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Sunday, 11 December 2016

To swear or not to swear; that's the f*cking question

Fans of the post-apocalyptic TV thriller 'The Walking Dead' were recently enthralled and appalled, in equal measure, by the arrival of a powerful new character. A terrifying cliff-hanger linked the end of series six with the start of series seven when -having captured our hero Rick Grimes and his colleagues- Negan, the charismatic leader of the so-called 'Saviours', prepared to exert brutal authority over those who had dared to challenge his regime. With the captives on their knees awaiting their fate, Negan’s speech was a masterpiece of choreographed intent, tension-building and gleeful malevolence. Brandishing ‘Lucille’ –a baseball bat covered in barbed wire- the character (brilliantly played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) explained that he had a strict code to which he expected everyone to adhere. Informing Rick and company that, while he would not kill them all (because they would now be working for him), he revealed that there would be at least one punishment killing in order to discourage any future dissent.

Having filmed different versions of this scene, the producers of the show have now decided that the newly-released Blu-Ray edition will feature an ‘uncut’ monologue from Negan, hence restoring the original dialogue from Robert Kirkman’s comic. I haven’t read the comic, so was unaware that the original speech featured quite so much swearing. I am not necessarily against bad language and have no problem with well-placed expletives; in context, even the most foul-mouthed rant can be amusing. But here’s the thing: when you watch the two versions of that execution scene, one bowdlerised for a television audience, the other ‘uncut’ and faithful to the comic, you get two different experiences. The sanitised version is electrifying, tense and heavy with menace throughout; Negan’s sinister use of understatement conveys the picture of a man in full control of proceedings. By contrast, the 'uncut' version, which features 23 variations on the f-word, threatens to peg him just a notch or two above incoherence. In the TV version, Negan’s introductory speech includes these lines: 

"Hi ... you're Rick, right? I'm Negan. And I do not appreciate you killing my men. Also, when I sent my people to kill your people for killing my people, you killed more of my people. Not cool. Not cool. You have no idea how not cool that shit is. But I think you're gonna be up to speed shortly." 

In the Blu-Ray version, those final four lines are adjusted thus: 

"Not cool. Not fucking cool. You have no fucking idea how not fucking cool that shit is. But I think you're gonna be up to speed shortly." 

An even greater contrast occurs when he explains what he is about to do to one of the captives. In the TV version, he says:  

"You killed my people, a whole damn lot of them … more than I'm comfortable with. And for that … for that you've gotta pay. So, now... I'm gonna beat the holy hell outta one of you.”  

The Blu-Ray edition features this colourful diversion:  

"You killed my people, a whole fucking damn shitload of them. More than I'm comfortable with. And for that … well for that, you gotta fucking pay. So, now... I'm gonna beat the holy fuck fucking fuckety fuck outta one of you.” 

That ‘fuckety-fuck’ stuff might, for a lesser character, convey a modicum of brutal comedic wit. But for Negan, it feels like a reduction in his lyrical arsenal; the swearing, the apparent absence of calculation, makes him seem less like a psychopathic poet warrior and more like a brainless hoodlum. I know that some fans will assert that this language is entirely consistent with the character as he appears in the original comic, but I haven’t read the comics and I’m writing as a fan of the TV show; I think the ‘fuckety fuck’ stuff makes Negan somehow less scary.  

The process of writing involves sketching, drafting, re-drafting and endless creative tweaking, but the requirement to work within recommended guidelines and a desire to push things to the limit will demand additional creativity from the writer; when those boundaries are removed, something lesser invariably happens. 

Constraints of taste not only require the writer to be more inventive; I’d suggest that the actor must also tap into deeper resources. If you get the chance, compare the two clips and tell me I’m wrong to suggest that Jeffrey Dean Morgan manages to convey a far greater degree of menace in his ‘holy hell’ than in that ‘holy fuck fucking fuckety fuck’.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

The Scottish Cup, Third Round: Busload of Faith

Several days of cold weather meant that the morning of the third round of the Scottish Cup was a time of anxiety for the roving fan with hopes of taking in a game. I had picked five possible venues within reasonable driving distance, but overnight frost meant that pitch inspections were taking place at most of them. As information about postponements started to filter through, I was relieved to discover that perhaps the most intriguing tie -Bonnyrigg Rose versus Dumbarton- was going ahead. The Bonnyrigg twitter feed posted this simple and joyous message shortly after completion of their pitch inspection:  

"We are ... ON!!!! To the bodies that were here yesterday and in darkness this morning - Legends."

Bonnyrigg Rose versus Dumbarton is the kind of tie which captures the romantic essence of the competition, featuring a non-league side at home to opponents from the giddy heights of the Championship. With a population of around 16,000, Bonnyrigg is located in Midlothian, about eight miles from Edinburgh city centre. The football club was founded in 1881 and has produced several famous players, with perhaps the most notable being Hibernian legend Pat Stanton and John White, who was part of Tottenham’s double-winning side of 1960/61. White, who won 22 caps for Scotland, was killed by lightning at the age of 27 while out playing golf (I’ve no idea why I know that, but I do). Some would argue that Bonnyrigg’s greatest claim to fame is the fact that perhaps the world’s best-known Scotsman, Sean Connery, once played for them. Sir 007 spent a couple of seasons with the Rose in the early fifties; he was, by all accounts, an average player but was -you won’t be surprised to learn- quite popular with the ladies. 

Although a modest part-time outfit, Dumbarton has a significant place in Scottish football history, having won both the League Championship and the Cup (admittedly back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth). Among the more esoteric items on their honours roll is a triumph in the ‘Festival of Britain St. Mungo Quaich’ in 1952. A quaich, for those who don’t know, is Scottish for 'a-drinking-cup-type-thing-with-several-handles-and-a-shallow-bowl-watch-out-or-you’ll-spill-that-whisky'. Dumbarton was also the first league club in Scotland to engage fully with its supporters’ trust, which now has a permanent place on the board. 

The venue -New Dundas Park- did not have floodlights, so the game was due to kick off at 1.30. After googling and then printing off the directions, I grabbed some provisions, a handful of CDs and set off in the winter sun in search of footballing entertainment. For no particular reason, my album of choice for the first part of the journey was Lou Reed’s splendid 'New York’. Released in 1989, it’s a collection of literate songs which, in parts, sound like short stories set to music. The basic arrangements suit Reed’s vocal delivery (I was going to type ‘singing style’ there, but that would be stretching it a bit) and his curmudgeonly wit is evident throughout. As Auld Reeky came into view, the song ‘Busload of Faith’ was playing and it occurred to me that the lyrics were somewhat apposite. It did, indeed, take a busload of faith to expect entertainment and enlightenment from an early-round Scottish Cup tie; it also took a busload of faith to support a team that plays in the lower echelons, with only modest hopes of success; it must surely take a busload of faith to attend a game in a competition which –outwith some kind of apocalyptic event- your team has no chance of winning. And, as I approached the point at which I had to exit the motorway and start negotiating some minor roads and roundabouts, I started to realise that it had taken a busload of faith (towed by a lorry load of stupidity) for me to have set off for the game without any kind of electronic navigational aid. 

The reason I don’t have Sat-Nav is half down to laziness, with the other half down to more laziness. In our house, my lack of navigational skills is the stuff of legend, although -in my defence- I would like to put this on the record: The AA route planner appeared to have imagined (or assumed the existence of) a minor road just off a certain roundabout on the outskirts of Edinburgh. I had either mis-read the instructions or there had been some kind of breach in the space-time continuum, causing a road to disappear. In all honesty, which do you think is the more likely explanation for me having to go through the roundabout to look for the minor road, then double back to go round it again and again (and again) to make absolutely sure that I hadn’t missed the cut-off? Had that minor road existed, I would have arrived at my destination within ten minutes of leaving the motorway; the fact that the road did not exist meant that my journey now involved not just gaily singing along with Lou Reed, but also: visiting some interesting housing estates; exploring various culs-de-sac; stopping to fumble for my reading glasses; reading (and re-reading) the directions; swearing at the top of my voice. Time was pressing and, after about half an hour of playing the ‘how-many-times-can-I-go-round-this-fucking-roundabout’ game, I had to modify my plans to have a leisurely stroll through the tree-lined avenues of Bonnyrigg’s bohemian quarter; instead of soaking up the pre-match ambience with a chai tea in a charming local bistro, I started to pray that I would at least arrive at the ground in time for kick-off.           
Eventually, more by chance than design, I found myself
on Bonnyrigg Main Street, following some people wearing football scarves. The 'David v Goliath' flavour of the tie -and the fact that several other third round games had succumbed to the weather- meant that New Dundas Park was heaving. And, as if things weren’t already exciting enough, just as the players completed their warm-up, the tannoy announcer uttered the magic phrase: “Kick-off will be delayed by ten minutes due to crowd congestion”. Jings, cribbens and, indeed, help ma boab

The early exchanges belonged to the underdogs, who came straight out of the traps and harried their illustrious opponents. At close quarters in tight little grounds, the spectator gets to hear the chat between players and officials; so sluggish were Dumbarton that their big centre-half Gregor Buchanan could be heard, ten minutes into the game, exhorting his colleagues to wake up, complaining that “we haven’t even started yet!” Referee Stephen Finnie was polite but firm, on first name terms with the players and comfortably in control of proceedings; he was able to tolerate a bit of lively dialogue, which is usually a good sign. Although Bonnyrigg were the better team, they were not creating much in the way of chances. Dumbarton’s Ryan Stevenson was the best-known player afield, having played for various professional clubs, including Hearts and Ipswich. He’s a nice striker of the ball and, naturally, was targeted by the Bonnyrigg Ultras, who booed every time he got a touch. I thought it a tad harsh to shout ‘you fat bastard!’ every time he took a throw in or a free kick, but Ryan is a bit of a unit and is tattooed up to the neck, so I guess he can look after himself. As the half wore on, I noted that Dumbarton’s tricky winger Andy Stirling had quite a burst of pace. Believing the underdogs likely to tire in the later stages, I fancied that he would probably run riot down the wings in the last twenty minutes and lay on a late goal or two. This level of insight explains why I am not, and never will be, either a betting man or a football manager.

Although it was goal-less at half-time, the game had provided a decent level of entertainment. The crowd was given as 1,552, which –according to the old guys behind me in the refreshments queue- would help pay for floodlights to be installed at the ground. Floodlights are important, but so are pies. Alas, there were none left by the time I got to the counter and, with a demeanour somewhere between ‘petted lip’ and ‘religious martyr’, I settled for a Bovril. Hot dogs were available, but I would only ever eat one of those if I was nominated for the Bush Tucker Challenge on ‘I’m a celebrity get me out of here’ and had to choose between a hot dog and the pig’s anus and termite stew. It would be a close call, but the hot dog would just edge it.

Because I’m planning to write and publish something about each round of the cup, I’ve been taking photos at every ground I visit. As the second half got underway, I wondered about the etiquette of taking photos at a game. I don’t want to seem like some tragic middle-aged ground-hopping loser just because I’m a tragic middle-aged ground-hopping loser. To use the modern parlance, I identify as a cultural historian; I think I knew that I was a cultural historian from a very early age, when my hobby was copying out TV schedules from the daily newspapers; in time, I graduated to making up my own schedules, which mostly featured American science fiction programmes and football highlights (stop sniggering at the back). Now that the identity cat has been let out of the self-realisation bag, I feel that I am entitled to a bit of respect, although the guy to my right probably didn’t have the word ‘respect’ in mind as I leaned across him, trying to capture the perfect snap of the packed ground. My photographic skills are only marginally better than my navigation skills, as you will see from the pictures accompanying this piece.
I expected Dumbarton to make some kind of declaration of quality and impose themselves on the game in the second half, but it was the home team that started to press for the glory goal. As their heroes started to carve out some genuine chances, the Ultras excelled themselves, when –for reasons that I suspect even Steven Hawking couldn’t fathom- they insisted on repeating (and repeating) their own version of a famous festive hit:

Last Christmas I gave you my heart,
But the very next day, you gave it away.
This year, to save me from tears, I’ll give it to Lewis Turner. 

Lewis was clearly the darling of the crowd. He had played at senior level, but had been released by Berwick Rangers; perhaps –like several of the Bonnyrigg lads- he felt that he had something to prove. Whatever his motivation, he had an excellent game, backed by some outstanding team-mates with great spirit and, by midway through the second half, the nervous Dumbarton support would happily have settled for the draw. 

There was a sense that something special was in the air, probably right up until the moment Dumbarton goalie Alan Martin pulled off a stupendous point blank save from a header. That was the point at which we all knew that Bonnyrigg were not going to score. The game ended 0-0, but gloriously so. It was a 'kids jumping about behind the goal' kind of 0-0; it was a 'young men chanting until they’re hoarse' kind of 0-0; it was a 'people walking home with smiles on their faces' kind of 0-0; it was a 'we’re in the draw for the next round' kind of 0-0.

I thought again about that ‘Busload of Faith’ song and wondered if I had misinterpreted the lyrics. What was it actually trying to say about faith?  

You can't depend on your family. 
You can’t depend on your friends. 
You can depend on the worst always happening.

This game was played because the good folk of Bonnyrigg had wanted it played. They had responded to a call from their club to turn up on a freezing night and lay protective covering on the pitch. Their club had needed them and they had delivered; they had prepared the stage for their heroes to go out and make a little bit of history. The words of that song weren’t right: You can depend on your family and friends. 

Lou Reed clearly knew nothing about the Scottish Cup.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

It's the end of the world (again).

Originally founded in the nineteenth century as the Bible Study Movement, the Jehova’s Witnesses have about 8 million members spread across more than 200 countries. Followers refer to their beliefs as ‘the truth’ and some limit their social interaction with outsiders, because they consider secular society to be under the influence of Satan. In the early part of the twentieth century, they gained some notoriety through making predictions about the end of the world, a habit they appear to have kicked in recent years. At some point, someone within the organisation must have realised that, once people have been marched up the hill a few times to prepare for the rapture, they might start to get a bit sceptical when that rapture doesn’t arrive. Maybe the head of Armegeddon Projection at Jehova House had a quiet word with the resident soothsayers: 

"Look ... perhaps we need to start reigning in this whole ‘end-of-the-world-is-nigh’ stuff because … well … how can I put it … we’re starting to look a bit … you know … stupid.”

Some of the folk who are not just upset but absolutely distraught about the American election result could perhaps take a leaf out of that book. It’s difficult to make a case for any election result being a 'disaster' when elections are designed to reflect the will of the people who have voted. That is not to suggest that losing sides should just shut up and take their medicine, because anger and protest is entirely legitimate. I’m all in favour of arguing, but it looks like ‘arguing’ is not what some people on the losing side really want to do; it seems like they think peddling lurid doomsday fantasies to the impressionable is much more fun.  

I'm old enough to remember Ronald Reagan being elected President of the United States. In the run-up to that election in 1980, I was a frightened young person because people I admired and respected – musicians, writers, commentators- were saying that he was going to be a disaster, not just for America, but for the world. How could an actor possibly be running for president? According to those in the know, this sinister idiot was likely to start World War III. One of my favourite authors -JG Ballard- even wrote a pseudo-psychological exploration (in short story form) of Reagan’s subliminal appeal in order to illustrate that he wasn’t an ordinary human; he was one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, sent to earth to bring about the end of days. In his preface to the 1990 edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard wrote: 

"Reagan used the smooth, teleprompter-perfect tones of the TV auto-salesman to project a political message that was absolutely the reverse of bland and reassuring. A complete discontinuity existed between Reagan's manner and body language, on the one hand, and his scarily simplistic far-right message on the other … he was the first politician to exploit the fact that his TV audience would not be listening too closely, if at all, to what he was saying, and indeed might well assume from his manner and presentation that he was saying the exact opposite of the words actually emerging from his mouth.”

Much as I love Ballard’s work, I can see now that there are many things wrong with that analysis. But back when Reagan was running for office, this kind of guff worked a treat on people like me. We were genuinely frightened and really, really believed that this ‘right-wing extremist’ was determined to wage a holy war against the Soviet Union. He was clearly the Antichrist and, on the night he was elected, it felt like we were all doomed. Of course, we were wrong. Not only is Reagan now regarded as a significant and popular two-term president, but it is clear that his political abilities made World War III far less likely to happen than it had been at any time since 1945. If you don’t believe me, just read some of the stuff that dissidents in the former Soviet Union have written about his presidency, about how his willingness to lead and his clarity of vision impacted upon the corrupt regime in Moscow. Of course, when he described the Soviet Union as ‘an evil empire’, he appalled all respectable commentators in the west; the cognoscenti railed against his hawkish vulgarity, believing him to be an irresponsible buffoon pushing the planet towards a global conflagration. But his crime was merely to articulate what some folk already knew, but were unable -or unwilling- to admit.  

During the recent American election campaign, the mainstream media had some special stuff saved up for Mr Trump (some of it foolishly provided by the man himself), but then again, they’ve always got special stuff saved up for Republican candidates. Over the years, we’ve been warned that various candidates were ‘hard right extremists’ and determined to start wars, destroy the lives of poor folk and roll back civil rights. You may recall the treatment meted out in 2008 to Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin for daring to be the ‘wrong’ sort of woman in politics. The c-word was ‘reclaimed’ by groups of feminists protesting against her candidature; these protests included circulating pictures of themselves holding up placards saying ‘SARAH PALIN IS A CUNT’; so much for progressive feminism. During this latest campaign, we were told that Donald Trump’s misogyny was a major issue. His pathetic frat-boy ‘pussy grabbing’ comments made him unfit for office and yet, somehow, John F. Kennedy remains a poster boy for the liberal left, a man whose misdemeanours took place on an industrial scale. If Trump’s sexual behaviour is akin to a low-budget, shot-on-video daytime soap opera on cable TV, Kennedy’s was a multi-million dollar 3-D Hollywood blockbuster with a cast of thousands. And let’s not forget the sequel they made in the 1990s with Bill Clinton, another serial philander who got a free pass from the left.

One of the difficulties with British media coverage of American elections is that it is generally so skewed that it takes some generosity to even acknowledge it as journalism. On the morning after ‘the night of the Donald’, the tone of BBC radio’s coverage was appropriate to what we have come to expect from news reports about natural disasters or terrorist atrocities. A politics lecturer from a northern university was asked to comment on the scale of the ‘tragedy’. The woman could hardly speak; you’d have thought that her entire family had just been beheaded by ISIS. She was, of course, entitled to be upset, entitled to her views; but she was on national radio, selected by supposedly impartial hosts as a voice of authority. From this position, she had chosen to signal her ‘overwhelming grief’ about an election result. How good a lecturer must she be? I’ll bet her students get a really balanced perspective on the political issues of the day. 

This, in a nutshell, is the biggest problem on what might be called the ‘closed’ liberal left. Its worldview has become so myopically self-absorbed, so utterly complacent, that many of its self-righteous adherents can no longer conceive that other people might look at the available evidence and come to conclusions which don’t coincide with theirs. They are unable to accept that the person across the street (or across the pond) has other thoughts, other life experiences and values, other influences, other ways of looking at the world. Like those Jehova’s Witnesses who limit social interaction with non-believers, members of the closed left believe that they own the moral high ground; they see racists, Nazis, homophobes and monsters at every turn and they use those terms, not to debate with the opposition, but to shame that opposition into silence. A charitable interpretation of this behaviour might attribute it to political bias, passion or wilful ignorance; a less charitable interpretation might note the disturbing absence of empathy. The most closed and dangerous minds are those which consider themselves virtuous and, when we deny the right to intellectual diversity, we are ignoring the piled-up corpses of history. Intellectual diversity (the most important diversity of all) doesn’t involve calling people monsters or trivialising the concept of what a ‘monster’ really is; it doesn’t involve co-opting victims of genuine oppression and political terror to bolster your currently fashionable prejudices. If Reagan, Palin or Trump are monsters, what words do we have left to describe Stalin, Mao or Hitler?

From what I've seen, the President elect doesn’t appear to have anything like the wit, charm or political nous of Ronald Reagan, but maybe he’ll grow into the job. The more I read about him, the more I think that my initial impressions were probably superficial, based largely upon scraps gathered from invariably hostile sources. I’m open to the possibility that, for all of his character faults (and he may have quite a collection of those), he might yet turn out to be a president of substance; we have no choice but to wait and see. I doubt I’d have voted for him, but I can accept that the American electorate had very good reasons for rejecting the ‘business as usual’ option. 

Their country will get on with it, because most people have no desire, or inclination, to march up that hill again, like those zealous Witnesses praying for Armageddon.  

We've been there. Seen it. Done that.