Thursday, January 14, 2021

Never a truer word spoken

 I love this:

Al Murray - or his alter-ego, the Pub Landlord - is always good for a one-liner.  This show is from a long time ago, 2004 I think, before he got properly big and started selling out arenas.  Something tells me that since Brexit and the Culture Wars that he might have to re-think his act however, as it's pretty clear that irony isn't allowed anymore!  The fact that he's a complete lefty in real life, and plays a jingoist, casually-racist, right-wing character in order to lampoon exactly that sort of thinking is just the sort of humour that isn't going to go down very well with the Woke Mob.  

Still, I do love the line.  The beauty and elegance of it lies in the sheer truth of it - that and the fact that it insults no one.  Who can dispute the fact that the United States is a good idea?  It's the best of ideas!  The land of opportunity, the land of the free, the land of enterprise, based on things like freedom of expression and religion, a place to go and work hard and make your fortune free of oppression, etc etc.  

But, like so many good ideas, it HAS gone too far, in more ways than we can possibly count really, almost on the basis of the freedom it provides, and if we're honest it's eating itself spectacularly at the moment by consequence.  I'm reminded of another line by John Birmingham about why all-male share houses are a bad idea: "it's like the land of the dogs without leashes and rolled-up newspapers".  

Just thought I'd share.  And if you're interested, here's 23 minutes more of the Pub Landlord, from where I took that 8-second clip.  Some of it is a bit hit-and-miss, but some of it's awesome too.   



Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Geese and Ganders

I am not a fan of the death penalty.  Certainly not how it manifests in the US, anyway.  My concerns aren't really philosophical (although I will admit that the question of the state ending someone's life outside of armed conflict is a little troubling), I'm more concerned with the sheer bureaucratic mess of it all, the cost, the process, and above all how one rule applies to some but doesn't apply to literally thousands of others.  

Let's have a look at some facts and figures.  

For a developed, Western country with a stable (*ahem*) governmental structure, the USA had a relatively high murder rate of 5.35 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020 (source). This places it well above similarly-developed and wealthy democracies like Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada, and nearly all of Europe, Scandinavia and Asia, depending on where you draw the borders.  

With its high population of 330 plus million people (around 75% of the combined population of the EU (sourcesource), the US is also going to suffer from sheer bulk of numbers.  Since 1990 there has been an average of 17,711 murders and non-negligent manslaughters every year (source).  That figure has dipped in recent times which is admirable given increases in population, but it's still well north of 10,000 cases a year.

So it’s clear that there are a lot of homicides in the US both in bulk and per capita, but does that mean that the number of executions reflect those high numbers?  Not really, no - there have been significantly fewer than 100 executions every year since 2000, and that figure has been going steadily downwards since then:   


So we can see that less than 1% of murders actually result in a death sentence.  Even allowing for particularly egregious circumstances, this makes a mockery of the process in my view, as from a sentencing perspective a murder doesn't equal a murder.  This means that there's a strong case for equating the death penalty with cruel and unusual punishment by consequence; if you are sentenced to death you're literally suffering a worse fate than 99% of other people that committed the same crime after all.    

We also know that it's very expensive to execute a prisoner on account of the judicial expense of it all, which usually runs to millions of dollars per prisoner.  By constitutional law there is a far greater expense to turn over every possible stone in ensuring that a prisoner is in fact guilty or fit to be tried before he or she is executed. This costs an absolute fortune, to the point many states have opted against the death penalty not on philosophical grounds but due to the sheer cost of it (source).  Do you really want to spend millions of dollars on a murderer when you could throw them in the clink and build a school instead?  I know what I'd rather do.     

...... So long story short, I think the death penalty's a bit of a bad joke as it stands in the USA.  It's unwieldy, it's expensive, it's inconsistently applied and there are strong arguments to suggest that it does more harm than good.  And that's BEFORE you start asking philosophical questions about the nature of capital punishment, of which there are many.  

So imagine my surprise when I find myself reacting very negatively to this.  If I was to be an advocate of the death penalty, then surely strangling a pregnant mother, cutting out her unborn baby with a knife and then kidnapping it would be the epitome of something deserving capital punishment, wouldn't it?  It would in fact be a pretty open-and-shut case, on a par with all the gangland killings, drugged rampages and all the other horrors that go on in the more violent parts of the US.  It's clearly unusual for a woman to be on death row - we know statistically that men commit violent crimes far more than women do after all which is so obvious I'm not even going to bother sourcing it - but that should not mean that there's automatically been some sort of miscarriage of justice when a statistical outlier crops up from time-to-time.  

It seems that appeals are being made on account of brain damage, mental incompetence and turbulent pasts.  All of which have been argued and struck down before, and not seen as being good enough reasons to down-grade her sentence since she was convicted in 2004.  But suddenly "literally hours" before her execution, a judge rules that the case needs more attention?  This is where I call bullshit.    

Let me ask you a few questions.  Do you think it's likely that if the killer of that pregnant woman was a man, that we would be having this conversation?  Do you think it's likely that if the male perpetrator of such a heinous crime was "brain damaged", "mentally incompetent" and "suffered from a turbulent past" that we would give a damn, much less be discussing it in the international press?  And how many murderers with histories of gang violence, drug abuse and all the other myriad horrific causes and sources of homicides out there could, have and do mount similar arguments in their defences?  I would say the vast majority - "society's to blame" after all.  And maybe, just maybe, it really is, but there's a line between having that discussion and absolving everyone of personal responsibility.    

This is where I despair of modern politics, gender/identity politics and the mainstream media.  Quite how a murderer can be absolved of this grisly, shocking crime on the basis of her sex is really beyond me.  I've made my stance on the death penalty clear, but sorry - you're either a murderer or you're not.  Being a woman doesn't make a difference.   

UPDATE: 13/01/2021

So it seems that the stay of execution was short-lived; Lisa Montgomery was killed by lethal injection on Wednesday 13.01.2021 after the stay of execution was lifted by the Supreme Court only 36 hours or so afterwards.  More details can be found here.  I take no pleasure in the fact that the sentence was carried out given all that I've explained, but I guess there is some justice to be found in the fact that she received the same degree of "justice" as any number of the others that have been executed lately.  This is despite the fanfare surrounding the case, which I still maintain is purely down to her sex.  

..... Yeuch, by the way.  What a horrible story, from start to finish.  Who'd want to be involved in any of that?  Spare a thought for everyone who had a stake in the decision towards the end, knowing that their actions would result directly in whether someone lived or died, which went right up to the Supreme Court.  Like the saying goes: 

"Laws are like sausages.  It's best not to see them being made"   

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Day 7 - We’re going all the way, ‘till the wheels fall off and burn

Distance travelled: Vilnius to Riga, 295 km Soundtrack: Bob Dylan "Knocked Out Loaded", "Empire Burlesque", "The Bootleg Series Vol. 1", Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon" Easy-paced trip. They don't really do motorways in this part of the world, and the speed limit in Latvia is actually 90 km/h. It's 130 in Lithuania, but that was only half the trip. For the most part I was travelling between towns behind trucks on single-carriage roads, biding my time. I found the shitty part of Vilinius, too! There's obviously a left-bank/right-bank thing going on with the river. The Old Town is on one side and the Financial District on the other, and that gives way to commercial/industrial areas, and then horrible, horrible, Soviet-era blocks of flats as far as the eye can see. Yeuch. Riga is very very nice, though. It's really interesting that these cities seem so Mediterannean, somehow. It's not as though it's warm at the moment - sort of 18-20 degrees - but it doesn't feel like a cold-climate city. You sort of have the idea that these places will be a bit grim, or at least grey an imposing, being that they're ex-Soviet. But they're actually very, very pretty and quite Riviera-esque. Riga is perhaps not quite so Monaco as Vilnius, but it's still very young and hip - and of the two I think I might prefer it here, it seems more genuine. What's interesting is the amount of English that gets spoken, though. You'd think that the Baltics would be all speaking Russian to each other, or would find some sort of other common language, given that they used to be the same country not so long ago. But it was explained to me that the three languages, Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian, are actually very different from each other and no one really wants to learn Russian universally for loads of different reasons, so English it is - and it's not just because of tourism. My Estonian friends that I met last night were doing everything in English with the locals. Lots of thinking and talking about Russian influences, Russia versus Germany, cultural and national identity and how that works in my tiny little Australian mind last night. This stuff is sooooooo difficult to wrap my head around. The cultural and historical legacy of being taken over by empires left right and centre throughout your history, and not even having your own country until 1990 really is a bit of a headfuck. As I explained last night, I guess the only thing I can think of from my context is our Aboriginal story, and the idea that what was theirs became ours, and was changed forever under their feet. Onto Estonia today, where I'll probably have a few days off. Will be glad for that; being in the saddle all the time is definitely a bit tiring.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Day 6 - Vilnius

Distance travelled: 103km Soundtrack: Bob Dylan: "Infidels", "Oh Mercy". Oh Mercy has some duds, but it's a really great album. Even though I've made it my own and listened to it loads as an adult, it calls to mind a specific memory of Dad; October 1989 when we travelled through the UK as a family, and the album had just been released. We heard it non-stop in the car! So Vilnius is a completely different city to Kaunas. I'm really glad I came! It's really, beautiful, is very clean, modern and chic, and is one of those places where everyone seems to look about 25 an is driving a Merc. A complete contrast to the Polish cities I was in only a couple of days ago, and certainly very different to Kaunas. It seems very wealthy and prosperous as well, which makes me wonder why I know so many Lithuanians from my work in Görlitz, who earn next to nothing for the privelege of being tortured and yelled at. The hotel is kind of fiddly and annoying, though - one of those places with "character", which calls to mind goofy middle-aged beardy men who begin to get on your nerves in about 30 seconds after meeting them. It's themed with English-speaking writers, most of them British, and it's decked out in a vaguely Edwardian way, so it's sort of "fussy", and could do with an upgrade. I chose it because it was cheap and because it said it had sound-proofed rooms (singing!) but the room they put me in was anything but. I had a quick word with reception and hey presto - upgrade! Can't say it's that glamorous though, there's a jacuzzi which is something I guess, but it still looks like a B+B from the sixties, somehow. I will never understand why the world hasn't caught on to the idea that this "tally ho" idea of middle class Britishness isn't complete myth, and/or is really fucking annoying. I guess it's helped opened doors for me being an English speaker, but shit if it doesn't piss me off. It goes with that particular brand of Brit, somehow - culturally conceited with very little to show for it. Look at me! I'll remind you every five minutes where I went to school and university, and I have an entirely contrived accent that will have you climbing up the walls in no time.... Bah. I don't mean to be mean-spritied, but seriously, it does really give me the shits. Dicked about for quite awhile in the afternoon, sang, and then had my customary long walk. Very, very impressed with the place - see above! So much so that I broke my intermittent fasting schedule and stopped for a meal. Surf and turf, which was unfortunately a bit disappointing for what I paid, but there you go; I've been subsisting 100% on hotel breakfasts alone so far, so splashing out once or twice isn't going to break the bank. Feeling like I'm definitely on my way now. I'm..... somewhere else, and in a different sphere. That's cool. Tomorrow: Riga, and my 37th country. Will be curious to know what that's like.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Day 5 - Travel Day

Distance travelled: Warsaw to Kaunas, Lithuania - 423km

Soundtrack: Bob Dylan “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, “Saved”, “Shot of Love”, “Street Legal”, Singing teacher’s feedback (better), 2nd Test commentary from England versus the West Indies

So here I am in Lithuania.  Country number 36 that I’ve visited, out of a possible 193, depending on what counts and what doesn’t (look up CGP Grey’s YouTube video “How Many Countries Are There” for reference, and no I can’t be bothered linking).  First impressions of Kaunas weren’t that great care of a fairly ordinary hotel with a room that wasn’t too far away from belonging in a youth hostel, complete with shitty internet to boot.  Thought I might stay here two nights, but my wife insisted that I go on to Vilnius, and the internet clinched it for me.  Ain’t got no time for that shit, although I’m struggling with it right this very moment.  Went for a lengthy walk and stopped for a beer later on and got a better feeling for the place, but I do hope that Vilnius might be a little more interesting.

It was a long journey today, through lots of small towns on B roads again.  In and of itself that’s fine - I loved it yesterday - but after awhile I was keen to just kinda get there.  It seemed like all the way up to the Lithuanian border my journey was flanked by a motorway being built beside the road I was on.  Large scale, tearing out big corridors of countryside type stuff.  Poland is obviously on a big economic push (or was - we’ll see what happens with Covid) and is trying to make itself more accessible for freight and trade.  

I’m moving through all the Dylan albums.  Somehow I haven’t managed to include “Blood on the Tracks” which is a major, major oversight, but I still have 25 others to listen to.  The evangelical period is actually quite listenable, and good for a journey.  A common thread or theme when you’re contemplating your innermost being and have a target in mind (the destination) means that the persuasive, Gospel-esque language works quite well.  Dylan does a good rock song, too.  Shot of Love (the song), Solid Rock and The Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar are all good tunes, and there others like them.  Street Legal, on the other hand, is rubbish.  There are maybe two good tunes in there in The Changing of the Guard, and Señor (Tales of Yankee Power).  The rest are very forgettable, if not downright annoying.  

Felt a bit lonely today, particularly after I arrived.  I guess that’s the idea, though.  I’m not doing this to be entertained.  Going for the walk helped - there’s a very long strip in Kaunas with what looks like an Orthodox Church at the end of it.  I had my beer near there at the end of my walk.  

I’m not going to come out of this transformed or anything.  It would be fanciful to expect that.  I think it’s sort of a bit Zen Buddhist, somehow - I’m emptying my head of distractions and seeing if what I find is fertile ground for moving forwards.  When I think of short and medium term plans for when I get back home, they don’t seem bad, though.  I think that’s a good sign.  I have needed this time, though.  

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Day Four - Poland is scary

Distance travelled: Wrocław to Warsaw: 365 km

Soundtrack: Bob Dylan “Planet Waves” and “Slow Train Coming”, 2nd Test commentary of England versus West Indies, my singing teacher giving me (very bad) feedback via Skype, sometimes nothing at all.  

There’s something a bit weird about this place.  I find it kind of unsettling, on all sorts of levels.  Two walks book-ended my car travel today, and they were both a bit..... strange.  The car journey wasn’t straightforward either.  

The walk in Wrocław was pleasant enough.  I found the opera house, which is a very nice-looking old building quite reminiscent of the Laeiszhalle in Hamburg.  Did a quick lap of that, took a photo of a church or two and kept moving.  Found myself in the middle of a very big, very empty square, with a very modern, expensive-looking building at the end of it.  It turned out to be the concert hall; obviously recently built, and probably with a vast amount of EU money by the looks of it.  Might bookmark it as a place to do some work at some point, if things take off the way I want them to.  Went about 200m back towards the hotel and the car though, and found myself in the ghetto.  Yikes!  Horrible Soviet-era blocks of apartments that looked like they hadn’t been paid any attention to since they were built.  

This stuff is weird; on the one hand there are these massive edifices of glass and steel that seem to shout “hey, look at us and how successful we are”, but you only need to walk 30 seconds in the other direction to see the most unattractive and depressing evidence of the contrary.  And this is pretty much in the middle of town.  I mean, every city has its ugly points, but it’s pretty uncommon to find them so central.  Wouldn’t you want to do something about that if you could, instead of spending what must have been BILLIONS on a fancy new concert hall?  Or at least find some sort of middle ground, build a slightly less fancy hall and upgrade the social housing too?   

There was also the slightly eerie feeling from the square.  It was very modern too, but you got the feeling that nasty things had probably gone on there.  This is Poland after all, so..... think demonstrations being horribly and violently suppressed.  On multiple occasions.  

The journey was strange as well.  I had bit of trouble getting out of town, the streets are not well-paved or marked and everything’s a bit chaotic.  Got on the motorway though, which was magnificent (again, it seems to be something that is paid a lot attention to here), but then got thrown a bum steer by my SatNav, which kept giving me exits too late.  A crazy storm broke just as I missed the last one and the heavens opened, as I got sent onto all of these B roads.  I thought it was only going to be for a little while, but it was a good 80-100 km worth, I think - although funnily enough it actually gained me time rather than lost it.  And I was driving through lots of little villages and towns, sometimes on terrible roads that were half sealed.  And sometimes the surroundings were achingly beautiful, and sometimes really horribly ugly; sometimes obviously really wealthy, and sometimes really poor.  It was an interesting journey, and obviously much more than being on the motorway would have been.  I got the feeling that I saw more of the real Poland that way.  

Got back on the motorway eventually and made it to Warsaw and my hotel.  Did my best to address some of the short-comings of my previous day’s recorded singing practice in what I hope was a better session, and then went for the second of my two walks.  

Warsaw’s weird, man.  And kind of unsettling.  It’s like there were some very big ideas had here that were never completed, and you’re walking around in the remnants of someone’s long forgotten dream - one that you know you wouldn’t have wanted to have been a part of.  Everything’s either half-done, or magnificently, powerfully and imposingly done, but stood in the middle of a wasteland, like someone painted a masterpiece and no one thought to build a gallery around it.  There’s the same modern versus run-down feeling here too, and everything’s enormous.  I’ve felt that way around Soviet-era architecture before, it can be very off-putting.  Like there was a very deliberate attempt to demonstrate that the state was bigger than the individual by making all the buildings, and particularly the official buildings, absolutely enormous, to the point that you’re hopelessly dwarfed by everything.  

And of course there are long shadows of violent pasts.  I don’t know my Polish history as well as I should, but I know it ain’t great.  Some nasty shit went down in this city, you can feel it - even if you don’t already know it.  I went for a one-hour walk and found the place utterly, utterly fascinating, but I know I could never live here.  It’s..... spooky.  No wonder all the Polish people I know seem have PTSD somehow.  I would too if I was them!

Off to Lithuania tomorrow.    

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Day Three - Shore Leave

So - distance travelled: Leipzig to Görlitz, and then Görlitz to Wrocław: 214km + 168km = 382km total

Time spent: 10:30 - 20h

Average speed: very, very slow

Soundtrack: Bob Dylan: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline, New Morning, Desire and part of Pat Garret and Billy The Kid (I’m trying to do them in order, although I just realised I missed The Times They are A-Changin’), Tom Waits: Swordfishtrombones 

Well, it was a great day, but it started with absolutely and most definitely the worst traffic jam I’ve ever encountered.  I mean - it wasn’t even a traffic jam.  We just sat there.  For an hour.  People were walking their dogs!  I passed the time by messaging my wife and surfing the net, when the net worked.  The rest of the time I just listened to Bob.  Which was great.  I felt no discomfort at all, beyond the guilt about keeping the engine on to keep the air conditioning running.

When I we got moving again I switched from Bob to Tom, and and again, surprised myself about how familiar I was with Swordfishtrombones.  Good Lord, what an incredible album that is, and surely like no other.  And of course I was familiar with it - I had forgotten that Dad gave me a copy of it in 1995!  That’s 26 years to explore every corner, nook and cranny, and I was absolutely obsessed with the title track for a good while, and with good reason, it’s pretty amazing.  I discovered a new track today though, in Shore Leave:

Well with buck shot eyes and a purple heart
I rolled down the national stroll
And with a big fat paycheck strapped to my hip sack
And a shore leave wristwatch underneath my sleeve
In a Hong Kong drizzle on Cuban heels
I rolled down the gutter to the Blood Bank
And I'd left all my papers on the Ticonderoga
And I was in a bad need of a shave
And I slopped at the corner on cold chow mein
And shot billards with a midget until the rain stopped
And I bought a long-sleeved shirt with horses on the front
And some gum and a lighter and a knife
And a new deck of cards with girls on the back
And I sat down and wrote a letter to my wife
And I said baby, I'm so far away from home
And I miss my baby so
Well, I can't make it by myself
I love you so
And I was pacing myself
Trying to make it all last
Squeezing all the life out of a lousy-two day pass
And I had a cold one at the Dragon
With some Filipino floor show
And I talked baseball with a lieutenant over a Singapore sling
And I wondered how the same moon outside over this Chinatown fair
Could look down on Illinois
And find you there
And you know I love you baby
And I'm so far away from home
I'm so far away from home
And I miss my baby so
I can't make it by myself
I love you so
Shore Leave (repeat)

I can remember a friend with pretensions to be a writer getting obsessed with what amounted to a Tom Waits beat poem quite awhile ago.  I have had my moments with Frank’s Wild Years and The Crossroads (which has a story that dates back to my teens), but didn’t pay a great deal of attention to Shore Leave.  I guess we find - or re-find - songs at the right time, because Shore Leave is sort of what I’m up to now.  I’m a long way from home, I don’t really know what I’m doing, I can’t make it by myself, and I miss my baby so.  

I feel for the protagonist, here.  He seems - like so many of Tom Waits characters, like a pretty flawed guy that probably has any number of skeletons in his closet, and if he’s being honest, things about his past and even his present that he’d probably like to shield his “baby” from.  But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love her.  Or that he really doesn’t feel like he won’t make it with out her.  There’s probably some bits and pieces in there about wondering whether he deserves her or if he’s being as honest as he should be with her.  Or even if he feels like she should be shielded from all of that, which is..... why he’s buying cards with girls on the back and going to Filipino floor shows a long way away from her prying eye.  He seems like a man with some guilt to make up for, and some conflict to deal with.  

Anyway: I listened to it five times today.  It’s a great tune.   

Friday, July 17, 2020

Day Two

Leipzig again.  Thought that I would be more tired following what I assumed would be a hard slog in the car the day before, but see above (below?) about how easy a journey it was.  I probably didn’t need the rest day in the end, I could have very easily kept moving and been in Poland by now.  

Bit frustrated by consequence; being in Germany doesn’t really feel like I’ve got started yet, I’m still on familiar ground, communicating in a language I understand.  I even ran into someone I knew in the afternoon!  Pretty hilarious - a music contact with whom I’ve always been friendly in a peripheral kind of a way.  She and her husband are planning exactly the same sort of journey I’m on in a week or two as well only longer - they’ll be going into Scandinavia, which was the original plan for me, but I decided to shelve that for next year.  

There was practical stuff today, too.  A financial advisor who has been looking for my business rang and had a chat with me.  I did some singing.  Spoke to my wife.  Sent a couple of emails.  I could have been just around the corner from home.  I did visit the Thomaskirche though, where J.S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn worked, and took a selfie or two by their statues.  I’ve sung a truckload of their work and would have told you that Bach was the be-all and end-all until quite recently (and it’s not as though I still don’t think he’s pretty awesome), so that was good to do.  I visited the Bach Museum later on too, which was good to tick off.  Looking at his family tree, it would seem that all his relatives going in both directions were called either Johann Christian or Johann Christoph, by the way - family reunions must have been really confusing.  

I’m going Poland tomorrow.  I’m visiting an old stomping ground first in Görlitz, which is right on the border of Poland and Germany.  I have been there many many times and it was the scene of many a misadventure so there’ll be a fair amount of nostalgia and regret there.  I didn’t actually mean to put it on the itinerary, but I decided on Leipzig as a stop-off into Poland instead of Berlin because I’ve been to Berlin so often, and to get to Wrocław from Leipzig you pretty much have to go through Görlitz.  

I worked for far too long for far too little in Görlitz, for a really pretty despicable director.  The friendships and relationships I had there were complicated too, and some of them didn’t end well.  There is a mixture of shame, regret and nostalgia about the place, but also satisfaction that my career has moved on from needing to be there.  But, me being me, that makes me sad, too.  I don’t always deal with letting go well.    

I didn’t mean to put it on the schedule, but maybe it’ll be a really important part of the trip - to show me what I was, what I don’t want to be, and that I’m moving on to something else.  A quick trip down memory lane, a coffee with a friend, and then onward.  We’ll see.   

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Day One

Travel day. Dortmund to Leipzig.  Distance: 418 km

Time spent: 15h to shortly before 20h.  

Average speed: approximately 100km/h (I guess)

Method of travel: black 2015 Mini Cooper S Diesel: “George”.  

Soundtrack: Bob Dylan “Another Side of Bob Dylan”, brief moments of “Shot of Love”, cricket commentary from the 2nd Test of England versus West Indies, followed be “John Wesley Harding”, “Blonde on Blonde” and “Highway 61”.  

A surprisingly easy journey.  I just drove right across Germany, easy as you like!  I’ve had far worse journeys that have taken a lot longer - various trips to Berlin and Munich that always ended up in terrible traffic jams, stress, and fatigue etc.  This was nothing like that; a bit of pissing about in NRW, but on the whole remarkably smooth, and I really enjoyed it, surprise of surprises.  Having the music really helped.  After the slightly bitchy start I came across the BEST GODDAMNED ROAD EVER BUILT in the A38 heading into Leipzig too, and the rest was just heavenly.  If tarmac could be art, this is it.  It certainly puts NRW to shame, where putting your foot down is a juddering, uneven chore.  This red-tinged, achingly flat and smooth motorway runs for miles and miles, and despite thinking that I would be Mr Sensible and keep everything at 130km/h or below, she whispered “make love to me” at around 16:30, and who was I to refuse?  I averaged between 170 and 180km/h for a good hour and it was GLORIOUS.  Only in Germany!  

The car: George is a good car, and I’m realising that more and more.  The only thing I don’t quite like about him is the automatic transmission; it gives a slight homogenised, less active feeling.  But I love how for a “small” car he’s actually pretty powerful.  He could do with a bit more “oomph” from around 120 - 150 km/h, but that’s what you look for in a more performance-oriented car, and I might see what I can do about that in a few months’ time.    

The soundtrack: it’s a funny thing, I thought I’d get more out of it, as far as listening to Dad’s music would go.  But I realised that even though I hadn’t heard a lot of it lately (not really by design, it was due to my old mobile having such a pitiful amount of space, so no room for music) that a lot of his music became “my” music well into adulthood, and I had forgotten that.  I know a good deal of it by heart!  So it didn’t really put me into much of a nostalgic mood the way I thought that it might.  Dylan is awesome though, give or take a bit of shrill harmonica playing, and a few of the earlier songs being a bit..... I dunno - sophomoric?  Unsophisticated?  Terrible words to describe arguably the best singer-songwriter that ever lived, but not every genius is a genius all that time, it’s clear.  

The hotel: pretty good.  A bit of messing around in check-in which everyone hates, but it’s definitely of good quality.  Enjoyed a “Vesper” in the cocktail bar after check-in, and am looking forward to the breakfast tomorrow.  

Conclusions: a good day.  Didn’t reflect, plot, scheme, or change the world in my head as much as I thought I might, but there’s a long way to go yet.  Definitely a good start though, and I’m very glad I’m making the trip.  Might change the format tomorrow and expand on a few things rather than boiling everything down to categories.  

The Alan W Memorial Tour

My father died last year.  It has been...... quite a thing, as I guess it is for everyone when they lose a parent.  My situation is made somewhat more complicated for lots of reasons though, being that I lived on the other side of the planet from him for some seventeen and a half years before he died, and that he was actually my adoptive father.  He was my mother’s second husband and adopted me at the same time that they got married.  I had zero contact with my biological father from the ages of about two through sixteen, so when I talk about fathers and dads I definitely mean my adoptive father, being that he was the man that brought me up.  He’s also the only man I would dream of calling “Dad”.  It’s complicated, and I might get into some of the whys and wherefores of all of that over the next few weeks; we’ll see.  In the interim, go and watch Jerry Maguire with Tom Cruise.  It’ll help provide context.  

Dad died at the tail-end of a tour I had in Australia, just before I was about to head into a really hectic period singing in an opera in Cologne.  After the opera finished, things got very complicated with legal stuff, and then Covid hit.  There has been..... a lot on the table since he left us, much of it related to him and much of it not.  As many of us have  (I guess), I’ve been putting out a lot of fires lately, and I’ve wanted to spend some time on my own thinking about him, listening to his music, trying to come to grips with his legacy (financial and otherwise) and what sort of a man I want to be moving forward in his absence.  My life is going to change hugely in the next few months, I’m not allowed to work anyway, and it seemed to me to be a a good time to spend some time alone, go on a long-ish journey, and think.  The subsequent posts will be the results of that.  

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Where are all the good female characters?

A little while ago, I downloaded Amazon Prime.  I was pretty much forced to - Amazon offered me a free trail and I forgot to cancel before they loaded €50 onto my Mastercard.  These are the perils of having an account in a language you don't properly speak yet!  Unfortunately you really do need to use when you live in Germany - using the version only precipitates extra delivery charges, and there isn't a magic button you can press to have it all appear in English.  

It all worked out ok though, as despite the fact that most of the shows are in German, there's still a good proportion of them that appear in their original version, or "OV".  There are loads of things actually, and they're adding to the list all the time.  I was disappointed not to find Mad Men or Community under the list of shows that I could watch without paying extra, but had heard good things about Breaking Bad, so decided to give that a go.  Which...... pretty much put paid to the next two months of my life, as I developed a dependence in no time at all.  Wow - what a piece of work that show is.  Its Wikipedia page describes it as being "considered one of the best television shows of all time" and it is a well-deserved assessment.  I was going through my Mad Men and Game of Thrones stage when everyone was watching Breaking Bad, and I wish someone had told me about it!  The writing, the story, the character development, the conflicts, the acting - even just the concept is quite brilliant.  We've been told lately that we're going through a Golden Age of television, and with shows like these it's easy to see why.  It seems that have eschewed the tired cops and robbers/doctors and nurses/legal formats, and now we have mould-breaking, unique stories about seemingly real people with real conflicts and flaws.  Mad Men is similar - you won't find "New York period drama about advertising" in the Little Golden Book of Television Clichés either, and along with other intelligent programming like House of Cards, House and the afore-mentioned Game of Thrones, the claim has been made that we've finally grown up as audiences and are watching more nuanced, sophisticated storylines with more realistic, flawed characters.  Thank God.  We have the Sopranos to thank for it, apparently.    

And yet!  

The other day, to my intense regret, I ran out of Breaking Bad.  Along with everyone else who has seen it, my head exploded with the brilliance of the last episode and the sheer poetry of it all.  I watched and re-watched the last ten minutes or so over and over, read about the development of the series, learnt about the choice of final song for the closing stages, saw interviews with the actors online, and pretty much did all the things that sad, pathetic people who are hooked on a tv show do when they can't let go.  It seemed like I would never quite be the same again, but after the appropriate mourning period I set about trying to find something else to become worryingly addicted to.  I'd probably had my fill of harrowing violence and plot twists for awhile, so decided to try "Alpha House" - a light, fluffy sitcom about the Republican Party, which surpassed expectations despite the fact that I got bored of it midway through the second season.  I went looking for something a little more substantial earlier this week however, and had quite a lot to choose from.  In the 24 hours or so following a return from a really intense tour, normally premium time for me to put my eyes on screen-saver and take in as many films and tv shows as I can, I tried in no particular order, "The Man In The High Castle" (definitely promising), "Vikings" (up and down), "Transparent" (weird), and "Secret Diary of a Call-Girl" (meh).  Eventually I decided I might want to try some legalise though, and tried both "Damages" and "The Good Wife".  They both had good casts (Damages stars Glenn Close for instance) and are both clearly aimed at a female market, and I thought that along with my Facebook feed they might contribute to further rounding out of my slovenly male personality and dragging me just that little bit more out of the patriarchy.  Much of the above television that I've seen stars male and female characters, but men were invariably the main pro/antagonists - it would be good to see what female characters could do in hard-hitting drama.  

If you haven't seen either of them, here's a brief summary.  The Good Wife: a lawyer turned housewife is forced to return to the profession to support her family after her State Attorney husband is accused of sleeping with prostitutes on the government purse.  Damages: a hotshot young female law graduate accepts a position with a prestigious New York law firm, and becomes the protégée of the ruthless, manipulative senior partner.  Not bad to start with, huh?  Plenty of room for conflict, twists and turns and general character study, right?  Well.  

Unfortunately I was met with a big, fat bunch of cliché and total lack of plausibility.  Some of it was basic television cliché (everyone in The Good Wife boasts model-esque good looks and wardrobes, even the people that work in the call centre for strippers in the second episode), but perhaps more alarmingly, a lot of it was motivated from a sexual politics standpoint that verged on the downright irresponsible, if not just really boring.  Here's a brief run-down, taken from only the first couple of episodes and a bit of forward reading in the episode guides:
- Damages: the young protégée is never really seen to do any real work and always has time for her family and friends, despite the fact that she'd be expected to pump out an eight-day week and take loads of work home with her  
- Both: the protagonists have the ears of senior partners and play major parts in important cases from the outset of the show, desipte the likelihood (particularly in Damages) that they would start in very junior positions 
- Both: the bad guys are always men and they always lose, no matter how much money they've got and how many platinum gold lawyers they're toting.  This is taken to extremes in only the second episode of The Good Wife when the plaintiff, an achingly glamorous rape victim, turns down a $450,000 settlement on a point of principle for a crime she can't prove 
- The Good Wife: despite her husband being caught literally with his pants down, our herione Stands By Her Man with only token moments of anger at his obvious and public betrayal.  Her house is also always immaculate and her kids are perfect angels - insert "domestic Goddess" cliché here
- Damages: despite her Ivy League education, it is revealed that the protégée is from a working-class background, 'cos y'know, that's where all New York corporate lawyers come from.        

..... I could go on.  

So much of what has been impressive about shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad is that the characters are "real" people.  In some cases they're anti-heroes, who do frankly horrible things.  Don Draper is a sexist, selfish, philandering alcoholic and a bully.  Walter White is a ruthless, violent killer who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, no matter the collateral damage to his family and those around him.  These are bad men!  And yet we love them for all the horror they bring to proceedings, just as we loved Tony Soprano.  Finally we see that the messages television shows are bringing is not delivered on some pink cloud where all the protagonists are nobly motivated.  Have we grown up on that basis, though?

I'm not so sure, because it seems to me that these characters are all men.  Yes, there are plenty of "supporting" female characters in these shows that could be described as being realistic, but when it comes to genuinely plot-hinging character studies with just enough darkness, evil and menace, it's the men who portray them, and carry the shows on that basis.  We like these men because we believe in them, but we also like them because we're afraid of them.  Where are the female equivalents?  

What disappointed me so much about The Good Wife and Damages is that we saw women cast in pivotal, leading roles who were still playing the part of the "perfect" woman - or the perfect "modern" woman, at least.  The characters have it all - looks, carriage, money, great careers, power and influence, but tellingly, active and rewarding personal lives and families which they seem to maintain with ease.  They are shown in moments of domestic harmony and social and romantic bliss, and they never have an angry or impatient word for anyone, despite carrying what would be incredibly demanding workloads and working long hours.  These are women who have broken the glass ceiling perhaps a little more easily than you would expect.  We already know how difficult that is, but witness the other elements of their stories - the facile way that they're both employed, the responsibilities that are handed to them so early in their tenures, the Cinderella-story rises to influence so soon after being hired.  Answer me seriously - do women actually believe this crap?  

Maybe I'm being over-critical, though - we all like a bit of fantasy after all.  I have more concerns, though.  What frustrates me most about both of these shows is that they masquerade as feminist pieces about powerful strong women, when the opposite couldn't be more true.  Both our protagnonists are passengers, if not actual victims.  The storylines happen to them, not the other way around.  The Good Wife is forced to return to professional life after her husband publicly misbehaves, and has to deal with his rival trying to trip her up every step of the way.  She also only seems to represent women, who are also vicitims, invariably of male bad behaviour, who often seek solace from her on the basis that "she knows what it feels like".  The character in Damages is flung head-long into a maelstrom of greed, ambition, organised crime and violence when all she wanted was to augment her already already perfect life with a cushy job in a law firm.  At no stage that I have seen do either of either of these characters ever really take charge - the entire premise of the shows are that they are victims of circumstance, and inevitably, male lust and greed.  By contrast, television audiences all over the world can't get enough of chemistry teachers leading criminal double-lives, wildly hedonistic advertising executives, drug-addicted, sociopathic doctors holding entire hospitals to ransom, and forensic scientists who are vigilante serial killers in their spare time, all of whom make life-changing, devil-may-care decisions at every turn, because that's what men do.   

I don't know about you, but I know what I'd rather watch!  

As far I'm concerned, this raises some interesting thoughts about the perception of men and women within the broader community.  In the past few years, discussions on topics such as wage inequality, rape and sexual assault, domestic violence, sexism and mysogyny, fat-shaming, revenge-porn, and cat-calling have become more and more common.  You could throw in the continued criticisms of male-dominated religious institutions as well.  This has also been conducted to the backdrop of an economic crisis that (certainly if you're European) just doesn't seem to want to go away, which has affected everyone's lives on the basis of the banking sector's greed and mis-management.  It has become more and more apparent that when the world closes its eyes and thinks of the face of evil, the image that is brought to mind is one of a man, and a white man at that - something all these characters have in common.       
Is this why we're making television about male characters who are all bastards?  Who knows.  If so, it does seem rather ironic that the image of man has taken a beating, and what has transpired is some really good telly, and maybe even a pop-culture inspired carte blanche for men to behave even worse because that's what Don Draper would do.  Life does imitate art afer all.  It seems a shame however that the humble television show, one of our most ubiquitous and culturally influential art forms, continues to show women as largely cardboard cut-outs by comparison, even when it's clear that someone's making an effort.  Maybe we will only truly grow up when we are prepared to portray their flaws as well.  

Never a truer word spoken

 I love this: Al Murray - or his alter-ego, the Pub Landlord - is always good for a one-liner.  This show is from a long time ago, 2004 I th...