Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Last Saturday I was amongst the throng of people that descended on London to protest the government’s austerity cuts. Whilst I wasn’t formally protesting with any organization, I still thought it useful to go and see the action for myself.

Naturally, since then many of the grievances put forward by the marchers have been lost in the discussion about violence, and violent acts committed by the almost predictable cluster of excitable idiots that turn up at every protest to pick a fight with the police or the windows of high street chains. This doesn’t tend to win any sympathy for their cause and drags the cause of the actual protest through the mud.

The violent types always make me cringe. I saw a few on the day and they were stereotypical to say the least. Most of them were people of my age or younger with little in the way of a thought out political agenda apart from rebellion in general. They were just angry idiots that wanted to smash things because they saw this as a semi-legitimate context. Not to mention that most of them spent the day getting drunk before going to take out their frustrations on the 2012 Olympic clock and the police.

Ultimately the violence has no place in any discussion about the march and its aims. They are linked, but are created from separate sources. It’s also irritating that since Saturday, Emperor Palpatine-alike Home Secretary, Theresa May, has decided to stick her boot into the matter by suggesting new draconian powers – such as banning troublemakers from protests - against the thugs. Good idea in principle, but why do I get the impression that this will just mean that policing at protests will become more heavy handed again and that legitimate protestors will start being banned under the vague pretense of “disturbing the peace”. Isn’t the whole point of civil disobedience to disturb the peace in some manner (without resorting to setting fire to a Starbucks of course)?

Overall however I wasn’t very impressed with the march on Saturday. I had hoped it would have been bigger and would have been less a coverall protest for anything from women’s rights to the conflict in Libya. They may as well called it ‘the march against any issue we consider rather unpleasant today’.

I personally went hoping to see people stand up against public service cuts and to defend threatened institutions like the NHS and other public services (the BBC being amongst them, as I still maintain that the license fee is better value for money than any other media package offered by any other broadcaster – Yes! Especially Sky!). That’s not saying that it didn’t happen, many of the families and workers marching were making themselves heard. It’s just a shame that those who got up to speak at the main rally were, in the most part, flimsy. The speakers in Hyde Park were atrocious and considering that the near-invisible Labour leader Ed 'Hide and Seek' Miliband was one of the most important to appear, who can say it was going to be anything else but mediocre.

In any case the government has already said that they won’t listen to those marching on Saturday, which makes you wonder if there are any practical forms of legitimate political expression left.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The depressing TV files: Lily Allen: From Riches to Rags

Somehow, beyond all logical explanation, I found myself watching Lily Allen: From Riches to Rags last night. I don't normally punish myself in this way but somehow it just happened.

Now I will say before I begin that I was never a fan of Lily Allen’s music. Her mockney tones – put on despite a privileged upbringing in the well to do Chelsea and Kensington area - and whiney lyrics, which had all the wit and maturity of a group of eight year old girls discussing gender politics in a treehouse with a “no boys allowed” sign on the door, alienated me from her songs, even though a few had at least a half decent tune.

Anyway, Ms ‘Knees-up-mother braaan’ Allen has thrown in the towel with the music trade and has decided to become a fashion retail owner, with her Lucy in Disguise brand. The idea is to loan out vintage dresses to shoppers unable to afford such designs. Seems like a good idea – in a kind of Jamie Oliver class/disadvantage campaign way – although there are several downsides to her plan. One of which is that despite the idea of helping underprivileged people try out vintage fashion, the team decides to hire out the dresses for extortionately high amounts, which it is pointed out people can pay to actually buy the clothes.

Then there is Lily herself. She doesn’t seem to care very much about this project or about anything as a matter of fact. She seems to have got into music by accident (probably helped by her father’s contacts) and made a go of that only to get bored and to do something else she’s vaguely interested in. The only downside is that once again this achieved in an industry with a heart-breakingly high entry level that less well off/poorly connected people couldn’t even get a look at. You do get the impression that Lily will tire of this too (if it even works) only to give up and do something else that vaguely interests her. Given the focus of the series, it looks like the next aim is to start a family. Lord only knows how long she will stick at that for.

The second problem with the Lucy in Disguise idea is that she’s given her hopeless party-girl sister Sarah the task of looking after the money. To give a little background on her sister, she is the epitome of the ‘poor little rich girl’ label who lives a completely hedonistic lifestyle. She doesn’t have a clue about business whatsoever and you get the impression that one day the money invested could disappear completely only to be replaced mysteriously by empty champagne bottles and spent cigarettes.

Thirdly, the company’s other employee is an airheaded lady who at some point held some vague position in the fashion/ PR industry. She is the worst of the threesome as she is actually playing a part in leading the clueless Allens away from sound business ideas, towards a romantic flight of fancy that will never get off the ground. Instead of setting up in a prime retail location, selling older but popular fashions, she seems to inhabit a small world of her own where fashion boutiques need to be “fashion destinations” away from the high street that attract attention from some mysterious fashion industry buzz (presumably spoken entirely in backhanded compliments). In short she’s suffering from delusions of grandeur, not helped by well-meaning friends, stuck in the same over-moneyed little fashion bubble she lives in, saying that her ideas are good.

In short with business acumen like this it’s no surprise the idiots left retail expert Mary Portas open-mouthed as they described their plans and showed her a possible location for the shop which happened to be an office.

Watching a trio of air headed women who are completely out of touch with reality and have been granted great privilege and access to a world people would literally sell their souls to work in just made for a frustrating and utterly depressing hour of TV and sums up a lot of what is wrong with the media and entertainment industries in general. The show felt very similar in premise to Joachim Phoenix’s recent film I’m Still Here, albeit made for TV, as you do wonder if Lily Allen is purposely trying to wind us all up with this venture.

The programme itself and the fact I was watching it at all made for a thoroughly disheartening evening.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Japin' round the UK: Edinbuggery

Having lived in the UK for all of my 23 years I had never visited Scotland until last week. There was no reason for avoiding the country in particular, aside from just how far away it was. I know people (especially those from the US) will be quick to point out that the British Isles are tiny compared to most countries, but 400 miles is a long way to go for a weekend. As a result I flew.

It felt exciting yet strange to be travelling again, and despite the fact I wasn’t leaving the country and I was travelling using very dull familiar transport (aka the local bus and train) it was fun to be on the road again. It was stranger still to return to an airport nearly a year since I was last in one when I had flown home from Japan.

Being on a flight (albeit a short one) is quite similar to life itself I’ve discovered. You just want to ride it out as quietly and as effortlessly as possible, and you might set yourself little goals to achieve along the way to keep yourself active (like reading a book). Unfortunately, like life itself, you are constantly harassed by outside forces trying to pursued you to buy items you don’t want or to give you petty orders like keep “your seatbelt on at all times”, “turn off your electronic devices” and “pay attention to the emergency procedures presentation even if you’re a frequent flyer” (I personally continued reading my book as the stewardess demonstrated where the exits were and where the little whistle on the life jacket was).

On arrival I noticed that Scotland has a few odd little quirks – aside from the obvious and well documented presence of deep fried mars bars, kilts and bag pipes. I know that different regions of the UK have these quirks, such as Welsh road signs being duel language, or how Northern people using the term “mardy” but I still wasn’t expecting that Burger Kings in Scotland would sell kebabs. More surprising was the money.

For those who have never been there, Scotland has its own money. The money is legal tender across the UK but you can only get it in cash machines from Scotland. Whilst much of it was unremarkable I still smiled when I saw one note (I think it was for £20 printed by Clydesdale Bank) which featured Robert the Bruce and had a spider drawn in the corner and I couldn’t help but think of this.

Onto Edinburgh itself; the city has a very classical look about it. This is helped a lot by the university buildings and the numerous architectural monuments to classical philosophers and writers. I had been told before that the city was at the forefront of an entire wave of philosophy and literature during the centuries gone by, but I didn’t realize the extent that this was celebrated by the people of Edinburgh. It’s hard to walk far through the Royal Mile without finding a pub dedicated to one of the writers or great thinkers that once lived in the city.

The bar scene in general is very good too. It made a change to the soulless chain venues I’m used to in my local area. Strangely, unlike most international cities I’ve visited, I didn’t find an Irish bar, although I suspect there was good reason for that.

A weird pub however was the Greyfriars Bobby, a bar-shaped tribute to a Skye Terrier that never left his master’s grave in the fourteen years following his death. Outside there was also a statue dedicated to the pup. This seemed similar to Hachiko the Japanese dog that returned daily to Shibuya station in Tokyo to meet his master, even after his owner's death. Still, Hachiko didn’t get a bar did he!

The landscape around Edinburgh is very dramatic. You have the mount, where the castle and most of the gigantic ‘Kirks’ can be found, then on the other side you have the giant volcanic hillock of Arthur’s Seat and the failed-Parthenon-shaped National Monument adorned Calton Hill adjacent to that. Arthur’s seat is very strange to look at and it’s hard to view it without imagining the formation on a bottle of Highland Spring. Such is the sad truth that I can’t think of Scotland without associating it with Stereotypical imagery. I’ve become so American.

It was associations like this, and the fact I was wielding a camera that made me feel like a foreigner in my own land. I know Scotland is technically another country but we have the same money (in value and legality anyway), head of state and so on. Why should it feel so different?

The other side to this of course is I had become everything I have come to hate whilst being in London. Tourists here are a perennial problem. Whether they are clustering around in awkward little huddles, staring at you on the tube (staring at any person on the tube is a no-no, unless you are on first name terms), or are slowly walking in front of you gawping at Regent’s Street, they are a pain. The thing with Edinburgh however, is that it isn’t nearly as busy as central London so there is more room to amble lazily around.

Overall I enjoyed my time up in Edinburgh. It’s a fine city which is only let down by the weather and general chilliness.