Activewiththeactivists’s Weblog

December 30, 2007

The God of telly

Filed under: Uncategorized — activewiththeactivists @ 6:55 pm

I’m just settling down now after a nice family Christmas, highlights being a nice fat goose and the family coming down from Scotland (not necessarily in that order). It was quiet, family orientated and secular, and it was great. Like a Dawkins Christmas, we had carols (as well as a particularly ‘good’ duet between me and my brother, in which I enjoyed calling him a faggot as he called me a slut, see below), lots of food and family games. If I mention this particular game, played on Boxing day, I tend to have my family abused and likened to Roald Dahl’s ‘The Twits’ so I’ll go into no detail, but friends may see the lists on my facebook page.

But a real feature of this, and most good Christmasses, has been the telly. It doesn’t feature in the sentimental descriptions of how families spend Christmas, and no doubt some would say we should have been going to Church, or eBaying our presents in a good cause depending on your school of thought. But we didn’t do either of those things. We watched the African Queen, and very good it was too. Like attending Church, there was a benefit in the repetition of this, and other Christmas telly, which makes the ritual special and collective. Like a good church service, families sat around and watched a mixture of repeated and comforting messages and new and current ones. It also in some sense includes the lonely and the isolated who aren’t spending Christmas with their families. Buying into the editorial of television, and watching the same as much of the country at the same time, is really a kind of political act, and I don’t think that makes it a bad thing.

However I have also just been looking at the new iPlayer on the BBC, which looks great. I think it’s a great example of the flexibility of the internet, which has been a topic of a lot of what I have been looking at in my Masters’ course. From reading a lot of commentators, you’d think the internet was killing off TV viewing as we know it, and no doubt to some extent it’s true. Perhaps this is unsubstantiated by anyone but me, but since I’ve had Wi-Fi and a laptop I’ve often ended up with the laptop on my knee while watching television, and I’m sure it has reduced my attention span while I try and concentrate on both. Maybe it’ll be a new year’s resolution not to do this.

But there is something about television that is worth preserving, and that I don’t think will die out even if there are more convenient ways of watching programmes. People like the communal act, of observing even if not of worship. Like in a religion, people need a degree of editorial sending them in the direction of items of interest to them. Much as I often scream at the BBC for some of its political coverage and comment (As, I’m sure, do people involved in politics on all sides), their editorial and mixture of new and old is a really important part of national life, and they do it very well. It was one of the things I missed the most living in the USA.

So I’m using the iPlayer – it’s great and I can’t afford Sky+. But I’m also making a New Years resolution to watch more television, and give it my full attention, not looking up everything on Wikipedia as I go. And I’ll still pester to watch The Snowman every Christmas Eve, however many times I’ve seen it, and even if the Irn-Bru version is better.


December 18, 2007

Happy Christmas your arse

Filed under: Uncategorized — activewiththeactivists @ 11:27 pm

It’s not very often I find myself cheering for Jeremy Vine, but I did hear him this lunchtime on Radio 2 and was happy to hear Fairytale of New York, a song I could recite bar by bar even if I hadn’t heard it in ten years. I didn’t realise at that moment why he was doing it until I saw this. I have to write this as it was the only way to calm my gay housemate as he shouted swear words and abuse at Peter Tatchell on the television. Worse ones than ‘slut’ and ‘faggot’ if we are going to grade these things.

Now, I know that faggot is an offensive word, as is slut. I wouldn’t use them in the course of my daily discourse. But the point of the song, and the reason it is so appropriate for Christmas, is that it reflects people leading an imperfect life with imperfect and dysfunctional relationships. They may use imperfect language. It’s the perfect antidote to the parts of commercial Christmas culture which exclude everything but happy families. With perfect teeth. It’s an important part of Christmas cheer if it can amuse anyone lonely or sad at Christmas.

It’s not as if the late great Kirsty MacColl or the thankfully still with us Shane McGowan are exactly setting themselves up as role models for Radio 1 listeners here. They are, as Ms MacColl’s mother points out, a couple not in the first flush of youth. There are suggestions one or both may be somewhat compromised by their drug use. The song starts with Shane McGowan ‘in the drunk tank’ placing bets. You’d have to be very naïve to imagine that both singers are not drunk when having this row. So they’re hardly saying it’s right to call people faggots.

Despite this the song is genuinely romantic, albeit not in the sterile way that most Christmas songs are. Kissing on a street corner while the NYPD choir sing is just as authentic as being under some arranged mistletoe. There aren’t many better lines than ‘I could have been someone – well so could anyone’ to express a total lack of sympathy for someone being drunkenly maudlin. It’s a skill plenty of people may find themselves using at Christmas (along with sympathy of course, and holding people’s hair out of the way while they experience the later effects of festive drinking).

So I’d like to say well done to Radio 1, not just for sensibly caving but for getting still more airtime for a great song for everyone who might have an imperfect Christmas or imperfect relationships. I counted at least four groups on Facebook asking to get Fairytale of New York to be Christmas number one, and one of them had 2351 new members when I just looked. Maybe Radio 1 are not fools.

Maybe they know that picking the boring answer is not what we need at Christmas. They know that bans from Radio 1 inevitably lead to success, and thank god this time they may have used the power for something great. Maybe I’ll even retune from Radio 2. But not until Chris Evans goes on holiday.

December 16, 2007

The incredibles

Filed under: Uncategorized — activewiththeactivists @ 12:47 pm

Great example here of some fake Tory photos. Particularly the fact that more than one hand has faked the same scene with different results. Hardly the much vaunted Tory authenticity is it?

But it’s also a pretty awful photo. A bunch of politicians in their suits lining up against a blue background. No action. No interaction. No public. No recognisable background. No story. If these politicians are talking or listening it is only to each other. Why should anyone care? And yet it has been reproduced on the websites of several Tory candidates. To show that they’re still the candidates of another, less communicative age. Even if they can use photo shop (badly).

Surely it’s time for a moratorium on these formal candidate shots. We don’t want politicians who look like ‘Westminster Man’ or ‘Town Hall man’. We want politicians who do enough active things that we can get pictures of them doing active things in their areas. If they do these cheesy pictures, fake or real, you have to ask why.

Because getting people to identify with candidates and producing materials people will read is not just sensible for getting votes. It’s important for getting people to listen to what you have to say.

Maybe the Tories should stop ploughing money into their campaigns and photo shopping efforts and get some photos of themselves talking to voters.

Maybe people would listen. And they would look less like chumps.

December 14, 2007

And now for the good news

Filed under: Uncategorized — activewiththeactivists @ 7:01 pm

It’s about cancer. Notably the brand spanking new cancer centre in Leeds, keys handed over today and first patients will be in on Christmas eve. Curing cancer is pretty much a good thing in my book.


Not a lot else to say. I’ve noticed I’ve been sounding quite grumpy since my defence of Dolly Parton. But the blog is being marked for my journalism course and I’m supposed to do over 400 words per entry. Somehow moaning uses up more words and makes me sound smarter. I could talk about the funding streams for the hospital, or moan that Sheffield hasn’t got one better.


Well I’m not that clever. I’m clearly a bad student.


Improving cancer treatment is good. And it’s better if people read it.


Word count : 126.

Disgusted of Broomhall Park

Filed under: Uncategorized — activewiththeactivists @ 5:01 pm

Perhaps I should declare an interest in this one. This story, from today’s Sheffield Star, features Barry, my parent’s neighbour in the house I grew up in. He’s a reasonable man. But the behaviour his video shows really is constant, and I just wonder if the attitude towards it is misled by the fact that it’s done by University students.

What’s happening is young people bringing chaos and in some cases fear to a residential area. The fact that they are students is neither here nor there. It is a problem to be managed, and increasingly so. It is serious too – my parents have had people coming into the garden, breaking up garden furniture and hitting each other with the pieces while they frantically called the police. The discarded takeaways attract rats and poison local dogs.

It’s great that more and more people are going to University. I went. It must have done me some good. It is without doubt a good thing. Only a small proportion cause this kind of distress, but a small proportion can be quite a large number. Like immigration, we want it and it brings countless long term benefits, but we have to be prepared for the numbers. It’s not unusual to have 30 000 students living in a few square miles. If that was younger kids on an estate they would all have ASBOs. My friend’s elderly parents are one of only three households left on a street otherwise occupied by hundreds of students. They have to put up with the noise, pools of vomit and mattresses left in the street between academic years.

But we seem to do something different with students – they’re a different category neither adult nor child. I lived for a while in Washington DC as a student and it was implicit in what we did and how we lived that we were more children than adults – we were too young to drink (this was in our third year), we shared rooms, the sexes weren’t allowed to mix between set hours, and the atmosphere was more like teenagers having a sleepover than anything else.

The last thing I want is for students to be ‘educated’ on that model, but by segmenting such a large group away from the rest of the world we seem to be encouraging a genuine social problem interfering with the lives of residents. When I was a student (in Leeds) the accommodation for students was largely separated off from the city, and had its own distinct shops, club nights and pubs. The main ‘political’ issue ‘tackled’ by the students was getting a plaque made banning Jack Straw from the Union building.

Sheffield is not like that. Yet. But any number of people needs managing, as does how they interact with the rest of the city. The small minority who make life a misery for residents can’t be allowed to cause a backlash against the considerable benefits they bring, nor can they be allowed to put people off studying for its own sake.

My question is how do we manage alcohol in this situation? The poll on ‘boozenight’ last night suggested people would largely support raising the minimum age for drinking to 21. Having been around people turning 21 in America I cannot quite imagine that that would help. But what should we do? There are deals in bars and shops clearly designed to attract students. If they explicitly targeted football fans or under age drinkers in the same way there would be an outcry.

Why should students be any different?

December 10, 2007

The twenty year plan

Filed under: Uncategorized — activewiththeactivists @ 3:54 pm

Apologies for the delay between posts. I’ve been in Spain and am technologically not as good as I think I am. Or perhaps municipal Wi-Fi is still a way off.

Found some interesting stuff here concerning ways of boosting turnout in local elections, including the rather eye-catching proposals from the Councillors’ Commission to issue voters with lottery numbers at a polling station to encourage them to turn out and ‘redundancy’ payments for council leaders who lose their seats. This may be eye catching but it would perhaps be a brave man who implements it.

I’m in favour of virtually anything that engages more people in the political process, but I can’t help feeling that the councillors are barking up the wrong tree with some of these. I read this having just come from a seminar about whether the media and politicians treat the public as consumers or citizens. I have spend more hours than I care to think about in persuading people to physically vote, whether by post or in person. It seems to lead active politicians to wonder if the process is hard, and academics to obsess over declining turnout as an example of fractured communities.

These all seem to be missing the point. Voting is all important but it is only a symptom. You can tell this by the difference between the age groups in persuading people to go and vote. You can get older people to say that they are Labour or Conservative etc, and then your job is to get them out to vote. People I meet who are closer to my age (26, for those that don’t know me) tend to say things like ‘I’m not political’ or ‘I don’t follow politics’. I have spoken to plenty of young people who have opinions but express that they do not feel qualified to engage with party politics or voting.

Politics has always been to some degree separated from the rest of public life, and news in particular. I can’t see any evidence that there was a golden age when the public were excited about politics and thought it was all about their lives. Politicians and journalists have both kept this illusion, participating in points scoring and the soap opera of political life.

But perhaps what the low turnout figures show is that we have professionalised politics to such a degree that we are alienating people. Especially when we only communicate within the political bubble. We know that turnout is considerably higher in marginal seats where people are communicated with regularly. Increasingly, my generation of politicians have the opportunity to study politics and work in politics, (becoming part of the political world at a younger age than the previous generations would have done) and we need to be bringing other people in to central and local government if we are going to be in any way relevant.

Perhaps the key point the Councillors’ Commission need to look at is not how to make people physically vote, but how they maintain their relevance. I know some truly excellent councillors and what the good ones all have in common is the ability to lead in their areas, and to be pro-active in what their areas need. Academics can end up obsessing over the meaning of decreasing turnout and the professionalisation of politics, but really the root of the problem is keeping that relevance.

So the suggestion the Councillors’ Commission make which might be on the right track is that councillors should get more help (financial and otherwise) in continuously communicating with people in their area. That’s the only way they can lead, and make local democracy relevant.

It’s also the way for the political parties to fulfil their function of finding a preparing the next generation of politicians, with a mixture of policy expertise and skill in making judgements. Whichever party is running the country in twenty years time, I hope that a good proportion of the cabinet is currently doing something to help them learn these skills, rather than obsessing over the latest intrigues of the political system.

December 1, 2007

I love Dolly Parton

Filed under: Uncategorized — activewiththeactivists @ 5:22 pm

There, I’ve said it. Probably not the best title for a post, but I’m sure it is at the root of why I am wound up about this, the attempt by an opposition councillor to attack Rotherham council for promoting a new literacy scheme.

Apologies for stating the bleedin’ obvious, but I’d have thought it was a great idea for kids to get a free library of books, and at an early age. Also, it’s a pretty good idea to publicise it, and by getting an international star to come to the Magna centre is about as much publicity as you can get in Rotherham. Even Look Leeds (sorry, North) have ventured south of the M62.

But what’s even more ridiculous about Councillor Mannion’s comments is his implication that Councillors are letting the town down by delaying a council meeting by one hour. Because of course the best way for councillors to improve the town is to spend as much time as is possible sitting in the town hall. I’m sure there is proof of that in election results across the country.

However what really irritates me about this story is the snobbery. It’s not the fact that councillors might miss something because they are off meeting a celebrity. It’s that they are meeting a country music star. For goodness sake she is blond and 5ft 2, how could she be worth meeting. The leader must of course be an idiot if he likes her.

Councillor Mannion is missing the really great thing about Dolly Parton – she combats every type of snobbery. From helping beat literacy problems, which after all is one of the most serious types of social exclusion there is, to not giving a damn what people think of how she dresses, Dolly Parton is a prime example of how idiotic and pervasive snobbery is. She tells a story about when she was young seeing a woman (who she was told was a lady of ill-repute) and loving the way she dressed. Dolly didn’t care what people thought, she thought she looked great and wanted to grow up to look like that.


The really worrying thing is that snobbery, whether it’s cultural, aspiration or educational (also at this time of year, just being snotty about other people’s Christmas lights) is that it is one of the means of excluding people which is hardest to combat, and needs to be spoken up against. Even by Dumb Blondes.


What’s not to like about Dolly Parton for this? Congratulations to Councillor Stone for liking Dolly Parton, and taking a lead in improving literacy in Rotherham, even if it does mean leaving the town hall now and again.

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