The Loneliest Jukebox

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Thursday, July 29, 2004

“Are we on the telly now?”

I’ve just sat through Sky One’s Terror Alert. Ex-SAS survival guru Chris Ryan helps out some folk in Manchester after a dirty bomb blast, gets contaminated, gets decontaminated, and comes to London in time for a giant Anthrax attack. He presumably missed out on the third prong of the attack, Anthrax-laced cocaine sold to London clubbers.

The images and décor are straight out of 24, which Terror Alert has replaced in the schedules. The use of real-life (Sky) newscasters is supposed to heighten the realism. Britain’s unlimited supply of CCTV cameras is supposed to be reassuring. At least expert Bill Durodie talked some sense.

The mixing of catastrophe, video reportage and location footage has been done to death, most recently in the Dawn of the Dead remake, in 28 Days Later and in Shaun of the Dead (where the big joke is zombies plague north London and no-one notices). Now a supposedly news/current affairs show is plagiarising off the works of fiction which previously plagiarised off news/current affairs shows.

Memo to Sky One (and TV more broadly): why not just get a big snake and shove its tail in its mouth and broadcast the footage 24/7?


Talking of generic entertainment, on 11 August Number One Longing. Number Two Regret is playing at the Portobello Film Festival, London. Eagle-eyed viewers might spot me in the role of ‘Woods Guy’, either delving the depths of human depravity or thinking about what’s for lunch, depending on how you rate my acting abilities.

On a Manhunt (for common sense)

Here’s the story: the murder of a teenager by a slightly older boy in my home town has been blamed on a violent video game. Giselle Pakeerah, mother of the murdered Stephan, points to the killer’s ‘obsession’ with the game Manhunt as the basis for her son’s death. Radio 5 Live brought in Professor Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University, a psychology expert, to propose more research into how violent video games can influence the behaviour of adolescents. “He felt a link had already been proved between violence and video games in children aged eight years or below but more study was needed into the long-term impact of blood-thirsty games on the behaviour of older children. He said: "Research has shown those aged eight years or below do in the short-term re-enact or copy what they see on the screen."

We’ve been here before, particularly with video nasties. Yet for many of today’s pundits seem to have a short memory; not long ago Grand Theft Auto was in the same situation. As I am bored of reminding people, there is a difference between cognitive and behavioural influences. Plenty of media had a cognitive influence, otherwise why would we bother with them? Most of us hope to go on holiday at some point and so the holiday advertising around us might influence this decision. But few of us are agonising over the choice of murder weapon to use, just waiting for a video game to help us make our minds up. Even the kids re-enacting video games cited by Professor Griffiths tells us little: none of them get to run at the speed of sound (Sonic the Hedgehog) or fire plasma rifles (Halo) when they switch off the console and play outside. So what will show up in research is gameplay that is directly imitable (martial arts, stalk and stealth) and not the huge proportion of games relying entirely on fantasy or on operating pretend vehicles. Even when imitation in play can be shown to occur, it's daft to treat real and imaginary violence as the same thing.

Parents can grieve as they see fit, but it doesn’t give them the right to veto the entertainment industry products they take a dislike to. Likewise, someone still has to convince me of the need ‘protect children’ – Manhunt has an 18 certificate – by going around acting as if all households contained children. And someone has to do convincing research to explain the Manhunt players not adversely affected by it. In other words, someone show how come I’ve enjoyed killing literally every 'Covenant' (alien) on Halo’s ‘assault on the control room' level but have yet to kill someone in real life. They are not the same.

How often do we skeptics have to repeat these basic points? In 1993 I noted of Sega that "No amount of hysteria will stop them coining it in. If anything, the latest video nightmare scenarios were made in marketing heaven. After all, who needs to pretend to be a pirate station when every columnist and news broadcaster is already telling your target audience that you're the devil incarnate?" (See "Sonic the scapegoat" in Living Marxism 57, July 1993.)

According to Sega historian Sam Pettus, ‘While you may not agree with Barnfield's politics, he did score a telling point and one that was borne out by Sega's own market research. This attitude is best put by American actor Corey Haim (remember him? - GB), one of the stars of the Sega CD game Double Switch who at one time courted the possibility of becoming Sega of America's celebrity spokesman. "Sega is definitely where it's happening," he told a Wired reporter in an interview. "Like, have you seen their ads? Far fuckin' out. I want to be in them. I want to be, like, the Sega boy." The X-Box and Playstation have superseded the Sega Genesis, but 11 years later we’re still having the same arguments. Let’s move to the next level.

(A later version of this blog now appears at Spiked-online; since I wrote it the Mail has dutifully trotted out a 'ban these evil games' headline.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Critical conditions

The following appeared from Simon Tzu at recently and got me thinking about film criticism, in which I dabble from time to time. “How do we stay authentic unless there are honest voices unafraid to put the boot in occasionally? … Bad reviews are often the most entertaining to read (though not if you're the filmmaker). Witness Envy: [Jack] 'Black plays an inventor who instils murderous envy in his best friend by making millions off a spray called Vapoorizer. You spray the stuff on dog poo, and the poo just vapoorizes. Later, environmentalists are up in ams. 'Where did the shit go?' they want to know. The answer is painfully ovious: into the screenplay.' -- Peter Travers, ROLLING STONE (For more in a similar vein see here.)"

I’m not above practicing film criticism as a bloodsport from time to time, but it’s important not to let the verbal acrobatics get in the way of helping the reader decide if the film is any good or not. Memo to self: you are NOT the most important thing at this press screening.

Contemptuous? You bet!

Observer gossip columnist Nick Cohen has a grudge against the gaming industry. Plans to turn the Millennium Dome into a giant casino have tickled him as a source of rich political symbolism. I’m just glad someone has found a use for the bloody thing, which has been idling down the river for as long as I’ve worked in Beckton. Four years is a long time to feel an obligation to argue in Defence of the Dome ; if I have to say ‘crap content, great architecture’ to one more person I’ll smash up my Dome memorabilia collection. Or boycott the beautiful tube stations surrounding it.

Nostalgic for the old days when religious killjoys ran the Labour Party – OK, when a different sort of religious killjoys ran the Labour Party – Cohen treats the current relaxation of gambling laws as yet another example of New Labour’s capitulation to big business.

And maybe it is. But what’s missing from his analysis is any recognition of the way casinos have entered the UK urban regeneration mindset as a panacea to deprivation, based on a superficial reading of similar trends in the US. A trip to Shreveport or Detroit’s Greektown will show the rather limited impact of such institutions on their immediate environs. Yet schemes
to regenerate Blackpool or the 21-year plan for the Thames Gateway South East hint that casinos can play positive role. For regeneration planners, ‘casino’ has become yet another empty mantra to chant.

New Labour proposals on gambling do not stop at a formal liberalisation of the law. They also include bringing in greater intervention from the counselling industry, to step in and police the ‘problem gambler’. Does that include me? I’m not big on US-style casinos, as the noise from fruit machines does my head in, but I do like jai alai or a dogs night. The net result of these outings is that I’ve yet to break even overall, but the main point of doing these things is the social event. (Something missing from Old Nick’s account: maybe he has no mates.) In his pious world, fools and their money are soon parted. But if ordinary people can’t be trusted to have a flutter now and then, you might as well give up on us altogether. ‘Without prejudice’? Don’t bet on it.

Blaming the Media

John Lloyd’s new book raises a number of important issues, although it tends to be very one-sided in its account of the media diminishing public life. What’s missing is much of an acknowledgement of the way that public life has itself been hollowed out, an ‘achievement’ that could have been possible even without the media’s involvement (or even their existence). Meanwhile, defending the (pro-Establishment) BBC from charges of bias leads Roger Mosey to remind us of the limits of the counting conventions used to evaluate media bias. Is a government representative on air as a mouthpiece for the government or because they are an intrinsic part of the story? How we choose to classify bias can influence how we see the loyalties of broadcasters.

Both arguments also hint at a media establishment somewhat preoccupied with itself...

Monday, July 26, 2004

So Long

The BBC adaptation of The Long Firm draws to a halt on Wednesday. (Or as we say in the version of the Blog aimed at cable/satellite viewers with BBC4, ‘The BBC adaptation of The Long Firm drew to a halt last Wednesday’.) Sure enough the final episode served up a nice snapshot of 1970-1979, with a decent spoof of academia on the side. The compromises that resulted in Jack 'The Hat' McVitie being reworked as ‘Jimmy’ in the series, and an endnoted legal disclaimer regarding true life and fictional Detective Mooneys, should not distract from the excellence of this adaptation and its fidelity to Jake Arnott’s source novel.
Whether or not Arnott is the only British author to get close to the criminal mind is debatable; the point for me is that, along with David Peace, he has shown how working as a genre writer can be combined with writing excellent historical fiction. It’s recent history that they work on too: while politicians like to blame the 1960s for current problems, Arnott can give those of us who were hardly there a sense of what went on. More informed than the stereotypes of a disordered ‘me’ generation which cropping up in discussions of social policy, Arnott is also something of a public intellectual. Recently I saw him giving a thoughtful introduction to a recent Lady from Shanghai screening and before that keeping James Ellroy on a tight leash at a public reading. Hats off to Jake Arnott.
· The final episode of The Long Firm is on Wednesday at 9pm on BBC2
* The novel The Long Firm can be purchased by clicking here.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Blooming Marvelous!

My write-up of Spider-Man 2 appears on Spiked: an insight into your inner geek and mine. Writing the article meant catching up with events in the 'Marvel Universe', which I'd been avoiding doing ever since the time the original X-Men reformed as X-Factor. Reading around on the web produced many gems, all of which I decided to leave out of the article. This one is worth repeating here though.
Why do most comic-book aliens look humanoid?

'A being called "Xorr the God-Jewel" once claimed that the "seeds" of all humanoid faces were contained within Xorri, the now-extinct race that formed the jewel. The validity of this claim is questionable, but it is also unlikely that the vast similarities among certain races can be attributed to parallel evolution.'

Move over Stephen Hawking! At least the author admits that the validity of the claim is questionable...

Thursday, July 22, 2004

ASBOs out-Foxed

Claire Fox gave a good account of anti-social behaviour orders on BBC London News, BBC1 on Monday. If you have RealPlayer, click on the link below to hear Claire Fox's view of Blunkett's five year plan from Radio 4's Today (click on "08.10am Home Secretary David Blunkett").

More on the blight caused by Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, which lack any of the usual protections formally built into the law, can be found at this link to a decent article by Decca Aitkenhead.

PS. Recently I have been doing some work as an affiliate editor of the journal Reconstruction. Check out the new "Post·hum·an·ous" themed issue by clicking the link.


Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Unmasking L.A.

Readers of American Studies Today (print edition) can read my review* of the anthology Unmasking L.A.: Third Worlds And The City.  No doubt an on-line version will appear soon (to buy the book click here).
* Graham Barnfield, review of Unmasking L.A.: Third Worlds And The City by Deepak Narang Sawhney (Editor)  in American Studies Today, Issue 13, September 2004, pp.47-48.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Racist Friend?

Back in the day, Jerry Dammers of the Special AKA advised his listeners to turn their backs on racist friends, have nothing to do with them, send them to Coventry. (Ironically, Dammers himself was from Coventry.)

Now the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) has come up with a poll showing that 90% of whites have no or few close friends from ethnic minorities. Taking a break from investigating itself for racism, the CRE has certainly upset a few Guardian readers and invited the mockery of at least one Guardian columnist. Statisticians can quickly knock holes in some of this scaremongering: the 5.5% of Britons from ethnic minority backgrounds are not evenly distributed across the land, leaving white folks in my Dad's hometown (Plymouth) or my Aunt's current residence (Skegness) hard pushed to encounter, let alone befriend, the statistically correct proportion of ethnic minority members. Here in London or in my hometown of Leicester a different picture emerges, particularly when divisive and essentialist versions of multiculturalism are downplayed or kept out of the school system.

A key point about friendships is that you don't choose them according to the rigorous equal opportunities policies pursued by the London Borough of Waltham Forest. (Space does not a permit a discussion of whether said Borough sticks to these policies...) They are forged in often spontaneous circumstances initiated by geographical circumstance and developing from there. Most of my friendships tend to go back to my school days (hello Murph, Woody, Nick and Grover), to the Leicester music scene or to various political campaigns and organisations I have worked in. Once in these situations things developed from there. Only morbid curiosity draws me to friendsreunited because the friendships I was really interested in have survived independently of Internet nostalgia. As another friend of mine points out 'The idea that we should each seek to recreate the full diversity of society among our own friends both trivialises the struggle for political equality and makes a mockery of friendship.' No doubt the CRE would like to extend the current campaign against 'peer group pressure' (aka spontaneously developing friendships) to include its current doommongering statistics.

Monday, July 19, 2004

So farewell then Paul Foot (as they would say in Private Eye)

One of the most high-profile investigative journalists in Britain died of a heart attack age 66.  In his favour, he showed just how to do high quality investigative journalism. His principled departure from the Mirror, which in its heyday combined quality coverage and a popular touch, was evidence of this. He certainly looked ashen-faced the day I met him in the lobby of Maxwell’s redtop back in 1990. He probably sensed he was losing his audience, to be replaced with tabloid trivia.
Yet he was also prone to the moralism and economism of the British left.  A Question Time appearance during the 1992 general election saw him go all self-righteous when told by a Tory that people in Eastern Europe had rejected his creed. ‘I don’t care if I am the last socialist in the world’ he harrumphed.  It would have been better to point to the capitalist economic crisis that did for the Tories within months of them winning the election.  At other times he was plain wrong, like his take on the '36 Counties' situation in Ireland: Why Britain Must Get Out.  A decade later he was hoodwinked by the Hear the Silence docudrama, in which anti-MMR campaigners got to play the underdog in their battle with safe vaccinations.  
The thoroughness of some of Foot’s investigative campaigning is a useful example to us all, particularly as an antidote to the endless pedantic ‘fisking’ going on on-line.  Yet it was precisely when he dropped the thoroughness and let the moralising take over that the limits of this sort of journalism – and politics – became apparent. 

Government to abolish crime

It has been announced that the government is to abolish crime. ‘Tony Blair will today make the provocative claim that Labour's new five-year crime plan heralds "the end of the 1960s liberal consensus on law and order" by putting the values of the law-abiding majority at the centre of the criminal justice system.’  A few of the familiar clichés about Britain’s binge drinking culture and the trendy 1960s were also rolled out, in addition to an emphasis on the ability of satellite technology to save the day by tracking individual offenders. 

Generally speaking, the crime debate is not unlike the anarchist view of voting: the government always wins.  So perceptions of rising crime tend to invite more repressive measures; perceptions of falling crime translate into votes. The core problem with the issue of law and order is this: a free society presupposes the opportunity to commit crime. Off-line, there’s ultimately nothing to stop a conversation turning to an assault – only preventing the conversation would guarantee that.  The fact that most conversations do not turn into assaults is down to people’s ability to police themselves.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Too much reality

Recently Faisal posted this remark: ‘I think Channel4 has gone too far with reality TV. I am fed up of watching "big brother" or "how clean is your house?". I think that they need to come up with much better ideas.’ Obviously he could always switch off or change channel. But he might also want to confirm his pessimism by reading this article by Gaby Wood, summarising the shift towards ‘extreme makeover’ (i.e. cosmetic surgery) shows in the US. Where can I register a complaint and how can I get on one?

CBS need investigating

So farewell then, Sara Sidle.  Internet entertainment sources report that Jorja Fox has been fired from top US TV show CSI following a pay dispute.  It seems to me actors need to get better at negotiating contracts where, if a show grows in stature, so too do their wages.  TV stars are not the most hard done to group in society, despite their frequent warbling to this effect. But the volume of actors ‘resting’ and waiting tables means that they should aim to ensure that, given the sacrifices up front, they need to make decent money later on. Fox’s rising tide could raise all boats, insofar as it set a benchmark for others in TV acting to aim for.

Ever since I saw Maggie Greenwald’s The Kill-Off (1989) where the then Jorjan Fox played Myra Pavlov I’ve rated her acting, so it would be a shame to see her go.  The success of CSI is itself a bit of a mystery.  In the year of its release, industry pundits saw it as too morbid to win a mass audience, predicting big things for a remake of The Fugitive.  They didn’t realize we live in morbid times.  More recently the show was criticised by The Parents Television Council for subject matter including cannibalism and sex clubs.  PTC rep Melissa Caldwell said: "There are ways you can deal with these issues without having to be as graphic.” Huh? Since when was cannibalism an ‘issue’?

Friday, July 16, 2004


Admittedly the official image is one of multiculturalism these days. But what is it with the British National Party? They are supposed to be the master race, according to their own hype (i.e. prior to bidding for respectability).  Yet at least twice a year they are infiltrated by broadcast journalists, who expose them as ... er, violent racists. (Isn't this the point?)
Either the inbreeding necesary to create racial purity has dimmed their observational skills, or they are playing a long game where each new, predictable documentary and the opportunities to respond on air publicise their activities far better than the party press (or Searchlight). Either way, the symbiotic relationship between BNP notoriety and BBC moralising is worthy of an investigative documentary.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

No-glow Areas

Clubbing in Miami last year made me all too aware of the levels of official hostility to the club scene, including encouraging a ban on glowsticks. Current federal involvement, which outstrips even that of the British government in the years between the first stirrings of a panic and the 1994 Criminal Justice Act. Legislators seem hell-bent on making the club scene unworkable.

Some see the most recent Gulf War as W's continuation of his dad's first Gulf War. Perhaps the motivation here is rooted in continuing the erstwhile war on drugs, a knee-jerk response to political exhaustion. Campaigners against this state of affairs see it as an unholy alliance of killjoys and the religious right. (Jesus Christ!) Either way, government regulation of leisure time is invariably more of a problem than the so-called problems it sets out to solve.

Further reading:
Carla Spartos and Gavin Herlihy, 'Bush's War on Clubs', Mixmag, 08.04, pp.49-52.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Skydancing with death

“Dad, can I have a Sky Dancer party?” The day started with these words from my 5-year old, brought on by a cartoon promoting a toy which I guessed to be from the My Little Pony era and therefore beyond my parenting expertise.

And so to Ebay, where no doubt some of these plastic atrocities were lurking. We found three, so RARE RARE RARE that the auction starting price was 99 pence. Further googling revealed just why they were allegedly RARE: a product recall and a $400 000 fine for the Galoob company. So what was the problem with Sky Dancer toys?

"The hard plastic Sky Dancers® dolls can fly rapidly in unpredictable directions, and can hit and injure both children and adults. Galoob® has received 170 reports of the dolls striking children and adults resulting in 150 reports of injuries. They include eye injuries, including scratched corneas and incidents of temporary blindness, broken teeth, a mild concussion, a broken rib, and facial lacerations that required stitches."

Now I want one for myself. Sky Dancers could be a way to bypass Britain’s tight gun control legislation.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Fully Charged Raygun

"The Cold War is over, stupid." Declarations like this are a fair synopsis of what has changed and why the old certainties no longer hold. With Ronald Reagan out of the way, the opportunity to re-evaluate what he stood for has produced all sorts of punditry (including this bit by me). Underneath much of this is a yearning to return to the certainties of the Cold War, or a secular discussion of evil attuned to our pessimistic times. More on this later.

Barbecue massacres

I thought from the initial headlines that we were getting more of the same from ASLEF, where rival rail union leaders got involved in a punch-up among the beefburgers. A contact close to the union informs me that this is just the tip of the iceberg and such events occur regularly among supporters of Brothers Rix and Samways, particularly in the ballroom (!) below ASLEF headquarters.

Tragically, the events in Highmoor Cross turned out to be a lot more serious. Brendan O’Neill offers an interesting commentary on these developments here. Peculiar times: after years of campaigning against police harassment, one ends up bemoaning them keeping off the streets due to a collective loss of nerve. The Angelic Upstarts used to sing of the dangers of PC ‘Machine Gun Kelly’ gunning down innocent bystanders, but he’s too busy conducting risk assessments these days. Back to penalising speeding drivers for you, officer.

What would gung-ho Victorians make of the surrendering bobbies?

Thursday, July 08, 2004

In a parallel universe ...

... according to an unofficial homepage, I'm a busty Texan born in 1972.
You can also buy nude photos of me there, apparently.
Fans of Blackburn Rovers will be surprised to find the following info on Graeme Souness:
Graeme Souness bioraphy [sic]:

Date of Birth: August 15, 1976
Born in: London
Nationality: UK
Shoe: 35
Bust-Waist-Hips: 85 - 52 - 91
Height: 166 cm
Hair: Brown
Agencies: New York - IMG
Eye: Black

The wonders of google ...

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Talking Balls

So farewell then Euro 2004. Few expected Greece’s triumph, and the emergence of Theo Zagorakis as one of the players of the tournament rubs more salt in the wounds of post-Martin O’Neill Leicester City.

As for England’s exit, it’s time to put things in perspective. No matter where the fans want the side to end up i.e. where Zagorakis and his compatriots are now, the truth is that England are a team who might just trouble medium-size opponents in a quarter final. The ‘30 years of hurt’ in the 1996 Three Lions song have been made worse by the one-off World Cup win of 1966, which raised expectations unrealistically high.

Meanwhile David Beckham’s star continues to wane. Julie Burchill’s breathless hagiography shows him playing a ‘long, slow game, and rather than aim to have his image plastered over every lollipop, scrunchy and disposable camera, he has chosen his deals with deliberation and discretion’ (2002, p.73). Yet to observers of the ad breaks during the tournament, a digitally enhanced Beckham played out of his socks promoting multiple products. A shame he’s not as good in real life.

All the complaints about Beckham’s new-fangled branding exercise does not mean a return to 1970s-style football culture is on the cards. A correspondent recounts Steve Kember's testimonial the other night, where "the MC was ... Alan Birchenall (aka 'the Birch'), doing his usual thing, taking the piss and doing a running commentary on the game.

He also contributed an article to the programme about his longstanding
friendsip with Kember - referred to throughout as 'The Gypo'.

(Ian 'Taff' Evans also contributed a story about the day SK received a severe kick in the "orchestra stalls", and they blew up to the size of melons...)

Great days..."

Reference: Julie Burchill, Burchill on Beckham (London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2002). Click here to buy this book

Thanks to Ed Barrett