Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 in review: Films I saw at the cinema

I've decided to list all the films I watched for the first time in 2015. I've split them into cinema releases and movies I watched on TV or DVD, some of which are a bit older - those follow in another post because otherwise this would be crazily long. FYI, I've listed these films in the order I saw them rather than in order of quality.

Kingsman ~ The Secret Service
Comedic take on spy films based on a comic book. Despite the ludicrously over the top violence, I enjoyed this apart from the controversial brief sexual content right at the end. Although the big names in it were Colin Firth, Samuel L Jackson and Michael Caine, it also offered a rare cinematic outing for Mark Hamill, who didn't have much to do except look surprised.

Big Hero Six
Disney animation based on a comic book. A genius kid inherits his brother's robot nurse (naturally, being a Disney film, family members die) and turns it into a super-hero. It was a good film, but the supporting hero team weren't necessary and the villain's actions didn't really make any sense. So it turned into one of those films with some good central characters and not much of a plot.

Moving drama about the events in Selma, Alabama, during the height of the Civil Rights movement. It really made me aware of how the racism of powerful institutions worked to keep black people subjugated, and the sheer strength of character shown by Dr Martin Luther King and other leaders. I blogged about it here.

South African-set science fiction action drama about a robot programmed to become self-aware. I quite liked this because it seemed quite realistic in portraying how a machine would feel when it came alive - shocked and awkward.

Avengers: Age of Ultron
Latest chapter in the Avengers franchise. Didn't really do much for me. Also about machine intelligence, but fell too easily into tropes. Why would a robot decide to create multiple copies of itself when theoretically it could just take over any machine going? Also it passed over spending time with characters in favour of MORE EXPLOSIONS!

Disney live action science fiction story starring George Clooney and Hugh Laurie. It had a surprising theme of hope in the future despite the way the world has been exploited and ruined to the point where it's on the brink of destruction.

Jurassic World
Basically, this is Jurassic Park, except the park and the dinosaurs are bigger. It had a more callous approach to human victims than the original, especially one character, an Executive Assistant, who was marked for death early on because she had a British accent. Chris Pratt starred, continuing his A-list trajectory that started with Guardians of the Galaxy last year.

Melissa McCarthy divides opinion. But this film was funnier than the trailers would have you believe. Also featured Alison Janney (yay) and Miranda Hart ( no, seriously) along with Jude Law as a slimy James Bond-spoofing chick magnet spy. But Jason Statham stole the show for sending up so many of his own films.

Moomins on the Riviera
A slow animated adventure based on an early Moomins story. If you like Moomins then it's one for you. It's European origins are very obvious.

The Despicable Me prequel. Being fair, it had some great set pieces. The first 20 minutes or so were fab. But the point about the Minions is they are knockabout background characters and asking them to carry a movie is a bit much. Although the showing we went to see did have the added bonus of a chap showing up in an adult Minion onesie, much to the embarrassment of his friends.

Terminator Genisys
I really enjoyed this. It took the Terminator mythos and turned it on its head. Arnie was back, which was the big seller, and they incorporated his real-world ageing well into the film. He was also deadpan funny. In many ways every Terminator movie is about the same thing - avoiding the fate that seems unavoidable, and this wasn't too different, but the plot was suitably complex to keep me interested. Matt Smith, former Doctor Who, has a small but important part as well.

I knew very little about this going  in, except that it was Marvel Comics and the trailer looked good. It was very enjoyable, different enough from the main story arc to not feel like a retread of the same old ground (unlike Age of Ultron). In fact, the bit that jarred was the unnecessary attempt to tie in the wider Marvel franchise with an appearance by The Falcon. Although that did lead to a fun on-screen fight. Paul Rudd made a likeable leading man. Michael Douglas is always good value. And the final showdown involves a model train set. Could you ask for anything more?

Inside Out 
The summer's big Pixar movie, starring the emotions inside a little girl's head. As usual for Pixar, this is a top concept and very cleverly done. The basic story is the 'main characters are exiled and need to get back to their home' that worked very well in Toy Story, but didn't work so well here. It does have what I would contend is the cleverest joke to appear in any Pixar movie as a throwaway gag that I think most people missed. My main complaint, however, is the way Pixar allowed their main characters to shill for Sky and Subway, with them appearing in adverts before the film came on screen, That spoiled it for me. There was also an ad for the toys that gave away a key plot point. It would have been a better movie without these commercial spoilers.

Song of the Sea
This is my movie of the year. It's a beautifully drawn animation based on an old Irish legend about a little girl who is a selkie and the last hope of the faerie folk trapped in the human world. The artistry of the animation is gorgeous. The story deals with love and loss and I'm not ashamed to say I was blinking away tears at the end. Thoroughly recommended.

Before seeing this movie I hadn't fully grasped what it meant to be denied the vote and various rights on the basis of what genitals you were born with. I thought the subject matter was well-handled. It didn't glorify acts of terror, but it did made me think about how the boundaries blur. I recognise the sacrifices of the suffragettes, but setting off bombs and destroying property aren't really actions to endorse. Or are they? I've written more about it here.

James Bond does what he does best - following his own orders, killing people mercilessly and exploiting vulnerable women for sex. I've written about glorifying a sexual predator here. On the other hand there was a lovely shot of a train in the North African desert, which if you like trains is worth watching the film for.

The Good Dinosaur
Pixar's first flop? Certainly the first Pixar film that I thought borrowed too heavily on other films. A bit of A Bug's Life as Arlo the dinosaur doesn't fit in and makes a mess of things, a bit of the Lion King (why do parents always die in Disney films?). The similarities to non-Disney franchises like Ice Age were also surprising. This film took ages to get to screen apparently and had been in production almost a decade. And yet, while beautifully animated even by Pixar's high, high standards, it was still let down by the story.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (seen x3)
Also known as Episode VII. This was great. Long review WITH SPOILERS here. My Mum loved it as well. In her words "So good to get away from the awful prequels."

Charlie Brown and Snoopy: The Peanuts Movie
I have to admit I found this a bit slow. It is a very loving tribute to the original TV cartoons but there isn't much of a script. However, Cathy is probably one of the biggest fans of Peanuts there is and she really enjoyed it, so that's all that really matters. I did enjoy Snoopy acting out his dogfights with the Red Baron, prompting phone calls from worried kids all over the neighbourhood to Charlie Brown.

And that's it. 22 trips to the cinema to see 19 different films makes for a very full year of movie-going.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - 5 likes, loves and mehs


Seriously. I'm going to talk about the plot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Still here? OK then. The first paragraph is a bit of waffle just to push any spoilers below the line.

So, some of my predictions were reasonably close to what actually was in the film. I was very nervous going to see it. Star Wars means a lot to me - I have had an emotional connection with it ever since seeing Return of the Jedi. So I wanted The Force Awakens to be good. I had high hopes but was overcome mainly with relief after seeing it for the first time. I've now seen it twice and it was just as good second time around, although it seemed to go faster when I knew what was coming. I plan to see it again at some point. I imagine there will be other people watching it a few times - this probably explains the record-breaking opening weekend take.

So, as a review, here are 5 things I loved about the film, 5 things I liked and 5 things that were a bit 'meh'.

Five things I loved

1) Rey.
She was a great character. Not a princess in need of rescuing. Clever, resourceful, outspoken, independent ("Stop taking my hand," she shouts at one point when Finn does the 'hero' thing and grabs her hand as they run away from bad guys.) Clearly she will be the pivotal lead in the next two planned films. Her "That's lucky" when Finn tells her how he escaped from tentacled alien monsters is probably the best line in the film. And she speaks Wookiee and astromech droid.

2) 'Human' stormtroopers. 
Finn is a stormtrooper affected by the carnage of his first battle and a comrade dying in his arms. After he turns against the First Order, other troopers take it personally as a betrayal. Which they would. The stormtroopers are actually characters here. Again, one of the best moments is when two of them are aware an angry Kylo Ren is smashing up a room and do an about face to patrol in another direction. Comedy, but also showing a bit more smarts than previously.

3) Han and Chewie.
The greatest on-screen partnership of all time? Probably not. But great to see them back in their element (trouble). I liked the idea they had been hunting for the stolen Millennium Falcon. The 'Chewie, we're home' line from the trailer worked well in the film. The pair's conversations - you only ever hear Solo's side, but you know Chewie is correcting his lies - are very funny. As with he original films, Han gets all the best lines.

4) BB-8.
I wasn't sure about BB-8 beforehand. I suspected he might be another Jar-Jar - just an annoying comedy character. Instead he captured the spirit of the original films, which also concentrate on the travails of the droids. His 'thumbs up' to Finn caused plenty of laughter in the screening we were in on the first night. Overall he worked really well as a small droid with big personality.

5) The nod-backs.
There were plenty of these - Finn finds the training remote in a store box on the Millennium Falcon while looking for a first aid kit. Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb get walk-on parts. For the first time a Bothan is shown on-screen. There's a bar full of various scoundrels and low-life with a band playing. It's not Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes, but it's reminiscent.

Five things I liked

1) The continuation of the story.
Most of this is told in minor details dropped into conversations. We get that Luke tried to refound the Jedi order. That Han and Leia's force-sensitive son Ben joined the order, but was corrupted by 'Lord Snowke' and became Kylo, leader of the Knights of Ren. As Kylo Ren he is now seeking to restore the work of his grandfather, Darth Vader. Han and Leia's relationship broke down at some point - possibly because of Ben's fall to the dark side. Luke, meanwhile, blamed himself and set off on a quest to find the first Jedi Temple. It is the search for Luke that provides the 'quest' for this story as he is needed to lead the fight against the First Order.

There isn't a huge amount of detail there. Who are the Knights of Ren? Where did Lord Snowke, the Supreme Leader of the First Order, come from? How did he corrupt Ben Solo? There are lots of unanswered questions, before we even get to the new characters. Although, you don't need the force to know that Rey is somehow also going to be related to the Skywalker family.

2) Battles.
There are several land and space battles, with a conspicuous lack of the CGI that made the prequels look like computer games at times. Obviously the usual tropes apply. Heroes are immune to blaster fire or explosions, while stormtroopers may as well have targets printed on their chests. What is noticeable is that we have a strormtrooper death scene involving blood - a real person has died - but Saving Private Ryan this is not. Anyway, the battle scenes add to the overall action content of the movie, which probably has fewer slow scenes than any of the first six episodes.

3) The humour.
Rey and Finn, Han and Chewie, Han and Rey ("Are you offering me a job?" "I'm thinking about it.") Han and Leia ("And don't say the Death Star") Han and Finn ("Sanitation!?!?") C-3PO popping up as an awkward, dorky interruption during a 'moment'. There are good lines aplenty and sparks between all the main characters. Even the tentacled monsters loose on a spaceship segment is played for laughs. I also liked the bodged escape in a TIE Fighter.

4) The ending.
I predict the jury will be out on this, but I liked the ending. It sets up the next film well and we end with Rey appealing for help with an expression of hope and wonder and fear on her face. Did I mention that I love Rey?

5) The different stormtroopers.
We get different uniforms in the stormtrooper squads, there are flametroopers, snowtroopers, and so on. We even see some different hardware with one stormtrooper using a hand to hand electric hammer thing for close combat.

And five things that left me a bit meh

1) Chewie gets left out again.
So this is really Cathy's comment, but after Chewie and Rey return with an injured Finn and no Han to the Resistance base, Leia hugs Rey and ignores Chewie. Come on. Chewie has been Han's sidekick for 40 years at this point. Surely she should have consoled him first, not some girl she's never met before. I have tried to persaude Cathy (and myself) that this would happen offscreen as Chewie is a private Wookiee and wouldn't want to grieve publicly. But we're not buying it. It's the whole 'Why doesn't Chewie get a medal?' from the end of Star Wars all over again.

2) Captain Phasma
Billed heavily before the film as a key character, she gets a couple of scenes and is then left unused. She is even disposed of off-screen. Hopefully she will be back in Episode VIII with a grudge against Finn. I felt this was a missed opportunity.

3) Kylo Ren's mask.
It was initially hinted at that he wore this to hide some disfigurement. But he doesn't. It just seems to be for effect. And it was a bit crap really.

4) The Supreme Leader / Lord Snowke
Who is this guy? Why is he so badly disfigured? Is he human? Who really cares. At this point, the trope of having a fearsome leader you have to go and cower in front of has been overdone, not least in the Star Wars universe. But the Supreme Leader really reminded me of Thanos in the Marvel Comics films. He sits there being all scary like, but doesn't seem to actually do anything himself.

5) Han's death.
I honestly always felt Han Solo would die in a blaze of glory. Yes, the scene is emotional, even though you know he is doomed as soon as he steps on the bridge. It does feel there is a possibility that Ben will relent and renounce the dark side. But you know it's not going to happen. I heard one comment that this scene is unsatisfying because it feels like Han is suckered in, but I think that's unfair on him really. Ben is caught on the cusp of fully succumbing to the Dark Side and Han is there with him. One note, though, Chewie wings Ben with a bowcaster bolt while Ben is on the bridge. Now, given that previously the bowcaster was blowing stormtrooper up, surely that was a much smaller hit than it should have been. Ben should have at least lost a leg.

6) And a bonus one...
As mentioned throughout this long post, there are lots of unanswered questions. How did Maz get Luke's lightsaber?  (What happened to her by the way? She just seems to disappear.) What's the deal with the map and the missing piece - what kind of cartography is that? Why does Rey go to find Luke at the end and not Leia?

There are also lots of the usual plot holes. Veteran movie critic Roger Ebert has pointed out that given the size of Starkiller Base the way the main characters seem to cross paths so easily, it may as well have been a submarine. I've already mentioned how stormtroopers are easily picked off while heroes can dodge through strafing TIE Fighter attacks. But this is Star Wars. It's always been like that. It's one of the reasons I love it so much. Because it isn't real; it's make-believe. We can suspend the scepticism and suspicion that cloud our days and just enjoy ourselves.

And then, maybe, the force will be with us.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII predictions

I am feeling nervous about Star Wars Episode VII. This time tomorrow night I will have seen it.

Several people have asked me what I think is going to happen. At the risk of SPOILERS I have decided to list my ideas of what might happen here before seeing it so I can either come back and say 'Ha! I'm psychic' or have a good laugh at my own expense at a later date.

Disney have announced all the 'Expanded Universe' lore that has built up is no non-canon, so there's no point looking to that to inform these guesses. This is new. So, here's what we know / have gleaned from trailers and toy packaging. The Empire was not finally defeated at the end of Return of the Jedi. It is now resurgent as the 'First Order'. There is a Resistance who fly X-Wings and fight the First Order. One of the First Order leaders is the lightsaber-wielding Kylo Ren. The  First Order are building a superweapon, probably called the Starkiller Base. The heroes of Episodes IV-VI are back, presumably out of hiding. At one point they are fighting First Order snowtroopers in a snowy place. The lead new characters are called Rey, Finn and Poe. (Really good one syllable naming conventions in the Star Wars universe.) Rey is a scavenger on an old battleground trying to find out what happened to her family...

My thoughts on this.

Is Kylo a name or is Ren a name? Kylo could be a title like Darth or Moff.

Ren and Rey are quite similar names. Could they be brother and sister?

Rey is looking for her family. Could she be Han and Leia's daughter? That would fit the Star Wars trope of all named characters being related. Does that also mean Ren is Han and Leia's son? That would make him Luke Skywalker's nephew. Did Luke try to train him in the ways of the force and he succumb to the Dark Side? Is Ren the person in the trailer holding Vader's melted mask and promising to finish what he started? Is the Starkiller base the updated Death Star?

I've seen some trailer footage that looks like Rey crying behind Chewbacca's body. Will Chewie get killed? Actually, are any of the original heroes going to make it through this? Luke could die in a similar fashion to Obi Wan Kenobi in Episode IV.

So,lots of questions. The upshot is I think Ren and Rey are brother and sister fighting on opposite sides of the re-emergent civil war; a war their parents, Han and Leia, thought they had fought and won. I predict a last-gasp victory for the Resistance and destruction of the Starkiller base. And I don't think the original heroes are going to make it through unscathed.

Those are my predictions. I will find out tomorrow night how right or wrong I was.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Evidence that Wales have finally made it on the international football stage

Wales have qualified for the France 2016 European Championships - their first major tournament of the modern era (they kind of qualified for the Euros in 1976 although they didn't go to the very small final play-offs). It's a wonderful achievement having been nearly men for so long.

But to show they have really arrived, Panini has released a cash-in sticker album chronicling their qualifying campaign. They know how to fleece the suckers.

Says one of the (happy) suckers...

Yes, I succumbed. I love football stickers.
 I couldn't really not buy this.

Doing well on this page...

The one player everyone will want!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

James Bond Spectre review, or, How to write a sexual predator character who becomes an icon

Spectre is one of the most successful British films ever, and probably the most successful Bond film. It has received rave reviews. It also has the honour of being the first James Bond movie with a theme song that became a number 1 hit single. For a while the news feeds were dominated with news about it. As a film, it is touted as one of those 'must-see movies'. So I went to see it.

Back in 2012 I wrote a review of Skyfall, where I said I was uneasy with the predatory activity of MI6's most well known double-O agent. Specifically, a barely consensual shower sex scene when Bond forces himself onto a frequently-trafficked woman, who is later shot dead in front of him.

The same tropes crop up in Spectre, which for all it's glitz and hype suffers from three key failings: a reliance on magic, conspiracy theory 'explanations' and sexual predation. That last charge is the worst one, but I will deal with the other two first.

What do I mean by magic? Well, we have a massive secret base in the manner of the best Bond films of old. But it suffers from what I call the 'Death Star flaw', by which I mean it can be totally destroyed by one well-placed shot. Seriously. Bond shoots one little gas pipe and the whole place goes up in multiple explosions. At some point that goes beyond good marksmanship and becomes magic.

The conspiracy theory explanation was tiresome as well. I'm pretty sure the Skyfall villain spent some time explaining how he was behind all the terrible things that happened to Bond. Now the main villain in Spectre does the same thing. Apparently the events of all four films starring Daniel Craig were all orchestrated by this one guy as some sort of revenge for the villain's Dad liking James more when his family fostered him. It seems like a lot of effort to go to.

The 'it's all a massive conspiracy' idea is quite popular in movies. I think this is because movie-makers are trying to tell a story and actually the real world isn't set up for stories. Most events don't have a beginning, middle or end, nor are there neat causative processes that can be easily narrated. People want to believe in conspiracies, and large shadowy criminal organisations pulling the strings behind the scenes, because the idea that things happen at random and chaotically is terrifying. There is no way to control much of the random stuff that happens in reality. But you can do it in the movies. Take out the mastermind and the terror stops.

And then we have the third problem. The predation. Bond wastes no time at all bedding a widow the evening she returns from her husband's funeral. He then promises her protection, but not from him, from someone else he knows. I wouldn't put too much faith in that, but it might be better than any protection Bond would offer. In Skyfall Bond spectacularly failed to protect a woman he had just promised to protect. In Quantum of Solace a casual lay from the diplomatic service is found tortured to death in his hotel room shortly after they did the deed there.

But widows aren't enough. Bond soon latches on to a recently orphaned young woman and by the end of the film, has seduced her. Widows and orphans? There seems to be no emotionally vulnerable group that Bond won't exploit.

So, what's good about this film? Well, there are stunts. There is a lovely tracking shot of a train in the North African desert. There are stunts... Yeah, that's about it. The thing is the stunts and cinematography can't mask the sucking hole at the centre of the film, the aggressive sociopathic sexual predator called James Bond, who we, the audience, are meant to root for as the hero.

There is even an attempt at exoneration. Ralph Fiennes, taking over as M now that Judi Dench has moved on, gives an impassioned defence of the Double O programme at one point. To the career civil servant he says that having a licence to kill is a terrible burden because you have to look into a man's eyes and decide whether to kill a fellow human being or not.

I can see that being a difficult thing to do. I don't see any evidence that Bond sees this as a difficult thing to do.

As this film makes clear, human beings are expendable to James Bond, whether its his sexual conquests, or the careers of colleagues who he asks to deliberately disobey orders and operate outside their jurisdiction.(And that's another contradiction in the Bond films - any agent hat goes rogue is presumed to be bad and kill-worthy for 007, but he effectively goes rogue here and takes several important colleagues with him. Talk about subjective morality - it's OK for me to ignore orders that I decide are unjust, but anyone else who doesn't follow orders goes on the death list. Wait, why?)

So, this is where we are. A career sexual predator with a callous disregard for human beings who cross his path is apparently an icon.Quite what this shows about our culture is hard to fathom. The most worrying thing is that very few people seem to question this. We just munch our popcorn, go 'ooh' at the explosions and let James carry on with what he does.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Garbage - live in Manchester. The #20YearsQueer Tour

Nineteen years and nine months after we saw Garbage tour their eponymous debut album, Cathy and I went to Manchester last Friday to join in celebrating the album's 20th anniversary.

We've been to the Manchester Academy before to see the Tragically Hip. That room was a terrible venue. This room was bigger. But was also terrible.

The support were a band called Dutch Uncles. We missed half their set but I don't think we really missed anything. They were one of those bands you know will never be big as soon as you've heard one song with it's unnecessary tinkly piano in it. Most of their embellishments sounded like something that's been added because that's what proper musicians do.

(It was depressing looking around and realising the audience were probably all the same age as me and, wow, how old we've all grown.)

The idea behind this tour was they would play the songs off the first album and the b-sides they recorded around then. They played the entire first song - a b-side called Subhuman - backlit behind a sheet so it was like watching a shadow puppet show. I was a bit worried they'd do that all night, maybe as a way of preventing people from seeing how haggard Shirley Manson had gotten, but they dropped the curtain for Supervixen, which was the first track on the album and has a crashing intro. It's a great song to open a set with.

Shirley didn't look too bad considering she's pushing 50 and has lived rock and roll for about thirty years. What I noticed is that she really benefits from being in a band with three producers. She mumbles and shouts rather than singing. She also likes to talk drunk nonsense at the audience. We had two different stories about how she met the other members of the band for the first time. She went on for ages about what a wonderful musical city Manchester is, which, well, yeah, a lot of bands have come from there, but the repeated statements about what a great city it was got a bit boring after a while.

The gig took a while to get going but when they played Only Happy When it Rains, Stupid Girl and Vow the audience were bouncing along. Unfortunately they were the last three songs of the main set-list. Continuing the Manchester theme, they tried to work a bit of I Am the Resurrection by the Stone Roses into the end of Vow to end the show. It didn't really work.

The final song of the encore was great - When I Grow Up from the second album. There were a couple more b-sides before that though. And a song from their 2012 album, which somehow I'd missed. Apparently they have a new album out next year and they promised to tour again. I'd think twice about travelling so far to see them but if they play closer to home, then I might.

Overall it's one of those gigs that I'm glad I went to, more for the nostalgia and to say I've been rather than because it was a transcendental experience or anything.

Full set-list, because we have wikis for this sort of thing now. Huzzah.

Monday, October 26, 2015

30 seconds of fame

A while back I blogged about a piece I wrote for the When Saturday Comes website about half and half scarves (which was then published in the magazine).

My collection of everything
that's wrong with modern football

Last night at just past 11 o'clock I had a tweet from a producer on BBC Radio 5 asking if I was the guy who wrote the article. When I said yes they asked if I would like to be on Radio 5 this morning to defend half and half scarves. Apparently a pub in Manchester had banned people from wearing them in and Radio 5 wanted to do a bit about it on the breakfast show. I said yes. I mean, who wouldn't like to be on national radio first thing in the morning?

It's interesting to see what goes in to a tiddly piece like this. First there was a phone call at 11.30pm, then another call at 7.15 to check I was still available, then the actual call where I waited for them to start talking about the topic, then I had to listen to grumpy Liverpool fanzine editor who reckoned watching football should be an Orwellian-style 'Ninety Minute Hate', then my 30 seconds saying 'they're just souvenirs', then grumpy bloke again, cut to the eight o'clock news, a goodbye from the researcher who had phoned me and it was all over.

Was it worth it? Maybe. It was a different way to start a Monday. Do some people care too much about trivial things like half and half scarves? Yes. Clearly they do. Is there anything wrong with wanting a memento of a big game? No, I don't think so.

Unofficial Ars-cannon-nal

I can understand people who follow big clubs being fed up with tourists turning up and buying half and half scarves at league games. Although, as Cathy pointed out, it would have been nice for my four year old niece to have had a special scarf to commemorate the first game she went to earlier this year. But while half and half scarves are apparently the worst thing about Premier League football, they aren't that common in the murky depths of League 1. My niece will have to wait until Shrewsbury next get one of the big boys in a cup.

I hope it's Liverpool, just to annoy that grumpy fanzine guy. I will be buying two!

Monday, October 12, 2015

I will be voting to stay in the EU and here are some reasons why...

On a message board I was part of a discussion about the upcoming EU referendum that spilled out of a person explaining why he voted UKIP. His reason was that "I think national sovereignty is the defining issue of our generation."

I asked him why. I had to ask him several times before he came out with "I don't like them telling us what to do." Or in other words, I don't like being told what to do by foreigners. Apparently it's OK to be told what to do by people who were born or who live in this country and definitely don't have your best interests at heart unless you're a millionaire or a member of the Eton old boys network, because at least they aren't foreign!

Putting aside the basic racism of that point of view for one moment, does it really make sense? The UK is one of the powerhouse economies of Europe. It's got a lot of people and it should have a lot of say and a lot of sway in Europe as a result. I can see tiny countries like Belgium and Denmark deciding they don't want to be pushed around any more, but the UK is big enough to be among the big hitters. The fact that we don't feel we are is more to do with the ineptitude of our leaders than anything else.

Let's be honest if we put Merkel up against Cameron, only a true-blue rosetted moron would seriously bet against Merkel. I'd question whether Cameron could hold his own against any premier from one of the big European countries, and most of the smaller ones. He's a political lightweight and that's why the UK has floundered in Europe in the five or so years he's been in charge.

In fact, the only reason a referendum is in the offing is because Cameron lacked faith in himself. It was a sop to the euro-sceptic Tories to stop them defecting to UKIP and everyone thought the parliament was heading towards coalition government again. No way Cameron would ally with UKIP if they returned any MPs (which in the end they effectively didn't, because their one MP was a Tory who switched sides in a bacon-saving move), and any other party wouldn't want a referendum, so Cameron knew it was a promise he would never have to follow up on. Unless the unthinkable happened and he won an outright majority. Oops.

Well, sometimes if you don't back your own horse in the race you end up looking like a chump.

Cameron doesn't want a 'Brexit'. (Yes, the British Exit has it's own bastardised nickname now.) Of course he doesn't. It would be a disaster for the main financiers of the Conservative party and the home counties core voting districts. Economically, the uncertainty would damage the stock market, trading agreements would be torn up and we would no longer be a key player in a very good team. We would be one against many and we would be owned by China within a generation - their trading post on the edge of Europe, a bit like we used to use Hong Kong.

But the economic meltdown that would ensue following a Brexit and the destruction of the stock market aren't really my reasons for staying in the EU. I'm not a fan of the money-making-money empire of Mammon so I won't mourn its passing, even if it's a hard time to live through.

My reasons are simpler. Here's one: we haven't had a major war in Western Europe for over seventy years now. I think the EU has played some part in that. When you are sitting down working out ways to work more closely together, there is less likelihood of people gunning up and prepping for war.

Seventy years war-free on our continent is pretty much unheard of and we have all reaped the benefit. We are the richest generation ever with luxuries and technology which our forefathers could only dream of. Yes, that has made us hated in the parts of the world we could describe as the 'have nots', which brings it's own ethical considerations into play, but most people in the UK have a standard of living that would be unheard of in previous generations. When you aren't spending money on bombs and then using those bombs to blow things up, you can achieve a great deal as a group of countries.

I think that's a good reason to stay in the EU.

Then there is the way money is spent. I know it makes no sense for the UK to contribute to European funds and then claim the money back to spend in poor areas, just like it makes no sense to take tax off poor working people and then pay them benefits to limit the impact of poverty. But that process of Euro funding has really helped in parts of the UK that I call 'not-London'.

Just about every major infrastructure project in South Wales - from fast, safe roads to the lovely Cardiff Bay developments to the new Swansea Marina - has been funded by European money. Yes, it's our money they are giving back to us, but that's the point, it's coming back to us. London governments are very good at spending money in London and even when they don't, it's money spent in the provinces to benefit London (HS2 anyone?).

The EU has made the redistribution of wealth easier and better. Do we think a London government would have bothered revitalising Cardiff Bay? No, of course not. They were happy to hoover up the cash when the valleys were exporting coal by the shipload, but it was Euro money and Euro laws that cleaned up the toxic effects of mining and helped turn Cardiff into the snazzy happening place it is today. And the same is true of many regional cities in England.

And then there's the third thing, the real big reason. Being part of the EU protects us from extremist governments back home. This is the plus side of 'them' telling 'us' what to do. It prevents 'us' from doing something stupid by voting for an evil government.

I've been reading my Grandad's memoir recently and he wrote about how he was caned at school for speaking Welsh. This was less than a century ago, when the British government was still pursuing an educational policy that aimed to eradicate the Welsh language. It worked in my family. My Grandad stopped speaking Welsh and that was lost.

No EU government could do that now. It would be considered a breach of a child's human rights to beat them for not speaking the 'correct' language. I don't really think a UK government would want to pursue a policy of suppression, but let's say they did. Inside the EU, they can't. Outside the EU they can.

We have to careful with politicians. We know they say one thing to get elected then do another when they are. Cameron and his cronies never mentioned austerity in the run up to 2010. One of Cameron's big promises was 'No top down reorganisations of the NHS'. That was nixed just a year after entering coalition government.

So politicians lie. They tell half-truths or no-truths and they get elected and then they can do what they want. Unless there are checks. Unless there are balances. The EU is one of the best checks and balances we have and I don't want to lose that. I don't want to be at the mercy of a Westminster government as the highest authority in the land, just in case...

So there's three reasons:

  1. it's a check on wanton destruction through war, 
  2. it redistributes some of the wealth to where it is really needed, 
  3. and it puts limits on our national government, which is a good thing if you really think about it.

On the other side there is a nebulous 'I don't like foreigners telling me what to say' proto-racism that calls itself a desire for 'national sovereignty'. But patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. I would like the UK to be bigger, better, more inclusive and safer - I think that's a patriotic statement - and I think that would happen inside the EU rather than outside it.

Incidentally, if you disagree with me you can say so. If you hate the EU, you can say so. You have complete freedom of speech. Do you know why? Well, it's not a British law that gives you freedom of speech. It's because you are in the EU.

And so to a last question. The guy on the message board kept complaining that no one gave reasons to stay in the EU, except I did and he didn't acknowledge them or reply to them. He also didn't answer my other questions, which included this: What law, if any, passed by the EU has directly harmed or damaged you?

I have yet to hear anyone from the 'Brexit' campaign actually answer that.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Films about the struggle - comparing Selma and Suffragette

Selma is about the civil rights actions of Martin Luther King and his supporters in the town of Selma, Alabama. I saw it earlier this year and it has stayed with me as a powerful movie about a very unsavoury aspect of the American psyche - ingrained institutional racism.

This past week I saw Suffragette, a new film about the suffragette movement that campaigned for equal voting status for women, and wider equality in society.

Both films are naturally sympathetic to the cause of equality, and are filmed mainly from the point of view of the campaigners. Both are about giving an oppressed group in society the same level of rights as the oppressing group, and the actions of the oppressors to preserve their privilege.

What is different is the course taken. An interesting aspect to the film, Selma, is that it could not use any of Dr King's original speeches. They are all copyrighted, so the film-makers had to create ersatz copies of them, capturing the gist and thrust rather than re-voicing one of the most well-known voices of a generation. But one thing that came through time and again was the repudiation of violence, despite the brutal and terrible violence meted out by the racist police force and white redneck citizens. Dr King was arrested and humiliated, threatened and harassed, but stood firm in his commitment to the path of non-violence.

The suffragettes, as captured in the eponymous movie, spent 50 years campaigning for equality using peaceful means. However, the movie captures a time when they had given up on hope of a peaceful recourse and had turned to violence, including blowing up the Prime Minister's summer home that was under construction. They had an interesting approach to violence, targeting property, from breaking shop windows to destroying post boxes to disrupt lines of communication, rather than people. Their ultimate assault on property was against the King, with a suffragette taking down the King's race horse in the Epsom Derby, in a fatal encounter that was captured on newsreel film and became sensational.

While Selma is a study of staying true to your principles despite intense provocation, with some characters talked down from the brink of violence, Suffragette is a movie about how ordinary people can be radicalised by the struggle. The heroine, Maud, goes from a downtrodden, abused worker in a hellish laundry to an anarchist bomber over the course of the movie. It would be interesting to see the reception for this exact same plotline if it was contemporary and the lead character was a Muslim.

But this was all a long time ago and the suffragettes won, and so we assume it was all OK. And yet my Grandma in law was born when women still didn't have the vote and she is still alive. This wasn't that long ago, and the actions of the suffragettes would be branded terrorism today. Similarly, the civil rights marchers 'won', although events in Ferguson last year and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign seem to show there is a way to go for white America.

What Selma left me with, and what Suffragette has reinforced, is a sense that I'm not sure what my struggle would be. There does not seem to be an obvious cause like women's rights or racial equality. (At least not to the same degree; I know we aren't there yet.) Maybe I should count myself lucky to not live in an era and a society where I am called to put my body on the line and risk a baton to the head for my beliefs in justice and equality for all. My worry is that I am living in that era and society but I have somehow missed the call.

I also don't know what my breaking point would be. If Dr King had lived and led the movement for 50 years and had got nowhere, would he have finally given in to endorsing violence as Emmeline Pankhurst did? How long would I remain true to pacifist principles? What provocation would I endure?

These are big questions. I'm grateful to the movie-makers for making me ask them.

Monday, October 05, 2015

The merits of blogging (and should I continue)

I've blogged before about how blogging has changed. Social media and other things has taken its toll. I've been wondering about whether to wind up my blog and just admit it's over and time to move on.

Realistically, I'd still have freelance theology and a couple of other bloggy projects to be getting on with. I've just accepted a role as webmaster of a society I belong to as well. There are only so many things one person can keep up to date with ever diminishing amounts of free time.

I started this blog way back in 2006. (You can read the first post here if you really want to.) For the first couple of years I was updating it several times a week; most days in fact. Now I can barely get one post posted every month.

It is a bit of a relic of a past life. Since 2006 I have gotten older if not wiser, found new interests and hobbies. I've been through redundancy and a five year stint at another job and now am onto something else. I'm back at Uni doing a MSc. I've stopped working with young people and started preaching regularly. I have a niece and nephew who I love to bits. Life is good and busy and full and I just don't know what this blog is for any more, or who it's for.

Why the title?
Back in 1999 (I think) we went on holiday to mid-Wales and stayed outside Pantperthog. I got a photo with the village sign because I thought it was funny. Then in 2005 we were on holiday in the Scottish highlands and I posed for a photo with the sign for Knockando, again because it amused me. And then I was setting up a blog and I wanted a title and those were the two things that popped into my head.

Recently I discovered it would take over 8 hours to drive from Pantperthog to Knockando. Part of me is tempted to see if that is true. Maybe one day...

So, anyway, the blog might get a revamp or maybe I'll just rediscover a love for posting random thoughts. Or this may be it. It's been a fun almost-decade for the most part.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Face Man to the rescue

A few years ago I met the actor Dirk Benedict, aka Face Man in one of my favourite TV shows growing up, the A-Team.

Following the rule of 'pics or it didn't happen', here's a pic

One of us was super excited
You can read about when we met here.

But anyway, I have started a new job and very close to my office is a charity shop that has a regular turnover of toys. I've bought some Matchbox trains and a big bag of Duplo. Yesterday I went in to have a look and see what they had in and there was a vintage 1980s 5" action figure of Face Man.

Well I duly gave a pound to charity and took Face away. He fits nicely on the little ledge next to my desk (now that I actually have a desk) and will keep me company. He seems very happy to be my new buddy.

Good to see you!

Friday, October 02, 2015

Blood Bowl team update: Berserkers sign new blitzer

The Bromfield St Beserkers are pleased to announce a new signing. Tycho Midnight, nicknamed the Psycho, has been signed to replace the late Stan Van Branahan who was killed in Wednesday's clash with the Grangetown Greenskinz.

Midnight will take on the role of blitzer, filling the number two slot in the Beserkers roster with Lex Kevlar resuming his former position as blocker.

As you can probably tell, one of my favourite parts of Blood Bowl is coming up with names for players.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Blood Bowl match report – 30 September

The Berserkers win away at the Atlantic Waaaaargggghhhhff Thunderdome but pay a high price for success on the road.

Felix Pace gets ready to run for the end zone

The Bromfield Street Berserkers beat the Grangetown Greenskinz 2-1 in the intimidating atmosphere of the Greenskinz home stadium. Watched indifferently for two minutes by Bella the cat in lieu of any actual baying fans, the Berserkers scored quickly through Felix ‘Find the Space’ Pace, who is fast becoming a star player.

The Greenskinz dominated the opening rounds of blocks. At one point only six Berserkers were still upright and able to move. However, blitzer Gudmund Halo wriggled free with the ball before finding Pace with a short pass. The catcher then ran the ball in, evading a despairing heroic tackle in the process.

The game then degenerated into a war of attrition, which included the second fatality in three matches for the Berserkers. Stan ‘the Man’ Van Branahan was jumped while prone by Belchalot Gubbinz, who ended Van Branahan’s solid Berserkers career and his life.

With the loss of a blocker, the Berserkers seemed vulnerable to being out-muscled, particularly with their boosted blitzer, Boghash Foulbreath. But in a twist of gaming fate, catcher Pace resisted an attempted block, dealing out a serious injury to Foulbreath in the process. This means the blitzer has lost the bonus strength gained through his good play in previous games.

The middle play of the game saw possession stop multiple times with the ball spilling more often than being caught and players unable to fend off tackles while carrying the ball. In total 14 players carried the ball in hand; an unusually high number. The Greenskinz eventually seemed to break through, but catcher Slobber McDrool failed to make an extra yard and was carried off seriously injured for his exertions – one of five Greenskinz in total to get badly crocked.

The second down came through a throw from Giles McGiles, who started for the Berserkers after an excellent game last time out. Felix Pace again found the space to catch in the end zone for his second down of the match. Pace was 2 for 2 on catches throughout the game, while his opposite number Chaz Tastak had a nightmare of a match fumbling three attempts at catches including a golden opportunity from a short pass when he was clear in the end zone.

There was more drama to come with Greenskinz blocker Shnozz Shnozzripper making a catch from Noggin Numskull to restore some pride to the home team. But it wasn’t enough to salvage the game. The Berserkers had won, but at what cost?

Team line-up & stats
Blitzers: Halo, Kevlar
Blockers: Hurricane, S Van Branahan RIP, C Van Branahan, Salvvo
Throwers: McGiles, deMenthe (reserve)
Catcher: Tastak, Pace
Starting Linemen: Carambeau, Zang
Reserve Linemen: Bosch, Vandal, Cordite, MacRatt
Scorers: Pace (2)

Man of the Match: Pace

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Bloodbowl match report - 26 August 2015

Bromfield Street Berserkers 2 v 0 Grangetown Greenskinz

All set up and ready to play!

The Berserkers returned to winning ways despite a much-changed side following their recent draw at the Atlantic Waaaaarghf Megadome. Having dispensed with most of their multi-racial roster, including the two dwarf blockers and elf catchers, and needing to replaced deceased legendary blitzer, Jimmy Tectonic, the line up was very different. Skaven linerat Hoolie MacRatt was retained, although he had a disappointing game and ended up seriously injured after a minimal amount of time on the pitch.

Blocker Lex Kevlar was moved to blitzer, while brothers Stan and Callum Van Branahan and Kyle Salvvo were promoted from the line and kitted out as blockers. Three new lineman were added as well, alongside new catcher Felix ‘Find the Space’ Pace. Chaz Tastak, returning to the Berserkers line-up after a long hiatus filled the other catcher role. 

This was the first game played under the new XP rules that modify player characteristics. Boghash Foulbreath, the Greenskinz blitzer, made his XP advantage felt in a number of hefty challenges on Berserkers players, although his aggressive approach didn’t result in many victories considering the advantage he was carrying.

The Greenskinz had possession from the off and there were several rounds of blocks in the middle of the park before eventually a pass was attempted. It was successfully caught but the Berserker tackle went in, clobbering the receiver. A long pass forward to Chaz Tastak came off and his subsequent sprint for the line, including two extra yards, saw the Berserkers go one up.

The attrition had worn down the Berserkers in a game where eventually 10 of the starting 11 were carried off with some sort of injury requiring treatment. None of the debutants were having a particularly good game and the step up to blocker didn’t seem to suit any of the former linemen, with little success in the grapple. Salvvo scored particularly badly with only 2 successful blocks from 13. The failure was shared by most of the team, with several players recording no success in blocks at all and at one point both blitzers were carried off stunned in quick succession.

From the restart the Greenskinz opted for a different tack, bunching around their thrower. With their catchers clear, an attempted pass forward was spilled. The long range throw downfield from the Berserkers was also dropped, but the Greeskinz return attempted pass was also unsuccessful. With the Berserkers now back in possession, a Long Bomb was hurled with accuracy by man of the match replacement thrower Giles McGiles to the waiting debutant, Felix Pace, who had fended off two heroic tackle attempts from desperate Greenskinz players.  It was the final play of the game and gave the Berserkers their largest win for several games.

The final score of 2-0 was enhanced for the Berserkers as they had also seriously injured two Greenskinz players while sustaining only the one serious injury of their own. This means two players from the orc team will be temporarily down on various characteristics in the next match. However, Berserker linemen Chovne Carambeau and debutant Thorstein Vandal have been penalised for a terrible tackling record that will see their Agility scores permanently reduced.

Team line-up & stats
Blitzers: Halo, Kevlar
Blockers: Hurricane, S Van Branahan, C Van Branahan, Salvvo
Throwers: deMenthe, McGiles (reserve)
Catcher: Tastak, Pace
Starting Linemen: Carambeau, Bosch
Reserve Linemen: Vandal, Cordite, Zang, MacRatt
Scorers: Tastak, Pace

Man of the Match: McGiles

Monday, August 24, 2015

Ragna Griffiths - a tribute

My Grandma passed away earlier this month. I was asked to give a tribute at her funeral. Below is the text of my tribute. But first a pic...

Me and my Grandma, about 10 years ago on
one of the rare occasions she visited Cardiff.

In the novel Hey Nostradamus by Douglas Coupland one of the characters says this: “ spend a much larger part of your life being old, not young. Rules change along the way. The first things to go are those things you thought were eternal.”

That idea has come home to me in these past few days because in a sense, Grandma, like Granddad before her, was one of those pillars in my life that was always there. Something, which as a child, I assumed would be eternal, and then as an adult I came to realise would not be.

It would be a mistake to think that my Grandma spent a larger part of her life being old. In her heart she wasn’t. She didn’t dress like an old lady. She was interested in the world and the future, even though she often talked to us about the past.

Our relationship changed as I grew up and learned more about who my Grandma was. I know she was embarrassed that my Granddad had commandeered an army truck as her wedding day transport – as there was nothing else that could get through the snow.

I thought that story was romantic – my Granddad risking serious trouble by borrowing a vehicle and its driver – to make sure he married his beloved bride. That’s a great story, but my Grandma didn’t think a huge truck was the proper delivery vehicle for a bride on her wedding day.

Snow was a common problem in the Faroes where Grandma grew up and also a frequent occurrence in Bryn Celyn in Southsea where they moved in 1958. There was also thick snow on the ground when Grandma flew out to visit our family in the Gambia – she left the airport here in six feet of snow, well wrapped up against the cold.

I remember going with my Mum and Dad (and Dave) to pick Grandma up from Banjul airport, where she was actively shedding layers of clothing in the heat of the African night. She couldn’t believe Dave and I were wearing jumpers, as she was so hot. We had adjusted to the African temperatures. It was chilly. She told Mum off for trying to parboil us.

I only found out last year how upset Grandma had been that Mum and Dad were taking her grandsons away to Africa. It’s testament to her faith that she accepted that Mum and Dad felt called to Africa, although she really didn’t want us to go.

She got enough exposure to her grandsons when we came back from the Gambia in 1983 and we lived with her and Granddad for nine months. There were a few issues, like the time I fell out of the top bunk bed, or the time David mistook the airing cupboard on the landing for the toilet when he needed a midnight wee. But Grandma never held those mis-steps against us.

As I said earlier, Grandma had an active faith. A couple of years after our family had moved from Bryn Celyn to Shrewsbury, we went one Sunday to a special service where both Grandma and Granddad were baptised. That made a real impression on me.

A few years later, when I was baptised, she gave me a Bible concordance and wrote the verse John 13. 34-35 in it: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” That remains a watchword for me in my faith; it’s the only token to assess how well we are living out our call as disciples.

Last year, on one occasion when we visited, Grandma talked about how she imagined dying. She said it would be like being on a boat and pulling in to harbour, and those who had gone before would be waiting to welcome you on the quayside. Grandma said she was looking forward to meeting her mother for the first time, as she’d died shortly after Grandma was born. And of course, seeing Elwyn again.

Just over two weeks ago I got a phone call from David and he said I really had to decide whether to travel up from Cardiff that night or not say goodbye. Three hours later we were in Wrexham.

Grandma was very poorly and struggling to breathe. I’m not sure how aware she was that we were there, but I kissed her forehead and held her hand and after a short while I said, “Omma, it’s time to get on the boat.”

And a few minutes later, she did.

It won’t have been a turbulent crossing, which is just as well, as for a Scandinavian, Grandma used to get remarkably sea-sick. It won’t have been a long crossing. Somewhere nearby, yet so far away, a boat has docked, next to a thronged quayside of people waiting to welcome her home. I hope it is everything that she imagined.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Well done England - Women's World Cup 2015 review

I watched more of the Women's World Cup than I expected to, mainly because England did better than expected. I started the tournament wanting Germany to win (as with the men's tournament last year), but England gradually won me round. (And of course, they have a Welsh manager so really their success is success for Wales too.) So, when England beat Germany for the first time in 20 attempts to win the third place play-off, I felt pretty happy.

I'll pretty much watch any football (as my season review for 2014-2015 shows), but this wasn't watching football for the sake of it. There was some good stuff being played and most of the time without the gamesmanship and injury-feigning that bedevils the men's international game.

I have some criticisms though. For one thing, the use of astroturf seriously damaged the aesthetic. Balls bounced oddly, or not at all, or fair flew across the surface at untrappable speeds. Clouds of black rubber bits were kicked up by the players. They were awful surfaces and didn't help enhance the image of the women's side of the game.

There were some duff referees as well. This happens in the men's tournaments as well because they want to include refs from all the FIFA federations. But, frankly, there is a world of difference between refereeing in a top European league and reffing in Oceania or central Asia. Some of the refereeing teams were out of their depth here, and this was possibly exacerbated by the use of female refereeing teams only. As with football, women's officiating is some steps behind the men's game, so the inequity between countries with professional leagues and countries that barely have a competition is even more marked in the women's game.

Finally, broadcasting-wise, it was great having mainly female pundits and anchors. But why they needed to ship male commentators (including the incredibly annoying Jonathan Pearce) out to Canada is beyond me. It could be argued that putting it's regular commentators on duty showed the BBC's commitment to treating the women;s game equally. But it felt like the BBC lacked faith in its audience. We'll watch women play football, but we won't listen to women talk about it. One thing I do hope is that the BBC will now use some of the very talented and knowledgeable women players from the world cup studios on shows like Match of the Day. They were so much better than the usual rent-a-gobs.

Laura Bassett is my favourite England player at the moment - in both the men and women's games. In the match against France she got elbowed in the face, got up and carried on, developing a black eye as the game progressed. She was very focussed, almost frighteningly serious during matches, so it was lovely seeing her smiling with her third place medal, especially after she had conceded the last-gasp own goal in the semi-final to gift Japan the victory. Anyone who can go out and play straight after that deserves a medal and she got one.

Lucy Bronze's goal that won the game against Norway was my favourite goals in all the games I saw. Not just because it was England, but because it was a 'worldie'. You don't see many worldies at World Cups, so this was a genuine rarity.

So that was the FIFA World Cup for 2015. We had one last year too. I can get used to this. What's happening next Summer?

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

1000 Lives - a work retrospective

Today was my last day at 1000 Lives Improvement. It's been five years and it was definitely time to move on. However, it's hard to say goodbye to people you have worked with and grown to care about. As Cathy pointed out, five years is the same length of time I was at secondary school. It's longer than my niece has been alive! So, it is a significant chunk of time.

Anyway, here are some high points...

Count me in
This was a big campaign shortly after I started to maintain the momentum of the 1000 Lives Campaign in the new 1000 Lives Plus programme. This photo is notable for my mini-sideburns and the blue jacket that I wore a lot to work events.

The STOP Campaign
This was the first time we really built comms into a clinical change programme. The mascots were fun to develop, especially the catheter (first time round it looked really rude). STOP won a CIPR Pride Award - I wrote a report on it if you want to know more.

Champions for Health
Another big campaign, this time looking at improving the health of NHS staff and encourage them to become advocates for healthier lifestyles. I took part in the pilot. (Blue jacket in the photo!)

World Sepsis Day
One day I will blog about the car journey I had with Terence Canning, the Welsh ambassador for the UK Sepsis Trust. On that journey we coined a phrase that has appeared on numerous awareness-raising materials and has even been borrowed by other organisations. I had the poster on my wall by my desk at work as a reminder that good writing is often short writing.

We also interviewed Terence for one of the videos we shot for World Sepsis Day.

The International Forum - London
Probably one of my favourite weeks at 1000 Lives was manning the NHS Wales at the IHI International Forum in London in 2013, with my lovely friend Kelly. Almost unbelievably, having spent 15 hours a day in each other's company we ended the week better friends than when we started. On the way down we decided our names weren't Welsh enough so we adopted the names Iolo and Myfanwy. Little did we know those names would stick.

At the end of the week we posed by the London Bus they had in the main auditorium. You can see how tired we were.

Dr Olivia
Towards the end of last year I spent nearly six weeks working on placement in Aneurin Bevan University Health Board. What with a Daily Mail hate campaign against NHS Wales, rumours about ebola, and a grisly incident involving a possible patient, it was a chance to experience the deep end of NHS comms.

We also got to film Dr Olivia's Guide to A&E - Is it really an emergency? I'm not sure how many videos I produced while at 1000 Lives. It's well over 100. This is one of my favourites.

In the past five years I've written six annual newspapers (plus three others) and 14 white papers. These are the latest ones.

I've left these on my desk to intimidate my replacement. 3 gold awards in 2 years is a pretty good return. (As the person who wrote the entries as well, I felt doubly satisfied with the wins!)

So, those are just some highlights. There were many more. It's been a good five years.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Ignite Cardiff - 40 Letters and More (or what I didn't give up for Lent)

I've never been very good at giving things up for Lent. This year I decided to do something positive and wrote a letter to a different person every day. (Cathy did as well.)

Ignite Cardiff is a fabulous regular event which anyone can apply to speak at. I pitched the idea about speaking about the Lent Letters project and got accepted. I was first up on the night and you can watch my talk here - it's about five minutes long.

After the talk I had loads of very positive comments about it and several people said they were thinking of writing letters to people. So far two people have tweeted me to say they actually have done it, which is really lovely.

I asked Sim_n how many he planned to do and he said 7. This next chap went a stage further.

I think that's a really cool bit of art there.

One of the things many people commented on was how cool it was to get a hand-written letter through the post. Hopefully a few more people will have that pleasure soon.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Chewing gum - cinnamon flavours put to the test

I like trying different types of chewing gum, For a while I've thought about doing a blog dedicated just to chewing gum, but that seems a bit sad. I'm not sure it's any less sad blogging about it on this blog, but anyway...

Why isn't cinnamon gum popular in the UK? Cinnamon candy, generally, is an American thing. I love Hot Tamales made by the Mike and Ike people, Just Born. I discovered those sweets on our California road trip and have eaten pounds of the stuff over the years.

But cinnamon doesn't seem to work as a candy flavour in the UK. A few years ago Wrigley launched a cinnamon flavour called 'Fire' in it's Extra range. But that was discontinued fairly quickly and it's been a long time since it was generally available.

Here are three types that are available.

The Wrigley's Big Red is an American import. It's pricey and it's full sugar. The Pur gum is one I found in a vegan shop a couple of weeks ago. It's tasty and sugar-free, but the flavour disappears quite quickly. The Chicza one is a bit hippyish as well. I bought it at the Eden Project and it claims to be made using traditional Mayan ingredients. Because they are all-natural it's one of the few chewing gums that's biodegradable.

The Pur gum comes in a 'pill packet' meaning you pop out a caplet when you want to chew it. This has an advantage of meaning the gum doesn't go off when you open the packet. I reckon a good 20 per cent of normal chewing gum gets discovered, slightly soft, at the bottom of bags or in pockets and gets binned, so this is a good solution.

The Chicza stuff is a bit weird. It's very soft, meaning it feels like it's gone off a bit already. It's part of a range that includes mint and also lime for a tangy change.

And finally, for something completely different, how about coffee flavoured gum? This comes from Turkey, I think. Someone gave it to me a while ago for a laugh. The pellets are an attractive black and it comes in a box that looks a bit like a cigarette pack.

It tastes OK, actually. Like mild coffee or coffee cake.

So, there you go. The first blog post specifically about chewing gum. There may be more in future. (There's also a reference to some vaguely blasphemous gum in this blog post. Enjoy.)

Friday, June 05, 2015

A collection of Shrewsbury scarves

I've recently had an article published on the When Saturday Comes website sticking up for half-and-half scarves, with a bit of history of the ones I own. Here are some photos and additional comments.

Half-and-half scarves, if you don't know, commemorate games between clubs. They often feature the date of the game. Here are the four I own. Two are from the same game.

You'll notice the Arsenal one circumvents copyright issues.

I have some other scarves too. A vintage one from before the move to the new stadium, one that was for sale at the Wembley play-off against Bristol Rovers, and the 125-year anniversary scarf.

The Wembley one is a nice memento of a pretty horrible game.

Generally in life you only need one scarf. But these are more than that. They are a record of fandom. With the demise of the much-maligned 'Clippy' the Lion from the club badge, there are new scarves being produced for the forthcoming season. I probably will end up buying one.