Saturday, March 31, 2007


A wonderful album I bought last week from Amazon is Voices of the Valley from the The Fron Male Voice Choir. Although some of the tracks are sung in Welsh, the majority are in English with some truly magnificent performances of Sailing, Abide with Me, Jerusalem, and World in Union. I first heard a piece from this album on Alan Titchmarsh's Sunday evening programme on Radio 2 about a month ago and thought how good it sounded and I've always liked listening to choirs and music for massed voices.

On the subject of choirs, Five showed a follow up programme last Wednesday on The Singing Estate. The original series was a brilliant idea, forming a choir from the residents of the deprived Blackbird Leys estate in Oxford. Almost none of the choir members had done any public singing before and for the most part were complete novices. Over the course of the series, their transformation into a choir of professional standards was amazing. I was fortunate to see them perform for the first time live at the Royal Albert Hall last April in a Classic FM concert. At that concert the choir gave a stirring and for them at least, an emotional performance of O'Fortuna from Carmina Burana. The programme last week was a follow-up to what had happened to the choir since and for the most part the stories were positive and uplifting. The experience had given some hope and inspiration to do something positive, for others it led them to evaluate their lives and find renewed purpose. All in all, it showed that music and particularly singing, are extremely important in all our lives and can define and express our identities.

Last week I finished reading The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. An interesting novel that is on one level a savage satire on the hedonism and greed of the 80s and on another a thoughtful and moving reflection on love and growing up. The central character, Nick Guest, I came to despise by the end. For me, he was altogether too charming, wonderfully handsome and self-absorbed. His central pursuit is that of beauty, wherever he goes and in everything that he experiences. He is very much the cuckoo in the nest of the Fedden's home, the family he becomes a part of and it is clear by the end of the novel that Nick really doesn't belong, ultimately the dark secret of his own homosexuality bringing shame and embarrassment on his adopted family.

While Hollinghurst's novel mixes satire and darkly comic moments against a vivid backdrop of grandeur and opulence, its abiding memory for me is the insidiousness of Nick. I felt that despite all his charms and assured confidence, that he is a self-destructive and vain character, largely reflecting Thatcher's Britain.

The BBC adapted the novel for a three-part series in 2006 and have a mini-site guide to the series here.

Currently I am reading All the President's Men and will probably follow that up with its sequel The Final Days, both books charting the Watergate break-in and cover-up that led to the downfall of President Nixon.

Friday, March 30, 2007

What kind of week has it been?

Well the night out with work colleagues on Wednesday went a lot better than I expected. I rather enjoyed myself and it was a good humoured and pleasant way to relax over a few beers (or Magners in my case!) and some nice grub. Maybe I shouldn't be so judgemental in future! Yesterday was another work's bash, this time a lunch for one of my colleagues who retired today after 34 or 35 years service with the company. Quite an incredible longevity of service, especially the way things are going and I can only imagine what is changed in that time. I've only done 13 years and the changes I've seen are immense.

Today has been a quiet day at home as I had Sky TV installed this afternoon :-) Been spending a lot of the afternoon channel-hopping and getting used to all these new channels now on offer, although admittedly some of them I am never likely to watch - can't see myself tuning in to the God Channel or all those mindless shopping channels either! My decision to get Sky was really made when Virgin dropped Sky One from their cable service and so went my opportunity to watch new episodes of Battlestar Galactica. Fortunately, Sky One are having a catch up weekend over Easter so I will get to see all the episodes that I've missed. Not only that but the quality of the picture and sound on cable is terrible compared to the clarity of both sound and picture on Sky. It really does make a huge difference.

I've been doing a fair amount of bidding on eBay over the last couple of weeks and selling stuff too. Sold my West Wing individual series DVD's, some books and other similar items, which frankly were just beginning to gather dust. One of my little collecting pursuits at the moment is old railway timetables, both the public ones and the Working Time Tables. The latter are particularly interesting, for a railway buff like me, as these are the timetables used within the rail industry. They're certainly not for the casual interest as they provide complex details about every train that is scheduled to run within a particular area, things like the reporting number, traction type, timing at junctions as well as main calling points, freight and parcels movements, empty stock movements etc. What they do provide is a glimpse at how the railways are run and how they have evolved over the years.

The public timetables are also fascinating - I've recently bought a couple from the early 1970s, one for the Eastern Region covering the East Coast Main Line and mainlines from Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street into East Anglia and a Southern Region table covering services radiating from Waterloo, Victoria and the Kent Coast termini. What they reveal is just what an enormous and complex system British Rail operated, not just covering trains but also hotels and shipping services - both conventional car ferries and hovercraft - under its Sealink and Seaspeed brands. I recall fondly the Sealink ships that plied the Channel from Portsmouth and across to the Isle of Wight, with their red and black funnels with white BR logo. In addition there are many train services that have since disappeared such as the Motorail service, where you could take your car with you on the train! The cars were loaded onto special trailers at the point of departure and unloaded again when you reached your destination; passengers travelling in standard coaches of the time. Also gone are the through boat trains via Dover and the extensive network of sleeper services to North of England and South Wales. All that remains of the latter is the Caledonian Sleeper from Euston and the Night Riveria from Paddington. And this was the age of local hauled services. Although the Southern Region had converted to multiple unit operation long before the 70s, key trains remained loco hauled, such as the Waterloo to Exeter service. Nowadays the only scheduled loco hauled passenger trains operate on the East Coast Mainline and on services operated by 'one' to Norwich, plus a handful on the West Coast Mainline.

Even station names have changed as the marketing men have had their way. As examples, gone are Portslade & West Hove (now Portslade), Reading General (shortened to just Reading) Tunbridge Wells Central (Tunbridge Wells) , whilst since closed are Holborn Viaduct, Tunbridge Wells West (now part of the Spa Valley Railway), Dover Marine and the through route between Winchester and Alton (although the timetable warns that this service is likely to be closed, which it was! The line between Alresford and Alton is part of the Mid Hants Railway).

Rather confusingly back then weekdays, sometimes included Saturdays as well, with virtually the same service pattern operating six days a week. Sundays were the only day when intending passengers were warned that engineering works may disrupt their journey. How different from today!

Tomorrow I am having another quiet day, especially after my last two weekends seeing me travelling 'up'north.' Easter looks like it could be a quiet one too as thanks to the blockade of the West Coast Main Line between Northampton and Hemel Hempstead, it is the interminable rail replacement service in operation again. At least, I can actually see something happening with all the attention being given to Milton Keynes Central at the moment, where Network Rail are building two new platforms. And a Rugby, where again additional platforms are being built. All this is part of plans for a new timetable being introduced from December 2008, which if it delivers what it promises will see significant enhancements to services along the West Coast Main Line.

Anyhows, so what kind of week has it been? Not bad at all methinks.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


I am beginning to dread the thought of tomorrow night as we have agreed to going to the pub for a few drinks after work. The purpose ostensibly is so everyone can relax after all the crap we've been going through recently. Personally I feel it'll more likely be an excuse for some people to get drunk. Not my idea of a fun way to spend an evening, watching my colleagues get themselves drunk. I've never particularly enjoyed drinking heavily, even less so in the company of others. I had a few experiences when I was at college when I'd had too much to drink and I don't hold my drink well. Alcohol inevitably makes me depressed and withdrawn and a rather pathetic creature all round I think. I often regret the things that I do or say when I've had a few too many. Most people probably think its fun to get drunk and do silly things, I don't. Maybe its because I am too self-controlled to ever let myself completely go. I always need to feel in control and I feel bitterly the shame of being stupid or pathetic.

Its not only the pressure to guzzle as many pints of alcohol that puts me off, its the laddish behaviour that goes with it and the depressing thought that most of the evening will probably be spent talking about work or football. I feel inadequate in such discussions and I am envious of men who can strike up lucid conversations on football or any sport, as I could barely string together two intelligent words to say on the subject.

The last two times I've been out on a work's event I've spent the latter part of the evening being lectured too by a well meaning colleague on how to find love! I hate these presumptuous and pretentious 'buddy' talks as much as anything. I don't need anyone's advice on matters of the heart, I'll find my own way thank you and if I want to be single maybe there is a reason for that and maybe, just maybe I don't want to talk about it. End of.

And then of course there are the confessions that come out when people have had a few. The things that I've learnt about the people I work with that I had no wish to know, that will forever colour the way I see them. I would be ashamed by such personal revelations. I've never felt comfortable about talking about what I consider my private life, because frankly it's private. It is my business and nobody else's and I don't want to hear about everyone else's sordid little secrets. Whatever happened to pride and dignity?

Normally at the end of these evenings I feel a vague sense of disappointment and emptiness. But to not go would invite its own cross-examination of why not and I believe would lead to a degree of ostracising from the team. Already my refusal to come to the pub on a Friday lunchtime is beginning to put up a barrier. Why is it so important anyway?

So I will go tomorrow, because to not be there as I say would warrant its own inquest. All I can hope is that I can extricate myself before I get to the point where boredom has given way to deep misgivings about why I am there and certainly before another well meaning 'buddy' talk.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


I had a fab day yesterday in Liverpool, the highlight being a visit to the city's two cathedrals, both magnificent examples of modern architecture. The Liverpool Anglican Cathedral is the second largest in the world and is an impressive, dominating structure, which commands a superior position over the city. It is described in the guides and the brochure as 'The Great Space' and it is clear why on stepping inside. Awesome, is maybe an overused superlative but there is not one better to describe entering the cathedral, an extraordinary building in terms of its sheer scale and design. What I found remarkable is that Liverpool Cathedral is a relatively new building, only being completed and finally dedicated in 1978; construction began in 1904. It is a marvel from both outside and within, an incredible symbol of faith and courage.

At the time of my visit a service of penitence was underway, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery Act. I joined the congregation for the remaining part of the service, which was moving and also wonderfully uplifting and joyful particularly the gospel choir who raised their voices as the procession of Bishops, clergy and civic dignitaries made their way down the cathedral and out the great door, for the walk to the Albert Dock, where a further service was taking place.
Once the service had finished, I had time to explore this magnificent cathedral and admire, almost mouth agape at is enormity and beauty.

Next stop was the the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, which is about a 10-minute walk or so from the Anglican Cathedral. It took me a good deal longer as I was stopping all the time to look at the fine buildings on the way. I hadn't noticed before just what an architecturally fine city Liverpool is. Previously I'd been to the Albert Dock and the Pier Head, with is three 'graces', the Liver Building, the Port of Liverpool and Cunard buildings. But as I discovered on my wanderings yesterday, Liverpool is blessed with a rich and varied collection of extremely fine and attractive buildings.
The Roman Catholic cathedral I was expecting to be something of an anti-climax after the magnificence of the Anglican cathedral. Again, it is a modern structure, intriguingly circular in shape and topped with a lantern that contains the largest stain glass window in the world. The Metropolitan Cathedral, as I was reading, had a troubled history and the present one, is the fourth to be contemplated or built on the site. There were grand plans in the 1930s to build a cathedral that in terms of scale and ambition would have been enormous, rising to 520 feet! However all that was ever built was the crypt, which is incorporated into the more modern building. Unfortunately this was closed at the time of my visit, however the main building itself is impressive. The graceful flight of steps leading to the entrance was only completed in the last 3-4 years with the main cathedral completed and consecrated in 1967.

Both externally and internally it is a striking building, full of light, which is effectively used to create a bright and happy atmosphere. In many ways it reminds me of the new Coventry cathedral, in its light and airy feel. Around the main area of the cathedral are a series of smaller chapels and the baptistery and some rather gruesome sculptures for each of the fourteen stations of the cross.

It is a magnificent building and feels every bit as important and remarkable as its Anglican counterpart. This is a view of the impressive organ and gives and impression of how light is used to dramatic effect within the cathedral:

Yesterday has whetted my appetite for a return visit to Liverpool before too long and reminds me of how many treasures and delights there are to be found in the UK. I often don't understand why people want to travel abroad for their holidays when there is so much in terms of magnificent buildings, beautiful places and inspiring things to do here!

Thursday, March 22, 2007


I am thinking of going to Liverpool at the weekend, especially as I have tickets on the train to Crewe again for Saturday. I've only been to Liverpool once and that was about 5 years ago and I seem to remember the Maritime Museum is rather good and of course, no visit to Merseyside is complete without a trip on the ferry across the Mersey! Yeah, that sounds rather good. Might even treat myself to First Class on the way back as its a bargain of about £10 or £15 on Virgin at weekends. Admittedly you don't get much for that - normally as much tea, coffee or water as you can drink and an unlimited supply of biscuits but First Class on a Pendolino is immensely nicer than Standard. Plenty more leg room, space to spread out and its quieter too. Mmmm sounds like a nice way to spend Saturday.

My weekends at the moment are about the only thing that is keeping me sane. Work is interminably boring because I really don't feel stretched or challenged in my current job. Really I am doing nothing more than an admin clerk's role and I am capable of much more than that. Not only do I find it boring, nearly everything I deal with is a complaint or almost always inexplicably urgent. So the tedium is measured by the hassle everything is to deal with, not because its complicated but because so many mistakes have been made on the case before I even get to handle it. At first it bothered me, I was getting really fed up and depressed about it. Now, I really couldn't care. Today for example, I got into work about 9.10, left at 5, had an hour for lunch and made no effort to do anything more than I wanted to do. I just feel disengaged and demotivated and nobody appears to notice. Indeed I made the comment today that it would be perfectly possible to slip away from the office for a couple of hours and no one would notice that I'd gone.

There is always the promise that things will get better and maybe they will but whether that will be soon enough remains to be seen. For now, I am practically on auto-pilot, just getting through each day as it comes, counting the days to the next weekend.

I sent out one of my soap box ranting e-mails yesterday evening. I am sure the friends on my distribution list must tire of seeing another one of these plop into their inbox. In fact I am quite certain that if I am not careful, I'll soon end up on a spam filter with my messages condemned to the trash can of cyberspace. I was having a rant about the lack of objectivity I consider there to be in news reporting today and my annoyance with the way everything is dumbed-down and spoon-fed to the audience. I find it patronising and more worryingly I do begin to believe that most people don't care. They are happy to accept unquestioningly whatever half-baked truths and hyperbole is dished up in the paper or on the news. A prime example of this was today's headline on the front page of The Sun - 'Reasons 2p Cheerful' - which seems to have completely missed the point that the Budget was tax neutral. It also fails to mention that the 10p starting rate of tax was abolished meaning that those that will benefit most are middle-income earners, whilst the poor are worse off. Strange idea that a party that is supposed to be socialist, is penalising the poor! And it worries me that all people will remember is the headlines.

My box set of The West Wing arrived a couple of days ago and I must say it is a lovely set, surprisingly compact. One of the disappointments is that the booklets, which were included with the individual series box sets are dispensed with. Each series is presented on six discs in slimline cases with the episode details on the covers. In addition to all seven seasons, there is a two disc presentation of extras, which I have started watching. These are quite interesting and give some background to the development of the series. All in all a worthwhile investment I feel and with 112 hours of top quality TV to watch, its going to keep me busy for a while!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Weekend and stuff

I had a good time in Crewe, no seriously don't snigger, there are worse places to spend a Saturday believe me - I've experienced some of them! The boring bits of the day were really the two meetings I attended - some dull bits about rule changes and new wording to the Society's constitution that we had to discuss but once that was out of the way, it got a lot more interesting. Although I am sorry to note that my post on Friday seemed to so disturb Jamie! I was thinking on Saturday whether I should start a separate blog, one that is completely dedicated to my love of railways and my other 'anorak' pursuits. That why at least I won't cause any embarrassment or distress to Jamie by mentioning the 'r' word over here! I guess the truth is that if you simply see trains as a necessary evil (and I am sure some people really think they are evil) form of transport, then reading me banging on about it, must be about as exciting as watching paint dry, probably slightly less so in fact. I can accept that so maybe I will invest in a new blog and put a discreet link on here to there. Then if you want to take a sneaky look at what I get up to some weekends you can and do so without fear of embarrassment! Of course, if all this talk of railways is a complete turn off then you can stick here and listen to me bang on about something much more interesting, like Star Wars!

Tried to book my tickets for Celebration Europe earlier this evening but the web site through which said tickets can be purchased is not available. That is quite worrying because you would think that an on-line ticket vendor would have a web site that was robust and available at all times. Even worse, some feedback on this particular web site, which I will not name, was far from positive. In fact I'd say it was rather derogatory which does not inspire much confidence in the idea of buying my ticket in advance, especially when reading horror stories of people having booked tickets and then being told the day before their intended gig or whatever that tickets have been cancelled due to some arcane admin reason. So it looks like I could be buying the tickets on the day. The only problem with that of course is that probably everyone else will have the same idea and I have these visions of queuing for hours on end.

I bought myself a new toy yesterday. A treat to myself paid from part of my bonus and pay rise at work. Its a Toshiba combi-DVD/video recorder with a HDD. It's a lovely sleek black design and gives a brilliant picture. I was quite struck by how much sharper my TV reception is not to mention the quality of the recordings on to DVD and the HDD. Okay, its not multi-region, which would have been an advantage but then I've lasted this long without a multi-region player and I see little reason to change. Additionally, I could have gone for a player that was compatible with HD (High Definition) but as I don't have a HD TV and have no intention of getting one for the foreseeable future this wasn't a primary concern. Moreover, there are currently two competing formats for HD and it is by no means clear which will be the victor and I don't want to be on the losing side of the modern Betamax vs VHS debate. What I really wanted this machine for was the ability to record onto DVD's and also to be able to copy from VHS to DVD, which I spent an enjoyable few hours doing yesterday afternoon. I've started copying my Star Wars programmes that I've recorded over the last 10 years and was surprised by the number I have on VHS. The first DVD I've made (its not complete yet) will basically be all the little snippets and adverts that I've got. I then intend to do a second and possibly third DVD with the documentaries on, which are wide and varied. There is something from each of the three prequels and also some Special Edition stuff I recorded back in 1997. Its interesting to watch again particularly listening to George Lucas as he constantly re-writes Star Wars history!

I am really chuffed with my new toy and I went for Toshiba because that's the make of my TV, which I've found both excellent in terms of quality and design and its ease of use. The DVD/VHS player is going to take a little bit of getting used to using but I think I was getting the hang of it by the end of yesterday.

Another little treat has been buying the complete series box set of The West Wing. I am waiting for that to be delivered at the moment. Again, a pleasing purchase because I got it at something of a bargain price and it comes with two discs of extras, something which was mostly absent from the individual season box sets.

So looks like I am going to be spending a lot of time in front of the TV over the next few weeks!

Friday, March 16, 2007

'Oh! Mr Porter, what shall I do,

I wanted to go to Reading, and they've taken me on to Crewe...'

Hah! The dawning realisation that came on me on Wednesday night when I realised that I had booked my train tickets to Crewe for the wrong weekend. Doh! Me, the smug one when it comes to the railways got it so completely wrong that instead of going to Reading tomorrow, which was the plan to attend my OU tutorial, is now heading to Crewe instead! And again next weekend...

Not that Crewe I am sure is a bad place. I hardly know it and the only occasion that I ventured beyond the station was a couple of years ago and that was only to visit The Railway Age. Yep, a railway museum, which is sited adjacent to the main lines into and out of Crewe. I remember it vividly for two reasons. Firstly, it has a preserved partial set of the Advanced Passenger Train, that ill-fated British Rail experimental train from the early 1980s, which arrived with a blaze of publicity and left in the rather ignominious glare of failure. The tilt just didn't work properly and it is with considerable irony that the technology that failed to be perfected in the APT, would later be incorporated in the Pendolino, which to add insult to injury runs regularly past the rusting hulk of the last APT! The second thing I remember about the day was being shown around one of the signal boxes, which if I remember correctly had been reassembled on site in full working order from Exeter. Two gentlemen, both clearly retired showed me how it worked. One disappeared off somewhere to pretend to be the signalman in the next 'box up the line, while the other stayed to show how the equipment in a manual 'box, with its awesome frame of levers, actually worked. It was fabulous experience and with the 'box being situated next to one of the lines out of Crewe, it was possible to suspend disbelief and accept that all the frantic pulling of levers, bells and klaxons had some relation to the real world railway activity outside the window.

I digress. So what am I doing in Crewe anyway? Well, rather embarrassingly considering my buying rail tickets for the wrong weekend and perhaps aptly, I am there attending the AGM of one of the railway groups I belong to. I am also an official of the society so I have to present a report to the meeting on my activities over the last year, stand for and hopefully be re-elected to my post as the Web Site Manager. This is the first AGM I've attended, having missed the previous two due to other engagements. I am a little nervous about doing the presentation but I am sure it will be fine and I am not exactly expecting an audience of hundreds!

So that's tomorrow. And then of course because I originally booked my tickets for the following weekend, I am going to Crewe again! However current plan for next weekend is to head on up to Liverpool, which is about 35-45 minutes out from Crewe and have a day there. Mind you if I do get to see any of Crewe itself tomorrow I might be endeared enough to spend time there next Saturday but I doubt it. Crewe after all is synonymous with the railway, it exists and grew to support the railway works and I doubt there is much else to commend it. The railway works have long gone although there is still maintenance and repair work undertaken at Crewe but one of the most depressing sights is the sidings crammed with withdrawn and condemned locomotives and rolling stock. Its a sorry sight, with many of the locos and carriages daubed in graffiti or showing the ravages of cannibalisation and vandalism. Mind you that's much like Crewe station as I remember it! A grand, sprawling station that looks as if it hasn't seen a touch of care for the last twenty odd years.

Ah well, I guess I will be seeing a lot of Crewe over the next couple of weeks...

Monday, March 12, 2007

A thoughtful weekend

This weekend just past was a rarity being one where I had absolutely nothing planned. Normally my weekends are filled with things to do, places to go, people to see. Not that I am complaining. Weekends are my time and I like to lots of things and enjoying getting out and going to different places. I had briefly entertained the thought of going to work on Saturday morning for a few hours overtime but sometimes the money just isn't enough. Dragging myself into the office for five days a week at the moment is sapping what is left of my motivation.

So I spent Saturday and Sunday mainly catching up on DVD's that I've been meaning to watch plus listening to the radio and catching a fascinating and disturbing documentary on BBC 2 last night and a little studying on Sunday morning, although really I should have devoted more of my time to this.

I am working my way through Season Five of The West Wing on DVD currently and it is perhaps the most uneven of the series so far, although still fantastic and gripping drama. This series' focus on CJ Cregg, the White House Press Secretary (played by the wonderful Alison Janney) is pleasing as she is my favourite character of the ensemble. I am attracted to intelligent, beautiful and powerful women, well who wouldn't be?! Hence my crush on Gillian Anderson in The X-Files and rather embarrassingly my one time fascination with Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager.

Anyhows back to The West Wing generally. As I mentioned this season is a little uneven and one of my main criticisms is how the story always seems to be neatly wrapped up within an episode or three or four at most. There does not appear to be any clear story arcs that continue across the whole series, which gives the impression that no matter what crisis emerges, there is certainly it will settled within the 45 minute duration of the show. I guess this is to appeal to an attention-deficit suffering American audience but I feel it emasculates the drama.

One of the episodes I watched, The Warfare of Genghis Khan, was particularly interesting, dealing with the controversial issue of nuclear weapons. As the episode opens, The White House learns of a secret nuclear test undertaken off Indonesia, immediately sparking concerns that a new nuclear power has emerged. All the fingers start pointing to Iran and as the President orders B52 bombers into the air, the tension ratchets up as it appears the United States is sliding into a possible nuclear conflagration. Needless to say all is resolved by the end of the episode although there are some interesting points made about America's decision to take unilateral action, bypassing the United Nations and an incisive questioning of America's moral high ground. As the Israeli Prime Minister pointedly says to President Bartlett, America is the only nation that has used nuclear weapons aggressively against another nation yet it seeks to dictate who else can and cannot have access to these terrible weapons of mass destruction.

This episode by coincidence segued nicely into a debate I heard on The Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday which was debating whether Britain should renew its nuclear deterrent. I am undecided on the issue and I would like to be convinced that the need for nuclear arms is rendered unnecessary since the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately one of the main witnesses arguing against renewal of the deterrent did more to undo her argument than advance it. She prevaricated on most of the direct questions and dodged anything that didn't fit her narrow line that nuclear weapons were bad and therefore we shouldn't have them and that by leading by example other countries would disarm or not seek to obtain nuclear weapons. The latter seems to be hopeless wishful thinking. Morally, I find it difficult to justify why countries like Britain and America should hold a nuclear deterrent, while other countries should not. When it comes to countries like Iran I feel strongly that they should not be allowed to arm themselves with such weapons but what is my justification for arguing that? Is it because I feel that Iran is a dangerous and belligerent country? After all, returning to the point made in The West Wing, the United States is the only country so far to have deployed nuclear weapons offensively. What gives the West the moral majority in deciding these matters and who are we to say what is rational when our governments have acted in the past in ways which are both reprehensible and irrational at the cost of tens of thousands of lives?

Saturday evening I watched one of my favourite films of 2006, The History Boys. It is based on the extremely successful play by Alan Bennett, set at a Grammar school in northern England during the early 80s, although the film was mostly shot around Watford! Its an odd film. On the one level its a comedy, on another it makes some deep and profound statements on homosexuality and the pains of growing up. Its weaknesses are that on occasion it tries to be too clever, the dialogue sounds just like it has come from the mouth of Alan Bennett rather than reflecting the individual characters and it doesn't feel much like it is taking place in the 80s either; it all feels rather fresh and current. At times The History Boys is very funny but never far from a scene of painful sadness and pathos by the bucket load.

Also watched over the weekend and on a completely different note, was The Day of the Triffids, the 1980s BBC adaptation of John Wyndham's novel. I've seen three episodes so far and I am impressed. I didn't think I would be but everything about each episode from the spooky and strange opening titles and music to the inevitable cliff-hanger strikes a perfect tone. The Triffids themselves are menacing and while the special effects budget was clearly limited, they are still effective thanks to some clever camera work. I am looking forward to watching the rest over the coming week.

Finally. I finished the weekend off watching The Trap: Whatever Happened to Our Dreams of Freedom on BBC 2 last night. This was the first of a new three part series from Adam Curtis, who was responsible for the excellent The Power of Nightmares. The Trap is similar in style, with often weird and disturbing images that seem to flash by accompanied by moody music. It has the feeling of some mind control experiment! Difficult to fault is Curtis' measured and authoritative commentary and it is genuinely chilling as he unravels that our modern day concepts of freedom are based on Cold War Game Theory. This is a rather bleak and negative view of human behaviour based on the assumption that everyone acts in their own self-interest. Game Theory is based on the idea of a society solely made up of self-interested individuals with no place for altruism and worryingly it has shaped for example the reforms of the National Health Service during Thatcher's government in the 80s. It was all rather depressing, that our idea of freedom comes from an era or paranoia and mistrust and that rather than being freer we have actually become enslaved to these negative conceptions of human behaviour. Fascinating stuff and will definitely be watching the next two parts.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The last two weeks

I finished reading Richard Reeves' biography of the presidency of Richard Nixon last week. The book, which is a weighty volume, ends rather abruptly, skimming over the tragic collapse of Nixon's presidency. It is tragic, however you consider it. A man, who considered himself the architect of his times being undone by a third rate burglary and the cover-up that followed. In some of the final desperate moments, Reeves' explores Nixon's retreat to Camp David, where the President broke down and confessed that he had prayed to God each night, hoping that he would not wake the following morning. There was apparently genuine concern that in those final days Nixon would attempt to commit suicide. That seems unlikely considering Nixon's indomitable spirit but there was no question that by the end, Nixon was a broken man. Similarly, the presidency and the wider government became paralysed by Watergate. During Nixon's tenure he had steadily and purposefully drawn more and more power to the White House, giving alarm at the rise of what was characterised as an 'imperialist' administration.

What struck me most about Reeves' book was that there were two Nixon's in the White House. The private Nixon, a man who was a sad drunk, self-loathing and with an insane capacity for self-destruction. This was a man who preferred to be on his own, who found it painfully difficult to make small talk, was deeply suspicious of those around him and trust virtually no one. The private Nixon was also a foul-mouthed anti-Semite; bigoted and racist. The other Nixon, the public face, was delusional and corrupted by power but a clever and manipulative orator too. It is often forgotten that in 1972 Nixon was re-elected by the biggest majority in US history and enjoyed the triumph of historic visits to China and Russia and achieving 'peace with honour' in Vietnam. The latter though underlines the stark contrast between the public presentation and reality. The reality was that the Nixon administration betrayed the South Vietnamese and there was really no peace with honour; it was a humiliating retreat.

There is on the face of it so much to loathe about Nixon and little to admire or respect. I've always been fascinated by Nixon and although Reeves' book gives a dramatic insight into the Nixon administration, it doesn't really get to an understanding of who Nixon was. This I guess is what is so fascinating; Nixon was a complete enigma and I doubt that he even fully understood who he was himself. Nixon was a craftsman at deception and obfuscation, often rewriting his own history to suit a purpose.

Currently I am reading The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollingsworth, which was dramatised last year on BBC Two. Needless to say the novel is far superior, with its delicious sentences that evoke a sense of the 1980s being a beautiful time solely populated by beautiful people. I'll share my more detailed thoughts when I've finished the book.

The weekend before last I was in London to meet with friends and as is traditional with these meets, we went to the cinema. The chosen film, The Good Shepherd, was interminably long and densely boring in places. I had expected that I would have enjoyed this but I found the narrative too flabby and the constant switching back and forth in time was not helped by the fact that the characters did not age! By the end of the film, Matt Damon's character looked exactly the same age as his son, so that they could have been mistaken as brothers rather than father and son! I think this is a film for the DVD and to be watched slowly and attentively.

It wasn't a particularly good weekend of films, as on the Sunday I made the trip to Coventry to see friends Derek & Carla, to see Hot Fuzz. I thought the premise was good - the idea of dark and sinister deeds being done by those who on the face of it appear thoroughly decent and ordinary village folk. Timothy Dalton was particularly good as one of the villagers turned secret vigilantes. What I struggled with though was the tone of the film. Often it was funny, although I didn't find it riotously so, sometimes serious but also disturbingly gratuitous in its violent deaths. It jarred in my mind and I found parts uncomfortable viewing; it was like being asked to laugh at a car crash. Not a funny subject at any time. I was also annoyed by the constant product references, something which I often find noticeable and irritating in films today.

Last week was a few days spent back in Portsmouth for my birthday, which was a quiet although nevertheless enjoyable time. The weekend just past was back in MK with friends staying over. On Saturday we visited Bletchley Park, which was an enjoyable afternoon, although all together too short to really enjoy the whole site. At least the ticket is valid for a whole year and I will be taking myself off for another visit before too long.

Hopefully a quieter weekend awaits this weekend when I'll have some time to myself including catching up on some of my recent DVD purchases!