There are certain things that should be labelled as untouchable when governments want to make cuts. In any case, when cuts are made from public services they should be made where the effect will be felt least by the people the public is serving, if you see what I mean.
So if local councils do have to cut back on things, then shelters for victims of domestic abuse, public libraries and public loos shouldn’t be affected. They should cut their marketing budget, the publication of useless leaflets about recycling budget and maybe their bonus pool. (Recycling isn’t useless, but junk mail about it is.)
If the NHS, already under attack, has to make cuts, they should be slashing IT and management budgets, not medication and front line medical staff budgets.
Now, have you ever needed the emergency services? I have. Last year they saved my life. Good job I am in France, and didn’t have to depend on good old 999. Because it is being reported that first response police officers have been axed in their thousands since the non-elected government came to power in the UK.
What else has been reported about cuts this week? Ah, factories giving employment to disabled people are going to be closed down. A few weeks ago we learned that women’s refuges are losing funding.
Soldiers are being killed in Afghanistan and the British people want their troops brought home. It would be a logical step as cuts to defence are being made. But if it is to bring them home and then send them off to Iran, which David Cameron won’t rule out, then heaven help us all. And not to say I told you so, but I have been worried about the idea of us attacking Iran for quite a while. For the record I am absolutely categorically against war unless we are really, truly, under threat of attack. I’m not going to say I would support a policy of non-intervention like the Chinese do, but I do get a bit fed up of Western politicians trying to tell the world how to behave. It’s bloody hypocritical.
But if we were to intervene in Iran, or the Falklands, or Syria, or anywhere else (and political leaders like military intervention, as cheering on the troops stops us thinking about the things that are going on right under our noses) surely, surely, the troops will need uniforms. And weapons. And money.
Cuts. Fed up of them. As the only people who are really paying for them are you and me. Well, you. As I live in France.
What follows is something like a typical scene from the ever popular Jeremy Kyle show – if its enduring appeal mystifies you then consider my theory…………..
“You two don’t have any simple human respect for each other”
“Yes but we came on the show to try and fix….”
“SHUT UP!!! I HAVEN’T FINISHED TALKING AT YOU YET”
“I’m not sure this really was the best forum for trying to reconcile our difficu….”
“I SAID SHUT UP! SHUT YOUR POISONOUS MOUTHS AND LISTEN TO ME!!!!!” BLACK T-SHIRTED HENCHMEN RESTRAIN THEM!!! FORCE THEIR FILTHY MOUTHS CLOSED WHILE I CLIMB UPON MY HIGH HORSE AND EXPATIATE!!!”
Firstly, it doesn’t have to be Jeremy Kyle, you could really put any angry, sneering, self-righteous, disapproving ringmaster into that circus and they would appear, relative to their on-stage participants, well dressed, successful, intelligent and moral.
It’s what we perceive as Kyle’s moral compass that’s meant to link us to him, that connects the audience at home with the audience in the studio and sets us, as a collective, apart from the scrapping sub-human scum on stage. In the real world we know that Jeremy Kyle isn’t any more “moral” than us because he stole from his ex-wife to fund a destructive gambling habit. He met his current wife after she “won” a competition on his radio station to marry a complete stranger – not very surprisingly, this didn’t last. But hey, all that was before he was canonised by ITV to referee human bear baiting – so that’s all right then.
No, it’s the poor people on stage that keep so many tuning in. Poor in every sense of the word. Because here’s the thing: seeing the morally destitute, airing their dirty laundry in front of a studio audience on a daily basis is, for millions, oddly comforting. It plays a very important role in the ongoing pacification of the lowest social strata, because this show and others like it are the social counter-balance for the abiding culture of celebrity.
Consider that comfort is measured by humans in terms of relativity: a billionaire and a homeless person could describe exactly the same bedsit and their perception of its merits would, no doubt, be polarised. Bearing this in mind is important in realising how the satisfaction of a normal person could be adversely affected by continuous media exposure to the social elite: Hello, OK, Cosmopolitan, a plethora of TV shows mistakenly labelled “reality”. Young, beautiful and rich people are constantly paraded before your eyes, people whose concerns appear to be limited to matching stilettos to super-yachts, deciding on the name of their new aftershave or being vocally ungrateful about the contents of their after-show party gift bag. Their ubiquity normalises their concerns and their conduct, even though it bears no resemblance to normal life.
Understandably, if you’ve been lugging-2-kids-and-a-week’s-shopping-back-through-the-rain-because-you-missed-your-bus-because-you-had-to-put-something-back-because-your-benefits-have-been-cut-but-you’re-still-trying-to-not-let-the-kids-know-just-how-close-to-desperate-life-really-is, then reading about Posh’s “struggle” to settle down in Los Angeles could make you feel just a bit unsatisfied with your position in society. When literally anyone can be famous, just for being famous, who is to say what’s normal? Where the focus of the TV and popular press is all about the social elite, the fact that you haven’t shaved your legs yet this year and you won’t be going on holiday again and there is catshit on the front lawn again even though you don’t own a pet, can really put a crimp in your perceived level of comfort. The phenomenon dubbed “status anxiety” means that your perception of your place in society can be drastically affected when you unconsciously reconfigure what is “normal”.
The Jeremy Kyle show, under the guise of helping its victims, shines the spotlight at the gutter rather than the stars, parading the under class of society through your living room and letting you know that, whilst you won’t be going to the Oscars this year, at least you don’t have an electronically tagged son who is stealing from you to pay for his alcoholic girlfriend, who is also your half-sister and your mum, to have a backstreet abortion so she can continue her porn career. It doesn’t matter that the conflict has been carefully orchestrated and edited for your viewing pleasure because all it needs to do is put a smelly and stupid Ronnie Corbett next to your Ronnie Barker to distract you from the well dressed John Cleese.
It re-establishes the norm.
Travelling by train can be wonderful or unbearable.
I do it every day, long and short journeys, for work and leisure, and a couple of months ago, the monthly season ticket just for my daily commute increased by 7.5%. Thank Christ I don’t live too far from work! I am so annoyed about this that I’m on the brink of turning into Michael Douglas in “Falling Down” so I can only imagine the level of resentment that my fellow commuters living further out of town must feel.
The service provided by our rail companies – across the board – falls short of an acceptable standard, with sub-categories ranging from “could do better” to “surely you’re taking the piss?”
Now, I hear, there are proposals to increase peak time fares and close ticket offices.
The Tories are in power (and so are the Lib Dems, to a certain extent – but sadly, we can’t tell the difference, so let’s call them Tories, too) so we can’t expect policy geared to encouraging the use of trains. This party doesn’t give a damn about the environment and cares even less about the people paying its MPs’ wages (well, what’s a taxpayer-funded salary when you’re already rolling in money?). They’re not going to invest in the railway system. It’s Beeching v2.0 – completely unsurprising from the party that stands for the individual, the car, the choked motorway and the creation of more wealth for the already loaded few.
I have a proposal to increase the efficiency of the rail system. They’re punishing us for…well, nothing. Why not punish them in return? After all, we have reason enough. My fellow rail users, it’s time to fight back. Here are my suggestions.
a) The train you have travelled on is late
b) There is no space to sit or stand – without having to come into contact with a fellow passenger – in the usual standing areas in the carriage
c) The train is at peak time on a major route and there are fewer than four carriages.
2) If conditions a), b) or c) are present, demand a refund, either partial or full.
a) if you are late for work
b) if you are late for any other appointment
c) because you have paid for a service that was not provided properly.
3) If you incur any additional costs, send the rail company the bill. For example:
a) If your wages are docked because you were late for work
b) If you miss out on a deal (e.g. restaurant) because you arrived too late.
4) If you are charged an increased fare or a penalty fare on a train because you did not buy a ticket before the journey, refuse to pay. Point out to the ticket inspector that you did not “choose” to walk past a ticket office before boarding the train; rather:
a) You arrived at the station with sufficient time to spare but there was a queue
b) You arrived at the station with hardly any time but you intended to pay.
Either of the above is a valid reason. You have a life that changes – sometimes, you have to go somewhere at short notice. They’re providing a service that should accommodate the needs of the passenger.
Then go on to point out that:
If Greening’s plans go ahead, tell them:
If we all did the above, then the train companies would have to provide a decent service, more people would want to use the trains and they would be far less resentful about paying the already high prices. This bunch of heartless fools in power would have to realise that the public are not just willing to protest against them and everything they stand for, but are also willing to claw back their hard-earned cash. They would be forced to invest in the rail network so that companies could provide trains with carriages that were sufficient in number and sufficiently clean. They would be forced to limit the prices that the rail companies would charge. In short, they would be forced to stop having a bloody good laugh at us.
Every week, one of our writers will be given a selection of tracks – they could be unsigned, they could be international superstars. Any genre could be included, and the writer gets one week to give their verdict on each song in under 100 words. This week, Craig Forshaw takes his turn. If you like what you hear, click on the band names to visit their website, and if you want your music to be included in the future, send an MP3, picture, short bio and link to email@example.com.
Scream’ by BIM
‘Scream’ most sounds like the future of end credit tracks for Japanese anime series about the inevitable fusion between man and machine. When this singularity approaches, we will ascend from the Earth as machine gods, colonising other worlds and converting them into boring grey nano-goo. Within the goo, our minds will become as one, and we will truly know each other. This is probably why BIM, “Scream”: when our minds are joined, we will truly know the depths to which the human mind can plummet. Every dark, dirty secret. Even yours. Yes. That one. (It’s also enjoyable and dancey.)
‘4 – 7 – 0’ by One Shot Progress
There are many words that can be used to describe ‘4 – 7 – 0’, but sometimes we need to be a bit more creative to fully express ourselves in the most succinct manner possible. The word that best describes my reaction is, therefore, “Pleasitating”. This portmanteau sums up the constant straddling of the fence, between enjoyable and tedious, before eventually veering away from been-there-done-that rock towards something a little more varied and enjoyable. Recommended, with reservations.
‘Pravada Scrolls’ by Modern Faces
‘Pravada Scrolls’ is quite good, make no mistake, but the one part of this rock track that stuck with me the most was the phrase, “jaded complexion”. It struck me as odd. What is a jaded complexion? Jaded, of course, means, “to lack enthusiasm”. Meanwhile, complexion means, “the colour, texture or appearance of skin”. That made me wonder… how can colour lack enthusiasm? Perhaps an image search on google would be enough to explain what they meant… However, the search just produced pictures of make-up containers and women of Asian heritage. Colour me confused.
‘Screwface City Dub’ by Screaming Soul
Imagine a disused, London Underground station, with shafts of light cutting through the persistent murk from somewhere above, when a carnival, all steel drums, colourful dancers with silk handkerchiefs, stomping Morlocks dressed in rags, and a floating cherub choir with beehive-haircuts, triumphantly and ecstatically prances out of one tunnel. If you can imagine how that looks, that is how this track sounds: a wonderful, multicultural, swooping and looping mixture of various underground samples and sounds over a well-paced, seductive beat. Lovely stuff.
‘Lie to me Darling’ by Kings and Aces
‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ has always been a favourite show of mine, and one episode that stands out from the early seasons is, ‘Lie to Me’, in which a bunch of Gothic posers learn that vampires are less, “lonely wanderers”, and more vicious pricks. You may wonder why this review has wasted half its word-count on a topic mostly unrelated to the track or the band, but one of my failings is that lies do not easily trip off my tongue, darling. Instead, it is better to say as little as possible, especially of this dull, guitar-based indie-pap… oops.
We Believe You is the name of the latest Mumsnet campaign, launched this week to raise awareness of rape, how prevalent it is and how many myths surround it. Please go and read about their campaign – the research they have done is quite eye opening, to say the least.
“Victim blaming” is so prevalent in our society that I honestly believe that many women are afraid to report rape and assault for fear of being blamed. I just read that sentence back and it sounds really silly doesn’t it? Who, in their right mind, would blame a woman for being raped? Well, a hell of a lot more people than you might think.
Women are criticised if they don’t dress modestly. If a woman is raped on a night-out people will openly wonder what she was wearing, had she had too much to drink, was she stupidly wandering down an alleyway on her own.
If you’re not shocked at these attitudes let me tell you why you should be. There is NO excuse for rape. Placing even a tiny part of the responsibility of an assault on to the victim is wrong. I would like the freedom to wear what I like, walk where I want to without being told it may get me into trouble.
A society, where attitudes like this are prevalent: blaming the victims to a greater or lesser extent – is a society where rape is tacitly accepted. “No, rape is never acceptable,” you might say, and you’d be right. But it appears that we live in a society which does accept it.
Rapists can, and very often do, get away with their crimes, because our society doesn’t believe the victims who come forward. They say things like “oh well if you go out at that time of night on your own you’re asking for it”. Who say that? You’d be surprised. Men, women, of all generations, think that way.
No. No woman is asking to be raped.
How about if you then learn that in over 80% of cases of rape and sexual assault, the victim knows the aggressor. “Yeah, date rape,” you might think, and millions of us will shudder at that very phrase. Date rape. That’s not real rape is it? Not proper rape. If a girl goes up to her boyfriend’s flat she’s asking for it isn’t she. She can hardly complain if she changes her mind at the last minute.” Can she?
Yes. She can. Date rape, (ugh) or rape within a relationship is rape too. It is just as serious, just as brutal, just as damaging as any other kind of rape. In fact it can be even more so. Because you go and tell your average Joe Bloggs that you were raped by your boyfriend, or husband, or even on a casual date. Most people just won’t take you seriously. It’s not considered real rape. Ask Ken Clarke. The guy in charge of the British justice system.
So, a victim may be accused of having asked for it in some way, or her experience of rape might be belittled and treated as non serious. That’s bad enough isn’t it. But it gets worse. Because lots and lots and lots of people just simply don’t believe women when they say they have been raped or assaulted.
Can you imagine having such a traumatic and life changing experience, and turning to the people around you for support and them not believing you? And when it goes public (because there’s nothing the press love more than a nice juicy rape case) the onus will be on you, the victim, to prove you are the victim. And often people won’t believe you. Lots of people. People who should be helping you, like the police. Some will, some won’t. You don’t want to have to deal with the people who don’t believe you.
A case in the news recently that I blogged about several times was the chambermaid in New York who accused Dominique Strauss Kahn of assault. Regardless of what has happened since (and no, he wasn’t cleared, there were issues with the evidence) the reaction in France when he was arrested was shocking. I blogged about it here.
The Mumsnet campaign makes for some pretty depressing reading. It is the 21st century and rape, how it is treated and how easy it is to report it, hasn’t changed all that much. Far too women are still being raped. And far too few cases are being reported. And even fewer convictions are happening.
It’s very very sad.
‘No offence, but…’ is a phrase which is slowly but surely sweeping the globe. An increasingly common method of insult which allows an individual to guise deeply personal criticisms as casual observation, ‘no offence, but…’ is used to create humour at the expense of a typically unsuspecting and undeserving victim, for the benefit of a non committal audience.
This expression is basically a self served license to insult someone by stating something typically personal and often irrelevant to the ebb and flow of the current conversation. The phrase is used as a flag, a method through which one captures an audience’s attention; say ‘no offence…’ in any social setting and everyone within earshot will pause to hear the outrageous and insulting quip you are about to discharge. The beauty of the term is that as well as removing any possible guilt or remorse from the mind of the insulter, the very wording of the phrase simultaneously forbids the subject from becoming openly offended. Since no offence was allegedly intended, the victim is expected to take it on the chin, to the point that any serious response or reaction on the subject’s behalf will immediately appear both unwarranted and uncool in the eyes of bystanders. After all, can’t you take a joke?
As a high school teacher, I have been gifted a rare insight into the dynamics of the adolescent social clique, and I am pained to witness on a daily basis the many cruel ways that children treat one another. Girls, I am ashamed to say, are the most vicious. I have seen boys literally knocking each other flat as a result of a ‘ya mum’ joke that went too far, but a hard and fast smack in the eardrum does a lot less damage to an individual when compared to the drip, drip, dripping of malicious insults, tapping slowly and tortuously onto the forehead of another. Of course, the issue on which I am basing this rant is by no means confined to young people; there are countless adults who can be as callous, if not more so, than the children for whom we are supposed to be setting an example.
So how should we respond when this septic term is uttered, whether as the victim or a member of the audience? At the outset, it needs to be noted that anyone who uses the phrase is a spineless tool, and for two good reasons. Firstly, if the person in question wants to say something insulting to someone, they should be brave enough to own their comment, rather than hiding behind a pathetic preamble. Secondly, if the individual feels the need to put someone else down in order to make themselves look good, they are probably neither nice or interesting.
Unfortunately, as a victim of the pandemic there isn’t a whole lot you can do. I would suggest falling back on your humility with the consolation that everyone present who possesses half a brain realises the speaker is a cretin making a cheap shot at your expense. As the audience however, you have a bit more power in this scenario (no one has instructed you not to take offence, after all). What I have found works particularly well is aiming a ‘no offence, but…’ back at the speaker. In doing this, you must be very careful to ensure that your retaliation has both more bite than the antagonists, and that it references their ridiculousness (so that those people within the circle of conversation who have a even a hint of intelligence can witness your outstanding wit and superior sarcasm).
So next time you hear a fool making a shallow and unreasonable statement in order to boost their own ego, close them down. Because if we can’t get rid of idiots, we can at least shut them up.
Footnote: ‘Nothing personal…’ is the evil twin of the above phrase. Ironically, this term is only uttered as a preface for something profoundly personal. Unfortunately, the irony is typically lost on the speaker, who isn’t trying to be clever, just mean.
“Any loose change Boss?”
“Sorry I don’t have any change”
“I can hear you’ve got some change Boss”
“Yeah but it’s not loose change, it’s stuck in the lining of my coat”
“I’m not on drugs you know Boss”
“No really – although “technically” I have some change I literally cannot give it to you”
“I just want a cup of tea Boss – I’m not Amy Winehouse”
“I mean I’m not on drugs”
“Oh for God’s sake here’s a fiver – I don’t suppose you’ve got any change?”
“I do actually Boss………….but It’s stuck in the lining of my coat”
“Funny guy – and now that you have my money – are you on drugs?”
“Yep – can’t get enough of them”
“You have a good night”
As I said “hobophobic”
He looks disdainfully at the cases of bitter.
He audibly tuts at the wines.
His countenance darkens at the alcopop selection (and I have to say I’m with him on that, alcopops are a disgrace to drink and a symptom of What’s Wrong With This Country. I’d ban them instantly).
Eventually he points at the stack of Carlsberg 18-packs, which bear the enlightening, informative yet succinct slogan, “CARLSBERG – 18 PACK – £10.99”.
You know what’s coming next, don’t you?
“How much is an 18-pack of Carlsberg?”
Keep calm. You need the job. There’s a Global Economic Crisis on, and no matter how much fun it’d be to paint the words “TEN NINETY-NINE YOU COCK” onto a shovel and smack him in the face with it repeatedly, trying to explain it at interviews would be, at the very least, somewhat of a drag. Eight, nine, ten…
“They’re £10.99.” The days of calling them “sir” have long passed, but at least I didn’t swear or spit at him.
“Oh.” Pause, two, three, four… “They’re £9.99 in Asda.”
“But…” I stammer, “we…I…OH MY GOD! A thousand apologies, sir, I realise this must be a distressing time for you. I am but a minion here, but please accept my humblest and abject apologies. I will pass this higher up, to someone who has the power, if not to set things right – what could be right, after THIS disgrace? – then at least to make some gesture in the direction of recompense, to mitigate our shame! General! GENERAL!”
A deep, bass voice rumbles from the back room. “What is it?”
“General, I think you should come and witness it yourself…”
The door flies open, and there he stands – The General. A legend in the low-margin, high-volume retail booze world. Unlike me, he does not wear the 100% polyester polo shirt – he wears a hand-made 100% polyester dress uniform. The light of the lager fridge reflects from the gold braiding on his epaulettes, glistens on his cap badge, coruscates on the row of medals adorning his left mantit – the Croix du Vin, received for valour in the field of sub-£5 Merlot; the Grand Cross of the Knights Of Trampfuel, pinned on him even as he stood, bloodstained and unbowed after a 16-hour shift, by the Duce Giacomo Lambrini himself; the Order of Cider, First Class, awarded after single-handedly shifting 278 crates of tainted Frosty Jack (some apples had inexplicably been involved in its manufacture).
“What is it, boy?” He growls, fingering his swagger-stick and chewing his cigar.
“Sir, I…I’m not sure how to put this, but…”
“Directly, and immediately, is how to put it!” His face darkens. He does not like to be dragged to The Front – he has served his time there, and these days gets, if not pleasure, a grim satisfaction from sitting at his desk, a martyr to gout and dyspepsia, plotting exactly how we will, this quarter, finally put an end to bastard kids nicking the seasonal confectionery.
I swallow nervously. “Well, s…s…sir, this gentleman has told me that…”
“OUT WITH IT!”
“We’ve been undercut by an out-of-town superstore, sir.” I feel a palpable, physical sense of relief at having said the words. What worse can follow? And before my eyes, I see the proud, Grand Old Man falter for perhaps the first time in his long career.
“I…I…Oh sweet Jesus.” Before my eyes, his posture sags. The old man has been through hell in his time – they say early on, as a greenhorn assistant manager in Kilburn, he stared down 200 navvies annoyed about the suspension of the Stormont Parliament, using only three bottles of Jamesons and a Watneys Party Seven – but now, he suddenly looks his age. He turns to the customer, clears his throat, and tries to regain his dignity, but the fire has gone out in his eyes. “I’m sorry, sir,” he croaks, “I never dreamed it would come to this. You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve seen,” his eyes mist over, “whole towns under the sway of MD 20/20…the Vodkat debacle…a tramp who’d shit himself, setting his beard on fire outside a pub called ‘The Shoulder Of Orion’…but I never, NEVER thought I’d see the day when a small, franchised off-licence in a shit end of Preston would be undercut by the world’s largest retail conglomerate. Sometimes, it just seems like it was all a waste of time…” He gazes into the middle distance.
The customer and I bow our heads, knowing, but not wanting to acknowledge what we both know must come next.
The General snaps back to attention. I salute, tears welling in my eyes.
“Stand easy, soldier,” he hoarsely whispers, his hand on the hilt of his sword. “It comes to us all. We never die in bed. Tell Rosie I loved her.” With that, he climbs atop the Bitter cans stack, and, left foot on Caffreys and right on McEwan’s Export, raises his sword high, before plunging it into his stomach. I move forward to support him, but he motions me back with his free hand as the other forces the blade sideways, all of nature’s hideous internal, visceral intricacy spilling over his cummerbund. After a few seconds that feel like a lifetime, his enormous bulk crashes atop the stack; the blood pours, then drips, then pools at the base of the Tetley Smoothflow; his drained white face, the eyes staring and empty, takes on a sudden peace as I reach across and close them; and, unable to help myself, I kiss his forehead and whisper, “goodnight, sweet prince”.
I turn to The Customer.
“You don’t have a brother who knows how much everything used to be, do you?”
We never did find out who Rosie was.
Every week, one of our writers will be given a selection of tracks – they could be unsigned, they could be international superstars. Any genre could be included, and the writer gets one week to give their verdict on each song in under 100 words. This week, James Conmy takes his turn. If you like what you hear, click on the band names to visit their website, and if you want your music to be included in the future, send an MP3, picture, short bio and link to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rita Ora – R.I.P
Produced by the ubiquitous electro-Gods Chase & Status and dexterously introduced by Tinie Tempah, R.I.P is the sort of anthemic head bouncer that works as well in the car as in the club. It’s positive swagger, girl-power hook and euro clubland dub beats lift an accomplished vocal above the clamour – but they never really soar despite the edgy stringwork underscoring. If there’s a problem here for Rita it’s identity: you forget it’s her halfway through the song and replace her with Rihanna. Which should be high praise – right?
Eyes on Film – Something Wicked (this way comes)
This one hits the ground running, infectious reverb guitar strings smash ‘n’ grabbing your attention with an insanely catchy riff. There is something fresh yet familiar here: try taking a dark distorted bite of INXS, Placebo and Mark Bolan and you’re getting there. A vocal of hushed menace is egged on by guitars with teeth. This, my friends, is a song that struts into the room and says something dirty to your mum. As pretty as a flick-knife, I can’t recommend it enough. Something wicked has arrived.
Christiaan Webb – We’re Under the Same Stars
In this track “Christiaan” Webb (additional “a” singer’s own) seems so mystified by the most basic of natural phenomena that I’m not entirely surprised he’s kicking around on his own. The sun, the moon, the stars, his true love and even “air” (!) all appear to be beyond his grasp. The lyrics boil down to the well trodden country path of question after question following a break-up, but it lacks the necessary cohesion to be evocative. His scattergun droning rhetoric, like his probable view of the Earth, can best be described as “flat”. Unless you like whinging-to-music, avoid.
Et Tu Bruce – Never say Trevor Again
Funny, playful and sad, imagine a tongue in cheek updating of “Jolene” sung by a Beatles tribute band and you’re on your way, but it’s so damn polished it’s better than it has any right to be. If this is representative of the band’s style then it’s head-out-of-the-car-window refreshing. The divine comedy and “Corky and the juice pigs” used to do a nice line in this sort of facetious folk merrymaking and like them, you can’t help but feel that intelligences vast and cool sit behind all the silliness.
Centre Excuse – Drop and Roll
This talented trio have whipped away the chintzy tablecloth of 80’s synth pop and left all the important things still standing on the table. If the eco message is a little worthy given the messenger’s obvious predilection for electric over acoustic then we can forgive them this once as they are creating an energy all their own. Although the rock guitar suggests otherwise there’s heart here rather than anger which keeps them just on the right side of likeable and away from the commercial suicide of preachy. Accomplished scouts on a familiar frontier – but no more than that.
“So, that’s what this book is. Miscellaneous facts and ideas, interconnected visually. A visual miscellaneum. A series of experiments in making information beautiful. See what you think.” From the author’s Introduction to ‘Information is Beautiful’.
Come the end of each calendar year, as religious types prepare festivals in celebration of the birth of a child actually born around April, and the press dust off stories about Muslims hating Christmas trees, and fat men are jolly as they know, with utter certainty, that they will get back in shape starting January 1st, your local book store also goes through a time-honoured tradition by stocking a number of tomes that review the events of the previous year, or express them in dull statistical lists.
The most recently famous of these, because of its proximity to Waterstones till (and yes, Waterstones should have an apostrophe traditionally, but they changed the name at the start of this year, which makes a kind of sense – it could refer to “Waterstone’s shop” and be a possessive, but now there is more than a single branch it makes a kind of sense to use the plural) is ‘Schott’s Almanac’, a discount collection of information and statistics relevant to the year in which the book was produced. They often collect dry statistics from throughout the year, and present them in a list format for people to briefly glance at then leave on a shelf until their grandchildren pick them up decades later and marvel at the strange days when they still allowed Dutch people into the country and let one of them play, and score, for Arsenal.
However, the great problem with most books that collect lists and graphs of statistics is that they are dull. Ask any pupil asked to create one for their subject in school, and they will agree. Informative they may be, but the information is presented in such a way as to make it inaccessible to anyone born after the coming of MTV supposedly ruined our attention spans.
‘Schott’s Almanac’ was an interesting curiosity, an archaic product released into a market-place already rampaging far off into the distance, which could provide far greater statistical information at a greater pace. It was already more up-to-date, too.
It too shared Ben Schott’s vision: to supply some fascinating data in as boring and cluttered a way as possible. Most of us have been there, on a lazy afternoon, feet up on the sofa, netbook/laptop/iSomething on our laps, possibly overheating a bit and burning the hair, skin and denim from our thighs (note to self: get laptop fan fixed), when we come across a list of the top ten greatest LOLcat videos. Overjoyed, we click the link to find…
On successive pages.
Early in the last decade a comic book writer named Scott McCloud wrote an instructional manifesto on the future of comics called ‘Reinventing Comics’, and McCloud suggested that the Internet was a fantastic tool because it gave a new generation of writers and artists the opportunity to express themselves in ways that they couldn’t previously due to the limitations of illustrating on the page. This idea excited me, because it meant that virtually any idea that could be imagined appearing on the screen could potentially be used to tell that story. Mainstream comics, that had wanted to be films for so long, could appear as large 4:3 ratio images, one panel per page. Independent titles could go more experimental routes. Then there was the notion of sequential artwork itself possibly being subverted by a much more interactive medium, perhaps in the style of a choose-your-own-adventure narrative.
Instead, showing the staggeringly unimaginative obsession with the status quo that has been the hallmark of the age of innovation we are presently living in, comics eventually came to our computers looking exactly like they had always done, and ignoring the limitless possibilities of a new medium in favour of dull standardisation.
But whilst comic books have floundered and failed, in much the same way as mainstream producers and distributors of cinema, television, music and literature, the basic delivery of information in the form of an almanac, for an age of extremely up-to-date information, has seen at least one great revolutionary: David McCandless. His fascinating book looks at subjects that interest him, and, as a consequence could be seen as almost being an autobiography in a time when people are defined more by the products they buy and media they consume than by who they are inside. However, the book also looks at what is inside David McCandless in more detail than perhaps any autobiography in history (considering that he reprints the entire map of his chromosome sequence from page 52).
The chromosome sequence looks like a multicoloured swarm of bugs, gathering on a badly tuned television screen, but it includes labels pointing out important facts, such as indicators for the likelihood of prostate cancer, lactose intolerance, and sensitivity to pleasure. Most importantly, it is colourful, interesting, and fascinating. In other words, everything a list of 2 million letter combinations would not be.
These infographics are a stunning way to render information, and whilst McCandless may fall back on so old standards, such as graphs and pie-charts, they are presented in such a way as to make the discovery and understanding of the information as fascinating as what it means. Graphs can represent multiple things at once, such as films for a certain year by box-office takings, whether they were a financial success or failure based on their original budget, and the level of critical acclaim but together in one graph that can be understood easily at a glance.
Other infographics look at diverse topics such as the most deadly facial hair on the planet, based on the amount of death caused by the famous people wearing it at the time (such as Genghis Khan) presented as a graph which handily features the facial hair; or the colour-coded list of hangover-cures and their ingredients by country, represented as the amounts within the cups that appear on the page, with cocktails on the other page to help get you into a state where you might need one; similarly, there is a double-page on calorie intake, and how to burn them off with simple graphics showing the food, a description and the number, whilst exercises and daily activities gets the same attention, with stark white-on-black silhouettes, description and numbers underneath (hopscotch burns off 185 calories, a visit to the toilet 44); there is a map of popular Internet search terms by country, colourful Venn-diagrams on the lack of rape convictions in England and Wales, and a lovely graph entitled, “What’s Better Than Sex?” based around Google Insights search results (the answer? Since 2007: youtube.com).
The book is a fascinating mixture of things you might want to know, things you didn’t know you wanted to know, things that look pretty that you don’t care about except when you are looking at the fascinating presentation, an insight into one man’s interests, and two ironic pages of text on postmodernism. It is a brilliant and imaginative way of taking interesting facts and turning them into something clever and pretty. The hope is that one day, McCandless’s efforts will inspire a new generation to present many of their own work in a similar fashion. The worry is that we have been here before, as Scott McCloud may testify, and it is so much easier to just go with the industry, social, or cultural standard.
But it is so much more enriching when the information really is beautiful.