Friday, September 28, 2007

Just popped back in to fetch something

This needs to be known about; although everyone in the blogosphere who needs to know about it probably already does.

Just wanted to add my name to the list of supporters of free speech.


Monday, September 11, 2006

Goodbye... for now

"There's a world of deluded weirdoes out there in cyberspace, endlessly posting as if what they think matters two fucks to the rest of the world." (The Friday Thing)

And I'm one of them - or, at least, I have been. The more observant among you (ie the half-dozen people who actually read this blog) will have noticed that blogging action on my part has been, shall we say, light recently. No, shall we say completely non-existent, which is far more accurate?

Here's how it is. My career in the frightening arena we bloggers sneeringly refer to as Real Life has taken off to the extent where I am busy three weeks out of four. Proper busy - eight hours a day busy. Aha, you cry, not too busy to blog, then? Eight hours' kip a night and you'll still have eight hours for blogging! Well, yes, but I do have a two-year-old and a partner who's quite interested in remembering what I look like.

But there's more to it than that. Look at some of the blogs on the left (esp. in the must-read section) and you'll see some really high quality journalism there. Justin of Chicken Yoghurt would put most writers of any description to shame with his punchy, witty but thoughtful (and incredibly quick) responses to current events. The same goes for most of the rest of them. I've tried to compete, but the amount of time and effort needed to make a worthwhile contribution is beyond my resources. It's not that I'm not capable of writing as well as them - it's just that the amount of work and hours I would need to put into it is more than I feel I can spare. There's no point in wasting everyone's time producing a second- or third-division blog when the first-division people are doing so well and really saying everything I want to say, only doing it better.

To cap it all, I'm getting so disillusioned with everything I want to write about. Blair's government is beyond satire and there's little point in writing critical posts about how awful they all are when the only people who want to listen are, really, other bloggers. I've tried to preach to the unconverted on the messageboards I frequent and all I get in response is a lot of shoulder-shrugging. People either feel there's nothing they can do, or they believe Cameron offers a viable alternative (boy, are they in for a shock). There's little sense arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, when the rest of the world can't even see the pin and is more interested in who's the next one to be kicked out of/invited back into the BB House.

So I'm letting this blog go on ice for the time being. I may be back - I think it's almost certain. I've managed to keep this blog going for over a year, which is some kind of achievement in itself. But if you want tip-top political comment, or just want to read about what an awful journalist Lucy Mangan is, you'll have to find it elsewhere. Start on the left.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Didn't I tell you?


If he can do it, so can Mr Beardy Terrorist.

Mind you, I'm looking forward to the thought that the Blairs might be strip-searched and interrogated when they fly back from Barbados...


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The (hopeless) state we're in


I haven't blogged properly for ages, which is unforgiveable especially considering the news over the last week or so.

It's not that I don't have an opinion about the recent terror scare. I was booked on a flight from Glasgow to Gatwick the morning all the fun started. Already worried that I was way over the baggage allowance, I wasn't looking forward to turning up at the airport with a big metal case containing a video camera, plus a three-foot long shoulder-slung tripod case, plus my overnight bag and trying to persuade the check-in attendant to let me take them all on board whilst at the same time persuading him/her that there was nothing sinister about my intentions. My colleague with whom I was travelling, on learning of the security situation, announced that she was too scared to fly home. My attitude in such circumstances is that lightning is unlikely to strike twice, and Glasgow-Gatwick is probably one of the lower-risk flights (compared, say, to Heathrow-JFK). But her fear prevailed over my bravura and, coupled with the check-in issue, I was persuaded to undertake a (surprisingly pleasant) Virgin train journey back south.

When I woke up that morning and heard the news, my immediate reaction (like NoseMonkey) was "oh, come on". If planes had been blown out of the sky, if Canary Wharf or wherever had come tumbling into dust, if there had been running gun battles at Stansted, I might have been convinced immediately. But the sudden news that a 'plot' had been 'revealed' and that the stable door was rapidly being shut across airports all round the country (even those airports where no horse had been sighted) made me instantly suspicious that this was yet another eye-catching government initiative to rouse us sleepy British citizens from our complacency and drive us into wide-eyed, Labour-voting screaming terror.

If this seems uncharitable, let's remember how many times this government has cried wolf. The terrorist shot on the underground turns out to be not a terrorist at all. The government and police spend a few days assassinating his character (he was an illegal immigrant, he jumped the barrier when challenged, er... well, you just had to look at him, he must have been up to something) before revealing that there was nothing to be concerned about at all, except the death of an innocent man at the hand of over-zealous law enforcers (remember that phrase 'over-zealous', we'll be coming back to it). Then a raid on houses in Forest Gate results in dangerous terrorists being put out of action - or not, just an unfortunate man being shot in the leg (was it?) because he was committing the heinous act of living in his own home and being in possession of a Muslim-sounding name. And I haven't mentioned the 'ricin plot' which got a jolly good going-over in the media before it was quietly revealed that there was no ricin, no possibility of ricin, and nothing at all to get worried about. But the World Cup had probably begun by that point, so people had stopped noticing.

As for 'over-zealous', let's go back to those stable doors. The list of forbidden items being read out on the news made me wonder if, in my sleep, I'd slipped out of this dimension into a comical Orwell-inspired fantasy world in which basically everything is forbidden unless there is specific instruction otherwise. No water bottles, no spectacles cases, no books, no jars of baby food, no mobile phones, no tissues (is that right? To be honest, you could just make up a list of forbidden objects, it would be equally implausible). If you're carrying milk for your baby, you have to taste it in front of them. I was half expecting the newsreader to stop mid-sentence, wink, and say, "naaaah, 's all right, I'm just 'avin' a laugh, ain't I?"

Why was the response so absurd? First, it created a huge amount of unnecessary work for security personnel at the airports, frisking and searching passengers who were clearly innocent of anything beyond parking infringements. Second, it caused delays and damage to the airline industry which could not be sustained in the long-term (which is why the regulations have now been relaxed). Third, any security arrangement put in place can be circumvented with enough time and imagination. Unless they were proposing that the next stage be forcing passengers to strip and board planes naked, there was no future for the hand luggage restrictions. Fourth, it created the impression that masses of terrorists were still on the run; strangely, a few days on, with no new arrests made, we're not hearing anything about that now, even though the restrictions have only just been lifted.

I don't - for the moment - doubt that there was a plot. I don't doubt that the security services acted before any harm was done. If all this is indeed the case then they are to be commended for bringing about a successful end to the conspiracy before anyone was killed or even so much as hurt. I do doubt, however, that the timing of the arrests had nothing to do with the Home Secretary's speech to Demos in which he suggested that freedom of expression and movement is going to have to take a back seat indefinitely, in view of the virtual inevitability of another terrorist attack (how prescient of him). I also doubt that it was necessary to throw the country's airports into chaos, imposing risible security checks on harmless objects carried by law-abiding folk, making the whole thing look like a grown man chasing a wasp with a rolled-up newspaper before it's even stung him.

Anyway, one bit of good news: anyone who's come here from NoseMonkey's comments will be relieved to hear that BA have promised me a full refund on my flight.

Much more good stuff on this at the usual places, ie Chicken Yoghurt, Bloggerheads, Bruce Schneier, Diamond Geezer, Rachel, and especially Craig Murray.


Sunday, August 13, 2006

Third Test: England win by 167 runs



I know it's approaching a week after the event, but I've spent the last few days filming and travelling around the country (and out of it, if you consider Scotland to be a separate entity as many do). Anyway, this victory means that England have won the series and reclaimed their position at No. 2 in the world Test Match rankings. Which makes sense, because England almost certainly are the second best Test side in the world - and, this winter, may be found to be the best. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Go on, click 'More'. Go on!

As my taxi arrived to take me to Euston for the Birmingham train, Mohammed Sami went for a run so suicidal it would have made the organisers of Dignitas flinch, and Pakistan lost their seventh wicket - which was pretty much game over. At the beginning of the final day, however, I felt it was England who were on the back foot. Having conceded a lead in the first innings, despite what had looked like a pretty hefty first-innings score, they posted 345 in the second innings, led from the front by captain Andrew Strauss who brought up his tenth Test century (more on this in a bit). Pakistan had been set a total of 323 runs to win, on a pitch which seemed to contain no surprises and with three of the world's best batsmen in their side (plus a couple of others with decent records). Hoggard was rumoured to be carrying an injury, Harmison's devastating form of Old Trafford had once again retired to the back of his mind, Sajid Mahmood was showing no indication that his continuous selection was justified and only Monty Panesar suggested any threat to the strong Pakistani line-up. Despite the size of the target (even these days, anything over 200 is deemed to be a hard ask for the fourth innings) I felt Pakistan had the strength in batting to make it and defy the records - so many records have been broken in the last five or so years, after all.

As it happened, Panesar was every bit as threatening as his earlier form had promised and bowled incredibly tightly and accurately. But the real star was the previously hopeless Sajid Mahmood, who defied the "traitor" taunts of the enormous contingent of Pakistan supporters in the crowd (these people are British - what's wrong with them? It's only a bloody game! Even if it is the best of all possible games...), and grabbed four wickets of batsmen who might have been his team-mates had his dad not upped sticks and came to Britain in the sixties. It was his best performance in an England shirt by miles, and must give him a guaranteed place on the plane to Australia (where he may find the bouncy wickets to his taste, even though his questionable accuracy will equally be a feast for the Australian batsmen).

England had three other shining lights in the match. Ian Bell scored his third hundred in successive Tests, a feat matched by such greats as Bradman, Hammond, Sobers, Richards, Compton and Sutcliffe, not to mention many of his more imposing contemporaries such as Ponting and Dravid. What was all the more impressive was the manner in which he scored them - fluid, competent, chanceless, rarely looking ill at ease. The No. 6 spot - previously unquestioningly belonging to Flintoff - looks like a surer bet in his hands which means the six batsmen four bowlers option must be strongly tempting for England.

Chris Read had a miserable start to his Test career. Not with the gloves - his keeping was usually flawless - but with the bat. He failed to pass 20 in his first set of matches, and once famously ducked a yorker. Dropped (with dreadful timing) by the selectors for his poor form, he went back to county cricket to work on his batting. On the strength of this match, the work has paid off. His first Test fifty bolstered the English lower order in the second innings and ensured a defendable total. He dismissed five Pakistani batsmen in the match, including the last to fall - Inzamam dancing (as only Inzamam can) down the wicket, missing Panesar's deceptive delivery, and hearing Read tap the bails off with the ball. I'm sorry to see Geraint Jones dropped, and feel the manner of his falling could also have been handled much better by the selectors - who display a lack of empathy that would make a Cyberman blush - but if Read's fine form continues, the order will be strengthened by his inclusion.

What can one say about Andrew Strauss? In thirty Test matches, he has scored ten centuries. That's a rate of one every three matches - only Bradman, Headley and Walcott have a better rate in Test history. That Strauss's average is still below 50 is indicative of his frequent inability to get a good start - but, once he gets past fifty, the road to a hundred seems free and open every time. His Test average has actually improved since he took over the captaincy. What's more, with England in a potentially difficult position on the last day he maintained his calm and authority and, with the help of some excellent bowling and a good helping of luck (which all good captains need), he steered his side to victory. He is genuine captain material. With Vaughan unlikely to play international cricket again, and with Flintoff barely able to recover in time for the Ashes (and with question marks over his ability to pull his side out of trouble when things are going badly), surely it is the time for the ECB to appoint Strauss the official, no-questions-asked, not-waiting-for-anyone-to-come-back-and-take-over England captain.

So to the Oval, where Pakistan's best bowler looks likely to play, having recovered from his injury and where the playing field will be more level (apart from that little dip behind the wicket at the Pavilion End of the pitch). The toss - and the weather - will probably be as strong a factor in the result as any performance by the players. England have announced an unchanged squad today. My money's on the draw, but the great thing about cricket is that anything can happen.


Monday, July 31, 2006

Second Test: England win by an innings and 120 runs



England are back on form! This crushing victory inside three days has re-established English cricket as resurgent and confident. This is going to be a long post, so do click 'More' to read it in full.

Discounting matches against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, this is England's joint biggest victory since 1974 (they also beat Pakistan by an innings and 120 runs back in 1978), and although it was another team effort, one bright shining new English star has emerged into the media's glaring, cruel eye: Mudhsuden Singh Panesar.

Monty is a bowler of enormous promise. He already has 25 Test wickets from only eight matches. Although a finger spinner, he can turn the ball sharply. Despite a lack of variation in pace and of a doosra, he managed to trick and trap the Pakistani batsmen - traditionally brilliant players of spin - into gifting their wickets. Doubtless he had some assistance from the pitch, yet this assistance mysteriously vanished when the Pakistani spinners were bowling; leaving one to draw the obvious conclusion that it was sheer talent, and not just a dodgy surface, that accounted for Panesar's match figures of 8-93. At last, England have a spin bowler who is not only handy (as Giles was before him) but capable of winning matches (as Giles, for all his talent, was not).

Let's not overlook the other positives that have emerged from this match, however. Steve Harmison, who for a good couple of years has frightened batsmen all over the world yet has rarely lived up to his billing, stormed his way through eleven Pakistani wickets. He bowled furiously and often accurately, forcing the batsmen into errors (watching Inzamam - one of the top ten batsmen in the world - completely misreading Harmison's length, and trying to duck a ball which only rose to hip height, was a joy). Harmison now has a performance to match his achievements against the West Indies at Sabina Park and his devastating (but sadly not match-winning) return at Lord's in last year's Ashes.

On the batting front there were delights as well. Alistair Cook and Ian Bell have now made hundreds in consecutive matches. Whether or not Cook is entirely secure in the No. 3 position is a question for another day. For the time being, he is the proud holder of a Test average of 59.40 after only seven matches, with three hundreds - a record only exceeded among current England players by his captain, Andrew Strauss. To say that he is gifted is an understatement. And, come the winter, the Australians will remember the double century he scored against their bowlers last year at Chelmsford.

Ian Bell's century was his most assured innings in an England shirt. Aware that, after his poor performances in last year's Ashes, he has merely been keeping the seat warm for the injured Andrew Flintoff, he has given the English selectors the delightful headache of showing himself to be a viable option should they decide to play six batsmen and only four bowlers. Although I have reservations about using this tactic in Australia, Bell's self-confidence in the middle order and the brilliance of Panesar make a strong case for dropping Flintoff down to No. 7 (where he will be a frightening prospect for the opposition, matched only by Gilchrist for the Australians).

And, last but not least, Strauss is now able to relax in his sudden role as England captain, since Flintoff will be recuperating from his operation until October. At Lord's he erred on the side of caution, delaying his declaration until he was sure the game was safe. At Old Trafford he was prepared to countenance more aggressive tactics (although there was a case for declaring the moment Bell made his hundred). English captains have tended to under-bowl their spinners, but Strauss recognised that Panesar was the man for the job and he was not afraid to let the left-armer operate unbroken at one end while the latter ploughed his steady way through the formidable Pakistani line-up, and Harmison scared the wits out of them at the other.

There is one positive remaining to be mentioned, and I have left it until last as it is shrouded in irony. Geraint Jones had a marvellous match behind the stumps, taking six catches and pulling off a marvellous rapid-reaction stumping. This achievement is rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that five of those dismissals took place in Pakistan's second innings, during which Jones was keeping with a broken finger. While he has failed to live up to his early promise with the bat, Jones's keeping has improved from frankly amateur (none of his blunders cost England the Ashes, but there would have been plenty of opportunities for criticism had the series not gone England's way) to international standard. Yet England have used the broken finger as a chance to drop him from the team - not to give his finger time to recover, but to punish him for his overall poor performance.

The questions that arise are: if Jones's form with the bat was considered below standard (the reason given for dropping him) why was he not excluded from the team sooner, ie at the start of the summer, allowing his replacement ample time to get some international experience under his belt before the trip Down Under this winter? If his form with the bat was considered good enough to play these matches, why has he been dropped for a player (Chris Read) whose own record with the bat at international level is equally miserable? If the England selectors were not convinced Jones's performances were adequate, why did they wait until the convenient excuse of his injury emerged - why did they not have the courage to drop him on merit alone? If Read was treated shoddily two years ago, by being dropped by selectors seduced by Jones's batting form on the county circuit, then Jones has been treated just as shoddily. It's behaviour like this that is holding back English cricket from being on a par with the Australians.

On the bright side, England have six strong batsmen, all of whom have made a Test century this summer, two pacemen in the world's top ten bowlers, a spinner capable of bowling a side out and not just holding up an end, and a captain beginning to look assured in his role. Flintoff, Simon Jones and Anderson may well be fit in time for the Ashes tour, and several other Young Turks are making a good case for consideration (Dalrymple, Loudon, Joyce, Shah, Plunkett). The future of English cricket, if it can only overcome its natural hesitancy and its tendency to pay too much attention to individual performances, looks bright indeed.


Genius is what happens when wit meets opportunity


Via B3ta, I've come across a YouTube video calling itself Vader Sessions, the premise of which is that Darth Vader has an incestuous love affair with his daughter and suffers a nervous breakdown. The real genius of the piece is that the footage consists entirely of extracts from the original Star Wars and the voice of Vader is taken from other films starring James Earl Jones, who provided the original Vader voice (I would guess some of the films in question are Paul Robeson, The Great White Hope, Field of Dreams and possibly Blood Tide).

If the guy who made this isn't already working professionally as a sound editor, someone needs to sign him up and pay him for his talent!


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Blast Straw


At last, something to shake me out of my non-blogging torpor (Israel-Lebanon is too ghastly to comment on, and there's nothing useful I can add to what others are saying, and not much else is happening apart from the usual awfulness). This is worth doing, not just for its comedy value, but because there's a serious issue of accountability at stake:

"I will write to Jack Straw to tell him he's a cretin but only if 100 other people will too."

Note to Tories: this is not just a random, Labour-bashing initiative but a very specific campaign in support of which has been criticised by Straw for wasting MPs' time by - gasp - getting them to correspond with their constituents!

Bloody cheek; these people will be wanting the vote, next.

[POSTSCRIPT: I bet Slaughter's behind this.]

Oh, and on an unrelated matter: if you thought our government's ID card scheme was bad, see what's happening in another country.