Hello. Are you there?

Well. Yes, hello. I'm in semi-retirement at the moment. It's the blog speaking, here. Somehow, well I keep nagging at her but she doesn't seem to notice. I wonder why she won't talk at me? What's  wrong with me, that's what I want to know. Did I do something wrong? Zoonie?

I really don't know what to do with myself at the moment. I've taken to looking around other people's houses. Every so often, someone asks for me. The Google drags me out of the house and I mean it is really insistent (in a slightly irritating way, if I'm honest). Why won't it leave me alone? But there I go, standing in a line up, feels like we've all committed crimes sometimes but I tell you, on the QT you should see some of the other blogs I have to stand with. There are people who sell their blogs for those silly little vermin around the edges. Adverts. Yes. Scratchy, vile things, screeching at me. I saw one blog last week, I thought it had some kind of disease. I could see its latest post, hiding but it was covered in that awful pox. Poor thing, carrying all that around with it. I offered to help, I said Zoonie wouldn't notice anyway, she doesn't come to see me anymore and it tried to throw an advert for 'One weird tip' at me. The Google wrenched it away and threw a whole new set of blogs at me (or did it take me away? One gets so used to being buffeted around, it's difficult to know when the Internet is dragging or dumping one). I suppose I'll never see it again. It seemed so sad but at least it wasn't alone.

I wonder what the weird tip was?

Will you come back to see me? I can tell you all about when Zoonie was pregnant, or when the children were very young. Life was different then, she came to visit me nearly every day.

You will come again, won't you? Hello? Are you there?

Our house is a Star Wars house

If there's one way to affirm or have your own private thoughts on any family film denied, it's to show them to your kids, who have had no background noise, no hype and no understanding of the apparent cultural significance of any 'old' films that you adore.

I have written in the past about how much they both loved the Errol Flynn Robin Hood film within a couple of minutes of the speculative viewing being on screen ("Don't turn it off!!!"). They're not so hot on Laurel and Hardy talkies, which turn out, now I look at them, to have a hell of alot of Tom and Jerry-esque cartoon violence in, which I would have simply accepted at the time, given that Tom and Jerry were children's TV staples. In these C-Beebies driven days, where you have to pay extra to get cartoon channels (so we don't), there is no concept of cartoon violence. So it jars.

After Errol Flynn came Harry Potter. The two of them gorged themselves on the first film, which I have to admit, with all the clunky acting from the kids, which I can forgive, there's n'ere a note wrong in the whole enterprise. It's a delight. Harry Potter 2 ie: the Chamber of Secrets... now that's proper scary. They're both a lot more wary of it. Regardless of Nor having read on until she has reached her own natural stopping point at about half way through the Half Blood Prince (Nora! it's < muffled voice >!). A huge bloody great snake pursuing Harry and the SPIDERS! Good God.

But something else entered our world in between the two films: "Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope".

Having to sit through those three films with the kids has been fantastic. They really *were* great. Exciting, timeless, emotional, epic, legendary. There is so much wrong with them but on a basic level, the simplicity of the stories in each film keep the children gripped. It is clear who is good, who is evil. There is no doubt, no confusion. Darth Vader wears an insane shiny PVC black suit; Luke and Leia wear white tunics. It is that simple. I already feel slightly jealous of friends whose kids aren't old enough yet for the lovely excitement of watching the films with their kids for the first time. For every clunky line there's a shot like the stunning long shot of Vader's head as he wrestles with his thoughts, watching his son being killed. It's a crazy shot. The man's wearing a complete head mask, and yet, with that brilliant music, the angst really is visible. Nor was devastated that Vader died after his redemption, and cried hard empathetic tears at his ritual funeral. Heady stuff.

The kids being seven and four watching "Return of the Jedi" has helped me come to terms with it. It makes so much more sense, seen in quick succession after the first two. "The Empire Strikes Back" had Nor in bits, and I'm not surprised. My recollection of Jedi was of a slightly embarrassing, twee film with a bunch of cute furry toys in, which didn't work and was all a bit daft. Well, yes, there are cute furry toys in, but it holds together pretty well with the action parts of the film, which are suitably epic.

...and so, having watched the three films - and by that, I mean the films that Lucas revisited with CGI and made some agonisingly dreadful changes to, the fact that the first three films exist in the world - that it's possible to find out who this Annakin Skywalker was, plus the fact that today's Star Wars is all about the clone wars, man, we had to watch "The Phantom Menace".

Yesterday, I showed the children the original trailer and I remembered, wistfully, the desperate downloading of two versions of that original trailer: one, the official one but the other, a rough and ready video from a cinema recorded by some guy. The *incredible* hairs on the back of the neck excitement at the gorgeous reworking of the Lucasfilm logo, all sparkling and precious and that roar from the cinema audience... I can still remember watching it, with some other folk, all clustered around a work desk, wanting to clutch each other, grinning like mad people... and here were Nora and James watching the same trailer saying "Who's that, is that Annakin? Is that Padme? Wow, that's fast... oh, is that the Emperor?" all excited questions which I refused to answer. I watched their wide eyed faces. "Again! Can we see it again?" Oh yes. And the debates we had at the time it was released sprang to mind. We'd forgotten, this was a film for kids, just like the originals. We were expecting too much. Well maybe watched through the lenses of childhood, it might not be quite the disjointed, terrible disaster area that I remembered?

Here is a measure of how good Episode 1 is: Nora has almost no idea what went on in the film, beyond the extreme basics of the Annakin journey. James nearly fell to sleep and was bored mindless. It was only sleepy inertia that kept him from leaving the room to come and read a book. They *loved* that C3PO and R2 were in it, and they seemed to desperately cling to any scene they were in. Particularly C3PO, who even with the limited script he was given, still had enormous warmth of character through Anthony Daniels' fantastic work. They blanked Ja Ja Binks completely. They just didn't care. The whole Padme/Amidala confused mess was totally lost on them, and they had no idea what the hell was going on there.

Speaking as the adult interpreter, having now seen this film for the second time only (that's how much I loathed it first time round), more than ten years ago I was gaping at how dreadful the film was. Sitting with the kids laid bare the horrors that awaited and made me cringe. The beginning of the film, you're thrown in to a confused, distancing trade dispute which could only mean absolutely nothing to the kids. Who were these things that looked a bit like sea creatures, that hadn't been in any of the first three films? Who, even worse, spoke with totally featureless faces in really heavy accents? Ah, here's the Emperor... and it's not explained that he isn't. Liam Neeson is magnificent. All heart. A real actor trying his best to make his character real. Ewan MacGregor is so wrapped up in getting his terrible, awful accent right that he seems almost entirely distant from his part. It's like watching a cardboard cut out. The kids really didn't like his character at all, and what a dreadful thing, for the film to do that to the legend that is the wonderful, all-heart decency of Alec Guinness's older man? For a short while, when the film moves to Tatooine, it makes sense. It makes sense because the film suddenly becomes small, no huge vistas and complicated business. Just the story of a little boy (and Annakin is played really well. Very sweetly). Both Nora and James were totally engaged throughout this sequence, including the pod race - my lord, they loved the pod race. They loved the Padme character's smiley loveliness and slightly awkward spikeyness. I realise now, one of the reasons these sequences work is that Ewan MacGregor isn't in them!

On Tatooine, the overdoses of cgi weren't in fact, as much of a problem. The characterisation of the slave owner isn't too bad, and the nasty pod racer guy... a lot of thought went in to their physical shapes. Nora and James 'got' these two completely. After the characters leave this planet though, a whole mess of blank faces for quite a while. Ultimately, complete non-interest until the big showdown with Darth Maul. But even in that, I was left thinking in astonishment - what the hell was the business with the red force field doors? Never explained, they simply let it happen as a shambolic answer to the question: How do we separate Obi Wan from Qui-Gon Jinn? (why the complicated name with such short screen time? If I asked the kids, they would have no idea what Neeson's name was). No exposition, no desperate droid led fight to take the shield doors down... *anything* would have been better than the stupidity of the half solution. And yes, Maul does look fantastic, pacing up and down, waiting. And yes, the fight is *fantastic*. So, the film claws back a little something and the kids are re-engaged, albeit briefly. Only for that engagement to be squandered at the badly handled Annakin-in-space-accidentally-blows-up-the-big-ship episode. Sigh. They really didn't understand what the hell was going on.

I haven't really mentioned the horror that is Jar Jar Binks and his race, have I? I can remember the jaw dropping mortification in the cinema, in Streatham in a majority black audience, cringing in my seat at the Rasta accent debacle. But, there's a much more important point to make (although it's very contributory). Binks is not played by a decent actor, and his character fails through a combo of Uncanny Valley-ness but also simply bad scripting, and bad story. He's all over the main characters like a bad rash, gumming up the works with dialogue so superfluous you desperately wish him off the screen. Face it, if the entire underwater race were expunged from the film, would you miss them? The Naboo could easily have been the opposing army in the big fight. Why do we even need these creatures that do nothing but expose the limitations of cgi? Was he supposed to be the main comedy character? Nothing he says is funny. Nothing. His most supposedly amusing scene, where his tongue is numbed and he can't speak? The kids didn't even smile briefly. I'm not simply projecting my adult view, he really does not work. On any level. ask yourself, why does Yoda stand out so fantastically, despite being a model? Why does C3PO? Because they are read by excellent character actors who give them heart. The only impression we're left with for Binks is a garbled accent which must have taken weeks to perfect.

Phew. So. If you look at the difference between the original film and this, the evidence is stark. Lucas ballsed it up. It doesn't work as an adult film; it doesn't work as a kids film. If you sliced back all the tedious trade cobblers and made the film concentrate around the story of Annakin, then yes. A tight hour and a half of an action film that at least might live up to the originals part of the way. You'll notice I haven't even mentioned the explanation of The Force. What. Were. They. Thinking. Blank faces all round at home. Symbionts? What? And the question I ask myself - if we had started watching the films in the 'right' order, ie: started with this film, would the kids have even been interested in watching episode 2? It trades so heavily on the future action, watching these films second is the only thing that makes sense and certainly, it would be the only reason to keep watching, rather than consign this misconceived space opera to the dustbin of time.

I'm quite sad, that it turns out it's really Not Good, still. Somehow, I hoped that in the years since its release it might have somehow matured in to an 'alright' film, from the mess I remembered. I hope the kids don't want to re-watch it but of course they will, because the Annakin story and Neeson somehow hold the creaking ship together. We have the miserable prospect of Parts 2 and 3 to come. 2 was so bad, I have never even seen part 3. Imagine that: Lucas did so much damage to his own vision, I couldn't bear to put myself through the very film in which Annakin turned to the dark side?


Wikileaks / Assange

...Weirdly, I have realised that I have called Mr Assange Nicholas throughout this ramble. What was I thinking about? Changed now!

In a sense, the hounding of Wikileaks and Julian Assange has sorted this out for me, from a moral perspective.

I don't suppose my opinion is adding much to the pot, but: do I like Assange and the Wikileaks bunch? Well, I can't answer for the the rest of the Wikileaks crew, but I can't say I find myself particularly fond of Assange, who seems to have the single minded focus of someone who is slightly too fond of his own voice. If you were a firm supporter of him, you would probably say that he has 'missionary' zeal. I'm not so sure. Meanwhile, however, do I support the existence of Wikileaks? Hell yes. Hell, Yes.

Do awful things happen in war? Yes. Do terrible, morally dubious things happen which are covered up by major govts? Yes. Must there be a culture where whistleblowers feel that if they see things which are morally abhorrent, they can and should step forward to state publicly that bad and terrible things are happening? YES YES YES. At all levels.

What do I mean by all levels. I was making a link from the macro to the slightly more micro recently, where NHS whistleblowers, attempting to stand up and shout that malpractice has taken place have instead of being congratulated been hounded out of their jobs, despite govt assurances that support for whistleblowers has risen. It's the normal, every day story of the 'powers that be' saying one thing in public, to reassure, and doing another thing in private, to avoid the scandal of having missed opportunities, employed the useless, etc. So... if the official whistleblower channels are not to be trusted, where are people to go? In this country, we have the fantastic and solid gold wonder of "Private Eye" which of course every sensible human being should subscribe to. It's a pretty good outlet for anyone spotting malpractice, but it has its own agenda obviously so there's no guarantee that they'll cover problems until you become a juicy enough story (eg: you have complained locally and been dismissed!). The point though is that not only does it exist, but it is taken seriously as a source for legitimate follow up by fellow journalists. At least there's the chance of something.

On a macro scale, is there any trusted whistleblower third party? Marta Andreasen famously published her thoughts with regard to the legitimacy of the EU accounts (ie: they're not) after being hounded out of her job by a succession of high ranking officials (including, according to her, Neil Kinnock) when she attempted to show the gigantic holes, and went public after being ignored internally (well, that's her story, anyway).

Now we come to Wikileaks. What is becoming increasingly clear is that the current batch of leaks, being shared via The Guardian amongst others, are not simply the light hearted whitterings of a bunch of diplomats. Here for example, is an American newspaper responding to the news that the US attempted to cover up an emerging story that the US Security company, DynCorps held a party for Afghani police recruits. Including the human horror story that is "Dancing boys". Not sure what these are? The practice is one of the central tenets behind the lauded Afghan novel "The Kite Runner". It is the forced selling or abduction of very young boys for sex with high ranking Afghan warlord types. Duties are to dress up as sexy young girls, and dance, before being routinely raped. This is outlawed, but in a country with barely any laws being enforced (for those with influence), that's not really important. Here, RAWA, the self professed Feminist charity working out of Afghanistan republishes an article on the BBC's film about Bacha Bazi parties, earlier this year. More here, and here, and here, if you can bear it.

Did this, amongst other highlighted documents, deserve to become public? As much as previous scandals involving UN soldiers ignoring or condoning trafficking and other horror. But because this is the US, not the UN, the security services in the States have gone predictably nuts (ask the readers of the Houston Press what they think). Assange's arrest on sexual assault charges has been called politically motivated. I have no opinion on that, but I do have an opinion on the hounding of Wikileaks, which  - here's the thing. If we were, in fact, the civilisation which we espouse, then there would be no need for Wikileaks, would there. But there is. There really, bloody is. The vast majority of these leaks show harmless opinion of worldwide politicians. The US is ultra defensive given that at present, their role as apparent leaders of the 'free world' (whatever that means) is diminishing. Anything that encourages derision must be stamped upon.

But, there must and always must be a place for legitimate whistleblowing of appalling, significant human rights abuses, incompetence on a grand or granular scale and major problems in command/control. There must be. Tolerance of whistleblowing comes as part of the long march toward civilisation. The US, in its current reaction to Wikileaks, shows how far from that tolerance they really are.

So. We must support Wikileaks. That's it.


Had a break whilst I was getting my head around something - of which, more later! Meanwhile...


(Weird thing about blog posts - I really want you to see this first, then read my new rants... er... posts but now you'll read this last, probably).

Housekeeping: bored with blog design

The trouble is my laughable coding skills (what i mean is: ability to kind of crunch through HTML, basically) don't allow me to adapt one of the typepad themed templates without hours and hours of painstaking brain work... kind of the level of a five year old, saying "Well, if I do this, what happens then?" for... er... just about every aspect of it. Ha, not quite but you know what I mean.

Become a powerpoint pusher and, yeah, ok, have two kids and... oh, well, alright yes, decide to do another degree in the evenings and what happens? You lose your ability to update your blog design.

If anyone has any favourites I can attempt to rip off (or anyone wants to volunteer to do it for me... I pay in cake!) let me know.

Meanwhile, the blog has hit the heady heights of averaging *17* visitors a day! Count 'em. what the hell they want to come here and listen to me waffling on for God only knows.

What, you mean I just wrote a post about absolutely nothing? I think I've hit blogging nirvana!

Goodnight all.

A superb explanation of why the coalition's housing benefit policy is wrong

Did I say wrong? How about immoral.

This comes c/o a Guardian newspaper commenter, by the name of "TexasPete02", who wrote this in response to someone suggesting that he didn't see what all the fuss was about, seems fair enough to me, etc:

"...you are not paying attention to the full scale of the reforms (understandable given the media focus on the less important £400/week cap, and the unchallenged lies from the Tories that the £400/week applies across London).

There are four parts to the HB reforms which will all be implemented by October 2011. The key reform - which affects 750,000 people and raises half a billion pounds per year - is the first of these.

1. Local Housing Allowance capped at the 30th percentile rent in every local housing market area (i.e. the level which allows - in theory - 30% of houses in the area to be afforded)...

2. ...except in London, where the cap has been set significantly below this level (£250/week for 1 beds, £400/week for 4 beds)

3. A further 10% cut will be applied to those who have been unemployed for 1 year or more, to punish them for the crime of living during a recession

4. Housing Benefit capped at the 4-bed house rate to punish large families

To look at the full impact of this, you need to consult the VOA - the Government Agency responsible for setting Local Housing Allowance rates.

They've helpfully provided a table looking at the median rental rates (the current caps) and the 30 percentile rental rates (the future caps) in each local housing market area http://www.voa.gov.uk/lhadirect/Documents/LHA_percentile_rates_Oct_2010.html

Do have a look.

In Central London, the 30th percentile rent for a 4-bed is £850/week. There is no chance of anyone being able to afford to live in central London on housing benefit - the cap is set at less than half of the 30th percentile level. You could consider the poor to be "cleansed" from the area perhaps.

After moving out, they will not be eligible for the £400/week payment - this is only valid in central London remember. Elsewhere the 30th percentile cap applies. Let's say they move to Outer South London, where their rent would be capped at £299/week. This is not an outragous rent for a 4-bed house - I challenge you to find a 4-bed house at this rate in this area. I live in this area, and I pay £210/week for a very small 2-bed flat in a down-at-heel area (and even then because I got a great deal from moving in when building work was still going on around me, and the landlord had to abandon plans to sell during the recession). Even my flat is £26/week beyond the 2-bed allowance for the area - and I don't understand where all the 2-bed flats for £800/month are around me. I'm lucky - I have a decently-paid job (for now at least) and don't claim HB, but it must be a worrying time for families who work in minimum wage jobs and rely on Housing Benefit to make ends meet.

If they lose their job, they have the further challenge of finding a 4-bed property for £270/week (or a 2-bed for £730/month). Not a chance.

And many, many people lose out beyond London too. Let's imagine a family live in a 5-bed house in Tyneside and both parents lost their jobs in the recession in 2008. They are currently able to claim £207/week housing allowance. After the cap is applied, they are now only able to claim £140/week (£155 minus the £15 penalty for being unemployed). The Government will take £67/week from them. £3,500 taken from the poorest in society, in addition to spending cuts and VAT rises etc etc. This is not sharing the pain fairly is it?

Can you see what the fuss is about now?

The Tories have done a great PR job on getting the focus on the £400/week cap (despite the fact next to no-one will claim this, as it only applies in central London and there are no 4-beds to rent at half the 30th percentile rent) . Maybe a journalist may like to, say, scrutinise the plans and challenge the lies."


Institute of Fiscal Studies response to the Osborne budget cuts

This taken verbatim from The Guardian. I have bolded one part, which the paper's website did not:

"Somehow the Institute for Fiscal Studies has become Britain's public spending regulator. In the debate on whether or not budget measures are progressive, the IFS is the umpire. Carl Emmerson, the IFS's acting director, has just said that it will take the institute a day or two to crunch the numbers properly. But his initial verdict will worry George Osborne. This is what Emmerson just told BBC News:

The cuts to public services that the Treasury has been able to model impact those in the bottom half of the income distribution compared to the top. Why is it overall progressive? It's progressive because of the tax measures Labour set out that the new government chose to keep ... The stuff we heard about today, the new stuff today, clearly is not progressive on the Treasury's analysis. It's only once you add it in to the things we heard about in June and the things Mr [Alistair] Darling had already put in the pipeline for next year that it becomes progressive."

So, let me clearly state that in powerpoint style bullet points:

  • Alistair Darling's *Labour* cuts were progressive
  • The added cuts - the ones on top that have come from Osborne's thinking are not, and therefore by definition are regressive.

I can't put it any clearer than that really without getting a bit too angry to articulate myself. Doubtless I will return to this over the coming days in bite sized segments.

A memory of my Dad

I must do these more often, and I'll try to, whenever they occur to me.

Walking along Mercian Way, going in to Warner Close via the wee alley between the houses at the bottom of the cul-de-sac (which is where our house was/is - until very shortly when it's sold). Telling each other stupid jokes, which was our wont. John told me some, I told him the one that goes: 'Man walks in to the Dr's naked, covered in cellophane... Dr stands up shocked: "Sir! I can clearly see your nuts!". By this time we are both laughing and snorting. He tells me one, then I tell him the stupidest joke I've ever heard. Man goes to the Docs having trouble walking, admits after some awkwardness that he has some trouble 'down there'. Come along old chap, don't worry about it we all get these problems, oh I see, back end eh, well bend over. The Doctor sees a lettuce leaf straggling out of the patient's bumhole. He sucks on his teeth and looks serious. "Well... I'm afraid that's just the tip of the iceberg".

I couldn't actually say the punchline. I was crying with laughter, leaning against John, who had stopped walking and was similarly, incapacitated by mirth, snorting and gasping, with his eyes watering.

The deserving and the undeserving poor

The Tories (as opposed to the coalition partners) have used the phrase "deserving" several times in the last week or so - indeed, it could be described as the theme of their conference. They are appealing to their natural constituency and asking for things to be seen in black and white terms: the poor are either good, or bad.

There's so much up in the air that to my mind just doesn't add up, or work, in any sense, I'm going to have to go through them, with the most recent, which really does make me want to jump up and down in despair. Just remember, you (probably) didn't vote for this, but you're stuck with it:

1. Jeremy Hunt talks about the undeserving poor and number of children.

Why is the Culture Secretary talking about this, by the way? That's a slightly confused, honest question. What is his specialist knowledge that gives weight to this opinion - surely his job is to reduce funding to the Arts council because only posh people go to the theatre?

I find it frightening that we've already got to the point where the Tories feel that it's ok to say these misguided things out loud. What the hell are we going to be listening to next week?

The caps to benefits and the whole housing benefit situation in London... never mind the immigration cap - all aimed squarely at the Daily Mail-esque "Deserving" / "Undeserving" dichotomy. When was anything ever this black and white? There is no deserving or undeserving. There is a tedious, time consuming and expensive assessment of degrees of Need. So much easier to try and paint it in clear zero and one terms, isn't it.

Meanwhile, I'm a bit worried, now. Cameron talks it all nice, and his lieutenants talk it nasty. Those folk will never fall off the revenue earning wagon far enough to be caught in the fictitious 'undeserving' trap, yet their imperious, crowd pleasing opinions of who is classified as good or bad will affect the lives not only of hundreds of thousands of people, it will also affect their kids. And affect them badly.