Thursday, April 27, 2006

Double whammy

Bollocks. If there's one lesson I've learned as a journo/blogger crossover, it's never to give in to the temptation to post on current events when you haven't got all the facts. You'll always get caught out, usually savaged in the comments, and sometimes in the pub as well. All of these things happened to me yesterday (see previous post on Home Office foreign prisoner-release cock-up). I now have it from two relatively reliable sources that (a) the prisoners who were released had actually served their full sentences, and (b) there was apparently a complete lack of communication between the Home Office and the Prison Service over what should be done with these people after they were released.

So it's far from ideal, and the news today that most of them don't even seem to have an official nationality is even more embarrassing. But I will take back what I said about Charles Clarke's head needing to roll. Someone's definitely should, but who that person actually is may take some discovering.

What I'd also like to discover is why the BBC failed to report so many of these facts, which are basically essential to a proper understanding of the story. I've never thought of the Beeb as right-wing before, but its web article that I linked to yesterday certainly provoked a scarily right-wing reaction in me (Send 'em back! We want 'em aaaht!) that was purely based on WRONG information.

The second embarrassing thing to happen to me yesterday was twisting my bad ankle on crappy paving on Pentonville Road while heading home from said pub after said savaging session. Some boots ain't made for walking after three pints and two glasses of wine, apparently. I guess you have to suffer for fashion.

all together now...

Shiny shiny
Shiny boots of leather
Shiny leather, in the dark...

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Prison break

Murderers, rapists and god knows who else - over 1,000 in all - have been let loose in this country after serious oversight from the Home Office. I don't care if they were foreign or not, as it doesn't make the slightest bit of difference to their potential victims. All I know is that if there was a general election tomorrow, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the Tories won. There isn't an election tomorrow, of course, but Labour can certainly save itself a lot of face if Charles Clarke steps down before the end of the week. To stay on now just reinforces the perception of Blair and his cabinet ministers living in a consequence-free environment. Well, except for David Blunkett, that is. Call me old-fashioned, but this latest blunder seems to have considerably greater repercussions for the country at large.

Saturday, April 22, 2006


Today is Earth Day, apparently.

Environmental awareness has never been a sexy topic, and possibly plumbed the depths of uncoolness about 15 years ago, thanks in no small part to Michael Jackson's Earth Song. "What about elephants - have we lost their trust?" Oh dear.

Well, it now seems that green issues are making something of a comeback in popular culture, and disturbingly, the man who's brought them back to centre-stage is none other than Conservative leader David 'Tubs' Cameron. Of course, the issues themselves are largely being brushed aside by the mainstream media in order to focus on the "look at this Tory flip-flopper bigging up the environment to eat into the Lib Dem swing-vote" angle. And fair enough, I suppose.

A look at the party websites gives a pretty good idea as to how seriously they are taking the environment as a voter issue ahead of the May 4 local elections. Once you skip past all the (ill-judged, I thnk) Dave-the-Chameleon stuff, Labour's site currently features a speech by Gordon Brown to the UN where he demands "a new $20 billion fund for developing economies to invest in alternative sources of energy and greater energy efficiency". You can also read their official policy on the environment here. The Conservatives have also plastered green-friendly rhetoric across the front page of their website. Only the Liberal Democrats have chosen not to run with the environment as their main campaign issue ahead of the elections, although you can also read their policy on the subject here.

A BBC reporter (forget which one) summed it up pretty nicely a few days ago by saying "All three parties want to reduce carbon emissions. Where they differ is by how much."

It's interesting to see that local elections are the chosen platform for pushing the green platform, whereas the general elections were all about the war in Iraq (ok, not entirely, but it certainly got George Galloway elected, and that's bad enough). What I'm wondering is, when the eventual Brown vs. Cameron election battle begins in a few years' time, will carbon emissions be swept aside once again? Local green-friendly policies are one thing, but it's only at the national level that the thornier issues such as regulating CO2 levels from the airline industry can begin to be tackled. The pessimist in me is afraid that the environment will only become a big enough problem on which to elect a prime minister once it's too late to do anything to reverse the damage.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Get a job.

I don't mean to piss on another Canadian's parade, especially one from my hometown, but come on. The amount of adulation this guy seems to be getting for sustaining his hobo lifestyle by trading on other people's generosity (okay, so some of them obviously have more money than sense) is more than a little bewildering to me. Get a job, punk! Bloody hippies.

L'argent fait le bonheur

France's cherished generosity in social welfare is crumbling in all sorts of ways. Many column inches have been devoted over the past few weeks to Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's hasty retreat after planned legislation to allow employers to sack staff under the age of 26 after two years with no explanation sparked massive student protests.

I discovered a less glamourous and less shouted-about piece of social injustice this morning as part of my day job. France's biotech drug industry is slowly finding its feet again after several years of consolidation. There are several factors behind this renaissance, but the one that concerns me the most is a money-saving strategy devised by the government. Instead of public or even private subsidisation, biotech firms that have been operational for eight years or less and who plough at least 15% of their annual expenditure into R&D, are entitled to cut corners by being exempt from making obligatory social security payments to their employees who are carrying out the research.

In other words, significantly restricted access to healthcare, family and pension benefits. Nice. I'm all in favour of greater scientific advances, particularly those that concern human health. But surely there must be a way of fostering progress with cutting back on basic employee benefits?

Hat tip: Dow Jones

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


I finished reading the excellent Stasiland by Anna Funder a few days ago, but refrained from posting a review on EC1 Cruise Control because, well, everyone else read it about two years ago. But reports today of a new German film called The Life of The Others, which is apparently the first to portray the former East German secret police with any degree of realism, have provided me with the perfect opportunity.

The concept of Ostalgie - nostalgia for the old German Democratic Republic - isn't a phenomenon restricted to people from eastern Germany at all. By way of their trading on it, it's been transmitted to every tourist to be snapped at Checkpoint Charlie, anyone who's seen Goodbye Lenin, every student to ever hang a red-and-black poster of Che Guevara on their wall. It's easy to see why. For outsiders, the sense of mystery surrounding an organisation best known for tapping phones, sending messages in code, and encouraging its population to spy on each other to a level of almost comic extremes is intensely intriguing. An entire city cut off from the outside world by an enormous concrete wall - it's the stuff of legend. And for those who lived through it, it must be tempting to look back with fondness on all the subsidised healthcare, security and employment (of sorts) that were part and parcel of a communist state.

Of course, both of these views conveniently skim over the interrogation, torture, invasion of privacy, and crippling restrictions on freedom of expression that also came along with the GDR thanks to the Stasi. I'm no expert on Germany, but Funder's book was a startling reminder of just how all-pervasive a force the Stasi was in the everyday lives of East Germans, many of whom continue to bear emotional scars after years of having their lives controlled by an unseen hand. How these people must feel while walking past the stalls of DDR t-shirts and novelty chunk-of-the-Wall fridge magnets on sale in central Berlin is anyone's guess (although one victim in Stasiland tells of her feeling of "triumph" at being able to drive up to the former local Stasi HQ in Leipzig, now that it is only a museum).

In Stasiland, when Funder first approaches her boss at the German TV station to make a programme on the impact of the Stasi on the lives of East Germans and how they had coped since the Wall came down, she notes with dismay and frustration the reluctance and apparent disinterest of her employers in pursuing the idea. This was then explained as being masked embarrassment at revisiting an unsavoury moment in Germany's past, in much the same way that most Germans tend to squirm when any foreigner brings up Adolf Hitler.

However, a new wave of media releases over the past few years - Stasiland, the movie Downfall, which was the first German-produced film to show the face of the actor to play Hitler, and now The Life of the Others - could mark the point at which the tide begins to turn. Getting rid of the enormous collective national guilt complex that seems to have been created by World War II and 40 years of the GDR first requires an honest and open debate about exactly what happened. I don't think it's too simplistic to suggest that this is the only way in which the country as a whole can move on.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The end of Popworld as we know it

Regular readers of EC1 Cruise Control will be aware that I was not raised here in England. So when I first moved here in 2002 as a fresh-faced journalism exchange student, I had a fair bit of cultural catching up to do. The necessity of this became even more apparent when I decided to stay on permanently: having lived without a television in the halls of residence for a year, I was almost completely cut off from what the English actually watched when they got home from work. When memorably asked who I would choose to shag if the only two men left on earth were Jasper Carrot and Jim Davidson, my reply was, "Who's Jim Davidson?" (NB: Having lived with a TV in this country for several years, I can now see the complete unimportance of being au fait with Mr Davidson's canon of work).

I was never going to be able to participate in water-cooler conversations at this rate! Nothing for it, then, but to surround myself with as much UK pop culture as I could find. I watched Newsnight and Celebrity Big Brother, and everything in between. I read interviews with anyone from Nancy Dell'Olio to Nick Griffin. I took down scribbled notes during Saturday Kitchen. I drifted off to the Shipping Forecast. I awoke to Lauren Laverne on Xfm. I saw the Streets at Brixton Academy. I developed a nerdish crush on Mark Lamarr after watching too much Never Mind the Buzzcocks. I listened to endless bloody conversations between friends (you know who you are) on the relative highpoints of Alan Partridge, Jam and The Day Today, none of which I had then seen, but all of which I have since been subjected to viewing repeatedly (admittedly a fantastic experience).

One of the things I always secretly looked forward to during this bout of cultural immersion therapy was watching Simon Amstell and Miquita Oliver hosting Popworld on Sunday mornings on Channel Four. Sadly, today saw the last-ever episode of the programme with Simon and Miquita at the helm. On the surface, Popworld was nothing special - just another chart show with video clips, "wacky" presenters and interviews of sullen pop acts du jour. But for me, it was a revelation.

Unlike the two music TV channels where I grew up (and also unlike TOTP here), Simon and Miquita never fawned over the bands they interviewed on Popworld. In fact, it seemed that nine times out of ten, they either openly mocked them or didn't even seem to care that they were there. By making the whole show about the presenters, rather than the singers, they were able to brilliantly send up even the most serious and egotistical of the rock stars who appeared on their sofa. Miquita in particular was fab at doing this; the queen of deadpan, her quiet awe at the musings of Craig David were so overtly dripping in sarcasm that the only person who didn't appear to be in on the joke was Craig David himself. It was the kind of show that simply wouldn't exist in North America, and for that, I loved it.

I don't pretend to know exactly why they have left the show or what they will be doing next. It's been five years since they first appeared on Popworld, I believe, so I suppose it was time to move on. Miquita, I think, will remain as a T4 co-host on Sundays with Welsh Steve Whatshisface, and Simon Amstell is apparently attempting a career in stand-up comedy (eek). Their replacements on Popworld are a duo by the names of Alexa and Alex - more than a bit too cutesy for me already, but I'm willing to give them a shot. Still, part of their predecessors' success was precisely their lack of mainstream cutesiness; they were the Ally Sheedy to TOTP's Molly Ringwald.

But yeah - all this to say that Sunday morning hangover telly has just lost a little bit of its familiar glow for me (not least because Popworld has actually been broadcast on Saturdays for awhile now, durrr). Amstell and Oliver will forever remind me of my earliest years in London, waking up dehydrated after a night at The Bull or the Bricklayers Arms.

* * *

UPDATE: Barbara Ellen has an interview with Simon and Miquita in today's Observer.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Arpil Fools

The Grauniad's dark underbelly has been revealed for all to see - thanks to the newly redesigned Harry's Place front page, which you should check out now, as presumably this is an April Fool's thing and won't be around indefinitely. Although..... as well as being on the usual website, you can also find it on A new direction for the folks at HP? Hey, it's not like the Grauniad can't provide them with enough ammunition. Kudos especially for the spot-on "Bruschetta" and "Bunting" sections at the top of the page.

Be interesting to see if the Guardian decides to raise design copyright issues with David T et al, though.