Sunday, 17 October 2010

Pillars of.....

For anyone who has not already watched Channel 4's The Pillars of the Earth, may I respectfully suggest they don't bother. You can't get the two hours of your life back (ten in total for the series) and when you die you'll still be kicking yourself that you wasted them on this futile exercise. I know I will.

Have a sleep, read the original Ken Follett novel which earned its popularity (unlike his wife's expenses claims), acquaint yourself with the Bible or go for a creep round a real church - evensong if you can find one - and you'll have one less thing to reproach yourself with on judgment day.

Perhaps it is evidence of the chilling of legitimate criticism that the mainstream reviews suggest a slightly over-blown adaptation of a historical novel. Or maybe they didn't watch it and just skimmed the press-release which came with the freebie. What they should have been gurgling with their chins on the deck, is that it is a turkey which is only of use to monster collectors; the projects where somebody should have torched the lot rather than carry on.

When lead character Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell) is chucked over the battlements in an early skirmish he should have pretended to be really hurt; he's an actor, why didn't he try that? Or the pyrotechnicians should have done a more thorough job, burning not just the required set but letting it all get out of hand (clearing the area of personnel first, though).

Instead, it is a giant pile-up of a dramatic disaster for which no one person can be held entirely responsible, although the director SergioMimica-Gezzan has some explaining to do.

You can see how the accident happened, though. The producers, Starz, took $40 million (or was it £40m?) and hoped to repeat an earlier sword and sandals success: "Spartacus". It would also have the satisfying feeling of bopping HBO on the nose, as they think they are so cool after the acclaim given to "Rome".

Starz looked for a winning historical property and The Pillars of the Earth is undoubtedly that; 14 million copies sold says so. It's got a plot in the classic style, intertwining the highest and lowest in the society even if that relies on implausible coincidences. It has sex, violence, political skulduggery, romance, and Follett's own commercial instinct that if he wanted to know more about cathedrals were built, so would everyone else.

Starz were not mean with the sets either. If you want to set fire to a church, go ahead. To this they added a willingness to hire Britain's best-loved character actors, and Donald Sutherland doing a Dumbledore for lovers of craggy old Oirish men with beards. Gandalf? Pah.

OK, so the original author is in the clear. Follett handed them a working intellectual property. John Pielmeier then sculpted out the screenplay.

There's a convention with historical adaptations set anywhere between the Romans leaving Britain and Anne Boleyn; they are allowed wooden dialogue because it emphasizes the fairy-tale quality of the period. It's a balancing act well known to any amateur re-creationist. You have to stay in character and accept that the character can only have access to the knowledge and concerns of its own time. So long as you do that, the character will be convincing. If you import modern idioms or concerns the illusion will usually break down, unless the writer, director and actor have exceptional talents. Hmm.

Rufus Sewell did the best he could with what he was handed; the job of convincing us he was a cathedral builder, but the only real spark of grief was in him bemoaning his uselessness. He clearly knows nothing about building. For a start, he offered to begin work immediately. That's against law and nature with builders, that is. To be really convincing he shouldn't have turned up until episode 3, stayed for a brief scene, then announced he'd forgotten something and would be back in a jiffy, thereafter to appear in episode 5 at the earliest.

Sarah Parish took a spirited run and recreated a lustful mummy role of the sort we used to give to Stephanie Beacham. Parish (playing Regan Hamleigh) was required to do a great deal of the exposition as it is well known that all the male leads must be dolts. That being the case, the only other sensible character to have supported would be Queen Maud, but she doesn't.

Huffily referring to "Rome" the director got Parish to deliver as many scenes as possible while being humped. Except that in "Rome", they understood that this was to show the intertwining of politics and sex. Here, it was so that later they can re-cut it as an advert for crack-repairers. Verily, that ceiling needeth re-painting.

As for Ian McShane, we can only hope they flagellated him for real as that's what he deserves for this pantomime baddie. The role calls for someone who can portray a psychotic priest on the make; they have to be Lovejoy on the surface and a horny little devil underneath. What we got was a tetchy old quean and a hint of s/m, as if the entire film wasn't a form of audience abuse, especially that shot of what appeared to be a naked McShane trying to cram his ample frame in to a cilice. Better get the blacksmith to put a few more links in; that one has shrunk in the wash.

A special raspberry, then, for the casting directors Zsolt Csutak and Priscilla John who got the roles the wrong way round.

Sewell has already shown he can combine charm and ruthlessness when he played Count Adhemar in The Knight's Tale. He has his limits and one of them is pretending to be ordinary. Put him in as the charming manipulative priest who will turn over a kingdom to get to a bishopric and you have half of the motor of the story.

Despite knocking on a bit, McShane has the rumpled and obsessive look of someone who might have been a builder, albeit one of the flashier types. That's handy, because in this story that is exactly what the builder is: flashy and well on the way to architect. Promises you everyfink on parchment, but wait until you try to worship in it. There would have to be some massaging of the story to show why he was advanced in years but had young children, but that was far from unusual in the context of the 12th century with its mortality rates for women in childbirth.

The debacle was summed up close to the end of the second hour when the renegade nun Ellen (Natalia Worner) is accused of being a witch. Instead of saying a few words at her trial she jumps up on a long table, marches down it, squats, lifts her skirt and pisses just in front of the horrified Waleran (Ian McShane). Now, I don't know if you've ever tried this but there is a great risk of slipping off. However, I think the risk was worth it and I'm almost sure they faked the wee, but they probably didn't have to.

Then she stabbed him with a concealed knife and McShane tried to act surprised, but I don't think he was - and not only because he's read the script.

Here, have some Lovejoy to take the nasty smell away.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

La Bamba Le Monde

Over at the Pub Curmudgeon's they are compiling the Ultimate Pub Jukebox.

Graphic courtesy of Mark Wadsworth

I've proposed Richie Valens "La Bamba" because it is a universal song with the power to lift the mood. Everyone knows it even though they don't know the words.

This clip is the proof. It is of a La Bamba festival in Japan at the Saitama Super Arena.

The Saitama Super Arena is gorgeous engineering, worth a visit just for its improbable self.

The gigantic structure, weighing 15,000 tons and 41.5m high, moves a distance of 70 meters horizontally, a taking with it with approx. 9,000 seats and numerous facilities to transform the Main Arena into a Stadium accommodating up to 37,000

The innards glide about and re-arrange themselves in the manner of a tethered space ship.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Classic Cars for Low Carbon Day

Butties gone, apple crumble and custard next

Drove to King's Lynn for Saturday's Anglia Car Auctions Classic Car event. They don't let you bid unless you've registered at the office, so there's no danger of finding you've accidentally bought a monster whilst scratching your nose. Hundreds of people come for the spectacle or seeking after that dream on wheels they've always wanted to own. Maybe they will find it; such things exist and here is the proof.

This is not the sale where you buy the sensible work-a-day vehicles for hauling paint or animal feed or ladders or grannies; this is not where you buy a wife. This is where you buy a mistress. The crowd is 95% male. The clothes are Clarkson, but proper bloke jeans and leather bomber jackets. As this is an Event, not just a sale, the jeans and shirts are clean.

There are one or two golfing jumpers with plump wives on their arms; in the Mormon fashion these are men come to buy a second wife and they want the approval of the first wife. A fat lot of good it would be to have the missus at odds with the other missus.

It's £4 on the door to get in, for which you get a catalogue and full access to the cars. Unlike a museum where you aren't allowed to touch the display, here you can open everything and even get in if you wipe your shoes.

The gates open at 10am so there is plenty of time to have early lunch in the cafe, although it is a crush before the auction starts. Then have a good look round the offerings, making notes of the lots you are particularly interested in. Everybody looks very serious; as thoughtful as a farmer leaning on a fence and figuring the price of cattle at a county show.

The fascinating - it means hopelessly expensive and will take all your time - projects are the ones which have been discovered hidden in the back of barns or old buildings. One day a 1954 Sunbeam Talbot 90 Drophead Coupe was parked in a dry but very dusty garage, possibly because it needed some repairs.

Going by the condition of the cars which have been found after twenty years in store, this one might have been parked around 1970 after 16 years on the road. This is not just a car sale; this is industrial archaeology. (For a full picture, see the first link. The car is the first item on the catalogue).

Eventually it is time for the sale proper, so everyone makes their way to the great sheds where the cars will be driven through - it's generally a bad sign if they can't even make that short journey - and either dealt of held in front on the auctioneers dais.

There is a sign on the door showing we are in Kansas:

There is a tang of religion in the air which is full of the incense of hydrocarbons. The auctioneer leads the ceremony from his pulpit and everyone has their catalogue out, marking the price or bids for the cars they would have liked for themselves. A few cars are withdrawn either because they fail at the door or because they never make the reserve price at the block.

Then auctioneer treats them all the same with his manic chant, the glory of which is to make it sound like he is running on a wheel when everyone can see that he's just a man standing with a microphone. From the floor and at his elbow there are phone bids coming in from people who are giving instructions from home.

The car of the show was the surprise star; lot 96, a 1974 Citroen Pallas mechanically sound and exceptionally restored by a body shop specialist. Delta blue with a black leather interior.

The detailing of the original design shows that when the French think about Futurism they are touched by genius. The white stripe down the side, for example, is not merely a visual motif. It is a ridged rubber scuff-strip which fits in to chrome holders and can be renewed to protect the car.

This car looks like a space ship and is as fresh as the day it came off the drawing board. In the end there was only one bidder for it, who got it at the reserve price of £20,000.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Woman Overboard - Miss Snuffy

Fans of Miss Snuffleupagus - Miss Snuffy - were sorry to lose the informative blog 'To Miss With Love', reporting from the computer assisted board of modern school life. .

Her technique was straightforward; to describe an incident but not with an identifiable character but an archetype. So an episode might be about a child called "Fizzy" or "Puzzled". She would then show how the current political thinking was affecting the child, often for the worse.

The episodes were often positive, such as when Snuffy managed to get children who really didn't think they could to pass exams to do so, or when they behaved beautifully on the train so that people noticed them and smiled. One or two were deeply touching as Snuffy met pupils from many years earlier or considered the changes in herself since she set out on her road. Many were much darker though, charting the difficulty of helping a child who does not wish to be helped.

However, she was always extremely careful to use the archetypes to make it impossible for someone to recognize themselves.

Often I didn't agree with her political analysis but one thing I'm clear about: she was and is a smashing teacher who does her pupils nothing but good; not just the sense of academic achievement but in the wider pastoral sense. We can't manage with just one Snuffy; we need hundreds of them. My wish is not so much that she stays in teaching but that she opens a Snuffy factory and copies herself.

This week she shut the blog and opened a difficult door; she appeared at the Conservative conference and courageously set about trying to describe her world, because if the muddle is ever going to be sorted it it won't be done by the teaching profession sulking and failing to tell Michael Gove how the world really is; the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

She started by outing herself: she's Katharine Birbalsingh.

Needless to say no good deed ever goes unpunished. Her school has 'sent her home' and is threatening disciplinary action.

Shame on them. St Michael and All Angels, Camberwell, is supposed to be a Church-sponsored School. If there is anything at the heart of Christianity it is the voice of an innocent person speaking truth to power, which is precisely what Snuffy did.

So let's name the ingrates and fools who should be cherishing this rare and unselfish woman.

Dr Irene Bishop - Executive Headteacher (How is this different from Head Teacher?)

Chair of Governors Canon Peter Clark

Vice Chair of Governors Mr Gary Scott


Mr R. Bool

Mr Paul Brightly-Jones

Revd Andrew Dodd

Canon Andrew Grant

Mr Michael Ipgrave

Mr Musa Olaiwon

Mr John Beastall

Mrs Charmaine Odusina

Rev Liz Oglesby

Mr Alastair Wilson


H/T Cranmer, who is a friend of Miss Snuffy's.

Update (1) from Alan Douglas over at Cranmer's:

"Might this be the same Dr Irene Bishop who was head teacher at St Saviour's and St Olave's in 2001 and allowed her school to be used to launch the Labour 2001 general election?
Errr.... yes."

Update (2) Both of Dr Bishop's schools have used the spinners Grebot Donnelly to try to achieve a perception of improvement when what they ought to be doing is educating children. GD also offer a crisis management service, which is presumably going to soak up more money which would have been better spent on education.

Update (3) Having thought about it, the school and Diocese have issued a statement saying they hope to have Ms Birbalsingh back in her job on Monday morning.

Update (4) Yeah, it was spin. They just lied about letting her do the job WE have paid her for in order to try to stop the story running. They forced her to resign, presumably under the mistaken impression that this means they can't be sued for constructive dismissal. Oh yes they can. See Cranmer on the subject.

Update (5) The Times (print copy) reports that as of 18 October, Ms Birbalsingh has been approached with a view to Headship by at least two free schools seeking to set up. They know a good thing when they see one. The best thing for the children of the area is for plenty of free schools which do what the parents want, which is to have heads like Ms Birbalsingh.

Perhaps we should look at switching money away from the privileged secret grammar school St Saviour's and St Olave's, which is already failing to meet five-sixth's of the demand in the area. That means for every place 'Dr' Irene Bishop graciously bestows on some supplicant on the condition they buff-up her ego, another five girls are turned away despite their parents having the wit to express a preference. That's not success in a school; that's a failure to serve the needs of the community.

Update (6) 'Dr' Bishop has been asked repeatedly to explain what her LLD was for. It appears it is an honorary doctorate awarded by the University of Exeter.
An honorary doctorate is a real certificate, which is why the universities award them, but it is not an academic doctorate, not earned by substantial academic endeavour and subject to peer review. An academic doctor is usually keen for you to read their doctoral thesis and will gladly tell you the awarding body and the year.

Often it is the PR divisions of universities which handle the queries rather than the academic registries because the awards are part of the way the university presents itself to a wider public. A holder is technically entitled to style themselves 'Dr' but in practice it isn't done because the holders are well aware that this might tend to misrepresent them to the unwary. Jeremy Clarkson, for instance, has two - a DUniv from Brunel and a HonDEng from Oxford Brookes. You don't get him demanding to be called Dr Clarkson.

The issue of misrepresentation has been in the legal news recently. Employers have taken issue with being given misleading information. For instance, Maxine Carr was convicted of misrepresentation when she lied about her GCSEs to get temporary work as a classroom assistant which allowed her to receive payment which she would not otherwise have been eligible for. This could be serious for 'Dr' Bishop if her award was misunderstood as an adcademic degree and influenced her appointment as the Executive Head of St Michael and All Saints, allowing her to receive a pecuniary advantage which she might not otherwise have been offered.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Big in Japan

Kanji fan: Sea Wish

To Brick Lane for the HyperJapan event held in a 1950s warehouse which used to be part of the old Truman brewery.

The show had the patchwork atmosphere which comes from a mix of small businesses rather than the aggressive displays of the global companies. However some of the companies are global brands in birth as they take orders via their websites, manufacture the goods in China, then do the accountancy and marketing from Japan. A few big players such as Panasonic displaying their giant 3D tv systems, came to join the fun. Considering the aim of the show was to sell high-priced goods to Brits, a surprising number of Japanese people came along for a taste of pop culture, just like home.

The glass roof of the old store floor in F block T1 provided the Blade Runnner atmosphere of a re-colonized beer factory. In its painted brick walls it keeps the post-industrial melancholy which modern London has swept away in the past twenty years. Wiping its tears away with an exquistely embroidered silk hanky it charges you a fiver to even look at the shop. The show popped up inside the reclaimed space with its imperfect roof, a cheerful magpie's nest of karaoke, fantasy and riffing on traditional themes, such as making a fortune.

The West lauds Japan for its simplicity and purity of vision; this was nothing like that. This was heretical and steam-punky, growing out of the eclectic tastes of Japanese youth; the ambassadors of cute and the otaku (nerd) subculture. The girls dress like porcelain dolls, the boys hang around glumly and pay too much attention to the pneumatic fantasy heroines in the model kits. Much like youths anywhere, really.

The food court had about half a dozen mobile kitchens where the sushi chefs were working themselves to a sliver for three days running. These were surrounded by grocers selling Japanese brands of store cupboard goods and one or two ceramics shops. There was a distinct lack of obesity. Live on rice, fish, and chicken and you won't pack it on the way wheat, dairy and beef-eaters do.

The stall doing the most business had manga cartoonists turning out portraits within minutes; they were queueing down the hall for that. The Kimono ladies dressed customers and took their photos, as did the man who makes Japanese armour for martial arts and display.

The lady applying eyelash extensions by hand was building a portfolio of regular customers; three days hard work but she should have enough repeat work to keep her busy until Christmas. The wigs and hair pieces were being carted off by the pelt-load in their distinctive Loves Change carrier bags.

The stage ran events with music the audience likes, such as James Bond themes and snippets of opera.

There was a roving live-feed to the equivalent of Japanese Youtube. Wranglers lined up visitors to be interviewed in front of a huge digital screen. Comments from the watchers on the other side of the world drifted across the live image. Hi, very cute, you like udon, you look like man.

It is regarded as rude to take a photograph without permission so taking them requires "May I?" then reciprocal posings and bobbings. Everyone has the idea that the Japanese bow a lot, so they get the custom in first. The Japanese look vaguely baffled, bob back and put a penny in a tin for the knee replacements they are going to need if this keeps up.

The specialized fashion labels shifted more products than even they expected; by the end there were barely a handful of dresses and one or two over-priced handbags left. The inspiration is high Victorian. These are maximalists, harking back to the opulent eye which has its deep-memory in Catholicism. They use a cocktail of words; 'Elegant Gothic Aristocrat Vampire Romance'. I never yet met a Vampire who was not aristocracy. The prices are enough to make you faint but they know what their customers like and it is a level of detail and whimsy which the constipated miserabilists if western fashion cannot understand; the most they can tolerate is the little doggie on a Radley handbag.

Then, on an aisle corner, a picture nothing like anything else in the hall. The calligrapher Koichi Murai of Kanji designs has one, just one, landscape.

Koichi Murai - "Powder" - ink on paper - calligrapher's stamp.

Sapporo-born Mr Murai expresses the energy of skiing down a mountain in Hokkaido.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Marriage a la mode - gay

Veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has been chasing the government impishly on the issue of gay marriage.

Tatchell is not stupid; when he claims that there is a ban on gay civil marriage he must know he is talking bunk to make a political splash. First though, a recap of the legal and philosophical situation because to hear Tatchell - and a lot of other people - talk, you'd think it was banned. It isn't. The state doesn't have that power.

The state doesn't 'grant' marriages because that is wizarding, that is, and the state doesn't have a magic wand. All it can do is register them after the fact - and refuse to do so if it believes there is an impediment, such as one party being already married.

Marriage has its metaphysical underpinning in a consenting pledge between individuals, usually two but it can be more. Until recently it didn't make a lot of sense for people of the same sex to do it, but if Jack and John went off and pledged allegiance to each other, then there was nothing anyone could do to prevent that. If they came back and said they were married, then in their eyes, they were.

Of course, everyone would have laughed at them and told they they were not married, but that's a matter of opinion on a philosophical level. Jack and John believe they are cross-vowed, whereas other people believe a condition for the vow to be valid is that they have to be different sexes.

If Jack and John wanted to put some legal stiffening behind that to prevent bossy family and the intestacy law from frustrating their wishes, they had only to go down to the solicitor's and make a number of witnessed declarations, such as a pair of wills, clearly delineated property contracts, and make sure that they named each other as next-of-kin on health records, contacts on each other's passport, power of attorney, attitude to organ donation etc. The blood family may or may not have default rights but these collapse where there is a clear legal document telling administrators that default settings do not apply.

However several things could have been denied to Jack and John. They had no way of entering the relationship on a state-recognized register, short of forming a partnership under commercial law. They did not, until several test cases were brought, have a way of securing benefits from employers which were contingent on marriage which other married employees received. They could not rely on the default laws which normally govern marriage, nor the transfer of assets between the pair without tax. They could not force people in legal terms to recognize their binary relationship, but for all that, in their own eyes they were still married.

Various test cases and subsequent legislation dealt with the issue of partners being eligible for benefits on a non-discriminatory basis. A way to register a partnership and the remaining legal benefits was made, and called civil partnership. The naming was tactful; it was so that legislation could be got through without arguing about the label on the outside of the box for the next squillion years.

Inside the box, it is a civil marriage. Inside the box, all civil marriage is, is a publicly witnessed and registered mutual recognition of wishing to be accorded a particular status which then attracts certain legal rights, such as transfer of assets between partners without taxation.

Thus the benefits of same-sex marriage were secured for the people who wanted it. The paltry price for this was the name. Bargain. Register the civil partnership in the office, then, afterwards, hold what ever kind of celebration you damn well like. Get someone dressed up as Gandalf to muck about with a staff, a book and a ring. You either believe in magic, or you don't.

If you go down to the register office and comply with the requirements such as residency and capacity to consent, not being legally contracted to anyone already, not being within the degrees of family between which marriage or civil partnership are prohibited, etc, then you can have your civil marriage or civil partnership "solemnized" which means it will be contracted in front of witnesses and the presiding official will make sure as far as possible everyone is who they say they are, that they know what they are saying, and that the consent to what they are saying.

Your religious friends may pull faces and say you aren't married in the eyes of God, to which the answer is either "We'll just have to manage " or "She was there, She saw, and She approves".

There is one thing which was prohibited in civil weddings and civil partnerships. Religious symbolism and language. A church is a church and a state office is a state office. The state doesn't have the authority to do God, any god, and for once in the history of state arrogance it refused to be drawn in to this one.

So keen was the state not to blur this distinction that when in 1994 it allowed registration of civil marriages to happen in licenced locations which were not register offices, it maintained the prohibition on religious ceremonies. Section 46B(4)

"No religious service shall be used at a marriage on approved premises in pursuance of section 26(1)(bb) of this Act.

Unfortunately, this sensible distinction was eroded in 2005 by people who were ignorant of the basis of religion and who cared nothing for constitutional arrangements, and who have been squaring up for a long time to try to force religious people to perform ceremonies they are simply not going to do.

As the Telegraph put it:

"readings such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning's How do I Love Thee and popular love songs such as Robbie Williams' Angels and Aretha Franklin's I Say a Little Prayer can be used during civil marriages. Readings from sacred texts, including the Bible, the Koran and the Torah, hymns or religious chants will still be barred."

(Note to the Telegraph: "Angels" is for funerals.)

The point here is was demarcation, an exquisite balance whereby the church accepted that the state could register marriages, while the secular state didn't step on its religious toes by claiming to have any priestly authority. "Blow that" said people who failed to grasp that this opens the door to a return to theocracy.

Technically, the use of self-chosen quasi-religious texts is more like the pagan practice of the contracting parties invoking divine blessings, so the official isn't really claiming to be a priest or shaman or rabbi, but it will have added to the confusion in some people's minds.

The Islington registrar Ms Ladele thought she was doing something religious and 'making' a marriage, like a vicar does, which was bunk from the beginning and the clue was in her job title: "registrar". Her role was to check the details and write down what she was told, and ensure they made the declaration with the approved wording. The case was legally about employment discrimination against her (she is thinking about taking the case to the ECHR), but most of the commentariat got to the nub of it; if your job is registering things for the state, such as civil partnerships and mixed-race babies, it isn't up to you to refuse to do the job just because you disapprove of either. What discrimination? Get on with your job.

As for the civil partners, if the name bothers you, the just describe yourself as 'married'. You can't be prevented from doing so.

In some people's eyes you aren't married but they probably won't accept that you are civilly partnered anyway. The law simply has no traction over that. So What? Nothing follows from this, except if they try to deny you rights to which you are legally entitled, in which case you can take legal action.