A Return to the Fray

August 26, 2014

It has been a long time since I posted here. Life has been a wee bit busy since I last posted and this blog has been something I have left untended. Even though I have no idea how regular I will update this, it is worth looking at starting again and what better to do so than the return of Doctor Who the the small screen?

As the picture above shows, the venerable show has returned with a new face.  Indeed, this has been much more of a facelift than the usual change that happens with Doctor Who.  Over the last fifty years, the once revolutionary idea of the series’ central character changing his face has become almost common place.  It has given the show the great ability to reinvent itself and this new Doctor’s first episode suggests that the reinvention shall be more marked than any since the show’s rebirth in 2005, not least the fact that, for the first time since that rebirth, the Doctor is being portrayed by an actor older than the show itself.

From the off, the difference was clearly visible.  Not only had they rearranged the theme music, they had rearranged the whole titles too.  Gone was the vortex type design that had been the theme since 2005 and instead there were cog wheels and a spiral clock face, which I have to say I loved.   This emphasised the time travel aspect of the show. With the Victorian setting, the clockwork inspired titles and a clockwork villain in the first episode, the press have made much of a possible steampunk aesthetic developing into the show. Perhaps that is the case, though the new arrangement of the theme music undercuts this.  With Murray Gold changing his orchestral arrangement of the theme into something that is far more synthesiser based, the title sequence, taken in its in its entirety, looks both to the past and to the future too.  This is entirely fitting to a show that is over fifty years old.

I don’t know if this may or may not be the case, but I saw a similar dichotomy  during Smith’s time as the  11th Doctor.  Here was a actor in his twenties, dressing like a man in his fifties, making the youthfulness energy of his portrayal contrast with his appearance.  Looking with hindsight at the change of his mid-twentieth century tweed jacket and bow tie to a longer frock coat and a darkening of the Tardis interior to the industrially metallic interior that first appeared in the 2012 Christmas episode, it seems as if Smith’s final series as the Doctor was pointing towards the darker suited, somewhat fierce scot that the Doctor has become.

That, as they say, is mere conjecture and time will tell whether the the Doctor’s adventures will return to the darker tone of the third and fourth incarnations stories.  Certainly, it is to be hoped that Capaldi’s gruff assertion to his companion Clara that he is not her boyfriend will finally lay to rest the mawkish sentimentality that so bedevilled how the Doctor related to his companions since the show’s renaissance in 2005.  Managing the change in that dynamic was always going to be tricky and the writer and executive producer, Steven Moffat, handled it well.  The scene between the Doctor and Clara in the restaurant was excellent, the dialogue sharp and full of wit, as one would expect from the writer who produced the excellent sitcom, Coupling.

Doctor Who has never been averse to recalling old antagonists.  After all the use of enemies from the classic era was something to keep those who fondly remembered the “classic” episodes engaged.  There is, after all, a peculiar pleasure in identifying the antagonist before it was revealed.  This has been something that those who joined the show’s watchers since 2005 have, by and large lacked.  Well, it’s 2014 now and the show has been going nine years in its new form and so has built up enough “new” enemies to reuse them.  In the past, this has been obvious, with the Ood’s, the Slitheen’s and the Weeping Angel’s reappearances.   This time, though, the nod to the earlier use of clockwork androids in The Girl in the Fireplace was more subtle and I loved that, just as I loved the genuine horror of the androids of the implied use by the androids of human spare parts.  When the Slitheen did it in 2005 it was lightened with fart gags and forehead zippers.  With the androids, particularly with their half-faced controller such leavening was entirely absent.

There have been darker episodes in the ‘new Who’ before: The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, Blink and Silence in the Library & Forest of the Dead are notable examples. That these went on to be the best received episodes says much about what the public want from Doctor Who.  That the new incarnation of the Doctor starts off with such an episode, that Capaldi’s Doctor sits down with the a glass of whisky saying, that he was concerned that he might have to kill the antagonist and therefore needed a drink tells us that this is, indeed, a darker adult Doctor, who is no longer afraid to get his hands dirty.  Neither Tennant’s nor Smith’s incarnations would have been so coldly hands-on.  Ecclestone’s showed the potential, particularly in the episode Dalek but all three of them seemed shy of doing what was necessary, leaving the violence to peripheral characters.

With the fiftieth anniversary episode, The Day of the Doctor, the reason for this becomes clear, when John Hurt’s War Doctor asks Tennant’s and Smith’s Doctors, “When did I become afraid to be a grown-up?”  The answer to that question, that the Doctor believed himself responsible for the destruction of the entire Time Lord race, his own species, would be enough to make anyone shy of violence. The resolution of that programme, with the revelation that the Doctor had instead preserved the Time Lords from total destruction freed him from that guilt.  The follow- up episode, The Time of the Doctor, gave him the catharsis he needed, ostensibly by sacrificing his life to save the people of Trenzelor and to keep the Time Lord’s from emerging into an ambush.  This allowed the Doctor to grow up once more and this, I believe will be the true tone of the new series, not a dark tone for darkness’ sake but because adults face darker situations than children.  In short, I believe that the “new Who” has come of age.

So was it a good episode? Yes, it was.  It wasn’t the best but it was still good.  Here’s hoping the future stays bright.

How to Succeed in Starfleet

May 2, 2012

According to James T. Kirk there are 30 simple steps…

1. Is your antagonist a ship? Yes 12 No 2
2. Is your antagonist a life form? Yes 4 No 3
3. Is your antagonist a computer or robot? Yes 17 No 9
4. Is your antagonist humanoid? Yes 7 No 5
5. Is your antagonist noncorporeal? Yes 6 No 9
6. Can your antagonist be convinced to become a corporeal female? Yes 23 No 21
7. Is your antagonist female? Yes 23 No 8
8. Is your antagonist male? Yes No 27
9. Make it Spock’s problem
10. Goto 29
11. Have you neutralised the threat? Yes 29 No 9
12. Is your antagonist > 500m away? Yes 13 No 15
13. Play dead
14. Goto 12
15. Phaser the sucker
16. Goto 11.
17. Spout paradoxes
18. Have you neutralised the threat? Yes 29 No 19
19. Ask it to tell you the last digit of pi
20. Goto 11
21. Wait because a non corporeal parent figure will save your arse.
22. Have you neutralised the threat? Yes 29 No 21
23. Shagathon
24. Have you neutralised the threat? Yes 29 No 23
25. Brawl
26. Goto 11
27. Get Scotty to invite your antagonist on a drinking binge
28. Goto 11
29. Bask in the glory of being the greatest starship captain ever
30. End

Fish rot from the head down

January 22, 2012

Leadership is critical in any organisation

I found coverage of Michael Gove’s recent changes to employment conditions interesting as the clear implication is that this will empower head teachers to sack poorly performing teachers.  What it does not do is, perhaps, the most important thing it needs to do, which is to make it easier to identify and dismiss underperforming head teachers.

Leadership is critical in any organisation and in schools this is almost certainly so.  If the head is incompetent then no matter how good the teachers are, the school will not flourish.  One person can make a hell of a difference to a school, if that person has control of the school’s policies and staffing.  A good head teacher promotes good discipline in pupils and empowers teachers to make a difference in their pupils’ expectations of learning.  Poor head teachers are typically weak when disciplining pupils and strong when disciplining teachers.  The result of this is that teachers lose the confidence to assert themselves while at the same time pupils assert their desire to do less and less.  As the Greeks say, “Fish rot from the head down.”

Eventually Ofsted arrives

Not surprisingly, in such a case, students’ achievement drops and questions are asked.  Those questions are answered mainly by examining data about the school.  This data is provided in the form of the school SEF or self evaluation form, in which the head teacher describes the student results and tries to explain why they are the way they are.  As self preservation is a deeply ingrained instinct in the human race, an incompetent head will attempt to deflect as much criticism from himself (or herself) and onto others, thus the head survives.

Of course, eventually, Ofsted arrives and inspects the school. However, the starting point for inspection is the SEF and, consequently, the head still has a degree of protection.  If the head has taken action to deal with the weaknesses in the SEF, such as instituting disciplinary or capability procedures against staff who appear weak, then the head will survive.  By weak, I don’t mean poorly performing, I mean emotionally frail.

Apply enough pressure to such a teacher and they will crack.  The pressure may be increases in workload, lack of support in key decisions or in discipline, it might even be repeatedly questioning their judgment.  Wait until they are particularly vulnerable and observe a lesson with their worst behaved class and judge it less than equitably.  Tell them that they will be observed in a week with the same class justifying it by saying that this is to avoid capability being invoked against them and there’s the recipe to a guaranteed unsatisfactory lesson.  I know of one case in which a teacher was put through this with a disruptive year 11 class (who were underperforming for the other two teachers that shared the class) less than 10 working days after returning to work from six weeks absence due to work related stress.

Cause and solution for the school’s problems in one neat package

Of course, in most cases, a teacher’s work related stress is due to poor work-life balance and poor discipline in the school.  Both of these are controlled by the head teacher.  Of course teachers suffering from such high levels of stress  will never perform at their best, just as in such a climate, pupils will fail to achieve.  However, the head teacher can point to the fact they have identified a failing teacher and are dealing with them to neatly show an Ofsted inspector cause and solution for the school’s problems in one neat package, allowing the status quo to be maintained.

The paramount importance of a good head

Please bear in mind that I am not saying that most head teachers are like this.  I have personally seen one head take a failing school and in three years almost treble its 5 A*-C percentage at GCSE and pretty much double its roll.  That she did so with a very small turnover of staff (as compared with the turnover in most schools in stable conditions) shows just how important a head teacher can be. That another head teacher came to that school years later and, within a two years, brought it to the brink of closure, where it has teetered ever since confirms it the paramount importance of a good head.

Head teachers exist in a continuum from the excellent at one end to the appallingly incompetent at the other.  The trouble is that weakness in this one person has a disproportionate effect on the effectiveness of a school.  Those at the less effective end of the continuum hide behind statistics: the statistics of falling numbers of exclusions and rising average GCSE points gained per pupil.  Neither of these statistics are necessarily what they seem.

It is futile to try and enforce discipline with an absence of back up

Falling numbers of exclusions make it look as if the school has solved discipline, so that fewer pupils need the ultimate sanction.  Conversely, it could be the case that what has simply happened is that the head has refused to authorise any exclusions and these troubled pupils are left in school to wreck the educations of their peers.  Teachers who continually report that said pupils misbehave get labelled as incapable of keeping discipline and end up being targeted, so as to save the head’s skin from the consequences of his failure to establish effective discipline.  So teachers in such a school will either “go with the flow” because it is futile to try and enforce discipline with an absence of back up or they will leave for a school where discipline is effective.

One wonders what schools that use BTECs are actually paying for

Likewise the number of GCSE equivalent points per pupil could suggest that every student is achieving highly.  Or  it could imply that students are pushed away from more difficult academic GCSE to easier vocational BTECs.  A school that does a double level 2 BTEC in Applied Science gets the equivalent number of points for 4 GCSEs at grade C in the curriculum time allowed for triple science with a far higher pass rate.  However, the school does all of the assessment work (none of it by exam) with very little checking by the exam board and yet pays the exam board more.  One wonders what schools that use BTECs are actually paying for; it’s certainly not for marking or exam administration.  Neither is it for the utility of the qualification; employers and universities are increasingly dubious of their value.  Still, a school that uses BTECs will have a good chance of all of its pupils gaining the equivalent points to 5 A*-C grades at GCSE.  I will leave it to the imagination of anyone reading to decide whether a head that has most students taking BTECs serves his or her students better or one that insists that students take a majority of GCSEs in traditional academic subjects.

Pupils and teachers are failed by poorly managed schools

If Michael Gove wants to address the problems in schools effectively, he needs to look at the calibre of head teachers.  The BBC’s Waterloo Road is frequently trailed on BBC 1 HD just before 7 p.m.  The trail is always the same and features the head teacher (played by Alec Newman) telling his staff, “I’ve never met a failing pupil but I’ve met plenty of failing teachers.”  The sentiment is a noble one, that no pupil should fail.  It is a principle that every teacher worth his or her salt believes in.  However, the second part with it’s implication that pupils only fail ecause of their teachers is less worthy.  Pupils fail in lessons for a variety of reasons, many of which are outside the teacher’s control.  Undoubtedly, there are teachers who do fail their pupils.  However, far more pupils and teachers are failed by poorly managed schools.  In my experience, the statement that a head teacher has met plenty of failing teachers says a great deal- and little of it positive- about how well that head runs his school.

The Changing Face of SyFy

May 15, 2011

I’ve still got another few weeks until Destiny sails off into whatever it sails off into but my American friends are already bemoaning the demise of Stargate: Universe.  The series has had some excellent character development with Eli becoming more assertive and beginning to believe in himself and Greer changing from being a surly liability into a dependable stalwart.   I will miss the theme music which I loved, not least for its difference to the other themes in the franchise, and, as always in these situations, I will forever wonder what would have happened in the end.  Well, I’ll wonder about it for a couple of weeks at any rate.

We can analyse why the series failed and I don’t think we will ever get the right answer.  Undoubtedly a lot of it has to do with SyFy’s change in tone in an attempt to move it from a genre channel showing reruns of shows that were originally shown elsewhere with a smattering of its own original products to the niche that had previously been taken by the Hallmark channel.  In such a place, something as dark (and not just in terms of the lighting) as SGU did not fit.  There were, after all, precious few episodes that ended with those last five minute tension breakers that characterised the other SG series and pretty much the whole of the Star Trek franchise.  I couldn’t really imagine Young, Rush and Telford sitting round a table in the mess hall making a quip about whatever they had just faced in the manner of Kirk, Spock and McKoy at the end of a Star Trek episode and that’s pretty much de rigeur for the family orientated shows that are becoming the SyFy norm.

I would imagine that as the SyFy channel continues to evolve there will be a few of the lighter shows there, like Eureka and Warehouse 13  but I predict that the ultimate SyFy series will be something like CSI:Tycho set on a colony on the moon in the near but indeterminate future, in which a team of cynical detectives each with their own characteristic character flaws will solve crimes using an array of technology that is not too different from our own.

The team leader in CSI:Tycho will be a male, heterosexual, charismatic (and yet for some reason still single) recovering alcoholic,  while his trusted lieutentant will be an attractive third generation female  lunar colonist.  She will possess some mutation that she is keeping secret from the rest of the team that was the result of poor shielding from cosmic rays in the early days of the colony.  These two will be aided in their investigations by a crusty old medical examiner of European descent (most likely Scots), a young female detective with a crush on her boss and a fascination for handguns, a once disgraced detective (either sex), in whom the team leader saw True Potential (TM),  and an autistic technician with a interest in an obscure youth subculture.  Whether or not the series will feature a theme tune from The Who back catalogue is a matter of debate.

However, much of the SyFy produce will be the truly dire made for TV movies that are already becoming more and more common.  I’m not sure if SyFy is trying to capture the “so bad it’s good” market with fare such as Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus but they too often fall short of the mark and hit the “so bad it’s merely bad” target right in the gold.  When you consider the fact that they changed the channel branding to move away from the supposed ridicule that “SciFi” gave them to “SyFy” in an attempt to be taken seriously by the mainstream, the proliferation of such dross seems counter productive.

Silly spellings neither generate mainstream appeal nor make one appear to be edgy and relevant.  Likewise, dumbing down simply alienates what has been shown to be viewer base that can be loyal to the point of obsessiveness.  Shows like SGU, while dark, are intelligent and thought provoking and a channel wanting to show that it’s produce is not mere fluff with added lasers and explosions would be better promoting such shows than consigning them to the cutting room waste bin.

What is it with UFOs?

August 8, 2010

Call them flying saucers, UFOs or the paranoid imaginings of the impressionable, UFOs have held a fascination for the public for over half a century. Indeed, queries about UFOs are the third most common request under the Freedom of Information Act to be submitted to the Ministry of Defence.

Now a lot of our fascination with the idea comes from popular culture, it’s true. The figures, in Britain at any rate, suggest that the peak of UFO sightings exactly matched the most popular period for the series, The X Files.  Similarly, the particular appearance of our supposed alien visitors that is entrenched in the popular psyche, that of the so-called “grey” is most probably a result of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Before the film there were no descriptions in the reports submitted by those who had apparently met extra-terrestrial visitors to our planet that matched Spielberg’s now iconic aliens.  After the film almost every alien abductor was short, skinny, grey skinned and bald with big slanted almond-shaped eyes.

So this tells us that a lot of eye-witness reports are unreliable.  I’ll not go as far as saying that all such reports are made up by people desperate for some form of attention, though inevitably some of them are.  Some might well be the result of the wholly natural and well understood phenomenon of the subconscious inventing things when one tries to piece together memories of a partially remembered event.

The research of the metropolitan police in this regard, has been quite shocking.  Where in the past, eye-witness testimony has been considered to be the most reliable form of evidence, after hard forensic facts like fingerprints, it has been shown to be dreadfully fallible.  Unconsciously, without intending to, people fill in the blanks in their memories with invention and so will remember inaccurate facts and yet believe these inaccuracies and are astonished when they see film footage. The experiment below shows how easy it is for us to miss quite obvious things, when our attention is diverted.

Now, it’s one thing to miss something, to say that it’s not there but it’s another to add a detail that wasn’t there, isn’t it? Well, let’s think about that, shall we? One of the reasons that so many people miss the detail in the clip above is because that detail does not make sense. There is no logical reason for it to be there, and so our mind invents a reality that does not include it.

It is a facet of the human mind that has been used by illusionists for hundreds of years. In a lot of cases, a simple sleight is not enough to make a memorable trick. A lot of illusionists will also misdirect with suggestions allowing the audience to magnify the trick they’ve witnessed to far greater proportions than what was actually achieved.

I would note, at this point that I’m not one of those sad individuals who watch magic tricks trying to “catch the magician out”. I see little point in wasting my time and money in such a mean-spirited pursuit. The point I’m making is that our memories are not as accurate as we think they are. Indeed, to return to the metropolitan police research, it has been learned that when interviewing witnesses, the interviewer must be remarkably careful not to inadvertently introduce suggestions which the interviewee will subsequently remember.

Simply put, we see something, but often we do not see the whole of it. So our subconscious makes up details to explain what we have seen to match what we believe was going on. Often this interpretation is dependent on suggestion. Thus a farmer, in an out-of-the-way location, might be scared by some unknown apparition one night. As recently as a hundred years ago he might have claimed it was a ghost and have believed he saw particular details of the ghost (such as a severed head held under the arm) even when such details were not actually visible. Nowadays, faced with the same phenomenon, a farmer might see a little grey alien coming from the bright light of “his” space ship. A more rational observer might record seeing St Elmo’s fire or an ignis fatuus and describe the wholly natural phenomena that produce either.

In any case, the whole phenomenon of UFOs is a remarkably enduring one and the recent revelations that Winston Churchill covered up wartime UFO reports will only aid the popular belief in them to continue.  While the rationalist in me must look at the whole UFO phenomenon with sceptical eyes, I should hate to live in a world where there was no possibility that we might be visited by those from another world.  With our current understanding of science, it is entirely likely that life does exist on planets other than Earth.  However, I would bet that it isn’t bipedal, short and grey.

Observations in Athens

April 21, 2010

Just as a little warning, some users have been having trouble seeing the pictures. They are there, so please be patient. If anyone knows a fix I can apply, please drop me a comment with advice

One might think from the image above that a lot of these observations will be on food. In the time we’ve been here, both on holiday and due to our enforced wait here thanks to the effing volcano in Iceland, we have eaten a lot and eaten well. The local souvlaki place, Stavros’ Inn, has seen our patronage several times, as has the food chain Everest, where they produce incredibly good (and cheap) toasted custom made subs. The place is like Subway on steroids and is utterly awesome and I cannot recommend the place highly enough. Their fresh salads are also customisable and, more importantly, actually fresh and they provide a range of baked goods: pizzas, foccaccias and greek pies and so on, to boot. The dish above came from a place whose name translates as “Grandpa’s Pittas” and was their mixed grill with roasted vegetables.

An inevitable result of all of this foody goodness is that the pounds have been piling on, despite the walking we’ve been doing. Athens is a pretty good city to get around in on foot. A lot of that stems from the fact that it is an appaling place to drive around. Judging from driver behaviour, I think that a car would fail the Greek equivalent of the MoT test if it’s horn’s noise output is below a certain number of decibels. The roads are packed with cars whose drivers seem to view their indicators as oddities. I have been surprised by the number of drivers here who have used their hazard warning lights when about to park. That might have something to do with a certain tendency to park in the middle of the road, as the car in the foreground of following photograph shows. The photo is remarkable as it also shows a car in the distance using its indicator.

Still the point is, that we’ve been doing a lot of walking around and that’s what I want to devote this blog to, pictures I’ve taken while wandering around Athens. Of course, public transport does feature, from the excellent Athens Metro to the chaos at the airport as flights were canceled all over the place last Thursday. And that seems a great place to start:

This photo was taken through the window of a cafe in the airport Metro station, while we were “enjoying” a lack-lustre iced coffee while waiting for the metro strike to end on the Thursday the flights were canceled. You can see where the planes have just been lined up to get them out of the way while the flights that could go ahead were moving.

The metro in Athens has impressed me from the very first time I came here. When there isn’t a (fortunately rare) strike, the trains are on time and they’ve really made an effort to give the stations an individual feel from the blue green of Victoria (does every city have a station called Victoria) and the orange tiles of Ommonia to the Victorian class of Monastiraki, which has to be my favourite station, so here’s a picture.

Of course, Monastiraki opens up to the whole archeological district. There’s a great deal there from the Temple of Hephaestus at Thyssio, where Theseus is reputedly buried. However, towering over all of this is the Acropolis and it is of this that I’ve chosen a picture, with the Stoa of Attalus in the foreground.

Of course, the modern streets of Athens lack the classical proportions of the ancient buildings. Even so I find much to recommend them. The way that apartment owners will use plants to enhance their balconies always impresses me…

The one thing that does saddens me about the place is the amount of graffiti; it seems to get everywhere, from public buildings to the sides of people’s homes. The next two pictures show this, from one where the graffiti is just left to another where they are trying to remove it. The pictures also show the Greek love of animals too.

And I guess now we’re coming full circle, back to food. As we walked to the supermarket this evening we took this route…

The supermarkets are very different from those in England. Most are on more than one floor and the ground floor is normally fresh food. The one we looked at tonight was remarkable for the way that it made fresh produce central to the whole store and it is with that I shall end, with the view down to the ground floor from the stairs.

Watching the Election from Abroad

April 18, 2010

I was hoping, on Thursday, to be home in time to see the big debate on ITV but, as has been noted earlier, some Icelandic volcano with a name that I struggle to even think about pronouncing had different ideas. So I’ve been trying to keep abreast of developments in the campaigns via the internet over my trusty iPhone.

The first thing I should like to say is that I’m not especially partisan, aside from the fact that I am heartily sick of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister. I was less than enchanted, too, it must be said, with Tony Blair. I found his presidential style frankly at odds with British democracy and I can only say that over the years since ’97, it seems to me that New Labour has broken the promises they made to get elected. We were promised and end to sleaze and a new style of inclusive politics, promises the Gordon Brown reiterated as he was appointed, rather than elected, by his party as Prime Minister in ’07. Yet it seems, as the election draws near, sleaze is worse than ever and politics has become more partisan than it had been before, focusing far more on the personalities of the party leaders than on the policies they wish to implement.

So much for inclusive politics and so much for moral respectability from our politicians. I know that New Labour is not entirely to blame for this state of affairs and that the other parties have their own skeletons hidden in their closets. However, a party that initially got elected on a platform that denounced other parties as being sleazy at best and corrupt at worst, deserves particular contempt for presiding over a government that has seen the Houses of Parliament descend into new lows in the estimation of the British public.

At the same time, we have seen the individual rights and freedoms of UK citizens increasingly and dramatically curtailed. There are now more surveillance cameras per head of population in the UK than in any other country and yet, British citizens can face arrest for taking photographs in public areas. All, we are told, in an effort to protect our liberty. In the same way, there are adverts on the TV encouraging people to inform on “benefit cheats” while at the same time, the benefits system is made so impenetrable and Byzantine in its complexity that millions of pounds in benefits are left unclaimed each year, mostly by those who need them most. It remains to be seen whether a new government will change this, but somehow, I doubt it; the last thirteen years of broken promises have left me very cynical.

Still, my main issue here is not so much to rant about the current government, satisfying as it is, but to look at how the election is being covered. On Greek TV they are very much concerned with the election- that and the travel chaos, of course- though they are concentrating very much on the party leaders. From the various bits that I can glean from the internet (the BBC and Sky News websites are godsends at this trying time waiting) this seems not too dissimilar from what is occurring in the UK.

I would say that a great part of this is a result of the series of debates between the party leaders. Even though there has only been the one, so far, it has moved perceptions away from the fact that in Britain, we vote for a party to govern us and not a Prime Minister. The analyses of the first debate that I have been able to read seem to confirm this. As Nick Clegg is perceived as having performed best in the first debate, the his party, Liberal Democrats, have improved dramatically in the polls. Consequently, there has been a lot of analysis of why that was. There was a moderately interesting report on Sky News which analysed the body language of the three leaders.

Apparently, it seems that all three have been well schooled in avoiding what is termed as leakage, namely avoiding giving away their true intentions by their body language. In short this tells us something we already know about successful: that they are deceptive. Clegg, as befits the supposed winner, was analysed in detail. Giving his attention to the camera and not the audience made him more appealing to the voters at home, we are told and Cameron, we are also told, was the least successful in hiding his disappointment in his performance.

Well, I don’t know what I think about this, if I’m honest. Do I really want the next leader of my country chosen on how accomplished he is at deceiving the public? It might be true that this is what we have been doing all along, but I dislike the fact that this medium is actively promoting that. I’m not saying that any of them are liars, though I can’t believe that any of them can have risen to the political heights they have without bending the odd truth here or there. I just dislike this focus on personality rather than policy.

In a general election, we really ought to chose based on the policies of the parties, but then I guess I am naive in thinking that that is how it is done. Of course people vote on personalities and they vote tactically too. The fact that this is so does not mean that we should embrace it. Indeed, we should strive against it. Unfortunately, it seems that many of my countrymen will vote based on one of three criteria. Firstly, they might vote for the party leader that is most telegenic. Secondly, they may vote for the party that they think is going to win, as bizarrely, a large number of people seem to confuse voting with betting. Lastly, they might vote tactically, to avoid a hung parliament.

Indeed, Britain seems to have a particular horror of coalitions and so, good as Nick Clegg’s performance was, I doubt that in the long run, neither his personality nor his policies will be taken into account. Instead, they will vote for the Tories to remove Gordon Brown or they will vote Labour if they don’t trust David Cameron. And that, to me is the real tragedy. That the personalities of these two party leaders will determine the election and not their parties policies, nor the policies of any of the other parties for that matter, is something that seems dreadfully apparent, looking at it from the outside rather than from within Britain.


April 16, 2010

In case you had not noticed in the news, an Icelandic volcano has erupted. Now, normally, such matters are of little concern to me. Generally the Icelanders are canny enough not to live anywhere that might be in danger from the many volcanoes that exist in their country and, aside from the odd picturesque photograph of spurting lava, there is little to interest the average Briton in the volcanic geology of this cold island.

However, this time an Icelandic volcano’s effect has been long reaching indeed. The ash-cloud spurted out by the Eyjafjallajokull volcano has meant that UK airspace was closed on Thursday morning for the first time since the terrorist atrocity that destroyed New York’s twin towers. However, a day later, UK airspace is still closed and, the latest estimate is that the very earliest it is likely to open is 7 a.m. on Saturday morning. Given the fact that these estimates change frequently, the chances are that 7 a.m. is somewhat optimistic. In the meantime, airtravel across Europe is disrupted and it seems that nobody is going anywhere, except by overpriced and overpacked train.

My own personal experience with this was one of being right in the thick of things as they happened. I arrived at Athens airport early on Thursday morning ready to return home after a rather pleasant holiday visiting the Dragon-in-law. Given that we like to arrive as check in opens and that Eleftherios Venizelos airport is one of the more efficient airports in the world, we didn’t think anything was up as we saw no queues at the check in desk. The attendant there told us that the flight we were due to get was delayed, pending news about the volcanic ash cloud and that we should go to the Olympic Air ticket office for a voucher for lunch. By the time we had walked the score of steps to the ticket office, the situation had changed and the flight had been canceled. Thus, we were advised to leave them a contact phone number so that we could be placed on the next possible flight back to Britain.

At that point, we would have returned to the Dragon-in-law’s, since we were more fortunate than many of those there in having somewhere to return to. My heart goes out to all of those who were scrambling for a hotel place. However, Greek industrial relations had its part to play. Not only had they scheduled a public transport strike, but the taxis were also on strike. We had only been able to get to the airport thanks to a typically Greek arrangement: the cousin of my Dark Lady’s cousin’s boyfriend was available to drop us off at the airport. Unfortunately, by the time the flight was canceled, he had departed the airport. We were stuck there until five p.m. when the strike on the metro was over.

So it was that seven-and-a-half hours later, we squeezed our mountain of luggage onto a commuter train that was even more packed that was usual for rush hour, thanks to all of those traveling after the strike had ceased. This was not the easiest of things to accomplish, as you might imagine, but eventually we were met by the Dragon-in-law at the local station. Now, I might take the mick a bit, with my moniker for her, but she really is a generous (if very fierce) soul and it was all I could do to stop her from trying to pick up the heaviest of the bags. Fortunately, we made it back to her den without any of us suffering serious injury from carrying the bags and we collapsed in an exhausted daze, periodically calling the airline to check what was happening. Using the iPhone has proved invaluable, since it allows me to keep up-to-date with the news in Britain and so get a good idea of how the National Air Traffic Service is responding to the Eyjafjallajokull volcano’s continued eruption.

So here I wait, in a Greece that is hot, sunny and volcano-dust-free. All in all it could be worse, I know, and I also know it sounds ungrateful, but I just want to be home and able to sleep in my own bed.

Greek TV

April 9, 2010

One of the things that is inevitable when you visit relatives- even relatives by marriage- is that there is a lot of sitting around to be done.  One sits and waits for meals, for the shower and for one’s Spawn to wake up so one can go out for a walk.

At my mother-in-law’s home, the TV is the centre of life in the kitchen. It is on constantly: before, after and during meals.  Since life revolves around the kitchen there, there is a great deal of TV watching to be done.

I am hampered in this endeavour by the dreadfully poor state of my Greek. Consequently, my impressions of the programmes are coloured by my attempts to makes sense of what they are actually about. Attempts, I might add, that are frequently unsuccessful.

Some programmes are easy to understand, such as the Hollywood films that are shown in the evenings with subtitles.  So I had no more trouble than usual in understanding Pirates of the Carribean. I say as usual, since the plot is hardly the most logical thing in the world. Similarly, I had no trouble understanding My Big Fat Greek Wedding, though I do wonder what the Greeks made of it, dealing as it does with stereotypes of Greek culture exaggerated by the usual emigrants’ need to emphasise their ethnic roots.

However, it is the home grown programmes that fascinate. From the Saturday evening celebrity meal show, in which the great and the good eat drink and perform merry party urges borne of various states of inebriation to the morning magazine shows that seem to merge seemlessly into one and other, Greek TV is offers a wonderland of exotic possibilities.

One thing beloved of Greek directors is the use of split screens. The news and magazine shows are rife with split screen sequences.  It is as though one presenter cannot talk to another without the screen splitting to show both faces, even when they are standing next to each other facing the camera.   The screen splits to show close ups of both faces.

The news programmes, in particular, are prone to over use this device.  Often the screen will split four ways: one part showing footage of the news event being covered, one showing the reporter as her or she interviews a bystander or interested party, the third showing the person interviewed and the last bearing pictures of the news anchor, back in the studio, staring aimlessly onto space as he or she waits patiently for something to do.

Of course, it is in the soap operas that the real problems with not understanding the language become apparent. I do not, however, allow this to prevent me from enjoying these shows. Indeed, I think that actually understanding them might now prove to be an impediment, as it is unlikely that the real stories will be in any way as enjoyable as those created by my imagination.

My favourite is, judging from the title sequence, the tale of an impoverished violinist who can only play her fiddle by the light of the moon- and onIy on the beach at that.  It’s probably a curse or something of that sort, with the young woman’s ability to play in the day being contingent on her finding her true love.  That sounds about right, just like the sort of condition such curses are said to depend upon. Certainly, the titles feature much soulful fiddling with the moonlit waves lapping around the silhouetted musician’s feet.

The action in the show, however, takes place during the say or on moonless nights, so our heroine is forced to forsake her violin in favour of the beds of the various young bucks who, by dint of sexual exertion, try to restore her violin playing prowess. Not that their efforts are ever actually shown, only the lead up and the aftermath.  The latter inevitably involves much arguing as, no doubt, our heroine bitterly complains that her abilties with the bow and catgut are still tied to the moon.  And so, feeling used and cheap, she leaves ready to prostitute herself for her art all over again in the next episode.

In any case, the many Greek TV programmes to which I have been exposed all bear this lightly surreal quality created by linguistic misconception. Thus it cam truly be said that each moment spent watching opens for me a wonderland of discovery.

The Tidings that the Lights of Easter Bring

April 7, 2010

I arrived in Athens just after 10pm Greek time on Easter Sunday and as usual getting through passport control and customs at Eleftherios Venizelos Airport was swift, efficient and painless.  As a result we were back at my Dark Lady’s mother’s by eleven-thirty. Arriving in a new city after dark gives one a particular insight into the culture. I’ll not say it is the most accurate of pictures but I can’t say that it is a particularly inaccurate one. You get to see the city’s soul, lit up with none of the disfigurements that mar its face when exposed to the light of day.

So when flight OA270 banked to circle around Athens to make its approach to the airport I could see that great city spread beneath marked out by a galaxy of streetlights and illuminated signs.  On the ground, things were no less impressive as our taxi sped through the night. Advertising hoardings at the side of the toll road gave the lie to the predominant impression given by the British news media, that the Greek economy is stagnant and in termninal decline. Certainly, the new buildings marked out in neon red and fluorescent cyan lights did not seem to indicate an economy facing overwheing difficulty.

Perhaps at least part of the trouble with how the Greek economy is perceived is down to the Greeks themselves. There is a particular pessimism to the Greek nature that is in common with that found in the British. However, where ours is confined to running down such institutions as the NHS so that Americans are convinced that we have no healthcare as such, the Greeks feel free to denigrate their whole society. Talk to one Greek and national pride is evident; listen to two or more talking and you will be left with the impression that the state faces imminent collapse.

I have never seen it thus. Indeed, each time I come, I am impressed with the vibrant life that pulses through the veins of Greek culture. Unlike the UK, the Greeks manage to get the trains to run on time and the refuse to be collected from every dwelling every day.  When I look at the fact that some British local authorities are planning to move to two-weekly collections, I wonder which is the society in decline.

One thing that shone out on that taxi ride was the strong place religion has in Greek life. Over the road, strung out in lights, there were wishes of a “Good Easter” and the signs on the front of the buses we passed wished us the same. As we passed through Nea Ionia, the lights depicted the palm fronds strewn in front of Christ as he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Indeed, these lights and the displays in Greek squares proclaiming (along with the current time and temperature) that Christ is risen, show the huge part played by the Orthodox Church in Greek society.

Perhaps, arriving on the evening of Easter Sunday was not the wisest thing, greeted as we were by a midnight feast of spitroast lamb and entrail stew. Even so, I am glad to be here and I am looking forward to the rest of my holiday here.