Jim McLennan is melting…

Have I said, “I told you so” yet? Except that even in my wildest dreams, I didn’t envisage England cocking things up so spectacularly. As Oscar Wilde said (or would have, had he been a TV pundit), “to lose one half-time lead is a misfortune; to lose two smacks of incompetence”. To go down to a penalty, for a Sunday pub-team tackle, was merely the icing on the cake, and made losing five quid to the guy on the next desk at work, not just bearable, but a wholly satisfactory investment. Though even if England had got through, it would have been Italy in the quarter-final, and does anyone really think you’d have beaten them?

I suspect the best thing is, it absolves me from the need to track down football…sorry, “soccer”, during the upcoming holiday in America, and concentrate on the matter in hand: survival. For, while plans to move out there at the end of the year advance apace, this will be the first time I’ve been out in Phoenix in the summer, previous visits have been in months like February or October when, while it’s still warm, the heat is rather less pronounced. And when I say “heat”, I’m not kidding: remember how hot it was over the weekend? Chuck another 30 degrees on top, and you’ll be there or thereabouts.

Told of such things, it’s no surprise to learn that I am preparing for a week spent scampering from air-conditioned home to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned mall to air-conditioned baseball stadium. Yes, baseball stadium. It has a retractable roof, which they close a few hours before each game, and then crank the coolers up to eleven in order to get the temperature down to comfortable by start time. I quite like the idea of working there…or perhaps even moving house under the stand somewhere.

You may have realised heat is not a favourite commodity of mine. Cold can always be countered with another jumper, but especially for those who work in a bank, there are certain minimum dress standards one is expected to meet — in quantity, if not necessarily quality. It’s really quite unfair: women get to flounce around in loose skirts, or anything this side of G-strings, while us blokes aren’t even allowed to loosen our ties without the risk of a fatwa from the office God-Emperor.

I do have to say that I feel certain quality thresholds should be required, and this applies both to men and women. Now, I’m no Adonis, but I do at least have the decency to keep myself largely covered. As one friend commented, “Englishmen shouldn’t wear shorts” (unfortunately, choosing to make the statement while sitting next to…yep, you guessed it, an Englishman wearing shorts), and there’s something to be said for this. Countries where hot weather is common have a far better idea of what looks good than places like Britain, where the summer lasts seven days, scattered between June and September.

Love for the sun makes people do strange, self-mutilating things, which result in large areas of pinkish skin. I’m firmly in agreement with the Victorians, who regarded a sun-tan as evidence of a life spent labouring in fields, and thus something to be avoided. However, this is probably tied in with my hypochondria, which inevitably elevates any mole to a malignant melanoma, and puts going into the sun in roughly the same risk category as unprotected sex with a male prostitute.

You will, given this, probably be wondering how I am going to cope with the thermonuclear temperatures to be found in the American South-West. But it’s not an issue that concerns me (though we’ll see how it goes for the next week). I’m perhaps more worried about wildlife which bites, stings, or simply looks as if it does. What do we have in this country which can compete? One slightly poisonous snake, which no-one I know has ever seen, and which would trigger reptilian laughter from its Arizonan siblings, were it to slither along and try to gain admittance into the annual VenomCon.

Because, let’s face it, we in Britain are remarkably insulated from such things. As well as having fauna that belongs in a petting zoo, there are effectively no earthquakes, volcanos, or other natural disasters to speak of. The weather is temperate, without tornados and hurricanes, and the political situation is stable to the point of utter tedium — if Britain was ever to have a military coup, it would probably involve the consumption of tea and biscuits, and be so well-mannered that no-one would notice it had happened.

I have to say, if you look at what made Great Britain great, it’s all in the past; these days, we are associated less with empire and industry, and more with football hooligans, the Millennium Dome, and a bunch of dysfunctional aristocrats. Which is why I have few qualms about leaving this place; America may be screwed up in a million and one ways, but at least they are good at the sports they invented, albeit largely because they don’t let anyone else play them. [Conspiracy theorists may care to ponder whether the real reason behind the USA’s embargo on Cuba, is because they were getting a bit too good at baseball.] Seen in this light, the failure of the English football and cricket teams is less a cause than a symptom.

Do I care? Only in a strange, abstract sort of way, in much the way I feel for a relative I’ve never met, and only been told about. At one time, I used to be quite patriotic — that’s just ebbed away and, now, I’m not sure whose country this is any more, but it’s not mine. And so, having set what I think is a new record for editorial topic drift, I’m going to pack a bag full of every light-coloured T-shirt I possess, and head off. Ice-cubes ahoy!

“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” [Proverbs 16:18]

It’s not normally a nice thing to take joy in other people’s misery. But on occasions, I’m prepared to make an exception, especially when it’s England we’re talking about, and especially especially after that delightful 3-2 defeat at the hands of Portugal earlier in the week. Laugh? I nearly wet myself. It made the elimination of Scotland worthwhile, just to watch Kevin Keegan’s face change from “smug satisfaction” (2-0 up) to “deer caught in headlights” (3-2 down).

It happens every couple of years. England reach the finals of the World Cup or European Championships and the nation immediately decides they not only can win it, but it is their god-given right to do so, because they invented the game. Scotland used to do this sort of thing too: but only once, in the 1978 World Cup with Ally’s Tartan Army. We lost to Peru, scraped a draw with Iran and had a player fail a drug test before deciding “Fuck it” and beating eventual finallists Holland (thanks to Archie Gemmill’s wonder goal) to be pipped on goal difference. We learned our lesson and, since then, have only ever turned up at tournaments for a laugh, with any football incidental. On the other hand, England are the dogs of world football: no matter how much of a kicking they get, they always come crawling back again, insistent that this time (more than any other time), they’ll get it right.

This perennial optimism flies in the face of all the objective evidence. Putting it into perspective, England squeaked into the finals this time the same way as the likes of Slovenia: via the playoffs, and they only just managed that, having to rely on Sweden to beat Poland in their last game. Their warm-up games saw a creditable draw against Brazil, victory over the mediocre Ukraine side knocked out by Slovenia, and then a 2-1 win against the footballing superpower of Malta, thanks to them missing a last-minute penalty. [Bet he was a cross Maltese…] Given this, expectations should be modest, with the quarter-finals a credible target. But no…

Mere optimism would be fine. However, it manifests itself in nasty jingoism and pointless patriotism — why are newspapers giving out free posters exhorting “Come on, England”? Who are they trying to impress? Neither the England team nor their opponents will be found hailing taxis in central London this week. I passed at least one venue with a big screen saying “Watch England Win Here”, which is the kind of arrogance I love to see taken down a peg or two. And even as someone who’s no fan of Mr.Posh Spice, the abuse he got was pretty indefensible. All of this helps turn me into a raging Braveheart, which provokes howls of outrage from some English friends, who protest they’d support Scotland if the roles were reversed. This is missing the point: they view Scotland as part of Britain; we see it as an occupied state. And given England’s grossly dominant role in the UK, all the outer provinces are going to take any chance we get to laugh at the invaders, even if it means becoming temporarily Portuguese, Romanian or – most of all – German.

This is why I shall be parked in front of the TV at home on Saturday night (watching it down the pub is simply too risky), waving my frankfurter around, balancing a plate of Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte mit Schlagsahne on one knee, and a foaming mug of Holsten Pils on the other. It’s just a shame England are meeting the Germans so early this time, as there’s no chance for a “heartbreaking” penalty shoot-out. I’m not sure what would be better: defeat at the hands of the Germans has been so frequent over the past 30 years, it ceases to appeal. So perhaps this time, a plucky England victory will do, followed by a brave draw against Romania, and a tragic exit on goal difference. [The sad thing is, I doubt if even the worst humiliation imaginable will make the English race shut up about bloody sixty-six — I mean nineteen rather than ten, but they were both a long time ago. Time to get over it.]

Porn Free

The BBFC have had a busy couple of weeks; not only have they released their new guidelines for R18 videos – which basically legalise hard-core pornography in this country – they announced changes to the way all films would be classified, as a result of consultation and research. The basic summary is fewer restrictions on films for adults i.e. with an ’18’ certificate, but tighter regulation on those available to be seen by children. These two combine to make what is perhaps the biggest shake-up in British censorship since the Video Recordings Act and could usher in a new, glorious dawn of freedom…

Or maybe not… It will be interesting to see how this works in practice. For example, although ’18’-rated films are now expected to be “only rarely” cut, the policy on video is still dictated to by the notion that videos may be seen by younger viewers. So we are still likely to have atrocities like Eraser imposed on us, where responsible adults, and those living in homes without children have to suffer cuts because of the failures of a small group of parents.

The full details of the research carried out by the BBFC are available through their web-site: they combined a national survey with smaller “juries” who were asked for their views in more details. I’ve picked out a few elements of particular note:

“About half the national sample agreed that violence in films might make people behave more violently in real life… The same statement was put to participants before and after the jury. As part of the process, they heard from witnesses involved in researching the effects of screen violence, and this seems to have made them much more doubtful about the simple cause and effect proposition. Agreement fell from half the jury beforehand to less than one in five afterwards.” The implication is that the “gut-feeling” people have that media violence leads to real violence, doesn’t stand up in the face of the actual facts.

“Almost half the national and postal samples agreed with the statement that people over 18 have a right to see graphic, real sex in films and videos. Internet respondents were much more strongly behind the proposition.” Indeed, 89% of us agreed, probably because we can see graphic, real sex on the Internet any time we want. But generally, Net respondents were much more liberal — only 7%, as opposed to 46% gave credence to the “imitative violence” statement. Some might say this is due to the fact that the technical feat of getting onto the Net filters out the dumber members of society…

“Approaching half of all three survey samples agreed that violence becomes more acceptable if it is humorous or in a historic/fantastic setting.” Actually, this is something that has always bothered me a bit; A-Team style violence without consequences would seem to me to be potentially more damaging, since it could cause people to downplay the real effects of violence. Obviously, there’s a point beyond which it becomes gloriously Tom & Jerry, but it’s always the nasty, brutal, realistic violence which the BBFC seems to cut.

“Respondents were asked to think of the different categories of film…and indicate for each level how offensive they found specific elements… Drug portrayal consistently [caused] the most offence and nudity the least.” As a result of this, there is the perhaps surprising recommendation that “natural nudity, providing there is no sexual context or sub-text, is acceptable at all classification levels.” A return to the days of naturists playing volleyball may be expected as a result…

“The BBFC recognises that audiences pay to see horror films because they like being frightened. The board does not cut films simply because they alarm or shock. Instead, it classifies them to ensure the young and vulnerable are protected.” Those are my italics – it’s good to see that the culture of doublethink promoted under Ferman, including the name change from “…Film Censors” to “…Film Classification”, is still alive and well. Try telling that to the distributors of Last House on the Left, recently refused any kind of certificate.

The BBFC attempt to portray the changes to the R18 category as a small loop-hole, since they are a tiny fraction of the tapes certified, and are “only” available through licenced sex-shops. However, what they forgot to mention – accidentally I’m sure – is that HM Customs and Excise have now been ordered to follow the same guidelines and so anyone with a credit card can import, not just the films which have been R18-passed here, but any of similar content. Previous attempt at liberalisation have been foiled by Customs bleating to Jack Straw that the BBFC were passing stuff which they would seize on import. No more, as the following news-group post shows:

Today I received a package from Customs HQ containing a DVD. The DVD contains graphic scenes of sex, including erections, masturbation, intercourse, group sex, oral sex, anal sex, double penetration, ejaculations on the body and in the mouth. Here is an extract from the covering letter:

‘I refer to our various conversations following your letter to Customs at Dover Postal Depot concerning the seizure of a DVD entitled “Pyramid”… The case was referred to me to enable you to view the DVD… However, after considering the impact of recent developments concerning the domestic distribution of material depicting consensual sexual activity between adults we have now revised our guidelines for the assessment of such material. We no longer consider material depicting consensual sexual activity between adults to fall within the scope of the import prohibition on obscene articles. I am therefore releasing the DVD to you…’

Hang out the bunting, pop the champagne, and get your credit cards ready for action. Britain has finally hit the 20th century. It’s still bizarre that sex shops are not allowed to supply R18 videos by mail-order, but you can buy and import them perfectly legally from the comfort of your own home, if you do it from abroad. I suspect that this prohibition will not remain in force for long — I think the first challenge to it as an unreasonable restraint of trade, giving foreign suppliers an unfair advantage over British ones, and it’ll come tumbling down too. Will the last remnant of the Empire collapse into anarchy and chaos as a result? Who cares – I won’t be around to see it!

For it is, of course, deeply ironic that all this happens two months before I leave the country for good, particularly since likely Presidential coupling Gore and Lieberman have made complaining about media violence a plank of their campaign platform — but what else would you expect from the husband of the notorious Tipper Gore? So I wonder how long it’ll be before I’ll need to start importing uncut versions of films from Britain into America…

Who’s Afraid of the Internet?

Well, the big, bad Internet has come in for more stick this week, following the revelation that admitted nail bomber David Copeland (who came closer to blowing me up than I care to contemplate) used to find instructions on how to make his devices. Indeed, in an article whose irony was only invisible to the editor, the Daily Mirror published a step-by-step guide as to how you too could find out the same information. [1. Go to any half-decent search engine. 2. Type in “The Terrorist’s Handbook. 3. Filter out the inevitable porn sites which clutter up most searches these days.]

I rarely find myself in sympathy with Charlton Heston and the rest of the NRA, but at the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious: the Internet doesn’t kill people, people do. I will happily admit to being someone whose bookshelves contain titles such as Improvised Explosives as well as the infamous Anarchist Cookbook – the latter, I should point out, was actually bought from that famed den of terrorism known as Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus. I have my doubts about that one, it has to be said, since rumour suggests there are enough errors (whether mere ignorance, or FBI-introduced) in it to make attempts at better living through its chemistry, rather short-lived. But it seems that words on a printed page are somehow less dangerous than precisely the same words on a computer screen. Had he bought his source material mail-order from the States, would there be calls to regulate the evils of the printing press?

If I may digress for a moment: actually, were it the Middle Ages, this probably would be the case, since this is largely just Ludditism at work: the fear of those in power that new technology will cause a loss of that power. This is especially true with regard to the Internet which presents perhaps the biggest threat to the established media corporations since the days of Gutenberg. It costs millions to set up a newspaper, tens of millions to start a TV station (and that’s once you’ve got a frequency), but anyone with a PC can create a web site for a few pounds, every bit as accessible to anyone in the world as a megacorp site. No wonder they’re squealing.

Anyway… Of course, you can make the case that no-one needs to know how to make pipe-bombs, and that’s true. But few people need to know how to solve quadratic equations, and that’s part of the national curriculum [Those who might counter that quadratic equations don’t kill people clearly didn’t have the same maths teachers I did] This guy was obviously a powder-keg waiting for a spark, and if it hadn’t been the Internet, it’d have been something else. He’s a loony, and you can’t legislate for them. I make absolutely no attempt to justify or condone his actions. But you can take the easy approach and blame the bogey-man of the Internet, or you can try to discover what made him such a sick, twisted individual, and work to prevent that instead. I know which approach is harder, but in the long run, it’s also infinitely superior.

Though I confess to some fellow-feeling: when I first moved down South, I lived and worked in Farnborough (indeed, my final home before coming into London was in Cove, the very same suburb where Copeland lived), and after a few months there, you aren’t left with a great deal of fellow-feeling for the rest of humanity. Even passing it on the train, as I did a couple of weeks back, you can sense its black soullessness sucking at you malevolently. It is indeed the sort of place where buying Ł1400 worth of fireworks in Spring would not raise any suspicions. And part of his rationale for bombing the Admiral Duncan pub was to piss off Tony Blair: justifiable homicide if ever I heard it. Indeed, this puts him more or less alongside the members of the Women’s Institute who jeered Blair earlier in the week. Truly does a dislike of Tone, strange bedfellows make…

Jim McLennan is hungover…

Uuuuuurrrgggghhhh… That’s the sound made by a very “tired and emotional” man, struggling gamely to get up this morning. Was taking part in the office quiz night, and somehow we managed to win: in celebration, we were on the Pink Lady cocktails – the ingredients of which being one question we failed to answer – and they did not sit well with the pints of Director’s Bitter consumed over the previous four hours. Managed to get home okay, somehow, but soon found myself calling Ralph and Hughie on the big white telephone before crashing out, almost fully clad, on the bed.

I woke to the sound of thumping techno music coming from the street. Then I realised that was actually the sound of my pulse, and rapidly came to the conclusion that this was not going to be the most pleasant of mornings. I toyed with idea of pulling a sicky but couldn’t really do that. The altruistic reason was because I was playing football at lunchtime and didn’t want to let the team down. The more prosaic (and, let’s be honest, more important one) was that no-one would believe me, since everyone in the office knew exactly where I’d been, and what I was doing i.e. drinking heavily.

However, you can use such things to your future advantage. By being entirely up-front and open about having a hangover, it helps to establish your credibility, and people will be less likely to think it’s the case when you do phone in “sick”. However, you don’t want to come in every morning clutching a packet of Resolve in one hand, and your forehead in the other, as you’ll get a reputation for it, which thus pushes it towards the front of people’s mind. You’re going for “Jim doesn’t let a hangover stop him”, rather than “Jim is a borderline alcoholic.”

But there was no physical way I was going to make it to work on time. So I bit the bullet and phoned my boss – the smug bastard was already at his desk, sounding far more chipper than anyone ought to at that time in the morning – then sat back to ride it out, pausing only to barf up something green and bilious. The worst thing about a hangover is there’s nothing much you can do about it except wait. The best thing is knowing that, no matter how bad you feel, it will eventually go away. The trickiest thing is knowing when you can start putting fluids in your stomach without them bouncing back faster than a…than a…very bouncy thing. [I’m sorry, my brain is diverting power away from all non-essential functions at the moment, leaving my artistic faculties on life-support]

I think the low point was the journey to work, though it wasn’t quite as bad as the time I managed to black out — and the train was so crowded I couldn’t even fall over. At least I had a seat, though it was very tempting to stick my head out the window, despite a previous bad experience doing just that in similarly demonic-drink circumstances (I’ll spare you the details, but it involves the Forth Rail Bridge and my glasses). Do you know how hard it is not to think about vomiting? God, even typing that sentence makes me feel wobbly, so we’ll move on…

Somehow, I survived to London Bridge, and it has been a gradual recovery process since then. My stomach has now settled down a bit, though I doubt I’ll be enjoying any bacon sandwiches in the near future, or indeed anything much thicker than water. I am, as I speak, staring into the frothy top of a large coffee, and suspect Nietzsche was right when he said, “If you gaze for long into the latte, the latte also gazes into you”. Well, he would have, if they’d had Starbucks in his day…

Groan. I’ll never drink again…