Thursday, 29 March 2012

“Once So Full Of Life, Now So Full Of Embalming Fluid”

There was a period in the 1980s when it seemed that famous people only died on Sundays.

Every Sunday night there’d be a news programme on ITV at about ten o’clock – and this was in the days when ITV had a serious approach to news, as opposed to today, when they seem determined to outdo The Day Today for unnecessary graphics and dramatic delivery – and seemingly at the end of every bulletin, a publicity shot of somebody famous would appear on screen. Alistair Burnet would solemnly inform you that ‘The actor…’ ‘The Singer…’ ‘The entertainer…’ ‘…has died. He was 84.’ And you’d go ‘Ohhh…’ with shock, or sadness, or surprise, depending on who the deceased was, and how old, and how beloved.

Baroness Thatcher is, it has to be said, nearing the end of her life. I have no love for the Baroness, and consider her and her legacy to be among the worst things to happen to Britain both economically and socially.

My original plan for when the Baroness’ death was announced had two main points;

1: Find her grave, dance on it
2. Find her grave, piss on it.

I may have mellowed a little since then. As time’s winged chariot draws near, every man’s death diminishes me, and all that. But I still believe that when the day arrives, I shall allow myself a smile and a celebratory dram.

It seems that the Baroness has many admirers still, as one of them, a Conservative MP who I shan’t name as she’ll only enjoy it, has been pre-emptively haranguing those who intend to celebrate the passage with a little more abandon than I. The MP claims that anybody not stricken with grief is of the ‘Ultraleft’ and should be horsewhipped (I paraphrase, but that seems to be the gist).

Well, first of all, if she’s entitled to her opinion, then so are all those who disagree with her.

Second, there are a lot of people who genuinely still hate Thatcher, even now, some twenty years after her unseating.  I happily sympathise with them, and believe that those people should be allowed an outlet for their rage.

Third, the Conservative MP’s announcement is, to me, part of a longer narrative put in place by her party. Thatcher is looked upon by a great number of today’s Tories as The Greatest Prime Minister This Country Ever Had: a lot of them were either starting out when she was in power, or were very young, and have been influenced by her in a way that nobody has been by Callaghan before her, or Major or Blair after her. It’s vital to the modern Conservative Party that Thatcher remains seen as The Great Leader, Vanquisher of the Unions, She Who Freed Enterprise. She must remain spotless.

So far, with Blair/Brown’s generation acknowledging her influence, Cameron desperately attempting to be her, and most media still overawed or cowed by her followers, the narrative has been owned by those who may not outwardly support her, but who labour in her shadow.

But she will die. One Sunday evening, the nation will go ‘Ohhh…’ with shock, or sadness, or surprise, or quite possibly glee. 

And nothing ruins a reputation quite like death. Certainly there’ll be a period of mourning: it may not come close to the hysterical grief that met Diana’s fatal crash, but it will without doubt put the Queen Mum into third place. There will be hagiography and attempts at canonisation in the media.

Then, as always happens, the truth will come out. There will be an unbiased history of her period in power, there will be an unvarnished account of the heavy-handed reaction to all who opposed her, from the wets in her cabinet to the union members who suffered at the hands of her police, to the families torn apart and pushed into poverty as part of her Chancellor’s ‘price worth paying’. There will be a long-term account of how her relentless policies of deregulation and privatisation led inexorably to today’s collapsed banking system, to our utilities being owned by enormous global corporations, to fuel poverty, to the wrecked and staggering economy we have today. 

The Tories will lose control of the narrative, and those who still look up to Thatcher will lose not only their guiding star but also any shred of credibility they may once have had. They will be as outdated, exhausted and ineffectual as any member of the Socialist Workers Party is today. That is why they so desperately attack anybody who dares suggest that the death of Baroness Thatcher is anything less than a tragedy. That is why they traduce their opponents in language from the political equivalent of the playground.

And that is why they never, ever, mention that the people who ultimately brought about the Baroness’ downfall was their own party. 

Believe In Better (Slight Return)

I was in the middle of a bout of hummus-crushing when the front doorbell went. It was the man from Sky again. Different one from last time, but the same zip-up tracksuit top and big rectangle of namebadge.

“You don’t have Sky, sir.”
“Would you tell me why you don’t have Sky, sir?”
“Firstly, I think it’s wrong to have advertising on a subscription-based service.”
“And secondly, I think the people who own Sky are absolute scum.”
“I see. Thank you.”

And off he went.

Quite disappointing, really. 

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

When I Am In Charge (4)

Every person eligible to vote shall receive the following:

A record of how many days their MP attended Parliament, expressed both as a number of days and as a percentage of that sitting of Parliament’s duration.

A list of those motions their MP debated.

A list of motions their MP voted on, and how they voted on each.

A list of motions on which their MP did not vote.

Any commercial or financial interest their MP may have had in the result of the vote, ie: shareholding in companies that may benefit from legislation resulting from the vote.

Vote for me. It’d be a change, wouldn’t it?

And, in the meantime, check out 

Monday, 19 March 2012

When I Am In Charge (3)

Any politician who votes in favour of any change to any public service shall be obliged to use that service, and solely that service, for the rest of his term of office and for twenty years thereafter.

As an example, plucked at random out of the air: David Cameron, Andrew Lansley and Dame Shirley Williams - most especially the latter - shall, by law, be banned from using any private health service and may only use the NHS until the year 2035.

If it's good enough for us, it's good enough for them.

Vote for me. It'd be dumb not to.

When I Am In Charge (2)

Any company that makes any of its workforce redundant, or downsizes, or refocuses its human capital needs, or any other bullshit phrase which comes down to putting people out of work, shall by law have to dispose of the same percentage of its board members.

Said board members shall receive a redundancy package equal to the average amount received by the redundant workforce.

Any compensation in excess of this average amount shall be subject to taxation at a rate of 200%.

In addition, the company's profits, averaged over the five years previous to the redundancies, shall be subject to a penalty of a percentage equal to the percentage of the workforce made redundant; this shall be paid into a fund for use in regenerating communities affected by site closures, etc.

I've already told you once: Vote for me.

When I Am In Charge (1)

Commercial breaks on television will be replaced with either:

1) a slowly-scrolling list of the names of companies about to advertise, followed by the phrase 'They Only Want Your Money', which will occupy the screen for at least thirty seconds.


2) a monthly phone vote on a freephone number funded by the advertising industry, in which the public may vote on which advertisement they consider to be the most inane, mindless, stupid insult to their intelligence aired that month.

The creative team responsible for the most voted-for advertisement will then be tied up and kicked senseless by Morris Men on live TV.

Vote for me. It's only sensible.

Friday, 16 March 2012

I Loved The Java Jive, And It Loved Me

This is the story of why I gave up caffeine.

A few years ago I worked for a large media management company. The words ‘media management’ summon images of power-suited moguls deciding which movies would be made, which singers would be stars, which television shows would be ratings toppers, all done while surrounded by hip young gunslingers firing dum-dum rounds of creative genius into the flailing body of the zeitgeist.

The reality was that the company supplied press cuttings to corporate clients.

My job – or part of it, the part that didn’t involve chasing other departments to do their job, or phoning clients to either apologise for the terrible service they’d been getting or cajole them into accepting a slight but important difference in the service they’d originally bought – was to manage Production.

Production occupied about a third of one floor of open-plan office space. The other two-thirds were either IT (lurking down one end, their windows obscured by haphazard piles of obsolete computer junk, light squeezing through the cracks in the beige plastic barricade and exposing motes of dandruff dancing their crippled quadrille as they fell) or Client Services (brighter; many jokey pictures, photoshopped by the group humourist, of employees’ heads imposed onto movie posters. An occasional air of despair, usually just after somebody’s birthday had been briefly but noisily celebrated).

Our job in Production was to get physical copies of cuttings from newspapers and magazines to the client. A team of people, mostly young first- or second-jobbers but with the odd older, haunted, gaunt, somebody whose former trade had been made obsolete by modern technology or just by modern life, and the odder, possibly disturbed, larger gentleman who may have been a genuine homosexual but may have just decided to accept other people’s opinion that he was.

At this time, I drank a lot of coffee. It was part of the culture. My own line manager was a man of Greek extraction, nattily goateed, possessor of many suits cut to fit the man he wanted to be - a little taller, slightly thinner. He drank coffee all day, but he took his white, with sugar.

I considered that to be wimping out.

My own intake was geared solely around getting and keeping a buzz. I didn’t realise this at the time; I thought the continual low-level excitement in my head and the twice-a-day fluttering in my chest was adrenalin-powered, part of the heady non-stop excitement of modern business.

It wasn’t. It was caffeine-powered. Just as an aside: I had a friend, more an acquaintance, more a friend-of-a-friend who I disliked intensely. I disliked his Guardian liberalism, his over-designed spectacles, his intense sense of being right all the time about everything. I especially despised his habit of turning up, whether it was at someone’s home, or the theatre, or anywhere, with a Starbucks cup of green tea. It riled me more than anything else about him because our social circle would meet, most times, in places that had no Starbucks anywhere near. He’d lug his little paper cup of self-righteousness all the way from South London, then sip at it through the evening, making sure he told us at least once that we had no idea how much our bodies were affected by caffeine, how it stopped us from thinking rationally. I’d smile, nod, all the time looking around for something sharp enough to go through his eye and into his brain.

This was my routine: get up, have a chef’s breakfast of black coffee, no sugar, and a Marlboro (Red. I flirted with the milder varieties, the Golds and the Blacks, sometimes even with other brands, but always I came back to the Red). Have a proper breakfast. Another mug of coffee. Shower, dress, leave. Eleven minutes by bike.

Our offices were on the upper two floors of a three-floor building. The ground floor was retail; a jeweller, a clothes shop, a greasy spoon café, a newsagents, a coffee shop. I’d lock the bike up, walk around to the newsagents and buy cigarettes, then into the coffee shop for a double espresso. That would be sipped at while another Marlboro was greedily sucked down in the hundred-yard walk back to the office entrance, and finished as I went up the stairs. Then another mug of black instant to take to my desk, and so on through the day. Always a mug, there by my right hand, a constant in the day’s shifting sand.

It was around this time that I discovered a small but satisfying link between myself and one of my team. She and I shared a love of the television programme Desperate Housewives. We’d talk about each episode on the morning after transmission, share guesses about who the mystery villain actually was or what exactly made that season’s guest-star so obviously, transparently evil.

I’d wrap my own delight in the programme up in a subterfuge swaddling of admiration for Felicity Huffman or in a faux-macho fancying of Teri Hatcher, but I’ll admit there was an underlying enjoyment of the camp factor involved. Nothing wrong with that.

It was Thursday morning. I was standing, mug of black, no sugar in my hand. Desperate Housewives had returned the night before for a new season. She and I were talking about it. I had the familiar caffeine buzz inside my head. Talking quickly, thinking quicker, throwing out quips, ideas, asides, eyes darting from side to side, taking in everything all at once all the time. The noise of the office, the one-sided telephone conversations, the idle drawls, the click of scissor and the rustle of newsprint.

“It’s a different Carlos”, she said. It wasn’t.

“It’s not, it’s the same guy.”

“No, it’s a different Carlos”. I looked at her, mentally cataloguing the fine dark hairs on her cheeks and upper lip, the crude tattoos on her fleshy arms, the shoulders straining to burst free from her sleeveless top.

“It’s not a different guy, it’s the same guy. Looks a bit different, that’s all, had a makeover.”

“I’m telling you it’s a different guy!”

I knew that what I was going to say was wrong. I was saying it as I thought that. I was saying it as I was formulating it inside my speeding, unfocussed, grasshopper brain.

“He’s just lost weight and had a shave.”

A beat, to consider whether to go on. And then, the commitment:

“You ever thought about doing that?”

Silence. All across the room. Flakes of dust and skin stopped in their paths through the sullen air. Heads turned.

She sat down, turned away from me. Others looked. Slowly, the background office hubbub faded back up and in.

Nothing more was said. She laughed it off. I went out to the local supermarket and bought a bundle of herbal teas. They all taste like old dishrags wrung out into a stale puddle.

These days I still drink black coffee, but it’s decaf now. The Marlboro has been replaced with a vitamin tablet. I miss the caffeine buzz; not as much as I do the sensuality of the cigarette, but enough to make me think twice about my order when I’m in a café, in the same way that I want to order the full English breakfast that I enjoyed on at least one Saturday morning per month, but instead ask for a croissant or a bowl of porridge.

I’m calmer, more focussed these days. I can see the effect caffeine had on me, and I’m glad it’s not there anymore. But if you ever see me with a Starbucks cup of green tea, feel free to dash it from my hands and punch me, as hard as you can. It’d be what I deserve.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

(Guest) Staring Into The Abyss

Well, hello there!

I’ve not done more than glance at a copy of Previews in years. I don’t need to. The internet gives me all the news I need, and working Saturdays in a comicbook shop gives me more than enough exposure to excitable geekery.  But, as sometimes happens, I had little to do and a strange urge to have something to talk to the punters about, so the shop copy got dragged out for a flick-through.

Previews comes in two parts these days; the main, thick-as-a-brick magazine and the smaller, Sunday supplement/TV listings-sized Marvel Previews, which, if you resolutely despise all other comicbook publishers, magazine publishers,book publishers, toy manufacturers, purveyors of apparel and anybody else whose products appear in Previews but who are not Marvel Comics, you may buy separately for a bargain $1.25.

I’m assuming here that MP is put together by taking solicitation bumph from various editorial departments – the X-office, the Spider-Man office, etc – and wrangling it into the one magazine. But, you know what? It’s a product. It carries a price tag, it’s asking its audience to put down good coin for something they could easily source on the net. It should have standards.

That’s why there’s no excuse for nearly all of the Spider-Man solicits in this issue to feature the word ‘guest-staring’.

Unless that’s what happening in the books. Maybe Spidey’s just going to sit there and gaze intently at whoever’s passing through that month.

Ach, who cares. It’s on a par with ‘kidnaping’, a word that used to crop up on covers every couple of issues. We all have blind spots. We’re not all paid to check twice before we pull out, though.

Anyway: here’s something far worse.

It’s very easy to take the piss out of Rob Liefeld, but what else can he expect? He sets himself up for it so often, and so well. Here’s something coming soon from the mind of Rob: a revival of his old Youngblood series. Now, to be fair, Rob’s not being very hands-on with this one. It’s written by someone else, it’s drawn by someone else, but Rob’s provided the cover and his name’s all over the whole thing, much in the way that Tekno Comix used to splash the name of Leonard Nimoy all over something that had been written by an intern during his lunch break. So Rob should take responsibility. He’s a grown man, after all.

And after all, what we’ve seen so far of this new Youngblood – and again, to be fair, I’ve seen only what’s been offered up so far, i.e. a cover image and a few interior pages - pretty much follows the Liefeld template.

Here’s a character, name of Shaft. Maybe he’s a sex machine with all the chicks. I don’t know. 

Look! His world has no backgrounds in it. Just a load of speed lines. Maybe he’s six feet off the ground. Maybe he’s just about to smash his chin open. I don’t know. There’s no reference. I do know that he’s got a dislocated spine, and probably both arms are having an in-need-of-counselling relationship with the rest of him, and maybe that’s why he needs such big shoulder pads, otherwise he’d just collapse in a big pile of random limbs like a rag doll that’s been thrown out of a second-story window.

And here’s a page. 

It’s not a good page. It looks pretty much like whoever drew it took a lot of reference either from a bunch of magazine photographs or from other comicbooks. The faces on his characters are just that little bit not-cartoony, just that smidgen away from being attempts at photo-realism while, perversely, also being typical comicbook exaggerations.

And golly, those women! Look at the one in red in panel one. She looks both anorexic and annoyed. Luckily, she has no eyes. The eyes are the windows to the soul. As she has no eyes, we cannot see into her soul. If we could, we would probably want to look away again, very quickly. Maybe she’s annoyed about her tiny tiny waist and tiny tiny hips, or the short, short skirt she’s wearing. Maybe she’s thinking dark thoughts about the blonde.

What about the blonde? Well, in the first panel we can see that she’s remarkably well-built. And in the third panel we can see that her body is barely wider than her head. Given her breast and head sizes, if we extrapolate from the given information we can work out that she is approximately three feet tall. And as we can see from panel one and panel three that she is roughly the same height as the other characters, then we must conclude that this is a book about very short superheroes. Well done. Midget heroes have been an untold, criminally-ignored area of comics for far too long. Whoever drew this page deserves a pat on the back for bringing Heroes Of Restricted Growth, or HORGs, into the spotlight where they deserve to be.

Mind you, as there are no backgrounds, and as no character is shown to have knees, lower legs, or feet (See! The hand of Liefeld!), there is a strong possibility that this is simply fucking awful drawing.

Would you now read the words on this page, please?

Now, I’m quite willing to give the benefit of the doubt and allow that as this is a preview, there may be a final polish to come on the dialogue.

Christ, I hope so.

Look at the blonde’s dialogue in panel one. Note the dissonant phrase “Words and all”. Now go to panel two where this phrase is repeated, but this time as the phrase it’s supposed to be

“Warts and all”. 

You know, the old Cromwell thing. 

I read this page three or four times before I realised what was meant to be said in panel one. First I wondered if it was my fault, if perhaps ‘words and all’ was some neologism that, as a fully paid-up middle-aged git, I’d not yet come across. Then I wondered if the reference in panel two to a team member as ‘one big wart’ was meant to be taken literally. After all, this is comics. The chap with the bow and arrow could conceivably actually be one big wart. It would explain the disconnected arms.

But no. All it comes down to is that somebody was either too stupid or, more likely, too bloody lazy to either type the correct phrase in the first place, or to correct it in the second. Or, and this is scary, they thought ‘words and all’ was the correct phrase to begin with. The idea that somebody with that level of stupidity is allowed to write their own name in crayon on a wall, let alone something for public consumption, is quite simply bloody terrifying.

I’ll err towards lazy editing, though, given that the very next dialogue balloon – attributed to the blonde – contains the words ‘I can’t imaging that’s possible’. Imaging. From the context, the word can only be meant to be ‘imagine’. But it's not. It's 'imaging'. 

Actually, I’ve changed my mind. I won’t err towards lazy editing. I won’t give anybody the benefit of the doubt. Instead, given these examples and given the additional clumsy attempt at flirtatiousness in panel three that comes across as just plain flat-out rapey, I’ll point my finger and say this is the laziest excuse for a comicbook I have come across in many a year. It shows contempt for its characters, it shows contempt for the medium and worst of all it shows nothing but unveiled contempt for its readers. Its creators have thrown the least possible effort at the page, secure in the knowledge that several thousand idiots will pay for this lack of effort notwithstanding its sheer, undiluted hackery.

And if you’re one of those thousands, you bloody well deserve it.