Thursday, August 28, 2008

Overheard on my computer

"(Michelle Obama) must prove she loves America, as opposed to Republicans, who everyone knows love America -- they just hate half the people living in it."
-- Jon Stewart (The Daily Show: August 26, 2008)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Eight minutes. Eight minutes. Eight minutes Boris Fresh you're on

One can imagine the 2012 Olympics planning committee:

"Well, we've got eight minutes in Beijing's closing ceremony to show what we're all about. Ideas?"
"Wow, London has nigh 2,000 years of history. It has been, and in some ways still is, the centre of the world. Where to start?
"How about if we get a Transformer bus, put Leona Lewis on a pedestal and then have David Beckham kick a soccer ball into the crowd?"

However, if you watch the presentation (available here for those of us in the UK), you'll note a few truths:

- London's a city, yo. Our only hope is that you will think the graffiti is art. I am sure that right now someone somewhere is begging Banksy to show up in the Olympic Village.
- If you are thinking of coming to London, you might want to bring your own transport, i.e., a bicycle.
- Britons like to litter (and there are no bins in London besides)
- It will likely rain. Bring an umbrella.
- We pretend to be really keen on queuing but as soon as the bus (or Tube) doors open it's every man, woman and child for himself. Transport will be shit.
- That girl with a football represents the corporate nature of modern sport; it will walk on the backs on all of us.
- Manufactured pop music rises above all else.
- Again, don't forget your umbrella.

I was amused seeing Boris Johnson stroll out in front of the planet Earth. Coat button undone, waving at people as if he were a kid. Wingnut he may be, but in an endearing sort of way.

Though, I have to admit: Back when London's Olympics were first announced I had promised myself that I would be living in the UK by that time. So it's an event that is strangely tied with my own ambition. In that way, I can't help but look forward to it.

Headline is a reference to 1985's "The Show" by Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh. Yes, I am old and busted.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Can Internet Give You New Old Friends?

My latest column is out. I have still have this cold that will not die so if you listen to the audio you might be able to pick up that I am trying to speak through a stuffy nose.

I'm really upset that I can't seem to get healthy because it disqualifies me from being able to go to Flu Camp. I'm missing out on three meals a day and PlayStation, damn it!

The main drawback to this cold is that I find that I can't really be arsed to put any real effort into things, so I read the column in one take, flubbed a few words and sounded choppy but didn't go back and try again. Ah well. It is frustrating that I seem incapable of reading things that I've written. But it gives you a clue as to why I abandoned any dreams of an acting career. I was a stage actor for a short period in my life, but if I can't give life to my own words, imagine how badly I mangled Shakespeare.

I noticed in looking at the finished version of my column that the proof readers at my former benevolent employer changed "internet" to "Internet." I have never understood that. The concept of the internet -- this shapeless thing that is everywhere -- is to me similar to the concept of the sky or the ocean, both of which are written in lowercase. They are common nouns. Why should "Internet" be a proper noun? It doesn't make sense.

I once spent the whole of my yearly review arguing with a manager to change the style, but to no avail.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Yanks are lovely, my lovely

Via Justin Webb, there's a mildly interesting survey on Britons' attitudes toward Americans. The survey was commissioned by what appears to be a nutjob pro-USA website. The question I have is why it matters what Britons think.

I mean, sure, on a person-to-person level it matters. I don't really enjoy it when someone looks me in the face and tells me that they hate Americans, but is it really necessary to commission a survey to prove them wrong? And it's not like the average American's perceptions of the rest of the world are any more informed. The other night, the child bride spent several minutes on the phone trying to explain to her father that we in Britain are not watching NBC's coverage of the Olympics.

But there you are. The thing I found mildly interesting was the perception that America is more racist. I grew up in the South, yo, and I would still argue that latent racism is far more prevalent among Britons than Americans.

Sexism is also more prevalent, but I tend not to be bothered by that one as much because it allows for common use of pet names like "darlin'" and "my lovely."

There's a fine line there, I suppose. The reason such a practice has fallen out of favour in most parts of the U.S. is that it can seem demeaning. But in Britain the terms of endearment go both ways, which is what I like about it. In a shop, I would much prefer "love" to "sir." It makes my day.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Curly does not lie

River Towy

About 12 years ago, sitting in a pub in London with the drink flowing and craic at an all-time high, my friend, Jason, turned to me and said: "Man, you gotta love this place. But, still, there's no town in the world better than Fargo, North Dakota."

He said this in total seriousness.

The lesson to be learned there is that sometimes it's good to add a pinch of salt to whatever a person tells you about wherever they're from. I'll admit that if you ask me about Texas, I will conveniently forget about the endless miles of concrete wasteland in Houston and Dallas; somehow the myriad chemical plants are dropped from my descriptions of Lake Jackson and the Gulf Coast.

Black Mountain in background

That same sort of homerism runs rampant in Welsh people's descriptions of Wales. According to a Welshman, Wales is the greatest place ever. Ever. There are no problems. None at all. Everything is beautiful and everyone is lovely. Indeed, I used to say that one of the greatest ways to spoil a visit to Wales is to listen to anything a Welshman tells you about it. Because the disappointment will be staggering.

Unless, you happen to be talking to Curly.

The child bride and I last week wandered out to the hometown of our man with the voice that ladies love (a) and I am shocked, amazed and delighted to report that Curly is not full of shit. Llandeilo is actually a very lovely place. Llandeilo is actually surrounded by incredible natural beauty. Llandeilo actually has several nice pubs. Llandeilo is actually populated by really nice people.


Indeed, the people were so nice that they threw me off a bit. People kept, you know, speaking to us. In Cardiff the people are friendly enough, but it's a city -- so when we say things like "How are you?" it's just a civilised nicety. We don't actually want to know how you are. Give a quick answer to the affirmative and move on about your business. But in Llandeilo they were asking because they felt like having a little chat.

What sealed it for the child bride, however was Llandeilo's desert shop, Heavenly. A place with stuff so good that Rachel is already wanting to drive back out there.

All of this means that I need to start paying more attention to the things recommended by Curly. I can't really buy into fixing up a Ploughman's lunch, but I am now thinking that I do need to visit Sweden.

Tea time

(a) Seriously, if you speak of Curly behind his back, the thing that women identify immediately is his voice. Bastard. I hate him.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Overheard on my television

After a controversial loss to Chinese boxer Gu Yu

Reporter: "In retrospect, would you have done anything differently?"
GB boxer Joe Murray: "Yeah, I'd win."


This story and this story were right next to each other on BBC's website today.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A post that only Annie will understand

Sipping from a bottle of Asahi Super Dry and peering from the window of Wagamama down on Plas Roald Dahl I pondered the congruity of this place with that place and wondered if this is finally the right place. Is it here in Europe, or there in the Flat Empty Dead Centre?

TCB looked up from her ebi raisukaree with a wry smile. She knows me all too well. Can I ever be happy in any place? If this were London, or Marrakesh, would things be any different, she asked. Perhaps they would. Perhaps they would not. Certainly not Marrakesh, where Scotch and phở tái are rare like thunderstorms. If found, consumed in Sangsara flight and then lost to memory. Place is place. I can hold myself together in this one.

Later as she played delicately with coconut reika and I nursing nihonshu we wondered what will become of us in this place. It is hard to see from this place what our reality will be.

That reality will involve words, although I am stalled in them at the moment. Beijing and London Pride pull me from them. I seem incapable of focusing on anything else. No words can grow in this. I am happy to let them rest for a while. When TCB returns to her routine I will return to mine.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The post in which Chris makes huge generalisations to support his belief that Eisteddfod is crap

The Eisteddfod Genedlaethol is under way in Cardiff city centre at the moment. More than just a word that my father has never been able to pronounce the Eisteddfod is arguably the apex of Welsh-language culture. I say "arguably" because when I criticise it, Welsh-speaking Welsh are often eager to back away from it, seemingly suggesting that just over the hill there is some higher greater better cultural element that I have yet to encounter.

But how can you get higher greater better than a teenage girl singing a harp-accompanied ode to Doctor Who? That's really as about as good as it gets.

Or, at least, as good as it gets in Eisteddfod, which is why I may not go this year.

The girl in that clip is performing a Welsh folk art known as cerdd dant. Literally translated as "tooth poem" (a) traditionally it is improvised verse and melody to harp accompaniment -- a sort of old-fashioned version of freestyle rap. In days of yore, cerdd dant was a raucous affair, described in 1852 as being home to: "all sorts of babblers, revellers, balladeers, common bards, minstrels, gluttons, drinkers, drunkards – the dregs of the world and rejects of all kinds."

But you don't see that in the clip above, do you? Cerdd dant is no longer improvised. It is strictly metered; its soul has been removed and you are left with an experience that looks like it should be a parody of itself. It's like what would happen if the evangelistas that are ruining Minnesota took an interest in crunk.

That's an apt comparison. Somewhere along the way, Welsh culture was hijacked by nonconformist denominations like our friends the Methodists and they went about removing all the fun things from folk tradition. For example, one of the reasons novel writing in Welsh didn't really take off until a good 300 years after it occurred everywhere else in the western world was the nonconformist belief that the self-deception is sin. The only reason to read anything, they argued, is to pursue truth. And of course, the greatest truth is the word of God. Reading fanciful lies will only put you on that terrible path paved with unbought stuffed dogs.

Welsh-speaking culture was for a long time dominated by this brand of religion. A few years down the line and Eisteddfod now often feels like a county fair that has been sanitized for your spiritual protection. But in the modern age it leaves you with something hollow. There are exceptions, but for the most part the Welsh populace cannot be defined as "churchgoing" (b). Eisteddfod is a church event without God. It is a car without an engine; a car that is polished and cherished and promulgated as being of such quality that it would rival any other in the world -- all the while never actually going anywhere.

Eisteddfod events remove the folk element of folk traditions. Music of a people is removed from the people, placed on a vacuous stage and judged according to strict standards. Watch this group. Perhaps not your thing but you can certainly imagine (especially once they get going, from about 1:10) enjoying it if you were packed into a pub with them -- if this music of a people was amidst people.

Set up on a huge empty stage and sterilized of its element, it looks sad. It is folk culture in a display case. An extinct animal in formaldehyde. And of course, in one of those moves that underlines my concern that Eisteddfod is a lost cause, that group came in third, behind this romp-stomping performance.

In the absence of religious oppression, you would think that things would be improving, that Eisteddfod would be an event featuring the vitality and roots of a living culture rather than a stoic exhibit of what managed to survive the nonconformist years. Nope. Because Welsh speakers still try to justify themselves according to English standards.

Here's a thing that the Welsh won't tell you: they like the English. More correctly, they want to be liked by the English. Unlike their Celtic cousins, whose animosity toward the English is rooted in the oppression and brutality of things like the Highland clearances and Bloody Sunday, Welsh animosity comes from a desire to be loved. Come on England, we learned your language, got pretty good at your rugby, provided the advisors, soldiers and coal that helped you build an empire, and we've incorporated all of the things that you do -- and still you make fun of our accents. That hurts.

Eisteddfod is a tradition that goes back a fair amount of time but pretty much ceased to be a regular occurrence by the time of Henry VIII. Some 250 years later, the thing was re-imagined by a load of Welsh blokes living in London. The Welsh loved London in those days and spent a lot of time writing poems about how awesome it was and encouraging everyone they knew to move there. But you have to think they got a fair amount of stick from all their high-society English pals, and so they went at it quite doggedly to prove their worth in English eyes and eisteddfod was recreated. The first modern eisteddfod was held in London, on Primrose Hill (which is not in Greenwich).

That mentality is still very much at the heart of Eisteddfod -- an attempt to display Welsh value in English currency. The end result is a whole lot of stuff that is utterly ridiculous and wholly un-Welsh. It is an attempt to praise and exhibit and define Welshness according to what the Welsh think the English might like.

It is staid, boring, lifeless, irrelevant and costs £12 ($24) to get in. That entrance fee and government funding go toward prize money for the various competitors. I have to wonder how many people would be singing falsely august odes to science fiction characters if they weren't being paid to do so. You could argue that if the competitors weren't winning money, traditions like cerdd dant might die out entirely. But compared to what it was, isn't it dead already?

Literature was the original purpose of eisteddfod, and there is still life there. It is even developing in some cases. But does this money create perimeters that confine art? When Mererid Hopwood won the Prose Medal, she joked that she had done so simply for the sake of having a major Eisteddfod award to match each of her children.

"I thought, 'I'll settle the count and see if I can't get another little thing,'" she said.

It's something said in jest but considering that this is a woman who has won two other major prizes, you have to think that she knows, somewhere in the back of her head, how to play the game. She's good, but she's also good at knowing what will win her several thousands of pounds. Does this then create a situation where writers fudge on their natural artistic direction for the sake of being able to win money?

And although literature is at the heart of Eisteddfod, it is a heart that is hidden. You don't get to read the novels and short stories and such until after the fact. In the actual event, awards are given for things you know nothing about -- it's like not watching any films and then trying to care about the Oscars. And it is surrounded by a mouth-dryingingly dull haze of things irrelevant and pathetic.

The overwhelming majority of Eisteddfod can be summed up by this bloke -- lots of hoopla and no substance. Or, in the immortal words of James Landeros: "Too much show, not enough choir."


(a) Not really. That would be "cerdd ddant." Whereas "cerdd dant" literally means "string poem."
(b) I'm faltering here and using the American definition of "churchgoing," which means attending any place of worship -- not necessarily Anglican, or even Christian.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Olympics Best Sometimes Not So Good

I'm a little happier with the voicing of my latest column, but still not immensely so. Especially at the end I lose my ability to sound as if I am saying things naturally rather than reading them.

Of course, it doesn't help that I actually am ill at the moment, suffering asthma like when I was a teenager and not really able to speak in full sentences. Also, I had grown sick of reading the column by the time I finally got a completed version. In my first take I had a coughing fit, second take I got distracted by my neighbour's speaking baby talk to his grandchild, third take the phone rang, fourth take the doorbell rang. It ended up taking 45 minutes to record this. I need to get some software that would allow me to edit voice tracks rather than having to get them right in one take.

One thing that's interesting about reading my own words is the challenge of overcoming my tendency to think in short bursts. Three or four words. In reading a complete sentence I will get lost and want to jump back and attempt to repronounce something. My brain tries to restart a sentence while my voice attempts to carry on with the sentence. For a guy who has always thought of himself as a public speaker, it's interesting to see that I am, in fact, not very good at it.

But, yes, I am definitely looking forward to the Olympics. The child bride is planning on coming home early from work Friday so we can watch opening ceremonies. We're going to buy one of those M&S Chinese meals in a box and then basically refuse to leave the house for a fortnight.

We're not the only ones. In response to this week's column I got this e-mail:

"Great article, like you I am compelled. I’m in trouble though under pressure to apply for college funds, something I should of done a year ago. Now I have to fill out paperwork I don’t understand and pack my son up to leave mid-month. Don’t know where I will secure the funds and don’t know how I’ll have the stamina to pack him to go now that the Olympics is getting ready to begin. Told you I was in trouble and its West Indian Celebration week here in Connecticut. Lordy Lord and it’s Trini night on Fri. I choose to skip Trini night and be glued to the tube for opening ceremonies. I’ve been waiting for this since 04. Since 04 I’ve been wishing to be in Bejing in person. Its all good though because I can use the restroom in private (even with the door open) and I can be stress free knowing I am eating beef as opposed to dog/cat or rat. Have a great time watching the Olympics and you better believe when the gymnasts stick (a gymnast wannabe) it I’ll wave smelling salt under my nose myself."

That's unquestionably the best reader response I've ever received. Seriously, I love it. It is full on stream-of-consciousness. Multi-channel coverage was definitely invented for people like this reader -- you get a sense that watching a single event would be intolerably boring for them.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Overheard at Danescourt Pharmacy

Old couple come storming into packed pharmacy almost as if tumbling downhill. Older woman (Bet) is instantly in gossip mode with someone she sees. Old man sings to himself and then loudly talks to harried pharmacist.

Old man: "You got my Viagra yet? No?! Hahahaha! Hear that, Bet? I still can't get no Viagra."
Bet: "Thank God for that."