Friday, 30 December 2011

How close was Margaret Thatcher to turning Liverpool into a ghost city?

The Golden Latrine once went to Liverpool and found it a charming, cultured city, far removed from media reports painting it as a concrete hellhole full of curly-haired Scousers shouting "calm down, calm down" in comedy accents.

However, as The Guardian reported, new cabinet papers released yesterday by the National Archive show that following the Toxteth riots in 1981, a number of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet were less keen, with a number of them apparently urging a gradual evacuation of the city.

The "concentration of hopelessness" on Merseyside, and perhaps more pertinently the city's record of industrial strife, was enough for the likes of Sir Keith Joseph and then Chancellor Geoffrey Howe to ask if money spent on the city was simply money wasted. To quote Howe:

Isn't this pumping water uphill? Should we go rather for 'managed decline'? This is not a term for use, even privately. It is much too negative, when it must imply a sustained effort to absorb Liverpool manpower elsewhere – for example in nearby towns of which some are developing quite promisingly.

Quite. After all, if the people of Liverpool don't have the decency to vote Tory, or serenely acquiesce to socially-destructive Conservative policy, why should the government do anything to actively help them?

While there's no evidence that Howe's words were ever likely to become official government policy, it still represents an alarming snapshot into the mind of Thatcher's cabinet. In the end Michael Heseltine was left to argue the case for Liverpool's regeneration - asking for £100m-a-year, he instead got pocket change, and even that came with the express proviso that there be no publicity attached. If Liverpool's plight was self-inflicted, the Tory thinking went, why should they be rewarded?

Which is probably why Tory politicians are about as popular in Liverpool as The Sun. More recently Boris Johnson was made to go and grovel after his 2004 Spectator editorial which claimed that the people of Liverpool "cannot accept that they might have made any contribution to their misfortunes, but seek rather to blame someone else for it, thereby deepening their sense of shared tribal grievance about the rest of society".

While the mass majority of the present Coalition cabinet give the impression of only ever having seen a council estate on Shameless, the likes of Work and Pensions Secretary Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith do at least seem prepared to engage with the reality of what life is like in Britain's most impoverished areas.

I was present at a fringe event at this year's Conservative Party Conference, where Duncan Smith blamed successive governments for “ghettoising” large parts of Britain, a situation which he felt played a significant role in the 2011 riots.

Acknowledging that government policy (rather than merely the inherent fecklessness of a city's inhabitants) might have played a role is a step in the right direction. But for all Duncan Smith's good intentions, the fact is that the cuts are hitting Britain's inner cities hard. The Tories may have given up on the idea of evacuating Liverpool's inner city. Check out, for example this and this.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Does Santa care if you're a Christian? (militant atheists, take note)

The Golden Latrine spends the blustery days after Christmas Day each year weeping into the last of the cold cuts, his tears thankfully blotting out the endless re-runs.

However, there's only so many top 100 lists featuring Stuart Maconie (a man, as the great Stewart Lee pointed out, "able, if the price is right, to recall almost any aspect of the entire spread of all human existence") you can take before you begin to crave a bit of intellectual substenance, and my favourite article over Christmas was a piece by the philosopher Allan de Botton, grappling with the thorniest of Christmas issues: Should an atheist celebrate the holiday at all? [NB: If at this point you're keen to get back to gorging on Quality Street while watching Cars 2 with your aunty and your girlfriend, the short answer is yes they should. Thanks for reading.]

Despite being a non-believer, I have always been a twinkly-eyed enthusiast for Christmas. As a child I would transform our front room every year into a tinsel and decorations obstacle course. It never occurred to me that the yearly nativity play was meant to be anything other than a good yarn. It's clear then that it's quite possible to celebrate Christmas and enjoy reuniting the family and eating nice food and a glitzy tree, without the trappings of religion.

For the more militant of atheists though, the equation is simple. Christmas is a celebration of the life of Christ, a gaudy carbuncle on the underside of Christianity. If you aren't a believer, there's simply nothing for you here. Take this, as a random example:

During the so-called holiday season, [the atheist] must be able to stand aside and look at it all objectively and say, "Why, this is silliness. Gussied up though it may be in tinsel and fantasy, it's all no more than ritual kow-towing to an imaginary being in the sky. I'm a grownup now, and I no longer need to believe in Santa Claus.

The question came up for me before when a Jewish ex-girlfriend explained to me that her family wouldn't be celebrating the festival fully because they weren't Christian. To which my natural response was: well, um, neither am I.

De Botton talks about being raised as a hardline atheist (him and his sister were given presents in August to subvert the Christmas tradition), but coming to realize that Christmas (and by extension, religion) could serve a useful social purpose. As he puts it:

We invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day: the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses; and the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise. God may be dead, but the urgent issues that impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inaccuracies in the tale of the five loaves and two fishes.

I find that a fairly watertight argument (if any militant atheists are reading, do feel free to post and tell me why it's not). For Dawkins et al, religious belief is simply a category error, based on a misunderstanding of the scientific method. If only the religious looked at the facts, they'd have no choice but to forsake their faith and skip merrily into the sunset of scientific reason. But science only tells us how things are - it doesn't tell us how to live, or offer up any sense of community.

Friday, 30 September 2011

A lesson for ITV: Just how do you tell the difference between reality and a computer game?

The Golden Latrine still remembers the time he played Grand Theft Auto III solidly for a weekend at university. Finally stepping outside, sun-starved and bow-legged, the real world and the computer game world seemed to have merged.

It appears that the Golden Latrine is not alone though - ITV know exactly how that feels. In the most po-mo development in human history, it emerged that some footage from an ITV documentary of "terrorists" using Libyan weapons to shoot down a plane was, in fact, lifted directly from the video game ArmA II.

Now, anyone with half a brain (or anyone who watched any of Charlie Brooker's Newswipe) knows that the news is a simplified, abbreviated, selectively-edited construction, and not a perfect mirror of current affairs. The joy of documentaries is that they can put some flesh on the basic facts.

But once you know that one piece of the documentary is falsified, it's not a great leap to then ask yourself what else has made its way in there? Consider the case of the recently shamed Independent columnist Johann Hari: once his shall we say "liberal" attitude towards quotation and maliciious Wikipedia editing became public, it cast a shadow of doubt over his entire body of work. I recently re-read his beautifully-written piece on Dubai, and found myself wondering if any of it was real. Knowing what we do now, it just rang false.

ITV's official statement blamed an editing room mix-up for the inclusion of the computer game footage. As they put it:

The events featured in Exposure: Gaddafi and the IRA were genuine but it would appear that during the editing process the correct clip of the 1988 incident was not selected and other footage was mistakenly included in the film by producers. This was an unfortunate case of human error for which we apologise.
Now I don't know about you, but to me that rings some fairly shrill alarm bells. If it truly was, as ITV claimed, "human error", then they're guilty of rank amateurism (and precisely how did the ArmA II footage end up there?). And if it was inserted intentionally then...well, those of us in what a George Bush aide once called "the reality community" might as well hang up our coats and surrender. How did they think no-one would notice?

That said, perhaps the "human error" alibi isn't as ridiculous as it sounds. In his wonderful critique of the news industry, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies tells of trainees at ITV's newsrooms left to cut pictures and write underlays (the words to be spoken over the pictures) despite having no experience of either. As Davies reports of one such trainee:

She said she had cut pictures too short for their slot with the result that the screen went to black for several seconds, as well as writing underlays that were too long for their pictures so the item ended in mid-sentence.

The perfect metaphor

However the game footage made it into the IRA documentary, it nevertheless seems the perfect metaphor for our times. In 1991, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard published three essays before, during and after the first Gulf War: "The Gulf War will not take place", "The Gulf War is not really taking place" and "The Gulf War did not take place". Baudrillard's thesis was not that the conflicts had not physically taken place, but that the way both the soldiers and viewers at home experienced these conflicts had changed massively. The "war" was conducted like a computer game, a remote-controlled war, with a minimum of casualities on the American side. The daily news showed on-board recordings of the bombers hitting their targets.

Back to the IRA documentary though, and Marek Spanel, chief executive of the game's developer Bohemia Interactive Studio, professed himself bewildered but told Spong he took it as a compliment of sorts, calling it "a bizarre appreciation of the level of realism incorporated into our games." And in a perverse way, he's right.

Computer games are becoming graphically ever-more lifelike, and incorporating an increasingly cinematic level of narrative (take something like L.A. Noire), but let's not start using them as a substitute for reality in weighy documentaries just yet. Thanks ITV.

Edit: The Guardian's Ben Goldacre posted a link on Twitter to this brilliant spoof of the story discussed in this blog. Recommended viewing!

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Did Sarah Palin take drugs? And does it matter? After all, Obama took the White House despite admitting he inhaled

The Golden Latrine once snorted a sherbet fountain on the school bus in the mistaken belief that he would experience profound spiritual insight and euphoria. What actually resulted was a profound sneezing fit and a week's worth of blocked sinuses.

Seriously though, drugs are no laughing matter (well, except for nitrous oxide). While our elected representatives may, on occasion, take cash in brown-paper envelopes or conduct steamy affairs with high-class vice girls, surely none of them have stooped so low to dabble in controlled substances? Wasn't the message on Grange Hill clear enough? Just say no.

Imagine my shock then on reading that US presidential hopeful Sarah Palin has been accused of using cocaine and marijuana in a new "tell-all" biography. While the image of Palin hoofing coke off the side of a snowmobile and getting stoned with a groovy college professor is undoubtedly an enticing one, the evidence for the accusations seems pretty sketchy.

But if it was true, the model for responding to these kind of allegations has to be Conservative MP, chick-lit author and walking self-advert Louise Mensch. After speaking eloquently as a member of the Select Committee responsible for grilling Murdoch senior and junior, she was (entirely coincidentally, I might add) contacted by a journalist who said they had information that she had taken drugs in a nightclub with violinist Nigel Kennedy while working in the music industry.

Her tactic for dealing with this accusation? Outright denial? Cowering in fear? Getting straight on the blower to Max Clifford for some hasty "image management"? None of the above. She simply admitted it sounded likely, but her memory of the particular night was unclear (presumably because her head was clouded with said substances).

What a breath of fresh air! And what a change it made to the parade of New Labour politicians coming out to mumble and sheepishly admit to smoking cannabis, once or twice, when they were students. Alistair Darling even felt obliged to state that didn't like the taste (echoes of Clinton's "I did not inhale").

Before we jump on the bandwagon and condemn politicians for being elusive and mealy-mouthed, we should ask ourselves why they are so cagey about revealing details of past indiscretions. The truth is, our culture expects our elected representatives to be whiter-than-white - take instance, the outpouring of public anger at the expenses scandal (despite the fact fiddling your expenses is almost a national sport). Who among us hasn't got past experiences we aren't proud of? A person with no regrets would be a very boring person indeed.

But does the Louise Mensch drug-use story perhaps indicate that we are moving beyond such retrospective moral hand-wringing? Lurid stories of Chancellor George Osborne's alleged drug use have hit the news again this week, but let's remember that evidence of past use hasn't been an impediment to either of the last two US Presidents: George W Bush was a recovering alcoholic and Obama openly discussed using marajuana and cocaine in his memoir, Dreams from My Father . Obama even went on record to confirm that he inhaled , adding: "That was the point".

The truth is that both Brits and Americans love the idea of redemption - hence the phenonemal success of the X-Factor with its sob stories and "this is my last shot" narrative arcs. What the public demand is not that our politicians are squeaky clean, but that they are simply honest enough to come clean about their pasts.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

David Cameron is wrong - Britain isn't broken, just slightly chipped

The Golden Latrine is old enough to remember those glorious days, way back when, when life was all rosy-cheeked children playing football in the street and fry-ups and chatting to Nora from the lauderette down the labour exchange.

But how different life is now compared to that golden past - at least according to PM David Cameron, who is adamant that the nation is in the grips of a full-blown moral crisis.

In case you missed it, Tony Blair recently penned a piece on the UK riots in The Observer, in which he argued that the riots were down to a relatively small number of highly dysfunctional, asocial households which are atypical of Britain as a whole. As Blair put it:

The left says they're victims of social deprivation, the right says they need to take personal responsibility for their actions; both just miss the point. A conventional social programme won't help them; neither – on its own – will tougher penalties. The key is to understand that they aren't symptomatic of society at large.
This seems to me an eminently sensible analysis. Study after study has shown that prison doesn't work, but neither does sending in a single social worker once a week. Wholesale 'family intervention' is required. And to be fair to Cameron, he seems to agree, vowing to turn round the lives of 120,000 troubled families by 2015.

But there was a very definite disagreement about what the riots meant. Blair concluded his Observer piece:
Elevate this into a highfalutin wail about a Britain that has lost its way morally and we will depress ourselves unnecessarily, trash our own reputation abroad, and worst of all, miss the chance to deal with the problem in the only way that will work.[my emphasis]
However, David Cameron remained unconvinced. Responding to Blair in an interview on the Today programme, Cameron insisted that Blair was wrong, and that the moral malaise was far more widespread:

In the riots there was clearly a hardcore of people who were just breaking the law and had no sense of right and wrong or moral boundaries. But, tragically, we also saw people who were drawn into it, who passed the broken shop window and popped in and nicked a telly.

And that is a sign of actual moral collapse, of failing to recognise the difference between right and wrong. So I don't think you can simply say this is just a criminal underclass and no other problem at all. I think it does go broader than that.
The mistake Cameron makes, it seems to me, is in treating rioting and looting as the same thing. While the hardcore rioters may well have been the troubled families Blair (and Cameron, for that matter) believes we need to target - aided and abetted by the odd bored student - plenty of people helped themselves to a free t-shirt or widescreen television. Evidence of a far-reaching moral malaise? Or just a reminder of a basic article of human nature: if we can get something for free, we will?

Remember the cases of the cash machines malfunctioning and giving out free money? There's been numerous cases of queues of well-balanced, middle-class people queuing round the block with their children for their handout.

In many ways Cameron's Today interview was just a reprisal of this speech made in August, in which he talked about the coalition tackling "the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations". Buying into the myth of moral decline seems to be an occupational hazard for Tory PMs - Thatcher frequently pined for "Victorian values", seemingly oblivious to the fact her allegiance to free market economics was dissolving those very community values.

So whenever we feel tempted to start seeing the riots as omens of the forthcoming apocalypse, let's just remember: none of this is new. 2000 people helping themselves to some free trainers is not the end days. The fear of feral youths and teenage gangs is a phenomenon that is centuries old. Let's try and keep some perspective, yes?

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The UK riots: a reaction to ingrained poverty? The work of "mindless" thugs? Or just an over-enthusiastic shopping spree?

Britain, first an apology.

Like our blessed Prime Minister, The Golden Latrine watched the UK riots unfold from a shadowy lair in the sunny Tuscan hills, a glass of flat prosecco in one hand and smartphone in the other. As England smouldered and its anxious citizens cried out for a State of the Nation blog, I lay sweating in paradise, perversely wishing I was there.

After getting past the initial "What, in the name of David Dimbleby, is going on?", the question I, like everyone else, wanted answering most was simple: Why is this happening? As the initial suggestion that this was a political protest over the shooting of Mark Duggan faded, a large section of the population (and the media) quickly reached a consensus that the rioting was "mindless" - an atavistic outpouring of rage from an animalistic underclass incapable of higher thought.

Such was the hysteria surrounding the riots and looting, that the suggestion was that even looking for causes was wrong. As Owen Jones said in a Newsnight interview with an inflammatory David Starkey: "there's a dangerous climate at the moment, I think, to even begin to understand the underlying social and economic causes is seen as justifying mindless thuggery" (and in this context Labour leader Ed Miliband deserved a great deal of credit for not giving in to the temptation to sensationalise, telling a crowd in Manchester: "We have got to look into the causes, why people are going around doing this. And I think there are a complex number of causes").

There were, though, commentators who did try and delve into the rioters' motives. The idea of the rioters' "mindlessness" was challenged by Dan Hind in his piece for Al Jazeera and Russell Brand, while in The Guardian Zoe Williams  produced a brilliant piece on the psychology on the rioters and looters.

Williams set out the three common positions on the riots: the authoritarian response (riots as glorified mugging, carried out by a generation with a colossal sense of entitlement, and enabled by a limp-wristed, mealy-mouthed criminal justice system); (the liberal response (as exemplified by youth worker Camila Batmanghelidjh's piece in the Independent); and a more pragmatic response (summed up perfectly by blogger Sarah Carr:
"the media coverage makes them look like cunts. And perhaps many of them are. But even cunts can have legitimate grievances. Maybe they’re destroying stuff because they have no other channel to express their sense of hopelessness and rage at their situation. Or maybe they and their friends just like the thrill of a ruckus with the added bonus of free gear."

The best example of the authoritarian response unquestionnably came from Golden Latrine favourite Melanie Phillips, who, in a truly batshit crazy piece in the Mail blamed Labour, lone parents, "ultra-feminists", the welfare state, 'victim culture' and multiculturalism for the rioting.

What was really interesting in Williams' piece, though, was her discussion of whether the riot was nihilistic ("everything is shit and pointless") or consumeristic ("I want a new pair of trainers"). She persuasively argued that the two were not necessarily contradictory, quoting marketing and consumer expert Alex Hiller:

If you look at Baudrillard and other people writing in sociology about consumption, it's a falsification of social life. Adverts promote a fantasy land. Consumerism relies upon people feeling disconnected from the world.

And personally I think that's bang on the money. The UK riots saw young people turning that advertising fantasy world into a reality, which is why the whole thing looked so unreal, like a computer game. And the sense of rioting and looting as a great adventure cannot be overlooked - just read Kevin Sampson's piece on his part as a youngster in the Toxteth riots:
In all the hours and pages of reportage since rioting returned to our cities last weekend, not one commentator seems to have touched upon the sole unifying factor that fuels and drives such unrest – excitement, fun, teenage kicks. In 1981 I could have cited unemployment (check), low-income, single-parent family (check), experience of police brutality (check) as factors in my participation, but none of the above even remotely came into my thinking then and I doubt it is stoking today's unrest, either.

I went along in 1981 because I was swept away by the mind-blowing buzz of mob mayhem. There's no justifying that – in the crudest terms such behaviour is quite simply wrong – but try telling that to a 15-year-old on a mountain bike. To him or her, it's like a Wii game come to life – a hyper-real version of GTA. You taunt the police until they chase you, then you leg it and regroup. Some of the more radical kids will throw rocks and set cars and wheelie bins alight to get them going, but sooner or later the "bizzies" (police) will charge.

It makes you think, eh?

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Somalia is starving...but what's that on the horizon? Is it a bird? Is it an aid parcel drop? No, it's...the Daily Mail's Liz Jones

The Golden Latrine almost choked on his crunchy nut cornflakes this morning at the news that the Daily Mail is sending Liz Jones to cover the Somalia famines.

For those not in the know: Jones is a former editor of Marie Claire, now in the lucrative employ of the Daily Mail. Her deeply confessional columns about her eating disorders, her failed marriage, her facelift , and lately, the running of an animal sanctuary reveal a woman so self-obsessed that her ego has developed its own gravitational field, sucking everything else into its orbit. So self-parodic are some of her columns that I have often wondered whether if she isn't just some journalistic in-joke.

To try and search for an equivalent, sending Jones to Somalia is like sending Rod Hull to cover the House of Representatives' debate on the US debt-ceiling or, um, Lindsay Lohan to explore child-trafficking in India.

Jones announced her latest assignment in the most obnoxious way possible in a piece for the Mail entitled 'The caring professions? They just don't seem to care at all' (read it here). Starting with the blindingly obvious ("I don't scrape and scrabble at the coal face of the NHS very often" - hardly a surprise for a £200,000-a-year columinist), she rails against the injustice of her local GP refusing to give her the numerous jabs she needs to fly out to the Horn of Africa. Despite the fact she's given them no notice. And she's not registered with them, so they don't have her notes.

If there's one person who could make the Somalia famine about herself, it's Jones. As she tells the GP's receptionist: "'I mean, it's a global crisis. Millions of people are dying and you won't put yourself out to allow me to be seen by a nurse, not even a doctor, for five minutes?'" The correct response, we are told, would have been: "'Sod the protocol – everyone needs to know about this famine, Miss Jones, so I am going to speak to the GP and see what we can do.'"

Throughout the whole piece there's the reek of entitlement and a hysterical sense of self-importance. The cherry on the cake comes when Jones compare the receptionist's shocking rudeness (i.e. completely understandable inabilty to help) to the abuse at the Winterbourne View care home in Bristol, revealed by Panorama in their recent shocking expose. I am a talkative man, but sometimes even I am lost for words. (For those are interested, there's a more extensive, point-by-point demolition of Jones's piece by doctor and Sirens author Brian Kellett here).

While Jones's belief in the importance of her vocation is touching, let's be clear - Liz Jones is not a medical practioneer or an aid worker, she's a journalist. She can write what she sees, raise awareness of Somalia's suffering and, who knows, maybe inspire a few Mail readers. But the suspicion remains that for Jones, this is "misery tourism" - a "cheap holiday in other people's misery," as the Sex Pistols put it. As Ros Cowards says: "I've noticed some journalists and travellers seem to seek out places of extreme suffering almost as a way of trying to quell discomfort about their own personal dissatisfactions and unhappiness. And as we know, Jones is very, very unhappy."

To given Jones her due, she's a talented prose writer and, hell, I'm all for people spreading their journalistic wings. But I'm just not sure she's got the political savvy or the empathy needed to report on Somalia. Read this sympathetic interview with Deborah Ross, and you're left with a portrait of a woman hopelessly lost in self-absorption. In the past Jones has covered Bangladesh, but this famine deserves our best reporters, not our best paid.

Edit: Thanks to @nickrowan27 for pointing me in the direction of the sublime spoof Twitter account @LizJonesSomalia, which offers frequent updates on Jones's progress in Somalia. Sample tweet: "I'm not trying to be crass - I know there's a water shortage, but wetwipes cost about 17p a pack. I'd offer to share mine but I need them."

Friday, 29 July 2011

Was the Utøya killer Anders Behring Breivik insane?

First, a confession. The Golden Latrine has a huge journalistic crush on Deborah Orr, she's one of the few columnists able to get inside a story and tease out its subtleties and absurdities. Hence my joy when I read this piece, from Thursday’s Guardian, where she makes the same point as me about Melanie Phillips not being to blame for being quoted in Utoya killer Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto.

But where our views massively diverge is when she then goes on to argue that Breivik is clearly mad, railing against what she calls “the widespread reluctance to characterise outrageous miscreants as insane.” As Orr puts it:

I'd suggest that all indiscriminate acts of murder are most profitably viewed as symptoms of mental illness, and that a more universal reluctance to describe attempts at mass-murder as "terrorism" might be an eminently sensible way to go in the future. Those who attempt to justify such acts, as logical or understandable? They seem pretty unstable to me themselves.”

But is this true? Does mass murder automatically equal insanity? I think in this case, I have reluctantly to declare myself one of what she calls the "unstable" ones. The 'you have to be mad to be capable of mass murder' thesis is certainly a convenient belief, but I'm not sure it's true. As Guy Walters persuasively argues in the New Statesman:

If you passionately believe you are right, and you feel you have no other method of obtaining your goal, then killing is a very logical thing to do. This is undoubtedly a normative form of human behaviour, as human beings have been killing each other for the "right reasons" for millennia. Many of us are repelled by the act of murder and, thankfully, we do not resort to it even if we believe the other side is wrong. But some do kill others to advance their interests, or to stymie those of others, especially if they believe that a greater threat is posed to society by not carrying out the killings.

Was every member of the IRA or ETA mad? Were these groups just clubs for the psychotic or psychopathic? Surely not. While for some it may have just been a convenient ideological excuse to blow people up, many members genuinely carried the belief that such action would further their legitimate political cause. The skill of Chris Morris's suicide bomber "comedy" Four Lions was in showing that most suicide bombers are just angry, confused teenagers, not psychopathic criminal masterminds.

Breivik's lawyer, Geir Lippestad, is clearly of Orr's persuasion, telling journalists that "This whole case indicated that he is insane," and refusing to represent him unless he undertook psychiatric evaluation. But so far the only evidence suggesting mental illness is Lippestad's claim that Breivik is a "very cold person". No hearing voices, no disordered thoughts, no hallucinations. By declaring that Breivik is automatically mad, we are letting human nature off the hook.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Mass murderers heart Melanie Phillips

While it’s difficult to find a silver lining to the mass murder of 76 human beings in Norway, it was hard to suppress a smirk at the news that killer Anders Behring Breivik had quoted Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips in his rambling manifesto.

Her initial response to this unnerving fact was to stress that Breivik had only quoted her twice in 1,500 pages - which is, let's face it, still not a great hit-rate.

But let’s be clear, there’s a world of difference between Breivik and Phillips. While her views might be repugnant, I think we can safely say that Melanie Phillips does not condone the mass slaughter of innocent civilians, even if they are card-carrying Labour Party members (now mass detention, that’s another story. No no, I jest.)

In fairness to Phillips, Breivik did also quote such luminaries as Winston Churchill, Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, and George Orwell, and an author has no control over who reads their material. Was it J.D. Salinger's fault that the Catcher in the Rye "inspired" a psychotic Mark Chapman to kill John Lennon? Clearly not.

But the episode does serve to underline the danger of Phillips's intemperate words, her intolerance and hyperbole. She believes her tirades exist on some rarefied intellectual plane, and Keith Kahn-Harris may well be right when he says she is "polite company with a ready (if sometimes acidic) wit and a very sharp mind", but if you write incendiary words, there's always a chance they'll come back to bite you on the ass.

Phillips, a former Guardian staffer, seems to get much of the left foaming at the mouth, but the main emotion she evokes in me is sadness. I still remember reading this interview and thinking she sounded like the angriest, loneliest woman in the world.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Idiot Detector

It's way past the witching hour, but I felt obliged to share this. I'm praying for it be patented and rolled out sooner rather than later...,19739/?utm_medium=promobar&utm_campaign=recirculation

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Bettakultcha 8, 12th April 2011

Picture a good night out and an evening sat watching slideshows is not necessarily what springs to mind, conjuring up, as it does, images of The Mighty Boosh’s Howard Moon preparing yet another an interminable lecture on his fossil collection, or your dotty uncle insisting on showing you his neverending holiday snaps. Such trepidation would be entirely misplaced though. As Bettakultcha makes clear, slideshows are quite possibly the most fun it's possible to have with your clothes on.

The brain child of marketing director Richard Michie and professional speaker and artist Ivor Tymchak, Bettakultcha is based on a simple format: each speaker gets five minutes (20 slides, 15 seconds per slide) on any topic they wish. It's become a bit of a word-of-mouth success and tonight around 300 people pack into the palatial surroundings of Leeds' Corn Exchange for a slice of slideshow action.

The talks are uniformly excellent, covering everything from the cystic fibrosis to the history of North Korea to pinhole cameras and the joys of Iceland (home of Bjork, rather than the budget supermarket). There's a handful that particularly lodge in the mind, including one by Martin Carter (AKA Maria Millionaire) about drag queens, complete with dramatic entrance down the staircase of the Corn Exchange (he later confides: "I did think 'Oh no, the floor’s laminated, I’m going to go arse-over-tit down these stairs!') and Jayne Rodgers' inspired reimagining of Star Wars as a perfectly-crafted Mills and Boon tale.

At the other end of the spectrum, there's Angela Whitlock's presentation "inspired" by creative thinking guru Edward de Bono declaration that no-one inspired him. She discussed her inspiration - her friend Dave, a man with lymphoma who was blanked by his hero Ian Botham and so renamed his tumour in Beefy's honour. It manages, in the short space of five minutes, to be both very moving and hysterically funny.

Such diversity is weaved into the design of Bettakultcha. As co-founder Richard tells me when I grab him at the end for a brief chat:

"I receive all the slides, and all I ever see is those slides. I have no idea what these people are going to say. So you look at the slides and start to juggle it and say “well, that one seems to fit with that one” and you try and pace between the serious things and what you think might be the more amusing things. The trouble is until they start speaking, I really don’t know. Sometimes it’s a happy accident, and sometimes it’s just a...[facial expression indicates a very much non-happy accident]. I think – or I like to hope – that we’ve got a nice balance between more energetic people and people who are a bit more nervous."

Maria Millionaire
Drag queen Maria Millionaire, AKA Martin Carter. Thanks to Jon Eland ( for the photo.

There is, however, one major rule: no pitches. As Richard explains, the Bettakultcha ethos is simple: "we want people to talk about their passions, what we don’t want is people turning up saying 'I sell cars' or 'this is my business'. Adds Ivor: "As soon as you start introducing this commercial, corporate-type element, people just want to switch off. I’ve seen it too often. There’s some ulterior motive – 'actually we want you to spend money on our product'. Bugger off."

There's one presentation that veers close to a pitch, but otherwise the speakers talk with passion and knowledge about their chosen subjects. As the evening draws to a close, three or four people get the chance to do some Bettakultcha freestyling over some random slides.

Bettakultcha has hit on a powerful formula, and it's so nice to come to event that brings together Leeds' alternative cultural community, or what Ivor calls "the arty, cultural, kind of eccentric people". Tonight, as well as Richard and Ivor, I meet the lovely Jess Haigh (AKA the Travelling Suitcase Library), Ellie Snare, Kirsty (the girl behind the brilliant Foldageddon) and, well, more nice people that it's possible to catalogue. As I grab the ravishing Maria Millionaire for a quick chat, he sums it up perfectly:

"It's one of those things that makes you think ‘Actually, Leeds is amazing’. Why isn’t there more things like this?” When people ask you what it is, it’s an evening of slide-shows, but it’s so much more than that. It’s one of those things where you need to get people to come here to understand it."

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Bettakultcha co-founder Ivor. Thanks to Jon Eland ( for the photo.