the album – with the track Codex being a very poigniant example of this.

For many fans it will be an alienating experience as Radiohead once again askews the mainstream for an original sound. However, many will also celebrate the band’s shunning of the norms and will congratulate them on this brave new, weird-sounding direction.

Personally, after listening to the album for the first time, I’d say it is a challenging work to listen to. In comparison to In Rainbows – which now sounds comparatively conservative – it is an even greater step into the alternative echelons of music. Its very hard to attack the band for that, as that was has been expected from them for some time and over all the King of Limbs is a satisfying experience.

My only feeling is that it will end up making good background music for dinner parties, which is really at odds with the ethos of the band’s music.

Still, The King of Limbs at the very least shows what good can come from music if allowed creative freedom, rather than being lumped with a generic sounding, packaged theme as demanded by the money men.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The half-baked return of Masterchef

Masterchef, the food porn inspiration-fest, is back with a new series on BBC One this week.

Despite previously complaining on this blog about the over-saturation of cooking themed shows on TV at the moment, I still have a soft spot for Masterchef.

Since its resurrection six years ago, the programme has gone from strength to strength, but now the BBC has decided that the format needs a further upgrade.

The result of this is a bigger, flasher new studio with all sorts of bells and nobs on. This looks a bit like a giant, cold kitchen-themed night club – which is quite fitting considering the heavy use of dance-style music over the credits and some of the cooking segments – although lacks a lot of the charm and familiarity of the old set, despite the fact that that too looked like a giant cold kitchen-themed night club.

Now instead of a claustrophobic backroom scene where judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace shovel ready-made food into their slobbering jaws, the contestants are now forced to plate up and prepare their dishes in front of the waiting judges as if they are on the bloody X-Factor (or ‘Eggs-Factor’ in this case). This results in the poor sod contestant putting together his/her disassembled bangers and mash, or whatever it is he/she’s cooking, whilst Torode and Wallace sit awkwardly on bar-stool-like seats, pulling odd contorted faces, before shoveling obnoxiously large mouthfuls of food into their mouths and making their judgement.

What I dislike about the new format in this sense – and that isn’t to say it didn’t happen before – is the mock tension that’s inserted into the cooking scenes. Sure, before Gregg and John would hover awkwardly around watching people cook, which is undoubtably stressful, but now the series is treading into the realms of nightmares as the contestants are forced to effectively cook whilst on stage, like some kind of hideous Cirque-de-SoufflĂ©. It’s no surprise that one contestant admitted that she had had nightmares about Gregg and John judging her food. Furthermore the hosts have also started delivering Chris Tarrant-grade tension fillers, like saying "wait a minute. I still need to say yes" after one of the judges has approved the food.

Despite the complaints, Gregg Wallace as ever is a joy. Love him or hate him he is an indispensible part of the show. Whether he is bumbling around pulling faces as the contestants whip up delicious treats that he can later shovel into his oddly large mouth, or heaping huge portions of custard soaked sponge cake into his gob; this smiling, bespectacled, bald headed judge is a delight to watch.

He isn’t even a real chef; instead he is just a wholesale food seller – or ‘ingredients experts’ as the branding experts at the BBC have named him - with a large appetite and a childish love of desserts but it is now impossible to imagine Masterchef without him.

Unfortunately, despite the attempts to breathe life into the series whilst maintaining the best of the status quo of keeping “a bald bloke and an Aussie chef and fantastic food”, the series feels like it has lost that magic it once had; much like an element of it’s personality and simplicity has been lost. Yes, I know those words sound mighty pretentious, when really we’re talking about what is simply another reality show. However, in the words of His Greggness who wonderfully burbled “let’s get fatter” in the first episode, seems to sum up the new ethos for the change in format and in turn the biggest problem with the new Masterchef.

The programme has become bloated, and perhaps the best thing would be to put the show on a diet and slim it down to its former glory. Then again maybe it’s just time catching up with the show. After all, nothing lasts forever.

Personally I’m all for seeing a form of Masterchef that incorporates gladiatorial combat into the cooking process, whilst Gregg and John pull idiotic faces and criticize the contestants on the lack of seasoning on their upside down shepherd’s pie and their poor technique with a scimitar.

Still, we’re one episode in and the new format may yet come into its own.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Big Society or Big Hoax?

Politicians love their policy nicknames don’t they and the ‘Big Society’ being flouted by David Cameron is the latest in a long list of nonsensical sounding government initiatives.

In a nutshell the Big Society is a new scheme to try and coax the British public into becoming more involved in government, by allowing them to run many local utilities and services themselves.

Sounds like a good thing I’m sure, by promoting the good old fashioned ‘can do’ spirit of the British people and giving we, the public, more control over our lives seemedly? Of course that is what I think the coalition government would have us thinking, whilst the reality is that they just want to palm off a load of costly government functions onto us, whilst they happily get back to their ‘important’ tasks like voting themselves another pay rise above inflation, while our pay remains frozen below it. Let’s not forget that it will also remove a lot of accountability from Whitehall if the likes of another Baby P or council housing scandal happens.

The whole concept of the Big Society is similar to telling a child that if they want to have more responsibility they have to endure boring chores, such as hoovering or washing up, whilst parents take control of the – seemingly at least – fun and important things, like choosing what to buy and driving the car etc. Except in this case we, the metaphorical children, are forced to sit back and voluntarily run the council committee for public toilets – unless of course the local council decides to do away with the expensive ‘unnecessary’ things like in Manchester - whilst the government get to handle matters like taxation and war with the bonus of a, quite frankly, overly high salary and living expenses.

At least in the child/parent analogy, the child eventually gets a crack at more responsibility as time goes by, whilst I don’t see our beloved leaders happily giving up the other responsibilities so easily. Then again maybe that’s a good thing, the last thing we need is someone like Noel Edmonds getting his hands on our nuclear arsenal.

However, despite how patronizing the idea of a Big Society is when you read into it, there is also the matter of whether it’s just outlandish wishful thinking. Sure, I’d love a country in which everyone acted politely; as smiling men with pipes doffed their caps; children went out litter picking for fun whilst singing songs about eating their five-a-day; dogs tidied up their own mess and where all the different cultures get together and have a jolly good celebration about how everyone is different and yet the same, but the cold hard fact is that isn’t going to happen.

The fact is today the government announced that inflation has risen by four per cent, interest rates are about to rise and VAT has just gone up. People can’t even get paying jobs so do you think that they are going to really want to volunteer for something we already pay taxes for? Then there is the matter the government is cutting many of the committees it wants to delegate to anyway. It seems that overall there is little to no hope for investment, so how will this twee little churlish dream ever get off the ground?

Also let’s not forget that people as a group are often too stupid and selfish to really get together and work as a group towards a positive society built on respect and volunteerism.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

One Man and His Tin Can

 I found myself watching a strange programme on BBC Two this week called One Man and His Camper Van, which follows Martin Dorey chomping his way around the UK in a moving metal tent.

Firstly who is Martin Dorey? According to a quick scan of the web, he is a “foodie” and is said to also enjoy surfing, writing, shrimping and camper van-ing. He has also had a book called The Camper Van Cookbook published, which would explain why this concept has made it onto TV.

If it is simple enough to get a cook book published - so long as it has a niche – then I may as well press ahead with my concept for The Bus Top Deck Cook Book, where I can teach readers how to cook sumptuous dishes whilst commuting on the top deck of the bus.

Foodie for Thought

Now the term “foodie” sets alarm bells ringing for me, as it’s similar to saying “I’m not a chef, I’m a foodie”, which in itself is similar to saying “I’m not a policeman, I’m a justice instructor” – or a PCSO. It also conjures up images of other smug “foodies” like Valentine Warner or Willie Harcourt-Cooze, who can eat roast peacock as casually as you like, whilst the rest of us plebs sit at home wondering where one goes to buy a plucked and gutted peacock on our salary. In other words, my perception of a foodie is of someone who will wank off over expensive pretentious food.

It’s fair to say from viewing OMAHC that Dorey as a cook is also not in the same league as other roving chefs like Rick Stein, and the late great Keith Floyd who inject much more dynamism and excitement over interesting food into their work.

Eat, Pray, Camp

Anyway moving along, here is the description of the programme from the production company behind it:

“Over one glorious summer, camper van lover and passionate foodie Martin Dorey journeys around Britain on the ultimate escapist adventure - celebrating the freedom of camper van living.”

Now this description already sounds like a rejected premise for a low budget Eat, Pray, Love (and the less said about what I think of that the better) or a similarly vapid traveller story, where the protagonist “finds themself”. Not that I have a problem with travellers writing about their epic times (I’ve done so myself) although without the self indulgent smugness that so often follows. Combining that with the foodie element makes for a critical mass of self-infatuation.

I’d say the biggest criticism that can be angled at One Man and His Camper Van is that it is trying to crowbar itself into a space in the TV world that is already heavily saturated. You cannot look at TV listings now without finding a cookery related programme, although here you see a show that tries to sneak round this by adding an element of escapism and travel show flair. This does save OMAHC from being outright bad, but this leads to other problems.

Britain From A Smug (Git)

First of all the British Tourist council inspired travel element of the show does what episodes of the excellent Coast and Britain From Above manage to do an awful lot better. Also the concept feels too bloated, as if it’s trying to be everything to everyone.

The travel element also leads to Dorey making hyperbolic comments such as that the Devonshire coastline offers “the best view in the world”. Now I’m sorry, but that is bollocks.

I can say without exaggeration that the Devon coast does not offer the “worlds best view”. Don’t get me wrong, I love Britain and I think that it is a country of outstanding beauty (so long as you don’t ever visit Elephant and Castle or Erith) but there are much MUCH better views to be seen out there. Dorey’s comments are nothing more than exaggerated subjectivity.

Where's the Tin Opener?

Now it’s fair to say that One Man and His Campervan is a nice idea. I have been camping in a campervan myself many times and it is actually quite refreshing to see a cookbook catering to the limitations of cooking in the confines of a camper.

Unfortunately though, I still don’t see why something so specialized needs to exist anyway. About the only thing you can’t cook very well in a campervan oven is something incredibly awkward to cook anyway, like a suckling pig or a soufflĂ©. When you go camping you don’t expect haute cuisine. Quite often you find that dining exclusively on pasta and tomato sauce is perfectly acceptable when out in the wilderness, because you are sticking two fingers up to nature whilst enjoying home comforts and not putting in too much effort.

Then again, if you want a bit of fanciful escapism and can look past the ditzy unthinking swaggering of the host, then One Man and his Camper Van could be just the thing for you.