Friday, December 05, 2014

What would a UKIP Britain look like?

UKIP are making the news. Putting aside all the more outlandish elements – like the major donor who thinks it should be illegal for women to wear trousers, or the councillor who thinks there’s a causal link between gay marriages and flooding, or the guy who thinks we should euthanize babies with Down’s Syndrome (these are all real things – Google them) – there is a chance of electoral success in 2015.

Certainly, what UKIP has done is drive an increasingly hostile political narrative around immigration. The way immigration is reported and the way immigrants are written about in the press is almost entirely negative. It’s as if wanting to live somewhere else is criminally immoral and anyone wanting to move overseas is a black-hearted monster. Which I guess is bad news for the one and half million British-born people sunning it up in Spain.

I have a stake in the immigration debate because my Grandmother was an immigrant. She met and married my Granddad while he was on active service during the war – getting married in 1945 before the war ended. She gave birth to my Mum just after coming to this country, in January 1946.

It was a difficult time to be an immigrant. Being Scandinavian, Grandma had an accent that sounded a bit German to many people. Many men had been killed in the war, so there was an imbalance in society meaning many women were unlikely to meet and marry someone. So there was resentment of a foreigner marrying a man, when men generally were in short supply. (My Grandma was told this.)

My Mum has told me that when she was little the other mums in her village wouldn’t let their children play with her. For no other reason than her mum (my Gran) was foreign.

These days we would call that racist. And rightly so, because it was.

But that racism is what I think of when I hear Nigel Farage braying on about immigrants. The narratives we listen to shape our thought patterns. If we really believe the wicked foreigners are after our jobs and our women and our comfortable lifestyles; if we think they are criminals and thieves, then that will shape how we respond to them.

Racism is subtle. We can easily find ourselves agreeing with comments like the one Nigel Farage made about not wanting to live next door to a family of Romanians. And the next thing is you’re not allowing your kids to play with their kids for no other reason than because you are racist.

And that’s what I think a UKIP Britain would look like. It’s sad so many people seem to think that would be a better place to live. I hoped people were better than that.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

When people say ‘Please fund my experience of a lifetime’

I’m starting to get annoyed by some of the things people are contacting me about asking for ‘sponsorship’. Specifically, I’m annoyed by being asked to help them raise funds as they have an ‘experience of a lifetime’, usually in a far-flung exotic corner of the world.

Now, this is not a particular rant about short-term charity trips or missions. I have my doubts about the effectiveness of those, but they are often to less than glamorous places. One of my closest friends went to visit an orphanage in Uganda in the summer. A few years ago I contributed to somebody’s place when our church ran a soccer school with kids in Burkina Faso. So, I’m not entirely anti the idea of sponsoring someone on foreign travel.

But I think there’s a distinction between visiting an orphanage to produce a film about the kids there, to raise awareness and possibly funds back home, and, say, hiking up Kilimanjaro. Or walking the Great Wall of China. Or cycling from Boston to New York City. Or scaling Machu Picchu.

These aren’t particularly worthy endeavours in themselves. They are things that tourists do. And I don’t see why I should feel guilty about not ‘digging deep’ to support people doing them. In fact, the sheer shamelessness of people asking me to help fund their fancy holidays makes me want to go on a slapping spree.

I know, I know, it’s for charity. But charity would be better served if people didn’t fly halfway around the world and donated the equivalent money. It’s not for charity. It’s for you. If it was for charity you would do these things in this country. You can shave your head anywhere. I’ve known people brave the bracing waves of Barry Island on New Year’s Day. If you want to cycle from Boston to New York, you can do that without leaving Lincolnshire!

And I’d say, if you want to go do those things – climb Kilimanjaro, run the Great Wall, bike round the States, or see the sun rise over Incan pyramids – then go and do them. Go! Have a great time. Take lots of photos. This world is full of great experiences and you are allowed to experience them. You don’t have to dress it up as just doing it for a cause. You can just do it for the joy of doing it; realise your dream for nothing more than that.

Just, you know, pay for it yourself.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Dr Olivia's Guide to A&E

Enjoy this film folks - and keep your eye out for the patient with toothache!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

It might be quiet on here but I've been busy in other places...

I know I'm being a bit rubbish at posting on here, but here's some of the things I've been doing this month...

331p1) The 'season preview' edition of When Saturday Comes is out, including my preview bit about Shrewsbury Town. In the stores while stocks last!

2) I've had a blog post published on Comms2Point0 all about those Zombie Projects that you think are safely dead until they return to life and eat your brains!

3) I've preached twice at Glenwood, on Psalm 67 (waiting for the link) and Psalm 23 (available to listen to!)

4) I've started a new blog. 'What another one?' I hear you ask. Yes. 'What's it about?' I hear you inquire. Building a model railway. 'Oh.' I hear you say. Well, if you are interested, here's the link.

5) In work we've been shortlisted in three categories at the CIPR PRide Cymru Awards. That's doubly pleasing for me as I wrote the submissions, so not only did I work on the shortlisted projects but the way I wrote them up got the attention of the judges too. (In fact, I helped some other people with their nominations and they were shortlisted three times as well, so that's six awards I've got an interest in!)

Monday, July 14, 2014

The team I wanted to win the World Cup final won!

So, Germany won. It was a tense game, settled by a flash of brilliance from the youngest player on the field deep in extra time.

I'd wanted Germany to win from the outset. England were uninspiring from the off and, apart from the USA, there was no one else I really wanted to root for. In any given game I'd go for the underdog - which was tough when Germany went up against Algeria, a genuine underdog that divided my loyalties slightly.

But generally the best team won, playing the consistently best football of the tournament. They scored the most goals (helped by the crazy 7-1 thrashing of Brazil). Their totemic oldest striker broke the record for goals scored in finals. Their goalkeeper won the tacky-looking Golden Glove award. All round they performed at a level worthy of world champions.

They also have a young team that is still growing and maturing together. They have got to be favourites to win the European Championships in France in two years time, and I think they have every chance of retaining the World Cup in Russia in 2018.

But for now the World Cup is over and normality resumes. What will we watch now?
Sad times as Cathy takes down the World Cup wallchart!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Brazil 1 – Germany 7: Watching history being made in a World Cup semi-final

Previously I’ve blogged about how I wanted Germany to win the World Cup and about my antipathy towards Brazil. So, the semi-final had an edge for me, mainly because this was the test whether Germany were going to have their fragilities exposed in a harsh, partisan arena.

The general reaction to the result and the manner in which it was achieved has been a semi-stunned ‘Wow’. A lot of people thought Brazil were poor (for Brazil), and that Germany were good, but this was the kind of epic walloping nobody ever thought possible.

The sequence of the German second to fifth goals was so fast the TV replays couldn’t keep up. They would cut from the slow motion to real-time and the Germans were passing it into the net again. It reached a point where the Germans seemed to stop celebrating. It felt awkward; embarrassing even.

So, what went so ballistically wrong for Brazil. Here are my thoughts:
  1.  They weren’t very good. This sounds simplistic, but you can achieve quite a bit in football without being particularly skilful as long as you are well-organised and calm (see the USA in this World Cup for an example of that). Brazil weren’t a very good team, but they didn’t know that. So they were poorly organised and hot-headed, particularly David Luiz, who has to be one of the most wayward defenders ever.
  2.  Brazil let the emotion get to them. From the way they held up a shirt as a tribute to the injured Neymar in a way that looked like they were mourning the fallen war dead, through to the bellowing of the national anthem’s second verse once the music had stopped, the team were being governed by their emotions. The game-plan, if they had one, went south early on, people forgot what they were meant to be doing, and they couldn’t compose themselves once the Germans started tapping the goals in.
  3. They couldn’t regain their balance. Losing five goals in the first 30 minutes is terrible. But the reason Brazil let in so many is that after the third goal – a wonder strike from Toni Kroos – they didn’t get their heads together. They looked to be in shock, uncoordinated, almost in denial of what was happening.
  4. Germany were ruthless. Although it has subsequently emerged that the German players decided not to push too hard in the second half, there was no hesitation in the way they took advantage of Brazil’s multiple failings before the break. Some teams might have eased up earlier, but Germany weren’t screwing up in the semi-finals again.

This match was historic. Brazil’s biggest ever defeat. It was the biggest ever victory in a World Cup semi-final. Someone said that it was Brazil’s first home defeat for 25 years. Miroslav Klose’s goal made him the all-time top scorer in World Cups, overtaking the Brazilian legend, Ronaldo – just to add extra despondency to the Brazilian defeat.

There’s a sense when you watch an event like this unfold, that you get the feeling you are watching something a bit special. It’s a moment that will become iconic in the history of the World Cup and maybe football itself. I can’t remember the last game that felt this way – maybe the England semi-final against West Germany in 1990, the one with Gazza’s tears. Like that, this game has now been burned into my memory. A historical moment I was lucky enough to see.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

World Cup secret confession: I'm supporting Germany

It started in South Africa in 2010. The team of the tournament for me weren't the Spanish game-stranglers with their tiki-taka yawn-off brand of non-football. It was Germany.

They played with verve and vim, bursting forward with pace to hit teams on the break. They hammered England. They stuffed Argentina. Then they were stifled by Spain, who won with a header at a corner from a defender coming from deep. I was gutted.

So this time around, I wanted Germany to do well. Even though this left me very conflicted in the second round when they faced genuine underdogs Algeria. I have that compulsion to support the little guys against the behemoth. But anyway, they won.

How did this happen? When I was a kid I, along with everyone else, regarded the Germans as the ultimate villains. (Argentina threatened their position as most hated international opponents for a while. Maradona's hand of God and all that. But it always came back to the Germans.)

There was the penalty shoot-out in Italia 90 and at Euro 96. There was Jurgen Klinnsman who was your typical continental diving cheat in the late 80s and early 90s although he has redeemed himself in later life. There was just the boring, automatic progression to final after final. The moment of respite that we all enjoyed was the defeat to Bulgaria in USA 94.

Funny story, that game took place on a Sunday when we had an evening service at our church. Like many others I was a few minutes late to the service because I stayed to watch the last few minutes of Bulgaria's win. As others sheepishly drifted in after us, I remember making eye contact and mouthing 'Bulgaria?' to them, receiving nods and smiles in return. Everyone was happy to see Germany lose. Twenty years later, "Letchkov!" still brings a smile to my brother's face.

I guess my change of heart is a sign of the way Germany changed their game. Although with the forward-running gameplan, they no longer look invincible at the back. In fact, against Algeria, a team prepared to run directly at them, they looked distinctly vulnerable. They have swapped that stereotypical German rigidity for resourcefulness, cheerless grit for exciting guile. Above all the tag 'efficient' no longer applies as it did for several decades. It's not about being efficient - the German trait that makes every BMW look like a lurking Decepticon - it's about entertaining.

So maybe that's it. Maybe it's because they now look beatable. When they were titans they were our enemies. But now we can see they are human and flawed they are easy to love. #

I don't think they will win this World Cup. Someone will exploit their tendency to go forward and punish them for their forwards not tracking back and protecting the defence. But I would love to be proved wrong.

Monday, June 30, 2014

World Cup controversial viewpoint: Brazil are over-rated

I'm not sure when I first realised how much I disagreed with the mainstream view that Brazil are the kings of world football, playing the game beautifully in a 'samba style'. Brazil is everybody's 'second team', we are told by the media and the football pundits.

But they aren't my second team. In fact, I was gutted Chile didn't knock them out a couple of nights ago.

So, why am I less than enamoured with Brazil. Here's a few reasons.

The sense of entitlement bugs me. I know it's being played in Brazil but the way the commentators talk about Brazil playing in 'their World Cup' irks me. It's the sense that Brazil somehow has a greater claim on the World Cup than any other nation. It's as annoying as the Arsenal fans bleating on about 8 years without a trophy (thank the maker that's over!) or Manchester United fans carrying on about finishing seventh.

The entitlement overflows in the way they get treated by referees. The opening game of this world cup was notable for the blatant favoritism shown to the host nation. Croatia were unjustly denied the chance to compete on an equal footing with Brazil because the refs were over-awed by the occasion.

I'm annoyed at the way the cloggers get overlooked. Yes, Brazil often have flair players who they give free rein to and that can be excting, but for every genuine world star they always have a colleciton of cloggers backing them up. Ramires is the same sneaky thug for Brazil as he is for Chelsea. David Luiz wouldn't look out of place hacking people down as part of a Uruguay team. Even Neymar got away with a blatant elbow to an opponent's face in the game against Croatia. (Which goes back to the referee's reluctance to take action against Brazil.)

People also overlook the play-acting. Hulk is one of the most guilty of the current crop of players. He seems to be wearing the slippiest boots on the planet given how many times he ends up on the floor. Athough the classic bit of Brazillian cheating was Rivaldo playing against Turkey in the 2002 World Cup. A Turkish player kicked the ball at him. It bounced off Rivaldo's knee and he went down clutching his face, getting the Turkey player red carded as a result. What a toe-rag. (He also made history as the first ever player to be fined by FIFA for simulation - yes, that's right, the first official diving cheat was a Brazilian.)

And finally, there's the simple fact that often Brazil are incredibly boring to watch. The 1994 World Cup Final in the USA is the prime example of this. I remember being told it was going to be the best game ever as Brazil faced Italy. Instead it was a turgid defensive affair that ended 0-0 after 120 minutes. One of those five stars on the Brazil badge is down to Roberto Baggio missing a penalty in the shoot out, not because Brazil were any great shakes.

So, there you go. They win with dodgy penalties gifted by awe-struck referees. They kick and elbow and dive their way to narrow wins and no one cares because of the stars on the shirt above the badge. After all, they are Brazil.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

My 21 favourite things about the FIFA World Cup 2014 so far

We are into the knockout rounds of the World Cup and I've yet to blog about it, so here's a quick round-up of my favourite bits so far up to and including the second round game between Holland and Mexico.

1) Robin van Persie's equaliser against Spain. Quite simply one of the best diving headers I've ever seen and if you watch it in slow motion you can see he watches the ball into the net until his face hits the grass. When he scored his second he then ran around celebrating with his tongue out like a loon. I'm not a huge fan of RVP, but he is definitely growing on me.

2) Spray-foam at free kicks. It's simple. Ref marks where the ball should be. Then he draws a line on the pitch in front of the wall and they can't move beyond it. It comes in a neat hip holster and is simply a genius idea. One of the first games the ref sprayed it over a Holland player's boots and he was quite clearly protesting saying "My shoes!!" We laughed at that a lot.

3) James Rodriguez's first goal against Uruguay. Taken on the chest, back to goal, thirty yards out, he spun and hit it so sweetly it was untrue.

4) Spain being rubbish. Hopefully this is the death-knell for soul-destroying tiki-taka.

5) Mario Balotelli posting a picture of the Italy page in the Panini World Cup album filled with pictures just of him. That was a step beyond his normal hijinks into ironic subversion art.

6) FIFA stepping up and banning Luis Suarez.

7) Holland 5 Spain 1. What a game that was.

8) Pepe versus Muller in Portugal versus Germany. I have no idea what Pepe was thinking, but he basically threw the game Germany's way there.

9) Chile almost putting Brazil out in the second round. I was gutted they didn't manage to do it. They were the width of the crossbar away in extra time and then failed in the shoot-out. Also the Chile manager looked like Louie Spence, especially the way he prowled the edge of the technical area with one arm held rigid behind him.

10) Speaking of lookalikes, Cathy pointed out that the Mexico manager looked like Nathan Fillion in a fat-suit. She's not wrong.

11) Tim Cahill's goal against Holland. A moment of beauty.

12) The red, white and blue shirts worn by the USA against Ghana. Even nicer than the German white shirts with the red V.

13) Finding out the Mexican goalie has six fingers on one hand and had to have his gloves specially made.

14) The Columbian team's funky dance moves when they score. Play as a team. Dance as a team.

15) Alan Shearer losing it and finally showing some passion as a pundit, after England's pathetic showing. Gary Lineker said "We didn't expect much..." and Alan practically shouted "We expected more than that!" He looked seriously miffed.

16) But Daniel Sturridge's goal against Italy was one of the best England goals at a World Cup Finals that I remember.

17) Wesley Sneijder's goal for Holland against Mexico. Superb control to keep his team in the game with two minutes to go. Then Klaas van Huntelaar kept his cool under pressure to net a penalty in injury time to send Mexico out. An action-packed last few minutes that kept us on the edge of our seat.

18) The TV shot of a player taking a throw-in where 'WORLD CUP BRAZIL' on the advertising hoardings was cropped down to 'D CUP BRA'.

19) Gabby Logan and Phil Neville's in-ground discussion of the England game while the sprinklers soaked them. Twice.

20) Cathy referring to Adam Lallana as Adam the Llama. It would be a much cooler name.

21) Thierry Henry in his role as studio pundit talking about how a player was "really smelling the game." What?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

What happened to the tambourines?

When I was a kid Sunday mornings were a bit of a dash trying to get into the car and to church by 10am. Dad always had a bag of stuff he needed to talk to people about, like creationist comics to give to the kids, we all took a Bible for some reason, and usually just as we were leaving my mum or dad would suddenly cry out ‘Have we got the instruments?’

The ‘instruments’ were mum’s tambourine and my dad’s – wait for it – triangle, and possibly a couple of other things like shakers. The church we went to was very interactive and a lot of people brought along similar things to join in with the music.

I’m not sure when this stopped. I can’t put a date on when we weren’t scrabbling around looking for wherever we had dumped the plastic bag with the instruments in after church the previous week. But at some point it stopped being the fashionable thing.

It’s odd that we took them at all. We weren’t a particularly musical family, despite my parents’ good intentions in trying to get me and my brother learning to play the piano and the trumpet respectively. My dad literally never put a record on. Even now I have never known him to sit down and listen to music or even have it on in the background.

Dad’s non-musicality is why he had the triangle, running on the debateable theory that you don’t need much musical ability to master it. He used to ping it at key points in the more upbeat songs – usually whenever ‘Jesus’ or ‘Lord’ appeared in a song line. I suspect he also liked the fact that he was the only triangle-player in the congregation. Lots of people had shakers and tambourines. He was unique.

The ‘joining in with the music’ thing seems to have passed. I think this is possibly because of the higher expectations people have now of musicians in churches. Back in the 80s, in a charismatic non-denominational church, the ‘worship’ was fairly simple. There would be one or two acoustic guitars, a keyboard for the older hymns that were written for the organ and didn’t translate very well to acoustic guitars, and maybe a person leading the singing.

Gradually new instruments were added to the mix. First electric guitars and basses, then a drum-kit, then whatever else people played – some churches effectively have brass and string sections. The music is much more rounded out and enhanced by proper PA systems. Instead of just a couple of loudspeakers at the front, there are now amps all around the room.

As the ‘worship’ has grown from what was once quite amateur to something much more professional, maybe people don’t want to join in as much. Sometimes it does feel that you have Christian songs performed at you. Taking your own instruments might feel a bit silly now. ‘Make a joyful noise’ is no longer the mantra of churches like the one I grew up in.

Still, the old ways are hard to kill off. My brother told me recently that he was just about to welcome everyone to a Sunday service he was leading when he noticed the woman in the second row immediately behind his seat had brought her own acoustic guitar and was obviously planning to play along.

He had never met her before and I think he recognised that it takes a certain kind of person to turn up at a church for the very first time with your own guitar ready to join in. So he didn’t say anything to her except Hello.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Online Influence #Oi14 Conference – some bits that stood out

Yesterday I attended the Oi (Online influence) Conference in Cardiff. Here are some bits that struck me as useful during the day. I have tried to include one quote and one tip, although not everything on the programme made the cut here.

David Hieatt, Hiut Denim, Keynote speaker
Quote: “It’s your job to make your ideas happen. No one else will.”
Tip: Fail fast. If something doesn’t work, kill it quickly and try something else.

Dennis Bree & Dave Shaw – Twitter masterclass
Quote: “Twitter is the live second screen.”
Tip: Plan for the ‘moment’ and be ready to act on it.

Diana Memic & Michael Complojer - Google+ masterclass
Quote: “Everyone is posting into a noisy space.”
Tip: When posting, pause and clarify your goals.

Dan Spicer – Hootsuite masterclass
Quote: “Do one platform really well, not five badly.”
Tip: Empower your team and turn all staff into advocates for your brand on social media.

James Eder – Student Beans, Keynote
Quote: “Stop marketing and start mattering.” (I really liked this line!)
Tip: Face-to-face is costly, but incredibly valuable.

Michael Brackpool & Ben Hackett – Brandwatch masterclass
Quote: “Just because you have a larger haystack doesn’t mean you’ll find more needles.”
Tip: You need to know if negative comments are significant.


Friday, February 28, 2014

Five reasons The Lego Movie is awesome

Cool poster; cool film
This post contains spoilers

1) It’s clever
The movie is well-animated with lots of little blink and you miss them jokes. There are also deeper jokes – the inanity of prime-time TV is spoofed by the hit TV show ‘Have you seen my pants?’ which revolves around a pantless (trouserless in the UK) guy asking his wife ‘Honey, have you seen my pants?’ repeatedly. As satire on sitcoms that rely on stupid catchphrases to get laughs, it’s spot-on.

2) It’s got superheroes (and other heroes)
Forget the hype of big-screen Batman v Superman. If you want to see DC superheroes together on the big screen, The Lego Movie got there first. The film royally rips the mick out of Batman’s ‘darkness’, while Green Lantern’s is mercilessly Green Lampooned!

There are also brief bonus cameos from Han Solo, Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian and C-3PO – the latter two voiced by authentic Star Wars actors Billy Dee Williams and Anthony Daniels. Plus there’s the space slug from Empire Strikes Back!

3) It’s got an interesting point to make about creativity and order
The main plot of the Movie concerns evil President Business’s plan to set the world of Lego using the magical relic the ‘Kragle’. Once set, people won’t be able to move and people won’t be able to spoil his stuff. Opposing him are the ‘master builders’ who see the potential to create new things from the Lego buildings, vehicles and street furniture around them.

There is a conflict here between the oppressive rulers who want everyone to follow the instructions and conform – the hero Emmet actually reads out the ‘Instructions on how to fit in and be like everyone else’ at the start of the movie – and the freedom of the master builders to remake the world how they see fit. It’s an interesting exploration of the age-old tussle between conservatism and innovation, and that’s a good theme for a kid’s movie.

4) It’s been flamed by Fox “News”
Personally, I think anything that attracts the ire of Fox “News” is automatically A Good Thing. In this case one Fox “News” pundit lambasted The Lego Movie for being anti-capitalist. They said the same thing about The Muppets too. Their gripe is that business tycoons are being cast as villains, even though they create jobs and wealth.

Of course, Fox “News” is going to side with the mega-rich and look out for the interests of tycoons rather than ordinary folks. What Fox “News” don’t realise is that there is a reason why tycoons make such effective villains – we have seen enough terrible anti-social behaviour from the feral rich to believe they would destroy the world (or at least knock down valuable cultural heritage like the Muppet Theatre).

And it’s telling that in The Lego Movie, President Business would rather employ an army of robots than real people, much like the downsize kings of the business world, in fact.

5) It’s full of cult Lego references
Cathy almost jumped out of her seat when there was a glimpse of Fabuland at one point. One of the best characters is Benny the blue 80s spaceman, who is obsessed with building spaceships. (At one point one character tells him to ‘Get your retro space pieces away from me.) There are numerous cool Lego characters from the mini-figures range popping up in crowd scenes.

If you love Lego, then it’s hard not to love this movie. If you don’t love Lego, I think you will like it anyway. It’s well worth a watch.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The dark heart of Disney’s The Lone Ranger

This post contains spoilers...
I wasn't prepared for The Lone Ranger. The trailers made it look like an enjoyable romp through the old West, with derring do, gunfights, wisecracks, chases along train carriages and so on. It had all that, it’s true, plus Johnny Depp on brilliant form. But there was an unexpected darkness at the heart of the film.

I wasn't expecting a scene of cannibalistic murder committed by an outlaw. Or the wholesale slaughter of Comanche warriors under the rattling clacks of Gatling guns. These were interspersed with moments of levity that felt inappropriate.

As the Indians are massacred by machine guns, Tonto and the Lone Ranger are stuck on a pump truck being gained on by a train – a scene that is comic in itself, especially for the way the characters interact. However, juxtaposed as it was with the scenes of one-sided warfare, it felt wrong to be laughing at the main characters’ predicament.

Similarly the murderous villainy of the leader of the outlaw gang, Butch Cavendish. In the past it would only be necessary for him to line his pistol with the forehead of the mortally wounded Texas Ranger that he kills, and pull the trigger. The report of the pistol would be enough, with maybe a view of the corpse to establish that he is definitely dead.

Considering this was released by Disney, with toys in the Disney store (and a large Lego tie-in range as well), to have Cavendish finish off his Ranger victim by cutting out his heart and eating it was fairly horrific. Admittedly most of this happens off-screen, but he is handed a napkin by one of his goons afterwards to wipe away the blood from his mouth.

I’m not necessarily against extreme violence. I watched Dredd and the two Kill Bill films and despite the violence being brutal, appreciated the merit of including it. There was no merit to including this scene in The Lone Ranger. It didn't add to the drama. Seeing his brother executed at close range by a bullet to the head would have been enough to make Dan Reid seek understandable vengeance as The Lone Ranger.

Equally, it messed up the rest of the story, as we connect the dots between the outlaw leader and the other villains of the piece. Despite being the kind of guy who eats a lawman’s heart, Cavendish is quickly incorporated into the entourage of a bigger enemy, and from then on seems a lot less menacing.

Outside the law he is wild and savage, but it’s hard to take him seriously when he is supposed to be part of a bigger plan. It just doesn't work. He is too far gone down the path of brutality to be relied on by an intelligent criminal. And that’s a shame, because the link between Cavendish and his partners and Tonto pulls the film together well.

So, what is left in the film? The chase sequence at the end is brilliantly ludicrous and convoluted and highly enjoyable. Unfortunately, this only served to highlight how darkly drawn the preceding almost two hours had been. Helena Bonham Carter is woefully under-used but is pure comic joy when she is on-screen. The landscapes are gorgeous, shot mainly in Utah among the sandstone mesas and canyons that I fell in love with when I went there. (In fact, point worth noting, this wasn't filmed in Texas at all!)

The film also asks plenty of interesting questions, particularly in its portrayal of the Cavalry. The use of Government military strength to back up the expansionist plans of industry against the natural inhabitants of the land has parallels with the oil-grabs in Iraq following the US-led invasion. The ethical questions surrounding the decimation of the indigenous peoples by 'civilisation' aren't answered here, but they are at least asked.

The opening device and introduction of Tonto as one of history’s most unreliable narrators is a nice touch as well. The opening scene is set in 1933 when these events have already passed into history, folklore and legend, and that’s clever because it legitimises these events as having a factual basis.

The Lone Ranger is considered a bit of a flop by Disney’s standards. It’s not hard to see why. It’s clearly unsuitable for children. It’s long – with a running time of 143 minutes. And it only really comes alive with the chase sequence at the end. Bits of it were very enjoyable, but it was too bleak in places and never really answered its own moral questions.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

How I doubled my workspace... on a smaller desk.

This is not hyperbole. I recently went from one computer monitor to two and it has changed my life.
Because I can flick between windows much faster, it has made working out of multiple documents much easier. Web content in particular is easier to sort out. I have told several people that I don’t think I could go back to having just one screen.

So why has this one simple change made an impact. Very simply it’s because desk-space isn’t workspace. Following two moves in rapid succession around our office, my desk space has shrunk. But I haven’t noticed, because, really, what work does anyone do on a desk anymore?

I can think of two things I do on the desk – if I do a phone interview and am writing notes, and if I print off a large document to proofread. Almost all my other work I do on my screen.
If I’m creating a new written piece I open a new Word doc. If I’m collating research and ideas, then I’m more likely to fire up Google than anything else. If I’m curating content, then I’m looking at on-screen material. If it’s online, then it’s on-screen and most of what I do is online or will end up there. Even documents that we print have an online life and it seems anything with an online life is on-screen work for the most part.
Culturally, we have moved from horizontal workspaces (the top of the desk) to vertical workspaces (the screens on desk-top PCs), but we still don’t think in those terms. I’ve realised that my screens are my workspace, and having an extra screen doubles the space I have to work in, despite having a smaller desk to put them on.
The next step is to add a third screen and see whether I gain the same amount of additional functionality again. I suspect the law of diminishing returns will come into play, with less benefit from each additional screen.
What would that upper limit be? Four screens? Six?  Could I build an in-office IMAX, or will I run out of desk to put the screens on first?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A middle class tale of divine providence

I attend a fortnightly midweek group through my church. Before Christmas we have been watching a series of DVD presentations by a relatively well-known Christian writer, speaker and presenter.

There is quite a career to be had on the publishing and preaching circuit and this chap has been doing it a while. I'm not going to name him because what I'm about to write may come across as personal criticism, when instead it's more of a comment on the demi-evangelical Christianity I haven't been kicked out of yet. (The time is no doubt coming.) But, anyway, despite my preserving his anonymity, I'm sure plenty of people will have seen this DVD.

The session we were watching was on being honest and prospering justly in life. There was a lot of good stuff in there about not cheating your employer and giving your best in work and so on. But then came a personal story that I honestly believe is the most middle class example of God's provision I have ever heard.

I should say, in his defence, it was his own story. He didn't rehash something from the 'Big Book of Dubious Sermon Examples' or give a vague story about something that happened in his uncle's flatmate's church. It was his testimony and perhaps I shouldn't be so harsh.

But this is the gist. The preacher and his wife wanted to buy a bigger house - I think they had a new addition to the family on the way - and they were looking round lots of houses. They saw one that was above their budget and they couldn't really afford, but which they really wanted more than any of the others. So they prayed. And the next day his wife's godmother contacted them and said she felt she 'ought' to give them some money. And wouldn't you know? The amount his wife's godmother gave them was exactly the difference between what they could afford and the price they negotiated on the house.

Huzzah. Divine provision.

It just struck me though, like I said, how irredeemably middle class that was.

First off, we have the 'need'. Not for a house. Not for shelter, a roof over their heads. But for a bigger house.

But it's not as if a bigger house was outside their means. There were others they could afford, but the one they really liked was too expensive. So, it's about having the right house. A nicer house.

And then there's the means of provision. His wife's godmother. Probably a very lovely, saintly person.

But you have to be a certain kind of person to have a godmother. There's a class thing there.

Especially to have a godmother who can afford to bung you a few thousand quid on a whim.

The questions I was left with were, 'What if his wife's parents had been Baptist and she hadn't had a godmother? What would God have done then?'

Along with, 'Why did they need to bother God at all with that request - why didn't they just ask the godmother if they could borrow some cash, which she would probably have just given them?'

My point is that as a testimony it suffers by not being universally applicable - it implies that if you are middle class enough to have a rich godmother your prayers for a nicer house might get answered. It also suffers by not really being about provision. It's about middle class people sharing their wealth with other middle class people.

I keep hearing a lot of talk about 'good news for the poor' and reaching disadvantaged communities with the Gospel. And that's good. But the cause isn't helped when we are mired in our class-based understanding of the necessities of life and our testimonies become about how God has met our middle class wants when talking to a world in need.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Hobbit part two, from a disappointed reviewer

SPOILER ALERT – lots of detail from the film included.

The Hobbit part 2 has been out for a while. I saw it just before Christmas. It’s hard really to articulate how I feel. On the one hand, it’s the Hobbit, it’s Middle Earth, I ought to like it, but on the other hand it was long, clunky, and daft.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the book of The Hobbit, but I can see how it could translate to the screen as an adventure story. The book is fast-paced, funny, intriguing, and carries you along with it to the final battle. The films so far have lost that sense of pace and fun. There is more danger, and this episode of the trilogy lays on the peril with a trowel, starting with Thorin being told he has a death mark on his head, written in the Black Speech, no less.

The thing Peter Jackson doesn’t seem to get about The Hobbit is that the book of The Hobbit concentrates on, er, the hobbit. That’s the point of the story – it’s about Bilbo being unexpectedly recruited for a dangerous quest and contrary to his own and everyone else’s expectations, becoming a hero on the way.

But the film isn’t about the Hobbit at all. Bilbo seems incidental to most of the activity. Instead we have various sub-plots involving Elven warrior maidens being attracted to dwarves, the return of Sauron in a ruined fortress, and the oppression of the good, honest poor people of Laketown by an autocratic ruler.

The bits of the film that are quite good are the bits that are in the book: the Mirkwood spiders, Beorn, the escape from the Elven kingdom in barrels, and the conversation between Bilbo and Smaug the Dragon. But those bits don’t get much screen-time. In fact, the dwarves’ imprisonment – several weeks in the book while Bilbo figures out how to get them out – is reduced to an overnight stay and Bilbo working out the escape route in a matter of seconds.

The bits between those authentic parts of the story, in contrast, seem to drag. The quest was difficult enough without the introduction of a snarling orc leader tracking the dwarves, for reasons that probably were spelled out at some point, but I yawned and missed it.

There are some good bits – Sauron materialising in Dol Guldur from the pupil of the lidless eye was well-rendered – but they are few and far between. Instead we have a load of sentimental tosh designed to make the story more Hollywood. Tauriel, a veteran Elven warrior, barely claps eyes on one of the dwarves before she is smitten in the most unlikely romance ever.

There are other things that make the film suck too. I’m sorry to do this to Stephen Fry, but his ‘performance’ as the Master of Laketown was one-dimensionally pompous. And the bigger problem is that he was obviously playing Stephen Fry, the QI quizmaster host, albeit with the ‘lovable’ setting dialled down. I was half expecting a klaxon to sound and one of his minions have points deducted for saying something wrong or too obvious.

The film didn’t need Legolas either. Or rather, if you did include him, include him in a knowing cameo inside the Elf citadel, maybe commenting on how he would never trust a dwarf. And then we could all smile to ourselves, because, of course we know what’s going to happen later and the friendship he would forge with Gimli. Instead, he is over-used as a cross between a ninja and the Green Arrow, slaying orcs left, right and centre.

We also have a ridiculous escape plan inside the Lonely Mountain, where furnaces that have not been fired for years are lit and instantly produce a river of molten gold for Thorin to ride on in a wheelbarrow. I’m no metallurgist, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how blast furnaces work and it’s impossible to ride molten metal like that. Not only did it not make sense, but it looked like a sequence crafted solely for inclusion in a computer game of the movie. And not even a good computer game. A shitty platformer churned out to cash in on the movie.

Now, I know at this point, you could be forgiven for saying,‘Well, it’s a fantasy movie, it doesn’t have to be real.’ And I’d agree to a point. I can forgive the highly unlikely barrel ride, even though that stretched the bounds of credibility. But the ‘it’s only fantasy’ doesn’t work. If you have created a universe that is supposed to be real, it has to have a certain level of authenticity, otherwise you could just make up any old crap. Why bother with the wheelbarrow? Why not just have Thorin surf the molten gold in a pair of magic ski socks knitted by Beorn from his shape-changing eyebrows? It makes as much sense.

The Hobbit is a well-known, much-loved book, with an existing fanbase that any movie can tap into. So, my main question is, why does Peter Jackson cock this up so badly? I know I’m inviting the charge that I haven’t directed any Hollywood adaptations, so what do I know. But that’s the thing, having watched this, I’m not sure what I could do to wreck the story any further.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The big 2013 Christmas Card Audit

I did this for the first time last year, and that means I can be all uber-geeky and do like-for-like comparisons. I have further subdivided the themes to throw further light on what Christmas means in the minds of the people who make Christmas cards, and the people who buy them.

(Of course, it's not a truly scientific sample as it's based only on the people who gave us Christmas cards. If you're one of them, thank you.)

Total number of Christmas cards: 97 (last year's figure: 104)
Hand-made / home-produced cards: 7 (6) plus two designed by kids and printed by schools
Cards with magnets on: sadly none (last year: 1)

Cards sold in aid of charity: 44 (42)
Of which...
Traidcraft cards: 5 (down from 6 last year)
Oxfam cards: None (2 last year)
Main charity represented: Diabetes UK with 5 cards.
Total number of charities represented: 62 (up from 40 last year). This includes one card that raised funds for 30 different charities.
Marks and Spencer cards (new category): 12

Religious-themed cards: 33 (down from 37)
Cards featuring the Nativity: 15
The following Christmas story 'characters' appeared on cards too:
Three kings: 5 (down from 9)
The shepherds: 4 (up from 2)
The star of Bethlehem: 2 (up from 1)

Other themes (new categories asterisked)
'Peace': 2 (down from 4)
Santa: 10 (compared to 6 in 2012) plus one that was just several Santa hats
Penguins: 3 (down from 5)
Various cartoon bears: 2 (down from 12 bears in 2012)
Dogs in Santa Hats: None this year! (2 last year)
*Deer/reindeer: 6
*Christmas decorations: 4
*Christmas trees: 5
*Robins: 3
*Mistletoe: 2
*Winter scene/scenery: 7
Cards that mention 'Christmas' on the front: 35 (down from 45)
Like last year, many of the religious-themed cards don't mention Christmas on the front.

So, that's it. Fewer cards, but more charity fundraising cards - aren't our friends lovely - with a mix of themes. A third have a religious theme and a third mention 'Christmas' on the front, with some overlap, but still the religious elements of the midwinter holiday haven't quite faded away.