The Obscurer

After The Tsunami

I haven’t written about the Tsunami before, because I haven’t written about much at all recently; the Christmas period has found me ridiculously busy, and when it hasn’t found me busy it has found me poorly. Also, my young son is now walking a lot more and sleeping a lot less, which impacts upon my free time and may well ultimately challenge the whole viability of this blog; but for the time being I am still here.

However, specifically relating to the Tsunami, I somewhat agree for once with Mark Steyn when he says that, initially at least, “It didn’t seem the kind of thing to have an ‘opinion’ on, even for an opinion columnist – not like who should win the election or whether we should have toppled Saddam. It was obviously a catastrophe, and it was certain the death toll would keep rising, and other than that there didn’t seem a lot to opine about.”

But of course eventually Steyn has found something to comment on, as have I; and it is about the way people have reacted to the crisis, and the issues surrounding it, specifically the whole issue of aid and how it is administered. I have been amazed about the petty, trivial issues which have aroused comment in the wake of such a terrible event.

For one thing there has been the relentless criticisms of the Government. Now, I speak as someone who thinks of Blair as a sickening, self-obsessed individual, leading a party about which the best that can be said it that they are not the Tories; but the constant sniping about whether or not Blair should have cut short his holiday just leaves me baffled with the irrelevance of it. I have my own ideas, as I’m sure does everybody, about whether Blair has acted correctly, but in the grand scheme of things, when we are dealing with a matter which has left 150,000 dead, the whys and wherefores about Blair’s holiday rate for little; and yet this theme has been returned to again and again. Then there have been the continuous updates on how much money the British public have raised for the Tsunami appeal, which is all well and good; but this is then used as a stick to beat the Government with over its own contribution. Why? Who are the people criticising how much the Government (in reality, of course, the Taxpayer) is providing? They are not the charities themselves, or the Governments of the affected peoples, who you would imagine have some idea of what sums are required, but journalists, happy to sow some discord in order to fill column inches or air time. Then when Gordon Brown floats the idea of debt relief for the affected nations, before he has even closed his mouth we hear questions about “how can we ensure this debt relief will be spent wisely?”; a valid question perhaps, but one which surely can wait until the proposal is actually accepted. It seems more important to criticise and pick holes than actually report the facts. One valid point is the questioning of the 3 minutes silence for the victims of the tsunami; why 3 minutes, it has been asked, rather than 2 minutes, or 1. This is actually something I can understand – I would say a 2 minutes silence is sufficient – but it seemed totally unnecessary for there to be criticism of the 3 minutes on the day of the silence itself; for example, the Daily Mail interviewed a war veteran, asking him his opinions in the light of there only being a 2 minutes silence on Armistice Day. Was it not possible to do the decent thing, to just observe the silence, and to hold the post-mortem some other time?

Regarding the amounts of aid money which have been provided around the world, there is something unpleasant I think in so many reports giving space to tables showing who has given what, as if there is some sort of competition going on to prove who is the most generous. This meant that originally some accused the United States of being stingy due to their small initial aid pledge; this despite the the fact that US Armed forces were some of the first to deliver aid, and that the aid pledge itself was then massively increased, making the critics look rather silly. In turn, however, this initial raw data was then endlessly analysed by people who don’t like the conclusions drawn from some of these tables, and they sought to re-interpret the figures to prove their own point. It all seemed like an unseemly scrabble to justify your position to me, and for what? Do the people who write these thing poll their friends on how much they have given to charity, then adjust the figures based on each persons income, then expenditure, then saving, and keep playing around with statistics until there is a table of generosity with themselves sat at the top?

Others have used the Tsunami to defend and support their own world view, however inappriaoriate it may all seem; so we have my dear friends at Biased BBC hitting out at what they perceive as the corporation’s anti-American bias in their coverage (presumably this is a different BBC to the one I have heard referring to the US as leading the aid effort). One way to support your world view is to talk about who is best (and as a consequence, who is worst) at administering the aid; so, Tim Worstall decides the situation is useful ammunition to criticise what he sees as failings in the UN, the EU, the State in general…basically everything he argues against anyway; Clare Short uses the tragedy to attack the US, Blair and the Iraq War; and Mark Steyn, apparently stung by what he sees as criticism of the US response, answers with some of his own, well worn anti-UN rhetoric.

Now I don’t know exactly what is going on in the relief effort in South East Asia – I’m not there – but I don’t feel I am gaining much from such reporting which generally seem light on fact and heavy on bias, is largely anecdotal, and is more comment than commentary. Of course the media do have an important role in highlighting genuine problems in administering aid, but much of what has been written seems vague and one sided. I understand that Steyn’s article, for example, was written in response to what he felt were unfair comments by Jan Egeland of the UN, but in all it begins looking like a tit-for-tat exercise, “my aid is bigger and better than your aid” and I just don’t see the point. And even if some of the criticisms are valid – and I dare say all parties could be criticised to some degree if you want to look hard enough – is this really the time to climb aboard your favourite hobby-horse? Jim of “Our word is our weapon” is surely right when he says “Why should it be so hard to say that everyone who is helping those affected by the tsunami – be they local people, Australian marines, American helicopter pilots, and yes, even United Nations staff – deserve our thanks and admiration?”. An obvious point you would have though, but one which looks like it has to be made.

It used to be said that crises brought everyone together, however diverse our opinions. Whether this was ever true I don’t know, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case judging by some individuals’ take on the terrible events of Boxing Day. You would think that the silly things that divide us would count for little in the face of such a monumental tragedy. But it seems not.

The Obscurer Awards 2005

It is time now for the inaugural “Obscurer” awards, which already no-one is referring to as “The Obbies”. So, let’s kick it all off with…

  • Best Single – The Strokes/Reptilia. When I initially heard The Strokes, and the first few singles from their debut LP “Is this it” I thought they sounded quite good, but I didn’t fancy the idea of listening to a whole album. All the songs sounded a bit samey, like a band doing an “Iggy Pop and The Stooges” tribute. But then they released “12:51“, a cracking song which was markedly different to their previous tracks, very reminiscent of “Pavement”, which for me is high praise indeed. They then followed this up with “Reptilia” which was just superb, a poppy, choppy guitarfest which briefly seemed to be heard just about everywhere. It was a song I couldn’t get out of my head, and that is surely what being single of the year is all about. The Strokes had apparently graduated from tribute band to great band; or so it seemed. I got the album; it consisted of 12:51, Reptilia and 9 other songs which sounded like Iggy and The Stooges. Oh well; better luck next time.
  • Best Album(s) – Badly Drawn Boy/One Plus One Is One, Elliot Smith/From a Basement on the Hill.These two records are in fact linked. I first heard Elliot Smith when his song “Waltz #2” became my single of the year in 1997. Unlike my experience with Reptilia , the LP from which it was drawn, “XO” was equally fantastic and I became a fan. A few years later when I heard “Once around the Block” by Badly Drawn Boy I loved it, and part of the reason was because it reminded me so much of Elliot Smith’s work. When earlier this year Badly Drawn Boy released “One Plus One Is One” it instantly became a fixture on my stereo; a real return to form after the lacklustre and uninspired “Have You Fed The Fish?“. Taking its inspiration from such diverse subjects as his family, the First World War, the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” and The Blossoms Pub in Stockport it felt more like a follow-up to “Hour of Bewilderbeast” and “About a Boy“, a beautiful example of the singer-songwriters’ art with intelligent lyrics and some great melodies. However, buried at the bottom of the CD sleevenotes I read the words “This record is dedicated to…Elliot Smith…”. A quick check on the internet revealed the worst; that Elliot had died the previous October from an apparent suicide. On the anniversary of his death this year his final, unfinished LP was released, and it acts as a fitting memorial. Like Jeff Buckley’s “My Sweetheart the Drunk” it is perhaps impossible not to read more tragic meaning into the lyrics than you should, and one is also left to wonder whether the sparse arrangement of the songs was intended by the artist or is a consequence of them being remixed and completed after his death. In Smith’s case it all works works beautifully; his songs always wore the influence of The Beatles on their sleeves, but this time round they also capture some of the haunting, fragile beauty of the White Album. It doesn’t come much better than sounding like the the best album by the best band of all time; at some times the guitar scatters and shimmers like George Harrison, at others the bass fair bounces along like Macca in his prime (ie. before 1970). All in all a wonderful yet tragic recording.
  • Best Novel – William Sutcliffe/Bad Influence. Sutcliffe fans have had quite a wait since 2000’s “The Love Hexagon“, and when I bought “Bad Influence” and saw it weighed in at a mere 163 slight pages I feared a case of writers’ block. Furthermore, although the reviews I read were encouraging, the book’s subject matter concerning the tale of 3 ten year old boys was a move away from the sort of thing I so loved about “Are You Experienced?”, his hilarious tale of backpackers in India. I needn’t have worried. This new novel still features the author’s characteristic sense of humour, but from the off there is also an atmosphere of impending menace, as the narrator Ben meets the new lad in town, Carl, a disturbed and disturbing individual, who gradually exerts a worrying influence on Ben’s best mate, the classically easily led Olly. Sutcliffe is brilliant at recapturing the feelings of being ten years old, when losing you best friend can seem the most terrible thing in the world, and where being accepted as part of the gang can lead you down the wrong path. In the end you see where the novel is going, and that it is going to turn out even darker than you imagined; you feel yourself pulling away, back peddling, refusing to accept the inevitable, appalling conclusion. Sutcliffe stops short of describing the final details, but he has already fully hinted at how it will end; these hints and the power of your imagination mean you are not spared the full horror. Brilliant.
  • Best Film – Fahrenheit 9/11. When you have a child, going to the pictures becomes a major event. You either have to really want to go to the cinema to see a specific film, in which case you get a babysitter in, or if your wife isn’t too fussed about a film but you would like to see it, then you just nip out to the UGC in Parrs Wood one Saturday Morning when neither of you are working. This year, I only saw one film, which I nipped out to see one Saturday morning, and so it wins this award by default. It is quite a good film though, as I have already discussed.
  • Sporting Moment – Tottenham Hotspur vs Manchester City FA Cup 4th Round.Sport is a very partisan affair. This is the reason that, despite the many great moments from the Olympics, and the fact that this has been a magnificent year the England Cricket team, and that this year saw a remarkable victory for Greece in Euro 2004, this for me was my sporting highlight; an absurd and ridiculous match that for the football fan repays the investment shelled out watching an abject 0-0 draw on a rainy Tuesday evening against, say, Lincoln. On the day of this match I was at work, due to finish at 20:45, and so I had already planned to go straight to the pub after work to watch the second half. Whilst at work the news began to filter through; we were 1-0 down, then 2-0 down. When I left work, I spoke to another City fan who had just come on for the night shift; he told me we were now 3-0 down. “Oh well,” I said, “let’s concentrate on the league”. When I got to my car and turned on my radio I found it was even worse. Nicolas Anelka, our best player, was injured, and Joey Barton had lived up to my nickname of him as the new Michael Brown by being pointlessly sent off. So, 3-0 down, our best player in the stands and down to 10 men; could I be bothered to go to the pub? Well, fortunately I am an alcoholic, so off I went. I listened to the opening few minutes of the second half in the car, and from kick off it sounded like we were having a good go at Spurs; already the commentators were mentioning what an incredible comeback it would be if we could manage it. I parked up just as Sylvain Distan scored with a header, and I raced into “The Weavers” to see if the impossible could happen. The comeback could have ended dead in its tracks had reserve ‘keeper Arne Arison not made a physically impossible double save soon after; on replay Arison is way out of camera shot from his first save as Spurs try again, and he is still out of shot as the ball reaches the 6 yard box; then he suddenly appears from nowhere and just manages to tip the ball to safety. Shortly after, a deflected shot from Paul Bosvelt makes it 3-2, but surely we can’t keep this pace up can we? With about 10 minutes to go Shaun Wright-Phillips breaks free and scores his trademark goal; wide on the right, ridiculing a mere mortal left-back with pace and skill, then whipping the ball across the goalkeeper and into the net before he knows what has happened. 3-3! I phone my wife and explain that I will be back late; it looks like were are going into extra time. Then, in the final minute John “First-division player” Macken receives a cross on his head and loops it over the Spurs’ defence and into the net! 3-4! I explode, as does the rest of the pub; full of City fans who are used to the unexpected, but nothing quite this weird. I phone my wife again; “4-3. We’ve won! I’m coming home!”. I walk home, chuckling to myself and shaking my head, leaving a pub full of people doing exactly the same thing.
  • TV Moment – Alistair Campbell on Fantasy Football Euro 2004.I stopped watching “Fantasy Football” long ago, not least because it has been off our screens for years. However, while on my break at work, and with nothing else on TV, I watched Skinner and Baddiel do their stuff in a mildly amusing fashion. If you are aware of the format then you know that just before the half time break there is a ring of the doorbell, and in comes the guest for the day. Well, the bell rang on cue, Frank (or David) answered it, and in came Alistair Campbell. The reaction of the TV audience was bizarre; my impression of the “Fantasy Football” audience is that, faced with Campbell, half would say “who’s he”, while the other half would clap like seals regardless. But they didn’t; they booed him, and I just loved it. You could just tell from his expression that he wasn’t expecting it and was somewhat surprised that he was the cause of such antagonism. I was also surprised, and delighted. I think Campbell is a bit like Max Clifford, in that they think of themselves as popular heroes, only disliked by some media types, but they are wrong, very wrong, or at least I hope they are. Perhaps Campbell’s appearance on “Fantasy Football” went some way to curing him of this notion.
  • Radio Moment – Mark and Lard’s Final Show. After nearly seven years in the afternoon slot, Mark and Lard went their separate ways, Mark Radcliffe to Radio 2 and Marc Riley to BBC 6 Music. I’ve not heard Lard’s show yet, but Mark Radcliffe has just picked up where his old Radio 1 evening show left of a few years ago, with the same guests (Ian McMillan, Simon Armitage) and many of the same records. It is a treat. If you never heard the afternoon show then it is a bit late now really, but the website includes an archive of many fine moments, including their final show together; worth listening to for the hilarious introduction from David Bowie, and their version of Mull of ‘kintyre from Lard’s Vinyl Vault. Priceless.