Saturday, May 31, 2003

I've often thought that the sole purpose of Alexander Chancellor's column in Guardian Weekend is merely to serve as a calming piece of blandness to calm readers back down after reading Julie Burchill, whose column is on the page preceding his. However, he did have something of actual interest to say today:

It is possible to love America, as I do, while realising how little Britain has in common with it. In fact, it is its very strangeness that makes it irresistible.

It gets close to my own feelings about America, that sense of difference wrapped in a surface of familiarity. One of things I discovered during my travels last year is that America is vastly different to Britain, but we often miss these differences because of the fact we use the same language - or very similar ones, at least. It's something to bear in mind among when all the accusations of anti-Americanism are being thrown around.
Anyone got a spare $4,500,000?
There's some good snarking and spleen-venting in the Independent's Lousy Reads list (found via Tom at bbCity). Just fifty of the usual suspects for this kind of thing (probably the first fifty people who answered the phone when the Indy called) identifying their 'worst reading experiences'. Some of them are quite amusing, some of them are pretty much exactly what you'd expect that person to say (Pilger, Widdecombe and Scruton's comments could all have been written by Craig Brown). However, my favourite quote of the lot is Alain De Botton on Lord of the Rings:

It's strange, weird and frightening, and makes me feel like I'm on the sidelines of a joke I don't understand.

Which is almost exactly how I feel about the career of Alain De Botton.
I watched the Japanese film Battle Royale a couple of weeks ago. It was one of those films on my 'I really ought to watch that sometime' list, but had never got the chance to catch it (there's a rant there about the distribution of films outside of London, but we'll leave it for another time) and it managed to win out over everything else in Blockbuster. It's an excellent film, well worth watching if you get the chance.

There's a lot of parallels between Battle Royale and the American independent film Series 7: The Contenders in that both depict an officially-sanctioned game in which a group of randomly-selected contestants are armed and then sent out to kill each other, with only one being left alive at the end. Series 7 came out about a year after Battle Royale, but I don't believe there was any direct influence of one on the other because, while the two films have a similar basic story, they differ greatly in the telling of that story and also in the message they carry.

Series 7 is essentially just a satire on reality TV, especially game shows like Big Brother and Survivor. Here, the killing is essentially just that - effectively licensed murder for entertainment - and while Battle Royale uses it to carry a deeper meaning of the film, the killings are the basic meaning of Series 7, the message being 'this is what TV would be like if they got the chance'. There are some hints of a larger back story that's not being revealed - Franklin's speech after killing Lindsay, the replacement of Dawn and Jeffrey's 'final standoff' with a reconstruction (by the way, anyone who's seen the film might find this alternate ending described on the IMDb interesting) - but the game's the main thing, and the show that surrounds it with all the usual TV hype is what's being satired here.

Battle Royale, on the other hand, presents its game as a fundamental part of a near-future post-'collapse' Japan, as well as using it to make a deeper point about the relationship, and unspoken competition, between generations. This is probably because it's an adaptation of a Japanese novel and, as such, it has more to work with. Here, the older generation have decided that Japan's faults are because of the fecklessness of the younger generation, and they need something to buck themselves up. So far, so Daily Telegraph letters page, you might think, but this is where the 'Battle Royale Act' comes in - every year, one class of schoolchildren is chosen, taken to an island and given 72 hours to kill each other. If more than one survives by that point, they're all killed.

It's a quite extraordinarily violent film with over 40 people dying during it, and each one happening in quite graphic detail. However, this isn't gore for the sake of gore - even though the violence in Japanese films tends to be more graphic (and perhaps closer to reality) than most Western films, the point of the film is to confront the viewer with the meaning of death, especially in the context of young people being sent to a meaningless death by an older generation obsessed by meaningless values. It's not a coincidence that the producer/director/scriptwriter, Kinji Fukasaku, was a veteran of WW2, and the forthcoming Battle Royale II appears to be an even closer retelling of his experiences then.

That's the difference between the two films, in my opinion - while Series 7 is a good, well-made film the points it makes aren't much more than 'if there was reality TV show where people killed each other on screen, people would watch it'. It's not an original revelation - you can trace it back through movies and books through The Running Man all the way back to Roman gladiators.

Battle Royale, though, adds in a whole lot more from a Lord of the Flies-esque presentation of the thin line between civilisation and barbarism to the idea of how each generation will always try and blame the one above or below it for all its problems instead of accepting its own faults. It's a fascinating film, and well worth watching if you can stand the levels of violence...and if you live somewhere other than the US, where it appears to be very hard to track down a copy.

Friday, May 30, 2003

So, I'm reading British Spin and he links to this story, which depresses me a bit:

A YouGov survey for The Telegraph puts the Conservatives just one point behind Labour, their highest poll rating since 1992 apart from a blip during the fuel crisis in the autumn of 2000.
...The YouGov survey puts Labour on 37 per cent, down three points, the Conservatives on 36 per cent, up four per cent, and the Liberal Democrats on 20 per cent, down one per cent.

But then, I discover just why they call Iain Coleman 'Mr Happy', as he has this story to put a smile on my face again:

INDEPENDENT auditors are refusing to sign off the Conservative Party's accounts because they fear that it is no longer a going concern.
PricewaterhouseCoopers, which must approve the accounts within weeks, has told Tory officials that there is not enough income to guarantee the party's viability.
Reading a discussion about mass transit and roadbuilding (no, it wasn't as dull as it sounds) on Eschaton yesterday, I found a link to Citizens for Personal Rapid Transit. They're trying to persuade cities to build what's effectively ultra-light rail - little three passenger cars that travel on high tracks, all guided by computer. They're all very dedicated to the idea, and all power to them - it certainly looks like it'd be a fun (and probably useful) system to use, but there's something very 'City Of The Future' about the whole thing. It's like those films you see from the 40s and 50s of how we were all going to be living by 2003 or so - going to the moon for the weekend in our personal Spacecars with everyone living in shiny cities and wearing brightly coloured nylon clothing. Still, I guess someone's vision of the future has to come true.
I watched The Great Reality Swindle on Channel 4 this evening - quite an interesting programme, had me taken in for a while thinking it was the story of something that had actually happened, until the whole thing became slightly too outlandish to be real and I realised that the whole thing wasn't actually real. What's quite interesting about it, is that there isn't any 'official' confirmation of it being a hoax, but the evidence (or lack of it) is out there to be found, you just have to piece it together. It was a repeat, of course, having been originally shown (and blogged about by others) last December, but I'm talking about it now as I'd only just got back to Britain when it was shown the first time, so didn't see it, and also didn't have a blog to talk about it on back then, anyway.

The obvious giveaway, of course, is that all of the people featured within it were all slightly too good at being 'real', which was a tip off that they were all just improvising actors. And I'm sure I've seen a couple of them in other things on TV - adverts, or walking purposely in the background of Eastenders or The Bill.

Also, there's the fact that any reports about the supposed swindle are only in relation to the documentary itself - there are none from around the time the swindle supposedly occurred (2001). Searching for 'Nik Russian' the name of the man supposedly behind the hoax, only gives reports and reviews of the programme, no 'independent' stories, for instance. But, what makes it interesting, and makes you wonder on how many levels they're playing the hoax is that Christmas Television, the company who made the documentary, doesn't seem to exist. The named (supposed?) director, Caz Gorham, does seem to exist, and has a track record as a director of documentaries.

This article from The Guardian, though, makes me wonder if its author, Rupert Smith, is involved in the hoaz somewhere as well. Not really sure why, but something in the tone of it makes me think he knows exactly what's going on.

Still, it was an hour of TV that was a hell of a lot more interesting than this year's Big Brother. Even the tabloid coverage seems to have been reduced to 'please, will someone just have sex?' after just a few days, and when both Popbitch and Lowculture seem to be only reporting on it out of duty rather than interest, you have a programme that's lost its magic. But, maybe that's all part of the evil plan of Channel 4 and Endemol and they're about to unleash some fiendishly interesting ideas on us - I've already read a rumour that one (or more) of the housemates is going to be replaced with their identical twin to see if anyone notices. Probably completely untrue, or someone floating an idea for a gameshow to see the reaction, but who knows? But, if they do suddenly start trying some stunts, it'll be easy to tell if they're panicking or not - anything that smacks of 'oh god, we've got to do something!' should be noticeable. If anyone's left watching by then, anyway.

Anyway, this has reminded me that I need to write about Battle Royale and Series 7 soon. Stay tuned, or I might just get replaced by my own evil twin.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

Football hooliganism has got itself into the news again, following UEFA's threat to throw England out of Euro 2004 if there's 'any repetition of the mass hooliganism that has dogged the team in the past'.

There's an interesting dichotomy here between England 'fans' and the fans of club sides. While clubs have made great strides in recent years in stopping the 'terrace violence' that so blighted English club football in the 70s and 80s, mostly by keeping the leading thugs out of the grounds, it's only been in the last couple of years that the FA have taken the same steps by disbanding the infamous England Members Club. When he's not acting as Gordon Brown's Mini-Me, Charlie Whelan has written some very good articles exposing the racism and bigotry that have dominated the 'official' England supporters - see here and here for examples.

The important thing to remember in all this is that these people aren't football fans and shouldn't be referred to as that. Like the supposed anarchists who go to May Day and other protests in the hops of just having a good fight, they're thugs who've latched onto something to give them a 'cause' to fight for. However, the 'cause' is just an excuse to have a fight, normally with whoever's around who they don't like the look of, and occasionally with a similar group whose 'cause' happens to be a different one, though all of them have the same interests at heart - a 'good punch-up'. It makes for a good argument against gun control, if nothing else - if they could go to their arranged rucks properly tooled up, there'd soon be a lot less of them around.

However, there is one thing that's become clear in the last couple of years. Apart from the disgusting chanting and pitch invasion at Sunderland during the match against Turkey, there's been a completely different attitude at England matches away from Wembley. Not just the bizarre sight of seeing the Kop chanting 'there's only one David Beckham' during the match against Greece, but a much more pleasant atmosphere in general with genuine football fans there to cheer their side on not just there to go to a few fights with a football match as half-time entertainment. It's been advanced as an argument for keeping England internationals on tour around the country rather than base them all at Wembley again when it's rebuilt. While this is an attractive argument, it's unlikely to happen, not least because the FA need to recoup their investment in the new Wembley.

However, it does suggest a possibility for keeping that new atmosphere when England return to Wembley - hand the sale of a majority of tickets over to the clubs. There are a number of genuine fans who do just want to attend England matches rather than those of any individual club and the new 'englandfans' organisation (the FA's replacement for the England Members Club) has done a good job in keeping them involved, while cutting out the thugs. However, there aren't enough of them to fill the new Wembley and putting the remainder of the tickets on open sale does allow the thugs a way back in. So, the FA should distribute tickets out to the clubs to sell to their fans, with the proviso that they can only sell them to their genuine fans - season ticket holders and members - with safeguards in place against them being sold on. The thugs, especially the real hardcore, don't have any involvement with clubs anymore, and very few of them would have a chance of getting hold of tickets under this system.

It's just a start, and it's not going to wipe out the problem of the hooligans overnight, but it will help to reduce their connection to the England team and its matches. A good move alongside it would be a media offensive to try and stop the media referring to the thugs as 'England fans'. Just get FA spokesmen to memorise a line like 'they might describe themselves as England fans, but they're not' and the media might pay some attention.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

I mentioned the Free State Project a few weeks ago - an attempt by US libertarians to gather together and move to one state where they can legislate 'liberty in our lifetime'. Now, there's also a European Free State Project, which has similar aims within the EU.

It's an interesting idea, but I doubt it will have the same potential as the US version. Leaving aside the issue of whether there are more or less libertarians in the EU, which gets into tricky issues of how you define a 'libertarian' ( for instance, 'left libertarians' are much more common in the EU, though many regard the idea as an oxymoron), the US Free State Project has the advantage of being able to choose from a number of states where they could have an impact because of the states' small populations. Plus, there is the potential to create the Free State within one of these states because of the power they have.

However, while there are some entities in the EU that have the same, or similar powers to the states in the US (the German Lander and the Spanish regions, especially ones such as Catalonia, the Basque Country and the Canaries, spring to mind), they are much larger in terms of population, and would thus require a proportionally larger incoming libertarian population to have an effect. However, because of much wider differences in language and culture in the EU, there are probably less people who'd be willing to move to somewhere else in the EU (or at least, outside their own country).

While there are smaller political units within the EU whose population may be of the necessary size (English Counties and Boroughs, French Departements for instance) I doubt that any of them would have sufficient power to make the changes necessary for a Free State, and that probably rules them out.

So, there are probably very few political units within the EU that have the necessary population and power to make the Free State Project happen here. On top of that, those areas that I can think of as qualifying are probably not going to be fertile ground for the Free Staters as the regions I can think of that fill the criteria are among those receiving the most government funds from both their national government and the EU which is the sort of thing that's anathema to the Free Staters, I would expect.

Anyway, the areas I can think of that might fit those two criteria are: Luxembourg, Wales, the Canary Islands, Sicily and possibly Galicia. That's just off the top of my head, and I'm sure there are others but my knowledge of regional populations within the EU is limited. By the way, if anyone knows of an online source for the population of EU nations and regions, please let me know - Eurostat doesn't have that information available for free that I can see.

Still, it's an interesting idea, and it will be fascinating to watch them develop it, but I think we're going to have to look towards the American version in action to see if it can be made to work, or if it'll just provide fodder for some interesting articles and the overuse of the phrase 'fish out of water.'
A few days late on this one, but reading David Aaronovitch in The Observer on Sunday prompted a question that often comes to mind when reading him: does he live on the same planet as the rest of us?

Matthew Turner has already written about the main problem with this article, but the point that had me wondering about which alternate reality Aaronovitch posts his columns from was this one:

This weekend the England midfielder Lee Bowyer, of whom you may never have heard and who has had an indifferent season, was signing for Newcastle United in a deal worth £1.5m a year. There has not been a single comment about the size of this agreement.

Now, I know David is an important and busy man, but does this mean that David has never heard of the sports sections of the newspapers? There was plenty of comment there, though, to give Aaronovitch some credit, most of it was not about the size of Bowyer's salary, but on whether Newcastle should have signed him at all, given his personal and professional history. But, David's clearly a busy man, so typing 'bowyer newcastle' into Google News and noting the many stories that come up was obviously a few seconds of work he clearly didn't have time for.
There's an interesting discussion on PolitX about the ambulance driver who's been charged for speeding while transporting a liver for transplantation. I don't have too much to add to the comments there, especially those by Ralph, who is an ambulance driver, but one thing I can say is that in my job I used to have to regularly call Cambridgeshire Police's Force Control room and they were one of the most humourless and jobsworthy forces in the country. It doesn't surprise me that they're one of the forces behind this case.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Part of me is still convinced that I'm going to wake up soon and discover that it's all a dream. I've spent most of the last twenty-four hours with a stupid grin on my face, just luxuriating in the fact that Wolves are going to be in the Premiership next season. It's not just that we won that has me disbelieving, it's that we won so comfortably. 3-0 up at halftime, then pretty much cruising through the second half is not the way Wolves are meant to win big games (OK, we're not meant to win big games at all, but when we do we make it hard for ourselves). I know I wasn't alone in that feeling, almost every Wolves fan would have been going through that same experience, that nagging thought in the back of your head that says until the final whistle blows we can still throw this away. But in the end, all the fears were thrown away, all the dreams had come true.

We'd outplayed supposedly the toughest team in the division, we'd cut through their defence three times, and still looked likely to score every time we went rampaging into their half. There was a point when suddenly belief became possible. 10 minutes into the second half, seemingly stuck in our own half, they get a dodgy penalty. This is it, we think, this is when they come back. They score this, then get anohter two, and one more just as we think we're going to get a chance in extra time. Brown steps up, takes it, Murray dives to his left...and saves it. The silence of disbelief fills the air for a moment, then, from the gold heart of Cardiff a roar goes out that spreads out to every pub in the country filled with people wearing the Old Gold, to every living room watching the game, spreading out to the fans scattered all over the world, a roar of celebration, a cry of belief, an exhalation of nineteen years of disappointment and anxiety that suddenly feels like it's about to be lifted. Sheffield heads go down, Wolves hearts beat louder and louder and thirty-five minutes later it's over.

The clock can stop ticking. 6952 days later, we've finally made it back to the Promised Land.

I was 11 years old the last time Wolves played in the top division and I'll be 31 by the time we kick off in the Premirship next year. It's like Nick Hornby writes in Fever Pitch - there's nothing else that's been as consistent in my life for the past nineteen years. There's nothing else I wanted at 11 years old that I still want now and finally, we've got it. Somehow, I suspect that there's going to be a baby born in Wolverhampton in the next few months that's going to have twelve names - Matt Lee Joleon Paul (x2) Denis Mark Colin Shaun Kenny Nathan Dave (Sir) Jack. They've written their names into Wolves legend.

For now, I don't care what happens next season. We're there, and that's all that matters. In a couple of months, I might just stop smiling.