Thursday, 19 November 2009

The good ship censor

There's panic at the BBC (where I work, I should disclose), and strangely it's not about the fact that the tory press are trying to brainwash the masses into closing down the last great global British institution, or at least "scaling back" its activities to "core broadcasting".

The fretting is over the potential for offence to be taken by the letter-to-Ofcom-writing, Daily-Mail-reading, rotting underlay that treads amongst a worryingly large portion of British society.

As a result of this preoccupation, "compliance" departments in the Beeb have been tightened up to such an extent that producers are worried about whether they can film in biscuit factories for fear of offending someone with the phrase "chocolate hobnob".

Now, there's a danger here that I could start sounding like the "it's political correctness gawn mad" brigade, so let me be clear that I think censorship is perfectly justified where real offence may be taken, and especially where there is potential for inciting hatred towards a minority.

But the recent climate of fear at the Beeb is not simply about a liberal tendency for political correctness. It has been born out of, amongst other things, the Sachsgate affair last year. What a shame that what was essentially a childish prank by two talented but over-confident comedians, stupidly left unedited on a radio show, should lead to what may be the end of the truly 'risqué' British comedy for which Britain is loved. Where would Monty Python be if the dead parrot sketch had been censored for trivialising the death of an animal?

Some of the best British humour comes close to breaching what Rob Newman would call the "hymen of respectability", and that's a risk we just have to take if creativity is to thrive in our land. When, on Mock the Week, Frankie Boyle was asked to think of things the Queen is least likely to say, I laughed out loud at his suggestion of "I'm so old my pussy is haunted". So what if some old lady was offended? She shouldn't have been watching Mock the Week in the first place.

On the other hand, I didn't laugh when Jeremy Clarkson said on Top Gear that lorry drivers have a hard job "driving and murdering prostitutes", referring to the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe. But that's because what he said is clearly not funny. I'm not so worried that it maliciously stereotypes a section of society and hints at a snobbish distaste of working class men. It's just that, along with his lack of talent, style and sense of self, in my view Jeremy Clarkson just isn't funny.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, so I'll just leave you with another borderline offensive joke which might not have made it on television today due to this year's BBC compliance policy: Sue Barker interviewing Wales rugby union coach Mike Ruddock, "Obviously you will be hoping to successfully defend the Six Nations Championship with your star player Gavin Henson ... as long as you can keep him out of Church."

Friday, 7 August 2009


Dammit, music is the greatest thing on earth.

What a broad statement? Well, I don't care, I believe it's true. I couldn't live without music.

It has a magical quality that no amount of description or analysis will ever quite capture. Beethoven, Blur, Beyonce - it doesn't matter which era or genre - and I even include the most mind-numbing (unless you're on drugs - allegedly) 4:4 beat house music.

The enormity of the global reaction to Michael Jackson's death was not simply the result of the passing of a great personality - most of us will never really know what MJ was like as a person, and personally I don't want to, it would spoil the enigma. No - it was the legacy of his music that caused the reaction - people who had ignored Jacko for years because of his negatively portrayed image and personal life suddenly remembered what he did for pop music and realised that had lost something unique.

This, for example, recorded from the Motown 25th Anniversary concert has to be one of the coolest moments in modern pop music history:

But enough about Jacko. He was admitedly a bit wacko, but it seems his legacy will, after all, be his music, and that's got to be a good thing.

The point I was making, to the extent that I had a point (it's the end of a hard week - I may just be rambling) is that music is essential. It has energy, and there's something divine about it. I mean, try asking yourself why certain notes sounds good together - why does harmony work? Why is rhythm rhythmical? It's a bit like design theory - an affirmation of the existence of some higher force, some order in the chaos.

But whilst I am certain that music is divine, I'm still not sure which divine being I believe in, so until I work that out, I'll just worship music ;-)

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Raison d'être

Yesterday I walked past a fellow employee of the BBC who couldn't walk properly on one leg. I think his leg was deformed, and he looked in terrible pain with every step. It made me realise, quite unusually for early in the morning, that I am a very lucky man. Lucky to have the privileged and relatively luxurious life that I have.

Yet despite realising I'm lucky to have this life, lately I have been both consciously and sub-consciously questioning the point of living. This is quite natural for someone who has recently experienced the death of someone they loved, but nonetheless it's a question to which I have to find an answer in order to go on, as must we all at some point.

I don't mean I'm suicidal, or ever have been. But when life is unimaginably cruel, you lose the sense of raison d'être that you once took for granted and the banality of every-day life becomes more stark than ever, contrasted against the drama and uniqueness of such a tragedy. I suppose you could call it perspective, but it seems to be more vivid than the fleeting kind of perspective one gets when life seems full of possibilities over a pint or two.

So how do I answer that inner monologue that poses the question, over and over. What's the point? Why bother? You're going to die anyway and your chances of being etched into the history books of the world as a rich, famous or saintly figure are pretty small, and even if it happened, you'd still be too dead to appreciate it.

My favourite answer is the one advocated by most of the world's main religions - the point of life is to live for others and to improve their lives. But imagine if "others" similarly perceived the futility of life and were themselves living only for others. Would it work if everyone was just living for the benefit of other people? Maybe, because at least everyone would have a reason for living. And in the end, living for others is to some extent a self-satisfying act (and therefore could be simultaneously an act of 'living for yourself').

If you're not satisfied with the 'living for others' approach, you might find, as I do, that Regret is a fairly robust motivator for living. I give it a capital 'R' to distinguish it from the kind of passive, ruminating regret that leaves you spending your days wishing you could turn back time. I don't mean that kind of regret, but rather the anticipatory Regret you feel about not fulfilling your potential, or experiencing enough of what the world has to offer. If that doesn't give you the will to live, then I reckon nothing will, because anyone who could ignore Regret is ignoring the fact that, as the humanist celebrant at Claire's funeral pointed out: we only get one chance at life, and it's our duty to make the best of it.

Monday, 11 May 2009


The press is obsessed with the latest revelations that - surprise surprise, Westminster MPs are (ab)using their privileges to claim taxpayers' money for expenses which, although "within the rules", they probably shouldn't be claiming on moral grounds.

Whilst the constant coverage of this topic bores me to tears, the subject of morality in politics is an interesting one.

I went to see a series of short plays at the weekend called "The Great Game", which was about the history of the "War in Afghanistan" up to the present day. I have to admit that I was not up to date at all on the situation in Afghanistan - the whole subject had become a bit like Iraq for me, i.e. a series of repetitively negative news stories that I felt it best to, at least partially, ignore in order to preserve my peace of mind.

The play was really engaging and it became clear that morality is the central issue in the Afghanistan story, impossible to sidestep, however inconvenient it may be. It seems clearcut that it would be 'immoral' to withdraw military presence in Afghanistan while the (morally corrupt) Taliban controls about 50% of the country. But at the same time, each soldier has to justify morally his reasons for going back on tour after tour of duty, while his loved ones live in constant fear. 

And it is more complicated when there is more than one moral viewpoint around the same question - e.g. is it 'moral' to destroy Afghan poppy fields to prevent opium production or would it be better to encourage the fields to grow if it can be guaranteed that the resulting wealth will mean improvements to the poor living standards of ordinary Afghan villagers? Perhaps if the moral issues had been considered a long time ago, such dilemmas wouldn't exist in the first place and the focus of the world's attention would be elsewhere.

The MPs expenses question is so much simpler - there is no question that it is morally wrong to abuse taxpayers' money. But there is also a wider moral point to be made about the reporting of such revelations - for example, does the press have a moral obligation to include some coverage of positive work done by the government or by MPs, even if they fear they won't sell as many papers? Is it the role of the press to scrutinise parliament only in a negative way? Does the press not have a moral duty to focus the collective consciousness on positive developments, especially in times of economic gloom? And anyway, who is scrunitising the moral practices of the press? Is it 'moral' for the Daily Mail to encourage a "them vs us" mentality towards ethnic minorities in the UK? And what about the Daily Telegraph hosting a blog by a BNP councillor, in which he gets to rant about how opposing the incitement of hatred towards immigrants is "political correctness". Is that not morally represensible and in need of scrutiny?

Personally, I'm glad that the media has pressurised Westminster into improving its MPs expenses policy - but I'd really like the press to take some moral responsibility by telling us about something good for a change. There is a lot of good work being done by MPs that we never hear about, unless we are geeky enough to watch BBC Parliament or read Hansard. And maybe if the public were focussed on positive issues, the answers to moral questions in quagmires like Afghanistan and Iraq would appear more obvious - in the absence of gloom, there is more clarity and mistakes can perhaps be more easily avoided from the outset.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Everything has a beginning

How do you begin a blog? I'm not even sure if I'll ever tell anyone about this blog, so it probably doesn't matter how I start. Hmm. It looks like I've started anyway, so maybe I did know how to begin after all.

I plan to just write what's on my mind, and eventually I might develop some sort of theme and structure. But for now, it'll be ramblings, but hopefully reasonably interesting ones. And if not, you can always just stop reading.

If you're still with's a sunny Sunday and I'm going to Claire's grave in Highgate in about an hour with her friend, Sara. I'm not really sure if it will have a positive or negative effect on my state of mind, but it feels right to go there, so I am. 

Claire died on 12th February 2009, almost 3 months ago. We were only together for 5 months, though we fitted together so well, it felt like we'd known each other for years and years. Claire would have relished a Sunday like this. She told me she rediscovered the joy of Lazy Sundays after we met. As a result, Sundays now feel to me less like melancholic precursors to Mondays, and more like a twenty-four hour pool of possibilities. 

I'm going to take a poem I recently found and read it at her grave. It's called "Song" by Allen Ginsberg and here's an extract:

The weight of the world
             is love
Under the burden
            of solitude
Under the burden
             of dissatisfaction

        The weight
the weight we carry 
         is love...

...No rest
               without love
no sleep
             without dreams
of love - 
           be mad or chill
obsessed with angels
              or machines,
the final wish
              is love
- cannot be bitter,
           cannot deny,
cannot withhold 
             if denied:

the weight is too heavy

                     - must give
for no return
            as thought
is given
            in solitude
in all the excellence
              of its excess.