Scriptwriter’s Guide to the UK General Election

Hi Tim, you’d better come in. Look, we need to talk about this bloody Westminster drama. Again. What the bloody hell have you been doing? It’s nearly the end of the season, numbers should be growing but the ratings are more alarming than my blood pressure. Look at this review in the Sunday Times: one-dimensional characters, unbelievable plots.

Look, I get that you did what you could with David – we saw the caring, touchy feely bollocks wasn’t working so you changed tack. The thing is, though, all you did was bump up the backstory. Yes, he went to Eton, I get it. So what? And what’s the story arc with Osborne? You’ve had 5 years and all you’ve done is have him change his haircut and lose some weight. Who is he? What does he feel?  What does he care about? I’ve been watching him for years and I don’t have the faintest clue. And those are the Tories you’ve bothered to develop. IDS: is he…what? Comic relief? Antagonist? Voice of reason trapped in the wilderness of public opinion? At least Chris Grayling has the decency to have malevolent eyes.

Point being, these guys can’t hold a candle to Michael Gove – you really dropped him from the regular cast far too soon. I said that at the time, didn’t I, Tim? What’s that, I can’t hear you? Yes I did, that’s right, Tim. You need a villain you can really get into; didn’t you ever see Michael Howard chewing the scenery? He was fabulous.

Look, I know you’re the creative one, and I’m just some suit, but I do own a TV, Tim, and I’ve been in this industry for decades. You should take my advice occasionally.

Talking of, what about these Lib Dems, Tim? Whatshisface with the sad eyes, I thought he had real potential – optimistic young naïf, idealist thrust into government, basically kneecapped by power. He could have been a way in for the audience.  We should have a sense of tragedy, y’know, some really gripping drama. You’ve really dropped the ball on that one. And which bell-end in wardrobe thought that yellow was a good idea? Or was that in the script? Was that you, Tim? I get it, yellow = cowardly; is that really the level we’re working at? Even Avatar was more sophisticated than that. I’ll give you Vince Cable: he’s pretty fun.

And can we please give over on fucking Trident, already. I didn’t give you a platform just so you could air your views on nuclear weapons ad infin-fucking-itum.

Sorry, I’m getting angry. Look Tim, I know you’re doing your best under difficult circumstances, but we couldn’t continue to support the writing room; we needed the warm bodies for Sherlock. Yeah, Cumberbatch said he’s up for it as long as Freeman drops all that diva shit. I was pleased too.

Anyway, we’re getting sidetracked. Labour isn’t working – that line was a doozy.. Christ I miss the old days… First up: Ed. I told you, didn’t I, work him in gently. But no, you just had to bump him straight up to the regular cast, like: here’s another Baratheon brother wants the iron throne. Tell me you’ve seen Game of Thrones. You haven’t? Jesus wept… Anyway, that whole fratricidal maniac plot was solid. Tim, I thought you really had something there even if you obviously ripped it off from GOT. But what have you done with him since? 2 kitchens, can’t eat bacon, where’s the growth? Where’s the heart?

Just a void, an adenoidal void.

Ed Balls. That was just cheap, Tim – Balls-up, Balls in your face, it’s a cock and Ed Balls story. You’re better than that, Tim.  Which reminds me: Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP. You did the same thing, didn’t you? Nicola’s here to shake up the plaice, Nicola: what are you carping on about? Don’t be so koi, Nicola – Nicola, do you need some time to mullet over?  Frankly Tim, I’m amazed you thought puns was the way to right the ship.  She’s not even running for Westminster – Alex Salmond is – so why are you giving her so much camera time?

What do we have left? Oh yes, the new blood. UKIP, the Greens.  We agreed last time that things were getting stale so we needed to inject a bit of oomph. But no – just more underdeveloped, half-baked characters. Maybe in Farage’s case that should be ‘half-cut’.  I tell you what, he’s very watchable, the casting director saved your bacon on that one, because the lines you’ve given him… beggars belief.

I guess what I’m trying to say is… This is surprisingly difficult.

I’m sorry, there’s nothing for it. The decision’s been made – we’re cancelling. To be honest, I’m not sure the network’s even willing to broadcast the end of the season. We can fill the slot with Great British Bake-off re-runs until we can come up with something, maybe with Jeremy Clarkson. Although God only knows how much he’s gonna’ cost.

Look Tim, we’ve had a good run, but you really jumped the shark with that whole Coalition plot. Frankly I’m surprised we lasted this long when the writing on the wall was that clear. Anyway, I thought you should know – the director’s aware and he and a couple of the producers are ringing around the cast. It’s a damn shame; I really thought we could have created some solid entertainment.

Oh, and Tim? You’re fired.

How To Win Or At Least End An Argument Part 1: Some Simple Techniques

In honour of the conclusion to the latest twists and turns in the soap opera we used to call American politics, it’s worth brushing up on your own powers of argument and persuasion.  In the coming weeks, this lecture series will demonstrate the methods for winning or at least ending arguments using science.

In this series we will avoid jargon like ‘straw man’ or ‘ad hominem logical fallacy’ except where we don’t, because such language doesn’t get you laid.

We’ll start things off lightly with some simple techniques appropriate for any occasion, be it pub, children’s party or board meeting.

Understand Your Opponent’s Jargon

Debating jargon like ‘cognitive dissonance’ et al should be avoided at all costs because you have some self-respect.  Likewise anything that looks, smells or tastes like Latin, such as ‘et al’.  But you need to understand jargon so that you can properly call your opponent a pompous douchebag when they use it.

There are many formal and informal logical fallacies, but here are some of the more common ones:

Ad hominem: if he or she calls you a twat, that’s ad hominem – it’s not about the merits or otherwise of your argument(s), but all about you personally. Example: ‘Obama was born in Kenya.’

Straw man: an argument that is misrepresented by your opponent as superficially similar to the one you actually made, but which crucially is indefensible.  Example: “it’s necessary to balance civil rights and the state’s powers of intrusion.”  “So what you’re saying is that you want the terrorists to win.”

False dichotomy: an apparent choice between two options, that actually isn’t.  A common example would be freedom of the individual vs security of the people, but we’ve already used that one.  Example: you have a choice between a burger or a pie.  But the menu says that you can have a pie filled with burgers.  Or lasagne.

Confirmation bias: we actually all do this so it’s good to be aware of it.  Your brain retains things that reinforce your bias and edits out contradictory evidence.  Example: I think that people who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ are wankers – every time I meet a wanker who calls him-or-herself spiritual, that impression is reinforced.  There are many otherwise lovely people who also describe themselves in such terms, but I can’t recall ever having met a single one, even if I have lived with one or two of them over the years.


That’s enough of all that.  Let’s get on with winning.

Use Jargon To Your Advantage

At some point one of you will become even more pretentious than I am.  If your opponent reaches this point first, say something like ‘I’ll see your straw man and raise you an ad hominem: you’re a dickhead.’

This is an exception to the ‘no jargon’ rule because technically you’re being funny, which good-natured liars claim makes you attractive.

Use Your Words

At some point in the argument you will experience a sinking feeling, a gut realisation that your opponent is more clued-up on the subject at hand, be it who was a better space captain: Kirk or Picard, or why you should do the washing up more often.

You will find that the tide is turning against you.  But at this point it is important to keep your head and use your words.  It doesn’t matter that he or she can reel off statistics that prove that actually the Eurozone isn’t the UK’s biggest political and economic concern; or that he or she has taken the bins out every week for the past seven months and it’s your turn.

All you have to do is say the following:

“Ah, well now you’re talking semantics.”

Because no one actually quite knows what that word means or even if it’s a bad thing to do. Crucially, they won’t want you to know that they don’t know that a word you’re pretending to know is not in fact a word that either of you knows.  Win.

Use Your Words Part 2

But say that your opponent has deployed the ‘semantics’ argument.  You’re not sure how to react.  Here’s what you say:

“No I’m not.”

Ball. Back. In. Your. Face.  Loser.


Introduce A New Element

Men who’ve been married for a long time will know that this comes instinctively to wives.

You think you’re fighting about whose responsibility it was to buy more fabric softener, and out of nowhere she sucker-punches you with ‘well I still can’t believe that you said what you did to my aunt Sheila, you know how sensitive she is. And while we’re on the subject, would it kill you to put the toilet seat down once in a while?’  And boom, instant fluster.

Your opponent thinks you’re arguing about the merits of expanding the permanent security council of the UN, suddenly BAM! ‘Yeah, well camembert is just shit brie’.

Whoa, I just totally changed your perspective and stuff.

Use Your Fists

Pretty self-explanatory, and afterwards they’ll have quite forgotten whatever rapier-like point they were about to use to pierce through your entire argument and leave you looking like a small-minded bigot.  Win.

The caveat here is that if your opponent is bigger than you, or looks like a biter, you’ll probably get beaten to a pulp.  On the plus side, this will mean that your opponent has lost his or her temper and therefore you’ve won by default.  Win.


The rest of this series will go into a lot more detail about a variety of options, including the invention of fictional experts and studies and the advantage of getting your opponent very, very drunk.

Next time: the proper use of the filibuster.

Wax On, Wax Off: Feminism And The V Word

The one rule of being male and talking about feminism is don’t do it.

Julie Burchill once noted that the successes of the women’s lib movement of the 60s largely boiled down to easier access to contraception and abortions; things that made men’s lives easier (as she put it).

Yesterday, a friend sent me a link to a new ‘feminist’ campaign, which you can see here.

“On Thursday 3rd October, Mother London is launching Project Bush, a call to action for women to stand up to the pressures of modern society and present their bushes in all their glory. Whether waxed or never tended, young, old, black, brown or white, we want to display London’s lady gardens in all their variety, and demonstrate the choice that many young women – particularly – may not realise they have when it comes to waxing.”

My first thought was ‘Finally!!! Ladies, get your euphemisms out, this is PRECISELY what Emmeline Pankhurst had in mind.’

That’s right, kids, there is an actual campaign to photograph vaginas to remind or teach women that they don’t need to wax off all their pubic hair, that there’s an element of choice involved.  Aright, vulva if you want to be pedantic.

Because apparently women are too stupid to have worked that out for themselves.  To be honest I think that’s an unpleasantly sexist undertone, which is ironic if you think about it.

Only they don’t use either V word or refer to pubic hair, because we’re all too squeamish and infantilised these days, so it’s ‘lady garden’.  To be fair to the campaigners, at least they didn’t call it a twinkle.

I’m hopeful, but not very, that this latest slice of fauxminism is the brainchild of a man with an agenda.  In fact, I would love to have been in that meeting:

Ladies, sorry, feminists, relax; you’ve got a man here to sort out your issues.  We’re gonna’ fix women’s problems and achieve full and unambiguous equality within the year. Don’t worry your pretty little heads about it – I’m a man and fixin’ stuff is what men do.

For starters, I want each of you to lift up your skirts. Yeah…there we go, that’s the stuff… Women, be proud of your femininity – that’s step one right there.  Now for step two we’ll be moving on to one night stands and how they’re essentially feminist, so each of you will be letting the side down if you don’t come over to mine for some casual sex.  Your appointments are set out in the timetable I’ve provided.  Bring a friend.  

What? No, the pay gap comes later, then we take on the boardroom; it’s all there in my step-by-step proposal in simple words that even women can understand.  First though, I want you girls to make out.

Or as Ryan Gosling’s character put it in Crazy Stupid Love “The war between the sexes is over. We won the second women started doing poledancing for exercise.”

But sadly I suspect that this wasn’t the work of a chauvinist in femme clothing, even if it’s precisely the sort of thing you’d come up with if you, for sake of argument, wanted to discredit feminism as a serious body of thought so that actual misogynists could continue to ignore it.

The campaign claims to seek a wider discussion about the relevance and meaning of feminism today.  This in itself is laudable if it’s genuine: we’re heading with glacial pace towards some semblance of gender equality, but with 3 female CEOs of FTSE 100 companies, we’re not exactly there yet.  Besides which, ideological battles are never won in perpetuity.

In 1979 the UK elected a woman as prime minister – in 2010 the highest profile women in politics were the wives of the leaders of the main parties.  And the focus was almost entirely on the chicness of otherwise of their wardrobes and hairstyles.

SO there’s work to do and glass ceilings to smash.  Taken further there’s a question of whether feminism should be about achieving specific goals and thereby creating a world in which feminism is no longer necessary, or whether it’s actually about a more pervasive female self-understanding, about the issues women face and what it might mean to be a woman.  Personally I’d opt for the former, but that’s because I’m not convinced it’s desirable to treat classes of people as homogenous entities, even loosely.  Admittedly that might partly be because as a straight, white male (and thus one of the traditional beneficiaries of patriarchy) I’ve never had much of a need to identify as part of a particular group.

Privilege checked.

This sort of attention-grabbing stunt deflects from that – it implies that while women rightly deny that they should be defined by their sex organs, nevertheless let’s all just concentrate on them. It’s worth noting that the pressures of modern society encompass more than just the Brazilian conundrum.

The subject-matter is actually serious – we’re talking about female ownership of their own bodies after all, which is an issue in the liberal West same as it is in more aggressively male-dominated societies.  But the presentation seems to trivialise it, by focusing on a bit of muff fluff.  One wonders what campaigners against female genital mutilation and circumcision might make of it.

That’s a problem because if something’s trivial, it can be dismissed.  And if it’s trivial but it gets coverage then it allows people to dismiss it and people and things related to it as inherently shallow.  It allows for an easy cop-out: women have what they need (ie they can vote and get a job) and the rest is just whining about men, spouting trite touchy-feely maxims, crying misogyny when it’s not there and getting in a tizzy over minor issues – silly women with silly women’s problems.  And while we’re on the subject dollface, don’t be so hypersensitive and moody; it’s just a bit of a laugh (is it that time again?)

All of which is patently wrong.

And again, this campaign infantilises women, because whether it’s by men or women or both, it explicitly says that women need to be told that they don’t need to be told what to do with their own vaginas.

For what it’s worth, I think it goes like this regardless of your gender: if you expect someone to go down on you it’s considered good manners to have the occasional trim.  Beyond that, go crazy or don’t – it’s your downstairs mix-up, not mine or society’s.

The counterpoint to all the above is that women should be free to say and do more or less as they please, which is obviously true.  Accordingly, it’s not appropriate for me as a man to wade in criticising and issuing demands and generally telling women what to do, or how to go about realising their goals.  But if feminism is genuinely interested in gender equality then I probably shouldn’t be excluded from the conversation by virtue of possessing a y chromosome.

Also, one might wonder whether the efforts and resources of feminist organisations might be better directed towards substantive issues such as domestic violence and the slut shaming culture that no number of Sex and The City reruns can kill off.

One last thing – surely by now we ought to be comfortable with using proper words when we talk about down there.  At the very least we should be over the simpering twee of flower and fufu.  We’re all adults, let’s call it what it is:

A vajayjay.

Celebrating 60 Years Of The European Convention On Human Rights

When I was 13 I was taken to the concentration camp Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  My family lived in Poland at the time, and it was felt by my parents that it was important for me and my education to see the lingering scars of our shared history.  It was mid-February, frozen and grey with a desolate wind.

Auschwitz has been maintained as a museum, but Birkenau – always a temporary facility – had been largely left alone.  It was a hideously affecting experience – there are no words adequate to describe these chilling monuments to the darkness of which mankind is capable.

What I learned was this: true evil lives not in hatred of one’s fellow human beings, but in the ceasing to recognise the humanity of others at all.  True evil, if there is such a thing, is banal.

The Nazi ideology was based on the concept of superiority, of race and ideology.  Their actions were justifiable because they were strong, and others were weak, and it was natural for the strong to dominate the weak.  In fact, it was better than natural – it was right.

In that sense the ideology was simply a perversion of the imperialist attitude of 19th century Europe.

The 13 year old me followed in the footsteps of other, much better men and women.  They witnessed not the lingering scars of the old but the livid wound of the now.  The result of their revulsion was a document that entrenched the rights of man most cherished by our forebears – of freedom from torture, of the right to self-expression, association and belief, of the right to private and family life; and of the right to a fair trial, among others.

And recognising that rights without teeth are as useless as no rights at all, they established a court in the city of Strasbourg to interpret and determine those rights, to bind states with their decisions; to offer protection.

60 years ago today, the European Convention on Human Rights came into force.  Today it stretches across 47 nations in Europe, covering roughly 800 million people.

One of the myths of democracy is that it is tough rather than fragile – that come what may it will survive intact, that governments will always respect the ultimate will of the people, and that words like ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ will never become empty sounds.  But political ideals are not hereditary, and no system is impervious.

Many journalists and members of my government (and the opposition) regularly attack the Convention; they decry it with spin and falsehood, they conflate it with the European Union (a separate entity altogether).  Above all they loathe the bastard child that is the Human Rights Act 1998, and the insidious fingers of continental intrusion into British affairs.

Unforgivably, some claim to seek to withdraw from the Convention altogether.

They point to so-called abuses of the system – prisoners suing for better food and a ‘cushier’ life.  There are whispers of other such undesirables using the Convention rights for their own aims, without regard to the spirit of what those rights once stood for.  Incidentally, Dostoyevsky wrote words to the effect that one can judge a society by observing how it treats those it does not need to treat well.

For tub-thumpers for the sanctity of the United Kingdom, her sovereignty and many successes, it’s interesting that they ignore the significant hand the UK played in drafting the Convention.

In this they follow the lead of the previous Labour governments, who turned quickly away from championing civil liberties and inclusion to the perhaps excusable if more exclusive language of security.  A government that proudly trumpeted the Human Rights Act introduced long-stop detention without charge and a vast raft of criminal and terrorism offences.

I was born into a country which had enormous experience of terrorism, but which nevertheless sought to balance security and freedom.  This balance was never fully struck, and there is, of course, red on both sides of the ledger – such is inevitable.

But it was never portrayed as an existential threat that threatened every aspect of our way of life.

Nowadays, a ‘terrorist’ no longer conjures an image of a man with an Irish accent and a balaclava, but he is no less caricatured.  And the cycle of interdependence between extremes remains no less bloody.

After so many reminders over the past 12 years that violence begets violence, that war brutalises those who wage it, as it does those against whom it is waged, it is, I think, worth dwelling on the Convention.

Detractors claim to seek a citizens’ bill of rights – we’ll look after our own thank you very much and you do the same with yours.  But that utterly misses the fundamental point of the Convention:  what we all have in common is our basic humanity, and what we all need from time to time is the reminder of this fact.  Humanity is the issue, not citizenship – we’ve seen where such distinctions can lead.

The Convention and its court may be meddlesome, cumbersome and slow.  The court may make decisions that infuriate governments and popular opinion alike.  Its judges may seek to broaden their jurisdiction beyond what is appropriate on occasion; it may be abused from time to time.  But show me the court that doesn’t want to extend its remit.  Show me the legal system that is incapable of (routine) abuse.

I was born into a world that bore witness to the dying whimpers of the experiment in madness that was the totalitarian vision of communism.  I was too young to understand the significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  But throughout my life (and those of generations before and since), I have seen constant reminders of the need for the safeguards of the Convention and reasons for optimism, too; for celebration of those same rights.

Today, for now at least, we should celebrate those rights and the fledgling Council of Europe all those years ago that took such steps to enshrine them in the hope they might help prevent the horrors it had seen from ever returning.  It was and remains an important cause.

Happy birthday.

What The Wire Can Teach You About Cheating On Your Partner

TV cop show The Wire was ambitious and ground-breaking and almost universally adored.  It showcased the strengths of TV as a storytelling format.  It demonstrated that audiences don’t need to be pandered to, with knotty plotting and impenetrable dialogue.  And best of all, it’s full of little life lessons appropriate for almost any occasion.

Let’s leave penile recidivist Anthony Weiner to one side – that’s presumably a case of nominative determinism in action.

According to media waffle, rugby’s Danny Cipriani has been kicked to the curb by girlfriend Kelly Brook for allegedly getting involved in some sexting action with a third party.  Down under, the chair of Queensland’s Parliament’s ethics committee, Peter Dowling MP, was recently embroiled in a scandal for apparently dunking his penis into a glass of wine.  Maybe he felt it might improve the flavour?

Last year a Florida politician, Rep. Richard Steinberg, resigned over, you guessed it, a sexting scandal involving a married prosecutor.

For those not in the know, ‘sexting’ is the practice of sending sexually explicit text messages or photos to somebody who isn’t you.  Think “I’ll show you mine if you text me yours”.

First thoughts?  I immediately wondered whether the Cipriani/Brook fiasco will fall into the Ashley Cole/Cheryl Cole category from a few years back.  Chelsea footballer Ashley cheated on his spouse, a regular high placer in those 100 sexiest women polls they put on for virgins.

A certain type of chap – prominent forehead, thick eyebrows, animal skins, went extinct some-odd thousand years ago – tended to be baffled by the news because she was “well fine”.  Some wags made comments about having steak every night but wanting the occasional burger.  Because that’s exactly the same thing.

As will be clear from the above, we’re non-judgemental at Frood.

Obviously, a basic hallmark of being a faithful person is not texting photographs of your junk to the world at large.  It’s not explicitly included in the wedding vows, but it’s sort of implied.

Nevertheless, sometimes it happens.

Some people claim sex addiction, removed from the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) – the official bible of psychological disorders – for lack of compelling scientific evidence.  Others claim drunkenness, or accident (I didn’t mean to get caught…)

Or perhaps a profound fear of mortality, a sense of the passing years and declining powers, of King Cnut ordering the waves back from the shore.  Except that Cnut was making a relatively subtle point, whereas you were merely texting poorly written filth to a girl younger than your daughter.  Probably with emoticons, you disgusting wretch.

So what have we learned?  Using your mobile phone or the internet for the purposes of gratifying your urge to share has become akin to masturbating in public – you can’t really hide what you’re doing.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with the former, of course, but if you’re in the public eye it’s likely to harm your career.  Also, don’t actually masturbate in public, it’s antisocial.

And here’s where The Wire comes in.  In The Wire, the police are investigating drug dealers.  Both sides engage in a technology war – the cops tap public phones, the dealers move to pay as you go mobiles.  And so on.

The Wire teaches us that the solution is clear: IF you’re a public figure AND you want to get your sexting on AND your conscience is on holiday, get a pay as you go mobile phone under a pseudonym.  Pay cash.  Wear a hat and sunglasses when you buy it.  Don’t let your partner find it.

Because, and this is an actual serious point, unless you’re banging a foreign spy who’s pumping you for information (sorry), or your lifestyle is otherwise seriously affecting your ability to do your job, your sexual peccadillos don’t really matter all that much in the grand scheme.  Despite what our salacious, gossipy instincts tell us.

Unless you’re stalking someone or your attentions are otherwise unwanted.  That’s different.

After all, while one’s sexuality might form a sizeable chunk of their personality, it’s not the whole.  And just because I or anyone else might disapprove or find your antics distasteful, doesn’t mean you’re not fit for whatever it is you do.  Basically, if you’re even halfway good at your job or are otherwise concerned about your legacy, be discreet.

Or put another way, pretty much the only thing I can remember about Anthony Weiner is that he’s apparently rather fond of photographing his penis.

Keep it consensual and don’t cry phony tears or make up lame excuses when you get caught.  Or expect to keep your job, because while approximately 1000% of humanity is probably also guilty of some unseemly sexual practice or other, we’re nothing if not massively hypocritical.

And if you spy an Old Etonian with a thick Baltimore accent, well you’re screwed (sorry again).  So you might as well start working on your resignation speech.  Be sure to thank your partner for his/her support through this difficult time.

But Enough Of This Gay Banter…

The fighting has been fierce, marked by the intolerance of the tolerant: gaybasher-bashing, homophobe-phobia.  Bigotry towards bigots: progress of a sort.

Tuesday, February 5, was an historic moment in the decades-long move to (full) acceptance of homosexuality in the UK.  The equal marriage bill, conferring on homosexuals the right to get married (rather than civil partner-ed), passed its second reading in the House of Commons with 400 votes in favour and 225 against.  The House of Lords is yet to come, but that’s a battle for another day.

I’m something of a political nihilist, sniping and sneering at the shibboleths of left and right alike.  I instinctively distrust most politicians, especially the type of leader who seeks to rule through sheer force of personality, whether Winston Churchill or Tony Blair.  I think that political ideals are and should be subordinate to people, always.  

Nevertheless I do believe in many things: I believe the rehabilitation of offenders is more important than the pound of flesh and that Einstein was right when he said that insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  I believe in Harvey Dent…

I believe in a woman’s right to choose, and that divorce proceedings should be (pardon the expression) divorced from the standard adversarial legal system.  I believe in the right of the religious to pursue their own beliefs without scorn. 

I believe that a moral dilemma is, by definition, a choice between two wrongs and that in real life right vs wrong situations are vanishingly rare, I believe that the gay marriage question is one such situation; I believe in gay marriage.

Most things are arguable and most things are complex: there are many, many more perspectives than the two sides to every story mantra we learn as children.  Is it lonely up here on my high horse? Sometimes, but I have my sense of smug self-satisfaction to keep me company. 

Tony Blair was a genius in this regard: his party introduced civil partnerships at a time before the issue had come to dominate the mainstream.  It gave homosexuals equal rights in law; it allowed gays to say “we’re married” and it allowed certain others to say “oh-ho, no you’re not.”  Civil partnership was never intended to be anything other than a short-term compromise on a divisive issue.

And it is a divisive issue, with strong, largely instinctive, feelings on both sides – yes of course they should, it’s obvious? Or conversely: no they shouldn’t.

My first reaction was in favour, and as with most such ill-defined feelings I’ve had to come up with reasons after the fact, as is the case with most people.  That is, I’ve become more firmly dug in to my initial position.  This inherently makes discourse fruitless – I make my points, you make yours and if we started in agreement we’ll probably end in agreement, and if we disagreed at the outset, well I won’t hold my breath if you don’t hold yours.

But it’s only human to try and win a few skirmishes in the battle for hearts and minds.

The concept of marriage is fluid – a contract of ownership, or a means of cementing alliances.  No-fault divorce is accepted now, where once any sort of divorce was frowned upon.  Love may be the dominant reason for getting married, but that’s a relatively modern phenomenon; marriages arranged by the parents are now relatively infrequent.

The legal aspects of marriage are the sole province of the state, but marriage is more than forms and property rights.  Marriage cuts across religions – it no more belongs to Christians than to Sikhs or Jews, it is not Islamic, or Hindu.  In fact there’s no basic requirement to be religious at all to get married.  Or to want children – it’s certainly not about procreation in a time when a bastard is someone who cheats you, not someone born out of wedlock.

Little Englanders may wish to look away now, but the UK has always been an immigrant isle: Celts, Romans, Saxons, Norse, Normans – none are indigenous.  If anything this accelerated during the days of empire and commonwealth.  

Such diversity of ethnicity and belief can serve to mask the fact that people are more similar than they are different.  And while there are bound to be differences between gay relationships and straight ones only a fool would suggest that homosexuals are incapable of feeling love in as profound and overwhelming and deep a sense as heterosexuals. 

In any society it is necessary to balance rights and the beliefs of disparate groups which are often in direct conflict with one another.  The right of some to be offended doesn’t trump the right of others to give their relationships the proper name.

The question then is whether there is a positive need for change.  That is to say: homosexuals have the same rights in law.  There are fundamental differences between their relationships and the traditional concept of marriage (ie the absence of one type of genitalia and the abundance of the other).  So long as they’re not discriminated against (ie denied rights) that’s enough.

I disagree.

Equality of rights is one thing, but we live beyond the chilly confines of the law.  Words have more power and come with more baggage than we sometimes give them credit for.  A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but in a world of roses a ‘romance-signifying flower’ sticks out like a sore green thumb.  Or, to reference South Park in place of Shakespeare, “it’ll be just like being married only instead of being married you’ll be butt-buddies. Buuuttt.  Buuuddddiess.” 

To deny homosexuals the right to the word marriage is to imply that their emotions, their relationships are fundamentally different.  In such denial comes the unavoidable implication that their relationships are somehow inferior, not worthy of ‘marriage’ with all that the word signifies.  Or at least their relationships should be excluded, even if they’re the same but different to make a prejudicial historical analogy.  This in turn demeans us all.

I’m not married, but I’m forever amazed (and heartened) at the commitment and certainty it takes for two people to get married.  I’m also sure that it’s an easy commitment to make once you’ve found the right person.  Weddings are lovely occasions brimming with joy and optimism.  I’m not gay, but I fail to see how there could be any real difference: we have little if any control over who we’re attracted to or who we fall in love with.  One kind of love is not more tangible or genuine than another.

As I see it then, the issue is one of discrimination against one group of people for a frankly arbitrary characteristic.  Moreover, even the anti-gay marriage brigade is keen to stress its lack of homophobia, hiding instead behind straw men clad in the language of tradition and tolerance.

The Conservative rebels are even citing the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”), saying that ECHR will be used to bully religions into submission.  Given the rabid Tory antagonism to ECHR this would be laughable if it weren’t so disingenuous. 

There is currently no human right to same sex marriage to be found within ECHR – the Strasbourg court has ruled on this before (in reference to article 12 and the right to marriage between a man and a woman) and the court is not minded to change.  But there is a right to freedom of religion (article 9).  Article 8 (respect for private and family life) may pose an attractive proposition for the litigious, but it’ll be a tenuous case at best.  And again, Strasbourg’s jurisdiction is the interpretation and application of ECHR – whether the state and its institutions are acting in conflict with your convention rights.

Further, the Anglican Church denies women the right to hold senior positions within its organisation with impunity; the Roman Catholic Church denies priests the right to marry.  Neither has been subjected to a successful lawsuit and rightly so in my opinion – religions may hold baffling beliefs to outsiders, but they are nevertheless genuinely held.  Religions should simply be prevented from imposing those beliefs on non-believers.  This is true of any social group.

But as they say, it’s not homosexuality per se that’s the problem.  If so, then it’s hard to work out what the issue really is – public mood is broadly in favour, the wedding industry is definitely in favour, fear of the erosion of religious rights appears unfounded or at least grossly exaggerated.  The equal marriage bill in fact explicitly protects the rights of the Church.

In the absence of a clearly defined reason to deny same sex marriage, the conclusion is surely clear.  On Tuesday, reason and decency won out.

A victory for the prime minister and a defeat for his party.  They’ve promised to carry on fighting to the House of Lords and beyond despite the damage they’re inflicting on their own reputations and their own party, despite the fact that they’re at odds with the public they claim to represent.  They’ll carry on despite the nonsense of a position which purports not to have a problem with gays but nevertheless seeks to deny them rights for the fact of their homosexuality.

They’d be well advised to stop with all the carry-on; enough of this gay banter. 

What Do You Think About That, Then?

Yesterday morning I awoke to a dandruff coating of snow.  ‘Aargh, my one weakness!!’ I thought; after all I am merely several tonnes of electrified steel and tempered glass and my opponent is a small quantity of crystallised water formed around dusty cores. This will destroy my chances of meeting my scheduled arrival times.

But I struggled through with trainful determination. 

Snow is indeed the one weakness of our creaking public transport system, except for all the others like unseasonable cold or warmth.  Or thunder, which is scary for trains. Leaves, lightning, any combination of weather patterns, it’s all the same ultimate weakness.

This morning the London Underground was faintly troubled (on the Bakerloo Line) by strike action over pay and conditions.  Naturally I was as flabbergasted and outraged as disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, that well-known writer of venomous letters to local councils and newspapers.

After all, I don’t get overtime pay and anyway everybody knows they’re all hugely overpaid anyway, they want to try living in the real world etc.

A recent edition of the Economist posed a question: is innovation drying up as a force for economic growth?  After all, increasingly powerful computers in the workplace ought to boost productivity by reducing the time necessary for completing various tasks.

But they haven’t.

Spoiler alert: the writer didn’t seem to think there was much to worry about; such innovations take longer than you might think to have a measurable impact on productivity.  The cynic might suggest that computers may boost and reduce productivity simultaneously – the same work can be done in less time, but with more time spent on the Daily Mail website’s sidebar of shame or, worse, wallowing in the ‘Comments’ sections of The Guardian, BBC or Telegraph.  Insert appropriate local news purveyor here, naturellement.

Now technological progress is wonderful, but the combined effects of 24 hour news and the internet means that we have increasingly less time to digest what we’re told.  We have so many available sources of information it can be difficult to be discerning in which ones we trust.  Each new story, each new scandal demands: “’Ere! Whochoo fink of that, then?”

An illustration – polls taken have found that a majority of people in the UK believe a sizeable minority, or even a majority, of all public welfare spending goes to benefits cheats.  In other words it’s lost on fraud.

Is that statement true?  Is it, in fact ‘a’ statement, or several (about beliefs, about spending and about fraud)?  What do the terms mean – what is ‘public welfare spending’, what constitutes ‘benefits fraud’?  Are we talking a statutory definition of fraud or something more general?  Where’s the context?  What does any of it mean, and what do you think about that meaning? 

Nah, just playin’, the real questions are: who’s doing what about it?  And whose fault is this?

And of course that last question is the most important one; after all, I’m not the one fraudulently claiming benefits.  What do I think of that?  I don’t know, but I am angry.

Add to that the ease with which one can plaster comments on the internet, however ill thought out, and you’ve a recipe for some ridiculously entertaining stuff.  The broadsheets are past masters at this – ‘whiny’ liberals and ‘paranoid’ rightwingers are so easily wound-up and the readership tends to be reasonably well educated, which means that they use more and bigger words as an alternative to calling each other **%(£ and *(%&^”!£$.  Which would otherwise get repetitive.

And all this content creation is free and easy to achieve; all you need to do is write something fairly one-sided and chuck in some controversial factoid or other. Then wait for the verby brawling to commence and voila: proof for your advertisers that they’re not wasting money, which in turn keeps the fiscal wolves from the financial door (because no one actually buys newspapers these days).

But you can have too much of a good thing, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read an article, moved to the comments section and quite forgotten whatever the article was about.  People talk about Twitter spats.  Pssh, check the Guardian.  

The vitriol, the pomposity, misplaced pedantry, blind prejudice repackaged as insight (see everything said about politicians, bankers, lawyers, teachers, celebrities, public sector workers…) The lack of self-awareness, conceited, opinionated bollocks by people who proclaim the profit-seeking impulse or European Union to be morally evil constructs.  And that’s just the lifestyle sections, let alone politics or the economy.  

To paraphrase Mark Twain: it’s better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you’re beah thick than open your mouth and prove it, you feel me, bruv?

Much of the time the commenters aren’t even commenting on the article itself or the issue at hand but engaging in some stylised tribal war dance.  Albeit one with more accusations of Nazism in accordance with Godwin’s law (as the length of any online discussion increases, the probability of one of the participants bringing up Hitler approaches 1).

And then some douche ruins it by making a thoughtful, considered and insightful comment.

But ignore them, clever, sensible people that they are.  Also ignore the fact that if you just let some things go you’ll probably be happier because all this angst can’t be good for your health.  Go away, have a think, be open-minded and then decide whether or not you want to form an opinion about whatever you’re being told you need to hold an opinion about.

Alternatively, go comments hunting and focus on the more goggle-eyed paranoia and cathartic stress relief (no one’s ever really that angry about windfarm policy but it does give a good excuse for some of that volcanic anger you wanted to direct at your boss/spouse).  It’s funnier than fart jokes and it’ll make up for the day’s little irritants.  

Then think of that next time someone asks you: ‘ere, whochoo fink of that, then?

And remember Mark Twain.

THAT Speech In Full: Dracula (1992)

She lives beyond the grace of God, a wanderer in the outer darkness of the Australian outback. She is “Nadine Dorris MP”, “Mad Nad”, a narcissistic, publicity-hungry politician.  These creatures do not die like the bee after the first sting, but instead grow strong and become immortal once infected by another narcissistic, publicity-hungry politician, such as George “The Cat From Celebrity Big Brother” Galloway MP.  

So, my friends we fight not one beast but legions that go on age after age after age, feeding expense accounts on the blood of the living.

What Doesn’t Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom Have To Say About The 2012 Election?

Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom features Jeff Daniels as somnambulant newscaster and Republican with a conscience, Will McAvoy, in what some critics have suggested is a transparent attempt by Sorkin to deflect criticisms of liberal bias.  Daniels’ ex-girlfriend with the ridiculous name MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) is hired as the new executive producer of his nightly news programme and she accordingly inspires Daniels and the team to produce the news as it should be.  This is to say that the news ought to be decent and honourable, neither a partisan polemic nor an affected neutrality in which all opinions are deemed equally valid, regardless of their credibility, sense or basic internal consistency. 

Despite a suspiciously high rating on IMDB, The Newsroom didn’t receive much love from critics or the public, most of whom appeared to have tired of Sorkin’s trademark mix of overt sentimentality and naked emotional manipulation.  Not to mention the bespoke stylised dialogue – zippy one liners punctuated by longer monologues – which fail to disguise the sense that the characters represent little more than straw men to be torn apart or mouthpieces for Sorkin’s political views.

The Newsroom is typically Sorkin, perhaps more so, as though he’s been left on a medium heat like a red wine reduction – stickier and more concentrated.

Sorkin professes that the show is a drama about people and relationships as much as it is an idealised account of the media – a class of people more usually caricatured as morally bankrupt muckrakers and sleaze merchants.  And he’s not lying insofar as there’s a fractious will-they-won’t-they relationship between Ross ‘n Rachel stand-ins, Daniels and Mortimer, and the love triangle of Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr and Thomas Sadoski, playing Maggie, Jim and Don respectively.  Dev Patel and Olivia Munn round out the cast as a hapless geek prone to ‘outrageous’ theories concerning the existence of Bigfoot and a smokin’ hot, socially awkward economist named Sloan Sabbith.  

The focus on character is one reason why The Newsroom utilises real-life news events, which means there is little need for exposition-heavy dialogue to recount the news and thus more room for characterisation.  It also enables Sorkin to use the benefit of hindsight to ensure he’s always right, which is nice.  But Sorkin is being disingenuous when he suggests that The Newsroom isn’t predominately a piece of soapbox television.

The West Wing gave audiences Martin Sheen as a POTUS the Americans didn’t have to feel ashamed of, initially because he could keep it in his pants and latterly because he didn’t use ‘now watch this drive’ or ‘let me put it in Texan for you’ as rhetorical flourishes.  Likewise, The Newsroom is an escapist fantasy of wish fulfilment in a country in which belligerent (tabloid) news programmes and the shadowy rightwing fringes dominate the political conversation more than is perhaps desirable. 

US politics, as we are told constantly, is more divided than ever.  The Tea Party has replaced the Neocons as the political bogeyman so far as the rest of the world is concerned.  It’s easy to sneer this far from the US, but in fairness the Tea Party’s extreme rhetoric is unsettling, not to mention their usurping of the language of patriotism and the questionable tactic of claiming divine inspiration, as Michelle Bachmann and Ricky Santorum both appear to have done.

There’s a theory runs that media outlets reinforce such division. This is especially so in a commercial environment in which the news is perceived as another form of lifestyle choice or entertainment.  Finally, news programmers are said to be loath to bite the hand that feeds, which is an issue when your company’s owners/shareholders are themselves potentially newsworthy and you have a number of journalists in your employ. 

But soapbox Sorkin has given himself a problem here.  In seeking to focus on his characters’ personal dramas, one note though they might be, there is limited time for such a complex issue.  In any event he’s idealised his team and there’s little interaction with other media rivals beyond cartoonish gutter-dwellers, about whom everybody can agree (hint: they be wrong ‘uns).

Luckily, the media isn’t Sorkin’s target at all, which brings us neatly to the question of the protagonist’s political affiliation.  He might be a liberal, but in the ‘anti-US’ speech in the pilot Sorkin makes it clear he sees himself as an American above all; he simply laments the direction the country has taken.

The story arc of series 1 may turn on a conspiracy theory concerning Daniels’ superiors and the pressure impliedly brought to bear on them by his targets, but that merely serves to highlight the real antagonists of the show.  Or, to borrow soaring Sorkian rhetoric for a minute, the real enemies of America: the Tea Party.

And make no mistake, shady billionaires the Koch brothers are repeatedly name-checked as originators and funders of the Tea Party – ie it’s not a real grassroots movement at all, but an exercise in manipulation.  The Tea Party generally is potrayed as a collection of extremist fundamentalists: anti-tax, anti-science, anti-women, isolationist, racist, simplistic and insidious.  The GOP nominees are likewise given special treatment – in a mock-up debate Alison Pill mockingly asks a Michelle Bachmann stand-in what God’s voice sounds like given He’s been talking to her.  

At others more moderate Republicans are harangued about why they continue to let their party be overtaken by the fringes, about why they’re seemingly content to be portrayed as RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) by fruitcakes.

Sorkin’s point seems to be this: America has a two party system, with two (realistic) presidential candidates.  There might be the odd Ross Perot, but mostly you’d struggle to name a third-party candidate without accessing Google.  For such a system to work there has to be some compromise in Congress and there have to be viable presidential candidates on both sides.  Otherwise, democracy struggles and the nation accordingly suffers.  Daniels’ character isn’t a Republican beard for Sorkin so much as he’s a mouthpiece for this point – a Republican president isn’t the end of the world, especially given the relatively narrow range of political positions open to POTUS.  An extremist, however, is either unelectable or too dangerous to stomach – would anyone ever really have wanted Sarah Palin to have access to the nuclear codes?  Santorum infamously compared homosexual activity to necrophiliac bestiality and is aggressively pro-life. Whatever your stance on those issues, his isn’t the language of a head of state, especially one as diverse as the USA. 

As for Congress there have been many quotes from Republicans confirming their desire to see Obama as a one-term loser, regardless of the cost.  The Tea Party appears to view compromise at any level as anathema.  Whether you agree with their policies or not, this is clearly no way for a government to function.

That’s my theory anyway. 

It’s unlikely Sorkin has had an actual impact – people don’t tend to enjoy being lectured about why their views are misguided so he’s mostly been preaching to the choir.  Then again, there are increasing signs of Republican dismay and rebellion against the shrill dictats of the Tea Party.

Something to ponder on election night, anyhow.

The Newsroom, then: as entertainment it’s tonally patchy, veering from saccharine to sanctimonious almost in a heartbeat, but it’s been optioned for a second series.  Expect next series to focus on the Superpacs, mudslinging from both candidates and particularly Romney’s flexible approach to facts.  And drone strikes.  Oh, and Veep-wannabe Ryan’s appropriation of 20th Century economist Friedrich Hayek, despite Hayek having serious reservations about laissez-faire policies, not to mention his tacit espousal of universal healthcare and welfare.  

You read it here first.

Getting Stick For The Thick Of It

Stop the presses, it’s funeral time.  Crack out that W H Auden poem John Hannah recites in Four Weddings.  Armando Ianucci has lost it.  Seriously, he’s spread himself too thin.  Veep was a minor misdemeanour, but that was American and they have previous convictions for adapted British comedies.  So we can forgive him Veep.  But the new series of The Thick Of It just isn’t much cop, and that’s not forgivable; that’s a crime.  Stick a knife in him, he’s done.  All that needs to be decided now is who gets to do the eulogy.

Well let’s not prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone just yet.

Even the puffiest of puff pieces have been mildly ambivalent about season four of The Thick Of It.  Once it was appointment television, a show that could do no wrong; that could even survive the worst possible scandal in the form of a major actor’s personal life.  Now it’s considered little more than a fart in a frock.  You’ll appreciate what I did there.

The Thick Of It’s not so sharp, so they say.  But it’s not really as blunt as all that.

Real politicians are desperate for legitimacy, kowtowing to the media gods in the hope that Murdoch et al will play nice and the public won’t actively despise them.  But TV is a mirror that reflects our prejudices.  Consequently, new coalition partners the Inbetweeners are the sort of gauche, insincere schoolboys society assumes all politicians to be, especially the ones who trade their principles for power and are accordingly found wanting by the court of public opinion.  

There’s a tangent here about our priorities (or those of the media). About what it means when Theresa May MP as home secretary can flat out lie/be utterly ignorant about the importance of cats in asylum and immigration proceedings, for which she is the minister ultimately responsible, and not get fired because of it, but when Andrew Mitchell MP swears at a policeman while riding a bike nothing less than a public inquiry will do.  Maybe a flogging too.  

The Thick Of It makes this point intelligently – we never really found out, for example, whether Ben Swain might actually be a competent government official, we just know that he’s a burke who can’t stop blinking when under studio lights.  It might be The Office transported to Westminster, hence the little people in big jobs, but just take one look at some of the ‘scandals’ that have done for our MPs.  Duck houses and crisp packets, the mistress in a chelsea shirt, the sniggering innuendoes about close male relationships and late night visitors.

In such an atmosphere where the most minor peccadillo is verboten, when looking foolish is a worse crime than being foolish, it makes sense that Nicola Murray’s opposition leader would want to practice how she walks.  Let’s not forget that The Thick Of It has always been about the spin of modern politics in which appearance is deemed more significant than substance.  David Cameron pitching up on a late-night American chat show isn’t an anomaly – it’s a symptom.

If anyone’s the target of The Thick Of It’s so-called satire, it’s not just politicians, it’s also you and me.  As they used to say about the mafia, our silence is complicity.  

On the subject of spin, season four finds Malcolm Tucker in reduced circumstances and reduced screen time.  It’s never confirmed but implied that Nicola Murray is party leader by virtue of Malcolm’s support for her.  The closest he’ll get to a win-win is a leader so unsure of herself she needs him to hold her hand, thus cementing his position as power behind the throne.  Otherwise, he’ll simply cast his dark spells and remove her, impressing and/or intimidating the heir apparent, thus cementing his position as power behind the throne.  Machiavelli would be green with professional envy.

Previous seasons have kept the party leaders firmly off-stage, a neat conceit that served during the ‘power years’, but has been daringly jettisoned during the ‘opposition years’.  Make no mistake, Malcolm plays bully and anti-hero, but we’ve seen both his power and his powers diminished over the show’s run, mirrored in the way the cast list has grown, eating into his screen time.  

We shouldn’t cheer him – he’s unelected, unaccountable and yet wields an enormous amount of influence.  A man who will go to any lengths to protect his own position regardless of who he destroys to do so.  Who is indistinguishable from his job: a pantomime villain, a caricature; all spit and venom and negative characteristics.  It’s jarring when it’s revealed it’s his birthday in season three – this is no human being.  And yet there are occasional unsettling moments of pathos that leaven the performance.

‘Less Malcolm’ isn’t a criticism then, or shouldn’t be – it’s part of the point.  The new season hasn’t rested on its laurels – it’s taken creative risks rather than replay the hits and count the money like all those reformed bands from the 70s.  Besides, we’re into the second half now, and it seems likely that Malcolm will shift into action and reclaim his limelight birthright.

If there is one little quibble to be made it’s the non-appearance of Alex MacQueen’s Lord Adonis  Julius Nicholson.  Maybe that’s just me.

But the real reason why the show has been criticised for being underwhelming is entirely because of how well loved it is.  Like every other sentiment humanoid who’d seen the show, I was weeping with anticipation.  I tried to placate myself with In The Loop and Veep, but those were as methadone scripts to recovering addicts in comparison.  Nothing was ever likely to live up to that level of expectation.  Or could.  A victim of its own success then, hoist by its own petard – hardly its fault or Ianucci’s.

This season has had a couple of relatively duff episodes, as did the earlier ones – the show has always run the gamut from ‘I see what they did there’ amusing to pants-wettingly funny.  In general it’s well written, fantastically performed and it’s made a few changes to keep it fresh, which have largely worked – who’d have considered James Smith’s Glenn Cullen to be the show’s moral compass before?  Who wouldn’t now?  Plus, more Stewart Pearson, more Peter Mannion MP and more of their bickering – what’s not to love?

Wait for it on DVD, all you doubting Thomases, watch it again and reassess.  I guarantee you’ll wonder why you ever said it wasn’t as good as what it was.  “What’s this? I’m supposed to be commenting on a suicide, not a fucking camel race.” 


A working demonstration of Kant’s antimonies there for all you pseudo-intellectuals, I’m sure you’ll agree.