For my holidays I went to Switzerland. And in good, back to school, spirit I have written something about it. Here are the things I learnt on my holidays.
1. Bears can climb trees.
I saw one do it. Here: http://www.baerenpark-bern.ch/index.php?id=info&L=0 I also learnt that it is a bit unnerving to just be having a gentle stroll along the river bank, glance to your side and think, “Oh. Bears.”
2. If you are having heart-shaped balloons at your wedding, you should look at them from the top, just to be sure they don’t look like boobies.
The wedding party we saw on our last day in Switzerland had failed to do this. They had nipple balloons. How we laughed.
3. Western Europeans are totally over the whole bomb scare thing. Australians still find them quite exciting.
At Gare du Nord station, waiting to board the Eurostar back to the good ol’ UK, we were rudely interrupted by an announcement instructing us to evacuate the area due to a security alert. We should do this, the announcement said, in line with instructions from the station staff. The 300 or so people in the waiting area glanced around for some station staff to instruct us, saw none, and went back to reading their books. About ten minutes later the same announcement repeated. This time, a few people stood up, clearly feeling that they at least ought to show willing. Some station staff appeared, milled around a bit, and made no attempt to evacuate us. The people who’d stood up, now feeling they had foolishly overreacted to the risk of being blown limb from limb, tried to look as though they’d wanted to stand up anyway. Really, honestly, they were just stretching their legs. They sat down again. We all went back to reading our books. Another ten minutes or so passed, and then a medium-sized bang was heard from another part of the station. Not a “the whole place has blown up, run for your lives” bang, but not a “Oh dear, Jean Claude’s dropped another plate” sort of bang either. A medium bang. A controlled explosion sort of bang, you might say. This, at last, got a reaction from the waiting hoard. Several people looked around. A few went, “Oooh.” We all went back to reading our books. Another ten minutes or so passed and we were allowed to board our train.
On the train, we were seated across the aisle from a group of Australians, who were “doing Europe.” They seemed very pleased with the whole incident, and talked enthusiastically about how they must email home and tell everyone how they had survived a real European bomb scare. So there you go, slight risk of terrorism is apparently considered part of the modern authentic European tourist experience. Oh dear.
4. Swiss trains really do run on time.
And the station clocks pause slightly at the top of the minute. The second hand goes all the way around in about 57 seconds, pauses slightly at the top of the hour, before the minute hand clicks on and the second hand resumes it’s journey. You can watch the clock. See the minute hand click around. You then just have time to say, “We should be going now,” before the train pulls away. It’s very impressive.
5. Switzerland really is excruciatingly expensive.
People told me this before we went. It’s one of the things everyone knows about Switerland. Mountains, chocolate, cuckoo clocks, Nazi gold, very expensive. Basically the Swiss are rich. Their GDP is around $67000 per capita. The UK’s is around $35000 per capita. So there’s an awful lot more money floating around. This is a bit of a pain from a tourist point of view. You have two choices. Either you don’t eat and only do free activities. Or you absolutely cane your credit cards and decide to worry about it later. Hmmm… yeah… about that… *shuffles feet a bit* There might need to be a tiny bit of belt tightening round these parts over the next couple of months.
So that’s what I learnt on my holidays. Try to only overspend within numbers the human brain can count up to, and look out for bears.
Come back for tomorrow for “What I read on my holidays…”
So, it turns out that some people who work for the News of the World have questionable moral standards. This should not be surprising to anyone by this point in time. Allegations of phone hacking first surfaced in 2005. The paper’s royal editor was jailed for this crime in 2007. In February 2010 the Culture Commitee found that it was “inconceivable” that senior executives at the paper weren’t aware that phone hacking was going on.
Questions still remain about how widespread these practices were, or are, across other newspapers and media. The somewhat muted early response to the story from other print tabloids might suggest that there are skeletons in closets well beyond the News of the World. The Information Commissioner’s report into journalists paying for “private” information cited the Mirror and the Mail as the leading offenders in that area. Confirmation from the Press Association in June 2011 that one of its journalists had been arrested in relation to phone hacking also gives a possible indication of a wider problem in the industry.
But the specific actions of specific papers, morally bankrupt though the increasingly appear to be, actually concern me less than the wider culpability of those who ought to be in a position do something about the mess.
Let’s start with the Press Complaints Commission. In 2009 the PCC looked at new allegations of phone hacking at the News of the World, arising from a Guardian article about the problem. They found that there was no evidence of hacking. It was only today, nearly two years later, that the Commission finally acknowledged that they could no longer stand by that conclusion. Today’s statement also noted that the recent admission that Milly Dowler’s voicemail was hacked “undermined the assurances” given to the Commission by News International. Well, yes. But it also raises questions about the PCC’s investigation. Did it simply take the form of asking News International whether they did phone hacking, and nodding politely when the answer was slightly shifty “No sir. Course not sir. Didn’t do it. You can’t prove anything”?
That’s ok though. The PCC is a self-regulatory body for the print media, and there are always limitations to self-regulation in any industry. In this one the limitations of self-regulation have to be balanced against the value of a free press. And in the case of phone-hacking a criminal act has occured, so the primary investigatory responsibility, and power, lie not the with PCC, but with the police. And here’s where it gets really shady. Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the News of the World and now Chief Executive of News International, admitted in evidence to a Parliamentary Inquiry on the Press & Privacy in 2003, that the News of the World had, on occasion, paid police officers for information. She later qualified this statement in a letter to the Inquiry.
The Met’s initial 2005 investigation into phone hacking led to the convictions of a private investigator and one News of the World journalist. No further action was deemed necessary by the police or the CPS. No evidence of hacking beyond the specific offences in the trial was presented by the CPS to any court. The matter was simply not treated as a priority. At best, that smacks of an attitude that perceives criminal acts by well-paid powerful organisations and individuals as of limited importance. Alternatively, it suggests a police force which is unwilling or incapable of thoroughly investigating powerful, and potentially unco-operative, companies. Even now new revelations about the depth of the wrongdoing at News International seem to come out in terms of “News International have revealed that…”, rather than “the police have discovered that…” It rather makes you wonder who is really in charge of the current investigation.
The police are still not the final line of defence. Ultimately, political pressure could have lit a fire under the police investigation or sanctioned a specific inquiry into phone hacking in the media. Until yesterday that didn’t look likely. Why not? It’s very easy to lay the blame squarely at David Cameron’s door. He employed one former News of the World editor, and still seems unable to accept that that may have been unwise. He is also close friends with Rebekah Brooks. The image of cronyism at the highest level in British politics remains strong, and Cameron should be held accountable for his judgements in who he hires and who he chooses to call a friend.
The problem goes deeper than that though. At present the Murdoch owned News International already control approximately 1/3 of the UK newspaper market. Murdoch also owns 39% of BSkyB and is in the process of attempting to purchase the remaining 61% to make the company wholly owned by News Corp. The political influence of the Murdoch papers is hard to quantify. Successive editors have claimed that they don’t decide election results, they simply follow the public mood very closely. My suspicion is that those editors don’t really believe that version, and, more importantly, politicians don’t believe it either. Since the 1980s Rupert Murdoch and his organisation have become untouchable by leading politicians. Courting those papers has come to be seen as a prerequisite for political success. Unfortunately, it now appears that those papers have been harbouring a contagion at their heart, and politicians are discovering that if you’re prepared to sleep with the enemy, you’re likely to get contaminated by their germs.
How the current controversy over phone hacking, and now paying police for information, pans out may well tell us something about the current state of News Corp’s influence in the UK. If they come out of the other side retaining their market share, luring back those advertisers who are currently distancing themselves from News of the World, and, most importantly, owning BSkyB outright, we will know, that for now at least, traditional bonds of power, influence and cronyism are still strong forces. If they don’t, if the takeover of BSkyB is ultimately blocked, if the News of the World suffers a long-term dip in readership and advertising revenue, then we will know that the sands have shifted, slightly but significantly, around us.
Perhaps, at that point, we might conclude that new media, online news, and social networks really are starting to undermine the accepted order. Misleading stories and misdirections in the mainstream press are becoming easier to challenge, when any Tom, Dick or Alison can write their own version and send it out into the world. With 140 characters as our weapon of choice, we might just all be headline writers now.
The UK’s summer festival season is starting to build up. Glastonbury kicks off today. T in the Park is two weeks later, followed by Reading and V in August. But that’s not the festival season I want to talk about. I want to talk about the one that kicks off in Hay, meanders round Cheltenham at various points in the year, depending on whether you prefer to have your boat floated by science, literature or jazz, and probably takes in a few RHS shows for good measure. I’m talking about the, much more refined, festival circuit of the middle-aged and middle-class.
I did the *proper* festivals, in a half-hearted sort of way, during my student years. I stood in muddy fields pretending to care about serious music, but my heart was never really in it. That should probably have presented an early clue to my deep inner lack of cool. I don’t really care about music. I like a good beat. I like a tune you can dance to. I even quite like a good lyric in passing. But none of those things inspire any great passion. I have friends who get music, who buy music every week, who talk about new songs and new bands they’ve discovered. Those are the friends who look at me in horror when I tell them that I don’t really buy new music. I already own enough for the repeats not to come around often enough to be annoying. Why would I need more? So big music festivals were never my natural home, but back then I never would have guessed how totally and unsalvageably uncool I would ultimately turn out to be.
The real suspicions came the first year I attended an RHS Gardening Show. I told myself I wasn’t really going for me. I was taking my mum, and only going to keep her company. That was a lie. As soon as I walked into the special secluded world of order and pretiness that is an RHS Floral Marquee, I was captivated. Everything inside the marquee is perfect and scented and arranged beautifully. And there are plants to buy and catalogues to collect and read through later. It’s how the shopping will be in heaven. Since then I’ve been to the Malvern Spring Gardening show five times, Chelsea once, and Tatton Park twice. The gardening shows started my decline.
Cheltenham Literature Festival probably sealed it. The first time I went I saw Lynne Truss, and nodded along with her slides of humourously misplaced apostrphes, follwed by Judi Dench. Dench was every inch the grand theatrical dame. She was interviewed on stage by her own biographer, and when she forgot a story, she simply commanded the biographer to tell it for her. Since that day “having my own biographer” has been my single greatest life ambition. I digress, and sadly I don’t yet have a minion to finish the blogging for me, so back to the point. My natural festival environment isn’t the Pyramid Stage, it’s a seat in a theatre or marquee with someone who has achieved a middle-level of fame talking about their book and then answering a few questions from the audience. And then, in between the talking, you can have wine. It’s really very civilised.
This year I’ve done the Hay Festival (talks on human evolution and poker), Cheltenham Science Festival (risk in the media, Fermat’s Last Theorem, and human extinction), Gardeners World Live (planting in containers and planning your borders) and Cheltenham Food Festival (no talks, but lots of hanging around the wine stalls saying “Can I just taste that one again?”) I think, added together, all that means that it’s time to face facts.
I am crashing headlong into middle age, and it sort of suits me. I like gardening. I like baking. I like staying in to read a good book. I like films with a proper story. I like TV programmes where you can hear the dialogue. I still like a festival; I still like to sit on the grass with a cold drink. I’d just prefer to do it somewhere with nice food and toilets that no-one’s vomited in (or on).
So who’s with me? Who else is prepared to put their hand up to not being cool, and not really missing it? What are your nerdiest passions? And what’s your favourite summer festival?
.. and so I thought I’d make a rare attempt at topicality and join in. Today, Ryan Giggs, the Twitterati’s posterboy for court ordered privacy, was named in the House of Commons (by veteran fan of fidelity and monogamy John Hemmings MP), and so the worst kept secret since Adrian Mole’s diary is officially out. Ryan Giggs (out of Manchester United and some early noughties trainer adverts) took out an injunction to prevent the press reporting allegations that he had an affair with Imogen Thomas (out of Big Brother and going-out-with-famous-people). The world can now discuss this at length, unrestrained by overly draconian and archaic laws which might interfere with our hard earned personal freedom to talk of many things. Hurrah!
Or maybe not. Let’s unpick this a bit. Firstly the legal principles aren’t archaic at all. Essentially they’re rooted in the Human Rights Act which was enacted in the UK in 1998 and provides “the right to respect for privacy and family life.” So lets deal with any politicians who might be trying to spin a “The judges are out of order. They shouldn’t be making laws..” sort of line. They didn’t. You did. If you failed to think through the implications, then that’s Parliament’s problem to resolve. The role of the judiciary is to interpret and implement the law. Parliamentarians don’t like they way the law is implemented? Fine. Change it.
But don’t pretend that designing a revised law is going to be straightforward. Both the principles and practicalities involved are tricky animals. Privacy, first of all, is a squirmy little beast. Is it an invasion of privacy for papers to print photos of celebs in unflattering beachwear if they’re dressed that way on a public beach? What if the photos are of somone in their own garden and a bit of light treeclimbing is required to get the shot? Are comments made directly to a personal friend, in a public place, private or public? What about comments directed @ a particular user on Twitter? What about comments on facebook which should only be visible to invited friends? What if one of those friends chooses to repeat a comment?
The right to privacy is already balanced in law against the media’s freedom to tell stories that are in “the public interest”, but what information is ultimately in the public interest? The exposure of an affair where the philanderer is a politician trading on his family man image? Probably. The exposure of an affair where the philanderer is a journalist not averse to pressing others about their private lives? Possibly. The exposure of an affair where the philanderer is quite good at kicking a ball whilst running? Sounds like a bit of a stretch to me.
And that’s before we’ve even got to the practicalities of implementing legal parameters around privacy and free speech. The issue of money is a big one in any legal scenario. Taking complex civil court action is expensive. Legal Aid (while it still exists at all – don’t even get me started on that one) seldoms covers civil litigations, so how do you ensure that the same rights are afforded to the poor and middle income as to the super-rich. One big criticism levelled, perhaps fairly, at many super-injuncters is that their wealth allows them to quash stories that would otherwise have been told freely. At the moment we risk having one level of protection of privacy for the rich, and another for everyone else.
What about the modern interweb? Is chatting to someone on Twitter about a juicy bit of gossip different to chatting to someone in the pub? Can news blackouts in the UK really be sustained over time, if websites based overseas take the view that prosecutions are unlikely to be successful? In that world we end up with two-tier access to news, where internet users have access to a layer of information barred by law to those limited, by finance or circumstance, to mainstream UK media.
Twitter has already demonstrated itself unable (or unwilling) to keep its mouths shut by its response to the Giggs-Thomas affair. Giggs’ name was already available online if you cared to look, but the explosion of online exposure came after his legal team attempted legal action to force Twitter owners to release the details of users who had already named Giggs. At this point Twitter users behaved the way they do when Twitter, as a community, feels its back is against the wall. They ganged up and stuck a collective two fingers up at the legal pressure, by retweeting Giggs’ name with abandon. With even a passing knowledge of Twitter’s short but chatty history, the legal team should have been able to predict this response. Head over to Twitter and search for #Iamspartacus or #twitterjoketrial if you don’t believe me.
So what’s the solution? How do you balance the right to freedom of speech and the importance of a free media against an individual’s right to privacy and family life? Honestly, I’m not sure. My gut feeling is that I don’t have a right to know who Ryan Giggs is sleeping with. I’m not sure that anyone, other than his wife, does. But I think information is in the public interest when major companies are involved in court action alleging they have illegally dumped chemicals on the African coast. Not heard about that one? Surprisingly, it’s not made the same number of column inches as Mr Giggs’ infidelities. You can read more about it here though: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2010/jan/29/superinjunction-john-terry-trafigura
And I think I’ll draw to a close with a quote from that very Guardian article, which compares the injunction taken out by another premiership footballer (John Terry) with that taken out to prevent the chemical dumping story making the news: “We, and I hope you, believe that superinjunctions are a threat to freedom of speech and serious reporting. But please use the space below to discuss that and not John Terry’s private life. The latter increases the risk of the former.”
And that’s my final point. Hurrah to Twitter for standing shoulder to shoulder with Paul Chambers over the, now infamous, Twitter Joke Trial. Hurrah to social networks for their part in keeping stories like the Trafigura chemical dump in the news. But by tweeting names of individuals involved in affairs or other private indiscretions, I think that we lessen our collective worth. It’s good to be troublesome from time to time, but troublesome with a point, not just troublesome cos it’s fun.
Well, three posts in, this seems to be turning into a reviews blog, which wasn’t really what I was intending, but these are the thoughts that are popping into my brain, so I’m going to go with the flow for the time being. Although, that in no way implies the adoption of a definite theme – I totally reserve the right to mainly be thinking about Marmite by this time tomorrow.
So, another review, but a book this time: The Last Letter from your Lover by Jojo Moyes. This was the Romantic Novellists Association’s Romantic Novel of the Year at their Pure Passion Awards, and they were right. It’s a great book. Go out; buy it; read it. That is all.
Now anyone who is feeling in a hurry can depart at this point, having gleaned the central elements of the review. For the rest of you, here’s a bit more detail, and a (slightly belated) attempt at a bit of critical balance. The book is one of those wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey narratives with a present day bit and a historic bit, and a bit of a literary device with a newspaper and some letters to marry the two halves together. In the past, the story centres on Jennifer, suffering from amnesia after a car accident and, somewhat inconveniently, losing all recollection of her ongoing extra-marital affair. In the present, Ellie is a journalist who’s currently dating a married man. Both narratives have elements of classic romance, but also explore fidelity and, more to the point, infidelity.
I should state up front that I loved this book. It drew me in and made me laugh. It didn’t quite make me cry, but I’m a hard northern bird and it still came pretty damn close. I believed in the characters and I had to keep reading to find out what would happen to them. This should serve as a health warning on this review, because it’s tricksy to critically analyse something you simply love. It’s like being asked to evaluate your own baby. Objectively, they may look a bit Gollum-y, but they’re still your baby and you (hopefully) love them despite, as well as because.
I think the love is more because than despite in this instance though. What I liked, more than anything, about this book was the intelligence of the storytelling. Very often romance stories are so tightly bound to the necessity of a happy ever after, that the jeopardy along the way doesn’t work – you know full well that Girl always ends up with Boy. It’s like watching the bit in Grand Designs when Kevin tells you it’ll never be finshed – we believed him in series 1, but now we know that he says that every week. The “Girl loses Boy” bit of most romance stories is much the same deal. This book manages to undermine those certainties, and is, in many ways, as much about the ends of affairs as their beginnings.
A lot of the plot and structural ideas are ones that have been seen before, such as the deployment of amnesia as a plot device, but here they’re just done better. The books feels like the Jojo Moyes crafted it, and cared for it, and kept tweaking and polishing until she achieved her just-right Goldilocks novel. At least I hope she did. If I hear that she wrote it all in one go without shifting out of first gear, then Moyes might actually manage to make me cry.
So I went to see Source Code (shiny new Jake Gyllenhaal time-travel – sorry “time reassignment” – flick) last night, and it was… fine. Jake Gyllenhaal travels through time, into a dead guy’s memory, to try and identify a ruthless trainbomber before they strike again and obliterate the whole of Chicago with their big ol’ dirty bomb. And it was… fine.
Here ends my review.
Here begins the small rant following on from said review. This film was simply… fine. I was never bored (and I managed to have a little nap during Black Swan, so I do bore fairly easily), but the film was nowhere near as good as it should have been. The script sounded like a first draft, not a bad first draft, but not a finished, polished, honed, perfected piece of work. Many of the plot-holes could so easily have been ironed out during the editing process, if anyone had thought to try. The tension of finding the bomber could have been ratcheted up, by drawing out the characters on the train and making us wonder whodunnit, rather than rattling through a handful of unrelated false starts before walking right into the bomber with little or no preamble. The inate humour in Gyllenhaal’s character’s mini Groundhog Day could have given the whole film more variety in tone, if anyone had thought to suggest even a single joke.
The failure wasn’t in the premise. Clearly the premise – and specifically the “scientific” explanation of the premise, which can broadly be summarised as dead people remember the last 8 minutes of their lives, so if you find another recently dead person you can send them back into those 8 minutes to see what went on, is twaddle of the highest order. But a twaddley premise does not necessarily make for a twaddley film. The premise behind Back to the Future – if you hit 88 miles per hour you travel in time, cos of the flux thingummy; look stop asking questions, it just works– is twaddle, but the movie, itself, is a thing of near perfection.
The problem wasn’t in the budget either. The special effects looked good. Mr Gyllenhaal himself, presumably doesn’t come cheap. All those boxes were ticked perfectly adequately.
The problem with Source Code wasn’t the premise or the money, it was the lack of care and attention involved in making the actual film. It was a movie that felt like a flea-bitten kitten sheltering under a parked car from a storm – ultimately the kitten will retain an element of kitteny cuteness, but you can’t avoid the impression that nobody really loves it. This was an unloved kitten of a film. It seemed that nobody had bothered to lavish upon it anything beyond the level of care that was absolutely required to claim their paycheque. People decided that “fine” was good enough, and I paid money to watch the outcome, which ultimately means they were right.
And that makes me cross. Surely, if it’s worth spending the amounts of money studios lay out making films, it’s worth spending a little bit of creativity making them good. If you’re going to make something for other people to enjoy, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t make it as good as possible. And, sure, if you aim for greatness, you will very often fail, but you will end up with much better results than if you never aim for more than fine. “Good enough” just shouldn’t be good enough.
So this is my very first blog post.
Welcome. It’s lovely to have you here. Would you like a cup of tea while we get better aquainted? No. Maybe some squash? Or a cookie? Up to you, obviously.
Now, I’ve never blogged before because I’ve always thought that a blog should have a theme. The writer should have some particular specific interest or expertise which people of similiar interests would value sufficiently to seek out on the web. I, myself, am simply too easily distracted to build up any unique expertise. I am something of a Jacqueline of All Trades, so this blog will, I fear, simply be filled with whatever thoughts pop into my brain. My only commitment to you is that I will endeavour, whereever possible, to think only interesting thoughts.
On my mind this week are editing and rewriting; cuts to the UK Legal Aid budget; how to lose 3 stone in 4 months; how to implement effective peer assessment with short-term adult learners; the Babylonian’s notion of “zero” and where to find pretty sandals that don’t cause pain (to the feet or bank balance). All of these things may crop up in future posts, but they may not. I may see something shiny over there and forget about all those things.
Stick with it though – there may well be absolute diamonds in amongst the rough.