History is written by the winners

I was reading the tributes to Tony Benn, who died yesterday.  One of the most famous voices in British politics for 50 years, a fantastic communicator and orator and always ready with a quick quip or quote.  Benn represented two things that modern British politics has successfully removed from its system, a politician of conviction and principle, and a man who could speak without preparation, notes and sticking to a line to push.  Benn believed in devolving power to the people, no matter how lowly or poor.  To Benn, the people who had nothing mattered much, much more than those who had it all.

Now Benn is gone, who is there to speak for those 8.45 million voices?  (Anyone who replies George Galloway can go stand in the corner and think about what you have done.)  There is no-one.  The major voice of protest in this country, the one standing against the malicious, spiteful treatment of the poor, the disabled, the one person who could speak out and reach an audience of millions to protest as a bunch of overprivileged cunts smash up education and the NHS like alcohol fuelled on a Saturday night bender is… Russell Brand.

Jesus wept.

One thing that many people mentioned was the 1983 General Election.  Labour went into that election with a manifesto dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”.  It contained, among other things, unilateral nuclear disarmament (at the height of the Cold War), leaving the EEC and renationalising British Telecom, British Aerospace and the British Shipbuilding Company.  Coming off the Falklands War, and a country still bearing the scars of 1970s battles against the unions, it was no surprise that Labour lost, and lost heavily.

We are often told that Britain is a conservative (small ‘c’) country.  What is interesting to note is that what is undoubtedly the most socialist manifesto ever produced by a major British political party, managed to gather 8.45 million votes.  To put this in some kind of perspective, that is 200,000 votes less than Labour got in 2010, 100,000 less than the Conservatives got in 2005 and a shade under 100,000 more than the Conservatives got in 2001. 8.45 million people voted to protect the welfare state, workers jobs, union rights and the NHS.  Yet here we are, with no party standing for those things.

I hate you. Please stay.

I’ve been following the Scottish independence campaign with a detached sort of interest. Because I don’t have a dog in the fight, and no real opinion either way (not my circus, not my monkeys) so I’m just watching both sides in their attempts to win the debate. And I have a question, which I’ll phrase by stealing a quote from elsewhere:

How exactly is “Be a complete fucking dick to Scotland” supposed to persuade them to vote to stay part of the UK?

On the one side, the Yes campaign is led by Alex Salmond.  Opinions vary on him. The leader of the SNP is, to his enemies, a scumbag, a slimeball. Satan incarnate. Now, when I read that sort of thing, it always comes across as shooting the messenger and ignoring his message. It doesn’t help that every time Salmond heads South of the border, he wipes the floor with whichever Westminster idiot is put up against him. He’s even able to deal with the hectoring of Paxman or John Humphries.

The “No” campaign just seem to be throwing mud at anything and everything, trying to turn Salmond into a hate figure along with a side order of unfounded scaremongering. The key question for me as a interested observer is around finance – how will Scotland cope, fiscally, if granted more independence. Opinions on this vary, from Yes in the Yes camp to No in the No camp to… er, Depends, and We’ll Cross That Bridge When We Come To It by anyone knowledgable who has actually written a report on the subject.

Salmond has recently-ish maintained that Scotland would not be dropping the pound. (I say recently-ish as he was batting eyelids at the Euro a while back, before that imploded.) However, the latest tactic is that all three Westminster parties have said that they might take the pound away from Scotland and “where would you be then Salmond, eh? Eh? Answer that you pooey bumhead.”

Which got me thinking.  What, ultimately, is The Pound?  To me, it is a currency, a coin.  Like most financial instruments, it is a construct of trust, an item of agreed value.  Since when did the pound become some kind of actual real thing? I know the Tories elevate the pound to God like status, but then they worship at the altar of money above all else – read any pronouncement from a Tory and you’ll see the word money in the first three sentences. Hell, even some of their objections to gay marriage were fiscal. But it has got a bit ridiculous.  The No campaign seems to treat The Pound as some kind of trophy, wrestling over it like who gets custody of the kids in a divorce. But recently, and to far too many people, The Pound has stopped being a financial instrument and taken on a mystical quality. George Osborne is The High Priest Chancellor, consulting The Great Golden Coin on matters financial. The Pound must be Defended. The Pound is Sacred. The Pound is Holy. Gaze upon The Pound and fear Its mighty power.

It is a bit… weird really. Fetishistic at times. William Hague tried a similar tack in the 2001 General Election, declaring that Britain had “only x days to save the Pound“, as if there was any realistic possibility that Tony Blair was going to remove the Queen from bank notes. It is the same sort of fetish that they have about Work. You must Work. Education is Preparation for Work. Life is Work. You will not retire, you will Work. If you do not Work, you are not a valid human. Work makes you Free.

To be honest, I don’t think people don’t really care about the pound. I know I don’t. I do like the idea that my coinage is called a pound, has the Queens face on it and not a dollar or mark, but then other countries have pounds and other countries have photos of Liz too. Perhaps we could have a cooler name, like Baht or Colones. I have to admit that sometimes I look at the other peoples Dong and get jealous. But when it comes to it, as long as I can exchange an amount of them for goods or services, I don’t care if they are called pounds, euros, groats, magic beans or Magnificent Metal Discs of Awesomeness.  What I do know is that for something so valuable to the very core of the Tory party, they don’t half treat The Pound like shit.

The No campaign is weird. One minute, it is all “Don’t leave us Scotland, we need you as much as you need us” and the next minute it is “You’ll regret it, you bitch, you’ll see!” While Salmond goes about his business, organising meetings, answering questions, the No campaign is running personal attack pieces on supporters in the Scottish Daily Mail and when it does campaign, it campaigns South of the border. Even if I was prepared to believe David Cameron, I can’t vote in the referendum, why are you trying to persuade me? And if you are trying to reach out to the Scots, why are you doing it from a lectern in London and not one in Edinburgh? (Cameron gave the above “don’t go” speech from the Olympic Park in London.)

As I write, the Yes campaign still is likely not to gain a majority. It has gained momentum though and I think that by the time of the vote there is a strong chance it could be Yes. It is typical of the three Westminster parties that they are approaching the campaign all wrong – and all speaking with the same voice

I’ve often said that current politics is about, well, playing politics than actually solving issues or making the country better. You only have to look at Michael Gove’s pathetic attempts to be Machiavellian in education (who cares, Govey boy, it is only the future of an entire generation that you are fucking around with like a teenager deciding who they want to be Bestest Friends with today). The Tories lurch to the Right to appease a party full of ignorant morons with absolutely no MPs. Clegg does whatever Clegg does (which is hopefully look into the mirror and weep at what he has become).

The No campaign feels like it is doing, just, well, fucking about playing politics. No real campaigning on the issues, no boots on the ground canvassing. Just a veiled threat here, a suggestion to a newspaper editor that they could do with an attack piece there (oh yeah, how is that for a fine example of the independence of the Press?). No problem lads, I mean, it is only an issue that has ramifications for the United Kingdom as whole, not really a biggie.

It reminds me of the 2008 US Election. On one hand you had the Republicans, all money and attack ads and slogans and soundbites. And on the other, Obama managed to mobilise armies of volunteers on the ground, young ones who were offered the opportunity to believe that there was a guy who listened to and spoke for them.  The Republicans and the No campaign are playing old style politics, where independence and peoples lives are an abstract notion, pieces on a chessboard to be manoeuvred and nudged and played with. Obama at times seemed to not only be using a different board, but playing a different game altogether.  Time has, of course, proved this trust to be misguided, but the lessons in running a campaign seem to have passed Westminster by – but Alex Salmond seems to have noticed.  Independence for Scotland is a real change and real change always comes from the grass roots.

Not that we can look to Labour to provide an alternative.  Ed Miliband is utterly incapable, presumably because that part of his source code, along with the module that gives him a fucking spine, is still in beta.  He’ll just keep saying the same repeated soundbites in order to avoid upsetting people who will never vote for him while completely pissing off those who would. Maybe they need to put more than 16K of RAM in him or something.

(Addendum: I wrote that yesterday and today we have the interesting prospect of Westminster taking the Pound away from Scotland and ignoring a Yes vote. It neatly shows what I was trying to say. The idea of the Pound being taken from Scotland is ridiculous. It isn’t the Stone of Scone or the Elgin Marbles. It isn’t a Real Thing that can be locked away in a cupboard under the stairs of the Treasury. It is an idea. An idea with currency (oh-ho!) but an idea none the less. Westminster can no more ban Scotland from using The Pound than it can ban it from going on the Playstation before doing its homework.

By threatening to simple ignore a Yes vote, then it justifies the absence of proper campaigning and debate on the issues. Modern politics is thus – if you don’t like what people say, then just pretend it never happened.

Apropos nothing

Triggered by a discussion elsewhere about geeks and nerds, some (slightly spiteful) rubbish I have had kicking around my head for a while.

(It is not about anyone in particular, just a trend I noticed and was kind of bugging me. But absolutely not about anyone specific.)

–––––––

Isn’t it cool, standing up there with your acoustic guitar and your sweet smile. A fashionably scraggy cardigan and your mittens. Mustn’t forget your mittens.

Singing your twee little song, fantasising about Professor Brian Cox and killing your useless boyfriend, using a recipe you learned at Science Club.

Because, don’t worry, your secret is safe with me. That you were on a different stage, in the same cardigan and the same mittens. Singing your twee little song, fantasising about Russell Crowe out of Gladiator and killing your useless boyfriend using a method you learned from Spooks.

Ride that bandwagon hard and cling to it for all you are worth. Your hands won’t hurt.

Because you didn’t forget the mittens.

Society of Trolls

I’ve been following the recent stories about Twitter trolling with great interest. Leaving aside the fact that it is curiously timed just as the Government needs to find a way to justify spying on everybodys online communication (and who didn’t see that coming? To find the needle in the haystack, first you must gather the entire haystack) it reminds me of, of all things, football hooligans.

First, a quick disclaimer. I’m not attempting to justify the horrendous abuse meted out to Stella Creasy and others. And I do make the distinction between that and people calling abuse or trolling on others because they don’t like having their opinions challenged. Happens to me all the damned time. What I’m wondering is not whether it happens, but why does it happen.

There is a fairly famous quote when football hooliganism was at its height in this country in the mid 1980s. The head of the FA, Ted Croker, was summoned to a meeting with the Prime Minister. She asked him outright “And what do you propose to do about your hooligans?”. To which he responded “Not my hooligans, Prime Minister. The product of your society.”

This discussion is reflected in the Twitter trolls debate. It seems to be up to Twitter (or Facebook, or pick your social media of choice) to police the behaviour of people. Now, I’m not defending the company to the hilt – like most social media, they have ignored, accidentally or deliberately or a mixture of both, the potential problems with their platform, but trying to say that the phenomenon of anonymous abuse (misogynistic or otherwise) started with them is wrong.

For some reason, people think that it is OK to try to hide behind anonymous handles and attack people from behind a keyboard. And that is a societal problem, not a technical one. You can’t install some kind of scanner to make the problem magically disappear. (Hang on a minute, that seems a familiar idea.) It raises questions of education, society. The discussion can be expanded into areas like marketing and consumerism, the drip drip drip of messages sent to the population every single day.

But then this is complicated. Politicians don’t like complicated. They like easy answers and quick fixes. And, they don’t like being told they are wrong.

After all, I’m sure that is merely a coincidence that Ted Croker remains the only FA Chairman never to have been knighted.

From the Vaults – XBox Achievements

Introduction: I was clearing out my Google Drive when I came across the following.  I had typed it so long ago (September 2010) that I had forgotten completely about it.  I even stared at it for a couple of days wondering if it was mine.  I figure it is, as it contains a couple of my repeated in-jokes and I think it was put to one side while I created the graphics.  Having found it and re-read it, I found I quite liked it.  So here for reasons best kept to myself is a massively out of date blog entry.)

(A quick aside for non-gamers. Every XBox game has a Gamerscore, out of 1000 or 1250. Points are awarded for completing specific tasks in each game, called “Achievements”, so you might be awarded an Achievement worth 5 points for completing a level and one worth 50 points for completing the game. You can also earn Achievements for performing specific tasks, such as killing three enemies with a single shot. Developers can pretty much make anything an Achievement, they are individually named and are awarded with a little noise and an “Achievement Unlocked” message and the points added to your own personal Gamerscore. At time of writing, I have a Gamerscore of 3900.)

I have a bit of a love/hate thing going with XBox Live Achievements. On the one hand, it appeals to the challenge side of gaming, a way of tracking progress that reaches beyond merely a high score or reaching a certain level. Gamerscore can show how far you have got into a game or just how good you are at it, in a way that a traditional high score tables sometimes can’t. Also they appeal to that slightly OCD sense that many people have and stuff like Pokemon rely on – though they are a bit short of being a Skinner Box.

For every pro, there is a con. Gamers can be a teeny bit obsessive, in the same way that Katie Price is a teeny bit attention seeking, and there has been an entire cottage industry set up around Achievements. For a subset of gamers, Gamerscore is the only true measure of how good a player you are – it doesn’t matter than you have mastered a difficult, intelligent puzzle game when you can rack up 10000 points in a single day. And of course, some people prefer not to actually work for anything, think the world owes them and cheat like absolute lunatics.

I’ve recently been playing a couple of games that get Achievements right and also horribly wrong, Deathspank and Lara Croft:Guardian of Light. Both are well worth the money paid for them, full of content, intelligence and in the case of the latter, some really well thought out puzzling. Having had my Funsquare Super Plus for about six months now, though actually playing it for far, far less of that time, I’ve started to get to the end of games and noticed a few things about Achievements. Basically, they can be broken down into the following categories.

Good Cheevos

Get The Girl, Kill The Baddies

The most obvious achievement type of all – reward for progress through the game. Beat the bad guy, get a reward. Fair enough. Never quite as high as I would like it though – if I’ve ploughed 30 hours into something, I want more than 5% (50G) for the effort you tight wad bastards. DeathSpank is the best example of this I have come across – all but two Achievements are gained naturally through playing the game – and one of them is more likely than not (though see later).

Lateral Thinking

A particularly satisfying reward is one where you come up with what you think is an ingenious idea, only to find that the developers are a step ahead of you. This can be solving a puzzle in a novel way or simply utilising the game environment. The wonderful “Dastardly” Achievement in Red Dead Redemption is a great rewards for a bit of lateral thinking. All I’m saying is it requires a woman, a rope and an oncoming train.

Open to Abuse

ocd

I think the first widespread use of collectibles was in Grand Theft Auto III, where there were 100 packages in various locations around the city. For every ten you were awarded an unlimited supply of a certain weapon. Collect all 100 for a special prize. It was a tough ask, but do-able.

Games have built on this idea – Forza Motorsport 3 wants you to own a car from every manufacturer. A big ask, but possible especially as cars are awarded to you as you progress through the game. The act of playing gets you closer to the goal.

Unfortunately, in this industry of “same as that, but MORE!”, this collectible idea has got out of hand. Take Crackdown 2 for instance. The collectibles list is 500 Agility Orbs, 300 Hidden Orbs, 15 Driving Orbs, 15 Renegade Orbs, 42 Audio Tapes (break down). As mentioned, collecting Agility Orbs powers up your character Agility stats, which is all well and good until you discover that you will be maxed out by about the three hundredth Agility Orb. So another 200 or so to go and worst of all, you have no idea what you have collected and what you haven’t. Crackdown 2 helpfully displays a map of all the orb locations, but with 800 it is impossible to figure out where to go and what to do next. You are left to sit there, painstakingly making your way from one building in 1000 to another, hoping to stumble across that vital item – and when it gets down to the last 20%, you never [i]find[/i] these things, you just happen across them. Just reward the player by updating the map once they hit a certain level or something.

slapbass

Rewards for reaching a certain character level, again, pretty obvious stuff. It is possible to beat a game without reaching certain stages – in RPGs you can generally defeat Xxrath the Infernal God of Cliche without maxing out any of statistical categories. It just takes being close enough to the requirements plus a bit of luck. However, reaching a stage of character development can rewarded as long as one isn’t reduced to endless grinding, repeatedly killing baddies just to get to a certain level – Deathspank, I’m narrowing my eyes at you right now, because Mr Tough Guy was (holds fingers a small distance apart) this close to being a grinding pain.

Bad Cheevos

gordian

There are some Achievements that you read the requirements for and just say what? I’m telling you, 20G is not worth rounding up four mates at a specific place, at a specific time to do an insanely complicated task.

moron

At the other end of the spectrum (oh-ho) there is the Achievement that is insanely, mind numbingly, patronisingly simple to get. Case in point Forza Motorsport 3 gives you 5G for merely playing the game. What kind of Achievement is that?

“Hello sir, I wish to spend £40 on your new game.”
“Why thankyou, have fun!”
“Fun? Why would I have fun?  I do not intend to play this my good man, merely to gaze upon it from afar.”

There is a naughtier kind of Moron Achievement – Lara Croft:GoL has 5G for simply playing in co-op mode. Which on XBox Live requires a paid-for Gold Membership. And for you to come back to it a month after release when the co-op mode is actually made available. So, basically, it costs you to get this one and you can’t get it on day one anyway when everyone else is playing.

wacky

Ah, dear Deathspank. You get so much right, but the Menu Hero Achievement is a kick in the nads. 10G for setting some option sliders. I mean, come on. Achievements are supposed to be for accomplishing something, not for pissing about in a sub menu.

swallow

One of the worst things about modern gaming is that many of them seem so endless. Way back in the day, a game would be done and dusted in a couple of hours. Now, any game worth its salt feels it must provide 20, 30, 100 hours of stuff. And boy, are those developers going to make you see it.

(Incidentally, this need to pad out storylines is largely why plots in games are so laughably bad. Stanley Kubrick did the evolution of man from ape to Star Child in two hours 36 minutes. Metal Gear Solid 4 has nine hours of cutscenes. The plot eventually becomes a twist, which is a twist, which has a betrayal, but then a triple cross where they give you the thing that in a twist they… um… would have given you anyway? I digress and this guy does it so much better.)

A variation on this is in Rock Band 2, where to earn the Bladder of Steel Achievement you have to play all the songs consecutively, without a break, without pausing and without failing a single song. 8 hours. I’m sorry, I have a life. And a need to go to the bathroom occasionally. And an aversion to RSI.

chaining

Ugh. Tying Achievements together, so that completing one Achievement cascades into others. Again, to take Crackdown 2 as an example, you have an Achievement for collecting all Agility Orbs, for all Hidden Orbs, for all Driving and Renegade Orbs. And then another one for doing all three.

ladyluck

The worst type of Achievement above all else, relies on sheer, outrageous luck. Nothing is more frustrating that setting up the conditions to accomplish something and then be foiled by something utterly out of your control. I’m going to cheat slightly and use an example from Lara Croft: GoL. The “Hole in One” reward in the Temple Grounds requires you to put a ball, which is spinning on a pole into a flame pit. To do this, you set a bomb at the right point and then time the detonation so that the ball flies off in the right direction.

Except…

At this point, the game materialises enemies at you. One of which explodes. The upshot is that you spend five minutes battling to a certain point, set everything up perfectly and then fail to complete the task. Then spend another five minutes getting there and fail again. Repeat and repeat through no fault of your own.

I want to be the one that determines the success of my actions. If I stack up 1000 dominoes and they fail to fall, at least let it be through my own mistake. Don’t let me set up the dominoes and then come in and kick half of them away.

Obviously, when I rule the world then I’ll allow on Achievements that are sensible and rational. Hardcore gamers will get a free kick in the head. I’ll even award them I’ll add 100G onto their Gamerscore and award an Achievement. I reckon they would be queuing up.

There used to be a Labour Party there, once

In 1984, Tottenham Hotspur won the UEFA Cup.  Their manager, Keith Burkinshaw, had won promotion, two FA Cups and now a European trophy while in charge of the club.  After this last victory, he was sacked without ever leading the club in another match.  Famously, when leaving White Hart Lane for the last time, he remarked “There used to be a football club there, once.”

After reading the news this morning, I feel much the same about the Labour Party.

Last month, two people won a court case against the Department for Work and Pensions where they had been forced into doing unpaid work for businesses.  Leaving aside the moral, ethical and indeed business related reasons why the taxpayer should not be subsidising massive companies with free labour, the fact is that the Government lost and the people won.  If they wanted to carry on with the scheme, the Government would have to change their rules going forward.  Again, this is how the world works, the rule is wrong in law, you change the rule so it is right, and then carry on.

Yesterday, the Government announced emergency legislation that would change the rules retroactively.  The rules that were found to be illegal last month will now suddenly, magically become legal at the time.  Basically, I’ve burgled your house, been caught, convicted and then the law changed so that not only can I burgle more houses in the future, but I get to walk away with all your stuff.

It is the kind of utterly bullshit ploy that I’m come to expect from this Government, who have taken on the worst habit of the Bush Administration, in that reality is what they say it is.  If a law says what they do is illegal, then it is the law which is wrong and not them. (Effectively politicians see themselves as above the law, which is a very dangerous thing indeed.)  If there are 400,000 jobs in the UK for 2.1 million unemployed, then the laws of mathematics must be wrong because we are frequently told that everyone who is unemployed can get a job.

(You know, a job at Poundland, Tesco, Matalan, Argos or somewhere, where they will happily pay people to work for them instead of, I dunno, picking up labour for free and having it subsidised by the taxpayer.  But what do I know? I didn’t have the finest education money can buy.)

Now this isn’t a go at the Tories.  I’d expect this sort of cuntery from them, the sort of inbuilt reflex that means they have to kick a poor person when they walk past them.  The crucial bit about this, and I’ll quote directly from the Guardian article:

The Guardian understands that Labour will support the fast-tracked bill with some further safeguards and that negotiations with the coalition are ongoing.

There you have it, folks.  If the past few years haven’t demonstrated that democracy is dead in this country, then the sight of the party of the common man, colluding to change the law in an Orwellian fashion in order to deny the jobless of much needed benefits and force them to work for free stacking shelves.  And I say Orwellian in the meaning of the Memory Hole. Not only was the Government right, it always was right.

It often goes unremarked that the Tory treatment of the disabled, the poor and the jobless is merely an extension of Labour policies in the early 2000s.  It was Labour who introduced ATOS tests, free schools.  They forced marketisation of the NHS.  They opened the door to workfare and closed it on civil liberties.

Ah yes, civil liberties.  In a week when Theresa May made noises about demolishing the Human Rights Act, who should spring to her support?  Former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett.

I’m a big believer in the law of unintended consequences being applied to people who are mendacious and stupid. Article 1 of the HRA, for instance, is the right to protection of property.  Article 14 is the right not be discriminated against.  If David Blunkett wants to repeal the HRA, I propose a new law that strips disabled former Home Secretaries of their home and all their possessions.  Just so people can shout at him in the street going “DO YOU GET WHY SOME THINGS ARE IMPORTANT, DAVE?  DO YOU SEE WHY YOU CAN NEVER RELY ON IT NOT TO HAPPEN HERE?”

You know what, I think that I’ll try to get it retroactively applied as well.

Of course, we can always rely on a little stunt or two.  Labour introduced a Mansion Tax bill into Parliament, an exact duplicate of the Liberal Democrats manifesto proposal.  This had the amusing sight of the Liberal Democrats rushing to vote down something they themselves support.  Now ordinarily, I’m a big supporter of that kind of stunt, but I’m afflicted with the disease of consistency, which means as I am against the Bedroom Tax, I have to be against a Mansion Tax.

You see, it is simple.  The Bedroom Tax basically says that if you receive benefits on Friday, and your house is above a certain size, you will be punished by receiving less benefits on Monday.  Through no fault of your own, your house has been deemed above an arbitrary limit, regardless of circumstances.

The Mansion Tax says that if your house is worth £2m on Friday you are fine.  But if it is worth £2m on Monday, then you will be forced to pay a tax.  Through no fault of your own, your house has been deemed above an arbitrary limit, regardless of circumstance.

See? Consistency.

(I’ve no problem with changing the rules going forward, but not punishing those for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.)

Of course, if Labour had actually thought through their Mansion Tax stunt, they could have used this argument to demonstrate the invalidity of the bedroom tax, but I’m attributing to their leadership a level of intelligence that they, quite frankly, just don’t have.

You see, this is the problem.  There is no use even pretending that Labour and the Tories have any real differences.  It is all a matter of degree.  Labour introduced free markets into the NHS, ATOS testing, privatised many things that shouldn’t have been privatised and turned a blind eye to bank regulation.  All the Tories have done is taken that to its logical conclusion.  Michael Gove, Ian Duncan Smith and Jeremy Hunt are smashing up schools, the welfare state and the NHS like gleeful vandals allowed to roam free, but Labour let them in the building to do it.  Theresa May is attacking fundamental civil liberties, cheered on by one of the most authoritarian Home Secretaries of all time.

All the time, ordinary people, not just the poor or the jobless, but the working people who vote Labour watch in horror as the people they voted for sit back and let the lunatics take over the asylum.

Of course, we could try and show our protest at the polls, voting every one of these idiots out.  But then I’m in a constituency where the Labour majority is 16,000.  Of course, we could have had the Alternative Voting system, which would have been a truer reflection of how things stand.

But then David Blunkett campaigned against that, too.

I wanna be (re-)elected

I am currently watching The West Wing for the first time, blogging my thoughts as I go.  Therefore HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to and including Season 3, Episode 5.

After the, frankly, quite depressing two part season opener up in Manchester, NH we are now in the cut and thrust of a re-election campaign, with Our Heroes fighting on several fronts. First up the investigation into the cover-up of Bartlets’ MS, then we have the struggles of passing legislation with half an eye on the effect on the reelection chances of not only the President, but his Party and finally the day to day running of the most powerful country in the world.

Not a lot to keep an eye on then.

The last two episodes (“Ways and Means” and “On The Day Before”) have shifted the tone from a passive, reserved White House to focus on more aggressive tactics. I like shows with this sort of politicking – to be honest it fits my preconception of the show before watching it, less soapy drama, more backstabbing.

This aggressive stance is shown with Bartlet using his Presidential Veto for the first time against an estate tax (shades of the current UK mainsion tax and estate tax debate) whcih basically turns round and tells the rich to shut the hell up in their $2m mansions. Of course, nothing is ever quite that simple and the gang run the risk of losing an override vote – as their own side in Congress thinks that the Bartlet administration is weak and threatens to derail the whole thing.

This aggressive “our way or the highway” seems to be the way forward in this series. Just as “Manchester, Parts 1 and 2” felt depressingly harsh, these two episodes are also much more confrontational.

None of this is more apparent than with CJ. In the first two seasons, I’ve really enjoyed her character, delivering smart putdowns under incredible pressure and being one of the main sources of humour. She has always, however, had the undercurrent of being one mis-spoken phrase away from falling apart, and when it happened in “Manchester”, her plaintive cry and upset was some magnificent acting from Alison Janney.

From the other side has emerged Kickass CJ. First, she realises that they need to pick a fight with somebody, anybody and goads the House Republicans into opening their own investigation into Bartlet. Secondly, she destroys, live on national TV, an air-headed showbiz reporter who found herself in the White House instead of her usual fashion beat. I can’t help but draw parallels with the treatment of the radio show host Doctor in that a minor character is introduced for the sole purpose of being the recipient of some venom from one of the principal cast but her comeuppance is earned by the end of the episode and CJs comments show the steel behind the sometimes fluffy and klutzy side exterior. It also emphasises that the White House briefing room is a tank of sharks, both behind the lectern and in front.

Speaking of sharks, there was a nice piece of direction and body language when Sam and Toby double-teamed one of the Congressmen with it definitely felt like they were circling their prey. I don’t think we’ve seen too much of Toby and Sam working as a pair (Sam being clearly subordinate) but it was interesting to see the comparatively soft-edged Sam rather than the explosive, harder Toby be the one to suggest that they screw their own side and work with the softer Republicans to get their way.

So, with every main character being a hardass, it is interesting to see where we go from here.

Manchester. No, not that one.

I am currently watching The West Wing for the first time, blogging my thoughts as I go.  So HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to and including Season 3, Episode 2.

Thus we start Season 3 with the two part “Manchester”, starting with the Presidents straightforward answer to whether he would be seeking re-election (“Yeah”) and flowing, via the occasional timeline jump or two up to his formal announcement of running for a second term.

And a very fractious 80 minutes it is, with everybody, well, shouting at each other.  In come three characters to fight the re-election, the spiky Connie, the spikier Doug and the so spikier he should be a hedgehog, Bruno.  They are introduced to a West Wing staff that is clearly stressed out and worried.  Throw in some marital strife between the President and the First Lady and we’ve got a whole lot of bickering going on.

Special praise for Stockard Channing, by the way, who has floated in and out of S1 and S2 like a force of nature.  Feisty, fast and often railing against the protocols and niceties that go with the job of being First Lady.  Loved the various scenes where she was every bit the political equal of her husband, especially when working a crowd on his behalf.  Great to see her promoted to the opening credit sequence for S3.

In the end, it turns out that the reason everyone is shouting is because they are pissed at Bartlet for hiding his MS.  To be honest, I don’t really buy it.  Not because of the performances from the actors, I just thing they were dealt a bum hand with these two episodes.  Things take place outside of the West Wing, in Manchester, NH.  A school room, a bar, Air Force One.  It just adds to the entire feeling of unfamiliarity.  Toby is pissed at a mislabelled poster, which would never have really happened.  CJ is looking to resign after screwing up.  Although the motivation wasn’t right, it was interesting to see the two Bartlets and Leo in full on hardass re-election mode, not realising that their staff were coming to terms with a disease that they themselves had made peace with a long time ago.

It is a hard watch, like I say.  Didn’t really work.  I can see what they were trying to do but… no.  Put it in the can and move on.

Special mention for a sizzling moment of dialogue from the awesome Toby Ziegler, which I think came from the end of Season 2.  Toby and Josh are discussing the various reactions to the news that the President has MS.  Can’t find the exact quote, so I paraphrase:

Josh: Does Donna know?
Toby: Yeah, she knows.
Josh: How did she take it?
Toby: Better than some around here.
Josh: Was that aimed at me?
Toby: Actually. I think it was aimed at me.

Blimey, where did the fluffy go?

I am currently watching The West Wing in its entirety for the very first time, blogging my thoughts as I go.  So HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to the end of Season 3, Episode 2.

I see the story framework of flashbacks and two parters that I liked so much about the end of S1 start of S2, was kept for the end of Season 2 and start of Season 3.  Thematically, it was a very different 120 minutes and in fact, was a pretty difficult watch.

In reality, the end of Season 2 builds a couple of episodes before “Two Cathedrals”.  The storyline of Bartlet suffering from MS reared its head again.  Originally, I thought the appearance of the disease in S1 was a little hokey and unnecessary.  Whether it was intended to set up the story arc for S2 and S3 I’m not sure but it became the focal point of the season climax.

The problem I had was that it wasn’t the focal point.  The writers threw in the dramatic reaction of the likes of Toby Ziegler, who, in a surprise turn, lost himself in front of the President so much I suspected some kind of MS-related guilty secret. The build up to Tobys discovery was superbly handled in a fantastic pre-credits sequence as that magnificent political brain in a bald head slowly pieced together the clues.

Additional to the MS plot line and the decision to both tell the staff and then the world, there was a crisis in Haiti in contend with, a tropical storm threatening the East Coast, bailing out Mexico and then, with sudden swiftness, the death of Mrs Landingham.

It felt like too much was piling in on the story.  I know that the various plot strands of an episode interweave, but the “big” stories are usually given focus and time to breathe and when several stories move together, they tend to be lighter.  These episodes piled crisis upon crisis and when Charlie told Leo of the death of the Presidents secretary, my reaction was “Not that as well!”

I think that trying to carry all their weight overwhelmed things.  The S2 closer, “Two Cathedrals” is a great 40 minutes, but not exactly a fluid one.  It functioned less as a story and more of a series of set pieces.  We are whizzed back and forth in the timeline, between young Jeb being introduced to the middle-aged Dolores Landingham (brilliantly played by Kirsten Nelson) back to the preparations for the public admittance of MS, the funeral of Mrs L and the decision whether to stand for re-election.

“Two Cathedrals” may not have been a story that flowed, but made up for it being being comprised of several fantastic moments, none better than when Bartlet asked for the National Cathedral to be sealed, before delivering an angry tirade at the Lord Almighty.  It is brave speech to put on TV, not least for having part of it in Latin and calling God a “feckless thug” in prime time?  The act of defiance with a cigarette is a great touch – as is the final parting shot at what Bartlet thinks God deserves, his vapid Vice President – “You get Hoynes!”

Then a moment of sheer theatre, a conversation in the Oval Office with the now dead Mrs Landingham. A great little two-hander than left me wishing that the character of Mrs L had been expanded more, instead of being a slightly quirky focal point for comedy.  Her depth was intimated in the S1 episode “In Excelsis Deo” and I thought we could have done with more of that.

Would it be wrong to interpret a conversation with a ghost as Gods reaction to Bartlets earlier rant in the Cathedral?  Why not, I suppose, given the injection of magical realism into a resolutely realistic and grounded story.  The Ghost of Mrs L is the thing that persuades Bartlet that he still has job to do, despite the personal cost to his health and possibly his marriage.  What else was going to get him to change his mind?

Finally something that is a cliche, but when done well, is incredibly powerful – the President deciding to speak to the nation set to music, in this case Dire Straits “Brothers In Arms”.  That piece of music has been used before in my favourite scene in, of all things, the TV series of Miami Vice.  As the West Wing staff anticipate the “No” decision, we are left with the cliffhanger which really isn’t, as everyone knew we would have a Season 3.  Rewatching the clip again, I love the little touches, the way the West Wing staff fall into line behind the President, CJ’s humour and calm (“I can only answer 14 or 15 questions at once”) and then Leos “Watch this…”

Next blog post will be about the two part opener to Season 3 and taken as a triumvirate, I think S1/S2 worked better than S2/S3.  The stories were more focused, the flashbacks less forced and hurried.  As 120 minutes of drama, “Two Cathedrals” and “Manchester” did not reach the heights scaled by their predecessor, but when adding up the individual moments over a 40 minute timespan then “Two Cathedrals” is definitely the standout episode thus far.

Conflict has never been so perky

I am currently watching The West Wing from the start, for the first time, and blogging my thoughts as I go. Therefore HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to Season 2, Episode 17.

In an earlier blog, I mentioned the disappearance of Mandy, a spiky spin doctor who was the ex of Josh Lymon and whose appointment was against Joshs wishes because she was clearly good at her job. As the series went on, Mandy disappeared into the background and it became clear no-one had an idea what to do with the character.

Early in Season Two, we are introduced to Ainsley Hayes, a spiky lawyer who is appointed against the wishes of Sam Seaborn because she was clearly good at her job. Well, as second attempts go, it wasn’t exactly subtle. However, the writers do seem to have got a better idea what to do the second time around.

Hayes is very memorably introduced as the other talking head on a Washington TV show. Sam wanders onto the set, full of chirpy cockiness, sees the young, blonde, female Republican opposite and proceeds to get his arse utterly kicked by her in a debate. This is a source of hilarity for the rest of the West Wing and brings her to the attention of Leo McGarry and the President, who offer her a job.

As plot devices go, it was a little clunky. Why would they offer a Republican a job in a Democrat administration? Why would she even take it? (And no, I don’t really believe the “because the President asks” – even in 2000 things were utterly divided.) But in comes Hayes as a member of the regular supporting cast.

And I like her, a lot. She is clearly there to provide “the other side” in a debate, perhaps even to provide some kind of “balance” for the writers and producers when attacked by the Right wing media. (Which I should rant about at length at some point…)

The character works, in the way Mandy didn’t. Despite appearing as the sort of Republican fem-bot that would end up reading an autocue on Fox News, she can easily hold her own. She also has some interesting little character quirks. In her second episode, she turns up for her first day and is given a crappy office by Leo, way down in the basement – I was wondering her treatment was McGarrys idea of a cruel joke, which seemed out of character for him. As the day progresses she is victimised by just about everybody, – her new boss, the distrustful regulars and then, eventually, her own side, who consider her a turncoat.

It is her own sides action – the delivery of dead flowers, with the note “bitch” – which spurs Sam into realising her poor treatment and arranging for it to be made up to her. (Which yet again, portrays US TVs obsession with HMS bloody Pinafore. I’ve never understood that – it comes up here, it comes up in Cape Feare…) The denouement is a little cheesy, but a relief have what was a little bit … not exactly harrowing, but it wasn’t a nice, fluffy watch.

Since that point Hayes has receded a little into the background. From being a tough cookie, she has been used a bit for comic relief – she was in the State of the Union episode acting a little oddly. The adrenaline high after appearing on TV would be plausible, if she hadn’t been so composed in taking Sam apart on Capital Beat a few months earlier. Same with her attacks of nerves on meeting the President. They seem out of character. At time of writing, she has just popped up in “17 People”, giving an argument against the Equal Rights Act and it is here where the character shines – quickly rebutting Sams arguments and standing up for her point of view, without ever really getting into cliche.

Ultimately, a more than adequate replacement for Mandy. And her obsession with food is hilarious.