Friday, March 30, 2007

An Armand a leg(end)

Although the Armando Iannucci Shows first appeared six years ago, one particular sketch of his stuck in my head the whole time. Salvadore from Smaller Than Life has awakened this dormant memory in my oft-confused brain with a hilarious series of posts. Read them, then watch Iannucci work his magic. Or vice versa, it doesn't really matter.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Lessons learned from... Moliere

Always write from experience.

Flat out

Me and Sarah are moving in together. It's great! But first we need to find somewhere to move to, and in this great and fraught city, that's no easy cabbages.

The whole thing's made harder by the fact that when it comes down to it, we really don't know where to live. Here are the criteria:

  • Must be in London (yes, that rules out Hill Valley)
  • Should be in zone 1 or 2, in the vicinity of some kind of tube station (preferably a good one)
  • Can't be in Stockwell or Brixton
  • Travelling to both Paddington and Brixton must be manageable
  • Area should not resemble hell, but nor should it resemble Mothercare

Oh, and yes, this will mean the end of the Stockwell Flats project. I'm sorry. It was just their time.

Any ideas?

* Update: We've found somewhere! It's in Kennington, which satisfies all the above criteria. Score!

I got five on it

It's the 10th birthday of the oft-ridiculed Channel 5 (aka Five) tomorrow. Fact fix: the first advertisement to appear on the channel was for the perfume Chanel No 5. Cunning, eh?

Let's Go See: 18 Doughty Street

[Originally published in Total Spec magazine, February 2007]

Welcome to Doughty Street: Politics on an internet rocket

In the depths of London's Bloomsbury, to the north of Chancery Lane, lies Doughty Street. It's one of those roads most of us can't imagine living on without an unlikely change of career, large inheritance or lucky lottery ticket, lined as it is with stately Georgian terraces which stretch out symmetrically into the distance. There are, naturally, iron railings all over the place and at number 48 sits Charles Dickens's only surviving London home, now a museum.

I wander further up the street and get to number 18. It's a bit hidden by scaffolding, but behind that imposing black door something rather interesting is going on. For, over the last few months, 18 Doughty Street has not just been an address, or a number on a door: it's the name of an internet-only political TV channel. Go to their website between 7pm to 12am on Mondays to Thursdays and you can watch a range of live and pre-recorded discussion programmes about everything politics. Launched in October last year, it's financed by YouGov founder Stephan Shakespeare and run by a small group of intrepid right-of-centre politicos who seem to be making the whole thing up as they go along.

But for what is, compared to the likes of the BBC or Channel 4, a low-key operation, the channel has been known to get in some prestigious guests, albeit of the kind not so often seen in the mainstream media. The launch show featured an exclusive interview with Australian PM John Howard, followed by a discussion with Ian Duncan Smith and Australian High Commissioner Richard Altston. Since then, 18 Doughty Street has had visits from Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, UKIP leader Nigel Farage, Conservative Party Chairman Francis Maude, MPs Mark Oaten, Ann Widdecombe, Stephen Twigg, and so on.

Not everything will be to everyone's taste - "I've never really watched [news discussion programme] Up Front," admits one guest, and "I avoid the tax programme – it's a kind of Tory tic," says one of the channel's presenters - but watch an evening of programmes and you get the impression that the whole point of 18 Doughty Street is that all opinions are welcome. Although there are no pretensions of impartiality (this is internet TV, so it's not regulated by Ofcom), the station is aiming to be about discussion, not indoctrination. "We're not seeking to ram propaganda down people's throats, we want to make people think," says one of the channel's lynchpins, Iain Dale.

Dale's background shows him to be something of a jack of all trades, as long as the trades in question involve politics (and often Conservatism). As well as numerous appearances on television and radio as a pundit, he founded political bookshop and publishers Politicos, has edited 14 books on politics, and his rather excellent blog is one of the most popular of its kind in the UK. There's also a few things he's probably less keen to shout about: standing in the May 2005 general election and losing to Lib Dem; working as David Davies's chief of staff in the MP's unsuccessful Conservative Party leadership campaign. But, hey, that's politics, right?

Now Dale is one of the four directors of 18 Doughty Street; the others being Stephan Shakespeare, Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome website and the Conservative Christian Fellowship, and Donal Blaney, who is CEO of the Young Britons' Foundation. If that wasn't enough, Dale is, unofficially, the channel's chief presenter, garnering more air-time than anyone else (he's trying to cut down: "from a viewer's point of view, you want more variety than that," he says). He's new to presenting – "I absolutely love it" – but wasn't the only one who's had to learn the ropes.

"None of us had been involved in television before and we've got no professional production staff," he says. There were, he adds, two people on the staff who had worked on TV documentaries, and the team, with their scant knowledge, found themselves having to bow to their whims. This was not good. "We kept coming up with ideas, and they'd come up with 20 reasons why we couldn't do them, which proved to be very wearing," he says. "Eventually we got rid of both of them." Free from the shackles of convention, they were free to experiment.

The channel's willingness to try to do things differently from the traditional media outlets is one of its main selling points. But in its current incarnation, a factor that seems even most integral to its identity is the freedom of time. Dale cites the channel's coverage of the US mid-terms as a key example: they broadcast for six hours starting at 8pm and analysing the exit polls before the BBC did (where coverage started at 12am). Oh, and this was only three weeks after Doughty Street had launched.

The looseness of time constraints is a crucial factor in day-to-day programming too: "If we have a politician on to be interviewed for an hour, they can't just come out with a two-minute soundbite, because they've got to fill 58 more minutes," says Dale. "In that time, they're bound to say something that’s different from what they'd say in a three-minute interview on the Today programme."

"In the mainstream media you can't even have a half-hour discussion on one subject with one person because they think their audiences have got the attention span of a flea," he adds. "The number of times you hear an interviewer saying on Radio 4, "I'm sorry, but that's all we've got time for," just as the interview has got going – it's incredibly frustrating."

It's this willingness to give politicians and pundits time to breathe that suggests the channel is about taking politics seriously – backed up by their slogan "Politics for adults". But because of the political position of the founders, another slogan which has inevitably come their way is the no less snappy "Tory TV". Dale disputes that Doughty Street is a centre-right propaganda tool, mentioning the left-of-centre guests who have appeared and adding that the Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs who have been interviewed are perfectly comfortable with the station's stance. However, he doesn't deny that when interviewing someone, he won't pretend to be impartial or shy away from getting his own views across.

One regular show on the schedule is Claire Fox News, which aims to look at "what's really going on behind the headlines". Fox is now head of think tank the Institute of Ideas (IoI), a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and once co-publisher of the now defunct Living Marxism magazine. In short, she's a long way from your traditional old-school Conservative. Did she have reservations about collaborating with Dale and co? "I've long since given up caring what people can work out by association," she says. "I'm much more interested in people listening to what I've got to say and what the people on my programme have got to say."

Fox says she doesn't see 18 Doughty Street as a challenge to conventional television, but does see a gap in the market left by broadcasters trying to sidestep serious discussion. "There is a tendency in the media to reduce things to a black and white argument," she says. "There's an obsession in contemporary media circles, particularly in relation to current affairs and politics, with trying to sex it up using rather superficial tricks, whereas I think these issues are interesting enough in themselves – they should be trying to make things intellectually sexy, by allowing open discussion."

No stranger to controversy, Fox relishes the chance to get some more leftfield opinions out there. "In the mainstream media if you have a discussion on, say, environmentalism and you aim for impartiality by inviting all three main parties, they'd actually all say that they're greens. Because of that, there's no longer any sense of that debate really occurring. For a more impartial approach, I try to look around for people who are saying different things."

Dale agrees that one of the channel's plus points is the editorial freedom which allows it to bring together unlikely combinations of guests. "We had John Redwood and Andrew McKinley, a left-wing Labour MP on recently," he says. "It's a combination that most programmes wouldn't even think of having. But it was fantastic, they both found that they actually agreed on a lot of things, which you would never have expected."

***

Step inside 18 Doughty Street itself, and, passing a brightly-lit brand new office on the left, you're faced with flaking and cracked pink-tinted paperless walls, and some rickety-looking stairs heading upwards to some rooms which look like they've only just been built, and which wouldn't look out of place in a haunted house. Dale apologies – "the builders are in" – and, not unreasonably, seems keen to hurry us through. We head downstairs, past an unlit "on air" light, and suddenly, we're in what feels more like the real 18 Doughty Street – the studio.

Under hot bright lights, five cameras surround a Good Morning-like pair of sofas, a brown globe, a shelf of political biographies. On one of the tables, there's a laptop, with the 18 Doughty Street logo printed out on A4 and sellotaped to the back. It's a funny combination of the technological and the makeshift, and seems to aptly symbolise the whole operation.

That laptop, usually situated to the right of whoever's presenting that night, brings with it another interesting aspect of the channel. As well as viewers being able to comment on the programmes via the website, they can also add the channel to their Windows Messenger contacts, and so are able send their questions and viewpoints via instant message to presenters while they're live on air. It emphasises the democratic and conversational aspect of the channel and seems far more satisfying and instant than emailing or texting in.

"We may have a small audience, but it's a very interactive one," says Dale, who came up with the instant message idea in the studio, set it up himself, and announced the plan on air. Within a few minutes people had signed up. "If I dry up, there will always be something there that I can latch onto. You can always tell when you're doing something interesting, because that's when the orange message boxes start lighting up."

As interactivity goes, it sure beats 'pressing your red button now'. However, Claire Fox is not so convinced. "That's not an innovation for Doughty Street," she says. "Every time I turn on the BBC, they'll be saying 'we've got an email from Joe in Sunderland, he's got a great insight' or something. There's always a danger of that being patronising and trying to pretend that you connect."

"On the front page of the December issue of Time magazine, for their person of the year feature, they had a picture of a computer screen, which they did as a mirror. You look at it and you see yourself. It says 'You control the information age. Welcome to your world'. This is what's called an abdication of responsibility. It's absolutely ludicrous. I think that's one of the ways people fetishise new media - as bringing democratisation."

She's hit her flow now. "If Time can't give a lead in deciding on who the person of year is without overly flattering its readers by pretending it's us, there's something seriously wrong with the mainstream media. I don't want to emulate that kind of spineless, craven, chasing of the audience."

"I'm not opposed to audience interaction," she adds. "I just don't think that's what will make 18 Doughty Street successful. For me, it's a really stupid way of understanding what's important about an audience. Honouring an audience is giving them something that think about, that they're interested in, that challenges them."

Fair enough, but who is this audience, and why should they turn to 18 Doughty Street? "We're not catering for political geeks," says Dale. "We're catering for people who are fed up with the current affairs coverage on the BBC and other channels, which are being dumbed down to the extent where on Andrew Neil's programme on a Thursday night after Question Time, you have important issues being discussed with comedians. I'm sure comedians have views just as much as anyone, but to have a political programme where they don't have any politicians on seems utterly ridiculous to me."

"The aim, in the end, is to try and get people watching who aren't interested in politics at all, who are just put off it. At the moment, it is a small audience, we don't deny that, but we think as word travels about what we're trying to do, we really think that we've started something that could be quite powerful."

***

"Any gestures you want?" says Dale as he poses for the Total Spec photographer. "We're an on-demand service." Well, it's not quite there yet – at the time of writing, the channel still relies heavily on its audience tuning in to watch programmes streaming live, rather than choosing when to view a la YouTube. But there should be a new website live by the time you read this, and Dale hopes that technology that allows viewers to watch internet video on their television sets will begin to take off in 2007. And if it does, that scaffolding outside 18 Doughty Street will be down in no time.

At 6.55pm we break off our chat; at 7pm, Dale has to do a live two-minute piece to camera introducing the night's programmes. He wanders off to get a crib sheet; a make-up girl appears from nowhere; he sits back on the sofa as she starts dabbing at his face. She finishes and starts adjusting the camera – it looks like she's the camerawoman as well. Dale glances at the sheet of paper, is counted in, looks up, and begins to reel off the evening's programming. The week's viewing has begun.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Heads up

The Sun had yesterday's best headline:

Kamikaze goose destroys Skoda

Tempted to rename this blog The Kamikaze Goose. But probably won't.


*Update: just noticed the picture caption incorporates the pun "Gander-monium". Wow.

Experts + Opinions: David Chandler

[Originally published in Total Spec magazine, February 2007]

Foreign affairs & the desire to impose tolerance: David Chandler is having none of it

The University of Westminster's Professor of International Relations offers us a drink: "Coffee? Or some whisky?" We think David Chandler's joking about the booze, until we spy a large bottle of scotch sitting atop the filing cabinet in the corner of his office. He smokes roll-ups too. Cool.

Rock and roll lifestyle aside, Chandler's been teaching at Westminster for three and a half years now, and has published a rather fearsome line up of books: from his most recent Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-Building to 2002's Human Rights and International Intervention. His writing has asked questions such as: When is it right for countries to intervene abroad? How do we go about building states? Is the rise of human rights campaigning a good thing? That kind of stuff. And if that wasn't enough for you, in 2007, he'll be launching a journal called the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding.

Many would answer a question about their political inclinations with a two or three well-worn words, but Chandler aims for a bit more precision, calling his politics "a challenge to the new culture of bureaucracy and administration, in favour of rescuing a view of the political and our capacity to engage". So engage away, people.

LET'S START WITH IRAQ. THERE’S BEEN A LOT OF PRESSURE RECENTLY FOR BRITAIN AND THE US TO CHANGE THEIR FOREIGN POLICY. WILL THERE BE A RE-THINK?
It's a difficult one for Bush and Blair, because from the beginning of the invasion, there was always a reluctance to deal with the consequences. There was this idea that they weren't really fighting an enemy but were liberating the Iraqi people - it wasn't viewed as a traditional conflict. I think it was Simon Jenkins in The Times who said it wasn't so much occupation, more squatting; the main aim was to go there and come back and it wasn't clear what the goals were. That idea was reflected in the so-called handover of sovereignty in June 2004, which was obviously very artificial. So I don't think it's really right to see it as a change of strategy now; there wasn't really any real sense of commitment from the beginning.

DO YOU SEE THE COUNTRY'S FUTURE AS FAIRLY BLEAK?
It's always difficult to predict these things, but one thing that seems clear is that the society is fragmenting. To recreate a sense of collectivity, the people need to have some sense of ownership, some cause. Toppling the statue of Saddam, or his symbolic capture, or maybe even his symbolic execution, will be just that: purely symbolic. Such acts won't actually reflect the realities of the situation. What can be sold as a success in the West doesn't look like such a success if you're in Iraq and just shows how dangerous it can be to try to resolve other people's problems.

WOULD YOU SAY IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO IMPOSE DEMOCRACY ON OTHER COUNTRIES?
It's a controversial issue. I've argued for quite a few years that 'imposing democracy' is a contradiction in terms. Democracy by its very nature implies autonomy, self-organisation and self-government. Paddy Ashdown, who's now the high representative of the international community in Bosnia, recently argued that it was much better to impose the rule of law and provide a level playing field that way. In theory, people would then choose democracy once the safeguards were in place. But in my personal opinion, you can't impose the rule of law any more than you can impose democracy - law must consist of rules generated by consent. When a major power intervenes on the basis of protecting or liberating someone else's rights, as we saw in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, often it results in even more limitations on people's capacity, autonomy, democracy and self-determination. You can't liberate or empower other people, unfortunately.

DOES THAT MEAN INTERVENTION IS NEVER RIGHT?
I wouldn't say that. My main point is that interventions in the political sphere generally produce unintended consequences. External interference to try and promote 'the good guys' tends to skewer the political process, recreating divisions or institutionalising them. In Bosnia, for example, they banned some political parties and sacked certain politicians, but that didn't really solve the root problem. The point is, those parties and individuals were elected because they reflected something about the concerns or needs of the people in that society.

YOU ONCE WROTE: “TODAY IT APPEARS THAT EVERYONE IS AN INTERNATIONALIST”. IS THE INCREASING NUMBER OF VOICES CAPABLE OF HAVING A SAY IN WORLD AFFAIRS A GOOD THING?
We have this sense that NGOs and human rights groups are good, because they seem to be less connected to power and interests, but it's unsafe to give legitimacy and credibility to groups which have got nothing at stake in the process. As much as we might want to criticise traditional policy-making that's based on interests, at least it's forced to engage with the societies it's dealing with.

YOU’VE ALSO WRITTEN ABOUT A NEW SENSE WE HAVE OF MORAL OBLIGATIONS TOWARDS INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY. IS THAT WHAT'S DRAWING US TOWARDS WORLD AFFAIRS THESE DAYS?
One of the reasons that we're drawn to the international sphere is unfortunately a negative one: a sense of alienation from our domestic society. Our own society appears to be oppressing us: the fact that we have to win arguments, be elected and then be held to account seems to restrict our political possibilities. But the global sphere looks like it offers us freedom where we can act as individuals, as a place where you're not required to build a collective movement or be affiliated to one party. You're never really held to account because you can always blame the failure of your aspirations on America, or on the UN, or on politicians in Africa. So you're basically picking and choosing your causes to create an identity for yourself.

In the past, there was a sense that if we actually wanted to change things, we had to do it collectively, which involved respecting and engaging with other people. I'm not saying that people who are involved in global issues and global politics aren't genuine and serious – but it's just much easier to do now as an individual. It seems that engaging with other people is something that's oppressive to us rather than liberating.

SO PEOPLE ARE ENGAGING WITH INTERNATIONAL POLITICS AS A WAY OF FORGING AN IDENTITY?
Some people are still interested in proper intellectual discussion, but for many, it's like saying: "I'm anti-war, I'm not to blame" – it's not a spur to collectively get engaged, to try and change the world, it's more like saying "stop the world, I want to get off". I see that as being anti-politics. In a way it's misanthropic: it's saying "my fellow human beings are scum, I don't really want to get involved with them".

The whole idea of awareness is interesting. In their campaigning, people's aim is to make others aware, or demonstrate that they themselves are aware. But what does awareness mean? It's not about actually changing something, it's just about saying "I'm better than you because I'm aware of poverty", or whatever the issue is. If you ask my students what theories they support, their answers are to do with their self-portrayal, rather than how they understand international affairs. People are more focused on their own identities than finding out about and changing other people's views and the world itself.

With Iraq, the neo-cons didn't win the arguments domestically and failed to reassert a sense of American identity at home, so they attempted to recreate one in the Middle East through intervention and war. I think we can see the same with the UN and its desire to send in its peacekeepers. It’s supposed to be a sign of how much we care about people – we want to send troops and make a statement of our commitment – but really it's a superficial act that says more about us than anything else. That's the worst aspect of what's called ethical foreign policy. It's a peculiar and twisted situation.

ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT THE FUTURE OF WORLD AFFAIRS?
It seems that international affairs are becoming increasingly central to the way that we see and understand ourselves and even the way that domestic politics plays out. Much as we might criticise previous projections of power abroad based on interests, at least there was a framework to constrain the more irrational aspects of policy. Today, we have an anti-foreign policy, one which gives us the freedom to talk about ourselves and our values. As the international sphere increasingly becomes a place where we can attempt to construct or create an identity, the more irrational and destabilised it will be. So I guess I'm pessimistic.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Bandinage

It's quiz time on the Electric Goose today. Below are nine bands which feature famous people, including one odd one out. Get to work!

  • Thunderbox
  • The Ugly Rumours
  • The Waiting Room
  • Scarlet Division
  • Rust
  • 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts
  • Dogstar
  • Foregone Conclusion
  • 30 Seconds to Mars

Only human Bondage

Just finished reading Casino Royale. It's the first Ian Fleming book I've read and seems strange when all you know are the film adaptations/reinventions. For a start, there's James Bond's old-fashioned chauvinism, softened in the movies into charming roguish womanising. When 007 hears his Number Two will be Vesper Lynd - a woman! - his reaction is parodically dismissive:

And then there was this pest of a girl. He sighed. Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. One had to look out for them and take care of them.


Also interesting is Bond's extravagance; he comes across as something of a show-off. Remember, the book is set in the post-war years, a time when the kind of stuff Bond's pouring into his smug mouth was beyond the reach of all but the most privileged:

"The trouble always is," he explained to Vesper, "not how to get enough caviar, but how to get enough toast with it."
"Now," he turned back to the menu, "I myself will accompany Mademoiselle with the caviar, but then I would like a very small tournedos, underdone, with sauce Bearnaise and a couer d'artichaut. While Mademoiselle is enjoying the strawberries, I will have half an avocado pear with a little French dressing. Do you approve?"


Later the British spy orders what was to become his trademark drink: a dry martini. But this one features "three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet". The mixer? "A large thin slice of lemon-peel". Bond tells CIA man Felix Leiter that he hates small portions of anything (a statement backed up by a moment in the book when we discover that Bond's cigarette is his seventieth of the day!) and, sounding more like a schoolboy (Jennings springs to mind) than anything else, adds boastfully:

"This drink's my own invention. I'm going to patent it when I can think of a good name."


But in places, Casino Royale's just plain old-fashioned, in language and attitudes. It is of course incredibly immature to find the following passage funny. But it just is:

"I do believe I'm tight," she said, "how disgraceful. Please, James, don't be ashamed of me. I did so want to be gay. And I am gay."


Despite all of the above, it is, of course, a cracking read.

Wood for the trees

Interesting article which my Dad sent me in the post… Entitled "Green bullets", it appeared in the magazine of Tearfund, a Christian aid organisation. An extract:

Leading arms manufacturer BAE Systems is designing a new generation of "green munitions" including "lead-free" bullets. BAE also wants to cut toxins in its jets, fighting vehicles and rocket artillery, which it warns "can harm the environment and pose a risk to people".

Friday, March 23, 2007

Watch out

Got to do something a bit different at work today: a piece for the TV section. If you're staying in over the weekend, you'd be wise to read it. Click here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Pun of the week

Congratulations to this week's puntastic winner, The Sun, who reacted to Freddie Flintoff's drunken disgrace and subsequent apology with an astounding headline:

Contrite said Fred

Backdating

You'll notice that I've backdated the Moscow posts below, altering the post times so it looks like I posted them on the days they happened. I think we both know that this was not the case. I know this is wrong, and I wish to God it were otherwise. However, after much soul-searching I have gone ahead thusly, for the sake of simplicity and convenience. Dear readers, please accept my sincere apologies for bringing the internet into disrepute.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Day 10: Off and Onegin

Signing off, the Pole truth

Goodbye, Moscow. I'm going to miss your angry-looking Cyrillic signs.

VVTs: cyrillic sign
Metallo Remont! Soomok Zontov!

I get my last Moscow metro to Paveletskaya station. Tears are shed.

Train, Paveletskaya station
I've said it once, I'll say it again: I am Andreas Gursky

Train, flight, Zurich, flight, tube. As I arrive at Stockwell, I almost expect to see the bleeding Polish man and middle-aged woman wandering around in a daze. But alas, they, like my holiday, are gone.

Mockba

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Day 9: "MosSoviet is the master!"

By Georgia, Gorky blimey, culture potato, Arcade fuck off

Jamie has now departed, so I’m left picking up the pieces of stuff we didn’t have time to do. Me and Tadich visit the Starlite Diner. Tadich tells me that round the corner some highly unpleasant guy he knows is having lunch with the ousted President of Georgia's granddaughter. "One time, I saw her open her handbag, and it was full of hundred-dollar bills," says Tadich.

***

We go to Maxim Gorky's house, the Ryabushinsky Mansion, given to the writer by the state in 1931. The Gorkster, as he was known to friends, was a bit reluctant to accept the honour, thinking that living in a whopping great mansion might tarnish his "proletarian" image a bit. When one guest toasted "the master of the house", Gorky went mental and shouted, "Do not call me master! I am not the master of this house! MosSoviet is the master!"

***

A trip to Moscow's premier pirate DVD market follows, then we go to a classical music concert, which features a piano trio playing works by Schumann, Schubert and Brahms. Then we get baked potatoes from a kiosk and eat them on the street.

***

I get home and realise that the Arcade Fire gig that I had a ticket for is, at this exact moment, about to start back in London. In tribute, Tadich puts on their first album. He makes sure the tracks are randomly shuffled too, so it's exactly like being there.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Day 8, Moscow: Feeling Rough

Coincidences, dead souls, bloody Ellingham, tat, Sauna Blues

Wake at 9.30 and, as the boys are still asleep, decide to get some serious holiday reading done, as I’d only got through one book so far – Philip Roth’s The Counterlife. Manage to get through 125 pages of Haruki Murukami’s A Wild Sheep Chase before Jamie had got out of bed. I WIN. This is my seventh Murukami, which is weird, as The Counterlife was also the seventh book I’ve read by Roth. Also weird: when I was on holiday in Morocco last year, I read novels by Murukami and Roth as well. Also also weird: these novels seem about as non-Russian as you can get, and yet the former namechecks Dostoevsky on several occasions, while the latter liberally quotes Tolstoy. Spooky.

***

We head over to the south-west of the city to see the Novodevichiy cemetery. There are famous people buried here, though they’re a bit tricky to spot, as the graveyard is pretty packed with, like, graves and stuff. We missed Stanislavsky, Kropotkin, Eisenstein, Scriabin and Prokofiev, but caught Gogol, Chekhov, Yuri Nikulin (a famous Russian entertainer) Nadezhda Allileuva (Stalin’s wife), Shostakovich and Kruschev.


Yuri've got to be kidding


The President's death
was a Kruschev blow



Gogol, Gogol, Gogol. Oi oi oi!

Apparently when historians checked out Gogol’s grave later on, they found claw marks on the inside of the coffin – he’d been inadvertently buried alive. Oops!

***

After a rather extravagant lunch involving seafood and caviar, we pop back to Izmaylovo market for some souvenir buying. Except we don’t, getting out at the wrong stop, thanks to a Metro station mislabelling by the Rough Guide. Jamie suggests that “Rough Guide” signifies “Not entirely precise guide”. My confidence in the venerable Mark Ellingham (RG founder) is briefly shaken. But it turns out well, as I end up taking a few rather nice pictures of Izmaylovo Park with my still-image capturing equipment:



We head to the market and buy things that will probably look tacky when we get home. The afternoon ends with another strange coincidence. Only the day before, while watching Stanley Kubrick’s directorial debut The Killing, I’d started talking about a John Malkovich film I’d vaguely heard about about five years ago, a true story detailing the life of a man who went round impersonating the famous director, despite the fact that the imposter looked nothing like him. But I’d never heard it mentioned, or seen a copy of it since. Inevitably, we stumble across a pirate DVD copy of it in the market.

***

Back home, after a beery evening at Krisis Xhanra, we watch the second part of The Irony of Fate, or Sauna Blues, a popular Russian film from the seventies which tells the story of a man who gets so incredibly drunk in a Moscow bathhouse on New Year’s Eve that he accidentally ends up on a plane and finds himself in an apartment with exactly the same address as his, but in Leningrad. Hilarious consequences naturally ensue. The beautiful woman who owns the Leningrad flat has to explain to her lover why a strange man with no trousers has appeared in her bed. “It’s all an amazing coincidence!” she says.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Day 7, Moscow: When Pushkin comes to shove

Babel: big in the city, beard ban, Gogh medicine

Getting off at Kropotkinskaya Metro, me and Jamie inadvertently find ourselves visiting the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Stalin destroyed the original 19th century version in 1933 to build a massive Empire State-beating skybusting palace which was going to be topped with a hundred-metre statue of Lenin whose eyes would emit an evil bright red beam. It never happened – instead, they built a swimming pool. That was a bit crap, so in the mid-1990s, they rebuilt the old church, to exactly the same design.


"And what did you do in the mid-90s?"
"I built this, what did you do?"


"So he told them his scheme for a Saviour Machine"

Just across the river is the statue of Peter the Great. My potted Russian history tells me that PtG banned beards in Russian society (later imposing a beard tax), worked incognito in the dockyards of England and Holland to learn a few shipbuilding skills, and had a disproportionately small head. I think he was “great” thanks to the combination of progressive reforms and only torturing and massacring a small proportion of the population, unusual for Russian leaders, it seems. Anyway, here he is, on his boat:


Happy Peter

Then onto the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, and the Museum of Private Collections. Both were amazingly empty – at one stage I found myself completely alone in a room of five Van Goghs and three Sisleys. They had three Henri Rousseaus too – I LOVE HIM - and this miniature by Rodin (Eternal Spring) which was so amazing I almost cried. Contents clearly not very Russian, but NONETHELESS TOTALLY SWEET.

***

In the evening, we have a late dinner at a Georgian restaurant which features the grumpiest waitress in the world. A few people are dancing too, with a certain degree of skilll. The waitress is annoyed by this, particularly after one couple nearly knock her over as she tries to show us to our table.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Day 6, Moscow: Shitewatch

Tourist attack, Wahey the Vlads, Stalin for time

Day 6 features a number of valuable lessons from Russia in how to make life difficult for tourists.

Lenin’s Mausoleum
a) get tourists to pay 60Roubles to place bags in cloakroom (compulsory)
b) inform tourists that small bags cannot be placed inside larger bags
b) seal off the whole of Red Square so after visiting tomb, tourists must do an entire circuit of the square to reclaim bags

Visas
a) make tourists hand over migration cards for half a day for Visa registration (compulsory), ignoring fact that police will attempt to arrest those without migration cards
b) once registration has been completed, insist that registration forms must be returned before tourist leaves the country

Tretyakov (new) Gallery
Seal off rooms 20-40. Allow tourists to buy full-price ticket without informing them that half the gallery has been closed.

***

It was a good day though. With the help of a heady combination of chemicals, Lenin’s 137-year-old body has been preserved since his death in 1924, and so, at appointed times, you can actually go into his mausoleum, and see his corpse. Because of terrifyingly blank-faced soldiers standing guard throughout, you don’t linger, filing slowly past the glass case which the deceased revolutionary now inhabits.

It’s just occurred to me that before now, I’d never seen a dead body in real life. How strange to think that my first is Lenin’s!

***

Behind Lenin’s mausoleum are the graves of other prestigious dead Russians; most I don’t recognise, but Gagarin, Brezhnev and Chernenko are there. Most graves have a single flower lying on them. Stalin’s, unsettlingly, has two enormous bouquets.

Your Rough Guide quote-hit:

Khrushchev, [who]… in 1956, was by no means unassailable, gave a “Secret Speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress, in which Stalin’s name was for the first time officially linked to [Leningrad Party boss Sergei] Kirov’s murder and the suffering of millions during the Great Terror. So traumatic was the revelation that many delegates had heart attacks on the spot.


That evening, after a meal in the excellently-named Ludi Kakludi (“people for people”), we ask our young Russian barman about Stalin. He tells us that, yes, many do still revere Uncle Joe, but it’s mainly the older generation. Life was comfortable back then, and it’s thanks to him they collect decent pensions. It must be hard not to be grateful when you were spared.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Day 5, Moscow: Gawky Parkhouse

Red taped, Arbatrary, McHangingabout, Moo hoo

Hangover. The best cure, of course, is to attempt to get your Visa registered (required within three days of arrival). During a drawn-out visit to our agency, we end up traipsing through an enormous building of corridors and offices. I’ve never seen anything that looks so damn 1984.

***

We visit the Arbat, and are slightly disappointed. However, the bohemian smoke drifting across the far end of the street and ominous cracked sky does give the area a certain something.


This photo was completely Arbatrary

Outside Macdonald’s is the area’s meeting point hotspot. We hang around outside for Tadich.


A visit to this place reportedly makes your day

The Canadian takes us to a buffet restaurant called Moo Moo. Or in Cyrillic: My My. A nice-looking woman tries to chat me up in the queue. My Russian still isn’t good enough to respond, so I shrug and say “Anglisky”. She looks downcast and turns away. I start to worry that maybe this was a big moment for her – perhaps she’d been in an abusive relationship that had destroyed her confidence, and, as the mental and physical scars had slowly healed, she’d finally plucked up the courage to try and get back in the game. But there is nothing I can do, except pay for my chicken.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Day 4, Moscow: Krem and punishment

Kremlin-snapping, GUM see, more vodka, the greatest kebab of all time

Darren’s last day. We go to the Kremlin, and find that Russians don’t make it easy for tourists. In fact, they seem to be actively discouraging tourists from visiting stuff, writing everything in Cyrillic (not a problem for me, fnar fnar), placing scary armed guards everywhere, and – in the case of the armoury museum – labeling the main entrance with the English words “Staff Entrance”. Finally make it in, and press the large button on my camera many times over.


Always believe in your soul


Are you the gatekeeper?


Definitely a canonical work

After Darren leaves, me and Jamie head over to Red Square.


Crack horse

We pop in to GUM (stands for State Department Store, pronounced goom), a huge and highly impressive shopping mall. Rough Guide fact alert:

In 1932 [GUM] was used for the lying-in-state of Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda, after her suicide; Stalin stayed there for days, silently noting who came to pay their respects.



The temple of GUM

In the evening, beginning to fall into a not unpleasant pattern, we go to meet Tadich. There are predictably vodka-soaked results.


An ap-Paul-ing vision

As the night draws to a close, Tadich takes us to sample “the greatest Kebab of all time”. I’m not so impressed, until someone points out that I’m eating the paper as well. I throw the paper away, but find that the pastry underneath tastes like paper too.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Day 3, Moscow: Barley-vous Anglais?

Ghostbusters, fire, Nathan Barley

Hard to beat the high of Day 2, but in the morning we visit Izmaylovo Market. By this stage, I know how to ask how much stuff costs in Russian (“Stolka stoit?”). But I rarely understand the answer.

Tadich then surprises us with a ride on a ski lift up a snowy hill to see the dramatic Moscow University building. Like a number of Moscow’s daunting towering buildings, it’s totally Ghostbusters:


Clearly built by Gozer the Sumerian

The evening ends in a restaurant which has a bar shaped like a fire engine, waitresses dressed as firewomen and miniature fire extinguishers on the tables that dispense beer. We take full advantage.


More beer for table 5 please!

Then we go back to the flat and watch Nathan Barley on DVD.

Morris + Brooker = genius
Genius + off day = Nathan Barley

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Day 2, Moscow: War and Pivas

Vodka, beer, VVTs, cognac, beer, Mojito, beer, lesbian horseriders

I am awoken from my sofa-slumber at around 10am by the sound of Tadich clomping through the lounge, singing “Vodka in the morning, vodka in the mor-ning!” over and over again. I hear a bottle being slammed down on the table, open my bleary eyes and see a bottle of vodka. An hour later, as Russian tradition dictates, we start drinking the vodka.

After lunch at a US-style diner where no one speaks English, Tadich introduces us to the fact that it is socially acceptable to walk along the road drinking beer (piva) – regarded as something of a soft drink over here – by buying us four from a street kiosk then telling us to drink as we walk. Bottles in hand, we head to VVTs via the space obelisk, a 1964 Soviet monument honouring Russia’s space achievements. Its shape is highly pleasing, and shown below.


If this shape was a noise, that noise
would probably be "Schwooooooo"


Then onto VVTs, previously known as the Exhibition of Economic Achievements. It’s a big Stalinist theme park with lots of huge pavilions, a goldie lookin’ fountain, the obligatory fearsome Lenin statue, a couple of passenger planes, and a rocket monument.


Lenin – rad


Clowns foiled by snow


Our walk wasn't all plane sailing


Pretty fly, eh?


Transliterated, this is pronounced "Paliozlektronika".
I'm guessing that means "pavilion of electronic
equipment", or "pirate DVD market"



Rocket on

VVTs also features an Armenian building; we go inside and drink some cognac. Then, when we’ve done our wandering, we go to a café and order some vodka. Unfortunately, they’ve run out of vodka. Tadich can hardly believe it, cross-questioning the waitress like his life depends on it. But it’s true. We get beers instead.


The pretty café window, which helpfully
protected us from the cold of the elements


***

In Russia, there is a tradition of citizen taxi-driving. It’s not that hard to flag down drivers and negotiate a price for a lift to wherever you’re going. Our lift, soundtracked by the odd mixture of Missy Elliot, Vanilla Ice, Kanye West and UB40, takes us to Leninskii Prospekt. We buy a few more street beers and sit on a bench by a dirt track in the freezing cold. Then, in total contrast, we head up to Skylounge 22, an ultra-posh bar on the 22nd floor of the Russian Academy of Sciences. When the RAS ran out of money, they decided to add a few floors to the top of their building to house a trendy and very expensive bar-restaurant. They purposefully designed the additional floors to be look like a giant golden brain. Uh, yeah.

[Jamie did a short post from his mobile phone from the Skylounge, which is here.]

The evening ends in the excellently-named Krisis Zhanra, where it seems to be Britpop night. We dance, whipped up into a frenzy by a heady combination of the Spin Doctors and New Order, and all is great, until a real live Russian band come on. They have a song which involves the lead singer crooning, without irony, “I am a very complicated person / So complicated, oh yeah.” It's awful.

***

As the taxi home rounds the corner of Tadich’s street, me and Jamie spot the sad-looking horserider from the previous night. She’s riding along the pavement of the main street, parallel to another girl on a horse. Both girls turn to look at each other, and suddenly, something extraordinary happens. They kiss each other, on the lips.

The two of us spend the next hour trying to convince Darren and Tadich that this actually happened.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Day 1, Moscow: Red Souls

Bleeding Pole, egg confusion, bribing cops, sad equestrian

My Russian odyssey gets off to a surreal start even before I’ve made it to the tube at Stockwell, as I’m stopped outside the station by a middle-aged white-haired lady with a pinched face and a bleeding Polish man.

“Excuse me, do you understand him?” says the lady, who looks quite well-to-do. The man, who has blood encrusted on his eyebrow and smeared over the left side of his face, starts talking to me in Polish. He looks glazed.
“No,” I say.
“Where are you from?” asks the woman.
“England,” I respond.

This is not enough to deter her; she begins firing a series of questions at me. “You wouldn’t have that amount of blood from just falling over, would you?” I say that you probably wouldn’t, no. Then: “I’d call the police, but if you’re Polish in a black area, there’d probably be repercussions, wouldn’t there?” Hmmm. She keeps on: “Or do you think he’s homeless? He’s probably not getting enough benefits.” I am trying to nod and shake my head in the right places, but I’m wearing a heavy rucksack and it’s 5.15am. Meanwhile, the Polish man has given up on both of us and is scrabbling around on the floor for a cigarette.

“If only I could find a Polish person,” she says, looking around with hope and sadness. “They’re everywhere when you don’t want them and never there when you do.” I don’t know how this all started, but the situation is strange and dreamlike, and it doesn’t seem fanciful to imagine this odd couple tied together for the rest of eternity.

“I have to go,” I say, deciding to end my part in the nightmare. I resist adding: “To Russia!”

***

One tube journey, two flights, one train ride and one Metro trip later, I’m at Tadich’s flat in Moscow. Everything has gone remarkably smoothly, except for the fact that the Heathrow Wetherspoons told me that they’d run out of fried eggs and only had scrambled. This thought troubles me for much of the journey: how can you run out of a type of egg?

***

One pizza slice and two beers later, me, Jamie and Darren have been stopped by the police just outside Red Square. Darren’s papers are not in order - he’s forgotten to carry his migration card. The police are threatening to arrest him and make him pay 2500 Roubles (100 pounds). Tadich – who speaks passable Russian – is in St Petersberg. We are powerless and they won’t let us go, so we phone him. After several missed calls, he eventually answers and we hand the phone to one of the policemen. Tadich attempts to sweet-talk him into releasing us. Unfortunately, Tadich is incredibly drunk. Luckily, Tadich is with a Russian colleague, who has both the lingo and bucketloads of charm. After around ten minutes of negotiation, Darren bribes the police with 500 Roubles (20 pounds) and we are allowed to go. A beer is in order. We go to a bar called, appropriately, Help.



***

As we head back to the flat – it’s now around 1.15am – there’s one last unusual moment in store for us, as we hear slow clip-clopping and look up to see a sad-looking girl, riding a horse slowly down the street. Day 1 is over, but this wasn’t the last we were to see of her…

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Direct hit

Okay, I'm off to Moscow now. Tadich (pictured) has emailed me some amazingly precise directions (in PDF format!) he's written to get me from Moscow Domodedovo Airport to his flat.

I've included some highlights below; if I don't make it, it's probably because I was too busy cracking up to actually follow them:

"Get on the train, and enjoy the ride, which lasts about 40 minutes. You can buy a beer on the train too! Sometimes, the guy selling the beer has a stack of magazines. Ask for a 'journal (pronounce like the French) cri-mee-NAH-lay'. You won't regret it."

"…Go through the turnstile on the LEFT side of the slot you stuck your ticket into. If you go through the wrong one, a barrier will pop up and close exactly on your testicles. I'm not even kidding."

"…Enter the foyer of my Brezhnev-era slut paradise. There is a 75 per cent chance that a very grouchy old 'concierge' will be seated in a busted recliner, watching soap operas, ready to greet you. WARNING – AS YOU ARE CLEARLY AN EVIL JEW FOREIGNER, SHE MIGHT TRY TO KICK YOU OUT. I have tried to notify them of your upcoming stay, but I probably fucked it up. If they give you any cheese, simply show them the explanatory sheet of A4 I have graciously included in Appendix 1."

Yes, there was an appendix. See you on the other side.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Reddy to go

Very excited about going to Russia on Friday. I’ve even learnt to read the Cyrillic alphabet in preparation. Xороший, Да? Break out the Dostoyevsky.

Anyway, I have a feeling it’s going to be totally weird, an impression that’s been far from undermined by preliminary reading of the Rough Guide to Moscow. Describing the attractions of the city’s northern suburbs, for example, it goes:

Foremost among them is the VVTs, a huge exhibition park that has been likened to a Stalinist Disney World, near the iconic Space Obelisk and Worker and Collective Farm Girl monument.

Now I like surrealism as much as the next man, but, seriously, like, what?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The mighty fuchsia

I hate being the UK's foremost trend-setter – you're constantly having to gulp back an I told you so every time some Johnny-come-lately in a suit steals one of your ideas.

You'll of course remember back in August that I unveiled my range of fuchsia-themed t-shirt sloganry. Well now the corporations are trying to get in on the action.

First I hear that Lloyds TSB have started using my "Back to the fuchsia" pun on a billboard ad up near Mornington Crescent. I sincerely hope that's the only one. Next, I hear that Orange Wednesdays have, in a Reservoir Dogs-style cinema advert, called one of their characters "Mr Fuchsia". I sincerely hope no one sees it. Finally, if that hadn't stressed me out enough, I tear off Thursday's page on my day-by-day Word Origin Calendar and get this:

Friday
March
2
2007

FUCHSIA | The eminent German botanist Leonard Fuchs (1501 – 1566) compiled the first widely used glossary of botanical terms and described hundreds of species in detail. His memory is honoured in the plant name fuchsia.


Leonard, on behalf of the haters, I'm so sorry your glorious memory has been tarnished in this way. I'm going to say it now: fuchsia is over. Long live puce!

Monday, March 05, 2007

Parisian but not heard

Some more delightful Paris snapshots for you, cropped to an appropriate size and accompanied with captions that take the phrase "dire punning" to a whole new level.

Shakespeare and Company bookshop
We did a lot of walking round the city. It was Bard work


Notre Dame
What a Dame ugly building. Not!(re)


Musee D'Orsay clock
When I saw this item, I immediately clocked it for the
photo opportunity it was



Rooftops
I am Andreas Gursky. There's no pun here. Just hard fact


Flags
Just thought I'd "flag" this one up


Paris street
Pave and display


Paris view
(Sky)Scraping the barrel a bit here


Louvre pyramid
Another photo to add to my L'oeuvre
(my God, I'm punning in French)



Musee D'Orsay
I can't believe I had the gall(ery) to take this picture

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Rodders

A friend is having laser surgery on his eyes next week. The build-up must be quite a nervewracking experience – Dan (for it is he) said he imagined the process being a bit like the famous James Bond laser-testicles scene – so he's wisely ensured that it's being done by a pricy Harley Street doctor.

All was going to plan until Dan got the letter confirming his appointment and informing him that the operation would be carried out by someone called Dr Rodney Bumsfeld. Let's be honest: a name like that really doesn't inspire confidence.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Wasted little DJs

Battled with my illness, which has now thankfully just about subsided, to make it out to the inaugural Rockbeatstone night at Brixton's Windmill on Friday. James, who did an awesome job organising the whole shebang, had invited myself and housemate Jamie to make our DJing debut after the bands had done their thing (basically, we were headlining). And what a set we played.

I won't bore you with the awe-inspiring details of our setlist, which included CSSAnnieHotChipKlaxonsDetroitCobrasBlondieCoxon
HarveyDangerBreedersArtBrutSlitsStonesKinksPrimalScream
DanSartainPippettesKillersHollowaysLCDSoundsystemWhiteStripes, but if you're ever wondering how on earth you can follow the floor-filling crowd-pleasing mania of Kaiser Chiefs' I Predict a Riot, I have nine words for you: The Power of Love – Huey Lewis and the News. That is all.

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Friendship Programme: a re-evaluation

Will they be there for you? Will they?

Ross: Highly strung

Rachel: Cruel

Joey: Delusional

Chandler: Insecure

Monica: Egotistical

Phoebe: Illogical

The Gustave Tower

During one of our many trawlings off Paris's beaten track, me and Sarah stumbled across this strange girder-like structure. I took some photos so you at home can witness its unlikely beauty.


Eiffel tower
The monument is apparently
known as the
Gustave Tower, after
its designer Gustave Eiffel

Eiffel gloom
We were particularly pleased we found the tower,
since it is notoriously hard to spot


Eiffel tower
Because of its immense ugliness, few
are interested in visiting the tower.
Hence deserted scenes like these

Eiffel tower
Visitors - if there are any - who wish to visit the top are hoisted
up by rope (provided)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Skate figure

I feel awful. Think I was poisoned by my last meal in Paris. Arrived back and spent the night vomiting. But apart from the evil payoff, the trip was great. We even went ice skating! Here's a little video I made before the nausea set in.