Why I will be voting Labour on Thursday

In the style of most self-indulgent blogs, this really isn’t for your benefit, it’s for mine. The fact that I’m voting Labour will be about as much shock as the Telegraph and Mail backing the Tories. My Facebook and Twitter followers have seen plenty of “left wing propaganda” in recent weeks (hi Steve!), so I don’t think anyone was expecting me to have suddenly swung to the right. What I wanted to do was work out how I got here, and if in the meantime I can help nudge you in the right direction then that’s a bonus. Incidentally “right” doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with me; we all have to work out what is “right” for us, and that’s far from easy thanks to the depressing state of political discourse in our country caused largely by our ineffective and often feral press.

The lapsed Lib Dem

Five years ago I was a committed Liberal Democrat voter. Don’t I feel stupid now. The electoral mathematics dealt them a shocking hand which left them screwed and unpopular whatever they did. As the excellent Channel 4 docu-drama Coalition recently showed, Nick Clegg thought that securing a shot at voting reform made holding their nose worthwhile. He didn’t bank on how low the Tories and the press would sink to maintain the status quo of first past the post, which ironically now seems to be working for no one. Furthermore most of the Labour party seemed to be hell-bent on being in opposition, and the numbers didn’t stack up for a Lib/Lab coalition anyway. So the Lib/Con coalition was probably inevitable and the right thing to do.

As Clegg has often and rightly pointed out since, coalition means compromise. The Lib Dems didn’t win the election and so didn’t have the right to implement their manifesto. That’s why tuition fees couldn’t be scrapped. But here’s my problem: not implementing your manifesto is one thing, implementing the precise opposite (i.e. trebling fees) is quite another. Especially when the coalition agreement explicitly gave you the option to abstain – it wouldn’t have made any difference to the outcome, but it would have felt like much less of a betrayal.

So where does that leave us? Either the original pledge to scrap fees was a lie, an impossible pipe-dream that hadn’t been thought through, or Clegg doesn’t see a problem with contradicting himself and his party. I err on the side of cock-up rather than conspiracy, but whatever the reason it leaves every Lib Dem manifesto pledge utterly worthless. And it’s not just about fees: I cannot believe that such suffering that has been inflicted on some of the most vulnerable in our society at the hands of the Lib Dems, a party I am now ashamed to have supported.

They now see themselves as the counterweight to whoever is in power. That has some appeal, since the answer so often lies somewhere between the two extremes. That leaves me broadly untroubled by them having an influence in government, but with absolutely no positive reason to vote for them. They’re like the referee – they have a job to do, but nobody pays to see them. (A sporting analogy? What the hell has happened to me?)

UKIP and the Greens: Hell no, and sorry but no

A quick word on UKIP, if we must. And the word is no. Just no. While blaming all of our woes on the EU and immigration has a simplistic appeal, it doesn’t cut it. The EU is far from perfect and changes are needed, but walking away is not the answer. I work in higher education which benefits massively from EU research funding; leaving the EU would be catastrophic for our sector. But nobody talks about that, because frankly nobody (me included) can unravel the complexity of the EU issue. That’s why I don’t want a referendum; that and the fact I think it’s a completely inappropriate issue to spend the next two years fighting over when there are far more important things for us to deal with.

Anyway, UKIP’s message is constantly, repeatedly and irrecoverably undermined by the fact that it is a party which disproportionately attracts some of the vilest sides of human nature. And (or including) Richard Desmond.

I have more time for the Greens. Their intentions are clearly in the right place, but sadly their policies are, well, a bit bonkers. 60% income tax, wealth taxes, £300bn of additional borrowing…. Most of it is either un-costed, unaffordable or simply a Robin Hood version of the politics of division which the coalition have hammered us with for the past five years. Sorry, but it’s another no.

Let’s talk about the Conservatives

How do I talk about the Tories without degenerating into a hysterical Polly Toynbee style rant? It’s really difficult, because I so profoundly disagree with their view of the world. Broadly speaking they believe that everyone should be responsible for looking after themselves and that the state, which by definition is also us, should not be expected to help out. Why should the bin man pay for the lawyer’s university education? Why should the strivers getting up for work at 6am pay for benefits for those who can’t or won’t (a distinction I’ll come back to in a moment)? Let the top of society succeed and the prosperity will trickle down to all who deserve it.

For me the different is that I want to live in a redistributive society and am intently relaxed about certain people paying in more than they get out, at least in absolute fiscal terms. I squarely put myself in that category; far too many people on the left define the “rich” as being those earning around £10k more than they do, which has given rise to the infuriating concept of the “squeezed middle”, where people on salaries well above the national average complain about being clobbered by the taxman and no longer being able to afford as many holidays. So let me be very clear: I should be paying more tax. Every year for the past five years my April pay-packet has grown as a result of tax changes; in a time of austerity when “we’re all in this together” there is no way that someone like me, on a good salary with plenty left over each month, should be paying less.

But why should I, a “striver”, pay for the “skivers”? Because, quite simply, I don’t think that I am. Of course there are some people milking the system for all it’s worth and/or living irresponsible lives that, by intention or otherwise, require the state to bail them out. They’re the people that get splashed all over the newspapers, held up as the tip of a scrounging iceberg that is dragging the country down. Of course I don’t want to support these people, and I would never oppose a genuine attempt to deal with them although it’s far from simple especially when children are involved.

I genuinely believe they are the exceptions and not the rule, something so often borne out by the statistics. What I want is a welfare system that helps those in genuine need, and somehow weeds out the true skivers. But no such perfect system exists, and so I prefer the compromise which allows a few people a free lunch if the alternative is one where the compromise is that genuine cases suffer. I wish Labour would say that, because pretending that the problem cases do not exist does them no favours.

Let’s give the Tories the benefit of the doubt; policies such as the bedroom tax, benefits sanctions, disability work assessments and compulsory work programmes can all be seen as having reasonable intentions, aimed at flushing out the skivers. But the lack of nuance in their design and implementation mean that the far bigger impact is massive distress, upheaval and even suicide or death amongst those who need and deserve the state’s support. I don’t believe that the Tories are evil; I just don’t see how their policies can be implemented without horrendous collateral damage.

The Conservatives want to lop another £12bn off the welfare bill but refuse to spell out how, ridiculously claiming that as they cut it in this parliament they can do it again. Such simplicity is either treating us with utter contempt, or they genuinely believe it in which case they have even less economic credibility than I thought.

The Tories are obsessed by the deficit. Maybe it’s just an excuse to hack away at the public sector, but again let’s give the benefit of the doubt and assume not. Everyone needs to live within their means, whether it’s a household, a business or a country… but “living within their means” has different implications for each group. Businesses, big and small, are funded on a mixture of equity (shareholders) and debt; debt is not a bad thing in business, provided it is affordable and it is used to do things that are worthwhile, which in business ultimately means making money. The same applies to countries (in fact more so as they can borrow so cheaply) although the definition of “worthwhile” is less monetary. So the idea that we should be aiming for zero debt is ridiculous.

That’s not to say that the deficit is not a problem, but the question is how far and how fast should it be cut, and what is the fairest and most effective way to do that. In 2010 George Osborne claimed that austerity would be difficult, but the prize would be balanced books by 2015. Ooops. The problem is that the economy is a giant, self-feeding machine – suck money out and that withdrawal multiplies. People don’t spend, either because they have less money or less confidence because apparently we’re on the brink of turning into Greece. People buy less stuff, businesses suffer, everyone pays less tax, more people have to claim benefits, and suddenly the money you saved in spending is dwarfed. This is an excellent read on the economics of austerity – it’s worth the time, I promise.

So, Labour

The Guardian’s editorial (somewhat reluctantly) backing Labour is probably a good summation of my feelings. If I don’t want David Cameron to run the country, I therefore must want Ed Miliband to do so. He’s undoubtedly the lesser of two evils; my view of the major parties has long been that Labour have good intentions but mess it up; meanwhile the Tories are much more effective at achieving aims which I think are misguided. But I’ll take good intentions over effective destruction any day. And over the course of the campaign I have come to see a vote for Labour as a much more positive step than simply a “grin and bear it” tactical protest.

I like what Miliband has to say on inequality; I agree that the success of the economy depends on everyone being successful, not just those at the top; I like that he does and says what he thinks is right, whether that’s reaching out to the insufferable Russell Brand or refusing to disingenuously apologise for the previous Labour government’s economic policy (even if the public have swallowed the right’s contention that the deficit can be blamed solely on Labour, not on the global banking crisis which nobody saw coming even if they should have done); I agree that the EU is not the biggest problem facing our country; I think that the housing market is failing and that state intervention is necessary; I do believe in a 50p top rate of tax, even if I have to pay, at least until the deficit is brought down and the economy is stable.

What I don’t care about is Ed Miliband being “a bit weird”, looking daft eating a bacon sandwich, stumbling off a ridiculously shaped stage on Question Time, or that he ran against his brother for the leadership of his party. I don’t care that he was backed by the trade unions, provided that they’re backing him because they agree with his policies and not because he will compromise his principles to bend to their will. People complain about politicians being style over substance, then ridicule one who lacks style. The other day a caller on a radio phone-in said she believed in Labour values but couldn’t bring herself to vote for him. What a sad and ridiculous state of affairs.

Miliband’s personality problem is stoked up by the press, which seems to have sunk to lower levels than ever before in this election. The Mail and the Express always print crap, so no shock there, but the Telegraph really have destroyed their credibility as a quality right wing broadsheet, most notably with the discredited letter from “500 small business owners” which turned out to be almost anything but. Meanwhile The Times has printed a page 24 correction quietly acknowledging that its hysterical page 1 claims on Labour were basically rubbish.

The other factor that has got the press frothing at the mouth is the prospect of the SNP being involved in Westminster politics and wanting to have some influence. How dare they?! What right do they have to stick their oar in? Oh hang on, they’ve got 50-odd seats? The people of Scotland democratically said that they wanted to be represented by the SNP? And no other party won enough support to be able to govern on their own? Maybe they’ve got a point.

I don’t agree with the SNP on many things, not least the fact that I want Scotland to remain part of the UK – although who could blame them for wanting to leave when we tell them that their elected representatives are dangerous and should be locked out of Westminster. And after we promised them all sorts of powers for voting no to independence only to literally the next day turn it into an issue of English nationalism. Come to think of it, maybe Scotland should leave the UK. As long as I can emigrate there.

The fact is we’re heading for a hung parliament and it’s up to MPs of all colours to decide who’s Queen’s speech they will back. That’s how our system works… it’s not about the most seats or votes, it’s about the confidence of the House of Commons, which is needed for stable government. Labour have (I think short-sightedly) allowed themselves to be bullied out of working with the SNP, but when push comes to shove I’m sure that Nicola Sturgeon will back a Labour Queen’s speech at which point the Tories and the press will declare that Labour are squatting in Downing Street. It’s going to be ugly, at least in the papers, but less ugly than another five years of Conservatism which, ironically, would almost certainly see me personally being better off, just living a country that I am increasingly ashamed of and depressed by.

A final (semi-positive) note on conviction

Credit where credit is due: thanks to this government we now have equal marriage, and one day, if I can find someone stupid enough, I could have a husband. It was a policy that David Cameron did not need to force through, and one which greatly damaged his standing with elements of his party, pushed some supporters towards UKIP and probably hasn’t attracted many new Tory voters. But he believed it was right and important, and so he did it anyway.

Politicians of all colours should learn from such conviction; dare I say that much as I disagree with Nigel Farage, at least I know exactly what he stands for . If they would all clearly state and stand up for what they believe in, and credit the electorate with an average level of intelligence rather than pandering to the lowest common denominator, we might get back to a position where politicians command some respect and political discourse can be scraped from the gutter. And that will be better for us all, whatever our political leanings.

Happy voting everybody. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Categories: News Tags: ,

Coming out, all over again

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, but this week’s unremittingly horrible events in the French Alps and the subsequent reporting of them have nudged me to get on with it.

A few weeks ago I went to an event at the gorgeous new Foyles on Charing Cross Road. An author called Matt Haig was talking about his new book, Reasons to Stay Alive. I discovered Matt last year, when a friend retweeted once of his tweets, the subject of which I have long forgotten. Whatever it was it got my attention, and I clicked through to read some more of his tweets and found I liked what he had to say. Then I bought his book The Humans, which is well worth a read. I also learned that Matt had suffered with depression and was writing a book about it, the aforementioned Reasons to Stay Alive. He posted some extracts like this one which really caught my attention.

They caught my attention because at the time I was “going through some crap”, or “having some health problems” as I had coyly taken to calling it. Or, to be technically and medically accurate, I was suffering from anxiety and depression. To cut to the end of the story (spoiler alert!) I’m now much better, although one of the many things I’ve learned is that it’s not something you can ever be “cured” of. I’ve had two bouts of it in the past few years, and odds are it will happen again. It will always be loitering somewhere in the depths of my brain, though hopefully dormant for the majority of the time. And with every bad spell I learn more about how it works and how I can deal with it. And most importantly I know that I’ve felt rubbish before and it has gone away. This too will pass…. It’s a cliché for a reason.

Anyway, back to the stuffy room on the top floor of Foyles with a warm glass of wine. Matt mentioned how talking about depression was like coming out. As someone who has done the more traditional coming out as well as this one, it’s entirely true. In both contexts I absolutely hate the “coming out” conversations; if I could click my fingers and have people just know, that would be fine. By all means gossip about me behind my back, saves me the hassle. Because in my (maybe lucky) experience, nobody has a problem with my sexuality or my mental health… at worst they feel awkward and don’t know what to say. And frankly if people do have a problem with it, I don’t care, it’s their problem and they’re welcome to get out of my life.

It’s often said that the first person you have to come out to is yourself, to acknowledge who you are. It’s the same with mental health. At some point you have to realise that a line has been crossed. Everyone gets stressed sometimes, or maybe has bouts of feeling fed up, or low, or “small d” depressed. It’s difficult to spot when it has become capital S Stress, capital D Depression, or in my case capital A Anxiety, not least because you’re not thinking too clearly at the time.

What was it for me? I had been pretty fed up for a while, a few things were not working out as I had hoped and I was pretty angry and fed up about them, plus I had quite a lot on my plate. Nothing special about that – bit of small s stress and small d depression. Eventually though that spiralled into more destructive thoughts that all too easily became self-perpetuating: life was a disappointment (hello capital D Depression), I had so much to do and couldn’t get my head around how to tackle any of it (hello capital S Stress) and I would waste huge amounts of time being indecisive over what the best course of action was (hello capital A Anxiety).

Every day began with the mammoth challenge of getting out of bed. Despite knowing that getting up and doing something, anything, would instantly make me feel better and that staying in bed never helped, it’s all I was able to do. The logical side of my brain was screaming at me to just get on with it, but the hysterical side was screaming louder. It was very noisy. If each side had just shut up for 5 minutes maybe I could have snapped out of it. Then you move onto the meta-depression – depressed about being depressed. What if I never snapped out of this? Was I going to waste my entire life? Fail to live up to my potential? How Depressing!

To make myself feel even worse I threw a hefty dose of guilt into the mix as well. I had an OK life… a decent job which paid well and, despite my protestations, people thought I was good at. I had a roof over my head, which I even owned (well, co-owned with the bank). I had good friends and family and my health, silly brain aside, was fine. What right did I have to be so unhappy?

I couldn’t even explain what the problem was. I am fortunate enough to have many people in my life who I could talk to and who were endlessly supportive. One friend in particular would regularly get in touch to check how I was feeling; I always felt terrible to report that nothing had changed. How endlessly tedious for them; they were trying to help and I wasn’t giving them anything back.

Fortunately for me I was able to acknowledge that something was wrong and I went to my GP to get some help, which came in the form of a prescription for anti-depressants and some cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Taking the first pill was a huge step… I stared at it for a good while, attaching far greater significance to it than was reasonable. It felt like crossing a line and committing to this being the new me. I didn’t want to be on anti-depressants, it didn’t fit in with who I thought I was. But I was ill and I didn’t want that, far more than I didn’t want to have to swallow a pill every morning.

I don’t want to get into the debate over the effectiveness of anti-depressants, not least because everyone is different and my experience is unique to me. In short the medication made me worse in the short term, which is very normal. I have no idea how much it helped in the long run; I took them and now I’m much better and am coming off them. How much did the pills contribute to my turnaround? I have no idea. In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter.

Brilliant though our NHS is it took a good few months to start the CBT and by that time I was feeling much better. It’s very difficult to do CBT when the tangled mess of thoughts is no longer clogging up your brain… it’s pretty indescribable when you’re going through it, let alone when it has passed. So instead I spent a few sessions with a therapist discussing the condition from a theoretical standpoint, which was fascinating. Just having someone listen and recognise the symptoms I was talking about, which to me seemed ridiculous, was hugely reassuring. Another point Matt Haig makes is how you can feel like the only person in the world who has ever been through this experience, or at least this flavour of it. As it turns out we’re not unique and we’re not special. Sorry.

And that’s the reason I’m writing this. Something that did make me feel better was knowing that I wasn’t the only one going through this, and the internet is an endless source of articles, blogs and thoughts on the matter. Talking helps, and so does listening and reading. So this is my contribution. Maybe it will help someone to read about a normal(ish) guy who got laid low by this illness. Middle class, gay accountants who work in higher education and have an unhealthy enthusiasm for the Minions from Despicable Me can get depression too.

The other reason I wanted to write is because of what has happened this week. I doubt we will ever know what was going on in the mind of Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot believed to have deliberately guided Germanwings flight 4U9525 into the Alps. Clearly something went horribly wrong, and it’s right that all efforts are made to work out what that was and more importantly if anything can be done to prevent it happening again.

The reality of the story has been horrific and that should be the focus. Yet I have spent more time this week reflecting on the horror of how the newspapers have reacted. At best crass and reactionary, at worst downright dangerous, I am stunned that in 2015 we have seen the headlines that we did this week. I would give some examples, but frankly it’s too depressing (pun intended). To attempt to understand Lubitz’s condition is not to condone his actions, and demonising or scare-mongering about mental health will only serve to fuel the stigma and deter vulnerable people from opening up about it, which clearly was a major factor in this case. This nonsense has to stop. Now. It’s unhelpful, it’s dangerous and, frankly, it really pisses me off.

As my mouse veers towards the “Publish” button, I feel like I should be nervous… what if, for example, an employer reads this? What if the newspapers are simply reflective of their attitude to mental health? Could I be damaging my career? I’m pleased to say that my current employer is incredibly supportive on issues like this. And as for a future employer, if they do have a problem then I probably don’t want to work for them anyway. Their loss.

 

PS In the style of a sincere end credits voiceover, if you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this blog, I would recommend having a read of Mind’s website which has some excellent resources and advice. Go and see your GP… they won’t roll their eyes and laugh you out of their office, honest. Read Matt Haig’s book. And talk to someone (even me if you like), it helps.

Categories: Life Tags:

Thoughts on… Television Centre

I have spent a worryingly ample amount of time over the past few days indulging in some nostalgia of a seriously geeky variety. Since others haven’t shied away from joining in I thought I would engage in some unashamed self-indulgence and share my thoughts and memories on the closure of BBC Television Centre (TVC).

I’ve always been a bit of a telly geek – alright, I’ve been a geek of many varieties. When I was a kid I loved the idea of working in TV, in the way that some kids want to be astronauts or footballers. The sadly abandoned tradition of the live Saturday morning shows (Going Live, Live & Kicking…) were incredibly exciting, not least as to some extent they broke the fourth wall and exposed some of the mechanics of broadcasting. Those shows proudly boasted of coming from the magical BBC Television Centre, once rightly described to me as “Disneyworld for TV people”.

Flash forward a fair few years and I found myself walking into TVC for the first time, proudly boasting my (albeit temporary) BBC pass. I had managed to get work experience at BBC current affairs, working on a BBC Three “documentary” about hairy women – not exactly what I had in mind, but my anecdote of building a hair bonfire on some wasteland in Docklands has served me well at many dinner parties. But that’s another story…

Current affairs wasn’t based in TVC; instead it was along Wood Lane in the monolithic and less prestigious White City building. Late one afternoon I was thrown some tapes and told to get them to “Film Despatch” in the basement of TVC in time for the last collection of the day. Having got over the excitement of finding that my pass let me through the TVC turnstiles, I remembered that I had no idea where “Film Despatch” was. The receptionist told me to “go up those stairs, through stages 5 and 4, through the Spur to Stage Door, double back, take the escalator down and follow the corridor”. I had no idea what half of that meant, so inevitably it all went wrong and I ended up doing the TVC cliché of walking around the entire centre ring (the doughnut as it’s known) at least once. Thankfully the natives were a friendly bunch and eventually I found my destination just in time, disaster averted.

News set

Me on the news set… yes, don’t I look young.

A few months later I got myself a placement with radio news. I had an amazing week shadowing programmes and learning how to write for radio, preferably without getting sued. Ironically one of the highlights related to television, as our mentor persuaded the director of the Six O’clock news to let us sit in the back of the gallery as the programme went out. For me this was like entering the chocolate factory – dozens of screens, buttons and lights, and lots of very important looking people running around and making it all happen. A big story broke minutes before the programme went on air, which of course made it all the more exciting for us mere bystanders. I remember someone shouting at about 17:58 “would someone please get us some headlines?!” That “someone” had seconds to rewrite the words that would be read to an audience of millions. Later that week it took me over an hour to pen a 20 second story for a Radio 4 bulletin, which went on to be (rightly) subbed to death.

Through a fortuitous twist of fate that week happened to coincide with the BBC’s radio festival. Amongst the speakers at one session was a lone representative from commercial radio, LBC’s James O’Brien. After the session in a totally out-of-character moment of nerve and shamelessness I bounded up to James and babbled something about being a huge fan and could I possibly, maybe, perhaps, come in and help out sometime? That led to a couple of years freelancing at LBC as a producer and studio manager – I got to press buttons!

BBC pass

I probably should have given this back. Oh well.

Around the same time I got myself an actual paid job at the BBC, looking after some of the newsroom rotas. This meant I got a proper BBC pass, which I still have in my box of stuff that I can’t bring myself to chuck out. It also meant that I got to stroll up to TVC every day and be able to proudly say “I work in there”. Obviously I didn’t actually say that to anyone, not least because most passers-by also worked for the BBC – this was pre-Westfield, why would anyone else come to White City?

Working in the newsroom was again something of a childhood fantasy, but the novelty quickly wears off and it becomes like any other office. Occasionally I would have been visible behind the News 24 set having what may have looked like a very important editorial discussion, but chances are I was begging one of the producers to work an extra night shift.

I also got to do a couple of cover shifts on the newsdesk – answering phones, booking satellite feeds, and trying to find out why the line to the Old Bailey had failed just an important verdict was due. One day I was asked to appear on The World at One to talk about Iran, but it quickly became apparent that they actually wanted the diplomatic editor James Robbins, and a hurried producer and clicked the wrong name on the internal messaging system. I’m sure I could have blagged it.

All good things (and short term contracts) come to an end, and eventually I left TVC for good. I carried on playing radio stations with LBC for a while, but not long after got myself “a proper job”. It had become obvious that to get any further I would have to go back to university and re-train as a full-on journalist. I was already weighed down with student debt and although I loved the day-to-day buzz, the long term prospects didn’t massively inspire me.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed wallowing in all the recent nostalgia over the closure of TVC, especially with my memories of the now defunct stage 6 newsroom. It’s sad to lose the history, but the decision was probably the right one. News will benefit from being under one roof in their snazzy Broadcasting House newsroom, which I have gawped at through the glass of the radio theatre cafe above. The plans for the redevelopment of TVC are also far more sympathetic than may have been. And I’m sure that one day the various new BBC buildings will be thought of in the same fond way as some of us  do TVC.

The memories have also prompted one of my occasional bouts of soul-searching. Should I have clung on? Why didn’t I make more of my time at the BBC and have the balls to ask more favours and prise the door open having wedged my foot in it? Who knows whether I made the right call, but at least I can say I gave it a go, and frankly my childhood self would have been over the moon with a tenth of what I got to see and do.

Categories: General Tags:

Thoughts on The Guardian’s Open Weekend

Picture the scene… it’s 7:45 on a Sunday morning. The clocks went back overnight, so really it’s 6:45. I hadn’t got in until 12:30 the previous evening having been out drinking in a west end cocktail bar (unusual in itself for me). The previous night I had also been out until late and still up at a reasonable hour. It had been a long week at work, and sleep had been a victim. Surely now was the time to catch up on slumber?

So why in God’s name was I dragging myself out of bed to go and listen to Ed Balls?

The answer is that weeks earlier I had decided that as part of my “get out and do more stuff or you’ll just sit alone in your flat and end up getting a cat” regime I would book a ticket for the Guardian’s first Open Weekend. I know, it sounds like the most revoltingly middle class event in history, which the Guardian themselves described itself as “Richard Littlejohn’s worst nightmare”. As I sat bleary eyed on the Piccadilly line to Kings Cross I really wasn’t sure why I was going, and given the £30 ticket price started to fret that it was all a waste of time, money and valuable doing nothing time.

Fortunately I was proved wrong. Yes, many of the cliches you would expect from a Guardian event were there, including poetry in the foyer, all sorts of free range/organic produce at a canal side farmers market and various eccentric characters milling around. Not that I understood the poetry… I tried, honestly I did, but as I sat surrounded by intelligent looking folk nodding earnestly all I could feel was the whoosh of the prose flying straight over my head. I have no soul.

The event mostly consisted of a bewildering selection of talks, workshops and debates held across the Guardian’s Kings Place HQ, the lower floors of which double as an arts centre. It’s a wonderful building nestled on the Regents Canal just round the corner from Kings Cross. I had serious office envy, although as I know too well a good looking building is not necessarily a joy for its occupiers.

Here are some incoherent ramblings on the sessions I attended:

Ed Balls in conversation

I’ve never been a huge fan of Ed Balls. He always comes across as a bit of a bully who is very keen to tell people they’re wrong but then less so to tell us the solution. In this session his human side definitely came across, probably thanks to the time available and a tone far less aggressive than your regular interview, Commons debate or episode of Question Time. His worries over the NHS reforms was surprisingly chilling, describing such policies as the moments that make opposition hurt the most. His critique of the budget was unsurprising, although again I couldn’t grasp much substance in terms of alternatives.

Obviously a room full of Guardian readers such as myself were going to be sympathetic to Balls’s coalition bashing, and much as I found myself nodding along I felt deeply uncomfortable that I was merely validating my own views. The interviewer could have been more challenging at points, although she rightly picked up on the hypocrisy of a former Labour minister criticising the current government for attempting to manipulate the media. It wasn’t entirely a love-in from the audience though, with many expressing the common exasperation of left-leaning voters despising the coalition but struggling to understand the opposition’s message. Balls’s answer is that as the public grow tired of excuses the mood would change and support would drift back to Labour. I think he’s right about being tired of excuses, but I’m not so sure about the second part.

Some edited highlights of the session are available here.

Will the internet be open?

Richard Allan (Facebook’s European director of policy), Rachel Whetstone (Google’s global head of communications and public policy) and Clay Shirky (auther, professor, God to geeks) discussed freedom on the web and the threats to it. China may be the obvious example, but as Whetstone pointed out this risks letting several (even democratic) countries off the hook. While she was reluctant to name and shame, Shirky was happy to point the finger at Turkey and South Korea. The panel explored some of the issues, both real and hypothetical, that face companies like Google and Facebook as well as their implications for start-ups – YouTube can afford lawyers, the next YouTube can’t.

Allan was reluctant to be drawn on Facebook’s stance on China and what they would and wouldn’t be willing to compromise on to gain access to the lucrative market. I think that relationship status will definitely be “It’s complicated” for a while. There was also a brief but good-natured ding dong over what Facebook did and didn’t reveal to Google and why Mark Zuckerberg’s Google+ profile appears higher in Google’s search results than his Facebook presence. It would have been nice to hear the neutral Shirky pronounce over such issues, but time was against us.

No great conclusion was reached, but it was a thought-provoking discussion with excellent speakers, especially Shirky. I ended up buying one of his titles from the bookshop, where I could happily have spent a small fortune had I not reined myself in and remembered my already overflowing in-tray of reading material.

Small society: are Britain’s social bonds fraying?

This was a wildcard option for me as I had a spare slot and there were still tickets available. It was definitely the most “Guardiany” session of my day, addressing issues around social cohesion, community and inevitably last year’s riots. Camila Batmanghelidjh of Kids Company was, as ever, a captivating listen, conveying the sometimes impossible to imagine realities of some young people. There is always a danger of appearing to make excuses which, on the whole, she successfully avoids, although as with Ed Balls this was hardly a balanced room.

Social analyst Richard Sennett discussed the implications spending more time at work, especially with work now often so far from home. His suggestion seemed to be that more home “stuff” (my pathetic phrasing, not his) such as schools and childcare should be moved closer to our work. I wasn’t too clear on how this would make a significant difference, other than distancing us even further from our home communities. As an audience member later questioned, why must we accept the premise that life should adapt to work and not the other way around?

Conservative MP Jesse Norman somehow bypassed security and made it to the stage, but generally refused to play up to the Tory stereotypes which was pleasing, although I honestly can’t remember the thrust of his argument (and I wonder why the journalism thing never worked out for me?).

The tone of the discussion was not especially combative, with each speaker largely making their own points without disputing the others. There was one tense moment when Norman attempted to suggest that Hereford was not the bed of roses you might expect, which seemed to rile Batmanghelidjh and more so the audience, which I found frustratingly predictable.

Again there was little in the way of conclusion… other than the depressing thought of what social unrest may blight the Olympics. Cheery cheery. Incidentally I’m no saint on communities – in the six months I have lived in my current flat I have barely said a word to my neighbour, and I’m massively jealous of my friends in the suburbs who not only know their neighbours but even socialise with them!

On the cutting edge: scientists working at CERN explain the latest developments in physics

Scientists communicating their work always fascinate me… I don’t know why people so fantastically intelligent and sufficiently focussed (some would say blinkered) to reach the summit of their chosen field should somehow, by coincidence, be expected to also possess the ability to disseminate this knowledge to us mere mortals. Many of my university lecturers were, I’m certain, at the bleeding edge of their specialism, but they couldn’t explain the relative basics for toffee.

The three physicists on this panel did a reasonably good job explaining their amazing work, and an excellent job conveying their passion and enthusiasm. I was definitely struggling by the end though… clearly this was due to a lack of sleep. Yet even as I sat in utter confusion, I was thrilled that on a glorious Sunday afternoon there were a few hundred people willing to sit in a dark basement in Kings Cross to hear about this stuff.

The Guardian's three little pigs and big bad wolf

The Guardian's three little pigs and big bad wolf

Some other nice touches to occupy time between sessions:

  • Over lunch in the staff canteen (a very tasty lamb cobbler) I shared a table with a couple of Guardian writers who were happy to chat about the sessions we had each been to, along with what they were working on that afternoon. A reminder that amidst the crowds there were still people putting together a newspaper for Monday morning.
  • A giant mural was created over the course of the weekend, documenting and reflecting on the event, exploring the purpose of the paper, its relationship with its readers and its future in the digital age. Yeah, OK, very Guardian.
  • The three little pigs and the big bad wolf from the Guardian’s recent TV ad were on display in the foyer. If you haven’t watched the ad, do so now – I think even an Express reader would chuckle.

And the point?

So what was the point of all this? At £30 for a day ticket it wasn’t exactly cheap, but I have no idea if they made a profit or if that was even the purpose. I suspect this was more about a newspaper engaging with its audience, trying to make them feel more connected, more inclined to get involved and more likely buy copies / subscriptions / associated services.

And the point for me? I don’t really know. It was just a nice way to spend a day, surrounded by pleasant and friendly people. Much like when I go to Radio 4 comedy recordings at the BBC, this felt like my crowd – certainly more so than the people I shared the cocktail bar with the previous evening (my friends aside of course!).

This was an opportunity to learn more about things that I knew a bit about and to learn a bit about things I didn’t know about at all, though I should probably have challenged myself and done more of the latter. My one regret is not getting along to any of the sessions about the paper itself – how it’s put together and what the future holds. Hopefully I’ll have another opportunity next year.

I’m still a media anorak at heart. And apparently a Guardianista as well. I can live with that.

Categories: General, News

Films: Oscar nominated shorts

I have spent the past two Sunday lunchtimes at the Curzon cinema in Soho, which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite places. They have been screening the Oscar nominated short films – live action last week, animated this week.

Considering each lasted no more than half an hour, and most came in under 15 minutes, I have a surprising amount to say about some of them… more than many “full length” films.

Click the titles for IMDB entries.

Live Action

Pentecost – a funny and well acted story of an Irish altar boy in the 70s, obsessed by Liverpool FC and tasked with putting in the performance of his life at a high profile mass. Enjoyable, but very WYSIWYG.

Raju – a German couple travel to India to adopt an orphan. In a highly predictable scene the boy disappears in a busy market, plunging his adoptive parents into turmoil. What happens next does however surprise, and leads to an impossible dilemma. The director successfully captures the chaos of the situation, both physically and emotionally. This was my choice for winner on every count – story, significance and film-making.

The Shore – a tale of a broken friendship through the Northern Ireland troubles. One of them is back in town and looking to reunite…. I wonder what might happen? Highly predictable, though in an engaging and at times amusing way. For me this was the weakest of a strong field. What’s that? It won the Oscar? Shows what I know.

Time Freak – the only American entry and (I’m sure coincidentally) the most accessible, the “Freak” of the title has invented a time machine but becomes obsessed with perfecting his role in minor day-to-day encounters. A simple idea that certainly spoke to this obsessive compulsive perfectionist… I definitely wouldn’t cope with time travel!

Tuba Atlantic – Oskar is told he has days to live and wants to send a message to his disowned brother on the other side of the Atlantic. Helped along by his personal angel of death. Who is still in training. And he’s got a thing about seagulls. Utterly bonkers, but kind of sweet.

Animated

Dimanche / Sunday – I loved the “flat” style of the animation, but that’s all I did love. To be honest I didn’t understand what was happening, and neither did my two friends. Could all three of us have just been a bit thick?

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore – a hurricane sweeps Morris to a mysterious house inhabited by flying books, for which he becomes custodian. I spent the first half thinking “this doesn’t really make sense”, but then was utterly charmed by the second half. The animation of the books was spot on and couldn’t fail to make me smile. It reminded me a lot of Up, but there are many other influences that those more cine-literate than me would spot. Hardly complex, but my favourite… and this time the Oscar judges agreed with me.

La Luna – Pixar have done some amazing shorts over the years, most notably the hilarious For The Birds. Oh, and the one with the clouds…. I might need to get the Pixar DVDs out. But La Luna… sorry, didn’t do it for me. Young boy taken to work with his father for the first time, and it turns out his dad does something clever with the sky. Technically excellent, and probably works well for kids, but not much more.

A Morning Stroll – the only British nominee, and as the screening was introduced by its director/producer who seemed like a nice chap I was probably pre-disposed to liking it. A chicken and a New Yorker go for the Morning Stroll of the title – actually they go three times, with each stroll altering our view of what is really happening. The use of animation is the best of the nominees, and if I weren’t a sucker for the charm of The Flying Books it would, and perhaps should, have been my winner.

Wild Life – something to do with an Englishman moving to Canada and his struggle to settle in, plus some kind of metaphor involving a comet. I didn’t get this one at all… answers on a postcard.

This has really opened my eyes to shorts… Given I come out of almost every cinema trip thinking “that could have been 20 minutes shorter”, it’s probably fair to say I have a short attention span. But not every story or idea needs two hours, as these nominees demonstrate perfectly.

Ten films, almost all worth the short amount of my life they consumed (just under 4 hours total), for two £7 tickets. A pretty good return on investment in my book.

Categories: Film Tags:

Films: The Artist, The Iron Lady, Martha Marcy May Marlene

I’ve had a bit of a cinema splurge lately, so as I’m sure my opinion is worth much more than the countless others available on the internet, here are my thoughts.

The Artist

Here’s the thing… I didn’t love it.

I’ll just give you a moment to recover from that revelation…..

That’s not to say I didn’t like it and enjoy it. I’m not even saying I don’t think it should have won the Oscar for Best Film, largely because I can’t think of a better candidate off the top of my head while I type this quickly on a drizzly Sunday evening eating leftover lasagne. I just wasn’t as blown away as almost everyone else was.

I suspect this largely comes down to the expectation/anti-climax issue. As David Mitchell (who I want to be when I grow up) recently remarked upon, when anything is built up with excessive praise the result can only be disappointment. I went into The Artist wanting to see an excellent film, which happened to be silent and shot in 4:3 black and white. What I got was a fairly mediocre film which was all about being silent and being shot in 4:3. The plot was predictable, the characters (the dog aside) thin and largely unlikeable… I just didn’t care. There was some nice cinematography, the dream sequence is worthy of note, and as a modern day novelty it held my attention for the refreshingly short running time. But for me, novelty was the bulk of it. Even ignoring the shark jumping conclusion, if this had been released in the era it was meant to be taking us back to it would barely have registered.

Some have pondered whether the success of The Artist would usher in a flurry of look-a-like/lack of sound-a-likes… I doubt it. This was about a silent film being released in the 21st century. Now it has been done, the point has been made. It is nonetheless enormously uplifting that The Artist could be a popular triumph, once again proving that audiences are willing to embrace fare that doesn’t conform to the regular Hollywood formula. There may be hope after all.

The Iron Lady

Back when I was a producer at a talk radio station, there were certain topics that would make the phones ring. Abortion. Parking tickets. Benefits. If it was 3 in the morning on a quiet news day and your desperate presenter was stuck doing a monologue and approaching an on air breakdown, you could throw one of these out and the switchboard would light up. Granted the people on the other end were generally over-opinionated and under-informed, but not every hour could be Sony award winning.

One such topic was our beloved/despised former PM Margaret Thatcher. Since at the age of 9 I hadn’t really developed an interest in politics (contrary to popular belief I wasn’t born reading The Guardian) I have always struggled to understand the magnitude of emotions surrounding Mrs T. Sure, I got that depending on your leaning you either loved or loathed her policies, probably more so than with most governments. But could she really be so bad that people, and not just the afore-mentioned over-opinionated and under-informed, looked forward to celebrating her death?

Realistically I didn’t expect The Iron Lady to massively realign my understanding of the emotions surrounding 80’s politics, which is good because this wasn’t a film about Thatcher’s politics. In fact it was barely about Thatcher at all… it was a cleverly executed and beautifully acted exploration of dementia, ageing, and losing power. Clearly for the latter aspect it’s hard to imagine anyone for whom the contrast could be so extreme, but otherwise the protagonist could have been anyone.

This explains why the film drew the criticism it did from many sides. For those who agree with Thatcher’s politics, reducing her life to her heartbreaking final years is an insult. For those that found her abhorrent, attempting to rouse any kind of sympathy is an outrage. The great controversies of her career were given moments of exploration which would have left even Daily Express writers thinking “now it’s a bit more complicated than that…”. This was never going to change anyone’s opinion, but I don’t think it intended to. If I want to learn about the complexities of the politics I guess I’m going to have to read some books, because it probably can’t be done in two hours of cinema.

Before I move on, Meryl Streep was thoroughly deserving of her Oscar for this role – haunting, moving and an impersonation that was pitched just the right side of cliché. Although I still struggle to take her seriously after Death Becomes Her. Also more than worthy of note was Olivia Coleman playing Thatcher’s daughter Carol, easily the most overlooked supporting actress performance of the year.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

This wasn’t the kind of film I would normally see. I would see the trailer and read about in the paper, then have no intention of going to see. It shrieked depth and intelligence, and while I wouldn’t class myself as shallow and thick (hush at the back) it just wasn’t for me. But when Claudia and Danny on Film 2012 and the good Dr Kermode all raved about it, I thought maybe I should broaden my horizons. So off I trundled…

I’m hesitant to say anything about the plot as I would agree with the many critics who have said the less you know in advance the better. In fact for the purpose of this “review” it doesn’t really matter, because even now, several weeks later, I don’t know what I made of it. All I can say is that I’m glad I ventured out of my comfort zone, as it’s rare for a film to make me think for as long as this did and continues to do.

My viewing in fact doubled as a second date – yeah, weird choice of date movie. To add to the fun the chap I was with seemed to be something of film buff so I was rather concerned about being found out when I couldn’t proffer some deep and meaningful analysis. After a few minutes of us both attempting to sound intellectually moved, we both cottoned on the fact that neither of us had a clue *. But it definitely needed to be seen with someone, as this one really did need to be dissected afterwards.

I find myself now staring at the blinking cursor asking what my point is…. I guess on this film I don’t have one. But it does make the point that I should try films I otherwise wouldn’t more often, so I would advise you do the same.

* No, I didn’t see him again. Maybe I was found out after all.

Categories: Film

TV: Educating Essex

The scourge of the inappropriate titling of TV documentaries strikes again. The name Educating Essex, and to a lesser extent the trails that have been promoting it, are clearly designed to connect with The Only Way Is Essex and to make you think that this is going to be a fun opportunity to laugh at thick Essex-folk. It’s a problem that I know all to well – my one and only broadcast television credit was on a BBC Three documentary titled F*** off, I’m a Hairy Woman, part of a series of “F*** off” programmes on various issues. The sensationalist title devalued what was, at times, an interesting look at body image and its impact. Don’t get me wrong, it was ridiculous in parts (I had to organise a hair bonfire on a wasteland in Docklands), but nowhere near as bad as the title suggested.

Anyway, I digress. Once you get over the title, Educating Essex was in fact one of the best documentaries I’ve seen a while.

The star of the show is clearly deputy head Mr Drew. He seems to capture the perfect qualities of a secondary teacher – the one that can have a laugh with his students, but who can also turn up the discipline when needed. We saw less of the headmaster, Mr Goddard, in the opening episode but he too seems thoroughly suited to the job, taking a clearly nonsensical accusation of assault deadly seriously and handing the situation perfectly.

In many ways this programme should have been quite depressing, featuring as it did a tiny minority of kids behaving in a disgraceful way. Yet the handling of these difficult situations by the school meant the programme was actually quite uplifting, even inspiring. Amongst the nuggets of wisdom dished out by Mr Drew, my favourite came when he was being interviewed about the school’s reluctance to expel unruly pupils. It was suggested that this meant the kids would always win, to which he replied that he wants the kids to win.

With so much said by politicians, commentators, the media and us everyday folk about education and what schools need to be doing, it was refreshing to see the reality of an everyday school dealing with everyday issues.

At one point the head and his deputy broke the fourth wall and made reference to the documentary they were starring in, worrying “what if they think we’re all idiots?”. Well don’t worry Mr Drew, I think the exact opposite.

 

Categories: Television Tags: