Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rage against Revisionist Hollywood History

I am so culturally out of it that I completely missed out on the successful Facebook campaign to block Simon Cowell from yet another number Christmas number one 6 months ago, by getting people to buy Killing in the Name.

However, I saw the song recently in this critique of the awful film 300, and I haven't been able to stop singing it since.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Top 10

Lancaster University, which I am a lecturer at, has been in the news a bit lately, having made it into the top 10 of both the Times and the Independent's UK university league tables. I'm afraid I can't take any individual responsibility for that, but it's nice all the same.

Suddenly, the media are taking an interest. Times journalist Penny Wark, who has never visited the place, decides to find out about it by looking at the city's website and speaking to Lancaster's regeneration director. She asks "Should Oxbridge fear Lancaster?".Wark isn't particularly impressed by the range of tourist activities: "you can stroll through its pedestrianised city centre, browse in shops and stop off for coffee and cakes. Oh dear" but seems more impressed with the areas of natural beauty. She describes the city as a "quiet place" which is "not especially versed in the dark art of spin".

Having lived here for 18 years (with a few years off for good behaviour), here is my guide if you want to live here.

1. Be green. Lancaster is a very environmentally conscious city. The one-way road system is often clogged and slow, and it can take 40 minutes to get to nearby Morecambe where the poor people are trapped (a bypass has been in the works forever but will probably never happen). The local council runs an endless "War on Cars" and have incorporated numerous speed bumps and speed cameras around the city, so if you have a car, don't expect to get anywhere fast. If you really must buy a car, paradoxically, you may as well have a Chelsea Tractor - otherwise your undercarriage will get scraped by the speed bumps and your electrics will be constantly breaking with all the bouncing around. And be prepared for some rather sour looks from your new Lancastrian friends who may stop inviting you to their celidhs and vegan suppers. Alternatively, you may want to get a bike. The council loves people who cycle, and have invested thousands in a network of cycle paths and lanes. Although you should bear in mind that it rains quite a lot here, and it's also quite hilly. So be prepared to end up with obscenely enlarged calf muscles and a permanent runny nose.

2. Practice your 'r' sounds. The local accent is gentle and favours "r". Chair is pronounced "churrrr". Floor is "Flurrr". Nearby town Chorley is pronounced "Churrrlaywurrr." Of course, if you're coming here to work at the University, you will only ever hear the local accent spoken by your cleanerrrrr.

3. Get a wallpaper stripper. Most of the housing in Lancaster is from the Victorian period, consisting of narrow three storey terraced houses. Many of them were completely ruined in the 1960s and 1970s, when horrible flock wallpaper, nasty pine panelling, avacado kitchens and saloon doors were added. They are now occupied by pensioners or students. At least they are very affordable - although many of them "need work".

4. Slow down. If you are from a larger city, or from "the south", you may be shocked at how slowly people walk here, and how some of the locals seem slightly confused or distracted. Especially in Marks and Spencers. At lunch-time. You may even think that they have been paid by a sinister organisation to get in your way. However, the real reason is that they have nothing to rush for.

5. Dress down. It is always fun to see the new crop of students in "intro week". You can spot the ones from urban areas because they are sporting "edgy" hairstyles and cutting-edge fashions. Gradually, perhaps with some relief, they realise they don't need to work as hard to impress people - in fact, fashion innnovation is looked on with suspicion. If you are a man and you want to dress smartly, you buy a shirt from Next. You will never have to worry, like your metrosexual brothers about checking your hair before you go out, or getting a six-pack to impress people. I spent six months walking around with paint-spattered shoes and nobody noticed.

6. Plan to be away in November or January. In the winter it gets dark at about 3.30pm and everyone looks depressed, as if they're in a post-apocalytic nightmare. Alternatively, the summer nights barely end, and Lancaster looks just like The Shire in Middle Earth - with lots of luscious greens. All that rain does pay off eventually.

7. Sleep well. Lancaster has one of the lowest crime rates of a university town - any serious criminals leave for bigger places the minute they can, and the ones that are left are more like lovable rouges. Even the "rough bits" are becoming gentrified. Also, the local newspaper, The Lancaster Guardian has a "name and shame" Courtwatch column on page 3, where it prints in detail the names, addresses and minor misdemeanours of all your neighbours. I suspect that this delightfully spiteful little column may play a small role in the low crime rate.

8. Get an outside hobby. The town centre is full of shops selling "outdoors" clothes and camping gear. There are lots of huge garden centres. Even though the weather is not always great, paradoxically, walking and gardening are big hobbies.

9. Develop a liking for cheese and beer. Crumbly, tangy Lancashire cheese is a speciality, as is the stronger Garstang Blue. A street market, which runs on Wednesdays and Saturdays is always packed out and is better than anything I've seen anywhere else. Lancaster has a lot of pubs, many with regional beers. I like Lancaster Bomber - just because of the name really.

Monday, May 24, 2010

I should be in Vancouver

But due to British Airways I'm not. I am entitled to a £700 refund apparently, but my online travel agent is yet to respond to my emails. You may want to remember their name if you ever have to book a flight.

Instead of going to Vancouver, I went to London - my fella was already down there for a few days. He'd bought me an extra ticket and spent so much time reminding me to take it with me, that he forgot his own ticket and had to buy another one on the train. And he stayed in first class. Even after I furiously emailed him with "Move to second class!!" I guess this represents a difference between the two of us. I would have gone to standard class as a penance. Words were exchanged afterwards. (Specifically, I called him Annie Leibovitz, who has always represented the gold-standard in flaky extravagance after I read this article on her last year. Here's a tit-bit:

Leibovitz’s perfectionism led her to pay little or no attention to budget restrictions, and she spent money recklessly, losing cameras, accruing parking tickets, and even abandoning rental cars... Because of her credit issues, Leibovitz was forced to deal almost exclusively in cash. In 1987, American Express offered her a plum ad campaign. Ironically, Leibovitz’s application for a card had been denied many times. After the ad agency found out she’d lost an envelope containing several thousand dollars in a phone booth during their shoot, strings were finally pulled to get her a card.

Due to improved train lines, it only takes 2 and a half hours to get to London these days from where I live. You are literally hurtled to London. However, this means that I now suffer from travel sickness and have to sit perfectly still, my eyes on a fixed point on the horizon. If I look at a laptop screen I swoon.

We stayed at a reasonably posh hotel in Westminister (quite close to Buckingham Palace). London seemed particularly full of celebrities. My fella saw ex-Dr Who Peter Davidson, wandering along the street, in rather a bad mood, mouthing the word "fuck" to himself. And at the National Portrait Gallery, I was looking at a picture of news-reader Jon Snow, when who should appear but Jon Snow himself, looking very tall and slightly bashful. "I never normally come in here," he announced to everyone, and then proceeded to stand by his portrait and be photographed by lots of excited tourists. I did not take his photo.

Worst of all, holding court in our hotel lobby was art critic, Brian Sewell. You can read all about him here. You hear his voice before you see him, a voice of exhausted disapproval. I suppose celebrities have to be somewhere - but I just wish they would not be by me.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Deptford Draylons

I love this parody of a 1970s Alan Freeman advert for Brentford Nylons. It aired during a mid-1990s Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse one-off comedy called Smashy and Nicey - the end of an era, where they made fun of 40 years of
radio DJs. Watch out for the static.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Everyone lost

I love that everyone lost the election. Labour lost its majority. The Conservatives failed to get one. And the Liberals lost seats. If there was a message that the electorate wanted to send out to the political class it was "We don't care for any of you that much".

I stayed up until 3.30am on election night, watching the BBC. I'd bought some Bolly champagne to toast goodbye to Labour and politics as we knew it. Somehow, several desserts found their way into my shopping basket, which were consumed throughout the night. I paid the price the next day.

The BBC's coverage was OK, although Jeremy Paxman managed to be more unpleasant than usual. I wish someone would just slap him. The BBC had hired a boat on the Thames and stuffed it full of celebrities to get their reactions about the election. It was mortifying. Bruce Forsyte tried to get everyone to join in with his "Nice to see you, to see you nice" shtick. Joan Collins announced that she was happy that the Tories were doing well, because they were pro-family (!) I often watch old election night repeats on the Parliament Channel. They would never have considered a celebrity ship in the 70s. And I hope that in 35 years time, the 2010 coverage looks equally bizarre.

Our local newspaper had reported that my own constituency, Lancaster and Fleetwood had decided not to even bother counting the votes until Friday morning. This seems typical of the relaxed-bordering-on-asleep attitude of folk round where I live. There was one seat that had to have a recount, and another which has postponed the vote until later in the month due to the death of a candidate. So, barring these two special cases, Lancaster and Fleetwood were the last constituency to declare - late on Friday afternoon.

It went Tory. So Eric Ollerenshaw (see below) is now my MP. As last time, there were only a few hundred votes between Tory and Labour. I'm sure Mr Ollerenshaw is grateful to the few thousand Green and Liberal Democrat voters, with their delicious ideals and disgust of tactical voting. Travellers (with a capital T) beware. He is on your case. You may as well pack up your caravans now.

Perhaps unexpectedly, Mr Ollerenshaw is gay. (He kept that rather quiet in his election pamphlets). He seems to have completely avoided any attention about his sexuality in the media - probably because he is rather elderly-looking.

I'm sure he can never be as hideous as Lancaster's most notorious Tory MP - Dame Elaine Kellet-Bowman (1970-1997). What a scary lady she was. I still remember her crazed letters that she sent me in response to me asking her to vote to equalise the age of consent for gay men. Legend has it that students at the university once burnt an effigy of her on bonfire night. What a glorious day it was when she finally retired.

I wonder what Mr Ollerenshaw's views on such matters are. I tend to find gay Torys rather odd and paradoxical - and keep expecting them to vanish out of existence in a puff of logic when I'm talking to them.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Nothing ever lasts forever

My cat was born in April 1997. At 13 years old he is only a few weeks older than New Labour. And like New Labour, lately he hasn't been well. His kidneys are slowly failing - he is sometimes incontinent, and for the past year he's been on tablets to keep him alive. When he gets close to you and opens his mouth, a smell of death and evil emmanates for deep inside. He doesn't like to go out much, and the birds he used to chase now come up and mock him. He spends a lot of his time upstairs, sleeping on a duvet. I suspect he isn't long for this world. Weirdly, my cat is New Labour.

Happy Democracy Day.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Are you voting?

I'm glad the election is over by tomorrow. Even though our campaign is relatively short by American standards, where the campaigning never really ends, I feel as if it's been going on forever. The first tv debate felt novel and exciting, and I was pleased to see the Lib Dems finally getting a "look-in". Of the three party leaders, Nick Clegg is the most likeable, and as someone who's left of centre, it was good to see him rise in the polls and I hope that whatever the outcome, there is constitutional reform and proportional representation to end what feels like a very biased system.

But the second two debates felt a bit repetitive, and the constant coverage by the media has left me feeling election-weary. I plan to stay up tomorrow night, although it's unlikely that the result will be revealed, due to the closeness of the race.

I live in a seat that was Tory, but due to boundary changes has suddenly gone Labour apparently. It is all up for grabs anyway. The Tories have been targetting us, and there are posters of David Cameron everywhere. We are a "political boiling pot". Every day I have come home to find multiple leaflets on my doorstep. The Tory candidate, Eric Ollerenshaw, tells me that he feels that Travellers (with a capital "T") are breaking the rules and need putting in their place. He also wants to ensure that criminals stay in prison for longer. He sounds fun.

I wonder if we can be friends

(Bottle-)blonde Debra Kent, who is representing the BNP, sounds even more lovely according to this article in The People. Apparently she "has branded Britain a "multicultural hellhole" and said immigrants act "like savages". She even went to a BNP rally where "racists torched a gollywog" and she said it was "fab". No wonder her child has a pixellated face. You would too.

There was a group of anti-BNP protesters in Lancaster town centre on Saturday, giving out leaflets. One women was saying in a very bored monotone "Stop the facist BNP" over and over, in the same way as you'd hear a market-stall holder say "Apples, five for a pound." My fella said "Quite right too", and she glared (!) at him. I guess if you're angry about the BNP a lot, it's hard to get out of that state.

My favourite local candidate is the deliciously off-the-wall Keith Riley, who is an Independent Candidate.

His leaflet proudly told me that if elected he would only support good policies and vote against bad ones. (!)

His leaflet is also critical of the Lib Dems. He writes "Liberals, easy to make promises when they know they will never gain power and so will never have to implement them..." I can see his point, but perhaps this is just a slight own goal. Still, I hope he gets his deposit back, but that Mrs Kent doesn't, and the resulting penury means that her hair has to revert back to its natural colour.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Another sign that I'm getting old

I've been spending a lot of time in the garden in the last couple of weeks. It's my first garden in a long time, and I have no idea what I am doing. I guess you just pick it up as you go along. We had no idea what plants were going to emerge this year but the previous occupants seem to have had a penchant for "cheerful" flowers (red tulips, daffodils etc). Sadly, a whole year of neglect has meant that a lot of the existing pots got full of weeds, so I've been replacing them and taken the opportunity to get some more exotic-looking things.

Gardening makes you hot and sweaty. It hurts your hands and your back. And it makes you a bit neurotic - I didn't used to even notice all the bird poo on the paving slabs, but since they've been redone, I take those black and white splashes as a personal affront. I like having the birds in the garden, but I wish they'd establish a proper toilet somewhere and stick to it. I've bought a scrubbing brush and started scrubbing it away. Is that over-the-top?

Still, once I'd finished planting and sweeping and scrubbing, I got out my table and chairs and had a big piece of cake in the garden while reading a magazine. And it suddenly seemed worth it. It's like having an extra room to your house, but with better lighting. And bird poo.