How to bury a king

November 26th, 2013

Leicester and York are arguing over who is going to have the privilege of keeping some bones of a dead human being. They have employed lawyers in fact to argue for both of them, which means that parasitic members of society will be the main beneficiaries in this stupid affair.

The human being in question is allegedly Richard III (hey, just because some authority figure tells me science has proved that the bones are ‘special’ doesn’t mean I have to believe it) so the bones are a tourist attraction and could generate quite a bit of revenue. But who has them?

Here is my win-win solution.

The inspiration for the solution is Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal. The original was lost and so several replacements were created and housed in art galleries around Europe. Which is the original? All of them.

Yep, that conceptual art business isn’t so useless after all.

Instead of only one city benefiting from the bones, why not have both of them benefiting? Have an exact copy of the bones made by highly skilled specialists (so you pay craftspeople rather than endlessly arguing parasitic lawyers) and then have the original bones and the copy involved in an elaborate randomly generated switch around (more pay to useful people for devising this).

After the switch, each city is assigned one of the packages and no one knows which one has the original bones.

The bones are then buried and tourists will have to visit both sites in order to satisfy themselves that they have definitely visited the original bones. A tourist trail could even be created by the very novelty of a deliberate duplication of artefacts, thus more revenue could be realised than was originally envisaged by having only one genuine site for the bones.

This is genius. Thank you, Marcel Duchamp.

An open, unbiased news gathering site

October 12th, 2013

The problem with news reporting is that an individual editor with prejudices, political friends and vested interests has to decide which story to report. This obviously leads to a distorted view of the world and is relevant only to that group of people that falls into the editor’s chosen bias. It’s surprising how few people realise this simple fact.

With the advent of open technologies, it occurred to me that it might be possible to democratise the news gathering process. An open newspaper could exist on the internet that operated on a similar basis to Reddit but instead of people posting stories there that they’ve already read, they could post stories that they have directly experienced but which have not been officially reported yet. As more people add their concerns to the site, the story would get prioritised and moved up the list. The site could be called ‘Reportit’ or something.

In this way, if an issue affects many people in different ways and they choose to report it (think NHS) then that story will dominate the news site. This should eliminate the bias of a single editor and all the baggage that they bring to the job.

How those stories are then reported is another issue. Whether qualified journalists use the site as an indicator of what is actually concerning people and then use the lead stories to write a report for their own media is an option (assuming they don’t work for mainstream media). At least such a site could alert the public that certain issues are being ignored (for whatever reason) by the mainstream media if they’re not reporting it.

It would probably work best on a local community level and possibly engage an indifferent populace if they thought that their ‘news vote’ actually achieved something.

Sex, Death and Breaking Bad. A review of Sweeney Todd at West Yorkshire Playhouse

October 4th, 2013

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Maybe Breaking Bad isn’t such a modern tale after all. Sweeney Todd has a similar story arc: a talented man wrongly denied his full potential by an uncaring society seethes with resentment. He accidentally meets an amoral criminal character who encourages him to become more ambitious in his crimes. After he is forced to commit his first murder he finds the subsequent crimes easier to execute. His crimes also turn him on sexually.

This is a long performance, two and a half hours no less and it is a musical of two halves.

The first half is paced a fraction too slow and during the interval I contemplated the second half with some trepidation—it was uncomfortably warm in the theatre— but I need not have worried, the second half flew by in a spell-binding flash.

The production values for this show are impressively high: clever set designs (with some Health and Safety issues!), dramatic lighting, complex choreography and quality musicianship – I only heard one bum note during the whole show.

All the cast members were excellent except for Niamh Perry who played Johanna and was merely good. It is unfortunate that the weakest member of the cast takes on such a pivotal role; her voice just isn’t on a par with the rest of them.

Sweeney Todd however, played by David Birrell, more than makes up for this dip in quality with his terrific voice and utterly convincing performance.

I particularly liked Sebastien Torkia who played Pirelli but he has the misfortune to bear a striking resemblance to Sacha Baron Cohen (Ali G) so when he formed part of the chorus again later in the performance he kept interfering with my suspension of disbelief.

I confess that I’m not a regular theatre-goer so certain aspects of the structure of the play confused me and I found myself asking questions like “why do the slaughtered victims have bloody bandages on their throats when they rejoin the chorus” and “why is one of the chorus present at this intimate scene?”

After the show I asked James Brining, the artistic director, what the bandages were all about. He told me it was a detail, Brechtian in execution, not important. Ah, but James, to me it is important. I thought I had missed some profound symbolism.

The second half is nothing short of sensational. Much darker in tone than the first half it brilliantly builds to its hellish climax—a demented Sweeney Todd sat in his barbers chair, caught in the high-intensity spotlight.

Judging by the wild cheering for the first time the chair and trap door swallowed their first victim and the rapturous applause at the end, the audience loved the show.

I loved the second half too.

Tour de France 2014

August 27th, 2013

Is Leeds a tourist destination? It should be next year when the Tour de France embarks from Leeds. Perhaps some kind of tourist trail can be organised before then.

One idea could be to have bicycles dotted around the city that have been customised by local artists. These bikes could vary in size and shape and be situated on buildings as well as in shopping centres and pedestrian precincts. Leaflets can be printed that show where all the bicycles are and distributed around the city. Perhaps an actual bicycle from the race itself can be secured from the organisers and placed in a prime location.

The beauty of a bicycle (as opposed to an owl, say) is that it can be sat on so tourists can take pictures of themselves on the bikes and thus they can help promote the city when they post their pictures on social media.

I’m guessing that such an obvious idea has been thought of already. Has it?

Noises Off

July 24th, 2013

Woody Allen once wrote a comic piece about visiting a mime performance and despairing at his inability to understand what was going on whilst all around him the audience roared with laughter. I felt a bit like Woody Allen as I tried to fully enjoy Noises Off at the Grand Theatre Leeds last night.

I did enjoy certain aspects of the play – the athleticism of David Bark-Jones as Garry (he even does a pratfall down a flight of stairs), the distracting curves of Thomasin Rand as Brooke, the clever play on plays by the author Michael Frayn and the sheer professionalism of the whole cast, but I knew that what I enjoyed was only a fraction of what I could have feasted on. What I really needed was a film of the play with perfect sound and a remote to rewind the furiously fast sequences – because it was incredibly fast paced. And here lies the problem; none of the actors were amplified in any way and so a lot of the best line were lost in the breathless frenzy. Part of the problem was that once a cracking line had been delivered the laughter from the front of the audience obscured the line for those of us further back in the audience. Or perhaps my hearing isn’t so good.

Over time these missing bits of vital information about the plot derailed my understanding of the second act which literally and visually, takes place behind the scenery of the ‘actual’ play. As the off stage actors have to maintain silence whilst the ‘actual’ play is being performed, the incredibly involved personal interactions between the actors are mostly mimed and I was in my confounded Woody Allen element – who was jealous of whom, who else needed the alcohol hidden from them, why were various people fighting and over what?

The final act is in front of the scenery again and it is the performance of the ‘actual’ play where everything goes disastrously wrong. What struck me about the whole premise of farce is that the suspension of disbelief can be maintained to such er, farcical levels. Some of the scenes were so far removed from any universe of reality that I actually asked myself ‘why am I going along with this make-believe?’ I can only assume that the exuberance of the performers was such that it was impossible not to subscribe to their version of reality.

This is not a play that you can just go and see and expect to get full value for money for, you have to study it first; it works on so many levels and the action on stage is so dense that you can’t take it all in with one visit. I suspect the real joy of this play is in seeing different productions of it and finding something new in it with each viewing.

The full house demonstrated that this might be the case or perhaps its sheer reputation preceded it – indeed, that was why I wanted to see it – and for many people it was their first time in seeing it, so my few quibbles about being hopelessly lost in the plot isn’t going to make any difference to its popularity.

Recommended.

‘Car Journey Theme Park’

June 5th, 2013

As many family excursions mostly consist of sitting in a car watching featureless motorway go by I had an idea for a new theme park.

The theme park is actually a car park that has wrap-around screens for each parking bay. The screens show city centre car journeys of places like Paris and London for fifteen minutes. The impression then, is of a car journey but with interesting scenery. When the ‘ride’ is over the cars simply shuffle along to the next bay which shows a different location.

This would save time and pollution and make people feel comfortable in familiar surroundings. Anyone want to fund the scheme?

Ding Dong! Democracy is dead!

April 13th, 2013

DingDong

I’m told over a million people marched through London demonstrating against the Iraq war. The war went ahead. The peoples’ voice was ignored.

In the same way, a song has been chosen by a certain group of people in Britain to express their opinion about the death of a former Prime Minister. What these people want to do is to buy as many copies of this song (but the profits go where?) as it takes to force it into a position on a national music chart. By doing so, the BBC will be obliged to play it. This will be a huge joke on the part of the song buyers and a huge embarrassment on the part of the establishment. The important point to stress here is that the BBC will be forced to play the song.

Except they won’t. This is the lie of democracy. In exactly the same way that the Greek people were denied their right to democracy and vote against austerity measures, the people of Britain are being denied freedom of expression because those in power have arbitrarily decided against it.

Again, the important word here is arbitrarily; just as the rule of law has to be applied across the board for it to work, any set of rules has to be respected by all parties otherwise the game is rigged.

And the game is rigged. Just look at the banking frauds. The law is not being applied evenly, in fact, not at all, in the banking sector. It even allows former banking chiefs to judge themselves and impose their own punishment (if they choose to). But even this is not enough for some bankers, they want to change the law retrospectively so that there is absolutely no chance of them being brought to account.

If the ruling regime can make the rules up as they go along then democracy is a sham and it is impossible for the ruled to ever exert their will.

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” Buddha*

March 9th, 2013

The recent death of Hugo Chavez spawned a veritable plague of news articles in the Mainstream Media about the man and his life. Most of the obituaries and reports followed predictable patterns—the capitalist press reviled the man and his reputation and the left wing press praised his humble origins and the benefits that he brought to the poor of Venezuela (I’m generalising here).

So, an unbiased member of the public being told all this has a dilemma (assuming that they access more than one news outlet)—how do they interpret such seemingly contradictory stories? Was he a good man, a despot or what?

Here’s a little true story that distils the problem.

One day at work I was looking at a book that had a picture of a lion feeding on its kill. The angle of its front leg was such that it was easy to imagine that leg as a human arm pinning down the carcass. Almost thinking out aloud I remarked to a co-worker at this similarity and extrapolated how the theory of evolution could come about. This co-worker (who I knew to be a Christian) then revealed his fundamentalism and said that actually, in the books he owned, creationism was the true explanation for the variety we see in the natural world.

As I had been educated in a secular school, science and the scientific method was my dominant frame of reference for checking the veracity of any theory. This only worked of course, if the subject matter lent itself to such a method. Even then, it appears that quantifiable results can be disputed within the scientific community. So simply quoting one book against another doesn’t really help if you’re trying to drill down to any sort of truth.

And as soon as the discussion enters a realm of subjectivity, then the fragile model of the scientific method becomes useless. Economics, for example, is often seen by most people as some kind of science due to the number of university courses available and government advisors mentioned in news reports. The reality is that economics is far closer to religion than it is to science and politicians have ‘faith’ in different belief systems whether they be the teachings of Keynes or Hayek or whoever.

Which system is best is impossible to verify due to the complexity of human society and the massive ambiguity of what ‘best’ means. But that doesn’t stop those people who benefit the most from a particular belief system from promoting that version of the religion, especially if they have the means to do so.

I have long since realised that in the game of news reporting merely deciding which story to report is a political act—one story is more important than another based on which criteria? Even a seemingly ‘neutral’ story immediately runs into trouble once the bare facts are given. The Hillsborough story for example, is that 96 football fans died in a crush. But as soon as the obvious question of “why did they die?” is asked, the propaganda begins.

Propaganda is designed to promote one idea over another and it is conducted most fiercely by those who have the most to gain (or lose) from an idea being accepted.

I said the story about my co-worker was a true one. You don’t know whether it was true or not; I know it’s true because I was there but you just read it here as a story and so if I was duplicitous for whatever reason, I could say that it was a true story even though I made it up. I would do this because it might discredit a rival idea which threatens my belief system.

Coming back to Chavez, I’m told by the media that this person used to exist (I never met him so I don’t even know that basic fact for sure). I’m also told that he believed that the moon landing never took place (what is this information supposed to tell me?). Some stories claim that he was a revolutionary who helped the poor and other stories that he wrecked the economy. Some stories claim that he brought a huge number of people out of poverty.

The one thing that I can be certain of from these stories is that someone, somewhere is frightened of what Chavez represents —and that is all that I can really divine about the man.

Ultimately, propaganda is about preserving or acquiring some kind of privilege. The media is a battle ground of ideas and, like any other human invention it is a continuum of extreme positions. Rational, unbiased reporting is simply one extreme position in the scale of things, like the ideal that everyone is born equal and has equal rights. From my personal experience, encountering extreme positions in the real world is extremely rare.

Here’s my thinking … Apparently, the unbiased news is that Venezuela has huge oil reserves (so I read). The world is addicted to oil (I know this because I have to use it myself). Having oil therefore, is a privilege for those addicted to it. Who gets that oil is down to a battle of ideas first. Then, if lobbying doesn’t work for the more powerful groups who are bidding for it, a physical battle usually comes second. My guess is that the West somehow needs to ’save’ the people of Venezuela from people like Chavez. How best to do that?

*Sounds great. If only it were true.

Doctor Faustus at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

March 7th, 2013
Image courtesy of WY Playhouse

Image courtesy of WY Playhouse

I made a pact with the Playhouse: to go and see Doctor Faustus on a complementary ticket but in return, blog about it. I did the deal but often, these pacts turn out badly.

In some ways, it reminded me of being back at school, the play would only make sense to me if I were studying it line by line for A level English.

I never studied Doctor Faustus at school, although I knew the story of course – a man sells his soul to the devil – so the archaic language at the start of this production filled me with foreboding. The English language from the 16th century is impenetrable for a 21st century inhabitant which is why close study of the text is required (and possibly why the programme has a complete transcript of the play). There was even Latin thrown into the mix as Faust attempts to raise a demon with his incantations (which immediately made me think of what Harry Potter and its pig-Latin might invent in such a scene: “Murdochus appearum” perhaps?).

I managed to roughly follow the arguments of Faustus with Mephistopheles as he decides whether to sell his soul or not. Unfortunately, the logical fallacies involved set me off on my own train of thought and I wondered what would happen if the feuding neighbour of Faustus also sold his soul at the same time and they came to diabolical blows – who would have precedence, is there a hierarchy to evil, or does human ingenuity still have a part to play in such matters?

For me, the one unexpected moment in the play occurred here (spoiler alert) when the first manifestation of the demon wriggled from beneath the bed covers in a truly disturbing manner. If only the entire play had been produced along these horror lines, I might have been genuinely moved.

Fortunately, the new additions to the play written by Colin Teevan were in modern English and were set in modern times. This meant I could relax my concentration on the language somewhat and enjoy the writing and the performances instead. These additions were cynical, comic and topical in their tone and suggested that the production was falling between two stools – the gothic horror of the original and the scatological slapstick of the modern. Given a choice, I would have much preferred that the play had opted for the latter direction as it simply made it more relevant. The throwaway sideswipe at the bankers, for example, selling their souls to Mephistopheles suddenly came alive with genuine moral evil and injustice.

I also found that the old stories from the past suffered from our moral progress today. Mephistopheles’ story of his beloved girlfriend being traded like a trinket amongst the court circle didn’t invoke the same sort of sympathy that it might have aroused in the 16th century. It simply made me appalled at the attitude towards women at the time.

During the interval, Phil Kirby gave me some information about Marlowe himself and to be honest, I found this information a lot more interesting than the play; to be an atheist during the time that Marlowe was alive must have been as dangerous and isolating as a politician today declaring their interest in paedophilia. I wanted to learn more about the playwright as a result.

Whenever I go to the theatre I always struggle with the concept of the art form – what is it supposed to do: inform, entertain, enlighten, provide work for actors? There is successful theatre out there, I’m sure of it. For many young people today their theatre of choice is the arena hosting a favourite band whose songs no doubt, speak to them intimately. Add to this the thunder, lights and pyrotechnics on the stage and you have an emotional charge to reckon with. Yes, in that context I can see how such a performance can move an audience.

So, did Doctor Faustus move me? No. Was it entertaining? Yes, mildly.

Not so much Mephisto then as ‘Meh’.

Breaking in America

January 11th, 2013

As the Bettakultcha debate about mainstream gathers pace this Gentle Ihor’s Devotion track suddenly seemed prescient …

12 Breaking America