The Obscurer

Month: March, 2005

Orange Alert

With apologies to The Filter^ who are currently trying to claim the noble colour orange as their own, I have a somewhat less positive feeling towards this particular hue. In my second year at University I shared a house with a lad whose choice of evening meal was, err, limited. It was basically a variation on- Fish Fingers or Breaded Chicken Burger / frozen oven-baked potato product (waffles, pancake, scallops) / baked beans or sweetcorn (Green Giant “Mexicorn” for that occasional exotic treat). Every day he sat down to a big plate of grim orange-tinted fare and I felt quite ill. I can’t say my diet was much healthier (I haven’t eaten Campbell’s Meatballs since graduation; I can’t even look at a tin), but it did at least have some sort of variety in colour.

I have been reminded of this while watching the series Jamie’s School Dinners on Channel 4, where Jamie Oliver has ditched his irritating chirpy Sainsbury’s mockney image to tackle the problem of school meals (yes, I know every other blogger under the sun has already covered this subject, but I am a bit slow. Sorry). The first day Jamie turned up at a school canteen he was greeted by a vast range of frozen, processed food arranged before him, and it was almost all a hideous orange in colour; from the bright yellow-orange of the chicken nuggets to the dull brown-orange of the burgers, and not a actual zesty, juicy orange in sight. Special mention must go to the burgers which were of that economy variety that fall apart when heated; meat that has been sandblasted off the bones of long dead carcasses, mixed with rusk and all held together with old chip fat.

Whilst I sympathised with Jamie’s cause – and agree that school dinners seem to have gone down hill even since my day – I couldn’t help but recall that my diet at that age was far from healthy, yet I was as fit a flea; I am far less healthy now even though I try to eat all the right things. Unlike Jamie, I wasn’t surprised that teenagers didn’t recognise asparagus; I probably wouldn’t either at that age. At school it was not unknown for me to just eat a plate of chips and gravy and spend the rest of my dinner money on cola bottles and toffee logs from the ice cream van. In summer I sometimes spent my entire dinner money on my own type of orange food; cider lollies.

Despite my reservations, there certainly were some genuine revelations during the series; while it is not surprising to be told that eating crap food can lead to diabetes and heart disease, it was incredible to see one family state that once they went on Jamie’s diet the whole house calmed down; on the one occasion they subsequently ate additive ridden junk food the kids suddenly became more boisterous and aggressive and started climbing up the walls. Similarly, it was interesting to hear from the teachers at one school who said that after converting to Jamie’s diet the pupils’ attention level and academic performance in the afternoons had improved, and from a school nurse who said there was no longer a queue of children needing to use the asthma inhaler after lunch.

Jamie certainly found it difficult providing a two-course meal for just 37 pence, and no wonder; it is all a far cry from his own restaurant where he thinks of a meal, finds out the cost of ingredients, and adds 65% on top to find the price. He was also hampered by ridiculous rules drawn up by well meaning but short sighted bureaucrats who said you couldn’t add salt to any foods; so those minging turkey twizzler things that look like broken pre-war rubber bands and are pumped full of fat, salt, sugar and preservatives are okay, but adding salt to potatoes to make mash is a no-no.

Of course what is bad for children is bad for adults, and this prompts some people to say we should have a tax on unhealthy and fatty foods. There are two justifications I suppose, the first being that we tax cigarettes and alcohol, so why not unhealthy food? This ignores that fact that people need to eat food, and some people need to eat cheap food; I feel uncomfortable raising tax on what is an essential. The second, perhaps more understandable, suggestion is that it could be considered that there is an element of market failure in play here; that food companies sell us shit food but don’t pick up the tab for the resulting illnesses and diseases, which is borne by the public sector. While I understand this argument, again I have to disagree. For one thing, the companies that sell unhealthy foods are the same ones that sell healthy option meals, and give us all a choice in what we buy; for another, the food industry already pays a large amount of tax (I don’t know the figures relevant to this discussion, but when it was suggested that pubs pay for the expected increased policing required to deal with the forthcoming relaxation in the licensing laws, it was pointed out that the licensing trade already hands over enough tax to pay for the UK’s police forces many times over). In any event, we can go round in circles with this debate; if people do eat unhealthily and have to go to hospital as a result then they have already paid for their treatment through their own taxes; and if they do shuffle gravewards early then we are spared paying their pensions. It could be argued that with an ageing society the food companies are actually doing us a favour; perhaps they need a tax rebate!

So I feel uneasy about taxing food, I think that essentially adults should be able to eat what they want at their own risk; but what about children? Presumably they don’t have total freedom to eat whatever they want at home, so why should they have that freedom at school? The state may not be able to tell adults what they can and cannot eat, but surely it has control over what it provides in its own schools?

Jamie soon realised the self-evident truth that if you give children the option of healthy food or shite food, they will go for the shite. Many adults would do the same. Much criticism was levelled at the private providers of school meals such as Scholarest for the food they were serving up, but you cannot expect anything different; their job is to make a profit, not to feed children healthily. The days when my mother worked in a school canteen and was told they had to provide over 50% of the recommended daily intake of proteins and vitamins have long gone. Unless minimum standards are issued and a menu devoid of junk food is introduced then children will inevitably continue to be offered rubbish, and they will choose it. If we want children to eat healthily at school then it can be done tomorrow; if we don’t care then we can carry on just as we do now.

As things stand, however, everyone seems to be a winner. The Government say they are reviewing school meals just in time for the election, Jamie Oliver has made people reconsider their opinions of him (there is even talk of a knighthood) and thanks to their exposure on Jamie’s School Dinners sales of Bernard Matthew’s Turkey Twizzlers have risen by 32%. Amazing. Personally I’d rather relapse and have a tin of Campbell’s Meatballs than eat those shrivelled lengths of MSG (although only just); at least meatballs don’t look like they glow in the dark.

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Barley Whine

I was in two minds about discussing Nathan Barley (AKA trashbat.co.ck), the Channel 4 sit-com that ended last Friday; but then I thought of a piss-poor pun as a title and decided “what the hell”. I don’t have a great deal to say about the programme, so feel free to skip this post, but for what it’s worth I have enjoyed this series and it has been well worth videoing of a weekend, and watching it as and when. The main problem with taping it has been the possibility you end up with some of the dreadful Friday Night Project as well, but it is easily (and best) ignored.

While I have liked the series as it mocked the pretentious and moronic people who populate the dot.com and meeja landscapes, I did keep thinking that I should have been enjoying it more and finding it funnier. I appreciated much of Barley’s absurd lingo (“peace and fucking!”), and thought it was clever; but I wasn’t exactly laughing, just sort of smiling to myself. I don’t know, but I wonder if some of it went a bit over my head, that unless you are part of London’s medialand you simply won’t get some of the in-jokes. I could be wrong, but as I sat there being mildly amused by some of the comic scenarios, I couldn’t help imagining others creased up on the floor, screaming “oh it’s so, so true”. Perhaps that explains why I thought that the funniest moment was probably when Dan Ashcroft accidentally killed the barber’s cat. Not very subtle, perhaps, or nice; but I did laugh.

That said, I thought the series improved as it went along, and it started hitting a few more bullseyes; perhaps it was because I became more familiar with the style, but I also think that some of the later episodes included more recognisable and better drawn caricatures such as Mandy the teenage coke-head and the Commissioning Editor of Channel Seven; earlier figures such as the piss “artist” 15Peter20 and tabloid fodder Dajve Bikinus (great name though) seemed far weaker.

The acting was generally very good; Julian Barratt as Dan was perfect, you could really feel his world weariness seeping through the screen. Similar praise must go to the rest of the cast, but in particular to Nicholas Burns as the self facilitating media node himself, Charlie Condou as Jonatton Yeah?, Richard Ayoade & Spencer Brown as the two idiotic SugarApe journos and Claire Keelan as Dan’s sister.

Unfortuantely for me Dan’s sister, Claire, was one of the weak points in the series; she was clearly meant to be the most sympathetic character as she toiled to make a serious documentary while everywhere she looked there were idiots getting commissions. The problem was that she spent most of the time (understandably) moaning and complaining and saying “God, Dan!” or “I mean it, Dan!” or “Get me my money, Dan!”, so it was a bit difficult to see her as likeable. You could sympathise, but not exactly empathise with her.

Whatever my reservations, however, I have enjoyed Nathan Barley and will look forward to another series where perhaps some of the characters can be explored further. If nothing else it is something of a tribute to writers Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker that people are already referring to “the Nathan Barleys of this world”, in the same way that Alan Partridge (who also came to our attention via Morris) has entered the language, and that can’t be too bad. They must be doing something right.

The Night Before

I have just been reading a website called Last Night’s BBC News, a brilliant idea that is the brainchild of one Nicholas Vance. I don’t often have time to watch the news, so a blog devoted to telling me what I have missed is a splendid idea. I hope that in time he will broaden it out to include ITN and Sky, as I rarely see their bulletins either.

Only joking, of course. I was directed there by Biased BBC, a website I vowed not to read again (it’s just getting silly now, more and more like the Daily Mail On-line) but curiosity got the better of me the other day, and it made fascinating reading. In a couple of recent B-BBC posts, while complaining about the BBC’s less than balanced coverage of the Israel-Palestine situation, the comments section started to degenerate into out and out Islamophobia. It is only fair to stress that such statements were made in the comments section, not in the main blog itself, but it was still quite surprising to read some views professing an apparently widespread and paranoid concern about the impending threat of an Islamic dominated world. Very odd.

Anyway; back to Last Night’s BBC News. Biased BBC invited me to read this “great post” where Mr Vance was struck by a comment made by Stephen Sackur on the Ten O’Clock News, so I did. Discussing the events marking the anniversary of the Madrid bomb, Sackur said “Spain’s Muslims also used this day to issue a message: absolute opposition to terrorism.” This seems to have annoyed Nicholas Vance, who was moved to respond by stating “Spanish authorities believe there to be hundreds of Muslims actively plotting further terrorist atrocities”. What? Really? Do you reckon? Well thanks for that revelation.

What has so upset Mr Vance about Sackur’s report? I guess it would have been more accurate to have referred to “some” or “many” of Spain’s Muslims, but I think we can assume that Sackur is not claiming that every single Muslim stands opposed to terrorism; there are the terrorists themselves, for a start. Perhaps when they returned to the studio after the report, the newsreader could have said “And we would like to point out that some Muslims are in favour of terrorism, are willing to blow themselves up for their cause, and consider George Bush to be the great infidel”; but I think we know that already.

Mr Vance goes on “Mr Sackur would do well to avoid making sweeping generalisations about Muslim opposition to terror, just as he would never dream of making sweeping generalisations about Muslim support for terror”. Well yes, sweeping generalisations are certainly to be avoided, but again, I am not convinced Sackur was actually claiming that all Muslims are angels who oppose terrorism; some things can be taken as read. I doubt it occurred to him that there would be some picky sod taking notes and analysing every last word and phrase in order to bolter an argument about the BBC’s leftist bias, although he probably should know better by now.

But Mr Vance is not quite finished; he concludes with a flourish. “Consider also that the Spanish Muslims to which Mr Sackur is referring include a boy interviewed last week by the Guardian’s Timothy Garton Ash: “I ask another Muhammad (‘just call me Muhammad’), a voluble 16-year-old, about last year’s bombings just down the road, at the Atocha station. Well, he says, he doesn’t like to see people dying ‘even if they are Christians and Jews.'”

Well there you go, proof if proof be need be; a Muslim boy (a boy, mind) isn’t too fond of Christian’s and Jew’s. I have seen the light. Personally, I suspect that some Muslim’s go further, and say even nastier things about Christian’s and Jew’s. You know what? The feelings are reciprocated; I know some people who have a few choice words to say about Muslims, and Islam in general. Just what point is Mr Vance trying to make here?

Quite baffling. In trying to attack the BBC, has Last Night’s BBC News in fact revealed the author’s own prejudices? Perhaps not, but how else does one explain someone feeling so aggrieved by an innocuous comment in a news report. To me it appears that some people are not qualified to accuse others of bias.

Bye Bye KK

I don’t know; you take a short trip to the Lakes to get away from it all, and on the first morning you are dragged back into the real world when you hear on the radio that the manager of your team has left the club by mutual euphemism. Typical.

I am sad to see Kevin Keegan go, but not surprised. The lesson of Ferguson, Strachan and Robson is that you cannot set a date for your retirement and then see it through; you either have to go early or postpone your retirement. Keegan was always going to go early; it was just a matter of when.

Oh City will be all right, don’t worry about us; but my sympathies are for Keegan at the moment, particularly when you read the various footballing obituaries and profiles of the man. It seems to be a part of media law to refer to his playing days as something like “a triumph of hard work over natural ability”, which is damning him with faint praise when you consider he was probably the most famous footballer in Britain during the Seventies. It suggests we could all be European Footballer of the Year if we just knuckled down a bit.

But it certainly seems agreed that his managerial career suffers by comparison with his playing days. He was often criticised for his sides defensive frailties and for his inability to win a major honour; but personally it is not the allure of a well organised back-four that draws me to a game, and the managers who have won major trophies are in a pretty select club. Overall, his record in management is remarkable.

Taking over Newcastle as they were about to tumble out of the First Division, getting them promoted as Champions the following season, and finishing as runners-up in the Premiership just a few years later is a tremendous achievement. Of course he will probably always be remembered for throwing away a huge lead over Manchester United that season, and for his emotional rant against Alex Ferguson (which you can listen to here, via Anthony at The Filter^); but Ferguson and Wenger have also thrown away leads in their time, and in fact it is unusual for a team to win the title leading from the front. Keegan is still revered on Tyneside, and Newcastle have not hit those heights since.

At Fulham he was also a success, again winning promotion as Champions in his first season in full charge of the team, before leaving for the England job by popular demand. And at the risk of seeming revisionist, it is often forgotten that at England he took over a team going nowhere under Glenn Hoddle, yet we managed to qualify for Euro 2000. The performances in Belgium were poor (despite victory over Germany), but don’t forget we were just a minute away from qualifying for the Quarter Finals before Phil Neville’s intervention inside the 18-yard box. Had we gone through who knows what could have happened? A good performance then would have erased memories of the earlier matches; it is largely on this basis that Messrs. Venables and Robson have a decent reputation with regards their spells in charge of the national team.

So onto City, where he took a side that had just been deservedly relegated from the Premiership (one season after they were fortunate to have been promoted from the First Division under Joe Royle) and turned them into a side that eventually romped away with the League title, brushing teams aside and scoring goals for fun. This was not City’s usual style; we’ve had more than our fair share of promotions, and we usually achieve it by scraping through on the last day of the season; but not under Keegan. On the day we won the Championship I turned to my mate Jim and said, “I don’t think the future has ever looked so bright”, and he agreed.

And in the Premiership we finished a respectable 9th in our first season, flirted with relegation last season (and honestly, we were really unlucky that year; we played far better than our position suggested. We had a positive goal difference for God’s sake, despite finishing 16th), and are now looking at a third season of safe, mid-table mediocrity. Perhaps that doesn’t excite some, but for me, recalling our recent history – having watched us lose at home to Stockport County and being relegated to the division below them; playing Macclesfield on an equal footing in the Second Division; being beaten home and away by Lincoln in the League Cup, watching the second leg at Maine Road in an almost deserted stadium with only blue plastic seats for company – I can take a bit of mid-table mediocrity, to be honest with you.

Yes, Keegan has made some mistakes, and some bad purchases – Vuoso for £4m (yes, you may well ask “who?”), Macken for more than 50 pence – but many signings such as Trevor Sinclair and Steve McManaman were warmly received by most City fans, myself included; no-one expected them to perform so abjectly, as if they had left any semblance of talent at the door. However, I think the good by far outweighs the bad when you look at Keegan’s contribution as a whole; we even have one of the best defensive records in the league this season, for those who get worked up about such things.

To me, Keegan’s overall reputation as being permanently tainted by failure is way harsh. Perhaps if he had left on a high with City after that first barnstorming season then people would view him differently; but had he done so he would just have confirmed some peoples’ opinion that he is a quitter; an unfair allegation when you look at the facts. He is even our longest serving manager since the Seventies; although that probably says more about City than anything else.

But Kevin has now gone, and good luck to him. Fingers crossed that Stuart Pearce can make a good job of it; he has been my choice for a while, especially as there appears to be a queue forming of managers stating they don’t want the job. Keegan’s legacy? Well, a lot of good memories, particularly of the promotion season, and some great performances and results against United. He leaves us as an average team in the Premiership; not perhaps what one dreams about, but still a better position than the club has known for years.

Blow Up

The BBC is screening one of its adverts at the moment promoting their current affairs documentaries, Panorama and Whistleblower. I haven’t seen Whistleblower before, but the clip they are showing makes it pretty obvious what it will be about. We see a BBC journalist on board a plane, explaining how easily she has managed to get past security; the clear implication being that if she was so minded she could simply plant a bomb and hey presto, another terrorist outrage.

We regularly hear of such security breaches and how disturbing they are; Fathers4Justice getting through security at Parliament or Buckingham Palace, or Aaron Barshak gate crashing the royal party at Windsor. Now, clearly, these are serious lapses of security and should be dealt with, lessons should be learned; but occasionally I do wonder why so much time is spent worrying about such events when there are a plethora of soft targets all over the place which we can do nothing about?

Returning to that BBC reporter on board the plane; if she has a bomb then she will indeed be a risk to passengers due to fly on that aircraft; but presumably, if she has a bomb she will be a danger wherever she is. The problem is the bomb and the terrorist, not so much where they are.

Imagine that same reporter being in any number of different situations; imagine yourself being in any number of situations where you are surrounded by a large crowd of people. You are at a football match, in the Trafford centre during the January sales, at a level crossing with two inter-city trains approaching, in a traffic jam beneath a flyover at spaghetti junction while sitting next to a petrol tanker. Now, think what you could do if you were a suicide bomber packed with explosives, think of the havoc, the chaos, the death and destruction you could cause; and all without the merest breach of security, with no slip up required.

I think we have to be realistic about what we can and cannot do in a free society. I am not suggesting that we wave a white flag, that because there are millions of soft targets we should give up and not bother about security measures. We should maintain security, and tighten any loopholes we become aware of. More importantly we should concentrate on intelligence in order to prevent terrorist attacks – I personally am happy to make use of intercept intelligence (as are Liberty) – and when we identify those who are planning an atrocity we should of course swiftly arrest, charge and (if found guilty) gaol them.

Alongside this, however, I personally think it is sensible not to engage in the sort of activities that I believe will only encourage terrorism; you know the sort of thing, unjust wars of dubious legality, draconian security measures reminiscent of internment. Apart from anything else, nothing short of complete totalitarianism, a sort of The Prisoner meets 1984, can prevent terrorists from murdering people if they are determined to, and if the intelligence just isn’t available.

But I also think we really have to put the “war on terror” in perspective. I want to cry whenever I hear a high-ranking politician talking about defeating terrorism; such people shouldn’t be in positions of responsibility, they should be sectioned. Unless human beings evolve beyond all recognition some people will always want to kill others; if people are determined to commit a terrorist attack then they will, and there is little we can do about it. Terrorist are often just criminals with a cause; if you can erase both of these things then you can defeat terrorism, but we are talking about a Utopia now; and Utopia, of course, means “noplace”. Winning the war on terror will just never happen. In any event, we can spend all our time and energies trying to prevent terrorism, but that doesn’t prevent natural disasters like the tsunami causing more deaths than any terrorist could ever imagine.

And perhaps there is a lesson in the tsunami. Perhaps we should treat terrorist attacks as we treat natural disasters; we accept that they are going to occur. Of course we do whatever we can to prevent them, and to forewarn people about them, we do what is humanely possible; but in the end we just have to accept the way things are. Bad things are going to happen, and to think anything else means we are just deluding ourselves.