Friday, February 29, 2008

I'm Right, You're Left, She's Gone...

I’ve been watching the West Wing a lot recently. By a lot I mean every hour that I’m not sleeping or boozing. When it first came out I was at school and I didn’t have anything like the free time to watch an episode at the same time every week but now, thanks to my casual approach to voluntary lectures, I’ve been able to watch two seasons of West Wing (totalling just shy of a day and a half solid viewing time) in two days and I’ve emerged on the other side slightly confused.

For starters it’s a great show. The writing is so fast that you wonder whether the writers were sitting in a room with burnsen burners placed directly under their arses which were turned to full power if they didn’t produce another hilarious, historical and relevant fact about Truman for the script. Actually, it’s not writers but writer. Creator and all round nutjob Aaron Sorkin wrote pretty much every screenplay for the first four seasons which isn’t that impressive until you watch a few episodes and realise that this man must have a brain that’s more greased and wired than a cyborg Lance Armstrong bike-thing.

You do end up feeling slightly sorry for the Republicans though. The wonderfully partisan nature of American politics means that all the apparently free-thinking, liberal types in Hollywood have to be democratic. The number of contributions to the Democrat Party from Hollywood stars is endless, while the only Republican celebrities I can think of are Kelsey Grammar and Chuck Norris, a disparate group at best, most likely to decapitate you with a roundhouse kick whilst making witty comments comparing the colour of your blood to a fine Italian Merlot.

This means that the politics of the West Wing is so far to the left it’s gone completely full-circle and obliterated any semblance of sound right-wing policies. All the characters are portrayed as heroic, virtuous types who spunk out world-saving ideas on a weekly basis and rarely put a foot wrong. Even when they’re assassinating ambassadors from friendly nations who are suspected terrorists or lying to the public about the President having a serious illness, the moral weight of the script is behind the main characters so you end up supporting them through whatever pickle they’ve got themselves into.

Meanwhile the Republicans are portrayed as absolute bastards who get kicks out of handing guns to children and spitting on poor people. The Republican/Democrat divide is shown to be on the one hand people that care and just want to give peace a chance, while on the other full of crazy Christian rednecks who wouldn’t understand liberalism if it sauntered up and kissed them upside the cranium with an aluminium baseball bat.

But hang on, wait a minute. I’m no expert on American politics mainly because I don’t live there and can’t vote (and yet suffer as a direct result of America’s foreign policy decisions) but I’ve seen pictures of Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton and John McCain and I’ve subconsciously absorbed a lot of the technical jargon that flies around on the West Wing and something worries me slightly. In fact it’s not just a thing with American politics but given the climate I’ll talk about it in that context.

There must be an answer to this but I’m too lazy to work it out so can someone please explain why ideas like free-market economies and the rights of the individual have to be hijacked by bastards who also believe the Earth is five thousand years old and that freedom to express yourself sexually is the Devil’s Work, while those who want to legislate and tax people back to the stone age tend to be much more free-thinking and open-minded when it comes to society?

I’m not saying it’s true in every case, you get moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats, but in terms of perception of right and left wing politics it seems to be true. It puts me in a nightmare position because whenever I tell people that I believe in right-wing politics they tend to look at me like I’m about to don a swastika and start beating up anyone who doesn’t look like me, although for some reason when people tell me that they’re on the left I don’t presume they’re about to slaughter millions of their own people and send the rest to the gulags.

Anyway, the point is that I believe in the right of the individual and free-market economics meaning that the government is there on a minimal level purely to protect individual rights through the law and levy the occasional moderate tax in order to protect those who can’t protect themselves. Beyond that, the state is a bloated, bureaucratic, statistic driven, poll mad mess that hinders more than it helps.

However, and I can’t stress this enough, this does not mean that I’m sexist, homophobic, racist, religious or just wish that everything was the same as it was 1000 years ago before all those damn immigrants arrived. Why is it that the right-wing is loaded up with these self-righteous pricks when surely the ideas of individual liberty and minimal state intervention would lead one down the jaunty liberal path of an individual being entitled to do whatever the hell they want as long as they don’t harm anyone else?

I don’t know, I guess I’d vote Democrat if I had a choice because I’d rather be a weak leftie liberal than a racist hardcore conservative but either way I’d be unhappy. It’s the danger of media politics and the problem that I’m suffering from right now. If there were more of an actual, practical interest in politics and the way governments shape our lives then perhaps the unnecessary stigmas of the left and right could be forgotten. But as it is, when bombarded with soundbytes and stereotypical views of hippies on one side and rednecks on the other it becomes more of an intuitive decision than a well thought out declaration of political views.

I wonder if it’s possible to vote for the Democrats but insist that they take on the Republican economic plans? Or vote Republican but only on the condition that they stop going on about this abortion and God horseshit? I neither know nor care, it’s just that politics seems to be so bloody central in the UK nowadays that I have to start worrying about it in other countries. Here’s an example of how rubbish our politics is: the US gets the West Wing, we get the Thick Of It.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mobile Circus

When it comes to technology I am what marketing types refer to as ‘The Cash’. Not in a real and practical sense given my pitiful inflow of mahulah*, but certainly in a theoretical sense. Being the godless heathen that I am, I have to dedicate my entire purpose and meaning in life to science and the gifts that it bestows on us mortals through commercial technology. This generally involves me sitting like a starving dog outside a restaurant, wolfing down whatever random scraps happen to get thrown out.

It means my purchasing choices can be a bit askew. The reason I got my MacBook wasn’t because I scoffed at Windows and thought Microsoft was for suckers who liked their computers to act like an arthritic cat with chunks of missing fur and a tendency to blindly plunge headfirst off high surfaces. No, I got the MacBook because it is shiny. It has things that go ‘vrooom’ and ‘weee’ and ‘whoosh’ in a visual sense. It makes my brain uncomprehendingly coo and gurgle which no doubt is a nice thing but I’m not sure if that’s sufficient justification for pledging my undying allegiance to Macs*.

It’s the same for things like HD-TVs which apparently we all need and I desperately want even though the only thing I could use my £1,000 investment for at the moment would be making the Big Daddy savagely beating me to death in Bioshock that little bit sharper to the eye*. They could release a new piece of technology that did nothing but follow you around all day, occasionally reading over your shoulder and making random bleeping noises and I’d be cutting through hordes of other technology bitches to get my hands on the Uncomfortable iPresence ver.1.0.

There’s some kind of progress going on here at least. Computers continue to boost themselves up with exponentially aggressive steroids every year which makes me feel a bit guilty for using them for nothing more than writing, t’interweb and the occasional snuff film, things they’ve been able to handle for years; while HD-TV means that stuff is more real or something. I don’t actually know how these things work. The fact that my iPod is a little box with music somehow contained within it still baffles me*.

But surely there must come a point where we say in one collective voice, ‘Enough is enough. We can only push the boundaries of science so far. Once something has been perfected we must leave it and move on to save on resources and stuff’. I’m still waiting for this to happen with mobile phones.

As far as I can tell a mobile phone has two purposes: to make and receive calls and ditto for texts. As an auxiliary function they should also try their little cotton socks off at not breaking. Now in my opinion these feats were accomplished with the Nokia 3310 and every phone since has been nothing but a pointless replica of the same thing. Let’s compare some of the features found in the Nokia 3310 and the latest piece of brain-melting hardware, the Sony Ericsson W910i*.

Both phones are off to a strong start as a couple of calls to a bemused Dominos phone person prove that they are equally capable of fulfilling one of two essential phone functions. It’s a strong and confident outing from both when it comes to sending texts as well, my hands feel more comfortable around the clear and distinct plastic of the 3310 but that’s just preference. Both phones can perform the tasks that they’re employed for 98929%* of the time.

Now for the ‘other’ stuff. The new phone has polyphonic ringtones, multimedia games and a camera. But none of those matter because only a spiritually lacking cretin gets pleasure in their hilarious A-Team ringtone sounding off yet again. Multimedia games include the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog 1 which came out 53 years ago and serves only to remind us all how far computer games have come since then. Besides, Snake II on the Nokia 3310 was the best mobile game ever made because of its simplicity and addictiveness and if you like gaming on the go you’ll already have a DS. As for cameras, I’ve yet to see a cameraphone that can take photos which aren’t simply a smear of large grainy chunks of colour*. For the same money I’d have to spend getting a new phone I could just get a decent shiny camera.

I did upgrade once. I got a fancy flipper-me-open Samsung thing and it kept me happy for a while, even if it was less intuitive than the 3310 at least it could store more than 10 fucking messages*. Then it came in contact with a slither of moisture and completely gave up the ghost. In contrast my 3310 has been in three different seas, a variety of swimming pools and myself. The most it has needed after is a brief dry with a hairdryer and then it’s back, ready for more. What more could I ask for from technology?

Arseburgers. Just as I finished this* my 3310 keeled over for no reason. It seems my phone has decided to switch off at random intervals, specifically when I’m trying to call or text someone, therefore rendering this whole thing pointless. Still, if it’s any consolation it was a bigger waste of my time.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Joan of Arc

I woke up this morning and realised I’d turned 22. There were no trumpets, no Tom Waits serenading me as I awoke, no new legal avenues of vice available to me, just an overwhelming sense of meh. This sensation was caused by the fact that 22 is my first genuine nothing birthday. Every previous birthday has been better than this one. Not in terms of enjoyment, merely the fact that in the past each successive year has brought something new to my life.

Everything up to 13 was freaking brilliant cos I was young and birthdays were amazing moments where I became a whole year older and closer to being a real person. 14 and 15 were curious because I was a teenager going through the biggest physical and mental changes of my life, and they were the first parties where alcohol was tentatively introduced. 16 I could buy cigarettes. 17 I could drive. 18 I could vote, drink and become an adult. 19 and 20 marked an important transition period from teenager to adult. 21 was the daddy; I became a man, had not one but two fuck-off parties and got loadsa presents.

22 marks the end of all that. There is nothing good about turning 22. It’s an entirely insignificant age and just the first of many. The next significant birthday is 30, which according to gender stereotypes is the most depressing moment of any woman’s life. So that’s a bullet missed at least. Then it’s 40, where I guess the real mid-life crisis sets in. Joy. Then 50, which is an achievement but bloody ages away, and after that you have to go through the whole lot again until reaching 100 which is a mixed bag cos you get a nice card from the monarch but are probably too batshit crazy to realise that you’ve finally made it to an interesting age again. All the other birthdays in between serve only to remind you that you’re getting older, you’ve achieved less than you meant to and that for one day a year you are no longer special.

What is it to be 22 anyway? The only relevant thing I can think of about the number is that it’s a famous bingo call. Not famous enough for me to be able to remember it though… two dead ducks? I forget. And it’s a palindrome too, but that’s not exactly sexy. No one sexy is 22.

I’ve certainly missed the prodigy boat. Prodigious talents make themselves known by 21 at the latest. Whenever you hear about someone young breaking out into the world of success they’re always 21 or younger. After that you have to wait til 33 at the earliest before you can breakthrough again. I’m getting to an age where I see musicians who have released seminal albums, sportstars who have achieved immense physical feats and millionaire entrepreneurs, all of which are younger than me. For no logical reason I’m filled with a vitriolic bile towards these smug bastards. Is it jealousy or fear? I think it might be fear. Fear that time is slipping away from me. I’m oooooooold.

Of course I realise that anyone over the age of 22 who is reading this will probably be entertaining thoughts of finding me and beating me savagely round the side of the head with a sledgehammer. I think 22 is depressing and old? Ha! It’s positively pre-pubescent mate. You just wait til your belly starts sliding away beyond your control, your limbs stiffen up and your hair goes grey!

Alright, fair enough. That stage is a lot more depressing than the point in my life I’m currently residing in. I don’t really feel old, I just no longer feel young. I can no longer use that excuse to myself of, ‘I’m young! I’ve got years left to mature and worry about the real world!’ I can’t do that anymore. It’s scary. It ain’t right I tells ya. Between now and 30 I can see myself in a state of limbo. Age-confused. Yearning for immaturity lost.

I think a lot of the reason for my minor early 20s crisis may be the presents I received from my family. Everything I got was clothes. Everything. Clothes all the way. I’m not complaining. I like clothes but rarely buy them and my siblings have better fashion tastes than I do anyway, so getting a big pile of clothes was great. But it’s also a pretty clear indication that you have reached an insignificant age. There are no more obvious birthday presents, or even presents at all. From now on it’s clothes, DVDs and CDs all the way. But that’s all I spend money on anyway, so net gain!

Perhaps it’s a good thing, a sign of my need to mature and move on. Birthdays are no longer just about me, jelly and ice cream. They are instead a chance to pause, to think, to get together with friends and get wasted. Yes, that’s it. Boldly should I step forward, out of the cave and into the light. Time to shake off that mentality I’ve had towards birthdays since I first popped into this world 22 years ago and demanded a party hat and a cigar.

Or I could just lie and claim to be 21 for the rest of my life. People do that. I’ve seen it in films.

Itchy Feet

Back in the day there was a clear divide between pubs and clubs. Pubs were friendly, helpful places where friends could converse and share humorous witticisms over a pint of pleasant ale, a good pub quiz and a sumptuous roast dinner. This was in direct contrast to clubs which were vile cesspools full of eye-bleeding music and a general atmosphere of personal indifference that made me want to sit in a corner and question what exactly it was that separated those drunken, inane, lust-fuelled morons present from a cattle market of humanity and dignity.

After a sustained period of unabated bigotry towards clubbing and all matters concerning it I eventually discovered that maybe I was being a little black and white about the whole issue.

I think now that the enjoyment of heading into a dark, deafening environment is dependent on three factors. First, you have to be good enough friends with those around you so that half-heard bits of conversation and random hands gestures are fully comprehended and understood. Second, the music has to be something that makes you want to shake your derriere like you just don’t care. Last, and most debatably least, the supply line to whatever drugstore of choice, be it bar or dealer, must be readily available at all times.

The first and third factors are pretty self-evident. The kind of people you see out clubbing on their own are the 38 year-old ‘they don’t look right’ kind of individuals who are often found catching women who have suddenly collapsed on the dancefloor. No one else goes to a club on their own because if they do they become confronted with the fact that their wasting their time in a loud, obnoxious environment, pissing cash down a self-indulgent drain, suddenly snap, and cut themselves or something.

And if your consciousness doesn’t have to skewed to some extent in order to enjoy a blaring, insufferable environment where you attempt to sing and dance as you defecate what little cash you don’t have down a blackhole of hangover and debt then you might be Jesus.

The second factor is what I’ve found most important though. The quality of mates you’re with is important, sure, but if you’re all standing there staring vaguely into space, unable to communicate properly because of the crushing sound of music which in turn is crushing your soul because of its dire mediocrity and lack of any booty-shaking properties then the night is going to be shit, sans question.

It took me a few months at University before I realised that this second factor wasn’t entirely insurmountable. For a long while my only experience of music at clubs was either repetitive cheese or godawful contemporary pop. I do have a massive problem with both these kinds of music per se, not least because even when these songs are played full volume with the bass whacked up to ∞ I just can’t dance to them. If I try then I just end up repulsing myself. My limbs don’t move right, I can’t find any semblance of rhythm and I resort to vaguely swaying from side to side in a self-conscious manner, awkwardly smiling whilst some prick next to me belts out ‘Living On A Prayer’ for the umpteenth time in his life, no doubt thinking that he’s such an ironic, go-happy kind of guy.

After a few abortive attempts at ‘livin’-it-large’, ‘cloobin’ and other ridiculous northern terms, I became a bitter and cantankerous man, sneering at those who went off to sweat a lonely existence at the local club instead of enjoying a decent pint and good company. Then, one fateful night (I say fateful, in all honesty I’m sure Fate had better things to be doing with Its time) a friend seized me by the hand, hurled me into a taxi and took me to a drum ‘n’ bass night.

Things changed for me that night. I took the usual precautionary pre-club steps of necking as many whiskey and cokes as possible, bracing myself for the expected onslaught of awkwardness and depression. I’d heard drum ‘n’ bass before and it sounded ridiculous. But in a club the whole meaning behind it became clear. I found it utterly compulsive. I couldn’t help dancing, throwing my body around like a jumper in a tumbledryer I experienced my first moment of pure joy in a club. I realised what the fuss was all about, I understood why dancing was fun. It was a life-changing moment.

Now I don’t for a minute mean to suggest that drum ‘n’ bass is better than cheese. Drum ‘n’ bass outside of a club environment just sounds like noise. Which is what it is really. It’s a deep-rooted, tribal sound. The kind of music that connects with the ancestral part of my genetic code that remembers what it was like to lick frogs and stomp around a campfire, begging and pleading with the sun to rise again the next morning and for the little imps with sharp teeth to kindly bugger off. Dancing to it made me feel alive in a way that cheese and pop never could. I’m sure some people have a similar experience at cheese nights though. Horses for courses and all that. At least I hope they do… the alternative is just too fucking depressing.

Anyhoo, after realising my love for some things club, I ventured out more often and discovered that actually there are some damn good club nights out there and they aren’t the evil maggot-factories I once thought they were.

But nothing could prepare me for the sheer joy and exhilaration of Itchy Feet. For those of you who aren’t down with the kids, Itchy Feet is a club night that originated in Leeds and is all about the old school (the use of that phrase puts me decidedly out of touch with the kids). They play all the old stuff: swing, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, ska, the exact kind of music that in a similar but entirely different way to drum ‘n’ bass, creates a sensation of compulsive dancing.

It’s brilliant. Most decent stuff from the 50s and 60s has a raw rhythm to it that seems so obvious to dance to. When you click your fingers in time you don’t feel like a prick, you can copy as many dance moves from Pulp Fiction as you like and know you’re doing the right thing, and best of all you can dance like your dad and feel like the coolest jiving motherfucker in the room.

At one point I wanted to leave the dancefloor so that I could dump my coat and have a cigarette. It took me about 45 minutes to find a song that I could resist dancing to. As I was leaving ‘Back in the USSR’ come on. Then ‘Great Balls of Fire’. Then ‘Liar, Liar’. Then ‘Satisfaction’. Then ‘You Really Got Me’. Then ‘Some awesome swing number that I didn't recognise’ and so forth. I physically could not tear myself away and ended up only having one cigarette the entire time I was there. Not even the funeral of my lung-cancer riddled best friend’s father kept me away from nicotine for so long. And I wasn’t the only one. Even people queuing at the bar were shaking their hips and nodding their heads in time to the music. It was infectious.

Unfortunately there were some drawbacks. On a personal level my body is so unused to exercise that when I exert myself more than, say, lifting a pen, I break out in a thick layer of sweat that drenches my entire body, meaning I look like a surviving member of the Titanic who’s just washed up and I tend to shower those around me in a fashion not unlike a human sprinkler. In fact, so sweaty and with such gusto was I throwing myself into the music that the next day I had to work hard to reassure some friends that I wasn’t pilled up to my eyeballs. I wasn’t, honest, I just loved the music so much.

Another slight drawback is that despite my own clearly defined sense of rhythm and dance moves, when you’re dancing next to incredibly talented people from Footlights and couples who can do that whole swing your partner round and twist your arms about your head without getting jumbled up in a confused and painful knot type thing, you have occasional moments of cripplingly low self-esteem. ‘Oh God I look like an arse!’ I said to myself. But my advice is to plough on through, as long as you’re enjoying yourself and carving a big enough niche in the dancefloor you can live in your own little dream world.

Lastly, because it’s such a great night, everyone and their wife, extended in-laws, cousins and friends from the country club came along. Those who had been to the first night bemoaned the fact that there were so many more people there this time. But I wasn’t there on the first night so I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I criticised others for turning up. You night ruining cocksuckers.

And so I have come to realise over an extended period that clubs can be bloody brilliant. All it takes is the right combinations of mates, tunes and drugs and you have a night that is distinct from a pub night and about ten times more euphoric. ‘Well done Richard’, I hear you cry, ‘you’ve caught up with the last 20 years of clubbing culture’. Whatever, most club nights are still shit but Itchy Feet is a gem. I strongly urge none of you apart from those that have already been to go to Itchy Feet next time it’s on. A more compulsive, exhilarating and joyous club night thou shalt not find.

Apart from Big Cheese at Potterow on Saturday night. That’s mega!!!111!1!!1