Tuesday, August 26, 2008

it's all over!

Well, what a spectacular Olympics we’ve just had – superbly done, China. I’m glad the Chinese made sure there was something for everyone – including gorgeous architecture and huge helpings of awesome spectacle for us less-than-sporting types.

Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt were the magnificent stars of the show, but of course team GB did us extremely proud. I’m also thrilled with Australian Matthew Mitcham’s gold for the 10m dive – the only out male gay athlete of the games (17,000 odd contestants) and he got the highest diving score ever!

Given the standard of the Chinese performance I was pretty much dreading the London hand-over bit. Given the scale of the venue even a London omnibus looked a bit lost; I was not at all convinced by the dancing element – what was that all about? – but things improved when the bus opened up and the dreaded Jimmy Page let loose with his guitar. And our own secret weapon, the man Beckham got one of the biggest cheers of the night from the crowd. So, in my view an honorable attempt overall – let’s hope we build on this for 2012.

Another real worry was our very own dear mayor, Boris Johnson. Let’s face it, anything was possible. But Boris behaved himself beautifully – very polite and proper but nevertheless managing to inject a pleasing informality into the IOC’s overly grandiose ceremonial. One had to marvel at the contrast between the communist Chinese mayor’s suave elegance and Boris’s very own trademark disheveled look.

He had his own classic Boris moment later back at GBHQ – “Ping Pong is coming home” indeed. Hilarious, and actually politically quite clever in that it quite upstaged Gordon’s more predictable attempt to bask in Olympic glory.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

dogs and druids

Last night’s tv gave lots to think about: an exciting Channel 5 documentary basically corroborating Julius Caesar’s assertion that the druids were human-sacrificing cannibals (although the academics were trying desperately to find excuses for them: on the lines of “Poor things! They couldn’t help it! They were being stressed out by the Romans”). The Victorians felt the druids were quite bloodthirsty; the 20th–century remade them as gentle eco pacifists; now the pendulum swings back again.

On to the BBC, where Aunty blew the pedigree dog business to smithereens. Geek. Pedigree dogs are now going to join fur coats, intensive battery hens and veal farming at the apex of animal welfare concern. It really was pretty shocking, and made great TV in that Kennel Club officials and pedigree breeders in general are so far in denial they’re oblivious to how they come across, which makes brilliant TV. Poor doggies. Over-breeding has created a situation where about a third of Cavalier King Charles spaniels have a congenital condition where their brains are too large for their skulls. The programme also featured a Pug which was bred from a champion and had ‘perfect’ pedigree features but whose back legs dislocated when it tried to walk; had breathing troubles, stomach troubles, in-grown eyelids and a backbone twisted like a corkscrew. Great.

The Crufts 2003 Champion, a Pekinese called Danny, apparently had had surgery to correct a congenital deformity to its nasal passages and even then had to be sat on an ice pack after winning to prevent it overheating during the press photoshoot.

It pretty much stands to reason, when you think about it. The breeds developed quite happily without the Kennel Club’s interference. For the last century, breeders have been trying to conform to artificial and frankly arbitrary written breed specifications – based on appearance only. BUT judges judge based on a subjective understanding of those rules; if the rules say a flat nose is required, the flattest nose wins. That animal goes on to breed more; the next generation will have flatter noses than their forebears, but the flattest nose out of the new generation will win the prizes, and the process continues. Eventually you end up with the bizarre mutations we get today.

My parents had a pedigree boxer but thank heavens he didn’t have epilepsy. I can remember a friend who was a boxer enthusiast being very excited to see a white one. Now I know why these are so rare – white boxers are verboten according to the breed rules; those unfortunate enough to be born white are ‘culled’.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Yay, George!

My new discovery George Monbiot gives it to the USA:

"If we seek to understand American foreign policy in terms of a rational engagement with international problems, or even as an effective means of projecting power, we are looking in the wrong place. The government's interests have always been provincial. It seeks to appease lobbyists, shift public opinion at crucial stages of the political cycle, accommodate crazy Christian fantasies and pander to television companies run by eccentric billionaires. The US does not really have a foreign policy. It has a series of domestic policies which it projects beyond its borders. That they threaten the world with 57 varieties of destruction is of no concern to the current administration. The only question of interest is who gets paid and what the political kickbacks will be."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957

(Matt Houlbrook, University of Chicago Press, 2006)

The beautiful image on the cover seduced me into buying this book (and I felt the need for some educational reading). It’s a fascinating read; most enjoyable and informative. I loved the way Houlbrook itemises the particular geography of queer London, and has even sourced photos of historic queer places (largely from police records, it would appear). Knowing where these old clubs, bath houses, urinals etc actually were will definitely add another dimension to my experience of London.

The book is (fairly obviously) based on his PhD thesis, so is written in full-on academic-speak. Houlbrook does manage to enliven this jargon-heavy discourse with some wit and flexibility; I just feel an opportunity to reach the general reader has been missed. There is certainly enormous human interest here, and loads of original research. As it was, I felt like a student at the back of queer-studies class.

My other issue is that he imposes an off-the-peg Marxist analysis on the history: not particularly convincingly, in my view. Slippery queer men evade the class categories he constructs for them at every turn. He nostalgically looks for a moment when the [queer] proletariat storms the gates of the Winter Palace – the closest incident he finds is a massive police raid on a proto queer club-night in a Holland Park Street Ballroom run by “Lady” Austin for her “Camp Boys”, in the 1930s. The police gained undercover entrance to this by dragging up and passing as queer. One policeman enthusiastically boasted about “trading twice” with “my boyfriend” – this part was subsequently suppressed at the trial.

Houlbrook clearly shows the camp boys had a vocal and articulate critique of their arrest and the laws which led to it. However I think he overemphasizes the differences between the camp boys and middle-class ‘respectable homosexuals’: the camp boys clearly were trying to keep their night as private as possible, given that the police had to go to extreme lengths to gain entry. Moreover, the camp boys clearly supported the abolition of the Act, following the call of the middle-class Oscar Wilde and prefiguring the middle-class 'respectable homosexual' lobbyists at the Wolfenden commission.

These lobbyists clearly did create a mythical ‘respectable homosexual’ – but surely as a deliberate ploy to counter the demonized stereotypes then prevailing in public discourse. They needed to speak the language of the law-makers in order to persuade them to change the laws.

In the end, the tragic Lady Austin saga had no effect on the liberation struggle one way or the other. By contrast, the arrest and trial for cottaging of the middle-class war-hero, sportsman and public schoolmaster Frank Champain (at midnight, in one of London’s most notorious urinals under the Adelphi arches just off the Strand) had a dramatic effect on police activity after Mr Champain was spectacularly acquitted on appeal.

It is quite clear that he must have been totally guilty, but his solicitor skillfully spun his arrest as police entrapment and this so enraged the appeal judge he berated the policeman involved. The police were so cowed by this that arrests for cottaging fell dramatically after this trial and stayed well down for years afterwards. So, by helping to minimize persecution during a lengthy period of oppression, this has to be counted a small tactical success.

In the final analysis, the Camp Boys protested but did not physically fight their arrest – very much unlike the New York Stonewall Bar gays of decades later. Stonewall became an iconic and liberating moment for gays all over the world. Why didn’t this happen at the Holland Park Ballroom? - are our police less brutal? are we too respectful of the law? Whatever the answers, it would seem that the European reformist strategy has overtaken the activist tradition in the States. Despite the explosive and psychologically liberating Stonewall moment, America today is massively behind Europe in awarding equal rights to its gay citizens – and even has a fundamentalist and activist right-wing trying to turn the clock back even more.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

smelling dirty

Popped into Kingston yesterday lunch time to buy a few bits and ended up in John Lewis's ground floor, where I never usually go. There is a huge section devoted to male colognes, so I had fun browsing a bit. Squirted some Paul Smiths before noticing a display of Juicy Couture's new fragrance, Dirty English.

This was a surprise, because all the advertising I have seen says it's exclusive to Selfridges at the moment. The advert is fab: full marks for creativity. Apparently the whole deal is referencing the Sex Pistols. The fragrance would be a great gift for that Australian Olympics official who was making remarks about English soap earlier this week.

Anyway, as it was there I had a squirt of that too. Smells nice, sort-of like gingerbread I thought. Couldn't really decide if I would like it; whatever.

Went back to the office, washed hands, had lunch; washed hands several more times in the afternoon; went home, washed hands, made dinner, watched tv, washed up, brushed teeth, went to bed. Dirty English still on my hands, noticeably. The scent just never dies. Use with caution!

Friday, August 08, 2008

Monkey Olympics

If Olympics TV coverage promos were an official Olympics sport, the BBC would win gold!

This is soo much better than the tedious ol' Olympics will be . . .

Well done to Damon Albarn, Jamie Hewlett and the BBC team (inspired by the Journey to the West opera)

The Revenger's Tragedy

I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat and avoid violence in entertainment, so the National Theatre’s Revenger’s Tragedy was not for me, so I thought. I only booked to go after the disappointment of Afterlife (all the Revenger’s reviews I read were brilliant – typically my luck to go for the dud instead). I finally saw it last night.

Wow! Interval saw me hurtling forth, highly discombobulated, in search of strong drink – but in a good way. This production is simply sensational. Absolutely fantastically designed and acted, with sublime use of the NT’s revolving stage. The sound and lighting was especially good too.

This is a very louche 80’s Versace sort-of Renaissance Italian court – sharp sexy club clothes; maximalist interiors featuring massive blow-ups of the most salacious bits out of Titian and Veronese. Gender-bending minions and principals in search of perverted sex. Murder and necrophilia. Huge animated skulls. The end of the first act sees the revolve go hyper-drive, with the duke savagely murdered by the protagonist to pounding underground club beats while watching his duchess having very noisy athletic sex with his bastard son. Phew! How very unlike the home life our own esteemed monarchy.

Absolutely wonderfully directed (and co-designed) by Melly Still. It ends this month, so catch it fast!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

let's all go nuclear

George Monbiot is the latest eminent environmentalist to come out in (qualified) support for nuclear power stations. James Lovelock of course has been vocally advocating nuclear for some time. Newsnight debated this last night, and poor George was attacked quite personally from both sides – a governmental nuclear apparatchik called him a “slow learner” on the one hand (one would think they would have welcomed his contribution – Mr Monbiot potentially can deliver millions of Guardian readers to their cause) – and on the other Jonathan Porrit castigated Monbiot for selling out. In fact Porrit seemed far keener on castigating Monbiot than on addressing environmental causes.

Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler did nothing to moderate these personal attacks (even appearing to find them quite funny). George kept his cool and came out really well, I thought, especially in the face of Porrit’s provocations. Perhaps Mr Porrit is a little envious of Mr Monbiot’s environmental star status.

Anyway, even Julie Burchill is attacking him now – he replies to her criticisms in today’s Guardian:

“The environment is inseparable from social justice. Climate change, for example, is primarily about food and water. It threatens the fresh water supplies required to support human life. As continental interiors dry out and the glaciers feeding many of the rivers used for irrigation disappear, climate change presents the greatest of all threats to the future prospects of the poor. The rich will survive for a few decades at least, as they can use their money to insulate themselves from the effects. The poor are being hammered already.

In reality, it is people like Julie Burchill – who is, incidentally, far richer than almost any green I have met – who treats the poor with contempt. So that she can revel in what she calls "reckless romantic modernism", other people must die. But at least you can't accuse her of hypocrisy: she cannot fail to live by her moral code, for the simple reason that she doesn't have one.

Sure, we are hypocrites. Every one of us, almost by definition. Hypocrisy is the gap between your aspirations and your actions. Greens have high aspirations – they want to live more ethically – and they will always fall short. But the alternative to hypocrisy isn't moral purity (no one manages that), but cynicism. Give me hypocrisy any day.”

Quote London

“I personally can only write in London. I love the noise and the squalor and the perpetual distractions and the temptation to take an aircraft somewhere else.”

- Penelope Fitzgerald (1916 – 2000)