Solitary confinement

Mine, all mine… I have sole occupancy of TC Towers for the next week, and I am thoroughly looking forward to it. Don’t get me wrong, I like my housemates very much, but there is something about having 100%, irrevocably uninterruptable access to the entire place which is genuinely appealing. I can watch what I want, when I want; use the computer at will; have a bath without prior warning; chat on the phone for hours on end. And all of these, without a stitch of clothing on, if I so desire. Not that I would; merely having the freedom to engage in such anti-social behaviour is sufficient in itself.

For I remain unconvinced that man is a social animal; or perhaps it’s just that our ancestors never had to engage in subtle and largely implicit negotiation over who gets to watch what on the video. The way it seems to work in TC Towers (with the obvious caveat that my housemates’ may see it totally differently), is a complex dance of polite diplomacy and tolerance. If person X is watching a show/film/barbed-wire deathmatch when Y enters the room, X can finish watching it. However, if Y is still there at the end, X should include Y in discussion over the next item. If neither has any specific choice, X may provide a short-list of possibilities, from which Y shall select, or vice-versa.

Given the above, you can see why I am looking forward to going home and simply slapping on Brawlin’ Broads, or any of the other titles unlikely to make it off the short-list when the rest of the inhabitants are around. I have even done my level best to clear the social diary for the week, so I can make the most of this opportunity for glorious isolation — it’ll be a bit like a solo version of Big Brother, with fewer cameras. This should mean a significant drop in the unwatched backlog (currently sitting at 15 tapes, 9 laser-discs and 3 DVDs), as I rip through the less housemate-friendly titles.

This will mean a back seat for my other favourite indoor pursuit, since it can be done privately, in my own room… No, I mean working on the computer, of course – what did you think I meant? Admittedly, the new TC hasn’t been receiving the attention it should have lately (at least on the design and layout front – I continue writing apace) but I am working on the site, specifically, “enhanced” versions of the Incredibly Bad Film Show series going all the way back to TC 0. And you try finding pictures from Revenge of the Teenage Vixens from Outer Space. This is why it’s instead far more likely is that I will continue beating my brains out against the immensely irritating LMA football management sim on the Playstation. I suspect this game may be a cunning device, engineered by TC’s enemies to prevent me continuing to subvert the population at large.

This week, however, they needn’t bother. I’ll be locking the Playstation away in a cupboard, perhaps the same one as the cooking utensils – with my heavy-on-the-microwavey diet, it’ll be severely out of mind there. Perhaps now would be a good opportunity to try out that long-planned experiment as to whether M&M’s and out-of-date Twinkies are sufficient to sustain human life. Sadly, I’ll still have to come to work, but that doesn’t really count as social interaction: maybe I should take a vow of silence and see whether anyone notices.

And so, I retreat, pausing only to shave my head and don the cassock belonging to the Holy Order of the Happy Hermit. If I’m not back next week, send in a SWAT team.


Anyone who ever doubted Einstein’s statement that time is relative, clearly has never experienced a sunny Friday afternoon in the office. There’s no need to reach a velocity near the speed of light, all you have to do is go down the pub for a lunchtime pint, and time stands still: entire continents rise and fall before the hands of the clock reach 5pm. The more imaginative members of the department have left early, claiming to have “meetings” in other buildings, and a suspicious part of me thinks these were perhaps entirely spurious. Jealous? No: until I qualify for my share options – which paranoia suggests my employers would dearly love to withhold on a flimsy pretext, such as my bunking off early on a delightful summer’s day – I’m far too honest and upright to do anything like that. Still, only two weeks of gritting teeth and being polite to irritating work colleagues (the one with the Star Wars mobile phone tune has gone; the one who whistles the Blackadder theme remains) to go; it’s difficult to believe I’ve been waiting five years for the bloody things.

The moment they turn up, I quit – in fact, I’m thinking of writing my letter of resignation of the back of the share certificate, just to make the point. I’ve only got to give one month’s notice, but my boss wants me to give more; she can’t start recruiting until I have “officially” resigned. It makes no difference to my expected leaving date – the end of October – but I want to cut her some slack, not least because she’s writing a reference to help me get my American visa. It thus seems wise to do unto others. This will be my only plunge into the job market since leaving college (my first job was for a software house, I was shipped out to one of their clients, and jumped ship permanently a year later, where I’ve been ever since). This is a scary thing, playing on standard human fears of rejection: will anyone want me? And will I end up at a company that requires me to actually work? Eeek.

Flicking through the Phoenix press, I notice the large numbers of jobs which require a drugs test. This isn’t a problem in itself (I may be the only person in favour of legalising all illegal drugs, who has never tried any of them), but I confess to some qualms about it from a civil liberties point of view. If you’re a train driver or heart surgeon, I could perhaps see the point, and I wouldn’t want my employees to turn up stoned, but what you do outside of work hours should be your own concern. If I wanted a moral guardian, I would go back home to my mother, not off to the “land of the free as long as you provide us with a urine sample”. Ideally, I’d love to have a company beg me to work for them, only to say “Sorry, I don’t do drug tests”, but I suspect moral qualms will go out of the window, for the first job or two anyway, and I’ll be delighted to have the opportunity to piss in a paper cup.

If nothing else, such dilemmas are a good way to try and pass the time until five, especially in conjunction with comfort eating. Well, “comfort” isn’t actually the word, it’s more “recreational” in this case — you can only look up the latest Open golf scores on the news feed so many times before that begins to pall. Spurious errands are also good: get a sandwich, post a parcel, get the coffees in, anything to get out into the warm summer sunshine while it lasts (probably until roughly 5:01 p.m.). It’s horribly like a hangover. There’s not much in the way of a cure, all you can do about it is hold on and wait for the pain to go away, for you know it will eventually stop….

…until 9 a.m. on Monday morning at least. 🙁

Gladiators, ready!

“It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts…”
    — Mahatma Gandhi, Non-Violence in Peace and War

ONE-and-a-TWO...Unwilling though we may be to admit it, violence is an integral part of human nature. Any civilised society needs to come to terms with it, and find an appropriate, sanctioned outlet through which its population can release those aggressive tendencies. In olden times, war was the release-valve of preference: ship you angry young men off to the front, and let them kill someone else’s angry young men. Not a problem – at least, unless you’re one of them. But what do you do when society is stable, and there are no convenient wars to hand?

Simple: you fake it. Nowadays, you can get your fix of cathartic violence on TV, through the carefully choreographed spectacle of the WWF or the latest Arnie movie. Two thousand years ago, however, the nearest you got to video was running past a frieze at 24 panels per second. So they had gladiatorial combat instead. Although this spectacle started off as a way of honouring dead warriors, it was clearly an idea to good to waste on corpses, so it eventually became an entertainment in its own right. The scale of some of these events was striking: in AD 107, the Emperor Trajan staged a victory celebration which included 10,000 combatants.

Death carries a big stickEven the fringes of the Empire got in on the act. London had an amphitheatre in what is now Guildhall Yard, capable of seating 7,000 people. This shows just how popular a spectacle it was: the total population of the city was only 20,000 at that time, and you didn’t tend to get many away supporters either – “Gaw’n, Christians!” Recently, the Museum of London staged a demonstration of gladiatorial combat on this very site, and I went along, keen as ever for my fix of cathartic violence, and clad appropriately enough in a Stone Cold Steve Austin jersey…

Despite the ambulance parked outside, there was no death and not even any mutilation – much to the chagrin of one passing small child who was heard to mutter “Those swords aren’t sharp…” with obvious disappointment. But as a spectacle, it was still impressive – what the weapons may have lacked in the edge department, they made up for in heft, and they weren’t holding back: you could see sparks flying. Any misplaced blow would have shattered your arm like a toothpick, and on one occasion, a sword broke mid-shaft, spinning down to the dirt. The feel of danger was enhanced by the not-exactly secure matting which was used on the courtyard in lieu of dirt – it wasn’t fixed down properly, making any movement fraught with danger.

Callisto gets in some practice I confess to having had a special cheer for the women gladiators, who were every bit as impressive as the men. Recent excavations in London turned up the remains of one such competitor, the first physical evidence to support written records. In a strange parallel with the likes of Chyna in the WWF, they were generally regarded as outsiders, even among the mix of low-lifes, prisoners of war and condemned criminals, that made up the bulk of the fighters. In AD 90, the Emperor Domitian presented combats between women and dwarves but a later successor, Septimus Severus, banned them in AD 200.

Indeed, the whole spectacle had more than a touch of professional wrestling about it; the crowd hollering for their heroes while booing the villains, the flashy costumes, combat as a public spectacle and (in this re-enactment at least!) the spectacular but choreographed violence. But, if anything, gladiators had more rules to follow: attacking an opponent from behind was forbidden and would get you a lot more than a stiff talking-to from the referee — you were killed by the stadia guards. No blind-side chair shots, by request.

The Roman version of the Inter-Net Such historical sidelights meant that this event was probably a bit more educational than the usual edition of Nitro. As well as the fighters, there were other “citizens” taking roles, from the businessman sponsoring the games, up to the emperor who made the final decision as to whether losers got the thumbs-up or down (the coup de grace could also be applied if injuries were deemed too severe). And it was also nice to see some members of the audience thoroughly getting into it, judging by the objects being thrown into the ring after the final bout was won by the emperor’s champion, though one suspects plastic bottles might not have been historically-accurate ammunition…

But such qualms aside, it was an impressive event, that did a good job of recreating the general atmosphere, albeit without the gore-drenched slaughter. Probably for the best, since we’re not as barbaric these days, are we. Are we?

Keep telling yourself: it’s only a movie…

This editorial really came about from two directions: firstly, an email which arrived here at TC Towers:

Are your comments about the English your own views or do you mean it tongue in cheek (The English are all scum etc.)? These might not be your sentiments as I got the link from a review of Braveheart…I meet lots of Politicians – Alex Salmond and Rosie Cunningham, most of the time. As Alex is at the moment trumpeting ‘The new Maturity of the Scots in their dealings with their southern neighbours’ I am sending examples to him of various Scottish web sites with a virulent anti English Bias. Of course its a two way traffic (See the England supporters web site and comments about who they term the ‘Sweaty Socks’) I’m just sad that this sort of hatred seems to be on the increase.

My reaction to this email was one of some bafflement – largely because I wasn’t sure whether the writer was joking or not. I suspect not, although he was largely vague on what he found on the site which qualified as “virulent anti-English bias”. I obviously pointed out that I’ve been living in England for 13 years, so I can’t think it’s that bad, but also suggested that he take a look at Hollywood — this is largely a film site, after all, and there seems to be a growing number of films with English villains, for more or less justifiable reasons. Gone in Sixty Seconds and X-Men both have them, although the latter as least has Patrick Stewart leading the good guys too. Which brings me to the second point: a savage mauling of The Patriot in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph (disclaimer: I only bought it for the fantasy cricket scores), in which the film was ripped apart for being historical “porn”. My feelings on this are somewhat ambivalent. Part of me wants to say “It’s only a movie, get over it.” But the problem is, that a Hollywood production is quite likely to have more of an impact on people than long-forgotten history lessons, and the potential for, at best, confusion, is significant.

There is an inherent problem with basing films on real-life dramas. Real-life is not cinematic – it doesn’t come in convenient three-act structure, with a tidy ending. So something has to give, and it’s usually the facts. But when you start discarding them, what you are making is effectively a propaganda film, since you are skewing the truth towards a certain point of view. This applies whether we are talking about The Patriot or Schindler’s List: both are equally dubious (though I doubt the former is quite as blatantly manipulative). And this is on top of the questions about history in general: it’s generally written by winners, and so is rarely a reflection of what actually happened. If the Nazis had won the war, for example, we would certainly be hearing what a total bastard Churchill was.

With ancient history (and in these terms, I mean anything beyond living memory), this is probably less important: it’s not that crucial whether some people in mid-West America think Robin Hood had an American accent. But the closer you get to the present day, the greater the dangers, as recent fusses over films like U-571 and the proposed Colditz Story shows, where history is being rewritten to show Americans in the fote-front of World War II, rather than turning up three years late (albeit with much enthusiasm). Because if present history gets a little bit skewed, then down the line, that “little bit” has the potential to become “a lot”, and the cinematic version also has a better chance of getting locked into popular consciousness. I imagine there are people out there who think, thanks to Schindler’s List, that the Holocaust was invented by Hollywood, and took place in black-and-white. The risks of this hardly need mentioning…

Back and black

…or, at least, slightly more sun-tanned than I was when I left for pastures Arizonan two weeks ago. Thanks largely to the liberal application of factor 60 sun-block, I managed to survive the furnace of Arizona in June, though I now have a huge respect for those who settled and lived there before the arrival of industrial-strength air-conditioning. A laid-back and unhurried lifestyle becomes less an option, and more a medical necessity, during the months on end when the top daily temperature hits levels never seen in Britain, outside a deep-fat fryer.

My qualms about the wildlife (emphasis on “wild”) also proved largely unfounded. The closest call came while tubing down the Salt River — this involves a group of you roping inner-tubes together and drifting lazily down a local stream for 3-4 hours, a cooler full of beer and snacks occupying another tyre. Fine, except that when you’d wedged in your tube, you can’t move with any speed, and believe me, I wanted too, when an F-sized wasp landed on the edge of my tyre. It looked at me; I looked at it; it began an inexorable crawl towards the cool and shady leg of my shorts. I attempted to move, capsized, and executed a manoeuvre not seen in any diving manual, but worthy of at least a 5.8 from the judges. I could swear I heard the sound of waspish sniggering as it flew off.

I returned to this country for one night, before Chris + I headed off to Paris; a potentially fraught affair given her low tolerance for rudeness, and the “somewhat variable” reputation the French have in this area. I’ve never had any problems; being British, I’m perhaps just too cowed to make a fuss. Thought it best not to tell Chris that, in an obscure part of their penal code, French waiters still have the right to guillotine fractious tourists on the spot. However, there were no major undiplomatic incidents to report: about the worst thing was the train home being delayed three hours. This was especially galling, as it was the night of the Euro2000 final, and so we could only hear the rest of Paris celebrating, as we waited, burdened with luggage and unable to move, in the Eurostar departure lounge at the Gare du Nord.

Otherwise, Paris was enjoyed, and stuff bought, though I drew the line at the fluorescent-pink fur, stuffed-toy Eiffel Tower, complete with beret. Even stumbled across some laser-disks, in the back of a discount music shop (special editions of 12 Monkeys and Crying Freeman for under six quid will do very nicely). The Eiffel Tower was looked at – from the bottom, the queues to go up it being insanely long – the Sacre Couer admired, and Notre Dame drifted past. Perhaps the unexpected highlight was the Museum of Erotic Art, located in a seven-floor building sandwiched between sex-shops in the middle of Pigalle. This was almost completely unerotic, but did introduce me to the totally mad artwork of Jacques Brissot. A lot of his creations remake classic paintings by the likes of Brueghel, using scraps apparently culled from porno mags; the overall effect falls disturbingly between Salvador Dali and Larry Flynt.

I now find myself back in Tulse Hill: normal (dis)service has been resumed, though I feel somewhat gloomy and rather wish it hadn’t. Still, immensely cheered by Tony Blair’s son getting done for being drunk and incapable — can anyone arrest Blair Sr. for being sober and incapable? Can’t blame the kid for giving false details: “sure, son, pull the other one”, would be the inevitable reaction to anyone who gave ’10 Downing Street’ as their address. Also, very kind of him to provide, by tossing his cookies in Leicester Square, a perfect example of the “drunken, noisy, loutish and anti-social behaviour” the Prime Minister railed against less than a week ago. Proof – as if any more were wanted – that politicians who try to pontificate about morality need to ensure they are wearing bullet-proof socks.