Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

Finishing up our look at manifestations of The Phantom of the Opera we have the 1962 remake by Hammer Films. It's a very different film that strays a long way from the previous two incarnations as well as the original novel, though it does recreate the atmosphere of the book much better while dodging some of the more insane melodramatic bits about flooding dungeons and stores of explosives primed to go off at any second. Where the 1943 version concentrated on the music with the Phantom as essentially a framing device for Nelson Eddy's arias, the 1962 version is more of a Hammer's brand of horror as morality play that centers around betrayal and redemption.

The screenplay is a bit of a Chinese post office exercise; based on the 1943 version, which based on the 1925 version, which is based on the novel. Herbert Lom gives an excellent performance as a Phantom who is clearly insane (as in stumbling about his lair babbling to himself crazy), though oddly not at all evil. Okay, there is lots of hangings and eye-stabbings, but that's due to the Phantom's overachieving servant. Before you think that Hammer all of sudden went soft, bear in mind that the 1962 version was written especially for Cary Grant, who was dead keen on playing the title role until his agent vetoed the idea.

The Christine, on the other hand, seems, at first to be ill cast. Her personality isn't that strong and she seems a bit jowly in Victorian dress, but when she's on stage as Joan of Arc you can see why she got the part. More interesting for horror fans is Edward De Souza as Our Hero, who Radio 4 listeners will remember as The Man in Black from Fear on Four. And then there's Michael Gough having a very good time as a villain who one suspects spends his evening kicking puppies and tearing the last chapter out of Agatha Christie novels.

This production has a much more British feel to it–not surprising when the action is moved from Paris to London. It lacks the spectacle of the 1943 version, which may disappoint some, but it allows the plot to take centre stage and the opera within the story has the much more intimate feel that you'd expect on a London stage with music that is much more dramatic and intended to support the story rather than an end to itself. Amazingly, some real romance is even allowed to intrude. And there's even an actual confrontation between the Phantom and Our Hero, which is usually lacking in other versions.

And, yes, the famous chandelier scene is there, though with a rather unexpected victim getting caught under it.

Well worth a butchers.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Max Warp

Classic Doctor Who meets Top Gear.

The writers do not like Jeremy Clarkson one little bit.

(Link expires within a week, so listen now)

You must love Big Brother

They'll be handing out little red books next.

Update: Next semester's production will be less subtle.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Slot bell

Can I have one of these today? One that runs on £5 coins? And what the hell is this "If it's a friend, the coin is returned" rubbish?

I have no problem with the funding charities bit, since I'm a charity all by myself (rattles tip jar).

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Phantom of the Opera

The embed player has been giving some trouble lately, so if you can't get it to work, click the title link to listen to the feature.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Phantom of the Opera (1943)

During a major war, a lot of things get put away for the duration. One of them, understandably, is the horror film. When cities are being bombed out of existence, civilians flee in terror and a generation of young men march to meet other young men who may be less than sympathetic, then the goings on of the working vampire or struggling werewolf tend not to be a big box office draw. Small wonder that the 1940s were a decade singularly lacking in the spine chilling.

One of the rare exceptions was Universal Studios' 1943 remake of The Phantom of the Opera. Or it would be, if it actually was a horror film instead of a Hollywood spectacle that takes a feeble stab at the genre. True, the original 1925 production starring Lon Chaney was also a spectacle, but it was a spectacle... of TERROR! Sorry, I couldn't resist the bad advertising copy. I've seen too many trailers. The most important part of any horror story is setting the atmosphere. You need to introduce the props and settings that tell the audience "Your popcorn will be scattered all over the place by the end of act two". There has to be gloom, or overbearing architecture, or a black cat, or a flickering shadow, or a creepy undercurrent to the music, or a clown. Definitely a clown. That doesn't mean that every horror story needs to start with a fog-shrouded, dilapidated graveyard overshadowed by ruined castle with a solitary light in the highest tower suggesting ancient secrets straining to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting world (though it helps). A story can open on a cheery, sunny day with flowers and bunnies so long as one of the bunnies has a sinister air about him. That's not what we have with this Phantom, however. Not that it's really a surprise when Nelson Eddy gets top billing. We open with an opera set (the one from the original 1925 film, by the way) lit for Technicolor with a happy opera number just warming up. In a real horror film we'd get about eight bars in before the camera cuts to a shadowy figure undoing a rope. Here, the camera pans, zooms in, and before you know it, we're through the proscenium and on stage with the actors. And if you know anything about musicals, you realise that at this point, all hope is lost.

Don't get me wrong. Phantom of the Opera isn't a bad movie. In fact, it's a very good one. It whittles down the Gaston Leroux novel to its bare bones, but at least it preserves the story of an obsessed, hideously disfigured musician whose idea of "helping" a struggling young singer at the Paris Opera is by lurking in the woodwork and killing anyone who gets in the way of her career, and the Claude Rains turns in a solid performance as the Phantom. The film is beautiful to look at with an excellent "opera" score pieced together out of symphonic pieces because the war made securing the rights to operas still under copyright next to impossible. Not to mention that the Oscar it picked up for use of colour was well deserved and the film did make an unprecedented four million dollars at the box office. True, the costumes have the period's usual Hollywood over the top quality and I cannot believe that an opera manager's office was ever larger and more ornate than the apartments of Louis XIV, but such lavishness is excusable, given the source. What is wrong with it is that it isn't a horror film. It's a musical flying under false colours.

During my years in the theatre, I've only been involved with one musical when I did dialect work for a production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It was a fascinating experience. First, because I was the only unattached straight male in the company, which did my social life no end of good, and I got to see a completely different side of how to put together a show. In a normal play with musical numbers in it, the usual way of rehearsing is to work all the lines and blocking. When you get to the musical bit, everyone just goes "La, la, la. We'll stick that in later" and you carry on with the dialogue. With musicals, it's exactly the opposite. I was amazed to watch the performers go through very intricate song and dance routines, get to the end, and go "Blah, blah blah, we'll stick the dialogue in later".

That's what we have here. The focus is not the tortured Claude Rains or his terrified involuntary protege. It's spectacular musical number after musical number; each staged in a pseudo-operatic fashion that is actually that of a high-brow Hollywood musical complete with musical comedy bits and romantic interludes to lighten a story that it already so frothy that it's a wonder it doesn't float away on a light breeze. Even having the infamous chandelier crashing down at the climax doesn't help matters when it refuses to fall until Mr Eddy has finished his aria. The lesson is that if you're here for the Technicolor and the music, then you're in for a great time. But if you in it for the suspense, then the plot will drag from the first five minutes and there are long stretches where you forget that Claude Rains is even in the picture and his end turns out to be, shall we say, perfunctory while the end of the film seems as long as a Minnesota goodbye with a closing gag that I've heard inexplicably quoted three times today.

All in all, it would be a very fallow time until Hammer produced a decent remake in 1962.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Be prepared

The Dirty Bomb Emergency Kit.

With Mr Brown willing to give away one fourth of Britain's nuclear deterrent force and The United States' College Administrator in Chief, abandoning the European leg of the missile defence system for no good reason, delighted over the prospect of crippling "his" nuclear deterrent, and beaming with self admiration because he can't tell the difference between gaining respect and being recognised for a Charlie by that dictator's guild called the United Nations, this might well be the hot (pardon the pun) item under the tree this Christmas.

Tyrant envy.

Update: But... But, I thought they loved the US now!

Eye chip

The good news, Mr Smith, is that we can restore your sight. The bad news is that we have to staple this load of electronics to your eyeball.

That's not a problem, is it?

All hail Dear Leader

If a school had done this for Mr Bush, the Left would have gone ballistic.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Ringtone ruminations

The fascinating thing about progress is that it's so uneven. Get a better engine and the electrics lag behind. Get a better processor and the memory is still clunky. And then there's the cases where one step forward is six billion steps back.

Take telephones. The development of the cell phone has revolutionised communications. Not only has it allowed people to remain in touch pretty much anywhere that's in sight of a cell tower, but it's allowed parts of the world that would have taken decades to wire together to be hooked into the global network in a matter of days, if not quicker. Whole stretches of Africa and Asia can leap from the 19th to the 21st century with the erection of a few towers or even just having a blimp show up. Furthermore, the handsets have in less than a decade become so sophisticated and complex that "phone" has become an historical anachronism that hardly describes what is essentially a handheld computer that lets you place a call almost as an afterthought.

You'd think that with all that capability the cell phone would have the field all to itself. Then a call comes in and the old GPO models just walk away with the prize.

When I was a lad, the standard issue phones where rubbish. They were either hard, black Bakelite blocks or over-engineered plastic with heavy flexes, often wired straight into the wall, and had all the audio quality of a porridge container and a bit of string. They did, however, have one redeeming quality: When a call came in the bells were so loud that you jumped screaming out of the chair. It was crude, but it did the job. Then for forty or so years, the boffins studied the characteristics of the human ear, how people determine the direction of sound, how they react to this or that tone, and how to create the perfect alert signal so that a precise message could be communicated with the minimum of effort.

Then they came up with the Select Your Own Ringtone for the cell phone and a half century of progress went right out the window. At first, it seems like a brilliant idea. Why put up with the tyranny of bells and beeps when you can have your favourite tunes to alert you to calls? That's what I thought when I had the clever idea of programming my phone with custom ringtones so that I knew who was calling before I picked up. So, I downloaded a couple of tunes to do the job. Since I'm fond of James Bond films, I used the Bond theme for general calls and the Mars movement from Holst's Planets suite for family calls. Then I relearned something that was already known for half a century: Low notes are harder to hear than high notes and both my selections were full of bass and minor keys.

By "relearn" I mean that I found out after I missed half a dozen calls and cheesed off the wife to no end. So I started looking for what tones were on offer for my phone and among all the hideous pop tunes and lame jokes I found (hurrah) some 1960s British telephone tones. Unfortunately, it wasn't the bells, but the little Brrp Brrp that you hear on the handset that, for obvious reasons, were designed not to blast your eardrums out. You'd have thought they'd have realised that it's a bit self defeating.

This raises an interesting point. On the one hand, you've got a device carried around in everyone's pocket that is the greatest boom to communication and the greatest invasion of privacy in human history. True, you can stay in touch with the entire world, but you also can't get away from the world. There's no point leaving the office or popping down to the pub for a quiet pint because you little electronic tattletale will be right with you. On the other hand, thanks to a pointless choice, at least you have an excuse when you say "Sorry, I didn't get your call."

Even aggravation has a silver lining.

Sunday, 20 September 2009


The embed player has been giving some trouble lately, so if you can't get it to work, click the title link to listen to the feature.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Friday, 18 September 2009

Welcome back, Carter

There have been rumours that Mr Barack Hussein Obama's real name is Barry Soetoro or Barry Dunham. Neither is true. His real name is Jimmy "Chamberlain" Carter. By cancelling the European arm of the missile defence system he's finally come out of the closet and sent Champagne corks popping from Moscow to Tehran.

I didn't expect great things of Mr Obama in the field of defence or foreign relations. In fact, I wasn't surprised when the only real cuts he made to the federal budget were in defence or that his foreign policy consisted largely of insulting allies and grovelling to tyrants. I was even pleasantly surprised when he realised that cutting and running in the face of a a victory in Iraq and possible defeat in Afghanistan would have meant political suicide. Nor was I caught out when he shafted the Czechs and the Poles over missile defence. What I am astonished at is the sheer boneheadedness of managing to combine abject appeasement of Mr Putin by giving him Eastern Europe on a plate with guaranteeing that the Mad Mullahs of Tehran will have nuclear-tipped ICBMs pointed at London and Washington in a few years by sticking on a pair of rose-coloured glasses and saying that, in effect, Brezhnev would never lie to him. More to the point: What did he get in return for this insane giveaway? Not a sausage. Hoping that Russia will "cooperate" against Iran? That Iran will go misty eyed at this gesture of good faith? That's on a par with handing over the keys to your Porche to a guy you met in the pub so he can drive to an ATM for the money to buy it and wondering why you never see him or you car again.

I'm sorry, but I've been through this before. Back in the 1970s, one James Earl Carter took up residency in the White House and spent four years scolding his people, telling them that they'd have to make do with less, that they'd have to adjust to no longer being the world's most powerful nation, and sent an ambassador to the UN who not only went native, but went over to the other side. It had never been unusual to see the United States condemned from the floor of the General Assembly, but it was certainly novel to see it being done by the American's own man. Meanwhile, Mr Carter dutifully and with high moral posturing gutted the American military inventory and resided over a foreign policy that looked like General Effingham's retreat from Kabul. Then, to Mr Carters astonishment ("Brezhnev lied to me!"), Iran fell to a load of nuts whose idea of gay rights was shoving a wall on top of them and the Soviets responded to the dove of peace by overrunning Afghanistan. Considering that the original Battlestar Galactica was airing then, it's amazing that Western Europe wasn't wiped out by the Cylons.

Now here we are thirty years later and a new series of Galactica isn't the only repeat on the schedule. And just like last time, Mr Obama's way of handling real threats from evil, ambitious men is to indulge in wishful thinking that the Iranians aren't really building a bomb and don't really want to destroy us, that Putin isn't acting like an ex-KGB boss who sees himself as a 21st century Peter the Great, that Jihadists can be wished away because they're so inconvenient, and that allies can be taken for granted because they all think "Gosh, isn't The One so dreamy!".

Needless to say, just as Mr Carter got a rude awakening, so will Mr Obama. And God help the rest of us when he does, because I really have no desire to see half of Iran turned into glass after a failed nuclear strike against Tel Aviv nor to watch a United States standing by helplessly with an aging, diminished nuclear arsenal because Mr Obama thinks the Bomb is "icky" while the Middle East plunges into the biggest arms race since iron was discovered.

To quote Bettie Davis, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night"

Thursday, 17 September 2009


A couple of readers spotted that this item on the Triphibian was included in documentary Gizmo (1977), so I thought it was a good excuse to post the whole thing again.

I've always had a soft spot for Gizmo. Aside from being a lot of fun to watch, it was also one of the inspirations for Tales of Future Past. It's one of those goodhearted documentaries where it's clear that the filmmaker loved his subject, or at least had tremendous empathy for it. Like The Atomic Cafe, released five years later, uses a collection of stock footage to make its point, However, unlike The Atomic Cafe, which derives its humour from sneering at its subject, Gizmo positively celebrates these incredible eccentrics of the past and finds its humour by not just looking at the silliness and shortcomings of the various inventors, showmen, exhibitionists, and stuntmen, but also their dreams and ambitions that turns what could have been a collection of mockery into tribute to human ambition. In many ways, these are people we have a better chance of identifying with than an Edison or Bell. I certainly expect that if I built an aeroplane it would look more like the ones in Gizmo than something that rolled out of the Wright brothers' shop–and fly just about as well.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Stomach trouble

I've definitely operating under a handicap this week. I suspect that I'm suffering from an ulcer and before I head off to the medicos to get dosed with barium solution and other indignities, I'm putting myself on a regime of rantidine tablets and a bland diet to see if the symptoms persist.

"Bland" is a misleading term. For the most part, it just means sticking to foods that don't irritate the stomach or oesophegus lining, don't generate gas, and don't encourage peristalsis (that's all the churning and squeezing that the GI tract gets up to as it goes about its business). So, no spicy foods, no whole grains, no raw fruits or vegetables, fried foods, smoked meats, or strong cheeses. I don't mind the cottage cheese, rice puddings, poached eggs, white bread. Nor am I too annoyed at all the milk and ice water I'm using to keep it down. And I actually like grilled chicken breasts and steamed vegetables. I am, however, put out that I had to go on this regime while the fridge is well stocked with ham, sharp cheddar, sausages, and fresh apples. I suspect that they're deliberately taunting me. I'm also not used to having to think twice before nibbling on something. I had one ginger biscuit yesterday and within five minutes I was reminded why I'm on the boiled carrots.

The hardest part is that I am reduced a very occasional glass of the cheap plonk and ONE cup of tea a day. For a man who has a thin stream of blood running through his caffeine system, that is a hard cross to bear. It's made even worse because I have to sleep propped up on pillows to keep the stomach acid from sloshing up the dinner pipe. It's bad enough not getting a decent night's sleep, but without a full pot to counteract it in the morning and another sustaining brew up in the afternoon, I'm a) dragging through the day, b) more bad tempered than usual, and c) falling asleep in the car while waiting to pick up my daughter from school. How the deuce the Romans managed to conquer the known would without cuppa, I cannot fathom.

Vini, Vedi, Vi....ZZZZZZZZZZ...

Monday, 14 September 2009

The Atomic Cafe

I got a chance to watch The Atomic Cafe for the first time since it came out in 1982. It's always good to see a film holding up as well today as it did back then. At the time, I thought it was a loaded, dishonest piece of blinkered left-wing bigotry and naivete sailing under the false flag of a documentary. In 2009, I think it's exactly the same–with the exception that now I'd describe it as criminal naivete. Small wonder that Michael Moore, in the days when he merely resembled a barrage balloon, studied at the producers' feet.

Fair dues, The Atomic Cafe was an innovative piece of filmmaking for its time. Producers Pierce Rafferty, Kevin Rafferty and Jayne Loader knew that there was no way that they could get their CND-friendly message across directly without sounding like a load of pedantic scolds, so they dumped the narrative and went for using clips and soundtracks derived from stock footage. The result is genuinely funny in places, it does flow well for its 88 minutes running time, and seeing stock footage that was almost impossible to find before the Internet was fascinating back in '82, but none of this saves Cafe from emerging as a product of the Berkeley, Birkenstocks, and bong water set who talk smugly over their fair trade lattes about what a load of rubes infest the United States who won't do as their self-appointed betters tell them.

Cafe is one of those films that only thrives when the audience shares a huge cargo of shared assumptions with the filmmakers. There is, of course, the usual snobbery: White people are racists, people who dress neatly in suits or pressed skirts and have proper grooming must be conformist nitwits, and rural working-class people are hillbillies. All this is self-evident because poor production values and bad acting in the stock footage is objective proof of low intelligence and probable inbreeding. This is especially true if the fimmakers decide to replace the original soundtrack with a country western novelty song.

Cafe is supposed to chronicle the development of atomic weapons and the Cold War, but there is no context given for any of it. When it aims at satire, it strikes the very propaganda it allegedly mocks. The film opens with the bombing of Hiroshima, which is made to look like an act of gratuitous sadism without an inch of footage given to the atrocities and fanaticism of Imperial Japan that brought them to this pass. The threat of Communism is treated as nothing more than paranoia on the part of the simplistic, consumerist Americans that lead to such obvious (to the filmmakers) injustices as the McCarthy hearings (that Senator McCarthy had nothing to do with) and the execution of the Rosenbergs for trading atomic secrets to the Soviets. Cafe gives a full five minutes of screen time to the latter and implies that the Rosenbergs were innocent victims of mob justice. Never mind that they were couldn't have been more guilty if they'd worn hats with neon "I'm guilty" signs. Sad music and footage of orphaned Rosenberg children carried the day and made a nice, albeit pointless, segue to footage of a soulless Levittown that shows what a barren lie the American Dream was. Lenny Bruce, where art thou!

From there, the message is that Americans in the 1950s were ultraconformist drones who all voted for Eisenhower and were to a man uptight and frustrated because sex wouldn't be invented until 1962. There's no indication that Americans had recently come out of a bloody war before which was a great depression where people not only feared poverty, but also the threat of something akin to a fascist takeover lead by their own reformist government flapping in the wings for nearly a decade. Never mind a weary people enjoying postwar prosperity, Americans back then were just a childish, pampered lot; trivial, oblivious to human suffering, fearful of a non-existent Communist threat and incurious about the horrors perpetrated by their government in their name. Small wonder when Rafferty et al show a hypothetical atomic attack on the US, it's almost with a sense of satisfaction as if these silly Americans are getting what they deserve. Naturally, it isn't a Soviet bomber that drops The Bomb, but the Enola Gay on full irony alert. To quote the infamous Reverend wright, America's chickens were coming home to roost.

Then, in the real world, Reagan, Thatcher, and the Pope came along, ended the threat of all-out nuclear war by consigning Communism to the dustbin of history, and spoiled all their fun.

Some people have no consideration.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Never Forget

Eight years ago, a group of murderers bent on destroying our civilisation ploughed two planes full of passengers into the World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon, and a third crashed in a field in New England thanks to the heroic efforts of the passengers who saved the Capitol or the White House from a similar fate. In all, some 3000 people were murdered. It wasn't the first shot in this war. That happened with the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, but it is the first where we recognised that we were at war.

In the aftermath, Coalition forces lead by the United States and Great Britain liberated Afghanistan and Iraq, smashed Al Qaeda's networks, sent the Taleban on the run, and scared the crap out of the world's dictators so bad that Libya handed over its nuclear weapons programme without condition before we even knew it existed. On the downside, mistakes were made, as is always the case, in the execution of the war. We lost the momentum that should have seen a free Syria, Iran, and Pakistan and a quiet Saudi Arabia by now and while we have thwarted many plans, we have lost more innocent lives at places like Bali, Beslan, London, Amsterdam, and Madrid.

Eight years on, things have changed and not for the better. Now Colonel Qadaffi is so confident that he swaggers on the world stage like a superannuated Michael Jackson. Now Iran all but flaunts its nuclear weapons programme. Now Kim Jong Il lobs missiles over the Pacific and terrorists are freed on the flimsiest of excuses while the American President and British Prime minister are "disappointed". Meanwhile, the war is being lead by two men who refuse to even recognise it as a war. One sees it as an "overseas contingency" that is nothing but a political embarrassment and a distraction that he'd rather would fade away so he can concentrate on being the first god president and the other thinks the Jihadists are mere criminals and that he can starve the armed forces of equipment, manpower, and leadership while expecting them to lay down their lives for a queen and country he stopped believing in decades ago.

Eight years ago, we had no idea what was coming next and I well remember sitting in my living room having a very serious discussion with a friend about what handguns we should buy. Now I have the horrible feeling that we'll be having that conversation again in the near future.

Update: James Lileks has his own take on the day:

Thursday, 10 September 2009

School days

I'm beginning to suspect the autumn is sentient–or maybe the seasons in general are, but autumn certainly. The daughter started school yesterday and it was as if someone had reached over to summer and flipped a switch. The harsh sun was suddenly replaced by cloudy skies and mists in the hills that didn't burn off until midday. The air smelled of fresh rain and the ground was moist and soft; not the hard, dusty clay. Even the plants got into the act. The brown, dead grass was giving way to green shoots, the leaves on the trees was starting to turn colour here and there, and the sunflowers were suddenly three times as large and threatening to crash to the ground under their own weight.

There was also a lot more activity than I'd expected so early for the past three months. The road was filled with excited kids heading for the bus stop, people carriers were filling with more kids, and dogs could be heard all over the place as they joined in on the general excitement. My daughter got out of bed so early and with so little complaint that I made a quick check for outer space seed pods. She'd been looking forward to the start of school and the chance to show off her new clothes to friends she hadn't seen since June that she'd had her rucksack packed for a week and we had to hide her school shoes to keep her from sleeping in them. For my part, I was relearning how to make lunches and how to face the day on nothing but a cup of tea in a plastic travel mug.

Of course, the road repair services used the occasion to show off their organisational prowess. Not only had they blocked off the valley road in order to install a new drain, but they also reduced the road through Woodinville to a single lane while they simultaneously rerouted a crossing lane, moved a string of utility poles, and trimmed the verges. That's why I had to take a ten mile detour through Monroe. How they managed not to dismantle the bridges leading in and out before I got there, I have no idea.

The upshot of all this is that for the first time since spring I have Chez Szondy to myself with the exception of Carl the Cattle Dog and Little Ann. They pretty much leave me be except for the odd demand to hang out in the garden with them and Carl's periodic attempts to kill the neighbour's cat, who hasn't caught on that Carl hates his guts and keeps wandering into the yard. That wouldn't be so bad, except that Carl keeps forgetting about the invisible fence when he's in full chase, gets zapped, and then sits in the road and cries until I go out and carry him back inside. Other than that, it's pretty quiet and now find myself actually being able to work while the sun is up and to complete various odd jobs without a seven-year old magically appearing under foot such as crawling around under the wife's car trying to figure out how to reattach a plastic fairing that should never have been included in the basic design in the first place, is impossible to put back on without removing the engine, and I then had to do the job one-handed with a cable tie that took me the better part of a very uncomfortable two hours out of my life that I'll never get back, thank you very much, Chrysler Corporation.

But I digress.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

A modest proposal

According to The Times, there are more bureaucrats working at the Ministry of Defence than there are servicemen in the Royal Navy and the RAF. Indeed, the MOD is so overloaded with civil servants that there is now one paper pusher for every two fighting men. Add to this the insane, politicised procurement policies that have more to do with juggling the books and grovelling to the EU building ties with Europe and it's no wonder that the British Army in Afghanistan is reduced to pointing at the enemy and shouting "BANG!".

Since the current situation is about as stable as a vegan at a veal cook off, something has to be done to reform the MoD. My first suggestion involves daisy cutters, but since that would have to go through the procurement process, my second suggestion is that we start trimming the civilians on the payroll. Ah, you point out, but getting rid of government jobs is about as successful as cutting through granite with a handful of mashed potatoes. That's the beauty of this, because there won't be any net job loss. Let's jump forward to an MoD office a year in the future:

"Burton, there's a rather large package on my desk."

"Really? What's in it, Meldrew?"

"I'm going out on a limb here, but it seems to be an SA80 assault rifle."

"You appear to be correct, Meldrew."

"Any idea what it's doing here, Burton?"

"Didn't you get the memo?

"No, just the rifle."

"Ah, How old are you, Meldrew?"

"Thirty four."

"In good health?"

"I keep in shape."

"Ever been to Afghanistan?"

"I can't say that I have."

"Well, now you can."


"It's the new policy for trimming down the MoD without giving anyone the sack. All fit MoD civil service personnel under 35 are being called up for military duty. Two birds with one stone, they call it."

"We're going into the army?"

"Not all. Most are earmarked for the Navy for a spot of barnacle scraping.


"Navy brass says that it takes one to know one."

"But that's not fair!"

"I don't see what you're complaining about, Meldrew. At least you're not facing what the over 35s and unfit are."

"What's that, Burton?"

"Bed pan duty for Chelsea pensioners. The Minister said something about the shoe fitting."

Monday, 7 September 2009

Be (un)prepared

"Be prepared" used to be the motto of the Boy Scouts, but according to a story in The Times (Which never uses the word "boy" a single time for fear of offending the Ministry of Truth), the Boy Scouts are bowing to the insanity of the era and are changing the motto to "Be unprepared" by saddling the Boy Scouts with restrictions that even a medieval serf would have rebelled against. True, the ignoble peasant may have been forbidden to own the sword reserved for his betters, but no robber baron, no matter how repressive, would have been insane enough to say that a commoner couldn't carry a knife. But that is exactly where the Boy Scouts of the "enlightened" 21st century find themselves. Showing all the spine of a jellyfish doing a Johnathan Harris impression, the Association has effectively said that Boy Scouts shouldn't carry scout knives any longer. Indeed, the scouts have been advised not take knives on camping trips "unless there is a specific need" and that if said knives are carried it should be by the scout master who is to issue them to the scouts at the time of use–no doubt after a dozen forms are filled out in triplicate and then the knife will be accompanied by a pair of burly Securicorp men to whom the knife is attached by a quarter-inch steel cable.

The strange thing about my life is that I spend it caught in a transatlantic limbo between Britain and America and sometimes the contrasts are so stark it's like being hit with a floodlight at 2AM in the middle of the Bonneville Salt Flats. When I turn away from the computer to think about what to say next about how Boy Scouts are being treated like death row inmates on suicide watch I look out the window and see the road where I live. It's a nice place. The sort where you don't need to lock your door and the kids can play outside unsupervised. Partly this is due to the decent people who live around here. Partly its because most of the decent people who live around here are armed to the teeth and any pimply little creep who tries to break into a house or import Britain's "knife culture" to the neighbourhood will get his ticket to the next world punched courtesy of Smith & Wesson. Even though I live within an hour's drive of the ultra-leftist Seattle, gun control around here means using both hands. And despite having The One in the White House, carry conceal laws are becoming so common that now the next step is citizens learning that in many states they can carry assault weapons strapped openly to their hips.

Why is this? Because after two generations of playing around with gun control laws, the Americans have learned the Gun Free zones translate into English as "Come on in and blaze away. Nobody can shoot back here." Small wonder that gun control in the US is about as popular as Obamacare. And small wonder that the baddies tend to keep the gun deaths among themselves. Gangs in the 'hood may have the gangsta attitude honed to a T, but they still can't shoot for toffee while the plumber on Elm Street can take out the pip on an ace of spades at a hundred yards.

Meanwhile, New Labour's answer to Britain's violent crime problem was to disarm honest citizens, who are then forbidden to defend themselves, and refusing to punish murderous thugs with anything harsher than life sentences that were little more than helpful suggestions. Small wonder then that London and other major cities echo with the melody of gunfire while less enterprising young hoods go around armed with stilettos like throwbacks to 18th century Venice without the pasta. Of course, something must be done about all the shootings and stabbings, but what? What can stem the tide of blood and pain?

Simple: Disarm the Boy Scouts.

This as tiresome as it's sick and pointless. Do you have a problem with violent crime? Then here's an idea: Go after the criminals, arrest them, try them, and if they're found guilty, lock them up for a very, very long time. For the worst of the worst: Hang the bastards and tell the EU to take a flying jump. Don't go after the organisation that is intended to take callow boys (I wrote the forbidden word!) and turn them into decent men (I have compounded my sin!). I have news for you, Mr. Brown, about the Boy Scouts (It burns! It burns!). They aren't the problem; they're the solution. Give them back their knives; formally and with apologies because they were never yours to take away in the first place.

I suppose part of the reason I get so heated on this topic is that though I wasn't a boy scout I've carried a pocket knife on me since I learned to cut my way out of the play pen. I've carried scout knives, Swiss Army knives, sheath knives, pen knives, and I even have a small clasp knife that I can slip into the pocket of my jammies. When I need a blade or a saw or a screwdriver, I deploy it with no more thought than I would using my fingers. And, of course, no cork ever stood between me and a glass of plonk. I would no more leave the house without a knife than without my trousers. A knife, it may amaze the totalitarians, is a tool of the responsible, not a thing of intrinsic evil to be shunned and feared–unless what you really fear isn't criminals, but free men. Remember them? They still exist and they're getting pretty pissed off. The way of a civilised society is that boys should be taught responsibility and that those who do not learn those lessons and resort to violence should be ordinately punished, not that the responsible should be equated with the criminal.

The path taken by New Labour and grovelled to by the Scout Association will have the obvious result: The unintelligent will become prigs, the intelligent will become cynics, and the brutes will remain brutes.

Well done, you twits.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Duel dud

Winner of the Most Disappointing Headline Award.

It seemed so hopeful; full of the promise that Mr. Crowe had graduated from flinging telephones to the Big Time of violent eccentricity–especially with the promise that the combatants would be mounted on bicycles. Unfortunately, things unravelled faster than the Christmas jumper my mother in law knitted for me. There are rules to duelling, after all. Was Mr. Crowe of noble birth? I don't think so. And being an actor, he can't possibly be ranked as a gentleman. Worse, his opponent was a journalist, whom everyone knows is more properly flogged with a horsewhip than fought. Then it turned out that said journalist is a woman. That put the whole contest quite beyond the pale and would very likely have got Mr Crowe blackballed from the better clubs.

Then I discover that this wasn't "breakfast for two and coffee for one", but a damnable cycle race.

Mr Crowe will, of course, be contacted by my seconds in the morning and he may have his choice of weapons. Bicycles excepted.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Antarctic payphone

This is one of those photos that really gives away one's age Actually, using "photo" instead of "image does the job just as well. So does using the word "screen" in front of a seven-year old in any context other than television or computer monitors, but that's another story. Okay, but what's so special about this particular pho... image? It's a payphone and the more erudite amongst you might also notice that it's the sort used in New Zealand, but so what? The answer is that it isn't in New Zealand, it's at McMurdo Station at the South Pole. More to the point, it's a payphone with a 911 sticker (where do the cops come from? Wellington?) and it's an unnerving demonstration of how far we've come in the realm of telecommunications.

I'm not a stranger to polar exploration. I've had an interest in the subject ever since seeing Scott of the Antarctic as a boy and as an archaeologist I've even had the privilege of having some small part in some work in Antarctica, but that was a long time ago and I often find it hard to believe how far things have come in the Worst Place on Earth. For obvious reasons, I still think of Antarctica as a place of rude huts, tunnels, and an overly ambitious geodesic dome–usually varying between plywood and horrible '70s decor and the whole thing smelling of fish and diesel. As for communications, that was the province of the unreliable radio shack where the operators wistfully talked about the new satellite station that they were going to get as soon as anyone could figure out how to get it to work at 50 below zero.

Fast forward to the 21st century and what do we get? Accommodations designed by honest to Gropius architects that have all sorts of greenery, no draughts, and are comfortable enough for the staff to import an embarassing number of condoms. As for communications, forget about wonky short wave or SSB links; it's Internet and phones in every room with a card payphone in the corridor for summer workers who are just passing through. I wouldn't be surprised if they have cell phone service at the Mountains of Madness, but frankly, I'm not very keen on finding out. "Hello, Marge? Yeah. I'm going to be a little late home tonight. Ran into some shoggoths here. Hell of a mess. Naw, McMurdo's sending in daisy cutters, so we're cool. Hey, I made a funny! Cool. Get it?"

Oh, God.

Not that i should be too surprised. Sir Arthur C Clarke was talking about payphones on space stations by 2001. We may not have those, but cardphones at the South Pole is a pretty good second.

What i find even more interesting is the handset flex. Notice that it's a light rubber and wore job and not one of those armoured coil things? Looks like the vandalism problem isn't too bad down there, though from what I've heard about some of the parties...

But that's for another story.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Banned books

The 2008-2009 list of "banned" books has come out and it's a shame that I got it as a PDF file, because it would have been much more useful as a new set of fire lighters.

Now you might think that as a person who uses the Ingsoc stamp three times a week I'd be a big supporter of Banned Book Week and its ilk and I would be–if it had anything to do with banned books, which this linguni-spined week doesn't.

To me, a book banning means exactly that: The government in the form of an official censor makes the publication of a work illegal, removes it from book shops, libraries, Amazon, and the shelves in peoples homes and if the author is lucky, he'll get off with ending up on the next train across the border with a single ticket instead of a bullet through the back of the head. Or it's some newspaper refusing to cover a story because the local Al Qaeda rep says he'll shorten the staff by a head if they run it. That isn't what we get from the likes of Robert P Doyle et al. Instead, it's a tepid list of books that have been removed from shelves of school libraries, "challenged" ( i.e. had a parent daring to say "Hey, should my kid be reading about lesbianism, rape and incest in kindergarten?" And not necessarily with any success) in school libraries, or restricting access by children to certain books.

This would be risible if it wasn't so cowardly. I mean, we're not talking Voltaire here facing an unscheduled holiday in the Bastille complete with complimentary thumb screws for pointing out that the local lord is using peasant infants as a cheap substitute for turkey. This is a load of people with all the common sense of a pack of spavined voles who somehow imagine that letting six-year olds read The Joy of Sex in their school library is striking a blow for liberty when all they're really striking a blow for is their inflated sense of self-righteousness.

It's also hypocritical when it comes to the test. If the local school board decided that along with Catcher in the Rye and Heather Has Two Mommies the school shelves should also make room for Mein Kampf, The Turner Diaries, and Liberal Fascism, I'd say that these champions of liberty would be at the front of the queue to sign the removal petition. Meanwhile, the jails of Cuba, Red China, Burma, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are filled with poor bastards who emailed National Review when the Stasi was watching and this lot can't even be bothered to look up from their fair-trade lattes.

If the Banned Book people were helping the truly oppressed and censored, I'd be with them, but their sort of standards are so ridiculous that I could claim to be a victim of "banning" because none of the major producers in New York would put on my plays. Since when did having a crappy agent count as a human rights violation?

The Banned Book people have got to step back and look at what these "bannings" in the United States are actually about and that's children. There is nothing wrong with restricting what children read. If you haven't noticed, they're children. As in not adults. They aren't ready for some things yet and exposing them too early is like giving them a highball along with the birthday cake and ice cream. You're not doing anyone any favours. When books are being stocked at the taxpayers expense on school shelves where taxpayers' kids are expected to attend by law, then, yes, parents have every right to question if this or that work is appropriate for children. The challenge may be without merit, the banning may be a fat-headed decision that should be reversed, but it may also be a prudent judgment to be accepted as such. There is nothing wrong with this in principle. It's called responsibility. If you don't like a book being removed, then argue the merits of the case. That's called using that grey squishy thing between your ears for more than keeping the draught out. I understand this if for no other reason than that I have a seven-year old daughter and I am very careful about what she's exposed to. Eventually she'll be confronted with all the baseness, selfishness, perversions, complexities, and general nastiness of the adult world, but if I have anything to do with it that won't happen until she's ready. To say I have no right to question an attempt by the government in the form of the school librarian to undo do this because that's "oppression" is turning things solidly on their heads.

And I'm not just talking about sex and violence. I sincerely hope that it will be a long time before the hypersexualised popular culture will do anything except fly right over her head and much as I love Shaun of the Dead, she won't be seeing the likes of Marvel Zombies while I have a say in it. However, I am also going to do what I can to keep Moby Dick out of her hands until she's at least eighteen.

Moby Dick? What the devil is wrong with you, Szondy? What's wrong with Moby Dick–unless you're some Greenpeace nut? We thought it was one of your favourite novels. It is. And the weeks I spent reading it were the happiest of my life. But I didn't read it until I was 28. If I'd read it when I was 14, I'd probably have binned it as boring, overblown rubbish and I'd have hated it for the rest of my life. I wasn't really ready for it in the same way I wasn't ready for a lot of other things until I'd matured enough to grasp what the author was saying. It's a matter of each thing to its proper season. If my daughter took it off the shelf tomorrow, I'd tell her to put it back. If her teacher assigned it tomorrow, I'd ask her to reconsider or give a substitute because I am the final arbiter of my daughter's well being.

As for the posturing, gutless wonders of Banned Books, maybe they should look less to the "censorship" of school libraries that can be circumvented these days with the click of a mouse anyway and spend more time supporting the latter day Solzhenitsyns and Pasterneks of this world or publishers who refuse to publish cartoons out of fear of Jihadists.

I notice that the latter didn't make their heroic list. I wonder why?

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Seventy years ago today

The fruits of appeasement.


There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full, say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!
It's the daughter's last week of summer hols before starting second grade, she has her best friend Otis over for a two-day sleepover, the wife is taking a week off of work, and I'm stuck in one of those horrible ruts in between gainful employment and selling some more articles. Basically, this translates into everyone being on holiday and I don't have any solid excuse to not join in. The upshot is that I'm pretty much away from the keyboard and the wine bottle remains corked until damn near midnight.

On the other hand, it does give me an excuse to catch up on the huge stack of Terry Pratchetts that I got from the library the other day. Regular readers of EI know that I regard it as proof of unfair world that the likes of J K Rowling and Stephanie Meyer become gazillionaires despite the fact that neither has any real imagination nor can they string a competent sentence together for toffee while Pratchett is still something of a niche market. Come to think of it, given his wit and love of language, perhaps the fact that he's not on the cover of Match or dragged through the tabloids like a scent bag at a fox hunt every other week is proof that life is at least just.

Currently, I'm ploughing through Maskerade; Pratchett's take on opera, which one chap said has been around for 400 years and nobody has caught on to the joke yet. More specifically, it's his take on the Phantom of the Opera–a passable French novel that was made into a classic silent film, four sound remakes that descended in quality with each go, and an Andrew Lloyd Bloody Webber musical that I still contend is grounds for prosecution. Prachett places the story in Ankh-Morpork, throws in a couple of witches and a Junoesque country girl hoping to hit the Big Time, and things play out from there in the usual Pratchett fashion of people caught up in events that are spinning entirely out of control while DEATH (he speaks in all caps, you see) is ready to lead off those who are kicked out of bounds.

Since I can't put the Prachett version up without facing that little problem called infringement of copyright, I'll settle for a taste of Lon Chaney in the role that made more people abandon the stalls for the gods than any other film.