Tuesday, July 12, 2005

We're not really five-star people; we're more three or four stars

After a few unsustained posting spurts, it's been another long gap. I'm loathe to post just for the sake of it, but a unresolved struggle as to the reason for this blog and how honest I'm willing to be (not very so far) has me scrambling for material.

Rather than go into an extended hiatus, I prefer closure, so I'm officially ending the blog. I hope to return, in a new blog, once I decide why I'm doing this. Thanks for reading.

(The title for this post is a quote from my mum. She was actually explaining how my parents decide what to watch on TV based on Radio Times ratings, but I think it could easily be adapted as a life motto.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Such a wrench

Every now and then I'm up early enough, or remember to set the PVR, to catch Popworld (Channel 4, Sunday mornings) and the constantly funny 'toolbox jury' segment - an excuse for many phallic-related double entendres [should that be doubles entendres?] pretending to be a video review. It's therefore surprising that my favourite line this week did not directly relate to a penis. At the end of interviewing Shakin' Stevens for toolbox jury, Simon Amstell to Shaky: "Give my love to Rachel."

Other good lines this week:

Andrew Collins on Radio 4's Front Row in a context a little too complicated to explain: "You wouldn't want Ken Loach to video your wedding. The bride and groom aren't in focus, but you can see the class struggle in the background."

Charlie to Shelly on Coronation Street: "3. 2. 1. And you're back in the room."

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Quarter Hours Readership Survey 2005

Inspired by Troubled Diva, here's this year's Quarter Hours Readership Survey.

Question 1: Chig - are you still reading this?

That's it. I have my slide rule handy, so exhaustive analysis of the results will follow later this week.

(Apologies to any other regular readers. If you're out there, please let me know.)

Royal Excess at York

Photo of Royal carriage procession with York Racecourse in the background
(c) 2005 Quarter Hours
My secret vantage point for Royal Ascot turned out to be not-so-secret after all, at least to the police who were swarming there in force. I discovered the reason a few minutes later - it was on the route that the royal carriage procession was using to reach the course. The photo above is the tail-end of the procession with racecourse behind. I'm not sure who's in the carriage - it's not the queen. She's one of my other photos, but I refuse to give her the publicity by publishing it.

Too good to be Theroux

The Guardian review of Martha and Me (BBC2, last night) has already made the case that Jamie Campbell should really leave being Louis Theroux to Louis Theroux. The programme was nonetheless very watchable.

My favourite line was when Jamie asked Michael, the Martha Stewart-fanatic helping Jamie furnish his rented trailer using K-Mart Martha-branded goods, about whether he thought Martha was perfect.

Michael: "She's strives to be perfect, but isn't. She's a perfectionist and there's nothing wrong with that." He adds sincerely, "We mortals can't be perfect. There's only one person on God's Earth who's perfect."

Jamie: "Oprah?"


My MP3 player is up to its old tricks of appropriateness. You see, I have a deeply uncool non-iPod player that has the advantage of having an in-built radio that enabled me to listen to Radio 4 as I walked home from the supermarket last night. Just as I on the part of the footpath that crosses the York racecourse - actually on the course itself - the Six O'Clock News played a report on the issues around Royal Ascot at York. It was kind of weird: the thought that following day and for the rest of the week there would be royalty, the idle rich, assorted hangers-on, BBC camera crews, and local people charmed by the offer of cheap tickets, all consuming vast quantities of champagne, Pimms and posh nibbles in the same location where I was currently trudging home in the rain with heavy carrier bags following the lorry1 that empties the porta-loos of the accumulated waste products of the above.

As I write this, ladies in flowery summer dresses and gentlemen in suits and top hats are already processing past my window, and helicopters are starting to land at the temporary heliport in a neighbouring field. I have no particular interest in the horse-racing, so won't be going myself. However, I'm intrigued by the whole spectacle, the extensive preparations and the effect on the local area. I've already scouted out a free not-inside-the-course viewing spot where I can get some good photos.

1 In deepest rural Cornwall where my parents live, a similar lorry makes regular visits to empty the local houses' cess pits. My parents refer to it as the 'honey wagon'.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Vive la difference

It's highly annoying, seems to be on TV between every programme, and even spoils my radio listening.

No, not the crazy frog with the pixellated genitals, but that damn Radio 2 promo. You know: the one with Terry, Mariella, Dermot, Jonathon, Dermot's helmet [snigger], Mariella's coffee, Jonathon's stolen bananas, the grating trombone sounds that eventually becomes Take Your Mama Out, and the simplistic "where different works" tagline. I'm probably approaching, if not deep within, the age of Radio 2's target demographic, but I'm now determined to hold out for at least another decade out of spite. It might even have put me off the Scissor Sisters for just as long. As (the still lovely) Eddie Mair said after the radio version of the promo was played midway through PM: "Here on Radio 4, we make do with more of the same."

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

What I'm thinking about their thinking

I had already moved to Boston by the time of the 1997 election. Of course the election didn't warrant any significant coverage by the main US TV channels, but I did manage to watch the BBC election night coverage that was being rebroadcast by the C-SPAN cable channel (the US equivalent of BBC Parliament). Since I was determined not to allow cable TV into my apartment (how could a simple British mind raised on three and then four channels possibly cope with more than a hundred?), I was using my laptop to view the C-SPAN feed over internet. Being 1997, the height of technology I had access to was a dodgy 56k dial-up connection and an early version of RealPlayer. Hence I saw one of the defining moments of that election - the newly elected Stephen Twigg MP attempting to stiffle a broad grin as Michael Portillo's suprise defeat was declared - in a postage stamp-sized window containing a highly pixellated image that could just about to be made out if I squinted appropriately. I was so excited by the prospect of significant political change in my home country, that I was prepared to put up with this inconvenience for over five hours.

Now eight years later, and with the opportunity to vote on UK soil for the first time since 1992, why am I less enthused by the prospect than I ought to be? It's taken me most of the campaign to figure it out, but here's my take.

(1) The electoral system

As everyone knows, the election really comes down to a few hundred marginal constituencies. And within those, the high-tech electoral databases used by the major parties are able to identify the likely swing voters, be they 'hard-working families' (the image this phrase conjures up for me is of parents toiling in the fields, grandparents sweating in the cotton mills, the teenager daughter a servant for the local lord, the seven year-old stuck up a chimney and the three year-old working 16-hour days for an internet startup), or like me, work-shy single gay men. All the policies, all the rhetoric, all the spin is aimed at changing the minds of this incredibly small minority, the votes of whom effect a disproportionate influence on the outcome of the election. Evidence of this in my safe Labour constituency: during the entire campaign, I've seen only seven posters for the Labour candidate, one for Conservative and no others.

This, of course, is the consequence of the first-past-the-post electoral system and it's becoming increasingly ludicrous. For example, for the Conservatives to simply get more MPs than Labour, they need to be about 7 percentage points ahead in the national share of the vote; for them to have a majority, they need to about 10 percentage points ahead. Meanwhile, Labour can still be 1 or 2 points behind the Conservatives in the national share and retain an overall majority. (Play with the BBC's seat calculator to see the effect.) Of course, this doesn't even start to cover the inequities suffered by the Liberal Democrates. They wouldn't even be the largest party if they should poll 40%, and on a more likely share will still be incredibly under-represented by MPs. Finally, minor parties like the Greens need a miracle (such as they're hoping for in Brighton and Hove) even to get a single MP.

I've always been in favour of proportional representation, but seeing how it effectively disenfranchises any voter in safe seats, and any voter in any seat who supports a minor (or even 'third') party, I think it's a major cause of why so many people feel disconnected from the political process.

In my fantasy electoral system, there would be proportional representation (almost any system), but there wouldn't be national general elections: instead every six months (on a fixed date, not chosen by the government), a tenth of the seats (spread evenly around the country) would come up for election. This would avoid the concentration of political process and accountability around the time of a general election, and minimize the opportunity for pre-election 'feel-good' budgets and other policies. The ballot would still be secret and secure, but simple to access: voters could chose to go to a polling station, send in a postal vote, use the internet, send an SMS (and perhaps even press the red button).

They'd also be Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and English parliaments, all with equivalent and real powers (similar to the Scottish Parliament today) that would handle defined policy areas, such as education, health etc., devolved from the national parliament. And the seat of that national parliament would no longer be Westminster, but somewhere well away from the South East: perhaps Glasgow, Newcastle or Swansea.

(2) The end of ideology

It's perhaps a measure of the impact of New Labour on political thought in this country that there's been a return to 'concensus' politics much as the parties would probably deny it. There's an amazingly broad agreement on a range of policies, and it's just the details - whether or not to increase public spending by a further £35 billion in six years time, what formula will be used to calculate the the council tax discount for pensioners - that are the battleground for the election. As John Cole suggested on Radio 4 this morning, we're really being asked to choose just a style of management.

Part of this is surely down to the focus on the swing voters in marginal constituencies. As one psephological pundit pointed out yesterday on BBC News 24, these swing voters that the parties are targeting are by their very nature unlikely to identify with any of the ideologies represented by the parties. So the parties don't promote their ideologies, they just entice these voters with easily-stated headlining policies that are at best short-term.

For me, however, it's the ideology that matters. Realistically I won't get an opportunity to change the government for another four or five years, so I want to be comfortable that a party's ideology will guide them to make appropriate decisions in three years time on topics and issues that we haven't necessarily even thought of yet. It matters less to me what they will do in the next six months to control MRSA in hospitals or whether they are willing to give a 'promise' not to increase taxes.

I don't think any of the parties have clearly articulated their ideologies. I suspect they either don't have a coherent one, or, if they do, are ashamed of it. But without a clear, meaningful and distinctive statement of what a party stands for, how can they expect anybody to get excited about voting for them?

So that's it: a voting system where my vote (in a non-marginal seat) won't really make a difference, and a political system where no party has excited me with its vision for the future. However, I am still going to vote tomorrow: there are few things that anger me more than someone saying that they're not going to vote because "politicians are all as bad as one another". What's different for me this time is that I genuinely don't know how I'm going to vote. A surprise outcome for me on the Who Should You Vote For? website, which Chig kindly brought to my attention, has made me reconsider some of the assumptions I've had for many years.

And at the risk of sounding a boring, retentive idealist with nothing better to do (all accurate), I may even find time before Desperate Housewives to skim the manifestos before I finally make up my mind.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Mile high, club sandwich

I only recently got around to seeing Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine and Farenheit 9/11 documentaries. I thought both were very good, if a little simplistic in a "look at us sensible liberals exposing the crazy right-wing bastards" way. Farenheit 9/11 in particular suffered by seeming to dip its toes into the murky puddle of conspiracy theories without any convincing evidence.

The McDocumentary Super Size Me on Channel 4 last Thursday tapped into the same liberal consciousness and had the same low-budget style. Its subject matter was a little simpler, and in some ways blindingly obvious - I mean, who knew that junk food was bad for you? In fact I was intrigued more by the personality of the director and subject of the documentary who inflicted his body to a diet of food only from Mickey D's menu for an entire month. He went by the slightly unbelievable name of Morgan Spurlock, sported a moustache straight out of the mid-West but seemed to be living the uber-liberal middle-class New York lifestyle (something I still aspire to), had a girlfriend who was a vegan chef, and allowed his pre-diet rectal exam, his star-and-stripes briefs and his girlfriend's detailed description of his erectile problems brought on by a diet of Big Macs to appear in the film (the latter three being things I definitely don't aspire to).

On a similar subject: I didn't manage to catch the programme Fatland on ITV a couple of weeks ago that followed a group of Brits to a Mexican holiday resort that caters (sorry) for the overweight. However, I was indebted to the review of the programme in the Guardian which clarified that the flight attendant's "Piece of cake, honey, piece of cake" was reassurance to a first time flier whose buttocks occupied two aircraft seats rather than a description of the inflight meal.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Is it because I lied when I was seventeen?

I applauded the sense of irony displayed by the shuffle mode on my MP3 player when it decided that Travis' Why Does It Always Rain On Me? and New Labour ft. U2's Beautiful Day should be the first two songs to accompany me through the drizzle around the racetrack on the way back from the supermarket. However, the next two - Alanis Morrisette's Head Over Feet and Sandie Shaw singing Puppet On A String - made less sense, apart, perhaps, from reminding me to check my shoelaces more often and that it's only three weeks to Eurovision. There's a business opportunity here: some sort of £1-a-minute 0901 number where Psychic Simon predicts the future ('for entertainment purposes only', of course) by interpreting the randomly shuffled playlist on your iPod. When it happens, remember that I thought of it first.