Friday, March 27, 2009

The Longest Book

My sister got me the Forsyte Saga for Christmas, and I'm still reading it - I'm up to page 620 so at least the end is in sight. When I was younger, I could probably have polished the whole thing off in a weekend. Now I am in my mid-late 30s, I can't read novels for very long without falling asleep. I have turned into my mother who has always blamed her inability to read on the fact she falls asleep - I used to be scornful of her, but it looks like some dormant gene has kicked in and now it's happening to me!

When I do manage to stay awake though, I find the world of the Forsyte Saga to be oddly comfortable and reassuring. I wish Bethseda who are responsible for those massively complicated role playing computer games like Fallout 3 and Oblivion 4 would turn it into a game so I could get lost in it. It is set around the 1900s, mainly in London, and is about a wealthy family. They're very concerned about respectability, and a lot of the storyline is driven along by loveless marriage and the far-reaching repurcussions of it. There's one woman in the book who practically all the central male characters fall in love with, although you rarely get to see things from her point of view. Compared to a lot of contemporary fiction the pace is pretty slow, but you do get to care about the characters in a weird way. There's one bit where an old man dies and his dog starts howling, and I was practically crying myself. I guess if a book makes you cry, then you know it's got you to the end. The story is set over about 50 years, so it's interesting to see characters age and notice new technologies - with motor cars gradually replacing horse-drawn carriages. In the 1920s, some of the older characters seem horrified by the manners and dress of the younger people, who are viewed as disgraceful. I wonder what the Forsytes would make of any British town centre on a weekend.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Press 2

I have been getting a lot of phone calls recently. Rather, than being a real person at the end of the line, a recorded message excitedly tells me: "Hello, my name is Sarah Simpson..." and then tells me about a wonderful loan I am entitled to. I am instructed to press 2. After hanging up a few times, I pressed 2.

A woman answered. I told her I wanted to be taken off their list, as I was getting more calls from Sarah Simpson than from real people. She said "OK" and hung up. Today I got another call. It was from Sarah Simpson again. This time when I pressed 2, the operator hung up on me as I was in the middle of asking to be removed from their list. What a charming business (and I use the word "business" loosely, inasmuch the same way I would use the term "fraudulent con-merchants").

I sometimes take things personally. I also have a rather over-active imagination - which is not always my friend. In my mind, I have found some way of finding out the location of these people who are continuing to harangue me with unwanted calls. I track them down, wait outside their office and follow them home. Then I begin a systematic campaign of low-level harrassment, knocking at their door and trying to sell them all manner of crap. I follow them around, making loud comments about their physical appearance as they shop for food, try and enjoy themselves at the cinema or pub (or whatever people who work in dodgy telemarketing jobs do in order to help them forget what complete shits they are).

I point out to everyone who passes them on the street that they are intrusive telemarketers who hassle people all day with unwanted calls for loans. Soon nobody will serve them in shops. Every time their mobile phone rings it is me. When they turn on their tv set, I am on it - complaining about them. They get a restraining order out on me, but there are hundreds of people who are equally fed up with them, and are more than willing to take my place. Gradually, everyone who works for Sarah Simpson is driven irreversibly insane by an army of stalkers... And the world rejoices.

I doubt any of that will happen. But I've instructed my phone service to ban with-held numbers, and I've registered with the TPS. I am not certain that either of those actions will stop the redoubtable Sarah Simpson. She is certain that I am going to take out that loan, come what may. But at least if she phones again and gets through, I will have her telephone number.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A heavy scene

Here's Nino Tempo (no neck, cool selection of v-neck sweaters) and his sister April (assymmetrical hair, probably long-suffering), and a gang of beaming go-go dancers. The sets look wonderfully kitsch - I especially like those pictures of pussycats in the background. Nino is wearing slimming black but it's not working. Everyone looks and sings like they are on a lot of drugs.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Oh these young people nowadays

I agree with this article by Judith Warner in the New York Times. Warner argues that somewhere along the way, the phrase "best and brightest" started being used to refer to Wall Street - which is a reflection of the way that money making became viewed as the best thing you could do. I'm sure I have mentioned this before, but four years ago when I was looking for houses in Bristol, I was shown round by an elegantly cultured young woman called Olivia who was studying Classics and working at an estate agents in her spare time. The owner of the estate agents told me that she would graduate and go on to work in the City (finance in London) where her starting salary would be £40,000 a year (plus bonuses). I remember being disappointed because it seemed such a waste of a good brain. I hope that the current Olivias of the world are thinking about going into other more worthwhile professions.

When I was a student myself, I had a bit of a distant crush on a postgraduate who was about 5 years older than me (which, when you are young, seems a generation away). He had lovely thick wavy black hair. He left anyway, and we stayed in touch over the years - mainly via mutual friends although oddly he has been rather better at staying in touch than me. I saw a picture of him recently - his lovely black hair has all gone away. Anyway, he commented on how I'm still so young. I don't know if he was referring to my looks, my age in relation to him, or my relative lack of maturity!

I don't feel young inside though. I marked a student assignment today which was looking at Facebook interactions among various undergraduates. What struck me as bizarre was how offensive these students were towards each other - calling each other terms like "cunt", "gayboy" and "bitch" was totally normal, and explained as a way of bonding (these terms were used as much by females, as by males). I'm trying to think back to when I was turning 20, and I know that none of my friends would have ever used language like this under any circumstances. My peer group weren't goody-goody by any means. Some of them smoked and took drugs, some engaged in binge drinking and some had casual sex. But those words were simply not part of our vocabulary. In the past few years I've noted occasions where younger people have sent me an email where they've used offensive language towards me. When this happens, I usually never reply to them again. Clearly, there's a huge mismatch between their intention and my interpretation, but I can't get past it. I'm starting to feel like I'm crossing over into the "old" generation, and that my ways and values are going to be increasingly viewed as quaint and out of touch. Like it or not, I'm so last century.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Secret Agent Man

Here's Judy Garland (I think) in one of those great 1960s tv studio set-ups (all mobiles hanging from the ceiling) introducing Secret Agent Man Mr Johnny Rivers. If I had to sing any song, it would be this one. I really wish that pop stars would start wearing bow ties again.

Johnny isn't married at the moment (just like Elisabeth Hasslebeck I checked on the internet so it must be true). If nobody else minds, I think I'll make him my imaginary boyfriend.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Atlas Freaked

I've got a bit obsessed with Ayn Rand lately. Ayn was a Russian-born writer who moved to America in her 20s to become a Hollywood screenwriter. She wrote a few really long books, all of which put forward her rather mean political and economic ideologies. Along with Milton Friedman, Ayn was something of a visionary - although she died in 1982, she probably would have loved the last 30 years of political history (although she was such a contrary woman, she probably wouldn't).

Ayn advocated selfishness. In a speech in 1974 she complained that "today's mawkish concern with and compassion for the feeble, the flawed, the suffering, the guilty, is a cover for the profoundly Kantian hatred of the innocent, the strong, the able, the successful, the virtuous, the confident, the happy. A philosophy out to destroy man's mind is necessarily a philosophy of hatred for man, for man's life, and for every human value. Hatred of the good for being the good, is the hallmark of the twentieth century." In her short novel Anthem, collectivism has become so popular that the word "I" has vanished from the English language. While in her 1,100 page novel Atlas Shrugged, she describes how industrialists and all the clever, creative people decide to go off on their own to build an independent free economy.

Rand turns up in all sorts of odd places. The Canadian rock band Rush were influenced by her work, referencing her in their 1975 song Fly By Night ("It's time I was king and not just one more pawn... Leaving my homeland... My life begins today"). More recently, a computer game, BioShock is set in the 1950s, in an underwater utopian city called Rapture, built by business magnate Andrew Ryan (almost an anagram of Ayn Rand), for the world's elite, so they could avoid the political, religious and economic authorities on land. However, all of these clever people living together turns out to be not such a good idea, and once they start experimenting with their DNA, they all drive themselves violently insane....and that's where the player arrives there.

Ayn is suddenly back in fashion, thanks to all this credit crunch business and banks having to be nationalised again, and worst of all... an American President who Ayn would have hated. She didn't like Ronald Reagan so you could imagine how she'd feel about Obama. Republican John Campbell was recently reported as saying that Obama's policies make him feel like he's living inside Atlas Shrugged. There's even some talk of some of these republicans going on strike, or leaving America in order to bring Obama down.

In Britain we had something similar - you would always get right-wing "celebrities" warning that they would emigrate if Labour got into power. In 1997 naff tv magician Paul Daniels announced that he would move to Barbados if Labour got in. Other "stars" - Phil Collins, Frank Bruno and Andrew Lloyd-Webber made similar promises (sadly not kept), although I suspect that these widely publicised claims probably helped Labour's win in 97.

Hilariously, a Facebook group (Go Galt Go!) has been set up in order to wish these right-wing "thought leaders" goodbye and good luck as they decide to down tools and go off to their secret bunker. I do hope they have a nice time in there, although I suspect that they would find it rather difficult to cope if they didn't bring along all of their people to clean for them, cook for them, admire them, organise them, enable them to have orgasms, cheer them along while they do press-ups, work out their horoscopes and all of the other stuff that they're too important to do for themselves. And that's just one reason why Ayn Rand's utopian vision wouldn't work. The reason why we're in this mess in the first place is due to selfishness and the "Stuff you, I'm alright Jack" philosophy that Rand advocated. Whichever way you cut it, the woman was an idiot, and a spiteful one at that.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Welcome to Al Murray's Early 1970s Comedy Stereotyping Show

I don't watch much scheduled tv nowadays - all of those dire warnings in the 1980s about deregulation resulting in dozens of channels of crap proved to be right all along. So I stick with the news and a few expensive American dramas. However, it's been difficult to avoid the fuss over this:

If you had any doubts that ITV wasn't irredeemably naff, then this clip should quash them. The clip has been savaged by The Times and The Guardian. Predictably, in the "wide world" of internet commentary, opinion is divided. Some gay people are actually the most ardent supporters of comedy like this. On a gay forum that I read, people have been falling over themselves to say that they don't think Al Murray is homophobic.

I am against gay comedy stereotypes because there's been enough of them thanks and not enough of the positive or even realistic representations which would act as a counter-balance. The "camp silly gay" has been the strongest representation of homosexuality over the last 50 or so years, and it's now just lazy and superfluous. Even if you don't view the clip as homophobic, it feels repetitive, tired and worn out - there's nothing new here. Watch Allo Allo (which had a gay Nazi), watch Are You Being Served, watch Larry Grayson's Generation Game, watch the Dick Emery Show, watch a Carry-on Film, watch the Benny Hill Show. Al love, we've seen it all before, over and over and over...

You can see though why comedians continue to wheel it out. To engage in a bit of stereotyping myself, us gays are generally such nice and gentle creatures. Apart from a few weird militant ones like Peter Tatchell (who'll never be happy), on the whole we hate to cause a fuss. Instead we want to prove to you how cool we are and how we can laugh at ourselves. And today, the worst thing that you can be accused of is being "politically correct". Who on earth would want to be a big sensitive sissy crybaby who can't get the joke and goes running off telling tales to OFCOM every five minutes? No, just like George Bush in Iraq, most of us gays have unfurled a big banner with the words "Mission Accomplished" when it comes to sorting out homophobia. And we don't pay much attention to stories like Michael Causer or what's happening in those other funny countries that don't let people do gay pride marches and might even hang you. See you at the Sydney Mardi Gras though!

I would love it though, if Al Murray would decide to make fun of some other stereotypes - fundamentalist Muslims would be a great start - there's so much unexplored comedy potential there, and I'm sure those Muslims would see the funny side of things too and not issue death threats or anything spoilsporting like that.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Mad Men and the Gym

I was made to have a "gym consultation" last night at my gym. I have been put on a training programme which is very complicated and is printed out on a grid of numbers. It is very detailed down to how many seconds you should take to lift a weight, pause and put it down. I will never be able to figure it out. The instructor asked me what my "goals" were and I said "to stay exactly the same as I am". He looked a bit upset so I told him I had lost half a stone, so they are now putting my photo on a laminate to go on a posterboard with "Paul has lost half a stone, well done" on it. They also gave me a little certificate to put on my fridge. I felt like how my 5 year old nephew must feel when he ges moved up a reading group. I was then asked if I knew any friends who would like to join the gym (which would get me a £10 voucher). I stifled the urge to say "actually I'm quite rich so you can't tempt me with money", but I had to admit that I didn't have any friends. Oh dear.

I am nearly 3/4 through The Forsyte Saga. For those of you who have read it or even seen a tv adaption of it, young Jolyon is dead and that scandlous divorce has finally come through. It is such a long book that I feel like *I* have been married to Soames all these years...

I am watching season 1 of Mad Men on DVD. Watching this scene got me hooked:

It is set in 1960 in an advertising firm. In every scene, people smoke constantly. Children play with plastic bags on their heads and there are no child seats, let alone seat belts for children in cars. There is a really camp gay man who nobody has guessed is gay and the main character treats his wife like a child, phoning her psychiatrist to talk about her, and saying "we'll see" when she wants anything. Everyone has such nice hair and clothes though!

I wonder what follies of this decade will be poked fun of in the television dramas of 50 years time? No doubt everyone will either be anorexic or morbidly obese. We will all work and eat constantly and pointlessly buy crap that we don't need or ever get round to using. If it is an American series, then most people will be depicted as nutty religious freaks or divorced bisexuals. If it is a British series then we will be shown binge drinking and with disgusting dirty, crooked teeth. And we will all be on anti-depressants...