French Flair and Charlie Hebdo

From March 2015, an attempt to find a silver lining from the Charlie Hebdo massacres in Paris in January. Maybe a bit contentious, this one.

Enough time has now passed that I feel comfortable sharing with you my favourite moment from January’s Charlie Hebdo massacres. Now, some readers might find it inappropriate to have a favourite moment of a tragedy, but if it’s acceptable to name the one thing that spoiled your wedding day, it’s logically consistent to name the one thing that cheered you up during an atrocity.

For me, the highlight or saving grace was a quote from the French president, François Hollande, when he praised the French police and special forces for their ‘courage, efficacy, and flair’. The reason I like this so much is that it seems almost heroically French for an elite commando unit facing a hostage situation orchestrated by desperate murderers, to decide that the correct response would be to act with ‘flair’. It brings to mind special forces storming the building with Kevlar helmets at jaunty – no, not even jaunty – at rakish angles. They’d not charge into the terrorist compound, they’d languidly glide through like Zinedine Zidane in his pomp, idly picking off the hostage-takers while barely seeming to break sweat, yet somehow with an infinite amount of time to make decisions.

You can picture a fresh-faced MI6 operative on secondment, eagerly bustling into a smoke-filled basement room with a ream of papers tucked under one arm. ‘I’ve got the plans for the building,’ he’d say, ‘there is access through a roof hatch, or there’s also a side entrance through…’ At this point a grizzled French commando looking a bit like Leon, from the film Leon, would cut him off. ‘Ah, rosbif, you have so much to understand,’ he would sigh, somehow managing to exhale the sigh at the same time as inhaling a long drag from a gauloise. ‘You are so uptight, with your plans, and your protocols, and your unimaginatively-aligned headgear.’ He would grip the MI6 operative’s hands and stare into his eyes, a little too passionately for the gravity of the situation, saying ‘Rosbif, you must learn to live a little’, while blowing a lungful of carcinogenic smoke directly into his face.

It is wonderfully French to expect special forces to perform their roles not just effectively, but with a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’. Now, I’m no Andy McNab – that’s now been proved beyond reasonable legal doubt by a series of embarrassing identity fraud trials – but there is one thing I do know. When it comes to counter-terrorist hostage operations, you are supposed to sais exactly quoi.

It’s sometimes said that people reveal their true character in adversity. With this in mind, maybe the Hollande should have used the word ‘panache’ rather than ‘flair’. One definition says that panache is ‘a word of French origin that carries the connotation of flamboyant manner and reckless courage.’ At the most superficial level, that sums up the French national stereotype quite nicely, and if the cap fits, wear it. But wear it rakishly.

Thrills, spills and granite pills at the Sochi Winter Olympics

From February 2014, a series of ill-considered opinions on the Winter Olympics at Sochi.

As the post-mortems begin on the 2014 Winter Olympics, it is time to face facts about the British performance. For all the excitement on show every four years, the only discipline in which we are consistently competitive is curling, comfortably the least exciting sport in the schedule. This is not to denigrate curling – as a game of precision and skill, it is right up there with, say, billiards. The problem is that in the context of the Winter Olympics, curling is like a game of billiards being played as half-time entertainment at a demolition derby.

Almost every other sport at the games has a comparably-high level of skill, speed, or endurance, but with one crucial dash of Tabasco in the fruit salad: the possibility of genuine, serious injury. As we all know, sport is all good fun until someone gets hurt. But, ghoulish though it may be, the greater that possibility of someone getting hurt becomes, the more all good fun the sport becomes.

Flicking around the red button, every event in Sochi had a pleasing level of mayhem and danger. Skiers somersaulted down mountainsides like rotor blades sheared off a helicopter; speed skaters played an elaborate game of human skittles; and snowboarders launched high into the air, flipping over and over before splatting down onto the snow, prone and motionless, like poorly-tossed pancakes. A team of Canadian bobsledders attempted to slow down 200 kilograms of metal with their own skulls, their helmets juddering against one another like a Newton’s cradle on top of a washing machine. Even the ice dancers flirted with doom, hammer-throwing one another about, sailing through the air and essentially attempting to land on the edge of a sword.

How can curling possibly compete with all this? The answer, undoubtedly, is to add jeopardy. Ice hockey’s decision-makers realised this, which is why they changed the rules to allow teams to call one time-out each for an old-fashioned playground bundle and punch-up. The way forward for curling is clear for 2018: it should become an outdoor sport, played exclusively on frozen lakes with variable and uncertain ice thickness.

Who can honestly deny that this would improve the sport as a spectacle? The added risk that a player might at any moment disappear into a watery abyss would activate that addictive voice in the viewer’s head: the wouldn’t-it-be-awful-if-but-at-the-same-time-I-wouldn’t-mind-seeing-what-it-would-look-like voice. And who can say they wouldn’t like to hear a softly-spoken Scottish commentator describing thin-ice curling:

“The British skip needs to curl his stone around the Swedish guard, glance off the stone to the front right of the house, and nestle onto the other one in the centre. A tricky shot in the best of conditions, but as you can see, visible cracks are now appearing in the ice under his feet. So he’ll not want to spend too long deliberating with this 20 kilogram stone in his hand, no no! And let’s all just hope we can get to the end of this semi-final in one piece and it’s not decided tragically like this morning’s was, by the intervention of a hungry bear.”

I’m no patriot, but if the British team could contend for medals under those conditions, I’d happily ignore the supergiant alpine faceplant competition, open a Red Bull to go with my red button and cheer on Team GB all the way.

The Vex Factor

From June 2013, this was an attempt at a pedantic rant. It was sort of in character, written from the point of view of an irritable, pompous blowhard who is out of touch with modern culture. As a result, it is no more than 97% in line with my actual opinions.

The other day a friend started talking about One Direction to me.

“What, like a pervy magician?” I asked.

“Not Wand Erection. One Direction. The boyband.”

Of course I knew what he meant. But as soon as I started thinking about it, I realised that I know actually know nothing else about One Direction, apart from their presumed habit of painting their penises black and white and ruining children’s parties. All I know is that they’re apparently the biggest thing since the Beatles first learned to slice bread all those years ago. I don’t know the names of any Wand Erection songs, the dance steps that presumably go with them, or even the names of the pop-imps (pimps?) in the band. I’ve a vague notion that one of them might have slept with Katie Price. But that’s not so much knowledge gleaned from gossip columns as sheer statistical likelihood.

The reason I don’t know anything about this particular incarnation of giggling Saturday morning peacocks is that I don’t want to, and in today’s world, I don’t have to. With freeview, digital radio and the internet, I never need know anything about what’s in the charts. I could spend a whole weekend listening only to punk covers of the Horst Wessel song. I wouldn’t. But it’s nice to know I could.

I’ve even found it relatively easy to ignore the TV talent shows, which I guess is how I’ve managed to avoid Wand Erection. I’ve seen the X Factor once in the last year, and after about 20 seconds, the judge Nicole Scherzinger pointed to the contestant who’d just finished singing, and announced:

“YOU are the DIFFERENCE.”

And then she stopped, and looked pleased with herself, as though that non-sentence was an adequate return on the hundreds of thousands of pounds she earns for appearing on the show. Somehow, though, the crowd went nuts. But I don’t think they were shouting the same things as I was shouting at home:

‘“You are the difference?” The difference between WHAT and WHAT, you vacuous waste of atoms?!? That is NOWHERE NEAR ENOUGH!! If you typed that sentence, a green wiggly line would appear underneath it, with a message saying “Fragment (consider revising)”!!!’

As the camera panned around the aircraft hanger studio, I found myself thinking that if it were to be suddenly and completely filled up with water, there wouldn’t be a soul in there that I would mourn. Not the vapid acts with their soap opera back-stories; not the smarmy, smirky, smuggy judges; and not the screaming berserker army of pubertal airheads in the crowd, shouting ‘I like the one with the floppy fringe, but my friend likes the one with the spiky hair. It’s such an exciting rivalry, it’s just exactly like a war.

“I wouldn’t mourn any of them,” I heard myself shouting. “Not even the cameramen and crew, because they’ve got constant access to heavy pieces of equipment, and occasional access to the back of Simon Cowell’s skull, and they’ve failed to put two and two together and make the six o’clock news. Let them all drown, let the purifying water cleanse the sins of the earth!”

My friend’s two daughters, who were the reason the X Factor was on the TV in the first place, ran crying to their mother, complaining that I was ruining the show. The mood of the evening changed and for some reason suddenly I was the prick. Unbelievable. Still, I’d managed to watch 35 seconds, a new personal best.

“Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?” Nicole Scherzinger sings whenever anyone doesn’t forcefully prevent her.

“No,” I now reply. “But I’m glad my wife doesn’t think ‘attitude’ is an acceptable substitute for proper sentence structure.”

My wife sighs. She wishes her husband was pleasant, like one of those nice young men from Wand Erection.

Everyone’s got an opinion. What’s yours worth?

This was the first blog post I ever wrote, on a site I set up in 2007, the last time I was out of work. Reading this again, it seems like I’m back to the same position I was in when I wrote it. Except now with a child to feed and a mortgage to pay. Bugger.

Blank screen? Check. Blank mind? Check. Crap pun in blog name? Check. All systems initialised, I am ready to enter the blogosphere.

First things first, I swore I would never write a blog. I detest the very idea of keeping an online diary. A diary, like a collection of sadomasochistic pornography, should be kept private until the day you die, when grieving loved ones can discover it and realise what a monster you truly were.

Have you ever read someone’s private diary? Trust me on this, they are almost always boring, whining, self-pitying, tedious drivel, and they are never worth the aggravation you get when you are caught reading them.

I did not want to write a blog, because they usually combine the worst elements of diaries (dull, uninspiring whinge-a-thons) with the worst elements of radio phone-ins (strident conviction based on prejudice or ignorance.) They are a waste of time and mental energy for both writer and reader.

Like contributors to radio phone-ins, bloggers often fail to remember three simple rules.

1) Having an opinion does not mean you have thought it through.

2) Having an opinion does not mean it is correct. AND CRUCIALLY….

3) Having an opinion does NOT mean that anyone else is interested in hearing it.

There is disagreement over the size of the blogosphere, but according toTechnorati’s figures from April 2007, they were already tracking over 70 million blogs at that date. Even accounting for the fact that many of these are lapsed or inactive, Technorati also tracked postings at a rate of 1.5 million per day, or 17 per second. It goes without saying that blogs are accumulating faster than the human eye could possibly ever read them.

Assuming each posting takes an average of 30 seconds to read (an arbitrary number, but almost certainly a low estimate) this means one person could read 960 blog postings in an 8-hour working day. This means you would need 1,563 people working seven days a week just to read newly posted material, leave alone the backlog. This, it must be stressed, is only for the blogs tracked by Technorati.

We have recently been warned that we are running out of IP addresses, as so many electronic devices are now connected to the internet. With the archiving of online material, search engines also have to become more and more sophisticated in order to deliver the right results from the billions of megabytes of online information. Blogs can only add to the problem. In years to come, “backlog” will seem a more likely etymological root for “blog” than “weblog.” We are in a blogjam on the information superhighway.

Citizen journalism is in vogue, and it is an unpopular stance to criticise it. We are all Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. The more people who pose intelligent questions, the better. This is true democracy – we don’t just have a vote, we have a say. But that is exactly the problem. With five billion people having their say, who is left to listen?

There is undoubtedly good, even great writing in many blogs. But who honestly has time to sort the wheat from the chaff? There is an advert on UK television at the moment for a sports betting company. Its selling line, designed to persuade punters to put money on their predictions, is “Everyone’s got an opinion, what’s yours worth?” This tag is wasted on advertising gambling. It should be emblazoned at the top of every blog submittal page in letters of fire, demanding that authors carefully appraise the contribution their thoughts will make to the debate they are joining.

Simply put, evaluate your work before thrusting it in the face of an uncaring public. In an online world without censorship, self-editing is paramount.

If I feel this way, am I a hypocrite for starting a blog? Like Dylan going electric, am I Judas? A thousand times, yes. My motivation is even the same – thirty pieces of silver. I am an out-of-work journalist, unemployed and impoverished. I have spent two fantastic years travelling the world and living the high life, and now I am trying to settle down and enter the real world. I need a job, and my CV is too thin. This blog is quite simply writing practice, sample work. Cyber-space filler, if you will.

I am under no illusions. This posting, despite all efforts to the contrary, has still combined prejudiced opinion with an enormous great whining moan. I have made every single mistake I have criticised or highlighted. Furthermore, in the second that this posting goes online, it will be joined by 16 others, each competing for a readership more interested in coming up with ideas for their own blog than in reading anyone else’s. It will be lost in the sea of information available on the internet. Lastly, by the law of averages, anything I have written here will almost certainly have been better expressed elsewhere.

But I am not going to check 70 million other blogs to make sure.