Tuesday, 16 November 2010

A Graphic Movie About Auschwitz, Really?

By Candice Carboo-Ofulue

As far as adaptations of real life go, Hollywood, or the motion picture in general, has pretty much scraped the bottom of the barrel. Alive, Munich, Hotel Rwanda, Blood diamond, Joan of Arc....Nothing is above cinema. It’s almost easier to list what hasn’t been done.

Some subjects, however, do seem to be beyond certain genres. I couldn’t tell you what they are, but I know they exist. And until last week, few of us could have imagined a graphically gruesome, horror flick about Auschwitz. But you tell that to Uwe Boll, known for his gory adaptations of video games, who feels it’s time to cinematize the "full horror" of Auschwitz, no matter how controversial. Well Uwe, I guess somebody had to do it, in the same way that some idiot has to pull the alarm-lever on the tube in the middle of rush-hour.

The critics, however, do not appreciate Boll's unique tribute. In fact, they are hyperventilating in outrage, accusing it of being distasteful and disturbing, with some even pledging a boycott. This is probably water off Boll’s back. In the end, it’s us, the box-office tickets, who get the final verdict. So what do we think? (Speculatively talking, since it’s scheduled for release next year). There is, apparently, a YouTube teaser, which I have to admit I'm too chicken to watch, so feel free to read this ponder with a pinch of salt.

Boll’s justification for this picture, apart from enlightening us to the excruciating horror of Auschwitz, is that we’ve been somewhat nullified by the “special story films”, such as Schindler’s List. Hmmm, sorry Uwe but I struggle to see your point; Schindler’s List was pretty good.

In my opinion, depicting every murderous tentacle in its full, graphic inhumanity is about as helpful in conveying the harrowing crimes of Auschwitz as a pumpkin. Did you watch the “Passion of Christ”? I did, or at least I tried. Yes, it captured the violence, but did it invoke any profound awareness about the plight of Christians, the persecution of religious minorities, or even the state of humanity? Err, nope. Well, at least not in my immediate circle of intellects. I did, however, hear discussions akin to: Did you watch it to the end? Wasn’t it horrible? Did you see the part when......?

Where's the benefit in simply sensationalising the violence? Here’s my question Mr Boll: How exactly do you expect to communicate the torturous agenda of Auschwitz, if people are too afraid to peer over their popcorn box, or beyond their partner’s jacket? I think you’ll find you don’t need violence to convey violence. Any wife beater will tell you that much. The nightmare of Auschwitz, and thus the Holocaust, is embedded in its inhumanity, which cannot be reduced to gas chambers. Why have a scene of gruesome experiments performed on twins capture the nuances of fear and despair of the Holocaust, when a closed door can have the same effect?

In fact, in an era where films such as Saw and The Hostel have normalised murder and brutally, I would go so far to suggest that it is an overly violent movie, which is desensitising

Uwe, I’d be more inclined to embrace your movie if you were tad more honest. Try: “I’m an uninspired Director, partial to exploiting people’s amygdales for a cheap scare, and what better material than Auschwitz, I don’t even have to invent the violence. After this, I’m considering a torturous spectacle about Nelson Mandela’s years in an apartheid prison”. Or something like that.

Of course, this is just my opinion; I’m open to other perceptions. What do you think about this latest production about Auschwitz? Are some subjects just too taboo for Hollywood, or at least some genres? Or is nothing above being interpreted (or exploited) by film, or Art?

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Should Prisoners Get The Vote?

By Euclides Montes (@Gatulino)

The British broadsheets are reporting that the government is poised to bring the UK in line with most European countries and allow prisoners to participate in the electoral process by voting.

This is one of those heated topics that usually divide people throughout the country regardless of their political leanings. So, should prisoners get the vote? And what does this question in itself mean for the role of the prison system in modern society?

On the one side, there are those that would argue that prisoners have excluded themselves from the rights law-abiding citizens enjoy, including the right to take part in participatory democracy. Those on this side of the debate often liken voting to undertaking jury duty and they argue that a person who has been given a prison sentence has also effectively given up their right and that this is a privilege of sorts that can only be regained once the prisoner has paid their debt to society. This disenfranchisement of prisoners is very much in line with the way the prison system worked in British society for most of the 19th and 20th century where a prisoner was understood to have lost their citizenship rights.

This is a view that has been disputed for a long time and the other side of the argument has gained a real foothold of the debate in modern society. Those in favour of giving prisoners the vote usually argue that rather than a right, voting should be seen as a civic duty and giving prisoners the opportunity to join in with wider society is a useful tool in their process of reintegration. Beyond that, an argument that has driven this debate over the last decade is that by giving prisoners the vote and raising their electoral capital in the process, politicians would pay closer attention to our prison system as it would mutate from a problematic field of policy into a possible source of important votes during an election.

Although it’s quite clear that there is probably not a right or wrong answer, allow me to have a go at answering the question of this ponder.

My personal feeling is that it really depends on how we view prisons and their role in society. Whilst it is a very valid view that prisons should remain a place where those who have transgressed against society pay their penance, I personally believe that prisons should instead be a place where prisoners are rehabilitated and given the tools to rejoin and be able to participate fully in their society. An eye for eye is a bit outdated for my liking and a prison term should not be seen as a payment for faults but as a system that helps our fellow citizens to gain the skills needed to be integral parts of their society. I believe voting, or rather having the choice to partake in participatory democracy, is a key part of this rehabilitation. As such, I personally welcome this move. How about you?

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Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Meaning Of Life

By Rachel Surtees (@RVSurtees)

I have a theory. Hot off the press so to speak: I think that the idea that we're all still hunting for "the meaning of life" is ridiculous. I think we know exactly what it is and always have done.

For some reason we have allowed ourselves to be so overwhelmed by the enormity of the question that we've left it to the scientists and philosophers to fight it out. And yet, "the meaning of life" floods our every movement; shapes our legal systems; informs our sense of morality (both personal and societal); and colours every political system from London to Lima to Lagos.

How could it not? The meaning of life is the reason we are. And of course, every culture, family, individual will have a different interpretation of what it means to them, but surely the meaning of life is to live. Isn't it?

Isn't that why the idea of working in a stuffy office fills us with horror whilst achieving the holy grail of the perfect work-life balance so appealing? Because we all need time "to live" otherwise we begin to feel that life has no meaning.

Isn't that why we (most of us at least) find the idea of long-term imprisonment of young-offenders so troubling? Because to effectively deny someone the right to a chance "to live" freely is so contrary to our nature.

Ironically enough, isn't that why proponents of the death penalty have such an easy time defending their stance? Because acts that inhibit someone else's ability "to live" seem so indefensible.

And isn't that why we have memorials for our loved ones who have died? Because it allows them to live again - if only in memory.

Last week my father died of lung cancer. I barely knew him and yet have felt such sadness for him in these last few days. Because by all accounts he didn't live. He allowed past mistakes to prevent him from living and then died within hours of finding the forgiveness he craved but didn't seek out. What a shame. To have a life but not live it. Isn't it? Perhaps this post could be a memorial of sorts. Give him one last chance "to live".

Click here to go to first post

Tuesday, 14 September 2010


Hello all,

Please accept our apologies but our hosting website [Blogger] is experiencing problems today and we haven't been able to put up our weekly post.

Hopefully all problems will be sorted out soon and pondering will resume as usual.

Thanks for stopping by.

The PonderBoxes

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Whose Line Is It Anyway?

By Euclides Montes (@Gatulino)

I’m sure by now we’ve all heard the horrible stories coming out of “Mexico’s drug war” or maybe heard about the street battles between different gangs trying to regain control of the drug business in Medellin (Colombia) and I’m sure that like me you have shuddered at the idiocy and senselessness of the situation.

Whilst this is happening, drug use in the West is said to have stabilised and it is not uncommon to find guests at different parties powdering their noses away without any care in the world. Although drug using still conjures up images of dirty flats and broken lives (see current Eastender’s plot line for proof!), this is also an image that is being challenged by my late 20s generation and this is a move that will certainly continue – lest some major cultural shift takes place – being pushed by the younger generations.

So, what’s my ponder? I read over the weekend an article by Antonio Maria Costa (executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) who in very diplomatic terms peddled the view that the decriminalisation of drugs would lead to ‘catastrophic consequences’ in the world. Although it cannot really be called scaremongering – after all, Mr Costa does make some very valid arguments about the way we as societies deal with drugs and their consumption – I found myself disagreeing with him in principle and fact in several passages.

So, rather than fisking his article here, I thought I’d open the floor with my ponder. Is it really such a bad idea to decriminalise drugs? I’m personally of the view that introducing a system akin to the one introduced by Portugal over a decade ago on a large scale in the West would help not only to curb the problem of addiction but it would help the countries producing the drugs to fight the production of what would be no longer illegal substances. This has been true for decades of tobacco and alcohol, why not just extend it to other substances? (it’s worth pointing out that Portugal’s system has been rather successful in helping the country to deal with the massive drugs problems it faced a decade ago)

I have rewritten this article a couples of times now because I really want to avoid the preachy tone many articles like this one usually take but I hope you will all forgive me one little indiscretion in that respect. After all, every line of coke that we in West consume at our parties and festivals contributes to the deaths, violence and poverty enveloping so many nations right now. So, rather than asking you to ‘stop and think’ before you use drugs, which would be a hypocritical stance by anyone who enjoys many of the other benefits that life in the West has to offer, I’d like to ask you to ponder about where you stand in terms of the argument for decriminalisation and help us bring the debate forward regardless of which side you fall upon. To quote Mr Costa, “are we ready to engage?”

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Tuesday, 31 August 2010

What's In A Name?

by Rachel Surtees (@RVSurtees)

I got married a couple of weeks ago. I think that there are a lot of interesting things to ask about that. For instance, what does marriage within atheism mean? Do you marry because you expect something to change or because it already has? Do you seriously expect us to save a piece of wedding cake for our unconceived child, or was that a joke? Yet the only question that people seem to ask is: are you going to change your name?

Just so that you don’t spend the whole post pondering, the answer is: no, we haven’t decided what we’re going to do with our names yet.

I’ve found the whole process of getting married wonderful… and fascinating. The mere mention of the word seems to elicit an ingrained and impermeable reaction in people (myself included). What’s more, not only do most people seem unable to control that reaction, but they also seem oblivious to it. And the issue of the name appears to be king.

There are two things that I’ve found particularly interesting. The second most interesting of these is that whilst the question is significant enough to be asked again and again and again… and again, it seems that my actual name pales in significance by comparison. “It doesn’t matter Rach, why not just consider changing it”, “Why hold on to your name Rach, isn’t that just ego?”, “Rachel Montes? It’s pretty.” As if that was in some way relevant.

By writing the above I risk offending most of my closest friends… which leads me to the most interesting thing. The pressure to bow to tradition hasn’t come from “society”, but from within my closest social groups. Odd.

Incidentally, no one’s asked my husband if he’s going to change his name. Perhaps that’s the most interesting thing.

So my ponder? My ponder is: what’s in a name? A quick flick through the papers suggests that there’s quite a lot actually.

1. There are those who have their names changed for them.

Hands up if you remember John Darwin? Nope, didn’t think so… how about the Canoe Man? There we go.

The Tabs have affectionately renamed the man who was brutally stabbed to death and hacked into pieces: Spy In The Bag… seriously?

Susan Boyle post-break down and post-waxing became known as SuBo. It didn’t catch on, nor did she.

I’ve become quite accustomed to hearing about Baby P. The tragedy of his story never seems to be far from us. And then every once in a while I hear someone refer to him as Baby Peter and the reality of it punches me in the stomach again.

2. There are those who adopt additional names.

Having a pseudonym has become an accepted and unquestioned tradition, particularly within the arts. But when you do stop to question it, it really does beg a question or two. Of course there are some who build entire personas and lives around a pseudonym and that ability is their artistry; think Banksy.

And then there are others who, like the George Elliots and Currer Bells of this world, rely upon pseudonyms to break down barriers and find expression. I get that.

But on the whole, pseudonyms seem to be used by people who are either scared that their “created” vs “true” identities are incongruous, or, they’re embarrassed about one or the other… or both… and so hide behind a pseudonym. And on the whole, we accept this practice. Perhaps we shouldn’t? I’m not sure.

3. There are those who give up their names all together.

The jury’s still out on this one too. There’s something distinctly uncomfortable about the current use of anonymity. Again, there are clearly situations in which the right to anonymity is not only acceptable, but should be fiercely protected. But, if you give a statement to the press, or post online anonymously, i.e. you’re not willing to put your name to it, then why should anyone be willing to give validity to what you’re saying? Surely, by indiscriminately encouraging anonymity, all we’re encouraging is cowardice?

4. There are those who have become convinced of “the value” of their names.

Super injunction. I’m afraid I can’t say anymore.

There isn’t necessarily a consistent theme to the above, except that names clearly matter, otherwise why would we go through the hassle of changing or hiding them.

So all in all, I don’t know what’s in a name… but I do know that there’s something. I also know that I’m not going to be in a hurry to lose mine just yet. So maybe I’ll be Rachel Montes, or maybe he’ll be Mr Surtees, but either way, I do wish people would stop asking.

Click here to go to first post

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Me, Myself and I?

If the truth be told, I had judged Jeff too quickly. Perhaps his clown pants (only way to describe them) and matted beard suggested just another hippie. We sat on a table underneath a large papaya tree sheltering the Caribbean sun, and looked at the menu. I gathered he'd probably order a carrot and beetroot smoothie, and later invite us to play drums and make it rain on the beach.

"Chad did tons of yoga and meditation when he did it, but I'm planning to do nothing. I really want to get in my head, be alone with my thoughts, work through the demons..... see what happens"

Jeff, it turns out, was about to embark on ten days of darkness. Ten days of complete light, sound and social deprivation. Not an experience that most people could stand. For him, however, I imagined it would be a breeze, since he and my friend Anna had recently spent two months in silence, on a course in Guatemala.

In a small way, spiritual pilgrimages such as these reflect a sad, modern reality. That we have to travel to a dark hut, somewhere in the jungle of Guatemala, to be alone with ourselves. Or that we depend on therapy or medicine to understand our own behaviour. Are we really that confused about who we are? Should we be so complicated?

How we've become so complicated, in my opinion, is no mystery. Just take a look at the Market we've created, saturated with goods and services we don't need. Advertisers and branders have ruthlessly exploited and reconstructed identities, turning the consumer into a blank canvass. No need for a sense of self, unless of course it's been defined by Apple or Nike.

Of course, this is just my opinion. I'm sure that the exact same thing could be said for religion, politics or culture.

Perhaps Jeff has a point. Who are we?

It would be interesting to spend 10 days alone in darkness, deprived from everything but oneself to find out.


Click here to go to first post

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Is the Burka any more offensive than the Miniskirt?

By Joshua Surtees

On the 13th of July, the day before Bastille Day, the French parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of a ban on women wearing the burka in public. 335 politicians voted in favour of the ban, just one against. Justice Minister Michelle Alliot-Marie described the occasion as a victory for democracy and French values.

But surely, the point of democracy is that people have the freedom to choose things like the clothes they wear?

Just in the same way that some women in France choose to wear miniskirts, hotpants, push up bras or bikinis in the street. Just as men and women in France are allowed to walk around naked on nudist beaches. Just as newsagents and broadcasters are allowed to display pornographic images of women on shop shelves or national television channels like Canal +. Should Muslim women not be given the democratic freedom to determine how much or little of their bodies are seen? Just as these two Lebanese women in the photograph below have both made their individual decisions to cover or uncover their bodies – why should a government take it upon itself to ban one of them?

My personal opinion is that people should be allowed to wear what they want to wear and if that causes offence to others then those others should simply look away. I don’t particularly like the bomber jacket and cherry red Doc Martens uniform of the National Front – a symbol of the overt racist tendencies of the wearer. But I would not expect the government to ban it from being worn.

Some people may object to tattoos or piercings and the values they symbolise, some may object to the elongated ‘giraffe necks’ of some Burmese women, some may object to the sartorial choices of some transsexual people; but just because a style of dress reflects a culture that is different to ours, it is surely an extreme measure to officially eradicate it.

On the face of it this ban appears to have three strands. The first is a stance against the oppression of Islamic women. The second is a symbol of France’s secularisation of the state. The third is Islamophobia.

Turning first to the oppression of Islamic women. Do these women photographed in Birmingham look oppressed?

It’s an interesting question. Some of you might say yes, others might see a group of strong Muslim women, defiant and proud of their culture. In what way is what they are wearing any more oppressive than the cultural European norms that dictate women should be seen in high heels and make up?

On a trip to Syria a few years ago I met a young Parisian woman of Algerian heritage. Before leaving the hotel one day she decided it would be easier for her to wear a headscarf. When I asked why she told me it would attract less attention. As a woman in a city like Paris she endures the daily stares, whistles and comments that all men direct towards women. When a woman covers up the parts of her that men find attractive it neutralises the potential for sexist behaviour or unwanted attention. In Islam it is seen as a symbol of modesty. In France it is seen as oppression. Feminists would argue that rather than covering women up, instead men should be held accountable for their behaviour. But how do you stop men from staring and whistling? Perhaps a law against lewd sexist behaviour in public should have been pursued in tandem with the ban on the burka. But that will never happen under French law. There is no feminism within French law, only the pretence of it.

It is often said that women are forced to wear the burka by their husbands and, of course where this is the case – as in Afghanistan when the Taliban came to power – it is entirely unacceptable. But in Europe, large parts of North Africa and the Middle East, the choice to wear the veil is predominantly a woman’s choice based on her religious beliefs and not the result of coercion or domestic patriarchy.

With regard to the second point; the secularisation of the French republic. While all religious symbols are banned in schools and universities, there is currently no legislation banning the Jewish kippah or Sikh turban from public places. Jean-Francois Cope of the UMP party declared that “the burka is not a question of religion, it is the way for some extremists to make an instrumentalisation of the religion in order to make politics.” A deeply flawed and questionable statement which leads us on to point three. Is this simply Islamophobia in action?

There are 5 million Muslims living in France – many of whom opposed the ban. Only 2,000 French women are believed to wear the full burka. It therefore seems a symbolically aggressive gesture directed from the French state towards a minority community. Surely, in a case such as this, where the tangible effects of passing this law will be to remove from France’s streets a physical manifestation of a culture and religion, would it not have been more acceptable to put the vote to a national referendum? Or would that serve only to further polarise communities and exacerbate the tensions that have always existed between France and the peoples of its former colonies?

In Britain, a ban such as this would be seen as inherently racist and unacceptable. British Muslims would see it as an act of marginalisation of religious behaviour. Moreover it would be seen as an oppression of basic human rights. Tory MP Andrew Grice has already been warned that his statements about refusing to meet with constituents dressed in the veil could lead to legal action legal action. Yet, in Spain, Holland and Belgium similar bans to the one in France are already being discussed. This suggests something fundamentally different in the extent to which diverse racial and religious groups are accepted in British society as opposed to elsewhere in Europe.

On my way home on the bus the other day a woman was sat with her two young daughters. All three of them chatting away and laughing in Arabic. Her two young girls were wearing jeans, trainers, t-shirts while their mother was wearing the niqab. At one point during their conversation she turned to me and though I saw only her eyes, I could see she was smiling. I smiled back and she turned back and continued her conversation. Where I live in north London the veil is simply a small part of life just like the colourful flowing dresses of the Roma gypsies, the Lycra leggings of the Polish girls, the head scarves of the Turkish, the furry hats of the Orthodox Jews or the miniskirts of English women. Nobody stares, nobody is scared, nobody appears offended.

Why should they be?

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Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Under Pressure?

By Rachel Surtees (@RVSurtees)

I think the pressure might be starting to get to us. Us all that is.

The moment that it hit me was on route to work a couple of weeks ago. Running late, I opted for the tube rather than my usual calming walk in. On the first tube two men had a fight – or at least it would have been a fight if either had had enough room to move their arms. On the second tube an old woman started shouting at a four year stranger… that’s right, a four year old. I know he was four because his shocked father screamed it back in the old lady’s face.

In itself it was essentially just a bad journey. It probably wasn’t even that bad, just a shock to the system – I’ve noticed that you start to lose your London edge quite quickly when you stop travelling by tube every day.

Then again, I wonder if it was perhaps symptomatic of something more significant. Symptomatic of the pressures of modern day living starting to show?

Last week the latest crime statistics showed an overall drop in crime. And as happens every year, the majority of the country reading the glowing report on improved policing measures and effective crime prevention, raised a baffled eyebrow, had another swig of coffee and turned the page to read about a grandfather being “happy-slapped” to death.

Within this seemingly never-ending catalogue of bad news and violent outbursts, there were two particularly horrendous stories in quite close succession, linked only by their unusualness and muted public reaction.

In June of this year, taxi driver Derrick Bird shot dead 12 people and injured 7 others, before turning his gun on himself. What characterised this event was not only how reportedly out of character the attack was, but also the notable lack of public recrimination – except against the police that is. There is no dancing around the fact that what Bird did was to go on a killing spree. And yet the day’s events were largely met with shock and sadness, not anger. A surprising number of people came out in Bird’s defence, and those who didn’t, could at least understand where the others were coming from.

Then in July of this year, the now notorious Raoul Moat went on a similar rampage. Similar in that he picked up a gun, sought out individuals who he felt had wronged him and shot them, killing his ex-partner' new boyfriend. Then he became relatively indiscriminate in his mania, injuring an unarmed police officer*. Similar in that the early public reaction was many things, but rarely disgusted. Most were fascinated, many concluded that he must have been provoked, whilst others were convinced of an elaborate police cover up of some sort. The whole story had, dare I say it, an air of macabre humour about it; enter Gazza. Again, the unfolding events were drenched in tragedy and sorrow, not anger. That is until resident idiot Siobhan O’Dowd took “empathy” a step too far and jolted us back to our senses.

There are a million and one reasons why public response might have been what it was to both gunmen. One is that we’ve just become so used to violence that it’s no longer as shocking as it should be. The other is that we have become a more compassionate and understanding nation.

But I wonder. I wonder if deep down we have comprehended these murders, so unusual and dramatic in nature, to be the breaking point of modern day living. I wonder if our characterisation of both Bird and Moat as victims in their own right, is because we’re all starting to feel the pressure. That we know that we wouldn’t pick up a gun and randomly start shooting, but we wouldn’t be entirely surprised if our neighbour, or colleague, or postman did.

Are we reaching the breaking point of modern day living?
Yesterday a man killed his wife and two young children – his neighbours say they don’t understand what could have happened, that it is entirely out of character.

*Ed. Original article mistakenly stated that Raoul Moat killed an unarmed police officer. The officer in question actually survived the attack and the post was amended accordingly. Hat tip to ‘Anonymous Coward’

Click here to go to first post

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Will The Coalition Survive A Full Term?

The case against by Rachel Surtees (@RVSurtees)

No. I give it two years, and here are 5 reasons why:

1. Within about 6 months both parties will realise that neither is of any use to the other anymore. The disillusioned public who voted Lib Dem in good faith will have defected back to Labour, and those who have had a pleasant surprise will wake up one day in the near future and realise that they are in fact Tories. Either way, there won’t be any need for a coalition anymore.

2. Somewhere along the line, probably around Christmas, we will have plunged back into deep recession and even the Mail will be calling out for Gordon.

3. Next year will be the test. We’ll be given a referendum on electoral reform. Cameron will vote against it (because what possible reason would there be for him voting for it). The Lib Dem MPs who have been coerced into toeing the coalition line will realise there’s nothing left for them and will either jump ship altogether or defect to Labour thereby opening the door to a successful vote of no confidence.

4. Our very short memories will have been jogged and two years is well enough time to remember what life
under a Tory led government is like. To be honest, with the speed at which they have threatened to balls up state education and effectively privatise the NHS it might not take 2 months, let alone 2 years.


The case for by Euclides Montes (@gatulino)

The question in my eyes is really beyond any question. And as a Communist, it pains me to say it is undoubtedly yes.

This government is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. It came to be after a rather difficult amalgamation of people holding different political outlooks who either gave up on their long held beliefs or acknowledged they’ll have to play the long game to get what they really want as a compromise to get into power. Of course along the way we’ll have endless exposure to a large number of people who will either embarrass, or even worse, compromise the coalition parties’ position. And we in the opposition will no doubt gleefully use these opportunities to attack what is, in my opinion, a dangerous group of socially inept rich boys who are busy running our country into a very dark place.

However, they will also get a lot of things right. What can I say? The law of averages is a bitch! And the previous administration gave them a ‘get out of jail free’ card to play that will be still playable for quite a while. And beyond that, make no mistake, this government has a lot of friends in high places who will not want to see this coalition fail because too much time and effort has been invested into getting market-friendly faces into government. Money never talks as clearly as when it is in power.

I hope I’m wrong and this ‘experiment’ fails in a couple of years. However, my feeling is that the ConDems will be around for a while. We better get prepared for that battle because if left unchecked, this government will set us back a couple of decades. As a nation, we cannot afford to let that happen.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Need Not Apply

By Euclides Montes (@Gatulino)

We regret to inform you that your application for the position of XXX has been unsuccessful this time… More empty and generic pleasantries to follow.

‘Ah, and I had such a good feeling about this one’ he thinks. Just like he felt with each one of the 20 rejections that had come before. He moves to the kitchen where the cafetiere betrays the fact that he’s already overdone it with the coffee today.

He thinks about the pile of unopened envelopes on his dining table, the various requests for money going ignored for one day longer.

Time for a break, he thinks. Another cup of coffee and the newspaper online! The newspaper doesn’t help. “70 other people going for the same job”, “The toughest time to be a 20-something”, “Millions of jobs to disappear”. Voluntarily leaving his job to chase the ‘dream career’ suddenly doesn’t look too clever anymore.

He sighs.

‘No need to worry’ he reasons with himself. ‘Surely every generation has one of these moments. Although this really feels different. Who would’ve thought that after spending 3 years and thousands of pounds at university to gain a good degree, I was going to end being at the front line of a social struggle… a struggle to get a job!’ He smiles.

He trawls through the job sites again. Finds another position he likes. Another 8 page application. Another ‘equal opportunities monitoring form’. Another certain wait. Another certain negative email.

He ponders again on whether this should really be so. After all, creating news jobs instead of curtailing existing ones is surely a failsafe strategy to drive the economy out of recession? Surely pulling funds out of the job market is merely a cynical political move and it doesn’t take into account the people who are struggling to make ends meet?

He wishes he could get organised and write a few pamphlets and get people talking about this but he knows he can’t. He might be certain he won’t hear back from this other job application but he can’t afford not to apply.

He sticks his favourite artist of the moment on the CD player. He gets the coffee on the go again. Puts on his lucky hat on. Looks down on the page.

“NAME: ______________”

He sighs.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Cheap and Convenient

By Candice Carboo-Ofulue

It’s amazing how cheap and convenient tourism is these days. In the not-so-old days, to get a cheap getaway, you'd have to scroll through reams of teletext for hours. Sometimes days. Before you knew it, you'd built a trench around the TV. Now, it’s painfully easily to book a bargain-bucket holiday. The internet is like an electronic monopoly board of airlines, hotels and tour operators. Land on Ryanair: go directly to Germany, do not pass Go, do not collect £200.

This makes me feel a little uncomfortable. I say uncomfortable, because I'm in no position to delve into my normal self-righteous rant, and start preaching about sustainable tourism or carbon offsetting. I believe in these concepts. But I'm not perfect. If I was: rather than flying three times over the past year, I would have sailed on an elbow-powered raft made from sustainable wood. But the thought of sailing across the Atlantic sickens me with fear, which is not how I prefer to start my vacation. It's just more convenient to fly.

What we fail to see beyond the seductive deals, are the costs. Take Mexico's tropical peninsula in the Caribbean Sea, for example. Home to the sprawling, tourist-metropolis of Cancun; its coastline dominated by all-inclusive hotels. That's pretty convenient. Now tourists can enjoy some of Mexico's most beautiful beaches, courtesy of a foreign-owned hotel without all that third world baggage.

Mexico, however, is anything but a convenient country. It's riddled with corruption, drug warfare, police brutality, discrimination and poverty, to mention a few ailments. Admittedly, I don't have children or only two weeks of vacation a year, but what gives us the right to experience a safe Burma, an equal Kenya, or an efficient Mexico? Because we paid for it?

Instead of countries bending and cultures changing to accommodate the demands of tourists. Instead of deforestation caused by our insatiable thirst for traditional wood carvings, to put on top of the bookcase in the corner of our Ikea living rooms. Instead of the Masai performing hunting dances in front of tour groups, for hunts they have never seen and almost certainly will never do. We should be embracing the people of the countries we visit, in the context of their existing culture. Our holidays to distant lands are not just about us......

Apologies. I've just re-read this and it sounds rather like a rant. I'll spare you the bit about money enslaving us and everything stinking of colonialism......

So what do you think of cheap and convenient tourism?

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Are Comediennes A Feminist Issue?

By Rachel Surtees (@RVSurtees)

A couple of weeks ago my fiancé and I took his brother and sister out-law to see one of the many pre-Edinburgh warm ups springing up along the long and winding road from North London to Scotland.

The bill was a fairly typical ex-fringe line up for this time of year: an unknown (man), an up and coming (woman), an established yet unknown (woman), an ex-fringe headliner (man) and a compere (woman). Two men, three women.

I laughed and drank in equal measure for the full 150 minutes, and yet, rather than starting up the normal post-show banter, I left feeling not quite sober and not quite disappointed, just somewhere between the two. Then my partner obliviously twisted the knife and brought the realisation screaming to the fore of consciousness.

Why are men consistently so much funnier than women? And why is my feminist fiancé talking to me about comediennes?

A friend immediately responded to the first question with:

“Joan Rivers is funny. Jo Brand. (sometimes) Victoria Wood. Josie Long. That big woman from bbc2. can't remember her name.

Tell you what is really funny. Clare in The Community (it is written by men though...)”

The thing is, I agree. All of the above are funny, which is because women are as funny, if not funnier, than men…in real life. Yet for some reason, on a stage the Y chromosome always seems to have the edge.

I’ve attempted a few possible explanations, each of which is probably a little bit true but ultimately weak in logic and relevance in 2010:

1) We’re used to seeing male comedians so are conditioned to hearing and seeing comedy delivered in a particular way. Mock the Week is a prime example of this. Until Frankie left, MTW was one of the funniest panel shows that’s been around for a very long time and so built up a core group of regular first class comic guests. And yet, the only regular female representation over the last 3 years has been Lucy-funny-but-oh-so-girly-Porter, and Gina-not funny-but-shouts-a-lot-Yashere.

2) There are still some subjects that though risky for a man, are absolutely taboo for a woman – Sarah Silverman’s brazen ignorance of this might explain her appeal.

3) Just with so many other industries, there is a new golden generation of funny women on their way, they just haven’t quite arrived yet.

4) Comedy’s lifeblood is the continuation and challenge of stereotypes, and so sexism (and every other type of ism), is not only permitted, but actively encouraged. The resulting laddish comedy that the likes of Frank Skinner, Russell Howard, Jonathan Ross etc. etc., built their names on is as unsurprising as it is insurmountable for women. So either the whole culture of comedy has to change – unlikely, or women will have to develop a new parallel culture – still differentiated.

None of the above really explains it though. Perhaps there’s nothing to explain and I’ve simply been hanging out in the wrong venues?

As for the second question, I can’t help but feel that one is a symptom of the other. The fiancé helpfully pointed out that comedienne is simply one of a million words in the dictionary. I, perhaps unhelpfully, shouted back “Yes but why? WHY?”

Unlike other European languages, English isn’t gendered. So then, why do we draw a differentiation within certain professions? More to the point, think about the professions, and occasions in which the feminine usage is common. Anyone remember when we used to talk about authoresses? I do. It was before female authors presented themselves to be on an equal playing field to male writers in terms of skill, wages and reputation. Female actors and comedians by contrast still lag behind their male counterparts in all of these fields. It works both ways of course, that strapping nurse you see in the corner isn’t just a nurse, no no, he’s a male nurse.

Call it cynicism but there seems to me to be an implication of superiority in the differentiation between male comedians and female comediennes… after all, can you think of any other reason why we’d need two different names for one profession?

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Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Dead Wrong - Pro Wrestling's Dirty Little Secret

By John Ellul

Last month, a 56-year-old Floridian man suffered a pre-surgery heart scare when doctors believed they'd discovered an abnormality with his heart.

Nothing too unusual there, you might think, given the winning combination of uber-tanning and tight swimwear that they seem to embrace in that part of the world. For this particular individual, however, there are bigger things to worry about. Professional idiot and occasional wrestler Hulk Hogan was described as "very relieved" to find that, upon closer inspection, nothing was amiss with his EKG - this time.

In truth, sunstroke and a bad wardrobe could turn out to be the least of the Hulkster's worries if he knows what's good for him.

The death rate for professional wrestlers - recently retired ones in particular - is, frankly, shocking; a worrying trend equalled only by the shortage of people who know, or care. And therein lies the essence of my ponder - should we give two hoots about these muscle-bound morons?

In many respects, the reticence of both the British media and the public to get to grips with the trouble befallling the grappling game is to be expected. It's not British, it's not real, and to be honest, it's a bit silly.

That in it itself may render the topic less than newsworthy at first glance, but whether you classify it as sport or entertainment - or neither - it should cause shockwaves. If athletes in any other minor-interest overseas sport started dropping like flies, or the grim reaper started bumping off characters in a cult-status soap opera for no discernible reason, there would rightly be an outcry.

Not so in this lycra clad ghost story.

A conservative estimate puts the number of performers in the wrestling industry to die before the age of 50 since 1990 at nearly 80. Suspect heart attacks and other side-effects of an overreliance on anabolic steroids account for a large percentage of the dead. Another major culprit is the overdoses of painkilling drugs which many rely on to keep up with the punishing rough and tumble..

Deaths "on duty" are rare, but certainly do happen – just ask the fans who watched in horror as Mal "King Kong" Kirk died in the ring after receiving a routine "belly splash" from Big Daddy in Norfolk in 1987. And then there are the suicides...

Without a doubt the most heartbreaking tale in this Dead Wrestlers' Society has to be that of the Von Erich Family - a story in suicide that starts with Jack Adkisson, who wrestled across the United States in the 1950s and 60s under the lazy and exploitative Nazi-sympathiser persona of "Fritz Von Erich".

Never quite hitting the heights as a national star himself, Fritz (as he insist everyone call him) soon transferred his dreams of success to each of his sons, demanding a dedication to a lifetime in the wrestling industry from each of them. It was a psychotic single-mindedness that would have fatal results.

Already a hard and unsympathetic man, Fritz's negative outlook on life took another hit when first son Jack Jr. was accidentally electrocuted and drowned in a puddle at the age of seven.

His desire to create a winning wrestling dynasty initially looked in good hands, and son David Von Erich, proficient, good-looking and wildy popular, was set for greatness. Days before a scheduled world title win which would have catapulted him to international stardom, David was found dead in his hotel room in 1984, victim of a recreational drug overdose.

Without missing a beat, the pressure then shifted to younger brothers Kerry, Mike, and Chris Von Erich. Pushed to return from injury prematurely by his father, Mike suffered toxic shock syndrome, and took an overdose of tranquilisers in 1987. Depressed at his inability to make it as a wrestler, and frustrated with his slight physique, Chris shot himself in 1991, aged just 22. He had, he wrote in his suicide note, "gone to be with David and Michael."

Kerry was the only one to make it to the big leagues of the WWF. Rivalled only by David in his fondness for recreational drugs, Kerry had a long rap list of car crashes, arrests, overdoses, and other close calls. Worried that his latest arrest would result in lengthy imprisonment, Kerry shot himself in the heart in 1993.

Legend has it, when sixth and sole surviving brother Kevin confronted his father about the pain and sorrow he'd inflicted on the family, he was told: "I'm proud of them. You were always too much of a coward to kill yourself."

It would be easy to dismiss these deaths as the product of a harrowing family environment, but the pressures of the crowd clearly weighed too heavily on them and many others. As former WWE champion Robert "Rob Van Dam" Szatkowsky explained in 2009:

"In our world, as big as the news of a wrestler dying can be, we always know it's not going to be the last. Anytime a wrestler dies, we're automatically thinking, 'Okay, who's next?'

And that, in a nutshell, is the life of a wrestler - the life they chose.

Things have improved immeasurably since February 2006 when the company introduced its Talent Wellness Program, a direct reaction to the high-profile drug death of headliner Eddie Guerrero the previous December. Ever since, any violations of the frequent are publicised on WWE's own website, with suspensions and contract terminations for persistent offenders, as well as the option of paid-for rehab.

But it still goes on.

How can you tell? Look out for acne next time you see wresting on TV - especially on the back and shoulder blades. It makes for alarming viewing.

Then again, who cares? No one apparently. Until it happens to a huge, international star, I bet.

Cue, Mr Hogan...

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Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Beautiful Game

By Euclides Montes (@gatulino)

I found myself in a peculiar position recently. As you might already be aware, there is some sort of football competition going on at the moment and being one of the many loony football fans around the world, I could barely contain my excitement. Having been born in a country whose World Cup experience is painfully risible, my allegiance has squarely been with the English team for the last decade or so, yet I found myself defending my position as an England supporter recently in conversation amongst a group of British-born fans. Peculiar indeed, in my opinion.

Of course there are the obvious – and to an extent reasonable - arguments of ‘why bother?’. With the English team it’s usually a matter of ‘we came, we saw, we stuttered, we went home with our tail between our legs’. The echoes of ’66 still ringing as loud and heavy as the vuvuzuelas in South Africa. We all know that we’re probably going to face Portugal or Germany at some point, and that Lampard will take that pivotal penalty kick and … well, I can even see The Sun headline already ‘HE BENT IT LIKE BECKHAM’. But surely that’s no reason to stop supporting our team. After all, being a glutton for pain and disappointment is an essential requirement for football fans everywhere, especially if you are an [insert your own team here] supporter. And besides, this could be our year after all!

Add to that the fact that some of our players will never make it into any of our Christmas card list and that the modern state of the sport mean that some of those disliked players still command ridiculous sums week in, week out and you can understand why some people have chosen to forsake the national team and support teams from other countries. As I said above, understandable.

However, one criticism I have seen gathering pace recently is that of football – and the World Cup at that – being a prejudiced enterprise in almost every sense and just by supporting it I should almost feel ashamed of myself. I am a very woolly liberal, I’ll be the first to admit but this argument really grates. I know that the sport is not perfect in any shape or form. Corruption, overpaid stars, a tacit allowance of homophobia, racism and sexism, Sepp Blatter. These are evils that continue to plague football to this day. However, the advances the sport has made to clean itself from these problems have been vast and commendable and to dismiss offhand the pinnacle of what is possibly the most universal sport of the 21st century through a very loaded and hackneyed viewpoint is surely not helpful and even prejudiced in itself.

I understand many people’s discomfort to cheer for England. Some of our symbols have been appropriated by racists and extremists and I have no doubt groups like the EDL are having their birthday and Christmas all come at once - especially with so many lies spreading like wildfire. But surely to shy away from reclaiming our team, our symbols, our right to feel proud of our nation without the tinge of jingoism, in short to cower away is not be helpful. It would instead give those who hold these extremist views an open field to claim ‘supporting the English team’ as well and that surely is a worse state of affairs? Unquestionably everyone can see that supporting doesn’t equate thuggery in any sense?

Besides, beyond all those arguments, football will always be in its most basic form a beautiful spectacle but it is a spectacle that can bring people together and it always has done so successfully. It is flawed and it has issues that need resolving but surely to dismiss it offhand is not beneficial in any way whatsoever? Hmm…

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Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Tipping Point

By Candice Carboo-Ofulue

The other day, I'm having coffee with a friend at our usual spot in a small town in Mexico when we stumble upon the subject of "tipping". Well, not exactly, my friend is a part-time waitress and I used to work at the same establishment, so the conversation was almost predictable. Anyway, my friend was relaying a funny story about a group of people she had served. To cut a long, hilarious story short and boring: five people walk into the restaurant; order smoothies, appetizers, main courses, and deserts; use the bathroom; compliment the restaurant and its service; ask about things to do and places to go; scrape their collective leftovers onto one plate to take-away and then leave.

But forget to tip.

I say forget because everybody knows that tipping is a universal custom, especially in restaurants. In fact, so common is this practice of leaving a small, monetary symbol of one's gratitude, that if all cultures were reduced to their common denominators, the only things left would be corruption, misogyny and tipping.

But it was my reaction to the tip story that has caused me to ponder. It went something like this: "What! Those bastards. I can't believe they didn't tip. How dare they? I hope they're all killed by flesh eating termites in a slow, unimaginable death."

Genuinely offended. But why?

I'm certain that some explanation can be found in the context: In Mexico, as in the US, the tip is integrated into an employee's contract, so that it subsidies a person's wage. To put it plainly: it's near impossible to survive off wages alone: so tips are one's "bread and butter". But this has nothing to do with the customer, and I'm not so obnoxious to think that the customer should be reproached for Mexico's flawed industrial relations.

No. I just hate it when people don't tip. I think it's rude. I can't explain why I'm so militant about this. I enjoy telling people that the tip is a defiant symbol of direct transaction, in a world riddled with credit cards and third parties. Voluntarily disregarding that many people tip using their credit card, of course. That the tip is a valuable way of rewarding someone's service. It's a polite acknowledgment. A redistribution of wealth. An end to inequality. A solution to climate change.

Or maybe I just tip because it makes me feel good...or less bad.

However paradoxical, I have a value system around tipping. And that's my ponder: Why do we tip? Where does this value system come from?

It seems that everybody has a moral framework around tipping. Some of us feel obliged to tip and some of us refuse to tip. Some of us only tip only when the service was good. While others guiltily slip out without tipping, as the waitress attends other tables. And there are also the percentiles: how often have you heard someone say that they tip 20% if the service was good and 10% if it wasn’t? Where do those percentages even come from? And of course there are the national stereotypes: Americans are good tippers, Italians never tip? I've even heard it said that some countries find tipping offensive.Not Cuba, apparently!

Tipping, for whatever reason, is incorporated into cultures, explained in travel guides, fussed over after dinner and ranted about between friends during coffee. We're all versed on the subject of tipping!

So tell me: What kind of tipper are you?

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Tuesday, 1 June 2010

I Said Atheist Not Anarchist…

By Rachel Surtees (@RVSurtees)

… or irrational being…or angry individual… or rebel… or antagonist… simply, but proudly atheist.

Not long ago I was speaking to someone who runs a Christian spiritual group that I’d heard of previously and thought sounded fairly interesting. I opened the conversation by saying: “I’m an atheist and realise that your organisation is Christian but I’m really interested and wonder if I would be welcome at one of your sessions?”

In case you’re wondering, there was nothing disingenuous about the request. At the risk of sounding like the racist who wheels his black mate Bert out as a stock defence, some of my closest friends are religious. More than that, I love religion. I think it’s one of the most powerful forms of social grouping. It gives people a framework through which to live and love. I of course see and fear its corruptible side, but if we’re honest, religion is only corruptible because humans are.

The response that I got was a ten minute spiel about how this form of spiritual Christianity was so empowering, open and awakening and then an abrupt halt, a pointed look and the following: “to be honest though Rachel, I wouldn’t bother with these labels like atheist, or atheism, they’re unnecessary and limiting. I would just allow yourself to be open. You don’t need labels.”

Open?? Labels?? Limiting?? If asking to join your teaching sessions isn’t open then pray tell, what is? AND, and, atheism is no more of a label than “Christian spirituality”, it’s a belief system, a way of viewing and understanding the world. And I’ve got to tell you, the world I see is beautiful. Evolution and Humanism is beautiful – even when it’s ugly.

Oh the fury, the shock, the fury.

I could be wrong, because I didn’t ask and it has been known, but I assume if I had said: “I’m Jewish, and I know that your organisation is Christian but I’m really interested in it and I wonder if I would be welcome…” I’d wager the -10.47 in my bank account that the answer would have been, “yes absolutely, we’re a really open group who focus on….”

I tell this story not because it’s the exception, but because it was the straw that broke this Rationalist’s back. So tell me, why is atheism such a dirty word? Whatever angle I approach this from, I genuinely don’t get it. Yet so pervasive appears to be the view that I’m starting to think that perhaps I’m missing something.

Alpha is free to advertise its courses on billboards nationwide. By contrast the British Humanist Association causes national outcry because of the sheer audacity of running its own advertising campaign, which is in turn slammed as being pious and preachy.

I would never dare, nor desire, to disrespect someone so deeply as to flippantly declare their belief system as an unnecessary label. It almost seems as though people take it as a challenge to their own views. Or perhaps that atheism is just a casual decision, as though we couldn’t decide between Allah or Buddha so opted for neither.

In case there’s any doubt, that’s not how it happened. I love being part of a Humanist community, I relish being challenged by others at atheist events (think church service without the robes or incense). Angry blog post aside, I have no desire to preach, or attempt to convert anyone to Rational Thought. I’m just tired of the ease with which people dismiss atheism, and so my beliefs, without considering any of the history or knowledge from which this beautiful movement that celebrates humanism arose. Am I wrong?

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Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Tattoos: What's All The Fuss About?

By Matt Murdock

I have tattoos; several of them in fact. I got my first during my first year of University. I wasn’t drunk and I don’t have an accompanying funny pub story about it either. I designed it, edited it, paid the money and got it done. Simple. Then I got another, and another, and another, and another and then I went and got a really big one to cover one of the originals. Five years down the line I’ve filled my arm. The complication? I teach.

I would guess that even the more liberal amongst you were at least mildly surprised that I was a teacher. Celebrity endorsements and shows such as Miami Ink have unquestionably brought tattoos much more into public consciousness, but I couldn’t quite say that they’re mainstream yet. Yes, your pop idol and favourite sports personality have them, but not your doctor and certainly not your lawyer. But why? What’s all the fuss about tattoos?

Tattoos have been around for almost as long as we have. Mummies have been dug up with tattoos. They can be seen on tomb paints and ancient temple engravings. For as long as we have been aware of our bodies we have altered them and tattoos are a well established part of the tradition. Not that that’s why I get them; I just like them.

The art on my right arm may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s in no way offensive. And yet for some reason, some people genuinely do take umbrage. Meanwhile others can’t understand why I’m annoyed at being expected to have my sleeve permanently rolled down, as if it’s a perfectly natural assumption that I would have to. Why? What is it about tattoos that offends people?

I’m a good teacher. I interact well with my students and they seem to genuinely enjoy the learning that takes place in my lessons. I’m also well respected by most of the faculty, and yet my credibility is somehow challenged by the fact of my tattoos.

Let me paint a picture: you’re in a pub, or party or club whatever. You get chatting to a friend of a friend… that civil slight awkward party chat. You talk about your boring job that you hate, you notice his/her tattoo. You ask him/her if it hurt, they give some half-arsed reply, you ask what they do, they say doctor, you say (audibly or otherwise) really? It happens, it happens to me at every party I ever go to. Sometimes much more openly, people will say “seriously, with those tattoos, you teach? Are you allowed to?”. Sorry what??

I have my own thoughts on the matter. That perhaps tattoos, like other art, divide people and that this is what we love about them. I remember Damien Hurst’s, plastic half shark thing, my un-apt description should tell the reader that I didn't think all that much of it. Others apparently loved it and were willing to fork out immense piles of cash for it. I don't get it, perhaps like many people just don't get tattoos. But here my logic fails, because although DH’s version of art doesn't much appeal to me, it didn't offend me and yet my tattoos apparently do offend people. I really don't get what all the fuss is about.

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