Friday, 27 February 2009

The Cherwell Exposed

The Times and The Daily Mail have run stories today about the editors of Oxford University’s Cherwell newspaper resigning after producing a racist and sexist parody of the paper.

The "Lecher", the nationals report, mocked the Holocaust, referred to black people in racist terms, superimposed the faces of students and staff onto pornographic images, sexually slurred the Vice Chancellor and made light of date rape. The front page story describes two students abusing and killing babies.

Lewis Iwu, the first black president of the union, has demanded an investigation into the publication and has returned a recent reward he received from The Cherwell. The Oxford Student Publications Limited (OSPL), which publishes The Cherwell, demanded and received the resignation of the individuals responsible.

I have memories of The Cherwell from my time as a student at Oxford. An article I was asked to write about Jonathan Aitken (former Conservative MP), who came to talk to a small group of interested folk about his time in prison, was never run and the panel of public school boys who interviewed me for an editorial position sent me promptly packing. It was quite possible to feel the knife enter your back as soon as you had climbed up the stairs to the Cherwell office and heard the door shut behind you. One of the lines quoted in today’s Times, in which the Lecher refers to The Cherwell as a white, upper-class male commune, is pretty much how it was. I got bored of sticking my neck out for them as a reporter (such as being threatened with arrest after persevering with a story involving security measures at Lady Margeret Hall) and went elsewhere.

The Oxford Student alternative to The Cherwell was thankfully not like that. The Oxford Student boasted a friendly, down-to-earth and supportive editorial team. I hope they still are.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Women In Black

Last night I happened to walk past the Edith Cavell statue opposite the National Portrait Gallery in London as the Women In Black were holding their weekly hour-long vigil against militarism the world over. I first came across them one evening just after I moved to London nearly three years ago and I recognised some of the faces. They are hard to ignore. Dressed in black, usually in long skirts or overcoats, they look rather imposing and theatrical standing there in silence, billboards hung around their necks, as the pavement spotlights around the statue light up their faces and their (mostly) silver hair. I imagine the suffragettes would have had a similar aura.
I stopped and had a read of a flyer I was handed.

This week they were protesting against the war in Iraq and how women had been disproportionately affected by the war. That is certainly something I would want to protest about too. But there were a couple of sentences in the flyer which made me feel uneasy. A quote from the Basra Chief of Police in Dec 2007: “The UK has left behind murder and chaos. Basra has become so lawless in the last three months 45 women have been killed for being ‘immoral’ because they were not fully covered or because they may have given birth outside wedlock.”

I protested against the war in February 2003 and I believe that war is atrocious. But I fail to swallow the corollary that it is the UK’s fault for women being murdered for not wearing the hijab. That is a massive jump to make and it means you have to believe a whole number of things before you get to that conclusion. The UK is not responsible for Islamic laws. But it IS responsible for its military intervention and for providing security in the wake of its intervention. It can’t withdraw its troops until it has ascertained that pulling out will not lead to more chaos than staying. Obama is not saying he will pull his troops out tomorrow. He is saying he wants to pull out as soon as possible because he knows he has a responsibility.

There was another line in the flyer that caused me worry too: “Despite some improvements in the overall security situation, women are now more at risk of sexual violence and their lives more restricted than during the Saddam regime.” So, does that mean Women In Black are pro-Saddam? I asked the woman who handed me the flyer. “No,” she said, “We are not pro-Saddam.” Just a couple of extra sentences in the flyer clarifying that point would have avoided misunderstanding.

Aside from those few caveats, I supported all the action Women In Black were asking people to take, such as asking the government to investigate crimes against women, take measures to safeguard personal freedoms and improve the conditions of women.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Beth Ditto

As I write this, A2-sized free copies of The International Herald Tribune are being handed out on Marylebone Road, London, with Beth Ditto plastered across the front. She is standing nude in profile with pink fabric covering her below the stomach and her name in black writing from the newspaper typeface covering her nipples. Her hair is a flaming red and her eyes are surreanly closed, lavished in sultry eye make-up, her lips a deep red.

The curious thing is, if she were Kate Moss, she wouldn't be causing such a stir. It is because there is so much of her flesh that the image is more shocking and overtly sensual than if she were a size-zero catwalk model. The image is a mass of contradictions - mixing feminine with butch, covert with overt, sophistication with brash, conventional with unconventional and challenging notions of beauty. Could any other artist be capable of portraying so much in just one image? Beth Ditto rocks.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Gun At Damien Hirst's Head

Eugenio Merino is just the man I have been looking for. The Spanish artist has created a sculpture of the British artist, Damien Hirst, pointing a gun at his head. Not that I want Hirst to commit suicide, of course. (In my earlier days as a student at Oxford I wrote an article for The Owl Journal against the tawdry glorification of suicide in literature as a cynical stunt to pull: But the point of his sculpture called "4 the Love of Go(I)d” is not death as an end in itself; it is about the worth of art. Merino’s point is that Hirst’s attempts to increase the value of his art could only be enhanced by his own death.

Yesterday, Merino was quoted in The Guardian:
"I thought that, given that he thinks so much about money, his next work could be that he shot himself. Like that the value of his work would increase dramatically," Merino told The Guardian. "Obviously, though, he would not be around to enjoy it. It is a joke but it is also paradoxical that if he did kill himself his work would be worth even more. That is a metaphor for the current state of the art world."

Parallels can also be drawn with the current state of celebrity. I predict that Jade Goody will become the muse of many a writer following her death (and I hope that she doesn’t die!). Do you remember when she was reviled? Now, because of the health tragedy that has befallen her, the media has become involved in a sort of expiation of the way in which it created the Goody phenomenon.

On 17 November 2008, I wrote a post in this blog saying that Hirst’s next work of art should be focused on its financial value:

I suggested that he place his next work of art in the middle of Leicester Square, next to all the portrait artists who sit out in the wind and rain every day, and tell everyone that the work is not for sale. This should be his response to Merino. Unless, of course, he can think of a better idea of his own.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

No Kissing Signs At Warrington Station

I can’t resist posting a couple of serious clarifications which Colin Daniels, chief executive of Warrington’s Chamber of Commerce, could put under the “no kissing signs” he has championed at Cheshire’s Warrington Bank Quay train station in a bid to stop “congestion”. To check out the sign before reading my suggestions, visit:

No air kisses allowed - French only.

Trilbys obstruct kissing – ditch the rim.

No heterosexual kissing allowed. (If you take the figure with short hair for a woman)

No homosexual kissing allowed. (If you take the figure with short hair for a man)

Do as we do, not as the red ink says.

If you hadn’t thought of doing this, then do!

I adore this quote in The Independent today - Here is Mr Daniels, who first mooted the idea back in 1998 after hearing that a station in Deerfield, Illinois, had used the signs to ease congestion: “It is a bit of fun, but it will be interesting to see if people observe it. They seem frivolous, but there is a serious message underneath.”

Monday, 16 February 2009

Warning On Cannabis

At last - a television campaign aimed at warning teenagers of the mental health problems associated with cannabis.

The Guardian today reports that, while it is not the first anti-cannabis advert to appear on British television, it is the first to target 11 to 14-year-olds.

Like many, I used to think that cannabis was no real big deal, and was a drug on par with alcohol and cigarettes. I now know that it isn’t. Its ability to trigger long-term mental health problems is far greater than we thought 10 years ago. Or rather, more of us are now aware of the mental health risk.

According to figures quoted in the Guardian, 10,000 11 to 17-year-olds were treated for cannabis use in 2005, 10 times the number a decade ago.

I have watched the advert on the Guardian site. It is hard hitting. I have seen that kind of thing happen to people. A cannabis-user who experiences that level of paranoia doesn't have to have been using the drug for very long.

Well done to Frank, the Home Office-run drugs advice and information service promoting the ad. The campaign is well worth the £2.2 million the government spent on it.

First Past The Post in Israel

The first thing that needs to be understood about the Israeli elections is that the election took place under a first past the post system.

Therefore, Kadima's 28 seats is more than Likud's 27 and means that Kadima is the winner. Period.

If the right wing is stronger as a whole when you add Yisrael Beiteinu to the equation, tough. That is the way first past the post works.

I support Livni's decision to reject a coalition and I think that her alternative of a rotating premiership is a much more practical and sensible solution.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Isreali Elections

Early reports indicate that Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima Party is narrowly ahead of Benjamin Netanyahu's right wing Likud Party.

I hope she wins.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Bank Bosses and Bonus Culture

The BBC has reported today that former banking bosses have apologised unreservedly for their part in the economic crisis.

Former Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Fred Goodwin told the Treasury Committee that he “could not be more sorry” for the failure of the banks. He, and other former bank chiefs, also admitted that the bonus culture had contributed to the crisis and needed to be reviewed.

However, in the same BBC report, Sir Fred came out with the line that if bankers felt they weren’t paid enough, they would leave.

That is a pretty low and irreponsible excuse in the midst of a gushing apology.

Sir Fred’s salary is £1.46 million a year. Isn’t there enough job satisfaction in that?  And just where, if they don’t think a salary of hundreds of thousands of pounds is enough, do these bosses think bankers will go if they are not paid the bonuses that bring this country to its knees?

Maybe, and this is just a long shot, they might actually spend time thinking about other things besides their next cash fix.  

Friday, 6 February 2009

The Thought Police

The front pages of The Telegraph and The Guardian today make chilling reading.

Telegraph journalist, Martin Beckford, has unearthed a document passed by the Department of Health last month, which equates NHS staff talking about religion to harassment under disciplinary and grievance procedures.

Alan Travis from The Guardian has relayed a House of Lords report, published today, stating that Britain has constructed one of the most extensive and technologically advanced surveillance systems in the world; a system which risks undermining our basic freedoms.

CCTV is a mixed blessing. It does help to solve and deter crime. However, putting cameras up all over the place chips away at the very freedoms we are trying to protect. The very anxious begin to think that because a lift is not equipped with CCTV, anyone travelling up and down in it is “at risk”. And the sanctimonious come out with the blackmailing line: “If you are not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” If former Home Secretary and ID cards fan, Charles Clarke, was travelling alone in a lift listening to his I Pod, I doubt he would be the kind of man who would break into a dance. However, some of us might. But if there was a camera there, we might think again. And who would be watching? It all feels a bit creepy.

Martin Beckford’s report in the Telegraph contains a strong quote from Dr Peter Saunders, the general secretary of the Christian Medical Fellowship. “One of our cherished freedoms is that of freedom of speech, which enables us to have important debates about crucial issues,” Dr Saunders is quoted as saying. “But we’re seeing a culture of thought police emerging.”

There is also a thought-provoking quote from Neil Addison, a Roman Catholic barrister who specialises in religious discrimination cases. “To what extent do you stop ordinary conversation?” he asks. “What they’re doing is saying you cannot even talk about religion and that means a whole area of human experience is cut off.”

We should stand up for our civil liberties and resist George Orwell’s 1984.

Monday, 2 February 2009

British Neuroticism

Snowfall is one of the best opportunities the British have to prove there is truth in the cliche that Britain is the world's most neurotic nation.

Just watching the BBC News this evening I couldn't help myself from telling the earnest-looking reporter, who was talking to us all like a parent worried that their child might step outside the door without a coat on, not to make the British any more neurotic than they already are.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Award-Winning Tragedies

(Note: If you have not seen The Reader or Revolutionary Road, or read the books, and you don't want to know what happens, then don't read on!)

Kate Winslet won two Golden Globes for her performance in The Reader and Revolutionary Road and is now up for the Baftas and the Oscars.

She is excellent in both and they are good films.

However, it is hard to escape the fact that the two characters she plays kill themselves off at the end.

Does one have to die in a tragedy?

I think not.

If our heros, heroines, villains and tortured souls all killed themselves off - directly or indirectly - what would that mean for the rest of us?