The Obscurer

Category: Reviews

The Obscurer Awards 2007

Well, here we are in the third year for the awards they said, and hoped, would never last. But who are “they”? What is it with those shadowy “they” people that “they” feel “they” have the authority to foist “their” opinions upon “others”? If you ask “me”, “they” have a lot to answer for. But did “you” ask “me”? Who are “you” anyway? And who am “I” in the first place?

Oh let’s just get on with it.

  • Single – Muse/Supermassive Black Hole. My wife and I engage in an amusing dance (amusing for whom I wonder?) each time we get in the car. When it is my turn I find the stereo set to Radio 1 and change it over to Radio 5; when my wife gets in the car she changes it back to Radio 1. When we are both in the car Radio 5 usually wins, because I drive more often and am far less tolerant of others’ choices than is my wife. Occasionally, however, Radio 1 wins out, usually when I am too tired to care, or when my intolerance of Radio 1 is trumped by my intolerance of a specific Radio 5 presenter (let’s call him Nicky Campbell for the sake of argument). In the middle of last year, on those odd occasions when Radio 1 did survive past a few seconds I would usually hear Muse’s Supermassive Black Hole, and as such it was almost the permanent soundtrack to my Radio 1 listening. And it is a great song. I have always liked Muse, been impressed by the way each track manages to eek out some variety from the basic formula of fiddly guitar riffs and falsetto singing. This song though is a bit different; less serious than the norm, more playful, even slightly sensual, the lyrics on a more simple human level than the usual hogwash they churn out, with a low down and grinding guitar line. Always more a band to be admired than take to your heart, this song suggested a change was in the offing. In fact, the subsequent album proved largely to be business as usual. Can you really love a band with tracks entitled “Map Of The Problematique”, “Exo-Politics” and “Knights Of Cydonia”? I can’t. But I still like this song.
  • Album – Arctic Monkeys/Whatever People Say I am, That’s What I’m Not. This was going to be a tricky category. Razorlight’s eponymous album was listenable, Divine Comedy’s below-par, Thom Yorke’s was great at first but interest soon paled (definitely one you need to be in the mood for) and Badly Drawn Boy’s was a slow grower, but I’m still not wholly sold on it. Then I just thought I’d check when the Arctic Monkeys’ album was released, and when I saw the CD said © 2006 I realised we had a winner. The true test I think is that I am still whacking the CD onto my stereo or selecting the appropriate file on my MP3 player now, a year after it was released. I came late to the Monkeys; I don’t keep my finger on the musical pulse, as you can tell, and it was my Radio 1 listening wife who insisted I check them out because she was sure they were my kind of thing. She was right, again. I loved the singles, but wasn’t quite prepared for the whole album, wondering if it would all be much of a noisy, samey muchness. In the event there is a surprising subtlety and difference in the arrangements for what is to all intents a basic 4-piece band, but as I often find is the case it’s the lyrics that turn an artist from being great into fucking awesome. The subject matter of the songs on the album vary, but many are wistful and poetic paeans to late-teens nightlife, of sticky carpets and kebab splattered street, but containing a knowledgeable and knowing ambivalence. The lyrics at times may be reminiscent of Morrissey, but are unmistakably in Alex Turner’s own voice; and one it will be fascinating to see develop over time.
  • Book – Jung Chang & Jon Halliday/Mao: The Untold Story. God I’m rubbish at reading these days, as anyone who keeps tabs on the “Reading” section on my sidebar can testify; I think I only read a handful of books last year, and they were mainly clustered around my holidays. So what book should I pick as my choice of the year? Well, obviously, the one that sounds most impressive, and which of course seems to reflect on my huge intellect. Mao is just such a book (even if I haven’t quite finished it yet). But it is good; in fact it is a great read, and that surprised me. So much has been written of Hitler and Stalin, but I knew very little of Mao. He seemed a far more elusive figure of which I knew only minor details; he had a seemingly benign smile, published a red book, and was the sponsor of death on an historic scale. Vague. I did know enough to be astonished that there are still rebels about the globe who term themselves Maoist in this day and age, and I wanted to know more. Mao has certainly filled in the gaps and is relentless in covering its subject. What surprised me, though is how it is such a rattling good read; the writing style is fluid and engaging and drag you in like a novel. It is pretty much a straight chronology of Mao’s life, but in travelling through history it uses one of my favourite techniques (as often used by novelist Paul Auster) in continually referring back to the future and showing how things would in fact turn out. The book is not without its faults however. It is unremittingly one sided, it makes no attempt to portray Mao as anything but a monster pretty much from birth, and it seems that when presented with a choice of showing Mao in a bad light, or portraying him as pure evil, it always takes the latter path. However, if you accept that it is a purely subjective account, albeit one with stacks of research to back it up, then you won’t go far wrong.
  • Film – Ice Age 2. Last year I said I doubted I would get the chance to go the cinema again, and so this category was in effect defunct. Well, in fact, I saw two! Ice Age and Cars! Cars was fine (I am a huge fan of all Pixar’s work) but for me Ice Age had the edge, if for no other reason than because of the great short sketches featuring the squirrel-creature-thing chasing an acorn over the ice. I can’t really say much more than that. Sorry.
  • Sport – Manchester City v Porto. I have vowed several times never to go to any more pre-season friendlies. The last time I promised myself was after the inaugural Thomas Cook trophy match against Barcelona, also the first game played at the City Of Manchester Stadium. So I was never going to go to this year’s instalment of the “trophy”; until my parents said they were going and wanted to take my son. So how could I not go to his first City match? And I was a proud as punch when the teams ran out and my son, decked in his away kit chanted “City City City” with no clear idea of what he was doing. He actually seemed quite interested for the first 20 minutes before his attention started to drift, a good 10 minutes after I had already seen enough, along with many others in the crowd. The match was every bit as poor as expected, but still; a momentous day for me, and a lifetime of pain ahead for him.
  • TV – Jonathan Ross. I could say that something like the wonderful Planet Earth was this years highlight, but for me David Cameron’s appearance on Jonathan Ross show sticks in the memory; not so much for the interview itself (where Cameron came across quite well I thought; still buggered if I’ll vote for him mind) as for the aftermath. I watched the interview, was vaguely amused, and thought nothing more of it. Then, on Sunday morning I watched the paper review on Andrew Marr and discovered not for the first or last time that the press had lost their heads completely and were seemingly appalled by Ross’s crude line of questioning regarding Cameron’s, er, youthful feelings for Margaret Thatcher. Now it is certainly not a pretty image, but I don’t think that is what was being objected to. That the matter was still being discussed a week later on Question Time and This Week is something I found more surprising than perhaps I should. Still, seeing out-of-touch morons getting their knickers in a twist proved once more to be a rich source of amusement, and so scoops the award.
  • Radio – Simon Mayo. I used to hate Simon Mayo. No, hate is too strong a word; I just ignored his Radio 1 show, and turned over whenever he popped up on Saturday evening TV on one of his various unsuccessful attempts at light entertainment. Particularly painful, I remember, were his appearances on Top Of The Pops when he would introduce each artist with a painfully jokey remark; but then I stopped watching TOTP. When he moved to Radio 5 my heart sank, especially when I actually listened to his show and heard dreadful features like a Celebrity Quiz slot (I remember listening to one featuring Hale or Pace of “Hale and Pace”) and asking each guest what they would do if they were King for a day (Jeremy Clarkeson, for example; you can imagine how fun that was to listen to). But gradually he dropped that nonsense and against all odds got down to being a fine presenter and interviewer and quite an engaging character. His chats with film critic Mark Kermode each Friday are a weekly highlight. On The Culture Show Kermode is revered as some sort of movie guru; on Simon Mayo’s show the pairs’ mocking banter reveals Kermode more as an unwitting object of ridicule, as befits anyone who honestly thinks The Exorcist is the best film of all time . I don’t mean to be cruel to Kermode, he is likeable and highly entertaining, but I would never take his opinion on any film seriously. Kermode’s appearances, along with the weekly sports, books and tv panels and Mayo’s intelligent and informed style of interviewing, make his show my favourite on the radio; on my days off I usually try and time it so I am washing the pots when his show is on, and there can surely be no higher praise.
  • Blog – Stumbling & Mumbling. Consistently the blog I look forward to reading most when I check Bloglines (after yours, of course) is Chris Dillow’s Stumbling And Mumbling. Chris usually writes about 2-3 beautifully concise posts a day, a good average somewhere between the crazily prolific Tim Worstall with his 15 daily posts and that idle git The Obscurer who manages sometimes 2 a month if he can be arsed. Chris specialises in writing about economics from a left-wing, pro-free markets perspective; put another way he generally writes common sense reflecting on a recent piece of research, often raising matters no one else bothers with. Sometimes he floats questions as if thinking aloud, unsure himself what the answer is; at other times he is dogmatic, sure of himself and most of all right, as in his numerous attacks on the creed of managerialism; occasionally I don’t have a clue what he is talking about, as in his posts on the stock market; and from time to time the posts seem a valid excuse for a photo of a pretty lady, which is fair enough. Most of all he is informative and entertaining, and who can resist a blog with a post entitled “Monty Panesar And Market Failure” and where not only does the post itself justify the title, but actually makes an interesting point?

The Obscurer Awards 2006

Welcome once again to this historic 1920’s ex-council semi, and more specifically to the prestigious “Pantry Room”. Until early 2003 this room languished as just a storage space for the hoover, the ironing board and last Christmas’s wrapping paper; but a sympathetic renovation that year saw it transformed into the computer room for the new PC. Since August 2004 it has become the home of The Obscurer, and tonight it is the venue for the second annual Obscurer Awards!

(APPLAUSE)

And so without further ado, let us announce the winners.

  • Best Single – Razorlight/Somewhere Else. It is quite unusual for me to buy singles, but I bought this one in part because this song wasn’t included on Razorlight’s so-so debut album “Up All Night” (one of those records where you find when you buy it that you know all the good tracks already, although it has grown on me since). Great start to the song with chiming oriental bells, then a strummed acoustic guitar reminiscent of The Beatles “Things We Said Today”, and then the song builds, quietly at first as it tells it’s odd tale of boy meets girl, then gradually growing in volume and intensity as Johnny Borrell’s singing becomes more frantic and raw, throwing out lines of poetic guff about “catching the sparks that flew from your heels” until the song gallops to its conclusion. Just over three minutes of pure pop, the way it should be.
  • Best Album – Doves/Some Cities. A fantastic return to form from fellow blues Doves after their previous album “The Last Broadcast” saw them treading water to some extent. This time round rather than get too complicated and write “Lost Souls III” they have developed a far more subtle and simplistic sound, but all the more innovative and sophisticated for all that. It also must have earned them a fortune from its use as background music all over the place, so you probably know half the stuff here even if you don’t realise it. You’ll know you know “Black and White Town”, the first single from the album that hits the ground running sounding like the bastard child of “Lust For Life” and “Heatwave” and was an early contender for single of the year, but the rest of the album is more than a match for it. And it sounds like an album too; I enjoyed Kaiser Chiefs “Employment” (Blur, if they’d been inspired by Freddie and The Dreamers rather than The Kinks) and Gorrilaz “Demon Days” (Blur, but armed with a Casio VL-tone), but they do seem like just a collection of individual songs; on “Some Cities” tracks perfectly flow into one another like they are part of some divine running order, and when listening to the whole thing from beginning to end you feel you are getting more than the sum of its parts, as is the case with the best albums. Standout tracks for me are “Almost Forgot Myself”, “One Of These Days” and “Someday Soon”; best title of a track is “Shadows Of Salford”, because it must be inspired by mishearing the line “shadows of sulphur” from Beck’s song “Lazy Flies” from “Mutations“, as I do every time I listen to that song.
    A worthy mention also for The Boo Radleys “Find A Way Out”, sadly not a new album but a fine greatest hits package nonetheless. I was a fan of the band from 1991 when their second EP inspired a trainspotterish devotion in me; they were one of those bands that could do no wrong in my eyes. When they briefly hit it big with “Wake Up Boo!” I was delighted they had developed from minor shoegazers to (almost) pop chart-toppers; when they responded to that success by coming out with the raucous anti-pop of “C’mon Kids” (their finest album) I again dutifully agreed with the path they were taking. “Find A Way Out” has clearly been compiled by someone who knew what they were doing; it includes the obvious singles, but also the finest album and b-side tracks, as well a few songs even I don’t have (a version of “Tomorrow” from Bugsy Malone for Gods sake!). It should find a space in everyone’s record collection.
  • Best Book – David Clayton/Kinkladze: The Perfect 10. Some of the biggest names in literary fiction brought out novels last year. I bought “Saturday” by Ian McEwan, “Never Let Me Go” by Kazou Ishiguro and “Arthur and George” by Julian Barnes. Didn’t read them though. Fingers crossed I will deal with them when I go to Cornwall in May (although Ishiguro’s “When We Were Orphans” went with me on about three holidays before I finally dealt with it, and wished I hadn’t bothered. He’s on a final warning). So last years “Best Novel” award has been re-titled as “Best Book”, but unless you have a special interest in the subject then you probably won’t want to read my choice anyway. On the other hand if you were one of the troops of Man City fans who questioned their sexuality during the three years Georgi Kinladze starred for the club (I know lads who sent him Valentines cards) then this book is for you, and me. It isn’t the best written of books by any stretch of the imagination; I can see why the author thought it necessary to include a brief history of Georgia in the book, but it is clichéd and needn’t be there. Similarly, the section on Georgi’s early life and times reads more like a school creative writing exercise than part of a published work (“not long after they returned home (from hospital when Gio was born), incredibly, Georgi began crawling” – bollocks he did. “As soon as he could stand up on his own, Robizon (Gio’s father) rolled a football to the infant and the two year old Georgi trapped it with his left foot” – no he didn’t. And you’re saying he crawled immediately but only stood up at two? “Georgi was also a very good arm wrestler, and whenever the kids in the street would challenge him, Georgi was always the best.” – don’t you mean bestest in the world ever ever?) But once we get Kinky to City either David Clayton’s writing improves or I just don’t care anymore as we re-live all those memorable moments; that first game against Spurs when the new signing with the unpronounceable name seemingly had the ball glued to his foot, until he passed it perfectly with a nonchalant flick; the Southampton goal when the whole of Maine Road seemed to crowd under that stands to watch it again on telly at half time; those other classic goals against Middlesbrough in the league and West Ham in the cup; and the sight of him trudging off the pitch at the Britannia Stadium in Stoke as we went our separate ways, Gio to Ajax, City to the second division. I think that Clayton is mostly spot on with his observations, although he does avoid the fact that many City fans (though not me) were questioning his contributions towards the end, saying he was a luxury when we needed battlers (as if football isn’t intended as a spectator sport). He is also an effective apologist for Kinky’s latter days; arguing that his Ajax career (where he was bought as a replacement for Jari Litmanen) was scuppered first when Litmanen stayed and then when the manager who bought him left; and how his time at Derby was hugely hampered by injury (though he still won a player of the year award) then fucked up good and proper by the outstanding work of some of his many agents. As a Kinkladze fan I am inclined to unquestioningly believe this as being an accurate account of Kinky’s difficulties, but Clayton doesn’t gloss over the infuriating way Gio’s career has turned out, a tragic case of potential unfulfilled, and I think there is enough in “Kinkladze: The Perfect 10” to interest any football fan.
  • Best Film – I haven’t been to the cinema at all this year. After last years default win for Fahrenheit 9/11 I think this category is pretty much defunct.
  • Best Sporting Moment – 2nd Ashes Test, Edgbaston. Liverpool’s jammy victory in the European Cup was looking good as the most remarkable sporting moment of the year, until the England cricket team started acting up. After the expected defeat in the first test at Lords (another tradition fucked up for no good reason; Lords should always be the second test), the clever money was on an Ashes whitewash to Australia. Sure, perhaps England could be a match for the Aussies in a few years time, after the retirement of Warne and McGrath, but not just yet. And it was McGrath’s intervention before the game had even started that helped swing the match England’s way when he stood on a loose cricket ball while warming up, so ruling himself out of the game; I showed my disappointment at the news the only way I knew, by punching the air repeatedly. England batted first and seemed to treat it as if it was a one-day game scoring a ridiculous 407 all out on the first day, playing Australia at their own game; it was particularly great to see Flintoff and Pietersen together at the crease and getting good scores, twatting the ball all over the shop. In reply Australia made 308, Warne memorably giving his wicket away hilariously by charging down the pitch to Giles, missing with his slog and being clean bowled. England, then, were in the unlikely position of having a first innings lead, but made a poor start to their second innings as wickets tumbled to Lee and Warne and you could see it all slipping away; that is until Flintoff arrived and crashed a rapid 73 off 86 balls, an absurd way to play considering the state of play in the game but it did the trick, and assisted by Simon Jones for the last wicket stand they gave England something to bowl at. Australia made a decent start to their second innings and gradually began to eat into their target, but dropped wickets along the way. It was looking delicately poised, but when Harmison bowled Clarke with the last ball of the third day it looked like England had just about done enough; Australia needed 108 to win with just 2 wickets left and many (though not me!) were already talking of England having levelled the series. In the event the fourth day of play on Sunday was excruciating; while my son watched Cbeebies I listened to the radio as Australia calmly rattled towards England’s total. It was the pace as much as anything that depressed; they scored runs at a steady clip and slowly it began to look inevitable that they would win. Hopes were raised when Warne trod on his stumps for 42, but last wicket pair Lee and Kasprowicz carried on where Warne and Lee had left off, advancing relentlessly towards their target. When my son graciously fell asleep I watched the closing stages on Channel 4 and I was resigned to defeat, watching the TV screen through my fingers as Australia moved within 2 runs of England’s score, thoroughly depressed as I just couldn’t see how England would ever get into such a good position against the Aussies again. I knew the old cliché that we only needed one good ball to win the game but it didn’t look like coming as Australia barely put a foot wrong until Kaspowicz “gloved” the ball high in the air for Geraint Jones to take the catch (for once) and I danced and leapt about the living room, whooping and hollering, looking like a complete knob, whole my son continued to sleep on the settee.
  • Best TV Moment – Casanova. I was looking forward to watching Archangel one Saturday; scripted by Ian Le Frenais and Dick Clements, based on a Robert Harris novel a friend had recommended (but which I hadn’t read), it looked like it couldn’t fail. It was all action but totally unengaging, and after half an hour I was fast asleep. It was so bad that the following day I approached “Casanova” with caution, wondering if I could ever find any interest in TV drama again. Five minutes in and “Casanova” changed all that; it was simply fantastic. The script and dialogue from Russell T Davies sparkled, the performances from all were inspired, the whole look and feel of the production was top notch. There wasn’t a lull through all 3 episodes but the highlight must be the final scene when Edith (Rose Byrne) speaks to the old Casanova (Peter O’Toole) on his deathbed. The emotions unfurled as love and death crash headlong into one another in the scene were so powerful that I cried like a baby, great big sobs that caused my shoulders to heave and I burbled “this is ridiculous” as I smeared great wells of tears from my eyes. Now I’m not immune from having a good cry occasionally, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is my all time favourite film, but nothing has ever affected me quite like that. It was a remarkable end to a remarkable serial.
  • Best Radio Moment – Jonathan Ross on Radio 2. I only really instituted the radio award last year to commemorate the end of Mark and Lard’s Radio 1 show; long term I think this one may go the way of the Film award. I can’t think of a specific radio moment, but this year has seen me listen fairly regularly to Jonathan Ross’s Saturday show on Radio 2. I had meant to listen to it for ages, but three Saturday mornings on the trot spent driving long distances in the car (going to holiday in Perthshire and then the Lakes) meant I had the chance to get a bit of serious radio listening done, and it is a habit I have managed to continue at home. Ross is definitely at his best on radio; while his TV chat show can get a bit irritating and feels staged, everything seems far more natural on radio and the whole show flows better, as if he doesn’t have to try too hard. He also has fewer “celebrity” guests on radio, so the people he does interview are usually all the more interesting as a result. Can you imagine him talking to David Gedge on the telly, or to Nancy Dell’Olio on radio? No, neither can I. I know which I prefer.
  • Best Blog Post – The Sharpener/From the Office of Sleazy Intelligence. A new category this year, by a blogger I don’t often read but should (Jamie K) from a group blog I do always read (The Sharpener). This is just an inspired piece of creative writing, as the author imagines a life of espionage in dubious service of these fair isles, engaged in “double crosses, triple thinks and quadruple bluffs”. What do you want to do with your life? Jamie seems to hanker after being a rumpled and sordid Noel Coward figure in a Graham Greene novel; if he never manages it then I hope he can be content with being a fantastic writer.

Office Politics

Curiosity got the better of me, and I have now had the chance to watch the American version of The Office (courtesy of BBC3 who are broadcasting it as The Office – An American Workplace) and I actually thought it was quite good. It would be easy to pick holes in it, and it goes without saying that I didn’t think it was a good as the original, but it is only fair to bear in mind that a) the US version was designed for a US audience, and so I would always expect to find it more difficult to relate to, and b) the original version of The Office, across the 12 episodes and 2 Christmas specials, was a near perfect sit-com, and to top it would be almost impossible.

A few observations; first that the actor who plays Jim (Tim in the British version) appears to have studied Martin Freeman down to every slight tic and mannerism, and so that looks a bit laboured. The NBC version also seems to be making the whole Tim-Dawn relationship a bit more obvious, but perhaps it is only obvious to those who have seen the original. After watching the opening episode I got out my Office DVD and I was surprised at how much busier the script seemed in the British version. Although the basic plot of both episodes was the same, it was interesting to see what had been changed (a reference to Camilla Parker Bowles becomes Hilary Rodham Clinton; wanker becomes jerk; trifle is flan) and what had just been dropped altogether. The result is that the US version generally seemed slower and more sparse, but I still liked it; perhaps because of what they could have changed, but thankfully didn’t.

It will be interesting to see where the American writers take it from here; future episodes look as if they won’t be such straight copies of the British version. I am particularly interested to see how the Pub Quiz episode works when it is transformed into a game of Basketball.

If nothing else, I think the US version of The Office, if not as good as the British version, is certainly not as bad as many people seemed to expect, with their tired arguments that “Americans don’t do irony”. You would think that the existence of The Simpsons, Cheers and Larry Sanders would have put to bed such lazy thinking, but no. As for the other argument, that the American networks are bound to sap the originality out of any imported idea, just remember the sort of rubbish our own homegrown broadcasters come up with sometimes. Can you imagine what ITV would turn out if they decided to do a British remake of Seinfeld? They’d probably cast Bradley Walsh as Jerry and Joe Pasquale as George. God knows who would play Kramer and Elaine; probably the golden handcuff pair, Ross Kemp and Sarah Lancashire.

No, don’t laugh.

The Nanny State We're In

I watched a few minutes of Grumpy Old Men last night, just before popping out for a Chinese take-away, and it made me realise how happy-go-lucky and un-grumpy I actually am.
The subject this week was “The Nanny State”, and its opening narration neatly encapsulated the somewhat ambivalent attitudes some people have on the subject. I am paraphrasing, obviously, but the voice-over went something like “There was a time when at least you were free from the state’s nannying influence in the morning, when you could retire to the bathroom and dream up new laws you would like implementing”. In other words, the nanny state interfering in your life is wrong, but you want the state to enact more laws to interfere in others’ business . Smashing.

This is part of the “Daily Mail paradox”. If you were to do a statistical breakdown I would suspect that the phrase “the nanny state” has been used more often in the Mail than in all other publications throughout history put together. At the same time, no other paper is quite so active when it comes to calling for further restrictions on drinking, gambling, video games, films, television programmes and so on. If the Mail doesn’t like it, then it should be banned; if it does, then the nanny state should leave it alone.

But what were the specific intrusions by the state as voiced in Grumpy Old Men? Well, the first was being told about testicular self-examination. Oh cruel and tyrannical state! How dare you educate people about health issues? Personally, since puberty, I have been checking my balls daily for no good reason, but I am not forced to do so by law. Perhaps the contributors live in different health authorities with different byelaws, but I doubt anyone is committing an offence in not feeling their bollocks.

Then there was the old bore about CCTV cameras. “I don’t want to be watched 24 hours a day,” wailed one grump. Well, you’re not, so don’t worry; even the people in the CCTV room probably spend more time eating sandwiches and reading the paper than watching people on the monitors. I know I would if I worked there. Arthur Smith complained that sometimes he just wants to get away from peoples’ attention, but is unable to thanks to CCTV. Someone should tell him that CCTV cameras tend to be on private property, where he shouldn’t be in the first place, or in large city centres, where it is nigh on impossible to avoid other people. I suggest he tries the Cotswolds; quiet, isolated and CCTV camera free.

Just before I left to collect my Salt and Pepper Chicken with Boiled Rice they were talking about smoking bans. Now, despite being a non-smoker I am against a law preventing smoking in public places, but the complaint here seemed to be about non-smoking areas anywhere in society. Why? If a shop or bar wants to have a no-smoking policy then that isn’t the nanny state, that is an individual company exercising its freedom to run a business how it sees fit. But, as with “political correctness”, “the nanny state” is a term that people seem to bandy about whenever to describe something they don’t like.

Now listen, I am against the state interfering in areas that are not its concern, I have made that point several times here already; but I actually find myself getting more annoyed by stupid “nanny state” comments of the sort made in Grumpy Old Men. I know, I know, Grumpy Old Men is meant as a mildly amusing programme there to entertain and perhaps I am over-reacting, but whatever the humourous intent the opinions offered were serious and genuinely held. In the end I wondered what the contribitors were actually bothered about. Even the things objected to seemed largely trivial and not at all intrusive; I got the impression of a group of well off and comfortable people who wanted to play the part of the downtrodden railing against tyranny, or maybe just the arrogant whingeing about being told what to do. Orwell’s name was invoked, obviously, as if talk of the “thought police” and the “ministry of truth” was relevant, but I think that is overdoing it a bit.

When a speed camera caught me the other week I was pissed off, but as I knew that I was doing 90 mph on the A74 just because I wanted to reach my destination quicker I just accepted it, rather than moan about “big brother”. I don’t think Orwell was attacking the use of technology to enforce perfectly sensible laws in 1984; similarly, although he coined phrases such as “thought crime” and “newspeak”, I doubt he would have worried about the sort of “political correctness gone mad” where “you can’t even call people a ‘spastic’ or a ‘paki’ nowadays”*. No, I think he had some significantly more important concepts in mind when he penned his tale of a totalitarian future.

*this is not so much a direct quote as a generic “political correcteness gone mad” comment.

Go West

Interesting programme on Channel Five yesterday (and it’s not often you hear me say that) with Mikhail Gorbachev presenting Big Ideas That Changed The World; in this case the big idea being communism. We were given a little potted history of communism, which was interesting if not revelatory, but interspersed with Gorbachev’s own commentary it became quite fascinating.

Gorbachev is still clearly a fan of Marx’s theories, and was at pains to stress how the central planning, repression and cult of personality of the Stalin era had nothing to do with the Communist Manifesto. Growing up in a staunchly communist family it is little wonder Gorbachev was attracted to the theories at first; less so when you learned that his grandfather, who was a party member, was tortured by the secret police for withholding some grain for his family. Self-delusion seems to have been, to some extent, the order of the day, as Gorbachev’s grandfather insisted that Stalin could not have known the true barbarity of the regime; today, Gorbachev tells that he has seen with his own eyes the execution orders signed in Stalin’s hand.

But despite this early eye-opener into the Soviet Union’s totalitarian nature, Gorbachev became a loyal party worker, and rose rapidly through the ranks. The Red Army’s success in the Second World War actually illustrated one way in which central planning, however brutally applied, could be a huge advantage in times of war. Following the end of the war, as communist governments sprang up across eastern Europe and the world, as Gorbachev recalled the Soviet superiority in technology, sport, the arts and the space race, and while Khrushchev made some modest reforms, you can imagine how Gorbachev, amongst others, would be unlikely to question communism, and could see it as a system for the future.

For Gorbachev, disillusionment set in when Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev and turned the clock back to the Stalinist era of centralisation, the arms race, tyranny and ultimately stagnation. Gorbachev laughed when he remembered politburo meetings that even discussed the minutia of the production of women’s underwear.

When he became leader he was still an advocate of communism, but wanted it to be reinvigorated with greater freedoms and democracy. Today he speaks of how Marx’s followers (but not Marx) did a lot of damage, by suppressing trade and enterprise, and much of what drives a normal society. Interestingly he also believes that the west needs its own perestroika; that capitalism suppresses other human values of equality and solidarity, and that the lesson from communism, that it is an error to try to suppress universal human values, can equally apply to capitalism. I am not quite sold on this theory myself, but certainly I feel that any strict adherence to one ideology is likely to be a mistake, and that capitalism is capable of some pretty unpleasant outcomes that we should not turn a blind eye to. Surely, just as elements of free market liberalism were required in the Soviet Union to make it a more free society, so in the west the state must also play an important role in making society a fairer one. Many people seem to have an automatic aversion to either markets or to state involvement, but I think they both have a role to play; it is just a question of balance. But I am repeating what I have said in previous posts, now, so I will shut up.

One final thing, though; this programme was also a timely reminder of Europe’s recent history. As the television screen was filled with images of the Berlin Wall being torn down, Gorbachev spoke of how he refused to use the Red Army to intervene as the old communist leaders of eastern Europe were swept from power. I couldn’t help thinking of how, last year, when he died, Ronald Reagan was considered almost solely responsible for the dismantling of the communist regimes and the end of the cold war. This year it was the Pope’s turn. No doubt next year, when Thatcher dies, she will get all the plaudits. I think that Gorbachev, more than anyone else, deserves the credit.