Friday, December 21, 2012

Adding to the chorus: Guns in the United States

Ernest Hemingway takes aim aboard the Pilar.
Last week I was asked by BBC Cymru to comment on gun laws in the United States, in light of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. I was at the time in a part of Devon that suffers particularly poor mobile phone coverage, so I had to give it a pass. And, to be honest, I wasn't entirely sure I could encapsulate my thoughts in a comfortable soundbite.

The British view of the whole thing seems to be pretty simple. More or less they look at the United States and proclaim: "Bitches be crazy."

"The British find the American gun culture perplexing," Alun Williams told me on Twitter. "A 20yr old can buy an assault rifle but not a beer. *scratches head*"

I'm inclined to feel, though, that many British look at the issue from a somewhat over-simplistic point of view. They live in a country where their legislative body wields a level of power that most Americans would find unnerving. A popular phrase thrown about in political science lectures and attributed to either John Stuart Mill or the 2nd Earl of Pembroke (a), is that "parliament can do anything but make man a woman, and woman a man."

In her majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a law thought up today could, theoretically, be enacted tomorrow. It is a system that can respond very rapidly to the public will. But, think about that: think about the public will. Think about the bad ideas over time that have flourished and fallen away like fevers. Remember when we were all outraged about that one thing that one time? Like Russell Brand making prank phone calls, or Jade Goody saying something that was kind of racist, or Jimmy Carr not paying his taxes, or whatever the hell else it is that we've filled the air of pubs with in countless excited conversations. The public will is meandering and erratic; the public will kept Christopher Maloney in "X Factor" all the way to the final.

Thankfully, the UK parliament does not too often jump to enact laws on every whim of the public will. But the point is, they could. And that is a system that, as I say, is unnerving to many Americans. So much so, that our founding fathers waged war against it. They instituted a system that is designed to be slow and ponderous, full of checks and balances, and they put into place a constitution to help keep it that way.

So, when British people ask why Americans don't just ban guns, they are failing to grasp –– on a foundational level –– how the United States works.

"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." -- Most Americans have heard that a few thousand times. It's the second amendment to the United States Constitution. And Americans take their constitution pretty seriously. It is THE MOTHERHUGGING LAW, yo. Not just the law. Nor the Law. But THE MOTHERHUGGING LAW, and making changes is camel-through-a-needle-eye stuff.

Only once has an article of the constitution been repealed, and that was in the one case in which the article had gone against the spirit of the constitution by attempting to outline what a person cannot do rather than what he or she has a right to do.

This, in other words, is why many Americans are cautious when it comes to showing enthusiasm for any sort of a legislative response to Newtown and Aurora and the dozens upon dozens of other random mass shootings that have taken place. We don't enjoy those shootings; we don't shruggingly accept them as a truth of life in the United States, like one might for rain in Seattle or dirt in Nevada. But we know that any sort of change is going to run up against THE MOTHERHUGGING LAW, it is going to have to plod its way through a deliberately slow legislative process that is designed to resist the fevers of public will, and it is going to be fought every step of the way by a rather small but astonishingly loud clique of batshit crazies who will in many cases have the complaisant support of a public who are uncomfortable with the idea of restricting something.

Odds are, the most success that will be seen as a result of the current mood is reinstatement of the assault weapons ban that existed from 1994 to 2004. A larger proportion of the U.S. population can get behind the argument of "Why do you even need an assault weapon?" than legislation that would restrict overall access or possession to firearms. Though, opponents will almost certainly point out that the ban didn't stop Jonesboro, Columbine, Santana or dozens of other school shootings that took place while it was in effect.

Additionally, rhetorical arguments that rest on the issue of necessity or relevance are highly unlikely to stand up against the weight of the Constitution. So, you can scratch your head all day about why bullets are more accessible to a 20-year-old American than booze, or why a suburban mom would need or want military-grade weaponry, but the fact is: that's how things are. Americans have all kinds of things they don't really need: cars, televisions, air conditioning, candy, and so on. You'll have a hell of a time restricting any of those things and they aren't even protected by THE MOTHERHUGGING LAW.

In light of all this, as I said on Twitter last week, I'm not really sure what can be done. I stated in that update that I want guns banned, though, that's not entirely the case. I'm just pretty sure that I wouldn't lift a finger to stop guns from being banned. There's a difference between wanting guns banned and being unwilling to stop such an action. Mostly what I'd like is stringent adherence to that bit in the 2nd Amendment that uses the phrase "well regulated." I'd like to see people having to take courses to be licensed to own a gun, long waiting periods, and for all loopholes regarding secondhand guns to be closed. But, if I'm honest, I don't see how this would have necessarily prevented Newtown.

So, what can be done? What law that doesn't go too much against THE MOTHERHUGGING LAW is going to stop a son from stealing his mother's legal guns and using them to commit an atrocity? What law is going to stop a PhD student from buying guns so he can shoot up a movie theatre?

In the wake of Newtown there is again an endless amount of handwringing and armchair psychology pondering every side of the issue, and pointing the finger of blame at every possible thing (even going so far as to suggest that the problem is simply that boys exist). But really, though, in Real Land, here in the world and truth that we actually inhabit, what can be done so this doesn't happen again?

I don't know.


(a) Of whom there appear to be 10 versions. Presumably, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke in question is Henry Herbert.

Friday, December 14, 2012

An Incredibly Long Title: Thoughts on Hunter S. Thompson, Literature and Motorcycles

When I was 18 years old I was an actor. I drove a Ford Mustang convertible and went out with a model. She drove a Kawasaki Ninja 500, with which she would swoop into my headlights as we sped from place to place, taunting me to chase after her. John Carroll Lynch bought me beer.

As a standalone tale, I suppose that's impressive. Enough so that I was temporarily able to dupe myself for a moment as I was lying in bed the other night. I phrased my life in just that succinct way and thought: "Man, whatever happened to the rock n' roll me?"

The answer is that particular rock n' roll me never really existed, nor did I want him to exist. My dad had bought the Mustang and it simply had become mine by default. As soon as it was acknowledged as mine, I insisted upon trading it in for a pickup truck. Sitting in the Mustang on a rainy November morning, heading to a car dealership with me, my father took one of his trademark deep-breath sighs and said: "I can't help feeling this is a decision we're going to regret."

I didn't. I don't. Some 18 years have passed and still I class it as one of my better decisions in life.

The motorcycle-riding model had gotten rid of me several weeks before. And I only ever drank half of one of the beers Lynch gave me. The first paragraph of this post marks a very tiny period in my life, which was incongruous with the rest –– a version of me that I don't want and didn't want at the time.

I got started thinking about all this because of an email I got from my friend, Dale.

"I was just having a look at your blog and I saw that you were reading Hell's Angels," he said. "I was just wondering what you thought about it."

Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs was Hunter S. Thompson's first published book, about spending roughly a year in the company of the same Hell's Angels who are generally credited with helping to kill off the 1960s hippie era. Eventually his association with the club ended when he was severely beaten after commenting to an Angel: "Only a punk beats his wife." The Angel in question was at that time beating his wife and as such didn't take well to Thompson's admonishment.

I read Thompson's most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, when I was 22 years old and was not terribly impressed. Though I never would have admitted this at the time. A nickname I had given myself was a variant of that which Thompson used for Oscar Zeta Acosta. Like just about every other boy, ever, I was enamoured of the image of Thompson (a). Not so enamoured, though, that I ever picked up another of his books.

My friend, Clint, has an enormous (roughly 3 feet by 5 feet) framed photo hanging on his living room wall of Thompson peering out of a large convertible. Clint can do a good imitation of Thompson and is happy to slip into it whenever possible, such as when his cats are behaving strangely. Not too long ago Clint and I got into a discussion about Thompson and I decided I should try again with his work.

I deliberately chose Hell's Angels because it was Thompson's first book and therefore less likely to be influenced by the sense of self-importance that marks so much of his later work. Shortly before Thompson died, he had a regular internet column for ESPN and it was insufferable. It was so bad that ESPN buried it in the depths of their web maze and no doubt the site editor was quietly relieved when Thompson shot himself.

Thompson rode his 1970s fame and notoriety for two decades and was convinced that only he and certain key members of his generation really understood anything. Until I eventually heard him speak, I long imagined his voice as being exactly that of an old hippie I got stuck standing next to for an hour in the Nevada DMV. Looking as if he had been dragged to the DMV office behind a truck he spoke ceaselessly about how my generation didn't know anything, man, and his generation had done things, had changed the whole world. I simply nodded or made "Hmm" noises. When finally I was called up to the desk and knew I would be free of him, I said: "History will roll over you."

It will roll over all of us.

But back to Thompson. I was keen to see the reporter, the storyteller, the writer, rather than the ego. Of course, the truth is that Thompson always had that ego, way back to his Kentucky childhood. But it is tolerably restrained in Hell's Angels and because of that you are better able to see certain aspects of Thompson's style, which can be seen in every other thing of his that I've read.

The first thing is that Thompson is just a little bit boring, and he has a certain fondness for telling you things three or four times. He'll space it out, and say it in different ways, but as you carry on through a book or long article you find yourself thinking: "Didn't he already say this?"

Additionally, I find his meta-narrative just a bit tiresome.

The term meta-narrative is also just a bit tiresome, so I apologise. I studied creative writing and I still don't feel I totally grasp what "meta-narrative" actually means, but here is my best understanding: the meta-narrative is the world outside the book, the things that we "know" and which create the rules by which the book is playing according to us. For example, the idea that unprovokedly kicking someone in the teeth is wrong. If you put that scene into a novel it is usually understood that the teeth kicker is a bad person (and, indeed, that there are such things as "good" and "bad"). That doesn't have to be written anywhere in the book, the meta-narrative, the narrative of our lives and which we take into the reading experience, says it already.

Authors mold the meta-narrative, of course. As you read a person's work you get a sense of what he or she sees as good or bad, right or wrong, etc. And by the Hunter S. Thompson meta-narrative, the sportscar-driving, model-shagging, getting-my-booze-from-film-stars version of me presented in the first paragraph of this post was a righteous motherhugger.

And that's pretty much Thompson in a nutshell. Over and over and over and over he sets up his vision of the righteous dude. But frustratingly, he gives you nothing more. I find his writing to lack depth. For a man famous for creating a style of journalism that centres on the journalist he gives very little sense of who the hell he is, or what he's about. You get even less sense of the people he's around. What you get are those snapshots –– like the first paragraph of this post –– without any idea of their relevance or accuracy. Collected and put into a book, the snapshots help you guess some of Thompson's meta-narrative, but you're still stuck thinking: "Who are these people? Who is Thompson?"

John Jeremiah Sullivan is often (wrongly, in my opinion) compared with Thompson but in his work you can see so much of the depth that Thompson lacks. Whereas Thompson gives you black and white photographs, Sullivan gives you a 3D colour panorama.

All this having been said, however, Thompson's book may have had an effect on me.

I have decided that I need to get a motorcycle. Not want. Need.

One of the unmentioned truths of that Mustang-driving 18-year-old is that he had failed to graduate high school on time. All his friends went to college and he hung around for several more months taking night classes. In an attempt to give himself some sense of accomplishment, in late summer 1994 he took some courses and got his motorcycle license.

Unfortunately, he lived in Minnesota, where the weather can be uncooperative for as much as seven months out of the year. Possibly nine months if the motorcyclist in question is particularly averse to wet or cold conditions. In the North Star State a motorcycle is not a terribly practical item, especially not for the sort of person who chooses a heat-and-keys (b) GMC Sonoma over a Ford Mustang.

When that 18-year-old boy turned 19, he went to college in a place that was even colder and snowier for even longer stretches of the year. He bounced around a few years more and eventually found himself in a long-term relationship with a girl who swore she'd leave him if he ever bought a motorcycle, because, she said, he was too stupid and too short tempered to drive one and live. Quietly he agreed with her and never really thought about it again.

Until I met Dale. He and his wife, Ruby, live in Phoenix and I visited them when I was driving across the United States. They stuffed me in the back of their Mustang (there's some kind of weird synergy!) and drove me around town for pizza and beers and being hassled by midgets. On the way back to drop me off at my hotel they took me up to a spot that overlooked Phoenix and Ruby spoke poetically about riding up there on her scooter.

That evening planted a tiny seed in my mind, which lay dormant until two years later when I was back in Minnesota and renewing my driver's license.

"You still want the motorcycle endorsement?" asked the woman at the counter.
"The what?" I said.
"The motorcycle endorsement. You're licensed to drive a motorcycle. You want to keep that on your license, right?"
"Oh, wow. Who knew? Yeah."
"Then it'll be six bucks more."

A year and a half later, and I found myself working part time as a bicycle courrier whilst reading Hell's Angels. Jenn works for a sustainable transportation organisation that offers all kinds of free information –– bus schedules, bicycle routes, and so on –– to people, with the aim of encouraging them to reduce their dependency on cars. That information is put into nifty little reusable cotton bags and distributed via bicycle delivery. Every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I would bolt a little trailer to the back of my bicycle and spend the morning cycling up and down the eastern neighbourhoods of Cardiff, delivering said packs. For two months I did this, clocking up 70-90 miles a week on my bike.

The rules of cycling on the road in the UK are not terribly different to the rules of driving and not at all different to the rules of motorcycling (but for the fact you cannot ride a motorcycle on a bicycle path, obviously). So, here I was, sharing the road all the time with cars and, prompted by my reading material at the time, I started to think...

It's a pretty nifty way to get around, the bicycle. Especially so in a British city, where the small roads get clogged up with cars. With a bike you can simply zip past all the standstill traffic. There's even a term for it here: "filtering." I don't mind the wet and the cold; the right gear really eliminates any discomfort. Yes, I have to be very attentive to what's going on around me, but I actually kind of enjoy that –– I see all kinds of things I would just ignore in a car.

Really, my only issue with cycling is distance and speed. Neither are greatly achievable on a bicycle. It is not really possible, for example, for me to cycle up to the Brecon Beacons to hike Pen y Fan when the weather's nice.

And that's how a motorcycle showed up in my thought process. On a bicycle I was showing myself that such a thing is practical for year-round use in the UK (c), that I could be confident and alert amid traffic, that I could tolerate the weather, and that such a means of transportation is well-suited to the smaller, slower roads here. Additionally, I am far more even-keeled than I once was. I am less likely to behave aggressively, or respond to a negative situation rashly.

The other argument against a motorcycle has always been cost. In a place like Minnesota, North Dakota or northern Nevada, a motorcycle is an expensive thing because it is something you own in addition to a car –– you cannot drive a motorcycle year-round. But here a motorcycle costs less because you don't necessarily need a car as well. And, it just costs less –– in upfront costs (I can buy a brand new one for as little as £850, or $1,370), upkeep, petrol, tax, MOT and insurance. I got a quote for comprehensive motorcycle insurance that was half what I used to pay for third-party insurance on my Honda Accord. Tax on one of the motorcycles I'm looking at would be just a 10th of what I paid for my car. And that same motorcycle averages 75 mpg.

Getting licensed in the UK is about as simple as it is in the US, but with the added benefit that a person does not need to have a car driver's license. I could be on the road by the weekend (d).

All this information is now swirling in my head, making me not just a little bit crazy. One of the most depressing aspects of my life this past year has been my lack of independent mobility. I cannot just get up and go to places, and if there is no public transportation I can't go at all. Most of the time I can ignore my frustration but all too often it mixes with homesickness and makes me so depressed that I feel like I'm going to stop breathing.

This is a solution, my brain/heart says. This is an actual, viable, attainable solution.

Sort of.

"I'm not against it," Jenn said the other day. "It's just that a motorbike is a luxury in our current financial situation."

She's kind of right. It would be less a luxury than a car, but still something of a challenge for two people trying to plan a wedding. Which is why I've decided to stop drinking (e). I'm pretty sure I spend at least £10 a week on beer and almost certainly quite a bit more. Rather than buying beer, however, I've decided that I will start putting that money in savings. Slowly, slowly, I can work toward making this a reality.

My hope is to be on a motorcycle by July 2013. In the longer term, I've decided, I want to get a Triumph America or, maybe, a Victory Judge, but really that's just because Victory is a Minnesota company (f). But both of those bikes are too big and too expensive for my dumb-ass self when I'm trying to get the hang of simply riding on a regular basis. I am inclined toward getting something ultra gentle, like a Yamaha YBR 125 Custom. Some needy little part of me wants so much to test my luck with a Lexmoto Ranger because I could get a new one for so cheap. But reviews on that bike are so hard to find that it makes me suspicious –– especially as the general mood toward Chinese bikes is anything but positive. The few Lexmoto reviews I have found all too cheerfully suggest that it's a brand that will make me a better mechanic, for all the attention I'll have to give the bike.

So, to answer Dale's question, I thought Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels was a bit dull and self-indulgent. But if an author's success is measured by his or her effect on readers, Thompson was a hell of a writer.


(a) Siân Melangell Dafydd once pointed out that Thompson is a requisite part of the American writer-boy canon. Every Yankee male that calls himself a writer must, she says, list Thompson, Hemingway, Kerouac and Vonnegut among their influences. In terms of the latter three I am guilty as charged.

(b) "Heat and keys" is a common term used in classified ads for budget cars. It means "no frills." The car has a steering wheel, heat and keys, and not a whole lot else.

(c) True, it does snow in Cardiff every once in a while but it is such a rare event that no one here knows how to handle it. Cars become just as useless as motorcycles.

(d) For any UK motorcyclists, I'm referring to the CBT. I realise that getting my full license via Direct Access will take a bit longer, but the point is that I could be on the road very quickly.

(e) Unless someone buys me a drink.

(f) I would totally ride a Harley Sportster if given one, but would probably scratch the name off the tank. Harley owners are usually dick heads.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The death of a language

To save the Welsh language speakers may need to look critically at themselves.

This week saw the release of the unhappy but not at all surprising news that the number of Welsh speakers is again on the decline. According to 2011 census figures, only 19 percent of Wales' population –– or 562,000 people –– claim to be able to speak Welsh. This is a drop of 2 percent –– or 14,000 speakers –– from the 2001 census. 

The news is especially heartbreaking for Welsh language proponents because the previous census, in 2001, had seen an increase of speakers after centuries of steady decline. That was the first census taken after Welsh had become a compulsory subject in schools and, indeed, much of the increase in speakers at that time was amongst school-age children. The feeling at the time time was that young speakers meant longevity for the language, but 10 years on that doesn't appear to have panned out.

Parents are generally the ones filling out census surveys and they often have an overly rosy view of their children's abilities. As such, the Welsh Language Board estimated not too long ago that only about half of those speakers listed on the 2001 census were actually proficient (i.e., people who could actually hold a conversation, rather than simply being able to regurgitate answers for a quiz).

For the 2011 census it doesn't appear the situation has changed much: 30 percent of Wales' claimed Welsh speakers are under the age of 15 (Welsh is a compulsory subject to age 16). In trying to soften the blow a little, Wales First Minister Carwyn Jones pointed to the fact that there had been an increase of speakers amongst 3-4 year olds. Toddlers are again being held up as this nation's best hope. At the same time, however, the Welsh-speaking first minister admitted that even he and his Welsh-speaking family default to using English in the home.

The fact is: there are more people in Wales than 10 years ago but fewer of them, in both percentage and numerical terms, claim to speak Welsh. And of those left, half are not really able to speak Welsh, and even fewer are speaking it on a regular/day-to-day basis (I'm fluent in Welsh and have not held a Welsh-language conversation in seven months). Things do not look good for the language.

In the BBC story I linked to above there is an instant analysis side bar from Welsh-speaking reporter Vaughan Roderick, and one can already see who the Welsh-language community will be blaming for all this: those damned dirty foreigners. People like myself and Tony Bianchi and Jerry Hunter have come and driven out the native tongue with our irresistible and unforgiving English patter.

As long as I have been aware of the Welsh-language community it has been locked in a fortress mentality and the early signs I'm seeing from my Twitter feed suggest the response to the 2011 census will be another round of building up the ramparts. Blame the English. Blame modern culture. Demand more legislation. Get Steffan Cravos to chain himself to something in protest. Maybe write a few poems.

One of the things the Welsh-language world will not do, because it is very hard to do, is acknowledge and address the fact that it is itself part of the problem. The Welsh language is struggling because its speakers too often alienate the Welsh.

D.J. Williams, one of the founders of Wales nationalist party Plaid Cymru, said there is no such thing as a Welshman without the Welsh language. Some 2 million people listed their identity as "Welsh" on the 2011 census, which means there are at least 1.5 million people who would seriously disagree with Williams' claim. Unfortunately, Williams' attitude seems to be quietly prevalent amongst Welsh speakers. 

If pressed, I doubt a great number of Welsh speakers would outright say that a person cannot legitimately claim Welshness if he or she does not speak Welsh, though I can certainly think of a few who have. And I can think of even more who are willing to say as much through catchy turns of phrase like the one I heard from a fellow Welsh tutor last year: "Does dim hunaniaeth heb yr iaith" (a).

True, the fault does not rest solely on the shoulders of Welsh speakers, but in the flurry of handwringing, finger pointing and pondering that will come as a result of these census results I feel at least some time should be spent discussing the incredibly poor relationship between Welsh speakers and their fellow Welshmen. There is no Welsh Taliban or any other such nonsense, but it is true that a large number of Welsh men and women feel alienated by and terrible animosity toward their Welsh-speaking countrymen.

I realised this last week when I found myself strangely defending the language against the vitriol of four Welsh people. My frustrations with the Welsh-language community are well documented and not worth rehashing, however suffice to say I'm probably not going to be hired to do PR for language campaign group Cymdeithas. But in the face of my dinner companions' deep emotional frustration and anger toward the language I was by comparison Welsh's most stalwart devotee.

I feel it's worth mentioning that the people levying these complaints were all university-educated people who were Welsh born and raised. In three cases they are people who have lived elsewhere in the UK and the world, and have come back home because their love of Wales is so great. The reason I feel it's worth mentioning is that criticisms of the Welsh language are nothing new. Welsh speakers will have heard them dozens of times. But usually the only people with the audacity to express such things are chav blokes in Super Dry T-shirts who are four to five pints ahead of you in the drinking stakes, or insufferable cocks who write for sensationalist newspapers. And as such, I've never really listened to the people making criticisms.

Here, though, was a group of intelligent, educated, affluent and, in some cases, influential Welsh men and women who felt deeply angry toward the Welsh language and the bulk of its speakers. They felt that Welsh speakers had placed themselves on a sort of pedestal and were treating the country's majority with arrogant disdain. They felt alienated, pushed out, and condescended to. The latter are all aspects of my own experience in the Welsh community but I at least have the solace of knowing that the "You're Not One Of Us" attitude I've faced is true. I'm not Welsh (b). I'm a fluent Welsh speaker but if both sides of the D.J. Williams argument are conditionally dependent upon one another (i.e., one cannot be truly Welsh without speaking Welsh, but, also, one cannot truly be a Welsh speaker without being Welsh), then I can at least understand the "logic" of why I've failed to gain acceptance within Welsh-language circles. And, hey, I have my own massively larger, more influential and more diverse culture to fall back on.

But for the non Welsh-speaking sons and daughters of Wales it is an alienation that breeds a deeper bitterness than even I possess. As I ran through the standard responses to criticisms (c) one of the people I was speaking to grew so upset that she was shaking. She had spent two years in Welsh courses as an adult, she said, and had eventually given up because she felt she was being talked down to and patronised.

The other three all had their own stories of unpleasant interactions with overly aggressive Welsh speakers (sometimes campaigners' zeal for the language hurts their cause more than it helps) and the deep emotional frustration they carried as a result. I've heard similar stories over the years, and have had my own embittering experiences. Many Welsh speakers would be keen to do so, but I don't feel these negative attitudes should be wholesale ignored.

Welsh speakers' insular, alienating temperament is not the only reason the language is suffering. There is also the simple truth of living on a planet for which English is ever more the lingua franca –– especially in commercial terms. Wales, too, is an area with an infrastructure that is in some cases nonexistent and in most cases decades behind the curve. It lacks entrepreneurship and sufficient support –– both governmental and public –– for enterprise. Its folk traditions have been all but abandoned by even the most dedicated patriots, and it is part of an island that at certain times can feel very much like it is on the verge of becoming the 51st U.S. state. All that lack of uniqueness or self sustainability makes it hard to argue for learning a language that, with only insubstantial exception, is not spoken anywhere else.

There are a lot of pressures facing the Welsh language, but when its speakers make enemies of their own countrymen I can't help but fear it is heading incorrectably toward total novelty.

Welsh will never really die. Britain is too full of quirky enthusiasts and academics to let such a thing slip away completely. But at the moment, as things are, I don't see how it will survive as a legitimate language for too many more generations. Already it is estimated that only 3-5 percent of Wales' children come from a home where Welsh is the primary language spoken. How long before that percentage becomes zero? How long before no one ever really feels things through the medium of Welsh? How long before Welsh becomes only the purview of academics?

(a) There is no identity without the language.

(b) Indeed, lately, independent of any feelings toward Wales, I have found myself strangely and unintentionally resurrecting my Texas accent.

(c) Interestingly, the strongest defense I have found is one that no "true" Welsh speaker would ever use: that Welsh should be protected and nurtured because it is an intrinsically British thing.

Monday, November 19, 2012

It's still not a bad idea

Let's pretend that climate change is a lie. Just for the sake of argument, let's suppose the whole climate change business to be complete and utter nonsense orchestrated by a liberal elite who want to somehow use it to kick God out of schools, allow gays to recruit, and usher in a Marxist regime that will do terrible things like make sure every old lady has a flu shot. Or whatever it is that the crazies believe. It's the Jews. The Masons. The Bilderburg group. The Illuminati. Whatever.

Even if you do that, even if you remove the issue of climate change entirely, wind power is still a good idea. And each time I see another intolerable idiot complaining about wind farms it makes feel sad for the whole human race.

If you are reading this, you are implicitly, through that simple act, agreeing upon a need for energy. These words exist in the great, amorphous electronic space, and all around the world energy must be created in order for them to exist and for you to see them. So the issue of energy creation is not up for debate; we need energy, or, at least, we want it so basely that it is effectively a need.

One of the least unpleasant ways of satiating that need is through wind energy.

But it's not efficient, say opponents. True. At the moment, wind farms can be less efficient than coal, natural gas and, especially, nuclear power plants. But with that lessened efficiency comes increased peace of mind. Windmills don't explode. In an absolute worst-case scenario the base or blades can snap, which can litter debris for several hundred yards. But that's debris that doesn't require special skills to pick up. No one has to put on an anti-contamination suit. Ground water doesn't get destroyed. Eco systems are not ruined. The lives of people in surrounding towns are not put at risk.

But a more efficient means of power generation will eventually come along, say opponents. And almost certainly they are right. One day, perhaps, as Michio Kaku suggests, man may be able to create energy by bending space and time. But we need energy now. Populations are increasing and more simply, power plants, like all things (knees, bicycles, one's interest in "X Factor," etc.), wear out and will need to be replaced. The benefit of wind power in this situation I've already touched upon: they don't contaminate an area. 

When we eventually come up with that super-efficient, not-at-all-bad-in-any-way method of power generation, we can tear down the wind farms. And what will be left? Fields. Not brown fields, as would be the case with a power plant. Not a contaminated site that millions upon millions of dollars must be spent cleaning up. Not a space unfit for human or animal use. Just a load of fields. All the metal could be sold for scrap, the concrete bases ground down, and within the time it takes grass to grow, evidence of the wind farms would completely disappear.

Which kind of answers the biggest complaint from opponents: that wind farms are ugly. I don't even really agree with that, personally. I think they look cool and they don't necessarily spoil the scenery they are in. But they certainly don't spoil it any more than a power plant would. For example, here's a picture of Carno wind farm in mid Wales. And here's a picture of Didcot Power Station in southwest England. Which would you rather wake up to in the morning? Which place would you rather call home? Didcot uses natural gas, coal and oil. Ignoring those environmental loonies who consistently lambaste it as one the most-polluting sites in Britain, where would you rather take a deep breath? Where would you rather raise children? Where would you rather to have been raised as a child? 

I have passed through Didcot many times on the train, en route to or from London, and each time I see its chimneys and cooling towers I am filled with a deep sense of unhappiness, as if the whole world is conspiring against me. I can only imagine the deep hatred I would possess toward myself and all other things had I grown up in its shadow. Meanwhile, I often go out of my way to go hiking in the hills and mountains where wind farms are present.

Additionally, it is quite often the case that wind farms are built offshore, becoming nothing but white sticks in the distance. White sticks you cannot see if the visibility is less than perfect. White sticks that create habitats for sea creatures. White sticks that in no way pollute the water you're swimming in.

It baffles me that people could get themselves so worked up against wind farms. I am convinced that there is something deeply wrong with them, that they have transmogrified the issue of wind power into some other thing in their mind. And like Don Quixote, they are making utter fools of themselves as they continue to tilt at windmills.

Monday, November 12, 2012

I'm not dead yet

Hey, I'm still here. Much to my chagrin, however, I've had no real time to blog. I'm working three part-time jobs at the moment and that's leaving no time or energy to write or blog.

Not that I blog that much anyway, of course; it was mostly just posts about "Strictly Come Dancing." But I find that being unable to find time to issue internet missives on which Strictly dancers I'd like to keep in a shed for personal use (Aliona) is actually becoming detrimental to my enjoyment of the show. The popcorn still pops each weekend and the port still flows, sure, but I don't spend all week thinking about the show and getting excited for the upcoming episode.

Truly capitalism is evil that I am being so distracted from Strictly. I have hope of finding the time somewhere, but, in truth, it's unlikely that I'll be able to write much until December.

In the meantime, I have become obsessed with getting my motorcycle license in the UK and buying a bike. Jenn hates this idea.

Friday, October 26, 2012

'Strictly Come Dancing' week 3: Neat and tidy downstairs

The Strictly train is well under way, mis amigos, which means that it is time to start introducing a theme for each week. More often than not the theme is tenuously adhered to by the dancers and even less so by the resources-strapped costuming department. It becomes reminiscent of my childhood Halloweens, when my mother would slap together an outfit for me on the day based on whatever happened to be at hand: "Well, we've got some pantyhose, an empty tube of Quaker Oats, a football helmet, and some eyeliner that isn't my shade... what can we make out of that?"

This week's theme was Hollywood, which is a place perhaps only one of the Strictly celebrities has ever been. And as such, it gave the show a feel of kids playing dress-up.

But does that mean I liked it any less? No. Jenn and I didn't get a chance to watch the show live because we were respectively managing and watching gigs at Sŵn Festival (On a side note, The Weeks are my new favourite band. I saw them upstairs in the small O'Neill's –– Cardiff, for some strange reason, possessing two O'Neill's pubs, each a street apart, so they are known simply as "the big O'Neill's" and the "small O'Neill's –– and they were awesome). But as soon as we got home, we popped popcorn and fired up the laptop to stay up until 2:30 a.m. watching Saturday's show. We stayed up equally late watching Sunday's results show. As I write this, I am reminded of something The Weeks' guitarist said to me when I was talking to him after his set. The band had just travelled 36 hours from Mississippi and were in a state of ridiculous exhaustion.

"See my face, man?" he said, deadpan and hollow-eyed. "I look stoned. But I'm just sleepy."

I do it all for the love of Strictly, bitches. So, here's a look at how things went this weekend, starting with the couple who will be watching next week's show from home.

Jerry Hall and Anton du Beke –– Quickstep –– 18
Honey badger showed some definite improvement last week. We'll never know what that might have led to, though. In seasons gone by, when the overall standard was often lower, she would have been right in there with a chance. This season, well, not so much. I get the sense that Anton had already accepted he would not go far in the programme and was just sort of plotting out routines from a dance version of one of those 1990s meal plan schemes where you draw 3x5 cards of different colour to create a well-balanced meal. Is that too obscure a reference? I feel it is.
Anyhoo, I felt Anton's wasn't putting a great deal of thought into his choreography. Additionally I feel the routines were hampered by the fact that he appears to have as much an ear for popular music as my father, who will always choose a rousing Sousa march over any of your new-fangled boomity-boom.

Sid Owen and Ola Jordan –– Tango –– 17
Sometimes, you get all dressed up to look like a burned-out and possibly gay roadie for Turbowolf and still it all goes horribly wrong. It went wrong from almost the very beginning, when Sid was faux playing the guitar the wrong way: he was doing the Pete Townshend windmill strum counterclockwise (i.e., up the strings, rather than down). How does a person get that wrong? Hand a guitar to just about any person on the planet and tell them to act like a rock star, the overwhelming majority will strum downward. It's not a matter of whether Sid has ever played a guitar but of whether he has ever seen anyone play one. He behaved as if he had been given a a book of sudoku puzzles and told: "There ya go, Sid. Make it look rock and roll."

Michael Vaughan and Natalie Lowe –– Cha cha cha –– 19
"Oh, Lord," I grumbled upon realising that the dance's theme was The Full Monty. "If Michael takes his shirt off I'm going to write a letter of complaint."
Thankfully, he didn't take off his shirt. Or, he did, but revealed another shirt beneath.
"Maybe he's wearing several more layers," Jenn said.
In addition to not taking off his shirt, Michael also did not dance. He spent a third of his 1:30 dance either standing still or sitting at a table (yes, I did time it; I'm a sad person). The only highlight of the routine came when Michael was sitting down, pretending to look at a menu, and Natalie was twirling about, ripping off her top.
"Ooh, is Natalie going to strip?!" Jenn shouted. "Take it off, Natalie! Woo!"
In the minute that Michael was doing things, he was not doing much. He looks like a younger, healthier Dave Barry and dances like the older, fatter one.

Victoria Pendleton and Brendan Cole –– Rumba –– 22
That dance was about as sexy as a set of house keys. In fairness, there were some wardrobe issues with Victoria's dress. Every year we learn that chiffon scarves are a dangerous thing and every year the costuming department continues to take the risk. Additionally, Brendan looked like a child in his outfit, or, perhaps, an immigrant waiter on The Love Boat. Either way, it wasn't a look that shouted: "sexy." Or even murmured it.
Speaking of murmuring, Crazy V looked to have been drugged. Perhaps this was her attempt at a sexy face, or perhaps she had consumed several packets of Xanax to help her overcome nerves. The end result is that it made me think of that high school prom in which your date has broken into daddy's liquor cabinet beforehand and put herself into such a state that she keeps referring to you as "Franklin."
What? That didn't happen to you?
Yeah, uhm, me neither.
Anyway, the dance could have been better and I wonder how long Crazy V can ride the "we really want you to succeed" wave before she has to produce a legitimately good dance. And, frustratingly, all this distracted from the fact Crazy V looked really good in her tight blue dress.

Fern Britton and Artem Chigvinstev –– Charleston –– 23
When I was a boy, Mary Poppins would air seemingly bi-weekly on the old UHF stations (man, I'm really dating myself there), rotating with The Music Man. Inexplicably, rather than watching and swearing at football or NASCAR, like every other father in Texas, my dad would watch these films. To this day, he retains the ability to pick up from just about any point and recite all the lines to Mary Poppins. I am certain this facet of my father's personality is what led to my developing a love of Britain, as well as my obsession with Strictly Come Dancing. So, what I'm saying here is that Mary Poppins is kind of a sacred thing for me and there really was no way in hell that Fern and Artem were going to meet my expectations. Nor did the Strictly band. It started confusingly, with Fern just sort of lying on the floor, and trundled on in such a way that it turned one minute and 30 seconds into an experience on par with the five-hour train journey from Cardiff to Holyhead. I just wanted it to stop. Then I wanted it to stop some more.

Richard Arnold and Erin Boag –– Quickstep –– 25
I have so far referenced 3x5-card meal packs, The Love Boat, and UHF. I will age myself even more by suggesting that Richard looked to me like a young George Burns. I kept wanting to point this out to Jenn but resisted the urge because I was pretty sure she wasn't going to catch references to 1940s American radio personalities. So, I was distracted somewhat during this dance. I was distracted further by the tightness of Erin's trousers. I could watch her move around in those all day.
Of that which I was able to pay attention to, however, I thought it was pretty good. But sitting here after the fact, I realise that it was not so good that I can remember it. I can remember thinking Richard looked like a man born in 1896 and Erin's bum being quite pleasing to the eye, but I can't remember the song they danced to, nor any given sequence.
(Having now watched the performance again I see that the song was "9 to 5" and I remember Jenn's squealing with delight. Work a little Dolly into something and Jenn is guaranteed to be pleased)

Colin Salmon and Kristina Rihanoff –– Argentine tango –– 26
"Boobs!" shouted Jenn as Colin and Kristina took to the floor. "Wait, is Kristina naked? Woo!"
She was close to it. The costuming department apparently had no money for Kristina's outfit this week and the poor girl was forced to make due with just a few satin table napkins and a BeDazzler.
About as predictably as a Tuesday, the dance was James Bond themed. Apparently there is some kind of rule that Colin's having been in a few James Bond films must be mentioned as many times as possible. Depending on which Bond you like, the British icon is supposed to be either suave or kick-ass, but Colin was neither here. He more or less stood still whilst Kristina climbed all over him.
Not that I blame him, I suppose. I mean, if a two-napkin-adorned Kristina was mounting herself on my shoulders I doubt I'd put much effort into shaking her off. But, as Darcey said, this dance really could have, and should have, been dirtier.

Nicky Byrne and Karen Hauer –– Quickstep –– 27
Easily the biggest improvement of the week. Both Nicky and Karen looked stronger and it made me realise that the professional dancers are having to learn things, too. Karen is having to learn how to choreograph for what works in the Strictly realm. It's not just a matter of Nicky learning steps, but Karen learning which steps he can do that will work best in this somewhat dichotomous environment of needing to please both judges and the studio/TV audience. They did that last week and I especially liked Nicky's rubbery arms thing at the start, mimicking Jim Carrey's physical style. I read a comment somewhere suggesting Nicky performed well in this dance because he naturally stands and moves like a chimp –– which probably means he'll go back to struggling in his next dance.

Lisa Riley and Robin Windsor –– Jive –– 29
I was unimpressed. The judges were falling over themselves with their "You go, girl!" comments, which you feel is almost requisite. One senses that on the judges' table, there is a little message that pops up in front of each of them as Lisa is dancing that says something to the effect of: "DO NOT MENTION LISA'S WEIGHT." And as such I think the praise is just a bit too effusive so as to almost be condescending. I respect Darcey for giving the dance a 6. It deserved a 6. It was energetic and fun and entertaining and, yes, Lisa is loveable in all the energy she puts into her routines, but, uhm, you know, the dancing wasn't as good as it could have been.

Dani Harmer and Vincent Simone –– Foxtrot –– 29
If this were the Olympics, and Dani were a Chinese swimmer I think we would be accusing Dani of taking illegal supplements, such was the dramatic improvement in her ability from one week to the next. Tiny, weirdly proportioned Dani really made that work –– to the extent that having a dog run into her arms at the end of the dance was entirely unnecessary. As Brucie pointed out, it killed the applause. Which seems to be the cardinal sin as far as Sir Bruce is concerned: never –– ever, ever –– kill the applause.
On a side note, did you see It Takes Two on Wednesday, when Dani was showing off the tattoos on the backs of her calves? What back alley did she get those in? When I used to teach in the south Wales valleys I worked out at a gym in Merthyr Tydfil, which meant I gained purview into the fascinating world of abysmally poor tattoos. Every true Valleys boy-o needs to have at least one tribal tattoo and usually the name of his kids on his forearm. A dragon or the Tair Pluen is also de rigueur. Most of these tattoos appeared to have been scratched out by sleepy children. But they are art –– valuable masterpieces –– compared to the unintelligible drunken baby-scrawl on Dani's legs.

Kimberley Walsh and Pasha Kovalev –– Quickstep –– 29
"I think I'm starting to love her," Jenn exclaimed. "That might be the wine, though. Woo!"
Whereas I was simply content with being able to remember that Kimberley's on the show. I still find her utterly forgettable. Sitting here now trying to recall her face I get a mesh of Kylie Minogue, Cheryl Cole and pre-blonde Miley Cyrus. I can recall her voice, though, and the fact she sounds to be a three-pack-a-day girl. Honey's got a voice so husky that in a few years she'll sound like Lee Marvin. Hot.

Louis Smith and Flavia Cacace –– Salsa –– 30
I think Dirty Dancing is a stupid movie; I don't quite understand the love for it. I far prefer to think of Jennifer Grey as Jeanie in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But, still, how can you not respect Louis for rocking that performance with his usual "This is, like, only the fifth best thing I do" facial expression? I agreed with Darcey about Lisa but I feel she wasn't actually watching this one. Maybe she was just jealous of Flavia.
The crowd was loving it, though. I'm pretty sure that dance alone was good enough that Louis could suck for the next two weeks and still coast safely through to the consecutive weeks.

Denise van Outen and James Jordan –– Foxtrot –– 32
Something in me wants to dislike Denise. I think this is because I follow her on Twitter and she retweets her fan club, and she (like too many Strictly folk) has that annoying tendency to give in to people's requests for retweets. Stuff like: "Can I get an RT for your biggest fan?" "Can I get an RT for this picture of my dog?" "Can I get an RT for continuing to draw breath?"
That annoys the hell out of me. No one has ever asked me for such a thing but I have preemptively established the rule that if you ask me to retweet something, you, by that action, ensure the answer is no. I wish Denise should obey this rule.
What this has to do with her dancing, I don't know. And couldn't I just stop following her if it annoys me so damn much?
Nonetheless, something about her makes me want to dislike her. But then she comes out and dances awesome again. Every time, bitches. She rocked last week's dance so hard that James was the one who looked less at ease. Denise has the ability to own the stage, and for that talent I can't help but like her, or, at least, respect her. I was somewhat surprised her score wasn't higher.

  • I see the BBC are again this year putting all the dances on YouTube. I don't know, however, whether this is visible to viewers from outside the UK.
  • Darcey really is the best overall judge. I love her. She's awesome, yah? If not simply for her ability to drop all the "yah" from her speech in one week. I love all the judges, but when Darcey gives her opinion it just has more weight. If anyone ever gets a 10 from her, they can rest assured that they genuinely rocked the dance. It's not like when Alesha would throw out 10s because a person chose to dance to a track she liked.
  • So far, though, no one has scored above an 8. One wonders when the 9 paddles will first make an appearance and who will earn them.

OK, I've pretty much given up on Crazy V being in the final four. As it stands, I'm predicting: Denise, Louis, Kimberley and Dani. I think Lisa will last a long while but I predict that her rate of improvement will slow and she'll fall noticeably behind the others in the latter weeks. My money's still on Denise to win. Literally. I finally today got around to putting actual money on her –– my winnings from when I bet on Harry Judd last year. That's a whopping £8, yo. If she wins, I take home £28. Woo!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Strictly Come Dancing week 2: Crazy V gets her groove back

This is totally unrelated to Strictly Come Dancing, but, crikey, I dislike Rylan from X Factor. He is an embarrassment to... well, everything: men, people named Rylan, humankind, Essex, England, Britain, Europe, Western culture, and on and on. He sings only slightly better than a discarded can of Fosters and couldn't even manage to pronounce the word "oppa" in "Gangnam Style." He said "wahpa," as if affecting an astonishingly insulting Korean accent.

That routine he did last Saturday was, admittedly, amusing. But everything that was good about it had absolutely nothing to do with Rylan. People who voted for Rylan were, in fact, voting for the imagination of Brian Friedman, the X Factor choreographer. If someone wants to start a show called Mental Dance Routines From the Imagination of Brian Friedman (a), I will watch it happily. But Rylan –– a hyper-camp version of General Zod –– is a disgrace. I cannot stand him.

All this, of course, simply serves to strengthen my love for Strictly Come Dancing. Both Saturday-night programmes are ridiculous, but Strictly is ridiculously fun. It is the very definition of kiki, which is a word I had to look up after the Scissor Sisters performed "Let's Have a Kiki" on the Sunday results show. 

And to my mind the bringer of the most kiki this weekend was again Lisa Riley. Jenn and I are waiting for the moment when her dance partner, Robin, works motorboating into a dance routine. Until then, here's a look at all the fun of week 2, starting with the exiting couple first.

Johnny Ball and Iveta Lukosiute –– Waltz –– 20
In my "Chris becomes famous enough to be on Strictly" fantasy one of my biggest fears is that I would be the first to go. It is an ignominious claim to fame and I feel badly for whoever suffers it, even when, as in Johnny's case, it is deserved. Johnny was never going to last long in the competition. I am more sad at the fact this means seeing less of Iveta, who was starting to grow on me. I liked how relentlessly positive she was about her dance partner. Brought in to cover for an injured Aliona, she had to know she was never going to be anything more than a fiddler on the Titanic, but she did so with aplomb.

Michael Vaughan and Natalie Lowe –– Jive –– 15
Maybe I'm being too kind or perhaps it's that I was trying to fix dinner during this specific performance, but I really didn't think it was all that bad. It's week two, yo. They can't all be Denise van Outen. True, the dance wasn't good, and I found it a bit lazy that the costumes were exactly the same as when Natalie and Scott Maslen danced a Footloose routine in the second week of the eighth season. Did you not think I would notice this, BBC costumers? This show is my life.
Don't judge me.
But in terms of the dance, I'm not sure I agree with the comment I read somewhere that the dance was a "cross between The Shining and The Wurzels." It wasn't good, but it wasn't as awful as it could have been. But what do I know? According to Zoe Ball, it was the lowest scoring jive in Strictly history.

Nicky Byrne and Karen Hauer –– Cha cha –– 17
There was a point in the dance when Karen was shimmying toward the camera with her face showing the grim determination of someone on a bayonet charge.
"Yeesh, look at Karen," I said to Jenn. "She looks as if she has no idea what she's doing and is just hoping no one notices."
Turns out, this is exactly what she was doing. Because Nicky had gone rogue. He was doing his own thing, man, running free on the dance floor, unhindered by such constraints as timing or footwork or musicality. 
He had missed the count-in from the beginning of the song, so spent much of the dance just making stuff up. I would admire Nicky greatly if this were his overall response to adversity: when in trouble, boogie. You can imagine him in an elevator in a high-rise building. The cable snaps, the car begins to plummet, and Nicky decides the only thing he can do is bust a move.
"Thank God you were doing the running man as you went down, Mr. Byrne. You jumped at just the right time and it ended up saving your life."

Jerry Hall and Anton du Beke –– Waltz –– 18
Honey badger don't care. Honey badger does a foxtrot and doesn't break a sweat. Honey badger has seen and done things you can't even imagine, sweetie. Go on, think of something. Anything within the realms of physical possibility. Nope, honey badger's done that. Honey badger did it upside down. Remember when you were watching X Factor and Brian Friedman told Rylan, "Then you'll be followed on stage by 10 fashionista pandas," and you thought: "Is this real life?" It is. And honey badger does stuff like that when she has breakfast. So doing the foxtrot, well, honey badger can take it or leave it.
And by that standard I thought it was not too bad. Jerry "Honey Badger" Hall definitely performs better on the slow dances. But I'll admit I find it impossible not to be biased in her favour because of her Texas accent.
On a side note, if Craig Revel Horwood ever again attempts a Texas accent I will start sending him my poops in the mail.

Richard Arnold and Erin Boag –– Cha cha –– 19
The normally tolerable Strictly Come Dancing Band had some really weak moments this week, and the version of "Love Shack" offered up for this dance was one of them. The Guardian's Strictly blog loves to complain about the band, but I think one needs to be fair about the challenges presented by having to perform songs of all different styles within strict perimeters of time and tempo. Every member of the band is wearing an earpiece that has a soulless electronic bleep piped through it to ensure the song is exactly at the tempo the dancers have rehearsed. It's hard to really put a lot of musical expression into such a situation, and usually the band perform admirably and sometimes quite well. But sometimes. Oof.
The dude singing Fred Schneider's part for "Love Shack" was just oof. Nothing but oof. So if Richard and Erin were good or bad I didn't really notice. In the dance off, he seemed half interested and messed up a good deal of the footwork. I think he may be better at coming up with lines ("More Darcey, less Bussell") than dance moves.

Sid Owen and Ola Jordan –– Salsa –– 22
Come on, Ola chops!
Professional wrestler Chris Jericho (himself a previous performer on Strictly's U.S. version, Dancing With the Stars) used to do a move designed to get heat from the crowd in which he would knock down an opponent and arrogantly pin him by simply placing one foot on his chest. As he did this, he would flex and grin at the crowd, shouting: "Come on, baby!"
The face Jericho made when doing this was the exact same face Sid was using whilst dancing the salsa on Saturday night, which made me love him just a little bit. Sid was owning that dance. Not so much in terms of style and technique, mind, but most definitely in enthusiasm. No one –– ever –– has been so keen to do a bit of the spinny-spinny with Mrs. Jordan. My opinion of Sid is changing; I think I'm starting to like him.

Fern Britton and Artem Chigvintsev –– Viennese waltz –– 24
It's rare the Viennese waltz really does anything for me. There are times when it really works, when you sit and watch a performance and think: "Wow, that was beautiful. It was art in movement."
But the majority of the time my reaction is something along the lines of: "Meh. This is a good time to get up and go get some more port."
This Viennese waltz fell into the majority category. Meh.

Colin Salmon and Kristina Rihanoff –– Viennese waltz –– 24
"Have Kristina's breasts always been that large?" asked Jenn. "Were they that big last year?"
"I think so," I said. "We just had a smaller television."
"Wow. There's so much boob."
"Indeed. I like Colin's tie, though."
"I can't pay attention to it. All I can see is boob."
"I doubt they're real."
"For her sake I'd hope not. She'd have to eat 5,000 calories a day to maintain them. How does she walk?"
Lisa Riley and Robin Windsor –– Viennese waltz –– 25
It was not a Viennese waltz that I thought was beautiful, but it was rare in that I liked it. I like Lisa's facial expressions all through the dance: that of someone who's really enjoying it. She looks so happy, so genuinely delighted to be twirling around with big camp Robin that one can't help but love her. She managed to make a "meh" dance a little bit less meh.

Victoria Pendleton and Brendan Cole –– Foxtrot –– 26
Admit it: you were watching Crazy V thinking: "Just hold it together. Come on, Crazy V; don't crack." And with each tiny wobble –– her teetering on high heels or looking just a little confused or failing to place her arm correctly when going into hold –– you took in a sharp breath hoping it wouldn't set off a rapid unravelling that inevitably ended with Crazy V tearing out her own hair and eating Brendan's ear live on television. OK, maybe only I was thinking that. I want so much for Crazy V to do well, to be awesome, that it's sometimes hard to watch. I am dreaming of a Jade Johnson-like transformation. 
In 2009, Johnson was on the show with Ian Waite as her partner. She started out poorly, unsteady on heels, but soon became the Lioness, flashing her powerful sexy legs and inducing all kinds of fantasies that would probably remind Jerry Hall of her teenage years.
This is what I dream for Crazy V. I feel that, like Jade, she can overcome weaknesses through her endurance. I really think she can be good. She's not yet, but at least this week she was better.

Kimberley Walsh and Pasha Kovalev –– Foxtrot –– 26
What dance was Len watching? Thanks to quality song choice, the routine had a beautiful melancholy that almost had me getting teary eyed (I had, admittedly, by that time consumed a bottle of wine). For a second-week dance you couldn't really ask for more. But for reasons completely beyond anyone's comprehension Len decided to take a big poo-poo all over it and criticise everything. I actually booed the television (again, that's probably the wine).
My only guess is that it was some sort of cunning ploy by Len to ensure Kimberley stays in the competition. By drawing attention to her he won her sympathy and, by extension, votes. Perhaps he sensed there were many people like me who have a tendency to forget Nimble Kimble is even part of the show. Or he completely lost his mind. Kimberley and Pasha's was easily the best foxtrot of the evening and was arguably the second best of all the performances.

Dani Harmer and Vincent Simone –– Salsa –– 27
I think I mentioned before that Dani strikes me as a strange sort of person who looks to have been comprised of different bits. Like a Frankenstein's monster, but far more charming, she has been pieced together with arms, legs, torso and head each from different individuals. Taking this into account, one couldn't help but be impressed by her ability to move all those bits around more or less in time in Saturday's dance. Though, it was perhaps a bit worrying to see her doing all those flippy salsa moves, for fear a foot or arm might come loose and go sailing into the studio audience.
If we accept her as a person who has not been sewn together, however, I agree with the judges that there were points in the routine that lacked fluidity. Also, I was baffled by that one move in which Vincent flung her over his shoulder, then just sort of dropped her to the ground like a trawler fisherman emptying a catch onto his boat's deck.

Louis Smith and Flavia Cacace –– Viennese waltz –– 30
First of all, I liked that dance, yo, and I thought Louis' pointing to his face at the end and grinning, as proof of his ability to smile, was a tiny moment of brilliance. Secondly, the judges complained that they saw little connection between Louis and Flavia, but can you imagine anyone having an emotional connection with Flavia? She doesn't have a personality, she has abs. It took several years of my watching Strictly before I even realised Flavia could speak English, that she is, in fact, an English girl for all intents and purposes, having been raised in Surrey from the age of 4 and speaking with an English accent.
So, give the boy some credit. Also, I kind of like his too-cool-for-school look. Ever since Jenn pointed out he looks a tiny bit like Prince, I like to imagine Louis as akin to the tiny purple sex alien. Indeed, perhaps that look of concentration is a deliberate attempt to prevent a connection with Flavia. He is so sexay that if he weren't controlling his natural aura Flavia would be writhing around on the floor, and Jerry Hall would be leaning over to Elizabeth Jagger, saying: "That reminds me of when you were conceived. Of course, in that case the audience was naked. And there were more of them. And there were monkeys involved. And 78 gallons of baby oil. And we were listening to Sade. I don't mean we were listening to a record, honey –– she was there, on a horse. Also naked, obviously. Well, not the horse. It was wrapped in velvet..."

Denise van Outen and James Jordan –– Jive –– 32
According to the Daily Mail, which I suspect may be slightly less reliable than my own imagination, Strictly Come Dancing fans are upset that Denise is a good dancer. This is a claim proven by exactly two tweets, one of which is attributed to an unnamed source the other of which appears to be more observation than criticism. The claim of viewer anger over Denise's dancing ability is then contradicted below the story by several comments expressing support for the West End star. Yes, Denise is a better dancer than, say, Johnny Ball, or Michael Vaughan, but why is that a bad thing? It's a show about dancing. What's wrong with having someone who dances well on a show where the point is to dance well?
Denise and James kicked booty, yo, and were probably under marked because the judges didn't want to go throwing down 9s in the second week. You have to think James is in a constant state of joy because he has now a partner who may finally be able to earn him the coveted glitterball trophy.

  • Sid Owen's girlfriend is 16 years younger than him. I like him even more
  • If you don't love Darcey Bussell you have no soul.
  • Tess is going for odd dresses so far this season. Many of them have a look as if she showed up wearing a typical Cardiff slag's frock and someone in viewing standards insisted that she be covered up with a bit of mesh.
  • Hooray the return of Claudia Winkleman. I love her so hard.

I'm still putting Kimberley, Denise, Louis in my final four. I want to put Victoria in there, as well, but this week I'm less sure. It seems Lisa would be a better bet. I still think Denise will win.

(a) I also applaud Brian Friedman's choreography for Lucy Spraggan's performance, in which the out-of-the-closet lesbian happily perved on booty-shaking dancers who pawed at her as she sang. I doubt American television would have the guts to work such a routine into "family" viewing like "X Factor," even though they'd not think twice about having a male ogle women or a woman ogle men.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Strictly Week 1: Riley shakes it

OMG. I think that's a good way to start. As in, OMG Natalie is even more beautious than I had realised, and Kristina's boobs are even more massive than I had ever noticed. Seriously, yo. Kristina wasn't actually wearing anything on Friday night but a bra and the necessary support structure. How does she stay upright with those things? I'm put in mind of ODB's tales of hanging out with "the boys."

All of this new perspective comes courtesy of the HD television Jenn and I bought for the explicit purpose of being able to watch the Olympics and Strictly Come Dancing. I find myself spotting all kinds of amazing things, like the members of the Strictly Come Dancing band, and the spaces in the dance floor floorboards, and people in the audience and that light structure over there and... you know how dogs are when they've been kept inside for a while (Sky! Grass! Tree! People! Other dogs! My paws!)? I was like that watching Friday's first episode of Strictly. OMG, this is going to be an incredible year.

On Friday and Saturday night, Jenn and I set up our camp camp on the sofa, armed with a bottle of port and a large bowl of popcorn. I don't want to tell you how to live, my bitches, but, really, that's it. Booze. Starch. Bespangled low-level celebrities dancing for your amusement. And Bruce Forsythe struggling to read an Autocue. This is what makes Britain great; who cares about the lost empire when you've got this? I find myself more excited by the start of this season than any other.

With each new season of Strictly Come Dancing recaps I make a promise to myself to shorten the posts a bit –– I know I tend to be longwinded. And still I end up writing enough words in a season to fill a book. But I will try. So, without adequate segue, here's a look at how the first proper weekend of Strictly Come Dancing unfolded, starting with the lowest-scoring couple:

Victoria Pendleton and Brendan Cole –– Cha Cha –– 16
Oh, Crazy V, what happened? The music started, Crazy V's face went all Amy Poehler and things tumbled downward from there. The I Dream of Jeannie trousers weren't much of a help, either (Hey, nice 40-year-old pop-culture reference, Chris –– way to stay relevant to the kids). I wanted so much for her to do well. Take a look at my recap from the launch show and you'll see I was predicting her to make it to the final. But this. Oof.
Poor Crazy V knew it, too. From a few seconds into the routine, after she screws up for the third time, you can see from her face and body language that the gates to an internal hell have been opened wide and her ego is plummeting down into its depths; all she can hear is her own crazy-voiced self-criticism. This is the sort of thing I fear would happen to me on that show. Not that I'd get stuck dancing with Brendan Cole and 10 million people thinking, "Why don't they show off her abs?" but that I'd do poorly.
You can probably guess that I would love to be on Strictly Come Dancing. It is my daydream fantasy that I could somehow become famous enough to be invited to participate. I would be so happy and so excited, but deep down inside I'd be trembling with fear thinking: "What if I screw it up? What if, after all this time of wanting to be a part of the Strictly family, I just go out there and mess it all up?"
I feel so badly for Crazy V. What I hope is that she will come back next week with the confidence that sometimes comes from surviving a disaster, and performs amazingly.

Johnny Ball and Iveta Lukosiute –– Cha Cha –– 17:
Yeah, well. It was grandad on the dance floor. No one was really expecting a great deal from Johnny were they? He got to twirl around for a bit with a hot Eastern European girl, which is all any of us could ask in our autumn years. It's early in the show and there are still worse dancers (Jerry Hall) and he's a likeable fella, so good on him.
Craig called him out for singing along to the song, but if you watch the dance again you'll note that he's not really –– he appears to be singing some other song, for which the chorus is "BOM BOM BOM." Perhaps this song is the one he was dancing to, which explains why his footwork didn't correlate to what Iveta and the band were doing.

Nicky Byrne and Karen Hauer –– Waltz –– 17:
Nicky is the winner of the First Person To Be Screwed By Fickle Judging Award. No, it wasn't the sort of waltz that's going to start a riot, but then again, what waltz would? (Side note: Waltz Riot would be a good name for a band). True, the lift –– so unnecessary that I didn't originally see it –– cost them points, but that still isn't a good enough explanation for Nicky and Karen's low standing. Plus, doesn't Nicky get any credit for breaking new ground by dancing with his hands in his pockets? Surely this is going to be the new thing, what the kids will be doing as they listen to MK1.
Hopefully they'll stick around (they being Nicky and Karen, not MK1) for a while, so I can decide whether I want to perv on Karen Hauer. Is she pretty? Well, she's definitely not unpretty. But her bold indio features make me think of her as a character in, say, Into the West, who would be intergal to the story and far more likeable than any of the white characters, but who would die some poignant, valiant death for the sake of saving a mostly useless blonde woman. So, as I'm sitting there thinking, "Wow, she's hot," I'm also thinking, "Her people will turn on her for teaching this tiny Irish man to dance."

Jerry Hall and Anton du Beke –– Cha Cha –– 18:
Did Anton steal money from old ladies or punch some children or some other socially reprehensible crime? I have to think he did something bad, else he wouldn't keep finding himself saddled with such horrible partners. This is his second year of trying to make an off-the-rails former model look good and he's doing no better with Jerry Hall than he did with Nancy Dell'Olio (you had forgotten about her, hadn't you?). Like Nancy, Jerry seems to be taking a honey badger approach to the show: she doesn't give a sh*t.
Which kind of annoys me. It's OK if you're not great, but if you don't try I'd prefer you not be on my TV. Some of us, Jerry, would happily go on that show and make an ass of ourselves for free. Whereas you're being paid more than I will earn over several years. Please try.
Or don't. Jenn's best friend thinks the two of you look creepy dancing together.
And maybe Anton likes it this way. He seems to have lost the ability to choreograph a dance. Perhaps he's just sticking around, waiting for Brucie to drop out so he can take over the hosting reins. In the meantime, he stays in the loop by grinning stupidly at a waddling model of yore for a week or so.

Fern Britton and Artem Chigvinstev –– Cha Cha –– 19:
Until I saw Lisa Riley dance I had the sense that Fern would be in the show for a while based solely on the feel-good factor. There is always the celebrity who's doing it for the big/old girls, whatever that is supposed to mean, and it seemed Fern was going to carry that mantle. She may do so still, but in light of Lisa's skill she loses a bit of her thunder, and the weakness of her dancing becomes a little more obvious.
Artem wore the face of a WWI soldier being sent over the trenches –– just don't stop moving –– and the whole dance had a feel of sets of moves strung together, rather than two people responding to music.

Michael Vaughan and Natalie Lowe –– Waltz –– 20:
Never have I seen someone thinking so hard as they trundled through a dance. It was like a scene in All of Me when Steve Martin is battling Lily Tomlin for control of his body.
Man, I am rocking the out-of-date references today. Honestly, who is going to get that one?
For the people who are not me or my mother, All of Me is a film in which half of Steve Martin's body is possessed by Lily Tomlin. That's what Michael Vaughan looked like: each step was like a mathematical equation solved whilst navigating the space shuttle, reciting pi to the 78th decimal, and conjugating Welsh verbs. But I sense there are better moments ahead, and for Natalie's sake (and the sake of my being able to watch Natalie), I hope that's true.

Dani Harmer and Vincent Simone –– Waltz –– 21:
Am I allowed to comment on what a strange body shape she has? It's as if she's been given the wrong head, or the wrong shoulders, or something. All of her bits and pieces seem OK in and of themselves but combine to make a strange little cartoon person. But she strikes me as a nice strange little cartoon person, and one that works pretty well with Vincenzo. In size, Dani seems the most naturally appropriate partner Vincent has had in a long while.
I hereby predict that if she performs even decently in a latin dance Bruno will shout at her: "Dani! You little firecracker!"
I didn't quite get the reason for the little figurines that Tess gave them. Were those just things she picked up at the petrol station on the way in? Perhaps this is a sign of Tess' being a mother; she has hit that point where gift giving is about the act rather than the gift, dispensing trinkets with intangent links to the recipient, like when my mother gave me a singing chihuahua. No doubt next week she will be handing out thimbles in the shapes of U.S. states to Crazy V and Brendan.

Richard Arnold and Erin Boag –– Waltz –– 22:
"Wait to see (me next week)," Richard said after his waltz. "There is no safe place to rest your eyes, Tess, when I'm cha-cha-cha-ing."
For this line alone he became one of Jenn's favourites. She repeated the line over and over for about half an hour, giggling to herself the whole time. Admittedly, at that point she had consumed two rather large glasses of port, but I think some credit should be given to Richard. He's got a likeable personality, though the judges felt it didn't really come out in this dance. That's probably due to the presence of Erin who has negative personality. I do not mean "negative" in the sense of cynical or mean, but in the sense of less than zero.
She is a personality void. The girl has been in Strictly from the very beginning –– she, Anton and Brendan have been there for all 10 years and the Christmas specials –– but can anyone remember anything about her? Anything at all? Go on, without Googling, tell me something, anything, about Erin Boag –- some funny thing she's ever done or said. She's so personally untenanted that I usually forget to perv on her. She is like the persona absentia produced by a Star Trek holodeck programme: "Computer, give me a dance partner. Set difficulty level at 10," and there's Erin Boag.
As such, it's going to be hard for Richard to build any rapport, which is the sort of thing that carries a couple through the Strictly journey. I stand by my belief that he may be the first to go.

Colin Salmon and Kristina Rihanoff –– Cha Cha –– 23
I wasn't expecting that. Based on the seriousness of Colin's Twitter updates I had expected him to be a human manifestation of James Earl Jones' voice: stern, rigid and sensei-esque. On Twitter he says things like "Go well" and "Ever forward" and "One Life. Live it, love it and fly free my friends." But then he goes out there in a leopard-print shirt and minces around with Kristina. I just didn't see that coming.
I loved all his snarky, one-eyebrow-up facial expressions and occasional pointing at Kristina. It was like a camp version of the Old Spice ad: look at her, now back to me, now back to her, now back to me. The tickets are now sequins on the shirt of a man whom I hope will stick around for a while.

Denise van Outen and James Jordan –– Waltz –– 25
Again: suuuuure Denise can't dance. Her going out there and giving a performance others would deliver in Week 6 or Week 7 was all up to hard work and James' skill as a teacher. Right. I'm half-inclined to agree with Chris Addison that she was faking a lack of skill.
Not that I really care, I suppose. I'm going to put money on her to win, so it's all the better for me. And being good at something doesn't mean not having to try. Indeed, if she suffers from being too good too early it may hurt her further in the show when our expectations have progressed. Whereas we'll be happy to see Dani dancing in Week 6 as Denise did in Week 1, we'll be expecting Denise to be doing backflips. I mean, already my expectations for her rumba are that I will need a bag of ice in my lap whilst watching. Anything less than that level of eroticism and I will question paying my license fee.

Sid Owen and Ola Jordan –– Waltz –– 26:
Playing devil's advocate in Denise's favour however, the Jordans are taskmasters. Both Mr. and Mrs. Jordan consistently get the best out of their partners, Ola especially. She has a history of dragging unlikely contestants much further than anyone would have guessed, and that's showing again with Sid Owen, a man with the personality of a worn bicycle tire. Put him into a room alone with Erin Boag and the very fabric of time and space may begin to bend into a dullness vortex. But with Ola steering him around he seems tolerable and competent. How well he'll move once the music tempo picks up, however... well, that'll be a dance when it's probably safe to get up and go get some more popcorn.

Louis Smith and Flavia Cacace –– Cha Cha –– 27:
He wasn't as good as you were thinking he would be, was he? And admit it, you were thinking about the time Matt Baker did a backflip off the judges' desk and telling yourself: "Louis is going to kick Matt Baker's butt."
So, when he didn't, when all he managed was an ill-placed street-dance handstand, I found myself thinking: "Oh, well. I guess that was OK."
Perhaps I was just expecting too much. He's a gymnast who looks like Prince. I guess I was expecting him to dive off the balcony, back flip over Ola and impregnate all the women in the audience with his aura. Maybe he's working up to this. It is only Week 1. And obviously he had an effect on Darcey, yah, who was just about ready to teach him how to rumba naked, yah. And, also to his credit, I liked his facial expression. He didn't look too serious, as the judges suggested, he looked as if he was thinking: "Bitches, U B luvin dis." (a)

Kimberley Walsh and Pasha Kovalev –– Cha Cha –– 28:
Jenn was so taken with Kimberley's performance that she immediately signed up to Ladbrokes and put £5 on her to win. I feel this may have been a little premature. Although I have said I plan to wager on Denise I have not yet put my money where my mouth is; I prefer to wait a bit. But fortune favours the brave and it is not so outlandish to think Kimberley could win if she were to develop some kind of likeable personality. Being a member of Girls Aloud does not, in my mind, count toward that goal. In fact, as Jenn and I were going through the contestants in breakfast conversation Saturday (obviously I talk about Strictly Come Dancing at breakfast, spare a thought for poor Jenn) we were unable to remember Kimberley. We remembered Richard Arnold and Sid Owen but not Kimberley Walsh. If we are at all representative of the average Strictly viewer (OK, we're not –– or, at least, I'm not), that probably doesn't bode well for her. Obviously, the best answer for this is less clothing. She should start dressing like Aliona and Natalie, which is to say: hardly dressing at all. Less is more Kimberley, that's my advice.
Also, points to Pasha for rocking the haircut I had when I was 15.

Lisa Riley and Robin Windsor –– Cha Cha –– 30:
If you didn't love that performance you are incapable of experiencing joy. Really. You have problems and I feel deeply sorry for you. The rest of us, the ones who are not cold, unfeeling wretches, were loving that noise, yo. Because it wasn't just that the dance itself was fun and energetic and great to watch –– which it was –– but also that it hinted at something more, something better, something camper. That performance encapsulated so much of what I love about Strictly Come Dancing.
Robin started the season wearing a sparkly vest. That was his starting point, amigos; let your mind run free at the possibility of what could come after that. If Lisa's out there shaking her big ol' bazooms and Robin's shimmying in a sparkly vest and they're doing the Carry On-style camp grabbing thing on the first dance what happens in, say, the Halloween episode? Add to this the possibility that Lisa's talent will probably continue to progress on the usual Strictly scale: she and Robin have the potential to be one of the all-time great Strictly couples. Is it too early for me to predict her being in the final? Well, yes, probably it is. But certainly that's a possibility.

  • Darcey's got a slightly annoying speech habit, yah. One that most of us spotted pretty quickly, yah, and that Twitter made a lot of fun of, yah. I can't decide, though, whether it's going to annoy me, yah. It may grow on me, yah. Especially since she is otherwise a pretty good judge, yah. Her tips and suggestions are actually helpful, yah. Not overly vague, yah. Or a cheap attempt to arrive at a pun, yah.
  • Would Aliona have performed better with Johnny Ball? I feel she would have. She was out of the show because she injured her ankle. If Johnny stays in she'll be back in two weeks and I feel she would be better suited to making Johnny look good. Though, certainly Iveta gave it her best by trying to make it sound as if he is some sort of breeding stud horse rather than an erstwhile TV maths presenter.
  • When do we get the live performances from pop stars mixed with pro dance routines? Is it at all possible that they could get PSY to perform "Gangnam Style?" I think I would wee myself with glee were that to happen. It is more likely, however, we will be subjected to a performance by Leona Lewis.

I'm inclined to remove Crazy V from my list of predicted finalists. I can still see Louis, Denise and Kimberley in the Final Four, but the final slot now seems more likely to go to Lisa or, possibly (dark horse prediction), Dani. But don't hold me to that; I want so much for Crazy V to do well that I'm not willing to give up on her yet. Come on, Crazy V! Pull it together!

(a) That's not some weird, mildly racist imagining of how Louis thinks, by the way, it's how Prince writes.