Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The future I imagined is finally here

Back in 1979, when I was about 7, my Dad told me about a wonderful invention called a video. "It lets you watch any tv program whenever you want," he said. I imagined that this would be a human-sized box, with a keyboard inside, like a typewriter, with a tv screen. You would climb inside, type in the name of any tv program or film, and instantly be shown that program.

I imagined the day when I could watch my favourite tv programs - The Phoenix and the Carpet, or the Enchanted Garden, whenever I wanted.

When we finally got a video player, a few years later, renting it from the Redifusion store, I was quite disappointed to find out that my imagination of what a video was like, was rather optimistic. Instead, you had to rent a cassette from a limited choice. As most of my favourite tv shows never came out on video, I never got to see The Phonenix and The Carpet again.

And now, finally, the future has caught up with my 7 year old imagination.

You type in the words, and there it is. The only thing I got wrong was that you had to climb inside a box to do it.

Having not seen this in 32 years, it's quite a strange experience revisiting it. I remember being particularly terrified at the end of episode 1 when the children use up their three wishes and end up trapped at the bottom of a tower in France. It all worked out OK in episode 2, but I had a week of worry about it. It's reassuring to know that the future arrived. Now all I need is a holiday on Mars.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

How far can a Geordie go?

How lovely to see President Obama enjoying a barbecue at Downing Street (I'm sure they timed their visit in late May to get the best chance of reasonably good weather). I like how "the special relationship" has been redefined as "the essential relationship". It's almost like the two countries reluctantly saying, "well, we're stuck with each other because there's nothing better going", reminding me of a very late-night hook-up in a rather dowdy singles bar.

I always like to see photos of Michelle Obama towering over our Queen, and yesterday's news was full of how she's so inspirational, telling young girls from a range of backgrounds who are trying to get into Oxford University that “success is not about the background you’re from but the effort you put in".

This made me smile, because it reminded me of my own "journey" to university, which began, back in 1989 when I was filling in application forms. Neither me, nor any of my friends at my working-class A Level college, even considered going to a university. Instead we accepted low offers from local polytechnics. We didn't consider the reputations of different places. I picked one place because my aunty lived there, and another because it was close to Blackpool where I'd been on holiday. We had low expectations - most of us were the first in our families to consider higher education, and the lecturers at my 6th form college didn't really seem that knowledgable either (with hindsight, some of them should have been sacked for being rubbish at their jobs).

One of my friends was even courted by one of the universities after she got better-than-expected grades, and she turned it down, preferring to go to her original choice of poly - even though they were both in the same city.

I went to an even worse poly and it was only after getting into the system and then falling in with a set of older and more socially savvy gay men that I even considered that I'd be good enough to go to a university to do a postgraduate degree. It was sex that moved me up in the world. Hard work was not enough. And at the end of my second year I moved out of my damp, messy, ugly student house and into a proper grown-up flat, which had pictures in frames rather than blu-tacked on the walls. The first time I went shopping with my fella, some 8 years older than me in years, and 80 years older in social years, I put a 4-pack of "micro(wave) chips" in the trolley. He put it back on the shelf: "You're not eating that muck," he said. It wasn't the first time my "common" food choices were ridiculed by my new social set of aspirational queens. A few months earlier, I'd mentioned in passing how I'd had Findus Crispy Pancakes for lunch. "Oh Paul," sighed Julian (I don't need to describe him any further - he was called Julian). "I wish you'd get a class-lift".

Really, if it wasn't for the fact that I attracted (and wanted) the attention of certain older men, I'd probably be working in some numbing middle-management job, getting paid half as much and still eating Findus Crispy Pancakes. Although I wasn't really aware of it at the time, being a gay teenager gave me a leg-up, helping to cancel out the unfortunate circumstance of being born in one of the least fashionable parts of the UK (the eastern part of County Durham where all the pits used to be until they got closed down in the 1980s - think Billy Elliot) to parents who were loving but had little knowledge of the world beyond the end of their street.

Two decades later, someone told me last week that I sound like Ricky Gervais. A southerner! My north-eastern cadence vanished at some point in the mid-1990s, and is now only vaguely there, like an echo. I still say "bath" rather than "barth" but that's about it.

And I wonder, just how far can you go with a Geordie accent these days? Look at Cheryl Cole who has been "axed" from the US X-factor. Before she was axed, I'd read articles about how she might have to have training to reduce her accent. The Guardian article says "There had also been concerns how American viewers would take to Cole's Geordie accent." New York magazine asks "Was Cheryl's Geordie accent too difficult to understand, or did something else go down behind the scenes?"

It's hard to know whether the accent was the problem, or whether she upset someone important or just didn't want the job. I'd bet that the accent was a factor though. And I do wonder if Michelle Obama's point about "success is not about the background you’re from but the effort you put in" perhaps needs to be modified somewhat: "success is not about the background you’re from but the effort you put in to hide it".

And if you need any further evidence, here's a clip of new MTV show Geordie Shore. It takes the most stereotypically awful specimens of Geordies you can find, throws them altogether and confirms everyone's prejudices.

Obsessed with the size of their breasts (both male and female), buying clothes, promiscuous sex, and banal chatter, the only degree that these dullards have is in "pulling women". They make Ant and Dec look like Noel Coward.

So, the depressing message seems to be that if you're from a part of the world where the stereotype is that you're uncultured, and you want to make more money you should either, play it up and get on a reality show, or play it right down - use whatever assets you have, but change your voice and stop eating Findus Crispy Pancakes. Cos if you don't, like Cheryl, you'll be sent right back home.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

That's so....

The adorable Lauren Potter from Glee wants us to stop saying "that's retarded".

I couldn't agree more. It's sad that so many of the generic put-downs in the English language pick on groups of people who are already either in a minority and/or are stigmatised in some way. "That's gay" became popular about 15 years ago, and it's only until quite recently that people have started arguing that it shouldn't be used. It's a case of re-reclaiming the word gay to make it mean something bad. Even when I saw it being re-re-reclaimed (my university's LGBT group used to have a poster which said "Homphobia is gay" - kind of an own goal), it felt wrong. I've lost count of the number of arguments I've had about "that's gay". However, that's not to say that I'm not above similar criticism. I've unthinkingly described things as "lame" before - not really considering that the term does exactly as the same for people who use wheelchairs or crutches to get around.

Another term "that's so old", to mean "boring", is also problematic, particularly in our youth-obsessed culture. While "old" doesn't necessary mean "old people", there's an association with getting old as being bad.

One problem though, is if we cut out all of these terms, how do we express disapproval? Is it OK to say "that's stupid" because being stupid isn't a trait you're born with, but due to intellectual laziness, lack of education etc? Or could we even argue that "that's stupid" discriminates against people who haven't been lucky enough to have a good education, or because their brains don't work as fast as other people?

I suggest a new put-down - "that's so Ayn Rand". She won't mind because she's dead. Rand was the strange writer of a number of awful books about greedy rich people who got their own way. Her most famous book Atlas Shrugged was about all the rich and talented people going off in a sulk to start their own society because the state wouldn't let them do what they wanted. It reminds me of those famous dolts like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Paul Daniels who claim that they'll leave the UK if Labour get in. I always want to say "Please go, I'll help you back your bags. You have entertained us long enough." Rand invented her own amoral philosophy which was based upon being selfish.

Rand only achieved cult status in the 1950s and 1960s, surrounding herself with a small number of fanatics, but by the 1980s Atlas Shrugged was the second most influential book in America (after the Bible, naturally) and helped to influence the increasingly right-wing direction that America has gone in.

So I think it would be fitting if we decided to label bad things as Ayn Rand.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Happy Birthday Old Man

I was listening to one of those shows aimed at people over 60 on Radio 2 last night.

I am 39 today but have been over 60 since I was 15 and my mother complained "Why do you never go outside, why do you just sit in the house watching old black and white films, you're like an old man!"

This article by the Guardian's Lucy Mangan, about children who are old beyond their years, also made me smile in self recognition.

"if you are mature for your age, you are likely to turn to books for solace. And although this, again, has unsought, largely academic, advantages, books age you, too. They render it even harder to live in the moment. It is difficult to surrender to an adolescent crush or a first love when you have already experienced a million of them secondhand.

If I had been at school with Lucy Mangan, I would have been best friends with her - we would have read Enid Blyton books together (probably competitively), even though I secretly would have wanted to be friends with cooler Victoria Coren who smokes and gambles and still gets the best grades in the class).

Anyway, back to Radio 2. I love this song about an insufferable couple who "when they died and went to heaven all the angels moved to hell".

I know a few couples that would apply to.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

I do not get the Divided States of America

How do you go about making sense of can a country which has the Folsom Street Fair and Harold Camping's (failed) prediction of the rapture?

Other countries have their internal conflicts but none so much as the DSA. Maybe it's because it's so big. Maybe it's because the people who founded it were all the bolshy ones from Europe who refused to compromise their values and "make do" and so they passed on their bolshy DNA and memes down the generations. Maybe it's all the extreme weather. As someone born into a cramped, damp nation whose glum inhabitants mainly muddle along in a haze of irony and detachment, refusing to take anything too seriously, the fervour of Americans, whether it's for gay marriage, Krispy Creme, the Knicks or Sarah Palin, produces a mixture of fear, distaste and envy in me.

The whole country feels like it's in a giagantic tug of war. Witness the "don't say gay" bill approved by the Tennessee Senate Committee to ban discussion of homsexuality in the classroom.

A similar bonkers bill was passed in the UK back in the 1980s - mainly as a result of moral panic around AIDS. There was a smallish backlash, but this was very much a bullying conservative majority picking on an already beleagured minority.

The situation in America now is different - the country is making strides towards equality, gay people regularly appear on tv shows, for many people it is no big deal. While Britain slowly, grudgingly and incrementally has edged towards equality and acceptance, America looks more like a battle-ground.

Star Trek's George Takei suggests an obvious solution to the Orwellian "don't say gay" bill - which implicitly acknowledges de Saussure's sign theory - meaning is made up of a word (the signifier) and what it means (the signified). So, you just change the signifer to another word but keep the signified. (Nasty American teenagers did the opposite when they started calling things they didn't like "gay". They kept the signifer, the word "gay" but changed what it signified.)

Ultimately, I think Tennessee is fighting a losing battle - Orwell's fascists in 1984 may have thought you could change ideology by deleting words and concepts from people's minds, but they didn't realise that the situation was more complex than that - words exist in a symbiotic relationship to ideology - it's not a one-way street. And people will still feel sexual desires, even if there are no words to describe those desires. To paraphrase everyone who has ever being sexually incontinent - we don't just think with the brains in our heads.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I wish we'd all been readdyyyyyyy

Are you rapture-ready? According to God's representative on earth Harold Camping (89), the rapture is practically upon us. It's May 21st (two days before my birthday - talk about bad luck! I'll be eating all my cake on the 20th just so you know).

I LOVE anything to do with the rapture - unfortunately I'm a teensy bit atheist and don't have a very good attention span, but bear with me - this is what I've gleaned from my extensive rapture research (mostly on the internet). The rapture is the day when God comes back to earth and judges everyone. All the good people (e.g. gullible people who give all their money to sketchy preachers) get sucked up to Heaven in a magic elevator, while all the bad people get left behind. Then the Devil comes back (in the guise of the United Nations) and there's a huge war. People who join up with the Devil get a 666 tattoo (even though tattoos are so 1998). Those who remain get persecuted and suffer horribly. Then God comes back again and kills everyone. The End.

Are you excited yet? I CAN NOT WAIT! I'm planning my rapture outfit as we speak. I'm thinking full make-up and lots of sequins so God won't be able to miss me. However, I suspect I'll be one of the 98% who Harold Camping predicts will be "left behind". I wonder if there's still time. Perhaps if I donate all my money to Mr Camping, he'll put in a good word for me with God.

But don't pack your suitcases just yet. Mr Camping's been wrong before. He predicted The Second Coming on 6 September 1994 - but sadly all that happened that day was Michael Jackson won an MTV award that day. Spooky yet wrong!

Still, I'm digging out my old copies of the Thief in the Night quadrilogy, just to get a rapture-refresher course. I'm practising running along railway tracks, screaming and hiding from helicopters.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Six of us have been Friends forever...

Bored, last weekend, I watched a couple of episodes of the new Friends clone Happy Endings. Perhaps it was the fact that I had very low expectations, but I enjoyed it. New York magazine reluctantly admits that "it's pretty funny". The only differences from Friends is that a) it's set in Chicago b) Joey is now a chubby gay slacker - he looks "like if Paul Rudd gave up" c) Ross is now black. It is a bit edgier than Friends - "Who hooked up last night?" asks Chandler Bing-alike Dave, and everyone raises their hands. One character remarks that dating has changed in the last 10 years and now "a text message at midnight is bascially a romantic dinner for two". One of the characters gets a new room-mate who runs a pay-to-view webcam from inside their house and is constantly getting them to have pillow fights.

Hyper-controlling Jane and gay Max spend one episode arguing about how would survive a zombie apocalypse and set up lots of little contests to test each other. One involves them seeing who can sit still the longest, but just before it begins, Max purposefully knocks a bottle of beer over the coffee table (he wins as Jane's cleaning OCD kicks in). This merges into another storyline involving one character who has becoming embroiled in a community of "hipsters" who end up chasing everyone down the road like zombies at the end.

My favourite character is Penny (played by Casey Wilson who starred on SNL for a while a few years ago). She's annoying, loud and single, and in episode 2 complains that gay Max isn't gay enough for her. She wants someone who can go to Farmers markets with her and "brunch it up", so Max sets her up with a flamboyant acquaintance who calls everyone "sluts", does the splits at random points and screams "DRAMA!" like a Greek chorus in almost every scene. Penny ends up hating him and eventually accepts that she doesn't need a gay man because she is one herself. However, she's so desperate to get a man that she's constantly making bad choices and worrying that she's going to "die alone in a light up Christmas sweater talking to a menagerie of parrots."

Here's the Pilot, judge for yourself.