Category Archives: Patriotism

On Sir Danny Boyle.

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Some things are very hard to translate. Take, for example, the title of one of the director Danny Boyle’s movies, Trainspotting. The concept of grown men having a hobby which consists of standing about station yards all day writing the serial numbers of trains in a little book for fun isn’t one which can easily be conveyed in the space of one film title. Wisely the Russians, at least, never tried and called it the extremely descriptive On The Needle instead. Sensible, but a shame, as the title of Trainspotting was always one of writer Irvine Welsh’s better ideas.  A hobby which other people consider perverted and which isolates them from the rest of society but which brings a certain amount of joy to the participants? The parallel is beautifully drawn. Anyway.

For this reason, when it came to the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, also directed by Danny Boyle, you had been expecting the usual clichés, suitably scaled up. After starting with a relay of all the sports invented in the uk (all of them, so that would have taken a while) followed by a bit of crowd participation where all the spectators would have ritually consumed a portion of fish and chips with a chaser of warm beer, ten competing male voice choirs would sing circled by walls of kilt wearing bagpipe players piping surrounded by an army of cavorting morris dancers and leprechauns  giving way people dressed as double decker buses, tube trains and black cabs rendering the experience of being stuck in a traffic jam through the medium of interpretive dance under the gaze of acrobats dressed as pigeons flinging themselves from one London landmark to the next before Shakespeare lights the flame having been carried in at the head of a parade of all the famous Britons ever. Sort of thing.

It would have looked a bit silly after Beijing had done basically the same but bigger, better, and with considerably more dragons and fireworks, but people around the world would have recognised it, and so, rather wearily, would the Brits.

But just before the show started you saw an interview with Danny Boyle, who said that what he’d tried to do is make the ceremony all about the people of Britain, and while watching, increasingly incredulously, you could see that he was quite serious about that. You were not, initially, that sure that the Industrial Revolution is something that should be showcased to the world as our finest moment, but that was because you still had the budget Beijing model in your head at that point. The Industrial Revolution is not, of course, Britain’s finest moment. It does, however, have a good claim to be the one which most changed or affected ordinary people’s lives, at home and, for that matter, abroad.

It was also a nice touch to acknowledge the construction workers for the Olympic park, and to frame one of the more boastful elements to the extravaganza (all teh music is belong to uz) in a way that made it familiar to many people. It certainly bought a mistily nostalgic tear to our eye. And a master stroke to pick out the NHS as an institution which every British person relies on and which is almost universally approved of, cheap shots from the Daily Mail notwithstanding. Plus that had the added thrill of  potentially making certain sections of American society splutter. Nothing unites a nation like sticking two fingers up at certain sections of the USA. Of course this is nothing to the delight from being responsible for the first lesbian kiss on Saudi Arabian TV. Shame American TV edited that bit out too.

Best of all, though, was the way that those lighting the flame were… nobodies. Nobodies who might become somebodies and who had been chosen and were supported by some of the very best British sporting bodies, but who, right then, could have been anybody of those watching. Well, anybody of those watching *cough* twenty *cough* years ago, assuming playing the double bass and reading are on the verge of being made Olympic sports.

In fact, the way the youth theme was a bit more than a token inclusion of a few kids here and there was nice too, especially the way the Games are being talked of in terms of its legacy for future generations. Smiling youngsters are always a reason to be cheerful.

But more than this, the thing that made you bounce up and down in glee was the way that this show was clearly made for the people of Britain and damn the confusion this might sow amongst all foreign spectators. Take Jerusalem for example, the song that opened the spectacle. As it was being sung, and the entire British audience was getting all misty eyed and murmuring ‘green and pleasant land’ in the appropriate place, you had this splendid feeling that all around the world commentators were sucking in their breaths and attempting to explain that when British people are feeling really sentimental and patriotic this is the song they turn to, rather than, say, God Save the Queen. Or, perhaps, not trying to explain but wondering why the Brits, who hitherto have not come across as a particularly religious bunch, are starting off with a hymn. Of course, it helps that the words are written by William Blake* and the tune is pretty cool. Actually perhaps Jerusalem didn’t need explaining. Perhaps everyone everywhere gets goosebumps when they hear it. You certainly hope the Abide With Me segment produced that effect, regardless of whether people knew the song previously.

You also liked the way that, in keeping with the achievable greatness by the people for the people theme, some of the other musical acts were on the local rather than legendary side. Not just the kids choirs (ahhhhhhhhhhhhh). You are pretty sure that everybody in the UK recognises the Arctic Monkeys and Dizzee Rascal, but in Bumfuck USA, or Joppaburg Russia, or Shirishima, Japan? Perhaps not. Good songs though. Fun songs. Hopefully everybody enjoyed them.

It wasn’t all in jokes though. In your experience it is very hard to predict what people abroad will have heard of about other countries. Ask a Russian, for example, who the most famous English language writers are and they will say Shakespeare, Dickens, Robbie Burns, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jerome K Jerome, Jack London and O Henry.** But you reckon that in terms of international recognition the Queen, James Bond, Mr Bean, David Beckham and Paul McCartney are about as sure a bet as it is possible to have, and cleverly sprinkled amongst the obscure references to radio soap operas or the inventor of the World Wide Web. And while you appreciated the feel that parts of the spectacle had been prepared just for you and yours, you feel confident that nobody, but nobody could fail to have grinned happily at Beckham grinning happily as he powered the speedboat down the Thames, or been a little bit joyful that the measured announcement that Simon Rattle would be conducting a classical performance of Chariots of Fire, which certainly had you wondering if it was time to put the kettle on, turned out to be a bit of sly misdirection as Rowan Atkinson took centre stage*** and surely ABSOLUTELY EVERYBODY EVERYWHERE spat their coffee all over their TV screens when the white haired actor hired to do yet another stand in job for the Queen turned round and turned out to ACTUALLY BE THE QUEEN.

You’d have loved to have been in on the pitch to Buckingham Palace for that one****, and ever since you have been imagining the director of Her usual Christmas address to the nation turning, hurt, and asking ‘Why did You Majesty never jump out of a helicopter for me?’ to the reply ‘One was never asked before.’

You realise you haven’t said much about the athletes. Actually you enjoyed that too. Especially Team GB’s golden armpits. You also found yourself genuinely moved that each country had bought in a piece of the contraption that went to making up the Olympic flame. How cool was that? Even if the women doing the carrying were in their nighties. It was getting late by that point of course.

Anyway. Very few things make you admit that ou are proud to be British, but this did. It was wonderful. Even the bits you haven’t mentioned. You really would like to thank everybody involved. Especially Danny Boyle. It was so not what you were expecting.

The acrobats dressed as pigeons were there though.

 

*Foreigners are permitted to say ‘who?’ at this point.

**Brits are permitted to say ‘who?’ at this point. Americans less so.

***Even if some of them were wondering what the business on the beach was actually about.

****And, as moving as it turned out to be, for the follow up suggestion that her national anthem be performed by a choir who were guaranteed to sing loudly out of tune.

On lies and damn lies.

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You have to confess to a certain ambivalence towards news journalists.*

One of the charges the postmodernists throw at historians of the old school is that they create the illusion of empiricism by the style they employ in their writing. No hint of a mention of ‘I think…’, an attempt to surpass the amount written in the actual text by the number of words in footnotes, and the skillful use of prose so uninspiring as to put the reader to sleep within the first few pages.

Yet in the selection of information, and its juxtaposition with other so called facts, a powerful argument is, in fact, created which reflects the preconceptions, prejudices and sometimes sheer whimsy of the writer.

Now you emphatically don’t agree with the extreme extension of the argument that it it is possible to say anything at all about any given topic and call it equally as valid as any other opinion, but you do admit that there is enough truth in their criticisms as to mean that any news outlet claiming to be totally objective is sailing as close to kidding itself, or, more importantly its audience, as makes no difference.

Yes, it is the BBC you are talking about here.

Today, on heavy rotation as part of the reportage on the Russia/ Georgia contretemps, there is an interview with the Georgian president who is making a powerful plea to the West to intervene in the conflict in the name of saving democracy.

Georgia, he says, a democratic republic, is in danger of having its democratic rights trampled by the undemocratic removal of its democratically elected government.

Now the BBC is an organisation who can barely mention Russia without some mention of the autocratic (and artificially extended) rule of Vladimir Putin, electoral irregularity, suppression of opposition and crushing of the god given right of the press to say whatever the hell it likes. Even if it’s a story about how some old babushka from Vladivostok who has roller skated backwards around the globe wearing nothing but a bikini and a purple feather boa in a bid to claim the ‘most completely pointless world record’ award.

However, the BBC are running this interview without any sort of balancing comment to point out that calling Georgia’s President democratically elected is a bit like taking Zimbabwean president Mugabe’s similar claims at face value.

And irritating. 

 

* To which a regular reader of this blog** will no doubt be saying ‘no shit, Sherlock’ at this point.

** you absolutely refuse to add the qualifier ‘all five of them’ here.

On Solzhenitsyn.

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Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn died last week.

You thought the reactions to his death in the West were quite interesting.

Considering that people held in prison by repressive regimes the West disapproves of who subsequently spend a lot of time and energy denouncing the same are usually accorded irreproachable sainthood status, some of the commentators were surprisingly grudging.

For example, there was the snittiness with which someone involved in making the film of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich responded when asked what Solzhenitsyn had said about it.

‘Arrogently’ was the epitaph given. Because Solzhenitsyn thought it was ‘true to truth’, without qualifying that what he meant was his truth, apparently.

Of course, perhaps asking someone of Jewish extraction to comment was unwise if what was wanted was not speaking ill of the dead.

However, although That Book about Jewish Russian history probably sealed his fate as a hero with feet, legs and quite possibly torso and arms of clay, he was tarnished, or at least tactfully ignored, long before that.

The mistake the West made was in thinking that he shared their values just because he opposed the Soviet system, something they were firmly disabused of when he thundered away at some Harvard ceremony back in 1978. You are not sure whether it was the direct criticism or the fact that he was only ever interested in commentating on the Soviet Union and Russia in its own terms which offended people more.

Accusing him of bad writing was a bit of a low blow though.

Now you haven’t read That Book* so you absolutely refuse to comment on it. 

However, you personally can’t automatically dismiss the man. What you have read of his stuff had a rather impressive impact on you. Especially The Gulag Archipelago.

Not so much for the revelations about the dark side of the Soviet system. You are, after all, a child of the later stages of the cold war and very familiar with the default status of the USSR as the Evil Empire.

But while Gulag is not primarily a personal memoir, you were very impressed by a number of observations Solzhenitsyn made about how he behaved while in the camps. For you suspect that despite the segacity with which they quote the ‘first they came for the…’ poem, not only do most people secretly believe that not only would they would be able to stand up to repression, but that nationalities who have succumbed wholesale to madness were somehow morally deficient to start with.

Solzhenitsyn rather disabused you of whatever tendencies you may have had towards this kind of thinking, almost in passing, by revealing some of his own story. Particularly memorable was his conviction that had he remained in the ordinary camps for the whole of his term, he would have succumbed to the pressure that had already started to be applied to become a sort of stool pigeon, spying on his fellow prisoners for the guards, as so many others did. Anyone who thinks this is evidence of some kind of deficiency in Solzhenitsyn has not been paying attention to the rest of the book.

You were also struck by the lack of bitterness Solzhenitsyn showed towards the regime that put him through the experience.

Admittedly this is because Solzhenitsyn came to believe that struggle is, on balance, good for the soul, an argument which your hair shirt mentality finds quite seductive.

Even as you suspect that many of his former prison mates (particularly the ones who died) may not agree.

 

*And are unlikely to do so given that it is unavailable on Amazon or anywhere else reachable via a quick Internet search. Which does rather raise the question of whether anyone else commenting on it has actually read it either…

On 9 Rota.

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A couple of weeks ago they showed a Russian film about the Russian Afghan war on TV called 9 Rota, or 9th Company.

You actually saw this when it first came out back in 2005 or thereabouts, but settled in to watch it anyway as you remembered it as being quite good, and in any case this time you had the chance to see it with English subtitles.

You distinctly remember that the first time round you sat down to it in some trepidation. This is because you have heard horrendous things about life in the Soviet/ Russian army and were somehow expecting the film to be one long tale of bloody hazings punctuated by the odd suicide. Which just goes to show you how much you had acclimatised back into the British way of doing things after a full year or so back in Blighty. That’s definitely the film a British director would have made.

However, what it actually is, is a war buddy film akin to all those American movies about Vietnam that were so popular in the 80s. Which is entirely appropriate as the Soviet action in Afghanistan was at least as successful as the US involvement in ‘Nam.

So it’s not particularly original as a story. Young recruits, who just happen to run the gamut of character types from an artist  and an oversensitive weakling through new father to a thug and a hooligan, get whipped into shape by an aggressive drill sergeant, before getting sent off to the wilds of Afghanistan where all but one of them get massacred, along with their entire unit, in the last fifteen minutes or so.

You hope that giving the end away is not a spoiler. But frankly they were doomed from the moment they set foot on enemy soil and encountered a set of soldiers who had completed their tour of duty and were on their way home. The vaugue sense of forboding that has been building up throughout the training section is lifted and pretty much everyone, on screen and in front of it, gets carried away by their fierce joy.

And then their plane takes off, promptly gets hit by someone with a granade launcher in the nearby hills and comes down in a ball of flame.

Clearly no one is getting out of here alive.

Anyway, watching it again, a number of things struck you.

There was rather more swearing than you had remembered, for a start.

And you also had to keep reminding yourself that this was something set in the 80s. The late 80s no less. Of course, army life is never luxurious, but to say that the overall quality of life was unrecognisable is probably an understatement, and yet this was a period where you were not only alive but well into your teens.

More than this, however, the sheer geographical range of the characters’ backgrounds which struck you this time round. You have been having the multiculturalism of the UK rather rammed down your throat lately – the fact of it, the desirability (or not) of it, the tensions caused by it and the future of it – and it was with a certain amount of amusement that you recognised that in terms of ethnic diversity, the Soviet Union could certainly give the UK a run for its money.

If this were a British film, you’d tend towards the cynical and suggest that the fact that there were soldiers from all corners of the Slavic empire, as well as representatives from the Caucuses (Chechnya no less) as well as at least one person of obviously Mongolian descent was the traditional nod towards the idea that we are all one big happy family in this nationality.

But Russians on the whole don’t bother with the kind of thinking that suggests we of different backgrounds should all be able to get along, and in any case, the whole thing seemed more an opportunity for the characters to indulge in a bit of energetic and thoroughly un PC racial banter than anything else.

Apart from the whole can of worms which is the use of ‘Chorny’ (‘Black’) to describe people of swarthy appearance from the Southern states and whether or not this is supposed to be as insulting as calling someone by the N word, a question you have always rather studiously avoided asking, take the nickname of one of the old lags the raw recruits meet up with once they get in country (or do I mean up country?).

Calling someone from the Ukraine ‘Khokol’ is about as harmless as calling a Welshman ‘Taffy’. It might seem perfectly ok when you are all living in Manchester together as students, but less of a good idea when you have just screamed it across a street while visiting Cardiff.

However, you wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. This name calling is neither a particularly frequent nor particularly notable part of the film, and in fact the whole tone is, you suppose, supposed to evoke the kind of gruff male bonding that women get so very irritated by when it is accompanied by the need to down 13 pints and eat a curry of a Friday evening. The artist’s nickname of ‘Giaconda’ (‘Mona Lisa’) isn’t meant to be particularly complimentary either.

More obvious despite the studious avoidance of any real political message in the film, is the complete indifference to the loss of life which is being shown by the Soviet Union towards its own soldiers.

It’s not the shoot out at the end. This is, apparently, based on a real incident, except that instead of the whole company getting slaughtered, only (only) six of the forty odd soldiers actually died, although a good many more were injured ( a lot more Afghans died than that, of course, but this is not a film about the Afghan experience of the conflict).

But the fact that there is a tacit acknowledgement though out the film that there is no winning this war, and yet men will continue to be thrown, virtually unsupported and distinctly underequiped and undertrained, at the problem indefinitely, is frankly absolutely typical of the Soviet and now Russia’s attitude towards its own people.

You have occasionally found yourself slightly impatient with the way that everybody in the US and the UK seems so surprised, nay outraged, that soldiers tend to get a bit killed when engaging in war. It is, of course, an example of the insistence that it’s the individual that counts above everything, and that is something that you often find so obnoxious in this society.

Yet without that constant pressure, would the casualty rate not be even higher? At the moment, the US death count in Iraq is about 4,000. Which if you consider that they have been there for about half the time the Soviets spent in Afghanistan, is about half of half of the total deaths in Afghanistan (15,000). It is a good thing that the standard of equipment and support given to troops is a matter of debate and investigation. It is a good thing that there is some sense that people should not be used as cannon fodder.

What you find absolutely unsupportable is the acceptance of the routine disposal of Soviet/ Russian citizens in acts of mass carnage which this film reflects.  It’s not the first war film to deal with this issue. It’s not the preserve of Soviet or Russian warfare. But you could really have done with it little less fatality and a little more outrage on this point.

Although your dismay may have also been brought about by the thought that you are about to give birth to someone who in 18 years will be eligible for conscription into the Russian army.

On discoveries.

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You are not in the least Scottish.

This has always been a source of faint irritation because you are able to conjure up in almost equal amounts a Welsh background, an Irish one, a Northern English past, a Southern English birthplace and a strong connection to the Channel Islands out of France. So to miss out on being definitively British (which includes the aformentioned episode of sticking two fingers up at France by emigrating) is really quite galling.

But it does explain why you had not, before Saturday, ever celebrated Burns’ Night. Which, it turns out, is something B is probably quite thankful for.

B has always maintained that whisky tastes like particularly nasty samagon (moonshine vodka). You are sorry to report that he wasn’t swayed at all by earnest comparison of the nose of different single malts or epic battles over whether or not to add water. This was a bit of a blow to his enjoyment of an evening which included quite dedicated whisky sipping.

You, on the other hand, were there for the food. You like haggis, even with whisky poured over it.

Haggis, counters B, just proves his point that all British cuisine revolves around the cooking of what in a more civilised country would be leftovers.

He did quite like the soup though. Well, you can’t go too far wrong with Cockaleekie.

However, it turns out that the original idea of Burns’ Night is actually to sit around reading Burns’ poetry.

And this is, on the surface, a pleasant way to pass the time, as long as the poems are rolled out in a suitable Scottish burr, which in this case they certainly were.

Unfortunately, Burns turns out to be a bit of an advanced political thinker. The wee timerous beastie for example is not, apparently, a mouse at all but a put upon Scottish highlander being put out of his house and generally crushed by enclosure.

While this does explain what had hitherto been to you his rather inexplicable popularity in Russia, or rather the USSR, it does mean that you and B have been sitting though an evening in celebration of a radical would be revolutionary lauded by communists everywhere, which given B’s family history is a bit of a faux pas in the B and Solnushka household.

However, you were quickly able to ignore the faint echoes of B’s relatives turning in their graves, as your hostess likes to double Burns’ Night with a celebration of another great Scottish poet.

Let me urge all readers that if they have not previously come across the glories of William ‘Topaz’ McGonagall, that they should immediately lay their hands on an anthology of his poems, invite all their friends round and hold a poetry reading session where the highlight of of the evening will be for all and sundry to join in by guessing the rhymes at the end of each line.

This is worryingly easy to do, except when McGonagall’s genius leads him to create such felicitous phrases as ‘stark dead’ to couple with ‘from foot to head’.

And that’s without even mentioning the glorious incongruity of throwing in, quite at random, a passing visit by the emperor of Brazil (incognito) to a Scottish bridge disaster, McGonagall’s obsession with opening poems with the day, date and time of events he describes as well as his splendidly pedantic interest in the precise construction materials and methods of the various structures that he was eulogising in the three poems you read. Really, you share the great man’s puzzlement that when he died still puzzled that no-one had given him the Nobel Prize. Although you are not quite sure what for.

It can safely be said that the evening ended with howls of laughter and your firm intention to eat haggis at a McGonagall Night sometime in January next year.

And yet what overshadowed the glee was the fact that the person you realised you most wanted to rush home, phone up and quote McGonagall to was your Grandad, and you couldn’t because you had buried him last Monday.

On the refuge of scoundrels.

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As a fan of formula one, your years in Russia were a bit frustrating.

It’s true that the races were generally available on one of the terrestrial channels, although it always seemed to take a few races for a deal for the TV rights to be struck. Missing the opening of the season every year and having to keep an eagle eye on the upcoming schedules to see who had been the lucky bidder this year did tend to leave you a bit irritated.

Of course, there was also the problem that any kind of delay on the day would not result in extra time being granted by the channel bosses, meaning that, given that this was the era of Schumacher domination, the one genuinely exciting race of the year would invariably be cut unceremoniously short.

And of course, the idea of showing the qualifying sessions, or having a pre race show to discuss the ins and outs of the championship so far were not even to be thought of. Even the commentator was phoning his performance in, complete with occasional black outs when he got cut off.

Not that this was much of a problem for you – you didn’t understand a word of what he was saying anyway. Sport has a whole vocabulary of its own and while you’d think that you’d have been able to pick a few of those words up over the years, just as you tended to follow the weather by looking at the pretty pictures rather than paying attention to what the weather girl said, you managed to watch season after season of racing and only ever learnt the Russian for ‘overtake’.

Probably as this happened so rarely it stuck in your mind.

So coming back to the home of motor sport should have been a delight. Hours of coverage on both days of the race, actual contact with most of the main names on a regular basis and former drivers in the commentary box.

Of course, the British think the UK is the home of every sport, or at least every sport worth playing. And yet to be honest you’ve never really thought of formula one as actually having much to do with a passion for patriotism.

Do you support the team whose engine manufacturer is located in your country? Whose technical director was born in your village? Whose second driver speaks the same language as you? Whose first driver used to share your nationality but now is a subject of King Albert? Or whose tyre manufacturer has done a lot to put jobs your compatriots’ way?

You can’t say you’ve ever given the subject much thought, and it certainly doesn’t dictate who gets your support.

The first two years, the obesession with Jenson Button not winning his first Grand Prix should have alerted you perhaps, but since he generally just continued chuntering around in forth or fifth place at best, not even the Brits could justify their comentators spending the whole race talking about him, and you remained blissfully unaware of what would happen if a British racer ever got a sniff of the title.

So you find yourself spectacularly taken aback that the new British hope Lewis Hamilton’s success seems to be some kind of national pride issue. Perhaps this was to be expected given that the British have so little other (sporting) success to make an issue of. But you do wish that a bit of perspective could be used, particularly in the ITV F1 coverage.

He’s great, of course, is Hamilton. He’s quick. He’s consistent. He’s extremely tough minded. He’s got good judgment. He’s not afraid to have a go. He’s very skilled. He’s extremely commited. It’s his first year and he’s been off the podium once. Because of circumstances largely beyond his control.

Why it doesn’t seem to occur to people that he’s just as ready to play head games and put one over on his teammate as the next ruthless competitor you don’t know. Especially as he’s very good at it.

Take this weekend’s debacle.

For those readers not as into formula one as you are, Fernando Alonso – Hamilton’s teammate – screwed up Hamilton’s qualifying session so successfully that Alonso finished on pole position (or ‘in first position’) for the start of the race with Hamilton one place behind him.

Unfortunately, he did it rather obviously, by sitting in front of Hamilton after having been given a public signal to move off while they were both waiting to get their tyres changed for just long enough so that Alonso was able to go out before the session ended but Hamilton wasn’t.

Now the race officials, presumably feeling that blatantly blocking another driver, even if he is your teammate, is a precedent they cannot allow to go unpunished, then dropped Alonso five places on the start grid on a circuit where it is notoriously difficult to pass. Just for good measure, they also decided to punish the team too, who had tried to limit the damage to Alonso’s position by claiming that it had been an argument about tyres that had held Alonso stationary rather than a willful desire to spoil Hamilton’s race. The team will not score any points for the constructors’ championship this race. 

Now, fair enough. It amused you and made for a lively programme today, but it was, perhaps, a bit much as a move, even for the cut throat world of formula one.

But after the initial outburst of indignation, everyone seems agreed that this wasn’t just Alonso being particularly spiteful.

It seems to have been a retaliation against Hamilton for disobeying instructions from the team to let Alonso past earlier as, for various technical reasons which it has occurred to you that explaining would have everyone here well past bedtime and has just impressed upon you how much time you have wasted keeping up with the sport because you actually understand them, in order for both drivers to have an equal shot at top spot when it came to putting in a fast lap, Alonso needed to be ahead of Hamilton on the track at that point.

Which just goes to show, you think, that Hamilton, as well as probably being the best all round driver on the track, is also the best all round manipulator. Had Alonso not lost his rag, the most the rest of the world would have heard would have been James Allen exclaiming again at how sick as a parrot Alonso must be at being beaten to the pole by a rookie. Even as it was, the best response Alonso could manage was so lacking in the finesse of Hamilton’s move as to be seriously compromising  for him in all sorts of ways.

Yet the whole thrust of the commentary today was of Lewis, the determined driver who is confident in his ability, knows how to look after himself and is not to be pushed around by anyone, even his own team versus Alonso, the verging on a cheat for having the temerity to object publicly to Hamilton shafting him.

You thought it was a particularly nice touch that an in depth interview with the man himself had Hamilton saying sadly, and with just the right amount of disappointed regret, that at least today had taught him who he could trust in this sport… and who he couldn’t. You were hard put to stop yourself falling off the sofa and rolling around in delighted gales of laughter.

Anyway.

The race has just finished, and sure enough Hamilton won, with Alonso fourth.

Hamilton has now extended his lead in the championship over his nearest rival who is, now let me see, I wonder if this is significant, Alonso, to seven points…

Mind you, did I mention he’s from S______? Yes? Ah.

On how to produce a good Eurovision entry.

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You adore the Eurovision Song Contest and you say this totally without the kind of qualifiers that Brits usually add at this point. Such as ‘it’s so tragiclly kitsch’.

In fact, you are rather bemused by the fact that the British persist in regarding the thing as a monumental joke and yet follow programmes like Pop Idol with depressing sincerity. On both shows the musicianship these days is pretty good, but whereas the Eurovision entries are varied, interesting and sometimes quite original, the other shows are wall to wall bland.

The UK spectacular missing of the point is usually neatly encapsulated in their total inability to send a decent song along.

This year, we fielded the sort of entry we fondly imagine the Eurovision is full of. Except, of course, ours was better because we were doing it ironically. So we had people in flight attendant uniforms making suggestive remarks about champagne bottles, doing aeroplane impressions and singing about how they wanted to fly the flag over all the countries in Europe.

Fly the flag over all the countries in Europe? The flag? The flag?

Really, you were quite disappointed anyone voted for us at all after that rampant display of unrepentant imperialism.

The French entry, on the other hand, was funny. Since the French, year after year, have traditionally rather humourlessly sent women stubbornly singing ballads in French even when everybody had succumbed to doing it all in English, the fact that they did it in Franglais showed a proper entry into the spirit of things. And they wore pink PVC, were jolly, and it was a much better song all round.

But to really get the full beauty of it you had to be quite good at both English and French. You don’t think many people are that good at English or French. The default language of the tournament may be English, but the trick is to try and string together the English words which are universally recognised (‘love love love love love love love love’) in some kind of logical order rather than anything more sophisticated.

 So nobody voted for it either. Except you.

Actually you are quite pleased that the rise of digital TV systems which allow translations and such seems to have encouraged people to start singing in their own language again.

The whole point, for you, of Eurovision is to enjoy a small lifting of the fog cutting the continent off from the UK, and this does not include having to pay attention to the words, which really don’t deserve it, particularly when they are written in someone’s second language. You positively enjoy listening to the other languages in fact.

This year you had your own awards for ‘ most random English lyric’ . Russia won hands down for some really ill-conceived ‘ummy’ rhymes and calling each other bitches. You are so proud. The UK came a close second though, which is really quite embarrassing when you think about it.

Anyway. You generally refuse to vote for anyone singing totally in English, although you streatched a point for Georgia this year because, although the song was a blatant rip off of Madonna’s Ray of Light, you did feel that the ethnic dancers pulled one back for national flag waving. Plus, the singer was, as a singer, rather better than Madonna, and you happen to like that song.

B was forced to vote for Romania, on the grounds that they were the only people singing in Russian.

But there’s a bit of good humoured patriotism and then there’s the Ukraine.

Who sent along a well known TV personality of the Dame Edna Everage type to do a bit of techno bopping.

Terry Wogan described it as incomprehensible, mainly because the entirety of the lyrics submitted for the Eurovision’s subtitlers to play with were pretty much ‘I want to see… Lasha Tumbai.’ Although the silver costumes complete with a hat with a large five pointed star and energetic dancing might have had something to do with that too.

You have visions of the BBC’s researchers running around and trying to find out who Lasha is in Ukrainian popular culture and why she’s a suitable person to sing about at Eurovision.

They should have ignored the spelling and had a go at imagining what it might mean if you are singing in English with a strong Ukrainian peasant accent and you don’t want to tip your hand too blatantly.

It’s supposed to stand for ‘I want to see… Russia goodbye.’

Which you find incredibly insulting not primarily to Russia, but to the competition, which sees itself as one of these goodwill hands across the border type affairs. And you also find mean spirited the the fact that they presumably deliberately set out to trick Europe into singing along.

So you were hugely relieved when Serbia won with a perfectly pleasant, well executed song sung in Serbian about love.

On falling scales.

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So you decided you’d better do something towards researching current conditions for armed forces veterans as a result of the ‘support the troops’ project described here.

And there you are doing the absolute minimum by rootling around the Ministry of Defence website, when you discover that there is, in fact, a Veterans’ Day. And there has been one since, oooh, last year. Can’t say you noticed, but anyway it’s the 27th June.

And the main event for 2007 is being held in Birmingham. Tee hee.

There also seems to be a satisfying amount of activity regarding keeping an eye on conditions for returning and, er, non returning service personnel. Committees. Working parties.  Consultations. Strategies. The whole enchilada.

You’d be more comforted by this if energetic and well meaning mucking about wasn’t a bit of a hallmark of the current government. But in the health service, to take one example, it’s resulted in what can only be described as an unmitigated disaster for the specialist junior doctors currently attempting to dedicate their lives to the service of medicine and country.

You are, as yet, undecided whether the whole ‘permanent revolution’ state of mind that seems to exist in Downing Street is just a result of the current incumbents’ raging incompetence or whether it’s something built into the necessarily short term viewpoint of the democratic system.

This probably doesn’t matter to the 20% of doctors about to be kicked out of their careers for no reason at all, and certainly the culling method goes beyond overmanagement and is completely and utterly flawed.

There’s a petition for British citizens which can be reached on Aphra’s page via the links above. If anything’s worth signing, that is.

On supporting the troops.

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A chap called Hobgoblin, who you came to via Charlotte and Aphra Behn‘s postings on the topic, has requested movingly and persuasively that people blog about what it means to support the troops. This seems like an admirable project, even if it didn’t run headlong into your latest train of thought, so here goes.

It’s not something you feel you have the right to comment on usually.

No one in your family has ever, as far as you know, been a professional soldier. You also can’t say that any of them particularly distinguished themselves when forced to take part in times of mass conscription. One of your Grandads, for example, was laid out in a London hospital with hepatitis and missed the landings on D-day as a result. And your family doesn’t talk about the other one.

B’s family tended to be more on the receiving end of armies – half of them starved to death in the blockade of St Petersburg and B’s Grandmother had her house burned down around her by advancing German troops down Lipisk way ten days after giving birth to B’s mother. And don’t mention the civil war. The menfolk of his family who have had anything to do with it tend to have practiced desertion, getting themselves disappeared, being assigned to suicide squads – either we shoot you or you let them do it - or draft dodging. B’s family were, in fact, enemies of the people (with certificates and the stint in Siberia to prove it) although they never covered themselves in glory by becoming out and out dissidents.

This doesn’t mean, though, that you don’t have an opinion, which you are sure will surprise no one. Here’s what support means to you:

Soldiers should not be used as cannon fodder. This means not getting involved in unnecessary wars - and there’s an obvious way we could support our troops there - and also having effective commanders of armies and strategies so that they are not wasted once they are committed. Quite apart from the obvious benefits of there being fewer opportunities to get killed, you think it would be better for the soldiers if they could believe in what they are doing. It also entails using the new technology which allows the armed forces not to put soldiers at any more risk than they have to be. This is a dangerous line to walk though as the technology mostly involves killing at a distance and that very distance makes killing very easy. 

So soldiers should not be asked to do utterly indefensible things. There should be loud debates about what sort of acts are permissible and what are not. There seems to be a general acceptance now, for example, that involving civilians in wars is inevitable, yet it’s this that puts the most stress on soldiers on the ground. If our outrage were loud enough, would more alternatives be found?

Unfortunately this is one of those areas where critisism of the policy is seen as being criticism of the troops. Mainly because it often has meant that. Remember all those ‘baby killer’ comments to the Vietnam veterans? You always felt that it was the sixties only fine moment, that such an energetic anti war movement existed. But you also felt that it was their worst moment as well as so much of the ire seemed directed at the soldiers themselves. Which in turn meant they came home to hostility and a determination to brush the whole thing under the carpet. At best.

Soldiers should be protected from themselves. You’ve posted at length about what atrocities people can commit in extreme circumstances, and in war soldiers have a habit of going off the rails. This is a failure of army discipline and structure and so support of the troops includes guarding against creating the conditions where such acts become possible, and preventative policing so that the conditions which can lead to them are nipped in the bud.

Soldiers also need acknowledgement. World war vets were probably able to integrate back into civilian life more easily partly because, unlike Vietnam vets for example, they were uncontroversially recognised as heroes. And continued to be fiercely celebrated. Presumably when the doubts set in or the nightmares rise up, this is of some comfort. However, you also wonder if it wasn’t also because when they got back home everybody there had also been caught up in the conflict – everybody and society as a whole was in the same boat of having to go from a war footing to a peacetime footing. You wonder how much harder it is for soldiers coming back from Iraq to be met with, by and large ringing silence. Not just on the subject of their hero status, but about the experience they have been going though as a whole. It’s an extreme form of culture shock and the worst of culture shock is watching everyone else wonder round behaving as though everything is perfectly normal.

More fuss, then, should be made about returning soldiers by the communities they return to. Not just when they return but repeatedly thereafter. Our Remembrance Day is important – it doesn’t do to forget the costs of war entirely. But you wonder if  we are being a bit self indulgent and trying to purge ourselves of the guilt of engaging in war at all with it sometimes. We know war is indefensible but as long as we are sorry then that’s alright. This day allows us to maintain the moral high-ground, but probably doesn’t do much to boost the moral of those who didn’t, in fact, die. There are celebrations of the end of the second world war, but perhaps more fuss should be made of veterans of all kinds.

Mind you, the problem of having a Veterans’ Day is that people have a tendency to take the observance of such days as the only thing they need to do in order to contribute towards whatever problem is being acknowledged. Still, while you’d prefer to get paid more, you were always pathetically grateful for the acknowledgement the Russian habit of continuing to celebrate the Soviet holiday of Teachers’ Day gave you. Just because it’s a bit of a cliche, doesn’t mean it doesn’t actually have benefit.

But soldiers also need practical help when they get back. It really is a bit much to send people out to do a most unpleasant job which you recognise is pragmatically necessary but which, frankly, you aren’t prepared to do yourself and then not ensure that there is adequate recompense and support when they get back. You’ve noticed a few stories in the news recently about the substandard accommodation soldiers are expected to put up with when they return and while by and large you disapprove of media campaigns faking outrage to sell newspapers, this one might have some useful purpose. There’s not much on this topic though around and perhaps it’s time to try to get it more prominently talked about. You have decided it might be time to make a few enquiries and send a few letters to the relevant institutions.

And then of course there’s Hobgoblin’s original request:

So, here is my plea. I want to start people talking more and more and more about supporting the troops. I want people to think more about how we treat the people who have made the sacrifices for our country. I want people to think about how cynically politicians exploit the troops for their own ends. I want people to think about how a drunken frat boy draft dodger can be seen as a hero and biggest supporter of our troops, and I want people to think about just what this absolute and complete collapse of meaning says about our country. Please, write something about this. Spread the word. Talk about how we need to support our troops in real, tangible, material ways–starting with bringing them home from this evil, stupid, stupid war. Reference me or not, link to me or not, but talk about it. Ask everyone who reads your blog to write about it–just one post–until everyone in the blogosphere is talking about it. Create a chain blog, an enormous pyramid of entries. It may mean nothing–probably will mean nothing–but things only start to happen when people talk and agitate.