Saturday, 30 May 2009

A good old rant

Sorry about the total no-show last week, I just didn’t have anything worth saying and not even any filler to distract you from the lack of content. However this past week I have been doing interesting things, if you count listening to music that I hadn’t heard before interesting, which I do. Anyway one of the bands that I’ve discovered recently is called Porcupine Tree, if you like Pink Floyd you should check them out, especially their early stuff which is beautifully psychedelic, if you don’t like Pink Floyd you should go find a beach at low tide, bury yourself up to the neck and wait for the tide to come in. The second band that I have discovered is called The Flaming Lips, whose music is basically just happiness condensed into musical form. You should definitely check out Soft Bulletin because it’s one of the most joy inducing albums I have heard in a while.

So those are the two bands that I’ve discovered and actually liked. While exploring I also decided to check out some of the better known and notoriously awesome indie bands that every indie music fan from here to the moon obsess over. I had a look at some My Bloody Valentine and Broken Social Scene, both of whom I will probably check out more of later because I got a bit distracted by unhealthy amounts of Porcupine Tree. Anyway the one band that I did check out in a big way was The Arcade Fire. I have been hearing for a good while now from everything associated with indie music that The Arcade Fire are god’s gift to indie music and that I should listen to them and then proceed to thrown adoration and unquestioning love at their feet. I downloaded their second album, Neon Bible and to be honest I am distinctly unimpressed. It’s just a bunch of dreary, emotionally devoid mediocrity. It’s not that it’s bad in the same way that rap music is bad; it’s just not that good. There seems to be no musical ingenuity at all and most of the songs lack melody to the extent that it really hard to listen to them for any length of time. I have to concede that there are some quite good songs on the album, like No Cars Go and Antichrist Television Blues, but frankly I have heard nothing that leads me to think that The Arcade Fire deserve any of the absurd amount of acclaim they get from literally everyone. Even bands like Coldplay and David fucking Bowie love these guys; they get perfect scores from every music reviewer on the planet. I just don’t get why, they are nothing more that decent.

Exploring all this new music made me think a little about the culture and trends associated with different types of music. I’ve always found it really bizarre how some people feel the need to identify solely with one distinct group of people to the extent that they neglect all other forms of social interaction outside the specific group. These groups are often associated with music tastes; people group together because they all like the same music, but their music tastes, like their entire lives become single tracked; they listen to one type of music and one type only, refusing to diversify for fear of betraying their group. The most infuriating of these are the ones who claim to be being ‘independent’. They think that somehow being in a group of people who all reject the same social norms like dressing is a way that doesn’t make you look like a have just been dragged through a charity shop or shaving more than once a decade, in exactly the same way is somehow being independent, it’s not; it’s just being different.

Being independent is doing what you want to do, listening to music that you want to listen to, dressing in a way that you want to, believing what you think is right, not jumping on a slightly smaller bandwagon going in a different direction from the rest of us. The problem is that any attempt to be independent by rejecting what the majority do is ultimately doomed to failure because you confine yourself to avoiding certain things because they’re popular, rather than doing things regardless of what other people think about them.

The same is the case for music taste. People get into bands that are unsigned simply because they’re unsigned and not popular. They become attached to this band simply because of what they represent; independence from the popular music industry. When that band gets recognised and finally signed up to a record label so that they can distribute their music to a wider audience they suddenly get accused of ‘selling-out’, as though becoming part of the popular music scene, getting a recording contract and finally getting the credit they deserve for being good musicians is a bad thing and it would have been better if they had just remained unsigned so only you and a few other people know about them. It seems to me that these people don’t actually listen to the music because they think it’s good music, rather because they want to be different, to be independent from everyone else. If they can quote bands that no-one has ever heard of and boast about how many times they’ve seen them live they think that somehow they’re better then everyone else.

The problem is that this happens with all kinds of music, not just unsigned music. People listen to music because they buy into the image that the music represents instead of listening to music because they like how it sounds. People buy into one genre of music to the extent that they only listen to that one style of music, not because they think that that style is immeasurably better than any other type of music, but because it fits with whatever bullshit image that they have unquestioningly accepted because they think it makes them look different.

Obviously I am looking at extremes here and almost everyone I know, and hopefully all of the people reading this, don’t buy into one specific style to the exclusion of everything else. However most people do regard music with a certain amount of snobbery, I know I have done in the past. People regard music solely as an art form designed to convey some sort of message that they can either accept or reject according to personal preference, and the best music will have an element of this, however most music is just there to entertain. Music doesn’t need to have some deeper meaning to be good music; primarily music needs to be aesthetically enjoyable. This is why I found The Arcade Fire to be so overrated; it simply was not interesting or overtly enjoyable to listen to. You can bang on all day about the deeper meanings or the serious and intelligent lyrics but that is all irrelevant if the music is drab and uninteresting. People are far too willing to dismiss music as being generic, manufactured and samey and often I don’t disagree I just contest that this makes it bad music. A catchy tune can be just that, a catchy tune and you should let yourself enjoy it without worrying about the message that the band is trying to convey or the technical quality of the music. Some songs are just designed to make you happy, not to make you think.

This is not of course to say that songs which are thought provoking and do have a better technical quality to them are no better than catchy, manufactured pop songs, that would be absurd; Dark Side of the Moon is far better than anything the Killers could ever hope to write. What we need to remember is that we can appreciate both type of music and everything in between for different reasons. We don’t need to limit ourselves to a small subsection of the music industry for pretentious artistic reasons when there is perfectly good music doing exactly what it is intended to do waiting to be enjoyed by us. Sure sometimes you may be in mood for something deeper and more meaningful, or something slightly less generic, but occasionally pop songs can bed fun to listen to.

So I suggest that next time you happen to hear a song on the radio, don’t worry about who the artists is, or what image is associated with the music. Don’t search for deeper meanings or complicated musical subtleties. Just shut your eyes and listen to the song for what it is. It may be a generic, manufactured pile of crap, but if it isn’t a damn catchy generic, manufactured pile of crap. It might just make you happy.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

House of Common Criminals

For the first time in a long time this week a news story has really got under my skin, not just made me slightly peeved as with some news stories recently, I mean really genuinely made be furious. This is of course the documentation in the Daily Telegraph of the expenses claimed by Members of Parliament. These expenses included, if you didn’t know, paying for a swimming pool, refurbishing and reselling a home and most out-standing of all; paying for maintenance on a moat. You can view the expenses in detail here if you have nothing better to do. 

Inevitably MPs have graciously apologised and the prospective party leaders have demanded that their MPs pay the money claimed for illegitimate reasons. I applaud the party leaders for doing this and indeed can find no real fault with the expenses claims that they themselves made. However I don’t think than a meaningless apology and begrudgingly giving back the money goes far enough; apart from being slightly out of pocket (and let’s face it when you own a country estate complete with a fucking moat that is hardly going to be a issue) the MPs will get away scot-free. No doubt there will be changes to the system so that this appalling mass fraud will be much harder to commit in future and the reputation of MPs will be somewhat worsened from lying, cheating, unprincipled, cold-hearted, manipulative crooks with no integrity, to, well slightly worse lying, cheating, unprincipled, cold-hearted, manipulative crooks with even less integrity.

What the MPs have done essentially amounts to fraud on a massive scale. They have stolen from the taxpayer and abused a system which is legitimately there to allow them to do their jobs; serve the people who elected them. This scandal is a complete abuse of the trust which we put in our politicians to serve the interests of the country as a whole, rather than their own pocket. They are public servants elected by the public (those that can be arsed to vote that it) to govern the country and protect our individual rights, not to milk the system for personal profit. It is a complete betrayal of trust and an affront to the integrity of democracy. MPs have acted with complete disregard for the responsibilities that they assumed when they took office. They have acted more like petty criminals than political leaders and that is why repaying the money with a red-faced apology is not enough.

It is not enough for a petty thief to give back the stolen goods and solemnly swear not to do it again; they should be punished for their crime and that is exactly what should happen to the crooks in parliament. Not only should they be stripped of the responsibility of office, they should be taken to court and be held accountable for their disgraceful acts. They have broken the law and should face the consequences. MPs cannot be allowed to get away with this with little more than a slap on the wrist. MPs are not above the law; anyone who defrauds someone out of thousands of pounds should face the full force of the law, no matter their occupation or their reputation. It is a vital principle of a civilised society that the lawmakers must adhere to the laws they make; to allow MPs to get away with this theft would be to subscribe the fallacy that MPs are above the law. They are not.

Not only should politicians be held accountable, they should be forced to make public any expenses claim they make in the future and any other financial transaction they might make while in office which is even tangentially relevant to their job. The Houses of Parliament are not some gentleman’s club whereby shady, under-the-table dealing can go on unnoticed; they are the place from where the country is governed, not in the interests solely of those governing it, but in the interests of those they serve. MPs represent our interests in the House of Commons, not their own. We should blow open the affairs of parliament for all to see; for it to serve public interests is must be open to public scrutiny, not the private scrutiny of those already in on the act. Politics should not be a shady exchange, carried out behind closed doors by self-serving, shallow, unprincipled crooks intent only on personal gain; it should be an honest dealing, carried out in public by integral, public-minded, unscrupulous people intent only on serving the interests of the public. No doubt they will make mistakes; that is inevitable, but they should have the courage to stand up and admit that they did wrong, rather than hiding behind excuses and smokescreens.

In short politics needs a damn good clear out. I don’t know how it will happen, but I hope that this latest scandal will make this truth apparent and any politician with a shred of integrity left in him will have the courage to stand up and make it happen. I do not expect this to happen by the way, but I would dearly love to be proven wrong.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Right to die?

This week in Bournemouth almost 100 people attended a suicide workshop run by an Australian doctor called Philip Nitschke, which is really hard to spell.  Dr Nitschke is the founder of the right-to-die organisation, Exit and is famous for helping four people to die Northern Territory, Australia in 1996. He recently came to the UK to run a series of suicide workshops so that anyone who is particularly bored with life can go along and find out the most efficient way of ridding the world of their depressed existence. Actually the workshops are only open to the seriously ill or elderly, so the Emos will have to work it out for themselves, which is unfortunate because most of them lack the basic initiative to hurl themselves from a suitably high building.

Inevitably the arrival of the doctor with the hard-to-spell name has caused some controversy; he was initially barred from entering the country under the Immigration and Asylum Act until the blundering morons at the Home Office realised that he was neither an immigrant, nor seeking asylum, nor did he pose a serious through to our safety, and allowed him entry into the country. Nonetheless fears still remain over the effect he may have on people who attend his workshops; someone might end up committing suicide, which is exactly the point of the exercise. I guess people like Alex Russell, the vicar of Pennington and chaplain of Oak Haven Hospice in Lymington, Hampshire forgot that the workshops are voluntary, so they’re only going to effect people who would consider suicide anyway and want to know the best way to do it. (By the way Alex Russell, the vicar of Pennington and chaplain of Oak Haven Hospice in Lymington, Hampshire is quoted on the BBC website and I couldn’t be arsed to find someone more noteworthy to quote at you.)

It’s hardly surprising that Doctor Nitschke has caused such controversy given people’s misgivings about assisted suicide. It seems that, although killing yourself is just rather sad, helping someone else kill themselves is some strangely sadistic act of murder. Apparently someone who is able to kill himself has more of a right to die that someone who can’t, simply by virtue of the fact that they don’t need any help. It seems very odd to me that people do not accept that people with a serious and extremely painful illness cannot have any help in ending their lives when they want to, rather than waiting for death to slowly and painfully arrive. Fortunately we seem to be in the middle of a u-turn in public opinion; a few months ago the parents of a man were acquitted of assisted suicide after taking their son, who had been crippled in a rugby accident and was paralyzed from the neck downwards, to Dignitas in Switzerland to commit suicide. Given this and the decision to allow Doctor Nitschke to run his suicide workshops, it seems apparent to me that people are warming to the idea that, just because you are unable to kill yourself, you should be forced to live a life of pain and suffering until you finally snuff it of natural causes.

It is absurd to me that the law essentially forces people to continue living when they just don’t want to, simply because they are unable to kill themselves. The law is there solely to protect our basic human rights, it is not there to dictate what we can and cannot do with our lives. While some restrictions must be placed on our action when they infringe upon other’s rights, what we do with out private lives is not the prerogative of some busy-body government official. Euthanasia is usually committed with the consent of the person who is being killed; they have chosen to end their lives, they just need help doing it. By illegalising Euthanasia the government is essentially infringing on our basic human right to choose; in this case to choose when to die.

It is the case with far too many of our laws that they try to dictate to us what we can and cannot do in our private lives. The role of law is not to set a moral code of society; it is to allow all members of society to live by their own moral code. This necessarily means that the government must protect each individual’s right to live as they will by stopping people from impinging on this right, but this is the extent to which the government should be able to dictate our behaviour. It should not be able to stop people from committing suicide. It should not be able to stop people from helping loved ones to die in dignity. It should not be able to stop people from giving workshops on how to kill oneself and it should not stop people from attending them. 

Sunday, 3 May 2009


Q: what is the cure for swine flu?

A: Oinkment.

That’s right, now that we have all gotten over the fact that wine flue is about to wipe out the human race the terrible jokes have began to seep from the pores of people who think they’re being clever when really they’re just being annoying. We are surely all doomed; if the swine flu doesn’t kill us we’ll be driven to suicide as a result of all the atrocious jokes about it. I’m not sure which is more dangerous actually.

The recent rise of swine flu, I refuse to use the scientifically correct version on the basis that it has subscript numbers and they are the work is Satan, as a pretender to the recession’s throne as the cause impending apocalypse has been hard to miss unless you live on the moon, or alternatively the deep south of America. Much like the recession, and indeed any story with any mileage, the popular media has latched onto the impending swine flu pandemic like a half starved dog latching onto a disappointingly grizzly piece of meat. As is almost always the case with media more concerned with selling newspapers than actually informing the public they have blown the threat of swine flu so far out of proportion that it makes Jeremy Clarkson’s ego look reasonably sized.

No doubt there is some threat posed by swine flu; given our lack of immunity to it we are all at risk of catching it and because it is a flu virus spread by water droplets in the air it can spread through a population like wildfire. However as a virus it is about as potent as the normal flu that is pretty widespread in this country every goddamn winter! Flu does kill about 1 million people worldwide every year, but that is a tiny drop in the ocean compared with how many actually catch it. Most people just have some antibiotics, a few days off work sleeping it off and then they’re fine.

One of the main worries voiced about swine flu is that quite a lot of young healthy people who would not normally be susceptible to the flu virus are catching it. But this does not mean to say that young healthy people are dying from it, in fact if young healthy people do catch it they have a much betting chance of fighting it and recovering, because they’re young and healthy. Their immune systems are strong enough to fight the virus and get over it. Flu is a problem when the old and infirm get it because their immune systems don’t have the strength to fight it off. The only thing that is going to come of the outbreak is a few more sick days and poor jokes.

So in short the mass media has taken the limited threat of a swine flu pandemic and made it seem like a huge threat to national health, even though the UK, for once, is extremely well prepared, with plenty of flu vaccines in stock after the winter. These flu vaccines work very well against swine flu so we have very little to worry about, yet the whole country is so panicked that we have resorted to making very, very bad jokes about it. We were as worried about the potential Sars and Bird flu outbreaks which were ultimately forgotten all about when the media because bored with it and threw to away like a child with ADHD discarding a new toy because it wasn’t interesting. The threat of bird flu is still very real; in fact it has barely diminished from what it was when it was the number one story for longer than ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna was at number 1 in the UK singles chart. But bird flu went out of fashion and it is now time for swine flu to have its time in the sun while we all walk around in face-masks wondering why no-one is going outside anymore.

In a couple of months swine flu will be resigned to the graveyard of diseases which were supposed to kill us all but never lived up to expectations. Submit epitaphs on a postcard in the form of haikus please. I wonder which animal will lend its name to a disappointing form of flu failing to live up to expectations next. I have it straight from the horse’s mouth that it will be equine flu.