Archive for the ‘Culture’ category

Hallows Be Its Name

July 20, 2007

Greetings, brethren.

For a nigh-unimaginable number of people, it’s a very special day today. This day, the 20th of July 2007 AD has been dubbed ‘the last golden day of ignorance’. Everyone get ready. We are about to turn a page.

The page in question, of course, is the front cover of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh instalment in J. K. Rowling’s record-breaking series. I assume it’s a record-breaking series, although I am at a loss to cite the latest Guiness tome chapter and verse. Let’s take it as a given.


You’ll have noticed that a degree of fuss has been made over these books. None of it by me, I might add. I’ve not read any of them myself. Which, some might argue, makes me a trifle underqualified to hold forth about them. I did see films one and two, though, which is something. The first one I loathed. But I thought I’d give the second one a go. The second one I loathed.

I found it difficult to get excited about the world’s favourite boy wizard. I am all but alone, it seems. In Britain, one in every forty households has pre-ordered a copy of Hallows. In Morningside, home of J. K. Rowling and veritable hotbed of Pottermania, it is one in every nineteen. Remember, of course, that these figures represent only those would-be readers who have chosen to receive their book in the post. It tells us nothing of the scores who will this evening be crowding into Waterstones to get their greedy little hands on a copy, nor of those more sensible folk who intend to pick up a copy over the next couple of weeks, just whenever they get the chance.

Everyone’s waxing lyrical about Harry Potter at the moment. Our new PM thinks that J. K. Rowling has ‘done more for literacy around the world than any single human being’. Even those responsible for medical audit at the John Radcliffe have entered into the spirit of things. They’ve published the finding that, on average, accidents involving children are far fewer on Harry Potter release dates than on other weekend dates. So they’re all for it, obviously.

I’ve been having a little sniff around all the conspiratorial Potter waffle on the internet. I’ve been particularly enjoying all the leak-anxiety that seems to be floating about. You see, when you’ve got all these books lying about waiting to be delivered, it’s all too tempting for people to take a quick peak. There are all sorts of stories about plot secrets from previous books being leaked prior to the release dates. But the message from the true fans is clear: ‘seriously, we’re almost there guys’. At least Potter fans have got each other to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Anyway, enough of this tosh. Suffice it to say I won’t be attending any Potter launch parties tonight. Largely because I’ll be enjoying the Transformers premiere down at the Ocean Terminal (which, coincidently, starts at the exact moment Hallows is officially released). Stick that in your cauldron and boil it.

Don’t worry. There’ll be a spoiler-laden review to follow shortly.


Royal Rumble

July 17, 2007

You’ll have heard the news about the BBC’s latest gaffe? No? Let me outline it in brief. The Beeb are in trouble, because they took some footage of the Queen, edited it in such a way as to suggest that she’d stormed out of a photo-shoot with Annie Leibowitz, then put it on telly.

What amused me about the story is that gaffe like this is unlikely to happen by accident. Therefore, somebody somewhere consciously decided that it would be a good idea to mis-splice the sequence of events in order to convey an undoutedly more interesting, but nonetheless totally different story to that which actually took place. The most bizarre aspect of it all, of course, is that the relevant person or persons did not feel that this was at all dubious (or, presumably, they wouldn’t have done it).

What worries me is that they probably only got found out because the Queen happened to see the trailer. This sort of thing is potentially happening all the time. I wonder how much of what we see on TV has undergone a similar sexing up, and passes through our critical filter and is assimilated into our worldview without setting off any warning alarms?

If incidents like this tell us anything, it’s probably that we should be cautious in believing anything we’re told on TV. That’s because those in the television business are less concerned about the accuracy of your knowledge than with trying to get you to watch their programmes. They would rather entertain you than keep you accurately in the know. If you’re entertained, you’ll come back for more, providing a welcome boost for ratings and salaries. If you’re merely in the know, you’ll likely as not change the channel. Or even stop watching television and go outside. This is why Open University is only ever on at a time when no one watches television. It would never survive alongside more entertaining programmes on the other channels. Sad but true, chum.

Our scepticism about TV should probably extend to other media as well. Newspapers, for example, would sooner tell you something sensational than true. Faked photographs of war crimes in Abu Ghraib? Stick ‘em on the front page! Oops, I’ve been sacked.

Sigh. We can’t rely on TV, newspapers, or anything else to keep us properly informed. There seem to be three options available to us: 1) live a life of total ignorance, 2) believe most of what you’re told, with the caveat that it might all be false, or 3) rely solely on The Hutchison Monologues to keep you up to date. At least with the latter option, you’ll not come across anything misleading about the Queen.



July 14, 2007

 tintin.jpgI always prick up my ears when Tintin is mentioned in the press. When I was a nipper, I was rather keen on him. Or rather, on the stories in which he featured. In fact, I seem to remember that Tintin books were much adored amongst my school chums. It was largely thanks to Tintin books that I barely read continuous prose until I was about 13.

Such was my love (i.e. enthusiasm) for Tintin, that I once went along to a school fancy dress party in the guise of my favourite Belgian boy reporter. Some feat, I hear you cry, since Tintin is actually rather normal in appearance. For a cartoon, anyway. His jaunty tuft of hair is the only thing that distinguishes him from just any Belgian boy reporter. That and the way he wears his trousers at half-mast with his socks pulled right up. Suffice to say, I attended the party looking just a leetle bit gay. If I might be allowed to use a stereotype.

You see, stereotypes are what seem to have landed Tintin in trouble recently. Apparently, the Commission for Racial Equality received a tip-off from a Borders Bookshop customer in London, who had been innocently leafing through a copy of Tintin in the Congo. Now, I’ve not read it (it was quite hard to get hold of when I was younger) but apparently it portrays the Congolese as ‘savage natives’ who ‘look like monkeys and talk like imbeciles’. According to the CRE, Borders could not justify the peddling of such racist material, which should be pulled from the shelves and made available to the public only ‘in a museum, with a big sign saying “old-fashioned, racist claptrap”’. I think they were quite upset about it.

I quite understand that material like this will (or, at least, should) leave a nasty taste in the mouth now, but isn’t it an accurate depiction of attitudes and prejudices at the time (1920) in which it was written? OK, it’s probably not a good idea not to give it to children, but surely adults could make up their own mind? A blanket ban on everything that might cause offence to someone doesn’t seem like the way to go. And isn’t it more valuable to expose children to this type of propoganda, and explain to them why these views aren’t acceptable now?

In the meantime, we probably shouldn’t tell the CRE about Tintin’s sidekick, Chang Chong-Chen…

Big Brotha

June 23, 2007


 ‘Afternoon, honkies.

Hope you’re all well today. I wonder whether you might help me to resolve a confusion that has arisen in my mind of late. It’s been festering for quite a while. Not quite keeping me up at night or anything, but festering nonetheless.

I’m sure you’re not watching Big Brother at the moment. I’m not either. I used to be quite into it, back in its fifth iteration, but the novelty (such as it still retained on the 5th time around the track) has now vanished entirely. There’s something about watching roomfuls of people shouting at the same time that just doesn’t do it for me anymore. Which is sad, in a way.

Anyway, just because I’m not tuning in anymore doesn’t mean that I won’t give my tuppence worth when events in the BB house leak over into the news. Which they did, you will recall. Said events happened some time ago now, but are as yet unaddressed ‘Logueswise.

Before we begin in earnest, an experiment. I’d like you to think of the most offensive word you can. Got it? Don’t tell me what it is. Probably best not to say it out loud at all, actually.

As you grew up, you’ll have noticed that swear-words are arranged in an unspoken hierarchy. To the chagrin of the devout, religious swear-words tend to be quite near the bottom. Scatalogical ones come next, followed by the sexual ones at the top of the heap. The structure of this hierarchy has always intrigued me. Give a group of people some swear-words, and they’ll usually rank them in a similar order of offensiveness (seriously, try it) but how did this ever come to pass? Who decides what’s offensive and what isn’t? Let’s think (as I’m sure we all do) about a certain enjoyable interpersonal activity. Why should one word for it be OK, whilst the use of another would lead to a swift ejection from any polite gathering?

The most offensive word I can think of is an anatomical reference. This anatomical portion, in itself, is not offensive (to me). Nor are the four letters that make up the word. I use them all the time. However, there is just something about seeing them altogether in the correct order that seems puts the wind up folks. Maybe that’s why people in Scunthorpe have a chip on their shoulder. When I was growing up, my friend told me that this word could never be broadcast on television, in any circumstances. I’m not sure where he was getting his information from, but it was clearly false.

Anyway, let’s get to the point. You’ll recall that a certain word passed the lips of art student and Big Brother contestant Emily Parr. The word was considered so offensive that not only did the addressees need to reflect upon the exchange into the wee hours, but poor old (racist?) Emily was booted out.

I think we all know the word I’m talking about here. That’s right. En eye gee gee ee argh.

Personally, I was surprised by the reaction that this utterance provoked. The sheer level of offence was staggering. I know that Big Brother has been known to turn a blind eye to the odd bit of racism in the past, and is obviously wanting to be seen as taking a firm stance now. But was all the furore justified? This is where I’m confused, and would welcome your thoughts. 

This word is everywhere. Watch Pulp Fiction. It is used by both black and white characters, to refer to both black and white characters. It is used to address people, and in conversation about people. I just choose this film as an example, as I’m sure there are loads of others. What about Amazing Grace? Can a word like this be used if it is being used in a historical context? I don’t see people campaigning for either film to be pulled from the shelves.

The same goes for music: isn’t this term common currency in certain genres such as rap? I was having a little look at The African American Registry, in which I found an interesting article about the history of this word. It talks about the increasing popularity of the word amongst young, urban black people, who use it as a pally way to greet each other (apparently). I seem to recall it popping up in a Michael Jackson song at some point in his extensive, accomplished canon. Is it OK for Michael to say it because he’s black? Of course, he’d be the first one to claim that it don’t matter if you’re black or white. Not if you’re thinking about being his baby, that is.

Let’s be clear: I don’t have very strong views about this. I have no particular urge to be allowed to use the word, in the same way that I don’t really wish to make regular use of words like quadragintesimal or galactophagist. They are of no use to me. But I do wonder:

If this word is so offensive, how can it be allowed to appear in films, music and books, but not on Big Brother? And does it stop being offensive when it is used by a black person to greet a black friend, or a white person to greet a white friend? If so, would it be OK for a white person to use it to greet a black friend? I wouldn’t mind if a black friend used it to address me, although I do not presume to speak for all those of paler complexion.

Sorry for the ramble. Best just not say it at all until we get all this sorted out.

Naked Ambition

June 1, 2007

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. (Genesis 3:7)

gok.jpg I was doing a cursory channel hop the other night (how you must envy me) when I came across a programme called How to Look Good Naked. The premise (for those who have thus far forgotten to tune in) is simple: a somewhat dowdy but pleasant-enough lady is placed in the care of uber-effeminate stylist Gok Wan. His mission is to get said woman to overcome that ingrained impulse to remain clothed in public. And thus the stage is set.

I only caught the uplifting denouement of the last show, in which the fruit of Gok Wan’s latest labour was (quite literally) displayed for all to see. Being able to wear a bikini in the middle of a shopping centre is no doubt a useful skill, and I certainly don’t deny that the lady in question looked most appealing as she paraded around in the near-altogether. However, I would probably question whether this behaviour, in itself, proves that one Looks Good Naked. I doubt this would be the verdict of the majority (or indeed the police) were I to give it a go.

Compelling as these programs are, I can’t help thinking they promote a weird, confusing ideology. On the one hand, looks are seen as the most important thing in a person’s identity. So much so that a smug Sarth Efrickan might suggest that you undergo the sort of surgery that leaves you looking like the recently beaten up, in order that she can parade you up and down the beach getting the public to guess your age. Brrr.

On the other, we’re also told that what we look like doesn’t really matter, and it’s what’s inside that counts. As Trinny would say (whilst laying a patronising hand on the shoulder of her latest frumpy protégé), ‘I think that the clothes are just the surface of this problem, Suze’.

This tension is nicely embodied in the How to Look Good Naked Site. It starts off saying all the right things, like how the media sets us unrealistic standards for what we should look like, and how we should be confident with what we’ve got and learn to respect ourselves. All very sensible, I’m sure. Then it gives us a list of 8 rules (not recommendations, mind) on which to base a beauty regime, which, if carried out to the letter, would probably take the best part of a week. And since they’re rules to be followed on a ‘weekly basis’, the whole process becomes suspiciously like painting the Forth Bridge: once you’ve finished, it’s already time to start again.

Have a look at the rules if you’re worried you’re falling short of the minimum aesthetic standard. I won’t reproduce them all here, but will mention one particular maxim with which I was quite taken: ‘your muff area should always be maintained’. Only the effeminate could get away with it.

What a lot of pressure. We’ve got to be grounded, confident people, whilst also maintaining an A-list appearance. It isn’t easy. But here’s a good tip for all those (like me) who fail to find solace at the spectacle of their naked selves.

Wear clothes.

Driven to Distraction

May 8, 2007

I recently set out some views about the respective driving practices of men and women. Since writing about it, I have come to realise that the rot runs much deeper than I first believed. Is it just me, or are the roads choc-full of really bad drivers?

Now, I don’t mind the odd missed indication, or even those who accelerate when the lights change from green to amber. But some of the things we witness might make us question how on earth certain people were ever allowed to get in a car, never mind turn the key.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Just another self-unaware ranting session. After all, nearly everyone thinks they’re a better driver than most, and that it’s other drivers who are to blame for the world’s ills. In fact, polls suggest that 80% of drivers think they are ‘better than average’. On the basis of statistics like these, people assume that most drivers over-estimate their abilities behind the wheel. However, there is another possibility: that 80% of drivers really are better than average, but that the average is dragged way down south by a small minority (say, 20%) of absolutely awful drivers. But at least they admit it.

When pootling around Edinburgh on four wheels,  one is liable to encounter these terrors of the tarmac. There are those, for example, that see the ‘lane system’ as a set of informal suggestions, rather than as measures designed to preserve life and limb. Having been blessed with the ability to plan more than five seconds ahead, I often find myself occupying a spot in the correct lane (for my purposes) only to find that someone in the adjoining lane has designs on exactly the same portion of space as I’m currently occupying. They proceed to mosey on over, without so much as a by-your-leave (even a quick signal would do). It’s not even as if they don’t see you. It’s almost as if their desire to be in the correct lane is greater than their desire to continue existing.

Did you read about that chap charged with causing death by dangerous driving the other day? He’d had a few tipples before he started his journey, but told police “I thought as long as you were wearing a seatbelt you were alright to have eight or nine pints.” He didn’t have a licence either, unsurprisingly. I imagine he would’ve stumbled at the theory test.

Anyway, this irksome train of thought led me to the, a site which chronicles complaints about poor driving, and allows those afflicted with otherwise-unmanageable road-rage to let off a bit of steam. Here’s some of the photographic evidence from the site:


Now, I’ve taken the liberty of obscuring the number-plate, since I know that certain ‘Logues readers are die-hards (you know who you are). I wouldn’t want to advocate tracking down the person responsible for this ‘Crap Parking’ and in order to give them a good biffing. However, if you are in any way aggrieved and are looking for an outlet, why not visit the website and Rate This Menace! You will see that a lot of the submissions to the site (including the one above) were made by ‘thegooddoctor’, who bears the dubious honour of being the ‘Most Easily Annoyed Member’ as well as sharing a nickname with the late Harold Shipman.

After having a little look around the site, I’ve had a slight change of heart. In retrospect, I’m not sure what’s worse: bad driving, or those who keep going on about it.

Absolute Anonymity

April 27, 2007


You may have noticed (but probably not) that I’d put a new link amongst my blog recommendations. I suggest that you visit it. But not before you’ve read this post. That would just be rude.

I should probably warn you that the things you encounter on the site might not conform to your standards of taste and dignity. On more than one occasion I’ve been confronted with depictions of the unadorned female form. You will see things that are life-affirming, heartbreaking. This is a place where the depravity and dignity of humanity share a common stage.

The blog in question, of course, is Postsecret. It’s only technically a blog, really. It’s more like a regularly-replaced website. But one mustn’t quibble.

The raison d’etre of Postsecret is to provide a forum through which you can reveal your innermost secrets from behind a wall of anonymity. There’s something amusingly paradoxical about it: things that you wouldn’t tell a single person are paraded in front of the entire globe. Or rather, the small subset thereof who frequent the site.

I spend quite a lot of time listening to people’s secrets. It’s a real privilege. For most people, anonymity is very disinhibiting. Within minutes of meeting a person, I can be hearing about things that their nearest and dearest, who have known them all their lives, would never suspect in a million years. They feel they can tell me, because I’m ‘outside the situation’. I have no emotional investment in it.

In practice, though, my conversations with patients are usually pretty tame. Our agreement of confidentiality isn’t total, you see. There are instances in which I might have to break confidentiality, for example if people are in danger. People are probably wary of taking their discussions into Postsecret territory in case I should feel the need to reach for my Special Button Under The Desk.

A quick look at Postsecret will probably yield a mixed bag. Some confessions are mundane, self-indulgent whining. Others are outrageous, and it is difficult to see how someone could ever share them via the normal channels. It seems that the less chance you have of being found out, the more scandalous the revelations you are prepared to make.

Does Postsecret represent a glimpse of What Goes On Behind Closed Doors? Do we all have secrets like this? Or is it simply an outlet for the deviant few? Does it tell us anything about our society? Probably not. I get a strong whiff of the USA off of it, frankly. And how do we know that it isn’t the same handful of people writing in again and again? And, of course, how do we know if any of these statements are actually true?

It makes you wonder, though. Is there something that you have never divulged about yourself to anyone? If you had the guarantee of total, unconditional anonymity, what would you want to say?

All revelations are to be made via the comments facility. No one will mind if you set up a bogus email address for the purpose. Time to come out with it, I say. Spill your guts.

I am realistic enough to anticipate no response.