Friday, 31 December 2010

A new year beckons.

"I want to tell you
My head is filled with things to say
When you're here
All those words, they seem to slip away"


It's been a while since my last post - over a month. And this will (I think) also be my last post for a while.

Recently I have been less than happy studying clinical medicine. My initial reaction was that I wanted to quit. This might seem hasty, but I had my reasons. I believe that medicine was the wrong choice in the first place. I didn't really enjoy preclinical and now that we've got to clinical, I was expecting to like it more than I have done. I found myself unmotivated and uninterested by the work. I've been dreading going into hospital in the mornings. I dislike the lifestyle which is inherently dislocating, being shoved out to Ipswich every now and again for the weekdays, separated from friends and Internet and sports facilities and things that matter. I have seen the lifestyle of a doctor and I don't particularly want it on this basis. Moreover, I know exactly what I do want to be doing other than medicine - a Masters in music psychology.

Despite all this, I've come to the conclusion, after talking to a wide range of friends, family and tutors, that staying in medicine - at least for now - is the best option. For one thing, even if I apply for a Masters in music psychology, I wouldn't find out if I'd got into the course until June at the earliest, and dropping out of medicine before then would be foolish. Besides, there are many reasons that I haven't been enjoying medicine, many of which I'm able to address. For example, I hope to get a car soon, which should make living in Ipswich for weekdays less of a chore because I can come back of an evening if I so wish. I intend to start using study partners more rather than cooping myself up in my room. I'm going to start playing squash and badminton again - having not played them for a while, I can feel myself go out of shape, my self-esteem go down and my energy levels drop. I have got into the habit of sleeping far too late which makes me permanently exhausted, and I procrastinate far too much on Facebook and the internet in general - all these things I want to change, and if I can, then I stand a far better chance of being able to enjoy the medical degree more. So Facebook is going out of the window. This blog is also sadly going, at least for now. On one hand it is a good outlet for my non-medically-related thoughts and ideas. On the other hand, I have so many that I can't possibly write them all down - and if I try, then I use up huge amounts of time.

What do I think about? Sadly, I've come to the conclusion that what mainly occupies my brain space is actually fairly trivial; I don't occupy the higher spiritual plane that my grandfather does. I think an awful lot about books, music, sport and films - and so those are what I write about mostly, it seems. Music is the most important one out of these. I am interested in it on an intellectual level. As well as enjoying playing it, composing it, listening to it - I am fascinated by the influence it exerts over people. It is phenomenal what a striking effect music can have on people, causing them to break down in tears, tingle all over, change their mood in subtle and unsubtle ways, and much more besides. I'd like to understand more about the processes by which music exerts its influence on human minds and brains. And there are so many unanswered questions in this very broad and very new discipline that my mind is constantly whirring with them - too many to study in a lifetime, let alone try to write about in a blog.

Thus - I'm stopping for now.

Before I go -

Just like that bloke out of High Fidelity, I love making lists, and rank-ordering things that I like. It serves no discernable purpose, but for some reason it pleases me. So here are the Arjun Kingdon Awards for 2010. This is a fairly onanistic exercise; it's my opinions, and nothing more. This blog was always written more for my sake than anyone else's. But hey, that's what the Internet is for, right? So that the unwashed masses can vent their ignorant spleens about whatever they like?

BEST ALBUMS OF 2009:

I tend to discover music, if at all, a bit late. Given that I was only able to identify three albums released in 2010 which I own and enjoy (The Staircase Band - can I say that?, Seed by Richard Leigh, Hedonism by Bellowhead) - I think it would be more sensible for me to come up with a top 10 list of my favourite albums over the last three years. (N.B. interesting that I should have discovered so little new music over this time, given how much I profess to "love" music. It's because I'm happy to listen to the same old stuff, actually a fairly small subset of music, over and over again.)

10. Imidiwan, Tinariwen

9. Far, Regina Spektor

8. The Resistance, Muse

7. Viva La Vida, Coldplay

6. Seed, Richard Leigh

5. The Duckworth-Lewis Method, The Duckworth-Lewis Method

4. Hedonism, Bellowhead

3. Moi et mon camion, Merz

2. The Seldom Seen Kid, Elbow

1. Songs from the Floodplain, Jon Boden


BEST FILMS OF 2010:

This is very tricky indeed.

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pt 1

4. The Social Network

3. Three Idiots

2. Toy Story 3

1. Inception

And I also ought to mention the best films I saw this year which weren't released this year - they were O Brother, Where Art Thou?, District 9, The Secret in their Eyes, Juno, Serenity, All You Need Is Cash, Memento.


BEST BOOKS I'VE READ THIS YEAR:

(I'm only counting books that I'm reading for the first time - no re-readings are allowed in this list. And I'm not doing the "best books of 2010" because I think I've only read two or three books that were released this year.)

5. Dune - Frank Herbert

4. Twilight (any of them) - Stephanie Meyer

3. Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis de Bernieres

2. Black Swan Green - David Mitchell

1. Emma - Jane Austen


And now for - WORST BOOKS I'VE READ THIS YEAR

5. Soul Music, Terry Pratchett

4. Twilight (any of them), Stephanie Meyer

3. Foundation, Isaac Asimov

2. The Mystery of Things, A.C. Grayling

1. The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown


That's all folks! Happy 2011! And given that I'm quitting facebook, make an extra effort to keep in touch via email (adnk2@cam.ac.uk) or Skype.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Harry Potter and hedonism.

Hello!

My last blog post was long long long. So I will endeavour to keep this one a bit shorter, although there is still a surfeit of things that I want to write about... I clearly need some other outlet for all these thoughts that are flying around in my head, inciting and inviting me. For a start, I won't talk about the weekend's rugby. This is also because it was rather depressing.

On to business: Harry Potter! The first part of the seventh book has been turned into a film (second half will come out next summer), and it is really rather good. It has some missteps, for sure, but it's hugely better than the earlier six films, I thought. It hasn't done for the book what the Lord of the Rings films did - but they really were extraordinary.

One of the reasons the film works is the pacing. The first few films were very long and yet managed to feel very rushed at the same time. They left out bits that I viewed as essential, and still managed to not fit everything in. I maintain that if they'd produced the entire seven books as a 30-hour television series, it would have been far superior - just like Pride and Prejudice, or Gormenghast. But there's no money in that. This film, by virtue of splitting the book in half, has time to breathe, and it was a much more relaxing experience watching it. Some people criticise the length of the camping sequences; personally, I appreciated the extra time spent in the Potterverse, being a bit of an obsessive fan.

Other features were generally improved. I felt they got the "feel" of the book much more closely than in previous films. They didn't shy away from making it dark - this is not a film for children, and neither should it have been. But there are moments of humour, and they all hit the spot well. I really liked some of the sequences that were inserted into the film which weren't in the book - for example, Hermione Obliviating her parents was very powerful. The cinematography was great; visually, the film is a feast. The score is fairly unobjectionable but also unmemorable. The acting was strong from the three leads - they've really matured as they've grown up, very impressive given what normally happens to child stars.

So, with all of these positive things to say (and more besides, which are swimming around my head but I won't write down, conscious of how long this might get!), why is it that I can't bring myself to love this film? I was impressed, and during the film, I was enjoying myself. But I wouldn't watch it again, and I did leave the cinema with a strangely hollow feeling. I think it's because I am such a big fan of the book that literally no film could have satisfied me. The sad thing is, I really don't think they could have made this film any better, yet still I can't bring myself to unequivocally praise the film. In the end, I have to accept that nothing would have fully satisfied me. Which is a depressing thought - it seems sad to accept the inevitability of not being able to fully enjoy a film, simply because one loves the book so much.

But this is something that I've observed in other areas of my life as well. Enjoying one thing can perversely enjoyment of something else. For example, the song "How Do You Sleep" by John Lennon is a great song, but I can't listen to it any more with any pleasure since I discovered that it was intended as a vindictive diatribe directed at Paul McCartney. I am sure I would like the music of Oasis more than I do if I wasn't aware of the fact that they are horrible, horrible people. I can partially dissociate these two - after all, the music and the people who produce the music are two separate entities, and I have no problem with enjoying a bit of Richard Strauss despite the fact that he was a proto-Nazi. But it does nevertheless impinge slightly on my enjoyment.

Another example would be the gig I went to last week. I saw Bellowhead perform at the Junction in Cambridge. I talk a lot about them, because they're a favourite band of mine, and because they're not very well known and I think they deserve greater exposure. This was the fourth time I'd seen them live in concert. Since the last time, they've released a third album, Hedonism. Hedonism has some absolutely fantastic songs, and some songs which are good. Better than OK, but not as good as fantastic. And at this gig, they played a lot of songs from Hedonism, with a smattering of songs from their earlier material. I enjoyed it a lot, but given that I really love their earlier stuff, I was a bit disappointed to note absence of certain songs from the setlist. No Prickle-Eye Bush, Jack Robinson or Flash Company. If I'd never been to a Bellowhead gig before, I would have enjoyed this one more. But I know what they're capable of, so I was ever so slightly disappointed - despite having had a great time.

This is, of course, just another manifestation of the phenomenon that knowing a lot about something seems to increase one's critical faculties with regard to that something. The first classical concert that I can remember going to, which had a huge effect on me as a young six-year-old, was Jack Gibbon playing Pictures at an Exhibition in the Holywell Music Room in Oxford. It was fantastic - but I remember, I was sitting next to an ancient and wizened music critic, who sniffily commented at the end, "that's not how you're supposed to play Mussourgsky". At the time, I remember my dad getting righteously angry with him - the music was well-played and enjoyable and got me hooked on classical music, what more do you want? Unfortunately, I can see myself turning into this old man in certain ways. I love Shostakovich's 2nd piano trio very much; I found a version on Youtube which interpreted it fairly well, but did some things that I didn't like - but I noticed that all the comments were positive. If I had commented negatively, I am sure that a host of people would "dislike" my comment and tell me to just enjoy the good music. It is sad that increased knowledge in a field seems to narrow enjoyment. The counter-argument is that increased knowledge might somehow deepen enjoyment compared to laypeople.

But I'm not sure that's true. For example, I have a pretty encyclopaedic knowledge of The Beatles, and I love them with all my heart. But I know plenty of musically untrained people who have just as great an appreciation as me. The only difference is that I am perhaps better able to articulate why I love certain bits than a layperson, because I can bandy around terms like "subdominant" and "modulation" and "Aeolian cadence". A musical education has given me the ability to put into words the reasons why I love a certain piece, but I don't think it's actually changed my ability to appreciate music in any positive way; in fact, it's probably narrowed my spectrum of enjoyment.

So, I liked the most recent Harry Potter film, and yet not as much as I might have done if I liked the books less. I enjoyed the Bellowhead gig, but less than I might have done if I wasn't so attached to their first album, Burlesque. I think, on balance, I'm happy to have expertise in certain fields. Yes, it can dampen my enjoyment of certain experiences. But if I were to have enjoyed the Potter film more, that would have to go hand in hand with reduced enjoyment of the book - which I'm not willing to sacrifice. To have enjoyed the Bellowhead gig, I'd have had to not be such a big fan of Burlesque.

Ultimately, it's impossible to ensure maximal enjoyment of every experience - you can't have it both ways. Deep appreciation of something necessarily results in reduced enjoyment of something else - but it would be a sad life to enjoy everything superficially and nothing deeply. In the end, I'm happy to have a list of a few things that I really enjoy, rather than superficially enjoying a wider range of experiences. But I doubt I'll ever get rid of the nagging feeling which tells me that it's wrong to have a great time at Harry Potter and Bellowhead, and yet to come away thinking "That was good, but...". I guess that's because I'm a perfectionist and a hedonist, always looking to extract maximum fun out of everything I do. There is a danger I'll never fully enjoy anything because I'll always be thinking "that was good, but I could have enjoyed it more if..."? So from now on, I'll try to forget about how much fun I should be having, and to focus on how much fun I am having. Not easy when you tend to over-analyse things as much as I do...

There we go. 1500 words in this post, that's respectable, although I still need to get better at self-editing. Signing off from Ipswich. Love to all.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

A miscellany - Harry Potter, more rugby, and Ipswich.

Golly gosh. I have a lot on my mind, and I want to write about all of it, so brace yourselves, readers, for a long and rambly post, on many different topics.

First things first, and let's get this out of the way right at the beginning: hello to Jason Isaacs.

Now, to business. Topic of the evening number one: Harry Potter.

I am so excited about the new film. I'm seeing it tomorrow and I will report back. It is perhaps stupid of me, given the track record of the films. I am a total sucker for sequels. I know better than most the almost-always incontrovertible laws of cinema - e.g., "Sequels are invariably total rubbish", and "Films of books are never quite as good as the books, especially if the books are well-loved". Of course, there are exceptions - I'd give Toy Story 2/3 and Empire of the Sun as my favourite examples. But these really are the exceptions rather than the rule. The Harry Potter films fall foul of both these laws, and thus I should expect them to be rubbish. And as per my prediction, they usually are. I just love the original books far too much (and I am entirely unashamed), and thus I am very nit-picky about the films. And yet, I always end up going to see them. Every single time, I see the trailer and think "Maybe it'll actually be good this time!". I've been wrong every time so far...

That's not entirely fair. The films are mainly fairly bad, but I really did actually quite enjoy the first half of the sixth film - which was mostly disliked by the critics and a lot of fans. But I liked it - it managed to get the right tone better than any of the previous films, I thought. And then it all went downhill in the second half - but for half a film, I was really into it. And maybe this is wishful thinking - maybe this is me being suckered by the trailer again - but I'm more hopeful for this next film. I have good reasons to believe it might actually be a decent outing. Firstly: Mark Kermode likes it. And while I don't always agree with him (The Exorcist? Pah!), I generally agree with his reasoning, if you see what I mean. Secondly, it looks as if they're really taking their time, making it dark and broody and slow-paced. GOOD. So it should be, just like the book. Reviews have criticised it saying that the humour and warmth have gone. Well, a good thing too, given that previous attempts at humour and warmth have been fairly substandard. And if parents take their young kids and their young kids don't like it, well, the parents are stupid. This is not a film for young kids, because it is not a book for young kids. It seems as if they've decided that if you've got to the point where you're watching the seventh film, you know the backstory, so there's no more laborious explanations or exposition. Basically, it'll be incomprehensible to anyone who isn't a HP geek. GOOD. They have clearly made these films for the fans and no one else - they'll run to over five hours long put together, and have much more detail than the earlier films could manage. Plus it seems as if the "child actors" can actually act now. For all these reasons, I am optimistic. But we will see.

My second topic of the evening, and I do apologise, but it's going to be rugby again. (Non-rugby fans - skip this part!) It's just too exciting not to write about; for the first time in really quite a long time, I am truly genuinely excited about rugby. I mean, I've watched the Six Nations and the last World Cup with unceasing regularity for years - never missed a match. But I haven't really gotten into it in the emotional way that I did with England for the 2003 World Cup. It's as if, for seven years (while England were a bit rubbish), I purposefully turned my expectations and emotional response down, as a protective mechanism. And now they seem to be playing well again, I am once again genuinely interested in seeing them win.

My thoughts aren't nearly as structured as they were in the last rugby blog. Just a few snippets here and there. The England-Australia match was pure joy. Wales-South Africa was entertaining - no kicking battles! - and Scotland-New Zealand was a masterclass; painful to watch but also exhilirating. So much for the weekend before last. This weekend, Scotland-South Africa was fantastic - hooray for the Scots! You're still s*** really, but we love you for it, and anyone who beats the Boks is good in my book. Ireland-NZ was entertaining - Ireland showed some proper pluck, unlike the last two weeks, but were very, very well beaten in the end. NZ's skills are mad. England-Samoa may have seemed anticlimactic after the joy unconfined of putting a record score on Australia - but it actually represents an important step forward, I believe - namely, that we are able to adapt our game, and grind it out when necessary. We weren't perfect, and wasted too many opportunities - but I was still hugely encouraged. If England beat South Africa next weekend, I would tip England for the Championship - perhaps not the Grand Slam. And if we do well enough in the Six Nations, then purely on the confidence that that would bring, I would say that a World Cup 2011 final would not be out of our reach.

OK, so I'm overstepping myself. Let's calm the hyperbole - after all, we did lose to New Zealand, and we conceded a soft try to Samoa. But the point is - I'm really excited for the England team, like I haven't been in years. We are looking like a proper, functioning unit, in all departments. We've finally sorted the half-back pairing, which has been the main problem for ages - Youngs is great, Care is a good 60th minute replacement, and Flood is really coming into his own, finally. A bit more experimentation is needed in the three-quarter lines - Hape will do at 12, but there isn't much cover there, and no one has really stamped their name on the 13 shirt. And the forwards are doing a fairly impressive job, but are still a bit lumbering at times - oh, if they had the handling skills of the New Zealand forwards, who look like they could be backs at times! They truly do play total rugby.

One thing I have been noticing very keenly over this autumn is the importance of the offload from the tackle. I don't know if I am just noticing it more, or if it has genuinely increased in tactical importance. It seems to me that as defences have got better, that a true line break is quite rare, especially against a well-organised defence. Thus, teams are increasingly turning to tactics like having dummy runners aka obstructing runners. This has been increasingly happening for a while now, but is now entirely endemic; it started being fashionable in the southern hemisphere but the NH teams now seem to be the greatest exponents of this, on recent form. No one seems to view it as illegal. Perhaps it isn't. The first George North try last week was definitely only possible because of a dummy runner who then turned into an obstructing figure. Brian Moore doesn't seem to care about this issue as much as he does about feeding at the scrum.

Another tactic used by attacking teams is to offload the ball in the tackle. True line breaks are rare, but a good runner can make a half-break, and if there is a runner on his shoulder, it can become a genuine line break. New Zealand are especially good at this, and England have been improving. I believe that this is one of the most important tactics nowadays for keeping an attack going quickly without letting the defence reorganise - it is far superior to letting a ruck form. Of course you can't offload indiscriminately - some discretion must be shown. The ABs seem to be able to get it right perenially - they always offload if they can, but they know when it's not on too. And my theory as to why South Africa are struggling this season - well, partially a lot of good players have retired, or lost form, or are injured, and they haven't got a great coach, and there's drug problems and racial problems and team disunity - but I think it's mostly because they are struggling to adapt to the new model of rugby. They thrived while the ELVs were around, because that suited their boring, defensive, territorial game. But now the flourishing teams are those with a bit of zip - NZ, Australia and England. South Africa barely made any offloads against Scotland - I can't remember a single one. And they often kicked away possession, like in the bad old days - and rather than kicking it back, Scotland held onto it, and that tactic worked. Possession has become more important than territory, because the attacking side is favoured at the breakdown. Oh, it's wonderful.

Crikey, this is long. Just one more topic then - I'll skip all the other stuff I was going to talk about (I've just read Bad Science by Ben Goldacre - very interesting book, I had some thoughts on it, and more besides), and just focus on one thing - namely, my life as a clinical medical student.

Funny, this: I have been running this blog for a good long while now, but since the India trip, I haven't at all commented on my own life. I have talked about the things that have been occupying my brain space - rugby, films I've seen, books I've read, music I've heard, idea's I've had. But not the medicine I've learnt, and not the new life that I've been adjusting to. Perhaps that's because I was struggling to find my feet, and didn't want to let on. Now, however, I think I have found my feet, and consequently, for the first time, I find that I want to write about it; I am able to write about it.

The three-week introductory course was very interesting, but I was just settling into the new house, and far from learning any medicine, I was just concentrating on adjusting - adjusting to permanent exhaustion, long days, getting up early, going to bed late, cooking food for myself (!), hospital routines. And then my five-week placement at Addenbrooke's started, and Prash and Marika, my housemates, were on a different placement. So I was home alone. It was lonely, and I didn't cope that well with it, and didn't learn as much as I should have done, or could have done. Weekends were insanely busy, filled with socialising, Baha'i activities, music practice, seeing family, panto rehearsals (the Addies panto is over, and it was wonderful, so so wonderful, check out the reviews! but I'm so glad it's over). I got even more sleep-deprived due to a strange form of insomnia where I had no trouble in the actual act of falling asleep - just in getting into bed in the first place. The Internet was my enemy during this time.

And then I had my first week at Ipswich, and that was a total write-off because of it being panto week, and travelling back and forth to Cambridge every day. Utterly exhausting. And then I spent the entire weekends before and after that with my parents, which was lovely, but again, exhausting in a different way. In short - I'm tired! Very tired. And I haven't really actually learnt any medicine. I've just now, I believe, managed to settle into a routine that works, where I'm getting to bed in time, and socialising, and having fun, and learning things both at the hospital and from book work. It took time to get the formula right. Sadly some things have had to go. I don't see non-medic friends much any more, and I miss them a lot - especially Phoebe, of course. The skyping of various friends spread around the world has ceased, as the Internet here is very slow (and this is a good thing for me because I don't waste hours on video sites!). And this week I've had to turn down participation in three Staircase Band gigs - Tuesday at Soul Tree, Friday at the Union, and Sunday at Fitz. It is immensely frustrating, but it was inevitable really.

Despite that - I am now ensconsed at Ipswich during the weekdays, and because there's nothing to do here, I'm working hard, and starting to enjoy the work. And I'm currently listening to Rachmaninov, and coming to the end of my blog post, and contemplating Phoebe and Harry Potter and rugby and the Staircase Band and my family and all that is good in this world, and I am beginning to be slightly teary with happiness, so I'm going to sign off now. Night night, all.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Rugby!

As well as thinking about the latest set of rugby autumn internationals, I want my beady eye over student demonstrations and tuition fees, and a whole host of other topics, but life is too short, so I'm going to confine myself to rugby.

The laws of rugby have been fiddled around with rather a lot over the last few years - indeed, for tens of years. The ELVs were finally seen off recently, and the latest change has had more to do with referees being asked to change their style of reffing - not actually changing any laws. This is a fundamental difference, and a huge improvement. The ELVs were brought in with the intention of making the game more exciting, and had the precise opposite effect, with interminable kickfests becoming standard. Brian Moore exploded with anger very entertainingly more than once, and rugby was actually in danger of becoming more boring even than football (imagine that!). Whatever the recent changes are, they've worked - there weren't any back-and-forth kicking matches that I remember from the 250 minutes of rugby that were played this weekend. And you can be sure that's not due to Martin Johnson saying "OK team, we might lose but we're going to try to play attractive, free-flowing rugby". If he is telling his team to play attractive, free-flowing rugby (as England mostly did, very encouragingly), it's because he thinks that it gives England the best chance of winning. He is entirely hard-nosed, and will get his team to play however it takes, whether it looks good or whether it's 79 minutes of kicking and one England penalty. Luckily for us, Johnson and his team seem to have decided that they stand their best chance if they choose a team with just the right mix of old, experienced, grizzled heads, and youthful dynamism; a team which is very much capable of breaking the line, and which will not be as soul-crushingly inept in attack as they have been for the last seven years.

The main reason for the change in strategy is that referees have been instructed to be more lenient on the attacking team at the breakdown. And it really showed this weekend - England, Australia, New Zealand and Wales all played beautiful and attractive rugby in two great contests which were very enjoyable to watch despite my favoured teams not winning. Having endured years of torment during which not only England were in disarray, but the whole state of rugby, it was really pleasing to see England play well (despite losing), and two really entertaining matches. I watched them while doing the ironing on a Saturday afternoon. I am turning into my father, slowly but surely - but I now understand what he's always said - there is something magical and satisfying about doing the ironing while screaming at the television.

Sadly, the high levels of entertainment weren't replicated in the third weekend match. Ireland vs South Africa was interminable. South Africa are a team that I dislike intensely; partially because they beat England all the time, but mostly because they are brutal, vicious and more ungentlemanly than all other teams; their game has almost no finesse and relies on the forwards hugely, meaning that it is efficient but extraordinarily boring. As this year's Tri-Nations showed, they are clearly the weakest of the southern hemisphere teams (I include Argentina in that analysis) - because they have failed to adapt to the new, more attack-oriented style that other teams have got the hang of. The only reason they (just) beat Ireland is that Ireland had a true shocker. They had the right idea several times, but the execution was very poor; for the entire first half they couldn't keep the ball for more than ten seconds without losing it or making a basic handling error. South Africa really didn't play very well at all, and they only just beat a team which were in total disarray. But the other two matches were very heartening, and leave me with a lot of optimism for the future of rugby in general, and English rugby in particular. Ben Youngs stood out as a really special player; let's hope we can make the most of him.

As for the upcoming fixtures - I think that England and Wales both have very good chances of beating South Africa on current form. New Zealand and Australia are a cut above everyone else at the moment (if you forget about the Australia scrum - what a nightmare!); I can't see anyone beating New Zealand. Australia will remain unbeaten unless England can really pull some special defence out of the bag - the Australians ripped the Welsh defence to shreds last week, seemingly without trying. Even if England dominate at the scrum as Wales did, it won't make a hill of beans difference if Australia's back line functions like it did. Ireland have a collection of decent players but clearly something needs to change; after the spectacular efforts of 2009, they have seemed lacklustre.

One more thing. Keven Mealamu was cited and then banned for four weeks after his headbutt on Lewis Moody. New Zealand have appealed, citing Mealamu's previous good record (in almost 90 matches for country, and many more for club, he's never really had a history of disciplinary trouble at all, they claim). Except... they'd be forgetting one incident near the beginning of his career. The infamous spear tackle on Brian O'Driscoll in the first minute of the first Lions test match of 2005, that most ill-fated of tours. Together, Mealamu and Umaga pulled off one of the most cynical and atrocious pieces of underhandedness that I have ever seen on a rugby pitch. Out of the last ten years, this is surely the least savoury thing that I can recall seeing, and that includes Tom Williams and Bloodgate. Mealamu may have escaped citing for some reason for this incident, but the total lack of any kind of contrition afterwards convinces me that "past good disciplinary record" is no reason to not cite someone if they clearly deliberately headbutt someone in a ruck. The citing commission got their decision absolutely right.

In conclusion - the men in suits have decreed that attacking teams should be favoured - and what a difference it seems to have made - a catalyst for exciting, vibrant contests. Now they just need to sort out feeding at the scrum. There was one horrible match last weekend, but two great ones - and hopefully some more coming up this weekend. And if England and Wales keep playing like this, and the French play like they always play, then this should be the most interesting Six Nations for ages - and the one that I'm most looking forward to. Bring it on!

Monday, 18 October 2010

In defence of Twilight

Twilight, the series about teenage love, abstinence, vampires and werewolves, is a modern phenomenon, probably second only to the Harry Potter series in the world of children's literature. What differentiates it from Harry Potter is this: it polarises opinions far more sharply. Its fans are absolute devotees; most of the Internet are extraordinarily vitriolic haters. Hatred that goes beyond normal hatred and into the red-faced froth-spitting Jeremy Clarkson mode of hatred. It seems to be a love-or-hate thing. Certainly in the circles that I mostly move in, it is achingly cool to denigrate Twilight at every possible opportunity.

And I find myself caught in between (although that is a simplification). On one hand, while reading through all four books (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn), I could tell that this was not "good" writing; certainly not in the league of J. K. Rowling's fiction. Bella is irritating in the extreme, as is Edward - the two main protagonists! The dialogue is unnaturalistic, the plots are paper-thin, the way that characters behave is often entirely implausible (even within the fantasy setting of the book). For a book about the rivalry between super-strong vampires and werewolves, it's funny how there is almost no "action" at all; the pacing is crushingly slow, as we meander through Bella's thoughts. Her thoughts are mainly along the lines of "oh, my life is so terrible. I hate everything. There are two boys madly in love with me, I love both of them, could anyone's life possibly be worse?". She single-handedly sets back the course of feminism by about 100 years. This could not by any means be called "classic fiction".

And yet, I can't bring myself to hate it. In fact, I really rather enjoyed reading all four books. When I mentioned this to various of my friends, I was unsurprised by the raised eyebrows and the various negative reactions. I am squarely outside of the target demographic for these books and people of my age and my sex generally are supposed to despise Twilight. It almost made me want to hate it, for the sake of conformity. It's very difficult to like something that everyone else hates; almost as bad as hating something everyone else likes. But no; I am a principled person, and I am unashamed in my lack of hatred for Twilight.

So why am I quite fond of the books? They are compelling to read. Why, I honestly don't know. I've been asking myself this question for a while, and I still don't know the answer. As I've said: irritating central characters, badly written, turgid bad plot dialogue concept action pacing EVERYTHING. So how on earth could I read another page, let alone find myself compelled to read all four books?

I think it's because of the attitude that I approached the books with. Firstly, I decided that rather than be irritated by the central characters whenever they did or thought stupid things (i.e. all the time), I was going to laugh about it. And I did. And thus, I laughed a lot. Another way I found to enjoy the books more was this: I didn't worry about the target demographic issue. A lot of criticism that I've seen goes along the lines of "Stephanie Meyer writes as if she's a hysterical twelve-year-old girl with disturbingly idealised notions of love that will lead a generation of children into early marriages that will fail horrendously". That is probably mostly correct. But I don't see that the writing style is necessarily a bad thing. I thought that it was a rather convincing portrayal of how a lot of young girls do actually think. Instead of judging it - I do think that it is stupid and wrong and that idealising love like this can only lead to bad things - I saw it as a true and accurate document of a certain type of thought pattern. Meyer doesn't condone Bella's mode of thinking, she just channels it. Now I can't for one minute stomach the idea that real people would actually think how Bella does. And as a person, I don't much like listening to her thoughts. But it is a realistic portrayal, and that ought to be given some credit.

I'm struggling to think of positive points, can you tell? In all honesty, I've tried and tried and can't find the words to say what made the Twilight series enjoyable for me. I just don't know. By rights I ought to dislike it, given my age, my experience with reading, my sex, my history of cynicism, and the fact that the book is about horrible people and is in large part written horribly. And yet for some reason, I was compelled to read more and more, and overall, on balance, I enjoyed it. I haven't said much to justify that - I've spent far longer in this blog talking about reasons to dislike Twilight than I have talking about why I did like it. That's because I haven't worked out why I like it. But hey, if I could rationalise all my emotions, where would be the fun in that?

On an almost entirely unrelated note, I can quite easily rationalise my emotions about the subject of crying on screen. In 95% of cases when an actor has to cry on screen and they don't actually cry themselves, they are given a little eyedrop just before they start, which then rolls down from their eye. So far so good, there's nothing wrong with that. The problem is that it rolls down from the centre of their eye. This is only a little detail, I know, but bear with me. This is WRONG. This is so, so wrong. Tears come from the tear duct in the medial corner of the eye (closest to the nose), unless they are flooding from the eye, in which case they come from the entire eye. But if one single solitary tear comes down the face, it is never from the middle of the eye unless there is a major problem with the person's anatomy. The only case that I can think of in which this is possibly excusable is The Two Towers, in which Arwen is shown crying a single tear from the middle of her eye. Maybe elfin anatomy is subtly different and they do cry from the middle. Or maybe they just got it wrong. You know what? I think they got it wrong.

is just a little thing but it irritates me intensely. Because it's such a little thing, it could be fixed with literally no effort - putting the eyedrop in the corner - and it's hardly specialist knowledge. But no, people still insist on doing it wrong. You would have thought that on a big set like Lord of the Rings which must have had literally tens of thousands of people involved in the production, including medical doctors to look after the cast and crew and extras, that someone would have pointed this out. Apparently not. It's not even as if it looks any better - it doesn't. It looks worse because we know it's fake and wrong. I swear, any TV programme or film you watch which next has a crying scene - look closely. I almost guarantee that they'll do it wrong. It's such a small thing, so you could say that it's not worth getting upset over, but equally you could say that it seems absurd, ridiculous, beyond belief that no one has made a stand and done something about this. It's NOT DIFFICULT. All it would need is one memo to go out to every director, every actor, everyone involved with any form of professional acting, saying "People do not cry from the middle of the eye! Now sort yourselves out!". But who could send such a memo?

Perhaps "abolishing crying on screen from the middle of the eye" should be one of the central points on my manifesto for becoming Supreme Ruler of the Universe.

Monday, 11 October 2010

The life of David Kelly

The sad story of David Kelly is now seven years old, and yet still reappears in the papers every now and again. I think it is because people have a predisposition towards conspiracy theorising. Not everyone, but a lot of us naturally do. Grow up - Jews don't run everything (if they did everything would probably be a darn sight better organised than it is now!), Diana wasn't killed by the Royal Family (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uoZ71sj3Kn0), or by aliens, and David Kelly was not murdered.

One of the saddest parts of his story for me is that, whenever discussing his fate, the conversation turns to whether he was murdered or not. Tunnel vision. What people should be asking is, why did this man commit suicide? I don't pretend to know all the facts and all the details but, after having followed this case very carefully, I can present my version of the truth.

David was a very kindly man, always humble, while emanating erudition from every pore at the same time. I met him several times as part of the South Oxfordshire Baha'i community, but I was rather young; the one time that I remember clearly, he was visiting our house for dinner, and ended up sharing some stories about his time in Iraq. I was fascinated; this man has been there and done it, he has seen it all. His position as a government scientist working in Porton Down at Salisbury was equivalent, in military terms, to a brigadier - very senior indeed. He was fifty-nine years old at the time that the storm erupted in 2003 - months away from retirement.

David, as a civil servant, prized qualities such as impartiality and especially integrity right at the top of his priorities. However, as anyone who has watched "The Thick Of It" or "Yes, Minister" knows, civil servants have layers upon layers upon layers of rules to follow. If summed up succinctly, part of David's job, his contract, was to talk to the press and to tell them what he was up to and what his job entailed. And yet there are various rules which amount to, in essence, "don't tell the press anything". So he was already under a conflict of interest at the time that he talked to Andrew Gilligan. Gilligan then embellished what David said in the interview. David had told my family on one of the occasions we met that it was his usual practice to enter into a trusting working partnership with journalists. He would not divulge secrets, but he would be prepared to give background information, in return for similar leads from the journalists themselves. This was part of his job as an arms inspector. Unfortunately, in Gilligan, he trusted the wrong man.

The content of Gilligan's subsequent article inflamed the nation, naturally - a "sexed-up dossier"? Of course it would. And now it all went horribly wrong. David Kelly was hauled up in front of a Parliamentary committee and treated utterly abominably, with none of the respect that befitted his station, and with downright contempt and aggression from some parties. In this meeting, it seems that David had been coached to be evasive in his answers. He had been "prepped" with a phrase - when they asked him "did you make these comments to Susan Watts?", he was to say "I do not think that is the kind of thing I would have said", or "That doesn't sound like something that I would have said". An evasive non-answer, which is ironically the kind of thing that David, under normal circumstances, would never have said. When asked about the interview with Susan Watts David was forced to say "I find it very difficult. It does not sound like my expression of words. It does not sound like a quote from me". Stilted, unnatural, and as was plain to anyone who knew him, clearly not David Kelly's own choice of words.

Richard Ottaway, one of the questioning MPs, came back to this question later on and asked David for a clarification - for a "yes or no" answer. David was forced to say "no", that he didn't say those things to Susan Watts, and on the video of the enquiry, you can see that this is the moment where he breaks inside. He has been forced, against his own wishes, to be evasive and eventually dishonest, not for his own sake, but because these are the instructions that have been given him by those that he works for, to save the government's face. Another conflict of interest. Gilligan was the Judas in all of this; he gave David's name to Ottaway via email, and moreover, told him what question to ask such that David wouldn't be able to wriggle. Some kindness to the man who gave him the story of a lifetime, to break the trust which David had placed in him, and then to sell him out.

David's integrity was totally broken, and his self-esteem. He had been placed under unimaginable strain; as an intensely private man, to be placed under the national spotlight was terrifying. He had fallen on the wrong side of two conflicts of interest - firstly, having to juggle how much he told the media, and secondly, I believe, being instructed to answer questions evasively by one governmental department, in front of a Parliamentary committee, on international television.

No wonder, then, that he had reason and motive enough to commit suicide. The things that mattered to him - his privacy, and his integrity - were gone, because of choosing to trust the wrong journalist with sensitive information. Gilligan was only ever interested in himself and his story, and didn't give a damn about David, as evidenced by the fact that he was quite happy to give David's name to the Committee and then tell them what questions they needed to ask him to really needle him.

I've been thinking about this because I've been rewatching the excellent 3rd series of Torchwood ("Children of Earth"), in which Peter Capaldi plays John Frobisher to perfection, a civil servant, a nobody, who is suddenly called upon to deal with an international crisis - alien invasion. He is chosen because he's been doing his job well for thirty years, anonymously; he is unimportant - dispensable - a fall guy. He is forced to lie and to take actions against his morals in order to cover up for his government's past actions. And finally, he takes his own life in response to the strain, after having been placed in an impossible position by people who didn't care about him and were using him. Torchwood Children of Earth is highly recommended.

When remembering David Kelly, do not lower your voices and whisper about government conspiracies and ulnar arteries. Remember a man of humbleness, erudition, faith, intellect and most of all integrity, who was forced to compromise that integrity when he was placed in the position of the scapegoat by a hack who wanted a story and a government who were trying to save face. None of the parties involved cared about David as a person; only self-interest was thought of. He was a good man and he deserves to be remembered as such - not as a political pawn, but as a human being who was torn in too many different directions.

Whenever I say the Baha'i prayer for the departed, I remember David Kelly.

"O my God! O Thou forgiver of sins, bestower of gifts, dispeller of afflictions!

Verily, I beseech thee to forgive the sins of such as have abandoned the physical garment and have ascended to the spiritual world.

O my Lord! Purify them from trespasses, dispel their sorrows, and change their darkness into light. Cause them to enter the garden of happiness, cleanse them with the most pure water, and grant them to behold Thy splendors on the loftiest mount."

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Oh, but...

But but but! There is so much more to say!

Some things are difficult - films, music, books, art. And at the end you have to decide if it was worth the effort. I invested a huge effort to get through Moby Dick and it really wasn't worth it. I invested no effort at all to get through The Lost Symbol, and it still wasn't worth it (except for that one line). But then I had to make a huge effort to force myself through The Lord of the Rings, and ended up really enjoying it. It was worth it... in the end, although it didn't feel like it would be worth it as I trudged through Tom Bombadil's chapters.

And there are some things which you just won't get at all unless you have specialist knowledge. I mean, you can try to read Finnegans Wake or The Wasteland, without knowledge of all sorts of classical and literary allusions, but they won't make any sense and you won't get that much out of them. You have to have a baseline level of knowledge to appreciate them. The same is true, I think, of a lot of modern art. Having been to the Tate Modern recently, it struck me that every single work of art in there has a sign which doesn't just name the work of art and the artist - it gives an explanation. You don't see explanations of Michaelangelo, or 18th century Dutch still-lifes. They don't need it. You can appreciate them right then and there. But modern art - unless you yourself have done an art A-level - is mostly inaccessible to the layperson.

Are there any forms of music which are inaccessible to laypeople? Yes, I would argue that a lot of modern music (I'm thinking of serialism here...) are not accessible until you've studied them. Pretty much everyone that I know who appreciates serialism (I use the word "appreciate", not "enjoy", carefully), is a someone who has studied it at A-level or at university. In a way, I envy them - through studying it, they have opened up a field of enjoyment that is currently a mystery to me. On the other hand, I'm very happy not appreciating serialism, and griping about it instead. Stupid atonal crap.

Some pieces of music, art or literature are immediately accessible - they have something that speaks directly to the soul. And some require a little more work. And you can't tell whether it's "worth it" or not to do all the necessary research, until you've actually done it. And at the end of it all, you might find that you still can't stand it! (Like Moby Dick).

Myself, I'm quite happy in a state of ignorance, not appreciating (most) modern art, and intensely disliking serialism. I know that I could learn to love these things if I studied them - hey, I hated The Great Gatsby the first time I read it, and then I did it for A-level and fell in love with it. But is it worth all the effort? Quite frankly, probably not. I don't have the time, and besides, there's plenty of good art and music in the world without me having to put in a huge effort. There are slight double standards here - I am prepared to put in work to start enjoying a rock album - as I said before, it took ages to get into OK Computer and Automatic for the People, and they were definitely worth it. But hey, when is anyone ever fully 100% rational?

Having reached the end of this blog post... I have realised that I have no conclusion, and no idea what my central thesis was. I think basically, what I'm trying to say is, modern art and serialism and Moby Dick are all rubbish. And you probably could get to like them if you could be bothered to become familiar enough with them. But the blood, sweat, tears and toil involved in the process would not justify the dubious end result of enjoying these things.

Besides, I have loads of fun when I go to the Tate Modern. Arty people who somehow inexplicably understand the incomprehensible pretentious slagheaps offered up as "art" go and stand and think "Hmmm, the artist has used this pile of sheep's entrails to counterpoint the giant papier-mache representation of Robert MacNamara's right earlobe in a most capricious manner; how piquant", and then they give themselves a mental pat on the back and feel vastly superior to all of the tourists and lesser folk who have just come in because it's free, and warm, and who are mostly standing around with slightly glazed expressions, possibly with drool dripping from one corner of their mouths. I go and I stand and I point and I laugh, and I bet you I enjoy it more than the arty types do. So yeah, I'm very happy not having a clue what it's all about. Ignorance is bliss.