Monday, 28 September 2015

Friday, 25 September 2015

Sam Smith: Writing's on the Wall

It is an indication of how much I really wanted to like Sam Smith's James Bond theme that I initially thought I liked it. I'd seen a link on the website of The Guardian and clicked it only to find myself being asked for my Spotify login. I don't have a Spotify login. I don't want a Spotify login. Even if I did, I damn well don't want a Facebook account so I can get myself a Spotify account. So I headed over to Youtube, typed in 'Writing's on the Wall', and clicked on the first picture of Sam Smith.

I started to listen. The song was at once somehow familiar. My first thought was that I didn't dislike it but I began to suspect something was wrong when, after about thirty seconds, Mr. Smith still hadn't start to sing. That's when I realised it was a fake. About half an hour later, I finally found a proper link.

I started to listen. The song was at once somehow familiar. My first thought was that I didn't dislike it. I began to suspect something was wrong when, after about thirty seconds, Mr. Smith has started to sing. That's when I realised it was a fake.

This is another of the fake James Bond themes, written by somebody trying to write a James Bond theme and producing something that's deep in the desert of pastiche. It's something I've noticed over the course of the past few Bond films. I think the woeful Madonna effort, for the absolute worst James Bond film (Die Another Day), made the producers wary about letting artists have too much freedom when it comes to the Bond themes. Their response was Chris Cornell's 'You Know My Name' for Casino Royale, full of sweeping strings and penetrating guitar riffs, which felt like a proper stab at writing a Bond theme. Yet it also felt like just that. An attempt at writing a Bond theme.

Bond films have passed off quite a few pastiches for the real thing. I often think the problem stemmed from David Arnold taking over the music direction for the Bond movies. Arnold professed himself a Bond obsessive, deeply influenced by the music of John Barry. I always liked his enthusiasm and love for the Bond movies but, at the same time, to these very cloth ears of mine, it always felt like he was directing his energy into something other than the song. The most obvious example was the Arnold song, sung by K.D. Lang over the closing credits of 'Tomorrow Never Dies'. Some say it was better than Sheryl Crow's 'Tomorrow Never Dies'. As a Bond song, it might well be true. As a song, however, I can't help but think that Crow's is far superior.

And that, I think, is the problem. There's a difference between writing a good song and writing a Bond theme. When the artists set out to write a great song, you usually end up with a great theme. When they set out to write a Bond theme song, you get something that's not quite as good.

'Another Way to Die', the theme to Quantum of Solace, is a fine example. The Bond riff is very evident from the outset but Jack White struggles to adapt it to his style, producing a song that was at once blues and grunge and sometimes all over the place.

'Skyfall', by contast, was just a great song which is a great song outside the content of the film's opening credits.

Sam Smith's effort is far from the worst Bond theme (take that bow, Madonna). Nothing wrong with the orchestration. Nothing much wrong with Sam Smith's voice in that years of listening to Sparks has tuned my ears to the falsetto. Lyrically it is as bland as lyrics get: a schmaltzy list of ballad clichés hastily written down (twenty minutes to write the song, Smith claims) by somebody steeped in schmaltzy ballad clichés.

Second, third, and then fourth listening, I found it growing on me but, really, not so much that I think Smith has justified the filmmakers made in giving him the honour. Smith has the wrong kind of voice for a James Bond theme or he has the right kind of voice for a James Bond who is has become the ultimate metrosexual, as obsessed with his skin cream as the Bond in the novels was obsessed with his cars and women. I don't see this changing any time soon. Might as well try to get used to it. You can't change the world, which might as well be the title of the next James Bond film.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

A Donald Trump Cartoon

The Alarm Clock That Woke America

It all began with 14 year old Ahmed Mohamed and the clock he built.

He takes it into his school in Irving, Texas on the 15th of September, 2015. He shows it to his engineering teacher who praises his work but suggests that he not show the clock to other teachers but keep it in his bag. Later that day, the clock's alarm goes off. Ahmed's English teacher asks to see the clock and is so disturbed by its appearance that she alerts authorities. The police arrive and Ahmed is taken into custody, primarily because he cannot explain why he's built the clock. He is detained for bringing a 'hoax bomb' into school. There follows a national outcry against his arrest. Ahmed is embraced by the large 'maker' community, the hugely creative generation redefining invention through 3D printers and rapid prototyping, and he becomes a symbol for the institutionalised Islamophobia in America. Now a cause célèbre across the States, Ahmed is invited to the White House and the President compliments him on his 'cool clock'.

So far, Ahmed's story makes for a self-contained fable we might recognise. It's the American Dream writ bland. Young creative type, the stuff of which America is made, builds something notable through his own ingenuity. His genius goes unrecognised in his hillbilly school, which instead looks at the colour of his skin and his oh-so-familiar surname, and forms an equally oh-so-familiar judgement. Thankfully, not all of America is so prejudiced and that enlightened part of the nation does what it does so well: it rallies support through social media. Mohamed is released from captivity, goes to Washington and meets the President. God bless the spirit of Horatio Alger. God bless the US of A.

Yet if that were the story, it wouldn't be noteworthy. We'd accept it as believable but slightly hackneyed, especially if presented by Hollywood. IMDB 5.5. Not bad for a quiet night in with the kids.

Look deeper, however, and you begin to see the narrative twists. It makes a different story if you know that the clock was constructed inside an aluminium briefcase. Since clocks are meant to be seen, assembling one inside a briefcase does seem odd and perhaps even provocative. After all, we can't escape the cultural connotations of a clock in a briefcase. Wile E. Coyote shakes a ticking briefcase and you expect that he'll soon have a large lump of Monument Valley on his head. So were the police right to arrest young Amhed Mohamed? Is it at least understandable why they might begin to take an interest in his briefcase?

Before you decide, let's now add another twist to the tale. It now appears that Ahmed didn't actually make the clock. It wasn't so much constructed as disassembled. He had taken an old 1986 digital clock, stripped away the casing to expose the internal mechanism which he then attached it to the inside of the briefcase. Ahmed isn't a 'maker' as much as a 'meddler' who was lucky not to treat himself to some good ol' Texas justice courtesy of the exposed 120 volt transformer.

You begin to see, I hope, how at each stage, facts beget ignorance beget more facts beget tales, tropes, myths, assumptions and, soon, a whole lot of ugly politics.

For instance, when Richard Dawkins highlighted this last fact about the disassembled clock, Twitter outrage ensued. The very fact that it was Dawkins's tweeting about the clock located Ahmed's story inside an ongoing saga in which Dawkins's atheism is seen as an aggressive challenge to religious dogma. Dawkins points out the facts I've outlined above but, for many people, the existing narrative was already far too compelling. It was as though Dawkins had just stood up in the final reel of The Empire Strikes Back and explained why Luke couldn't possibly be Vader's son based on the DNA record. The disassembled clock fitted the narrative of Dawkins's as popularist naysayer. It didn't fit the romantic narrative of the young engineer and his home made clock.

Depending on where you choose to direct your focus, Ahmed's story is either about a young protagonist and his misguided actions or it's about a broader reality in American culture. The more you believe it's about Ahmed's surname, his Sudanese background, the procedural details of his detainment, the more polarised the issue and the same old voices begin to frame the debate. Sarah Palin became involved last Friday when she squawked 'That's a clock, and I'm the Queen of England'. To which you are compelled to reply: but it is a clock. It's just not the idealised notion of a clock that Palin prefers alongside her idealised notions of American, Muslim, or, indeed, Queen.

Yet, in truth, nobody but Ahmed knows why he dismantled a clock and put it inside a suitcase. His mind will be a messy nest of cultural influences, teenage angst and spirited imagination. Really, it's of no significance why he did what he did. Despite whispers of political motives and the influence of family members, in all likelihood it's probably just the dumb kind of thing that most kids do at that age. Much more telling is why the story around Ahmed has become more complex than any clock. The story has multiple interpretations, each vying for the status of accepted truth. Mohamed is at once innocent, knowing, naive,  harmless, malicious, exploited and exploiter.

It might be a long time until another story quite like that of Ahmed Mohamed and his clock comes along, meaning so much, so differently, to so many different people. For now, it is fascinating to view the fractures in American society through such a multi-faceted prism.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Talking Archbishopric Over There...

Over at The Spectator Coffee House, something I've written about The Archbishop of Canterbury and the refugee crisis.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Pig, Pig, Glorious Pig

I've written my 'defence' of David Cameron and pork over at The What and the Why.  If you're interested in the politics of pigs, it might be worth you clicking.

This is the droid you're looking for...

I say with pride that I am a nerd. I'm also an older nerd who fell in love with the original Star Wars and spent most of my life hoping to see more from the grimy counter universe to Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry's creation may have been more intellectually sound but Star Wars was more emotional. It was bleaker and filled with as much moral ambiguity as it was filled with space junk.

Star Wars was perhaps the first science fiction movie (or, at least, the first I saw ) to introduce a note of grunge which later became commonplace. Star Wars dropped its heroes into a trash compactor in which the technology of an advanced civilization was being reduced to garbage. Where Star Trek want us to feel slavish to our technological future, Star Wars reminded us of the hubris of technology. Hard to believe given the revolution in marketing it spawned but Star Wars even seemed to have an anti-consumerist message. What other film could make us want to indulge in religious asceticism quite like that involved in becoming a Jedi? What other film before or since made young boys lust after a old hunk of junk quite like we lusted after the Millenium Falcon? What other film taught that mastery of skill was more powerful than the material wealth of an empire?

When George Lucas revived the franchise with his prequel trilogy, fans were excited and then confused as he produced three films which rejected the grime for a CGI process that gave everything a slightly unreal sheen. I always remember feeling a great sense of disappointment when I saw the Naboo royal cruiser land half an hour into Episode One. Slick like the Blackbird spy plane and entirely reflective, it just didn't fit into the Star Wars universe I knew and loved. Worst of all, Lucas produced in Jar Jar Binks a character straight from a corporate toy department. In looks, voice, and manner, Jar Jar was annoying but what irritated most of all was the sense that the films were merely a vehicle for marketing.

When Disney bought the franchise (itself a horrible word), they promised a return to the original aesthetic. So far, they seem to have made wise decisions. The films are being made on real sets, with practical special effects replacing the green screens. Whilst hiring J.J. Abrams for the first sequel appears a safe choice, hiring Garath Edwards shows ambition for the future. The opening shot of the first trailer is also promising. It was a ruined Star Destroyer and this certainly feels like the Star Wars world, where ruin and spectacle sit side by side. It remains to be seen if the shining chromium seen elsewhere in the trailer is a minor part of the aesthetic but, in my eyes, if felt too Battlestar Galactica to be truly Tattooine.

It might sound fanboyish to pick out something so meaningless as the shininess of a character's armour but there's something else going on with the relaunch of Star Wars that makes me wary. We are still a couple of months from the premier of The Force Awakens and already the market is saturated with gleaming merchandise. Lucas (and Spielberg) were never above profiting through merchandising but this is something different. This is merchandising done by the kings of the industry. This is merchandising on the Disney scale.

Slowly it begins to dawn that the beloved films of childhood have become something else. They are claws buried so deep in our collective consciousness that we have no way of resisting their pull. They have now be harnessed to the most powerful marketing machine on the planet and we're about to be dragged over some rough terrain. I wonder how we'll all feel about Star Wars after five or ten years and maybe as many sequels because, apparently, there will be a new Star Wars movie appearing in cinemas every summer (or winter). Disney have seen the success of Marvel and found an even more potent mythology to leverage. I know I'm in a minority but I feel jaded before this has all begun. Marvel's universe never particularly excited me but it has certainly diminished with repeat visits. With a few exceptions, such as the Branagh helmed Thor (2011), I've looked on the Marvel films with increasingly indifference. Stan Lee's work reminds me of the excited imagination of an over-stimulated schoolboy, with the world of Valhalla existing side by side with the genetic freakery of Hulk and the mad science of Spiderman. I remain baffled by the excitement of fanboys who claim that the Toxic Nosewrangler never wore spats or that Ostritchman would never have formed an alliance with Shazzam Fiddlesticks. I'm left wanting to scream: NONE OF THIS MAKES SENSE!

Insofar as I've never much of a Marvel fan (Netflix's excellent Daredevil being another recent exception), the plundering of that mythos hasn't really troubled me. Star Wars is a different matter. I fear that the sheer joy those films gave me as a child will be used to manipulate me as an adult; turning the latent anti-consumerist message of the originals into a total assault on the wallet. The BB-8 droid toy is already this year's most wanted (and pointless) toy. I doubt if it will be the last.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Anthem for Doomed Truth

The problem with freedom is that other people simply refuse to use it in ways you approve. Take Jeremy Corbyn: elected leader of Britain's Labour Party one day, refusing to sing the national anthem the next. War veterans are right to feel upset. They didn't fight for freedom just so people would have the freedom to choose their gods, politics, and songs to sing. And it’s not as though Jeremy has a problem squeezing a lung or two in public. Earlier in the week, he gave a rousing performance of the Red Flag in a London pub. It staggers belief! The new Labour leader singing the semi-official anthem of The Labour Party. Just what was he thinking?

You see, amid all the media outrage is a rarely spoken truth about freedom: we are free to do whatever it is that the majority tell us to do. Britain is a liberal and wonderfully open-minded nation, so long as you're thinking and saying what the liberal and wonderfully open-minded people think and say. Heaven forbid that you dare offer an alternative point of view on war, terrorism, migration, civil liberties, Europe, policing, crime, gender, housing, cycling, unions, beards, smoking, drugs, druids, drones, Scotland, trains, tattoos, teaching, One Direction, ethnic studies, football, Crufts, television, HS2, or ethic spoon medicine. Dare to defend a rapist and the mob will tear you to pieces, just like they did with TV presenter and journalist, Judy Finnigan, when she recently tried to make a nuanced point about a footballer's rape case. Don't mention hunting lest you provoke the opprobrium of the Countryside lobby who attacked BBC naturalist Chris Packham when he dared to express an opinion on a subject he's considered an expert. A man can't even say that Elton John's latest album rots his ears without that being taken as an attack on the entire LGBT community.

Of course, both the political left and right have their own protected airspace. On the left, it's union rights, minimum wage, and equality. On the right it's the monarchy, law and order, and immigration. There are broader taboos which exist in the public sphere and you can usually tell when you've strayed because you'll receive the 'you can't say that' warning from work colleagues. It's the nature of public opinion that the current safe zone moves like starlings on the wing: a large homogenous mass, keeping the stragglers in order should they move counter to the prevailing direction.

The problem with this is that it rarely allows true freedom of speech and popularity doesn't itself prove an objective truth. Simply because something is acceptable to the masses, it doesn't mean that an attitude is right. In the 1970s, racism, sexism and homophobia were lauded as good old honest British traits. Those who didn't play by the common rules were condemned as either outdated or misguided when decades later they would be seen as visionary or brave.

In truth, most of us know this already. There's nothing here that isn't common sense. It really comes down to how we each act based on our convictions. Most of us are pretty cowardly when it comes to our deeply held convictions. We sometimes profess to likes and dislikes simply in order to fit into the crowd. It's why the ballot box is protected and votes are (supposedly) anonymous. It takes a brave person to stand apart when they know it will draw people's ire.

Personally, I'm not much of a republican but neither am I much of a monarchist. I dislike the media sandstorms that surround the Royal Family but I appreciate the value of having a non-political head of state. I am, however, a confirmed atheist and singing 'God save the Queen' always sticks in my throat. Yet I'd have probably mumbled along to save myself the trouble of explaining myself. Laziness would have led me to mumble something. And perhaps that's what we're missing here. Corbyn could have taken the easy route. He could have moved his lips and no questions would have been asked. He didn't and that says something creditable about his character. It's just a shame that it plays into a convenient narrative for the right wing press.

Because, really, veterans are wrong to feel offended. They should be proud that their sacrifices allowed us to have a nation where individuals still have a right to express their opinion. Sacrifice in the name of your country is one of the noblest acts but let's not confuse it with the cheap tricks of politicians and the press who use talk of sacrifice, honour, memory and patriotism for their own shameful ends.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The Spine's Beckham Podcast: What exactly art thou Romeo?

Audio version above. The text below.

There are few good things you can say about international football. FIFA corruption remains a constant source of amusement should you care nothing about the game. Occasionally, a lower team will triumph over one of the bigger football nations or some small symbol of sportsmanship will occur on the field, a gesture of humanity might happen off it. A regular source of warmth usually occurs before the start of the bigger matches. The teams will walk out onto the field, each led by a mascot holding the captain's hand. The mascot will usually be a child given the honour because, in some way, they deserve such an honour. They will have done something, achieved something, or endured something that sets them apart. They are deserving and that's all that matters. The crowd applauds them onto the field and, hopefully, the mascots will feel lifted for a brief span of their often troubled lives.

Last night England played Switzerland at Wembley as part of the qualifying for the 2016 European Chaptionship. It was a special night -- the night Wayne Rooney would become England's most prolific goalscorer -- and the honour of leading out the team was suitably special. So, naturally, the mascot chosen by the FA was a young disadvantaged lad called Romeo.

Looking at him, you might wonder what ails young Romeo but therein lies the surprise. There's nothing much wrong with Romeo. Romeo is just your average thirteen year old male model, recently forced to become the face of Burberry whilst struggling to hold down a place at Arsenal's football academy. Like most boys his age, he has been brought up well, watched over by his godmother, a jobbing actress called Elizabeth Hurley, and a struggling star of cabaret called Sir Elton, who also happens to be his godmother. His home life is the same as any young lad who works hard at school and then rides back to his unassuming little home in California, Dubai or the South of France. His mother is a seamstress who doesn't sew, draw, design, or even make clothes but she knows talented people that do and she makes a humble living taking all the credit... His father works in the advertising industry. Sorry, scratch that. His father is the advertising industry. He sells everything and anything.

Sarcasm, said Doctor Johnson, is the lowest form of wit which is a damn shame. If I knew of a form of humour lower, I'd adopt that instead because, really, there's no depth low enough to go about this. I also know I'll get hell whatever I say  so I might as well get it over with...

Which training ground ball sack at the Football Association thought it wise, acceptable or even fair to allow David Beckham's son to be the England mascot? I know some look at David Beckham as an example of aspiration, success and even excellence but others look on him as a symbol of national decline. They remember Beckham as instrumental in the birth of the 'metrosexual', that strange breed of radically consumerised men who obsess over their appearance and spend a fortune on grooming products. Beckham is the spiritual father of the 'me' generation, the spiritually vacant generation consisting of the self-consumed and the self-oblivious. Beckham was the role model for the feminisation of male culture, marrying extravagantly bad taste (both literally and figuratively) with a flair for the completely vacuous. There were better footballers of his generation -- in fact, quite a few better footballers -- but Beckham was the one the world grew to know because... Well, because...

And therein lies the problem. There really is no reason for the brand Beckham to continue to persist. Beckham doesn't do anything or the things he does are completely unnoteworthy. They're things like arranging for his son to lead the England team out onto the pitch. He has a remarkable capacity for shallow acts. He's there to light torches, point at fireworks, shake a business leader's hand. He wears a suit or poses with a watch or he lounges in his underpants. He steers a speeding motorboat up the Thames during the Olympic opening ceremony, looking so suave and debonair, whilst beneath the dashboard, some poor sod is sweating beneath layers of black clothing as they actually steer the boat via a monitor.

It would be difficult to think of any person so rich, famous or popular who does so much of absolutely no significance. And that is precisely his appeal: Beckham is an almost entire absence of meaning. He's a blank canvas onto which any promoter can project their image. Yet nothing symbolises the sheer banality of Beckham than the moment he opens his voice. Then that vision of the handsome trend-setter comes crashing as the style gives way to the absence of substance. A voice like a broken speaker lodged in a Disneyland duck pours out a series of hackneyed clichés.

It's no wonder that he can so easily arrange these presents for his children. Britain is a nation formed in Beckham's image. His is the ambassador for the sleeve tattoo, the religious groin mural, the buttock rollcall. Yet the truly staggering fact is that this capacity for spectacular insignificance has been passed down to his children, who live their lives as though their accomplishments are behind them and they now have nothing left to prove.

I suppose we should be grateful that this nepotism is bold and obvious. It means I needn't waste my breath to highlight how the country might claim to be egalitarian and a meritocracy but the harsh reality is that all the good jobs have been snapped up by relatives of people who decide who gets the good jobs. Instead of talking about nepotism, I can talk about the Beckham legacy and how the meaningful is turned into the meaningless. A single significant moment has been taken away from some child to whom it would have meant the world. Instead, Romeo Beckham experiences one of many privileges he's enjoyed in his thirteen years; another rarity that will never be experienced by ninety nine dot nine nine percent of the British adult population.

It's not simply unfair or morally wrong. It's more than that. It's the negation of every life affirming spirit you might enjoy. It makes you wonder why you should even get out of bed in the morning. Look upon it and realise that your world really belongs to them. Watch them enjoy it and then you may weep.


Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Precision-Guided Cynicism

'I'll tell you what,' said the man on the 141, lowering his paper. 'I agree with what that David Cameron's done.'

'What's that?' asked the woman, who was coincidentally also on the 141 but gazing out the window towards Boots.

'He's had them bloody British Isis fighters blown up. Good riddance to 'em!'

'They were going to shoot the Queen,' tutted the woman. 'We can't be having that!'

'Indeed we can't!' I thought to myself from the seat behind.

The man and woman on the 141 were pretty typical of the mood on Britain's buses this Tuesday morning. 'Wham! Bam! ..Thank you Cam' was the exact headline on the day's edition of The Sun. I say 'exact' because I'm less sure about the legitimacy of their punctuation than I am sure about the legitimacy of the drone strikes. If running off to join a theocratic death cult seeking to replace all democracies in the world with a caliphate through forms of barbaric torture, abuse and murder doesn't make you the legitimate target for precision munitions, then I don't know what does. The only mildly questionable part of the action was the targeting of British nationals. Depending on how you spin your logic, this was either an act of national self defence or an example of state sanctioned assassination. A nation meting out justice to its own nationals seems reasonably more acceptable than meting justice out on non-nationals but others might argue the opposite. The difference is a matter for the lawyers to write cheques about. In most people's minds, the Daesh fighters gave the government legitimacy the moment they tried to weaponise their passports.

Yet beyond the general sense of it being a case of 'one of up for the good guys', David Cameron has here set quite the precedent. The UK government now claims the right to kill any person on the planet who threatens our national security. Just so long as they have the approval of a majority of people on the nation's buses, Cameron et al are on firm ground. Indeed, standing at the Despatch Box, Cameron seemed immune to criticism. He repeated a defence that has been used countless times by Prime Ministers before him. 'My first duty as Prime Minister is to keep the British people safe. That is what I'll always do. [...] I'm not prepared to stand here in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on our streets and have to explain to the House why I did not take the chance to prevent it when I could have done'.

Again, there's little to criticise in the specific details. This was a black and white case of the good guys taking out the bad. Yet set this into the broader context and you might begin to feel that the black and whites do occasionally slide into to grey.

What makes me pause to think is the timing of this murky business. These strikes took place on the 21st of August, two weeks before Cameron stood up in the Commons. It felt like such a convenient time to make this announcement. A day before, Cameron had been the subject of widespread condemnation as the British government repeatedly tried to hide behind the curtains as the world looked for somebody to aid the Syrian refugees. A day later, the couple on the 141 bus had forgotten all about the refugees and were full of praise for their Leader. Clever? Convenient? Planned? Is there any coincidence that long-term Cameron friend, Rebekah Brooks, returned to News UK (owners of The Sun) just last week? Is it a case of The Sun what spun it?

Secondly, this announcement comes just days before the Labour leadership election. It's been widely reported that the Conservatives are looking forward to testing the anti-war resolve of Labour's new leader, whichever candidate called Jeremy Corbyn might win. The drone strikes were possibly the first stage in that political war and we can expect to see the distinctions grow finer between waging an air campaign over Syria and fighting a proxy war fought trough drones. Cameron readily talks about 'meticulous planning' and this 'precision airstrike' but, tellingly, he didn't mention 'drone' (the commonplace term) but 'remotely piloted aircraft' which makes it feel so much more conventional. I should also imagine that much of the ordinance dropped from UK aircraft has the word 'precision' stencilled somewhere on their casing. It leaves me to wonder if the remarkable part of this story isn't the precision nature of the weapon but the precision nature of the politics. It wasn't the military operation that was well planned. It was the way the story was deployed at a moment of government crisis. The story left a front page crater a headline wide. The Syrian refugee story never had a chance.