Saturday, March 31, 2007

Sweet Jesus

News from across the pond that a gallery has decided to pull a chocolate sculpture of Jesus from an exhibition, after complaints from the right wing "Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights" that this was "hate speech". The League appear to have got their knickers in a twist because the Sculpture was naked and 'anatomically correct'.

Please take the standard rant against religious censorship as read. What really intrigued me is why are they getting upset? In the League's press releases they trot out the now traditional line that they wouldn't make a statue of Muhammad for fear of offending Muslims. Well maybe. But then again, as I understand it, there is a quite strict prohibition against representations of the prophet in Islam (as certain Danish cartoonists would be able to tell you). Now that doesn't give the right for Muslims to impose their beliefs on others and ban all representations of Muhammad, but at least you can understand what the flakier elements who call for such a ban are coming from.

I can't remember from my GCSE Religious Studies there being any prohibition against representing Jesus. In fact from the few times I've ventured into Catholic Churches I'm pretty sure I saw a couple of statues of some bloke with a beard.
And as you can see its not as if the sculpture has Jesus being sodomised by a broom handle or anything.

So where's the beef? Well it seems that the good people of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (oh the irony of that name) are appalled at the idea of Jesus having a penis, or testicles for that matter. Oh the horror! when God made himself man he didn't give himself a Barbie Doll crotch. Next they will complaining about using the word scrotum in children's books.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Is the BBC finally facing up to its regional bias?

As somebody who grew up in the North I can well remember the feeling that the BBC, our national broadcaster, was really not interested in anything north of Watford. If it snowed in London and the tubes were a minute late it led the bulletins. If we were snowed in up in Lancashire it might get a mention on North West tonight.

Hence it was great to see Kevin Marsh (the oddly titled editor of the BBC College of Journalism) questioning why the murder of one teenager went unreported and another got blanket coverage. He strongly suggests that it was because purely because one died in Nottingham and the other in West London. Of course its one thing for one person to raise the issue and for a whole institution to change its ways. But still baby steps.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Left or Right? Cameron doesn't know

Bad news for David Cameron again today, with it reported that he has had take down the (in)famous wind turbine on his house because it was on the wrong side of his chimney.

It seems that he put it up on the right side of his chimney, whilst his planning permission specified it had to be on the left (joking aside why are K&C being so pedantic as to specify which side of the chimney it has to be on?).

Oh and of course as well as breaching planning laws he's also been admonished for abusing the taxpayer provided facilities in the Commons to raise money for the Conservatives. Not a bad days work.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Splitting the Home Office, why now?

The BBC is reporting that John Reid is going to announce the splitting up of the Home Office tomorrow. If this is true it surprises me.

The fact that the prisons, probation and criminal law sections are going to be hived off and merged with the DCA, leaving behind a new slimmed down Home Office to focus on security and immigration, is not surprising in itself. Reid has mused about it publicly before, and in organisational terms it makes sense. Although slimmed down from its height (it lost responsibility for the third sector and community cohesion last year) Reid is probably right that the Home Office is too big for one man to manage.

But why do it now, at the fag end of Tony Blair's premiership? Its widely rumoured that Gordon Brown wants to do major surgery to the Machinery of Government when he moves into Number 10 (even the Treasury isn't safe). So some of Gordon's thunder is stolen, and we are likely to have two major, expensive, paralysing, upheavals in Whitehall within the space of a few months.

More evidence that Cameron's rebranding is going to plan...

... or perhaps not.

Barnet Tory Councillor Brian Gordon shows how far the Conservatives have come. 25 years ago they were calling for Nelson Mandela to be hanged, now they dress up as him.

As with Patrick Mercer his major offence is not that he stepped over the line, its that he doesn't even seem to realise that there was a line to cross. Even worse (certainly for the modernising Tory's who want to keep the more traditional elements of their base hidden away from the electorate) is the that his Council Leader, a Mike Freer, rather than condemning or at least distancing himself from this muppet, actually defended him.

According to Mike it was just a bit of fun and people shouldn't find blacking up offensive. Well thank you for putting us all straight on that Mr Freer; I'm looking forward to next weeks lesson on how faggot is really a term of endearment.

Hat Tip: James

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

John McCain in Favour of Gay Marriage??

This morning John McCain candidate for the Republican nomination for President announced via his MySpace page that he was in favour of Gay Marriage.

Is this a bold (some may say suicidal) step that will shake up the race for the nomination? Is his use of MySpace to make this announcement an indication of how even the oldest of politicians are trying to reach out to the young through new media?

Well not really.

In fact its more a warning to all those politicians who try to harness new technology without really understanding it. It turns out that whoever set up McCain's profile stole an image from another profile, a Mike Davidson. Even worse they were pulling the image direct from Mike's server, thereby using his bandwidth whenever anybody loaded the McCain page.

Unfortunately for McCain, Mr Davidson spotted this and decided to replace the image on his server with one declaring the senator from Arizona's support for same-sex couples (especially of the female variety), which was then faithfully reproduced on McCain's MySpace page until somebody pulled the image. Full story is here (hat tip political wire)

I thought there were only 4 people in this cast (the 39 Steps - Criterion Theatre)

The Girl and I celebrated World Theatre Day (didn't you know it was today?) by taking in the 39 Steps at the Criterion.

Adapting for the stage Hitchcock's 1935 film of John Buchan's novel, which famously includes a biplane crash, a chase along the roof of the Flying Scotsman and a jump from the Forth Rail Bridge, may seem a little ambitious. However, with a little inventiveness, the judicious use of a couple of ladders, and some brilliant comic timing from the cast of 4 (playing all 139 parts between them) this production pulls it off with aplomb.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the dashing Richard Hannay who takes a spy home from the theatre and wakes to find her dead and the police after him for her murder. To prove his innocence he must travel to Scotland, and find out the secret behind the mysterious professor and the 39 steps. Quite frankly the plot doesn't matter, merely providing an excuse for Charles Edwards as Hannay to send up the movie stars of the inter-war period (all dashing good looks, stiff upper lip, pencil moustache and significant pauses) and the rest of the cast to play a bewildering array of different characters, often several at a time.

This is at times a very funny production. However it falls between the two stools of trying to be both a knowing pastiche of the film and period it is ripping off and a straight physical comedy, personally I could have done with less of the knowing glances and more of the funny voices and quick costume changes. And at the end of the day the plot is too slight to allow the play to really stick in the mind.

Still there are considerably worse ways to spend £15 in the West End.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Credit where credit is due

So Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams have shared a table and agreed to go into Government together. And so far no demons have been spotted ice skating to work.

I will leave the historians to judge (and endlessly argue over) exactly who gets how much credit for bringing this about, but I think its fair enough to say that Tony Blair will get a reasonable chunk of it. Although John Major laid the ground work, my impression is that it needed somebody with Mr Blair's ability to charm a hind leg off a donkey to get the Good Friday Agreement and make it stick (to all intents and purposes).

So these last ten years haven't been totally wasted then Tony.

I'm so glad I didn't hold out for Vista

The much missed Chris Lightfoot used to do a lovely line in posts on adventures in customer services (unfortunately I can't seem to get his blog to work at the moment, but its all still in Google's cache somewhere if you look). This post from the BBC's Robert Peston about his problems with Vista brought them to mind.

Quick synopsis, once our intrepid BBC business editor had finally got his new version of Vista to work he found that none of his other bits of hardware (palm top, digital dictaphone etc.) will work with it. Even his XP version of Microsoft Outlook won't work properly!

Object lesson one in why monopolies are a bad thing. Would Microsoft release such shoddy products if it had any meaningful competition? Surely its time that the competition authorities stopped nibbling around at the edges and just broke Microsoft up. Its current market domination is bad for consumers in the short-term, and probably bad for its shareholders in the long-term as at some point it will become so flabby and complacent that the first whiff of competition will cause it to implode.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The first sign the McCain campaign is in real trouble?

There have been rumblings for several weeks that John McCain's campaign for President may be in trouble. First he appeared to fall asleep at the State of the Union, raising questions about his age. Then Rudy Guiliani opened up a significant gap in the polls (although McCain still leads in New Hampshire).

This early in the electoral season its pretty easy to dismiss polls as merely being about name recognition. Bill Clinton was running in single digits at this point in 1991. Given the amount of flak that is going to come his way about his social views Guiliani's numbers must be seen as soft at this stage. Plus its widely acknowledged that McCain has a much stronger organisation both nationally and in the key early states. If you can't get your vote out high poll numbers mean nothing. Therefore I have been treating with a large pinch of salt the argument that McCain's bid for the presidency was over before it had begun.

However, the news that McCain has admitted the he will miss his fund-raising target for this quarter gave me pause for thought. American politics is all about the money. You are unlikely to run unless you are already rich, and as everybody knows US elections are hellishly expensive (the cost of the 2006 mid-terms was measured in billions of dollars). If McCain is struggling to raise money, it may be sign that the flat-footed start his campaign has made may have spooked his donors. If they desert him, his campaign is dead in the water.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Smart Casual Education courtesy of the RAF

News reaches me that the RAF are to launch a range of fashion clothing. Now the more cynical amongst you may think this is just a cunning wheeze to try and paper over the cracks of yet another tight settlement for the MOD in the budget. But no no no, this is an attempt to educate the public about the RAF. Yes, of course, I learnt everything I know about quantum physics from buying a pair of jeans (actually, bad example, I probably did learn more about quantum physics from my wranglers than I ever did from Mr Foulds).

Seriously though some of the profits are going to the RAF Museum, and more importantly I know what I'm going to get my Air Cadet Officer brother for Christmas.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Conservatives show unity on Gay rights

Whilst the Tories in the Commons may be deeply split on the issue of Gay rights the Lords party is almost as one . They don't like those Homos, no not at all.

The Tory Lords split 70 to 4 against the sexual orientation regulations last night. On a free vote its an impressive example of philosophical cohesion. Pity their leader disagrees with them. Oh well the new caring sharing Tory party was a nice photo op.

On a related point, as James has pointed out, it seems like Brian Souter is getting his money's worth from the SNP already.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Follow me boys... err where did they go?

Dave Cameron burnished his modernising credentials again last night as he led his troops into the aye lobby to support the sexual orientation regulations (details of the vote here courtesy of the public whip). Unfortunately by a margin of 3:1 his backbenchers went into the no lobby. And, as the Torygraph has pointed out, although this was officially a free vote the frontbench where whipped to support him, otherwise he may have been in there by himself. Nice to see the true face of the modern Tory party.

Oh and if anybody sees the 4 Lib Dems who voted against, just wag your finger at them and tut or something.

"oh what have you done?"

I'm guessing coaches everywhere will be showing their teams this object lesson in how not to celebrate scoring a try....

Monday, March 19, 2007

How to do video campaigning 2

The first attack ad to really get people talking in the 08 presidential race seems to have arrived (hat tip to Political Wire). Unlike previous years this, at first sight, appears to be not the work of some highly paid consultant with a focus group, but a lone geek and their mactop with a grudge against Hilary Clinton.

For those of you (like me) who aren't steeped in geek history its a mash up of the 1984 campaign that launched the apple macintosh on the world (original can be viewed here). What I loved about this video is not only is it a subtle but effective dig at the control freak tendency of the Clinton campaign, but also the clear contrast it draws between Clinton and Obama. Clinton is PC, boring, gray, conformist, bent on world domination; while Obama is apple, cool, cutting edge, free spirited, willing to break the mould, (and no bloody Mitchell and Webb in sight).

Now drawing comparisons with Orwell's 1984 and between apple and PCs is probably too high concept for the audience of a normal attack ad. But its perfect for its medium. The tech-savy netroots activist who is likely to look up a political add on youtube is exactly the kind of person this add will talk to. Genius; plus Obama gets a deniable shot at Clinton for free, and the dead tree press gets to write another article about how the internet is changing campaigning, so everyone's happy (apart from the Clintons of course).

Are you just a number?

Those good people at no2id are encouraging people who are opposed to the drive to introduce ID cards to show the Government that they are not just another number to be logged and tracked in a database.

They are building a montage of faces of ordinary people opposed to ID cards. In order to show the world the range of opposition to the database state.

If you want to be involved simply text a picture of your face to 60300 with no2id in the body of the message.

More details (or to upload a picture) click here.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

England thump Wales and win the Grand Slam

No I haven't been drinking. As previewed earlier, England Women thumped Wales 30-0 this afternoon to secure back to back Grand Slams. Hurrah!

Less said about what happened at the Millennium Stadium the better I think.

Famous homophobe throws weight behind SNP

According to the BBC Brian Souter is giving £500,000 to the SNP. Mr Souter is of course famous for leading the opposition to the scraping of the Scottish equivalent of Section 28.

It is not for me to judge of course. But is it not interesting that such a prominent bigot is comfortable getting in to bed with the allegedly progressive SNP?

Going for the Grand Slam

Whilst most of the rugby watching public will be focusing on the Millennium Stadium tomorrow evening, I think its worth flagging that while England's men are probably only playing for pride, England's women will be going for a Grand Slam earlier in the day. If they do it, it will make back to back Grand Slams for the women, and even more impressively over the first four games they have only conceded 12 points. Maybe Brian Ashton should be talking to Geoff Richard's to get some pointers.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Why we shouldn't support the Sustainable Communities Bill

Ways to make yourself unpopular in the Lib Dem blogosphere attack a seemingly localist measure. But seriously, the Sustainable Communities Bill, what a pile of crap.

One of the knocks on the Government's ID card programme has been that it was being touted as the saviour from such a multitude of problems, from terrorism to illegal immigration to benefit fraud, that it was too good to be true. Well according to flyer that fell out of my Lib Dem News this morning the sustainable communities bill is going to help save the world. Whatever.

My problems with this Bill are twofold.

1) Although I have no problem with the principal of localism, I am a good liberal after all, I'm not overly enamoured with the fact that this campaign seems to be hitching it up to the idea of Ghost Town Britain. As if somehow if only communities were empowered they would see the light and stop wanting the cheaper prices, better products, and superior service that globalisation has brought us. This is not to say there isn't a role for the small local shop or certainly a traditional village pub, but only where they can compete by providing a niche service. We got away from the State propping up failing large businesses in the 1980s, I don't see why we should start throwing taxpayers money (either through direct subsidy or higher prices due to protectionism) down the drain to support failing small businesses in the naughties.

2) The practicalities of what the Bill suggests is laughable. The Government should draw up a statutory national action plan based on the contributions of the 400 odd principle local authorities. How much is that going to cost for starters (quite a lot according to a colleague who has looked at this)? And what exactly is it going to achieve? Well this is were the proponents get a little hazy. The LAs will be able to suggest to Government indicators for their local area, which Whitehall will then magically make get better through mystical policies. Those of you who know anything about Local Government policy may think the first half sounds strikingly similar to the Local Area Agreements introduced two years ago. The second half is just too hazy to even attempt a cogent analysis of, but to me smacks of the Local Government sectors traditional problem. They bitch and moan about wanting more power, but their response to any real life challenge is to complain that Central Government should do something about it.

So what would I do instead. Well I would stop worrying about "Ghost Town Britain" for starters and look at what Government really can effect. If we are going to move to a more localist system in this country in a big-bang way then it needs to be done properly, not with half arsed measures like the Sustainable Communities Bill.

I may return to what a more localist system might look like in more detail, but its essentials would have to be.

1) A clear delinination of competencies between local, regional and national government. Some things would move down from the centre to more local levels, but also some things might move up.

2) Democratic regional government, there is a growing evidence base that some functions, such as strategic planning, economic development, strategic health planning, and fire and rescue services (to name a few), are best organised at a regional level. The GLA has proved that strategic regional government can work in England; but we would need to find a regional geography that made cultural and economic sense rather than the current artificial carve up.

3) Local Government has to become fit for purpose. That means some structural change. The ending of the absurd two tier system that is inefficient and confusing for the public; a move to bigger councils in some areas so they have the capacity to deal with their responsibilities (bye-bye Rutland I'm afraid); and greater use of directly elected Mayors, especially in urban areas. But more importantly a change in mindset, recapturing some of entrepreneurial spirit of the semi-mythical city fathers of the late 19th century rather than looking to Whitehall for guidance all the time.

Olympics costs have not trebled!!

Classic case of the media's inability to understand numbers this morning, especially when it gets in the way of a good story. There are screaming headlines everywhere that the costs of the 2012 Olympics has more than trebled from the £2.4 billion quoted in the bid, to £9.3bn. That simply isn't true.

As Evan Davis (the BBC's economics pixie) details here it would be fairer to say that the original budget has more than doubled from £3.4bn to £7.5bn, and a fair chunk of that increase is provision for contingencies. The official bid figure did not include the £1bn that was announced at the time would be spent on post games regeneration and the £9.3bn includes costs like VAT (which overall isn't a cost to the taxpayer so should really be discounted) and security that were not budgeted for in 2005.

Now there are questions to be asked about why security wasn't budgeted for separately originally. Its not as if July 7th, the official excuse, actually really changed anything. And we should be asking where the £9bn is going to come from. But lets not get carried away with the idea that the costs are out of control, because they are not, yet.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Oi Angela leave those kids alone

News of a small victory for common sense reaches us from the Commons. It appears that Angela Watkinson's attempt to introduce a parental notification law into the UK has been foiled by our very own Dr Evan Harris.

Ms Watkinson's ten minute rule bill would have forced doctors and other health professionals to inform the parents or guardian of any under-16 year old seeking advice on contraception or abortion. Her reasoning being that the fear of being grassed to their parents would stop teenagers having sex. No dear it will just make them more likely to have unsafe sex, catch an STI, end up pregnant, and in some cases get beaten up by abusive parents. Idiot.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

McCain isn't out of the Republican Primaries yet

There has been a lot of talk recently that perhaps John McCain's bubble has burst with Rudy Guillani steadily building up a lead in the race to be the Republican presidential candidate. This post on Robert Novak's blog from a couple of days ago therefore caught my eye. It sets out how using push polling a pollster managed to come up with figures that had the almost unknown James Gilmore (a conservative former Governor of Virginia) leading the Iowa caucuses amongst likely voters.

The interest is not in the raw numbers themselves but the ease with which the pollsters pushed Gilmore to the front by pushing him as a true conservative and highlighting the weaknesses of the leading three candidates. This, Novak argues, proves what many pundits have been arguing for a long time; there is a huge hole for a credible conservative to fill in the GOP primary field.

However, for a conservative to come along the rails now would probably take one of the three main runners to completely implode, given how far in advance they appear to be in terms of infrastructure and money. So what was interesting for me was the fact that when the first who will you vote for question was asked (before the respondents were 'pushed') John McCain was leading. This despite the fact that all the momentum in recent polling appears to have been with Guilliani. Even more fascinating was what happened after the first round of pushing. The pollsters first attacked the main three candidates before re-asking the who will you vote for question (the first round of pushing), and then pushed the idea of Gilmore as a true conservative before asking the who will you vote for question again (the second round). The second round not surprisingly gave the headline of Gilmore leading. In the first, again no surprise, Guilliani and Romney fell back under the attack, but McCain actually increased his vote.

It was only by a within the margin 2%, but even so it may be a sign that once the primary campaign proper starts and the attack ads start flying McCain may stand up better than the other less well known candidates, (I know Guillani has good name recognition but the knock on him is that very few ordinary voters know about his record outside of 9/11 yet). It is possible that, as with Hilary Clinton, the voters already know John McCain and therefore his supporters have already discounted his weaknesses before choosing to support him. A strong base of support at this stage of the campaign is perhaps more useful than a higher level of soft support.

How I love being wrong (England 26 - France 18)

I thought we were going to get thumped, even at half time when we were only three points down and playing the better rugby I thought we were going to get thumped. France couldn't play as bad as that in the second half and at some point England would shoot themselves in the foot. But we didn't.

Key difference between today and the game in Dublin? The forwards fronted up. The scrum creaked a bit, but Nick Easter managed to control it pretty well at the base. The lineout went well, they drove forwards in groups and protected the ball well.

And Catty? well he did a job and created one try, and stood well in defence. But my star was Toby Flood. Stepping into Jonny Wilkinson's boots he kicked well from hand and the tee, generally made good decisions (including dealing with a couple of hospital passes from Harry Ellis) and his offloads out of the tackle gives him a dimension that not many flyhalves have.

This gives us a good base to build on moving forwards through the welsh game and into the summer tour to South Africa, which will tell us a lot more about just where this English team is at.

Tories plot spy in the sky

Cameron's Torys in actual policy shocker!

According to today's Sunday Torygraph the latest wheeze being considered by the Conservatives to burnish their fading green credentials is to increase the tax on air passengers. Nothing particularly controversial about that. However to get around the charge that they will be denying poor people their two weeks in the sun in Majorca they are proposing a staircase whereby you will pay more tax the more and longer you fly.

So somewhere, the Department for Transport (or more likely Capita god help us) are going to have a big database with a list of everyone in the country and details of where and when they are planning to fly, from which an individual tax demand will be generated. You can be sure a fair slice of the extra revenue generated will go to servicing this bureaucracy rather than on useful things like income tax cuts. So much for a Conservative party committed to a small state and protecting Civil Liberties!

For once I think the Lib Dems have got this bang on. Tax the aeroplane not the passengers. Thereby giving an incentive for airlines to use cleaner planes and use them more efficiently, and actually cutting emissions rather than just putting up ticket prices.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Newt Trouble

No not a post about Ken Livingstone; but the news that Newt Gringrich the former Speaker of the House of Representatives has coughed up to having an affair whilst leading the charge to impeach President Clinton for lying about his.

According to Iain Dale this means that Newt is out of the running for the GOP presidential nomination. Not so fast my friend. I (and a lot of the pundits) think that this is a clear sign that he is planning to run.

He has been dancing around the issue for six months now, saying that he won't make an announcement until September this year. With his name recognition amongst the republican base he can afford to jump into the race late and by September it is likely the base will have tired of the John and Rudy show and will be looking for a real red-blooded conservative to turn to. In the meantime he has been touring the states with his winning the future roadshow attempting to shape the terms of debate on the Republican side to his advantage whilst appearing to be above the fray in terms of personal campaigning.

If he is leaning towards throwing the his hat into the ring campaigning 101 states that you get any of your skeletons out of the closet well before you official announce so by the time the campaign proper swings round its old news. Yes this will hurt him with the base, but the fact that both Guiliani and McCain have chequered marital histories means that it is unlikely to become a wedge issue in the primaries, although Mitt Romney will try and make it one (still happily married to his first wife allegedly).

Friday, March 09, 2007

This is not going to be pretty

So Brian Ashton has made 11 changes to the side that got whipped against Ireland for the game against France on Sunday. I'm glad that for the first time since the World Cup two Quins (Dave Strettle and Nick Easter) make the team, but otherwise the team sheet fills me with dread.

I wrote after the Scotland game that the euphoria reminded me of a year earlier when we thrashed Wales in our opening game and then proceeded to go downhill from there. Well if you cast mind back to the end of last season as England were preparing to go down under for two games against the Aussies a certain Mike Catt was being hailed as the saviour of our midfield. The worries that he was too old and too slow for test rugby were pushed to one side. We got thrashed in both games, and Catt was exposed as being too old and too slow for test rugby.

So imagine my delight when I found out that not only is Catt replacing Andy Farrell in the starting 15 on Sunday, but he will be captaining the side. And he will be playing outside a fly half who has never started a game for England and is only second choice at his club. And behind a pack that has only one specialist line-out forward in it, and a front-row that looks distinctly fragile. Oh and the French are in the hunt for a grand slam, and Sebastian Chabal is likey to rampaging up the 10-12 channel.

If you want me on Sunday afternoon I will be hiding behind the sofa.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Shocked at Patrick Mercer's behaviour

So Patrick Mercer has been dispatched from the Tory front bench for some less than attractive comments about the acceptability of racism in Army life.

What shocks me is not that there are members of the Tory front bench with less than progressive views on race relations. It is that Mercer was stupid enough to voice them. If your party has a problem with being perceived as racist, and your party leader has spent the last year trying to change that image, surely as a frontbencher you realise you have to be purer than pure on such issues. Even sailing close to the wind isn't an option. So how out of touch is Mercer that he thought nothing of giving such quotes to the press, in the apparent belief that they wouldn't be construed as condoning racism.

By sacking him quickly and publicly the Boy Dave has probably limited the damage. But I bet the left wing elements of Fleet Street will be searching out anything else that could possibly be construed as racism emanating from the Tory benches to try and make this story run. Is Ann Winterton booked to do any rugby club dinners soon?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

God is dead...

... in the Lords at least.

The thought occurs that now we seem to be on track for a fully elected Lords that there won't be seats reserved for the Bishops and other assorted 'faith groups' in our legislature purely on the basis that they have imaginary friends.


All we need now is to disestablish the Church of England and finally the UK will be (constitutionally at least) free of superstition as a basis for lawmaking.

Is this what History feels like?

So the House of Commons has voted for a fully elected second chamber; potentially marking the beginning of the final chapter, of the long march to democratic government in the UK begun with the Great Reform Act of 1832 (or even the glorious revolution of 1688 depending on your taste).

I can remember spending weeks learning about the intricacies of the run-up to the Great Reform Act of 1832 as callow 17 year-old A-level student. In 200 years time the 18 year olds of the day, if they focus on the Blair years at all, will be writing essays about devolution and Lords reform.

So is it a sign of the times that this morning the front pages were dominated by the latest non-revelations in some tawdry little political scandal and the 'news' that premium rate phone-ins are a rip-off. You could have probably read through most of the papers cover to cover without realising the Commons was voting on something of deep constitutional significance tonight.

I comfort myself with the suspicion that outside of Westminster there were very few people talking about voting reform in the Dog and Duck in 1832 either.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Eleventh Capital

The military dictatorship in Burma is one of many repressive regimes around the world (and especially in South East Asia) that very rarely push their way into the European conciousness. Its encouraging then that the Royal Court has chosen to stage a play about the Burmese Junta's decision to shift the nations capital lock stock from Yangon (Rangoon) to a completely new city, Naypyidaw, in the middle of the country.

Alexandra Wood's the Eleventh Capital is based around the story of one civil servant who is forced to relocate to the new capital. He leavs his wife and children behind and is forcibly billeted on a local peasant couple whilst the new city is built. However, this faceless hero never appears. Instead his story is told through the conversations of others. The cleaning lady who overhears him begging not to be sent to the new capital, the colleagues who share his billet and suspect him because he smiles, the thieves who plot to take advantage of the family he left behind.

Natalie Abrahami's promenade staging complements the text well. The effect of having to peer around your fellow audience members heightens the sense that these are furtive conversations you are illicitly overhearing , and being forced (physically) behind barbed wire to watch the final scenes in the new capital reinforces the sense of the new authoritarian order that is being built.

The acting is competent, although as each character only has one scene you feel that there really isn't a lot for the actors to really get their teeth into. And that was my problem as well. The dialogue is well written (although rarely sparkles) and the conceit, and staging, interesting, but the plot is too oblique to really engage with. Still it has sparked me into coming home and googling about the current situation in Burma so I suppose at one level it has done its job.

At £15 its better value than much you will see in the West End, and although by no means great its probably worth catching just for novelty of a play with a message that doesn't preach and leaves you wanting to know more about the subject. I suspect we haven't heard the last of Ms Wood.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Show trial

The girl dragged me to see Bamako last night. Its a Malian film (French subtitled) based around a trial of the World Bank and the IMF for causing poverty and death in Africa through their policies of forcing countries' to liberalise their markets. The trial is based in the courtyard of an ordinary house in Bamako, and normal life continues around and through it.

It's rare that you truly feel that the characters in a film are talking for you, voicing your thoughts exactly; but a piece of dialogue 2/3rds of the way through this movie did it for me. Two men are listening to the trial being relayed on loudspeakers, one turns to the other and says...

"Turn that thing off its annoying me... [pause] How long is this bloody thing going to go on for!"

God its dull!

Its the first time I've ever actually fallen asleep in a cinema (unfortunately the Girl insisted on prodding me awake). The annoying thing is that there probably is a good film (or more likely a good play) to be made out of putting western aid policy in Africa on trial. But this isn't it.

My rule with any piece of art with a political message is that they have to work as art first, before they get to preach at me. This doesn't.

Its pace is, to be kind, ponderous. One of the prosecution lawyers makes an over-long and histrionic closing statement, and then five minutes later (during which bugger all happens) another one does. We got you the first time. The IMF, Anerica and its lackays in Europe are evil and would eat babys for breakfast.

There are whole sub-plots and characters about whom there is never any attempt to explain who they are, why you should care about them or how they link to the rest of what is going on. As for the five minute Spaghetti Western short inserted in the middle? well the least said the better.

What really got my goat was the politics. As I said above a proper trial, in other words where both sides get to present evidence and argue their case, on this issue would be worth seeing. However this unbalanced polemic, whose only nod to fairness is allowing the defending barrister to voice his disgust at the court's bias, just bores. I'm sure that the denizens of the World Social Forum (where this was shown) would lap up its soggy socialism and unthinking anti-americanism. But as somebody who doesn't believe that capitalism is evil, and thinks that some great as wella s bad things have come out of the USA it just turned me off, and I came out more on the side of the IMF etc. than when I went in, mainly out of spite.

Surely we are safe now? (Leicester 27 - Harlequins 22)

The loosing bonus point Quins secured at Welford Road this evening takes us to 39 points, one more than the highest points total of a relegated team (Quins in 2004/05). Surely with Worcester 18 points behind us that must mean we are safe in reality, if not mathematically.

Five games, and five defeats, into the season if you had told me that we would be in this position now I would have bitten your hand off. It is a measure of how far we have come then that instead of celebrating a bonus point won on the bus home we were mourning three points lost. This is a game we could have won with a bit of luck and a bit more of a cutting edge behind the scrum. Harlequins dominated territory and possession in the first half, helped by a Tigers line out who looked they had never been introduced to each other. Unfortunately twice Harlequin runners were brought down inches from the whitewash, and a couple of loose defensive kicks leading to penalties meant we actually went into half-time 9-6 down.

Unfortunately for the second half the cavalry came charging over the hill for Leicester in the shape of George Chuter and Martin Corry coming off the bench. Immediately the tiger lineout started functioning and the Quins' scrum started going backwards at a rate of knots. For that point on it was simply a question of whether Leicester would run away with it. Thankfully they didn't, thanks to some tenacious defending, another decent kicking display from the tee by Adrian Jarvis, and some questionable refereeing decisions (I would like to see Jordan Turner-Hall's try again).

Friday, March 02, 2007

Isn't there a compass in swiss army knives?

According to the Guardian, the Swiss Army accidentally invaded Lichtenstein yesterday morning. Apparently 170 infantry men got lost and wandered over a mile over the border. Lichtenstein has been very fair minded and has decided not to retaliate, which is probably a good thing given that they don't have an army.

Before anybody laughs too much remember that British Royal Marines accidentally invaded Spain a couple of years ago, when taking part in exercises off Gibraltar.