Monday, 21 March 2005

The Premiership 2004/5 - substance over style

I'm a football fan - that's soccer for any North American readers. I'm not obsessive about it - I don't plan my year around the fixtures list, for example, and I don't own a replica shirt (though I do have two club t-shirts). I've been to quite a few games this season though, and have been lucky enough to watch current champions Arsenal and champions-elect Chelsea. Both were impressive and both ran out comfortable winners against my team. This year's title race is effectively over already, with Chelsea so far ahead it's not true. The only way they're not going to win is if the entire squad is struck down with bird flu. This is all very nice for the success-starved Chelsea fans, who've had to wait a very long time to win the league, and arguably it's good news for the media and the FA, since the Blues have succeeded in breaking the two-horse race dominance of Arsenal and Manchester United. But it is good for football?

Don't get me wrong, I'm an admirer of Jose Mourinho, he seems to be a class act, and I suspect the recent histrionics he's been displaying are calculated to deflect attention from his squad as they pursue the Premiership and Champions League. And, undoubtedly, his teams get results. But is it good for the spectator? As I've said, I've seen Arsenal and Chelsea this season. Arsenal played incisively with skill, pace and creative flair. Chelsea played incisively with skill and pace. Sure, Chelsea still pulled the opposition apart. But with Arsenal, even the opposition fans applauded some of their play, it was so good. Yes, Chelsea did everything they needed to do to win comprehensively. So did Arsenal, but they were far more entertaining. At the time of writing, Arsenal are 13 points behind Chelsea.

So is this indicative of a trend towards substance over style in English football? Bolton Wanderers, an unfashionable team with comparably limited means, are challenging for a spot in next season's UEFA Cup. How have they got to this lofty position? By "winning ugly" - lots of players behind the ball, long punts upfield, classic route one football. And at the other end of the table, the converse is true. As I write, the three teams in the relegation positions are the same three teams that were promoted last season: Norwich City, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace. Palace play attack-minded, committed football, and have a genuinely exciting player in Andy Johnson. I can't say too much about West Brom, having not seen them much this year but if their 4-1 win at the weekend is anything to go by they must be doing (or trying to do) something right. As for Norwich City, much has been said and written about them, both by opposing managers and the media - the prevailing theme seems to be that they are a team that tries to play attractive, passing football, whilst maintaining a friendly, well-organised club. Norwich are rock-bottom in the league, seven points from safety and with only three wins to their name thus far this season. For a club that won last year's old Division 1 title with such ease, this is disappointing. Much has been written about the gulf between the Premiership and the Championship, and the relegation status of last year's promoted teams would seem to support this. But to me, it also seems that teams with substance will triumph over teams with style. I hope, for the sake of the game, that Norwich somehow escape relegation and continue to ply their entertaining trade in the top flight. But I fear the odds are against them, as panache is forced out of the modern game with the advent of a "win at all costs" mentality. If substance really has triumphed over style, then the beautiful game will get a little less beautiful every year.

Monday, 14 March 2005

If you're a Timelord, you can make a comeback whenever you want

I find myself with mixed feelings regarding the imminent comeback of Doctor Who. Sure, Christopher Ecclestone is an excellent actor (Our Friends In The North being one of the greatest pieces of television I have ever seen) and Billie Piper also shows great promise (see the recent updating of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales). Crucially, bubbly blonde Billie gives the new show the same Dad-appeal the old series had when Louise Jameson paraded around in not too many clothes during the Tom Baker era's post-Grandstand Saturday afternoon slot. Add in the blue police box, scripts by the acclaimed Russell T. Davies and a comeback for the Daleks too (although I always preferred the Cybermen) and everything seems to be in place.

So what am I worried about? Well, I'm not convinced that today's kids are going to buy into Dr Who in the same way that my generation did. Despite the best efforts of the BBC, I feel fairly confident that most kids will be able to find better visual effects in their PlayStation2 and XBox games. As for being scared by hordes of freakish aliens, will 21st Century teens hide behind the sofa at the sight of an actor in a knobbly rubber suit? I hope so, but I doubt it; I doubt even primary school kids will be peeping through their fingers. Why? Today's kids are so much more shockproof than we were and is it any wonder, given their televisual diet? So the fear-factor is out.

So too is the oddball appeal, I fear. Jon Pertwee had frilly shirts, a velvet blazer and a classic car called Betsy. Tom Baker had a floppy hat, Jelly Babies and the world's longest scarf. Peter Davison always looked like he had either just come from the cricket pitch or was just going boating, plus he had question marks on his shirt collar. Ecclestone's Doctor wears a leather jacket... so let's hope he has some, as yet undiscovered, curiosity value, something cool or bizarre, or preferably both. At long as he doesn't have visible tattoos...

I guess my biggest problem though is that this feels like tinkering with my childhood. Dr Who was finished, allowing us all to grow up and look back at it with a kind of lazy nostalgia, mistily reminiscing about Sonic Screwdrivers, Gallifrey and K-9, before debating who was the "best" Doctor (Davison by a nose, for me). But now it's back, thus forcing us to re-evaluate what has gone before, maybe even face up to the fact that a lot of it hasn't aged very well. Although the Dalek's might have looked cool, it's time to admit they were rubbish. A sink plunger is not a scary weapon. Being outwitted by stairs is not cool.

So that's it really, another childhood memory brought into sharp focus, another sorry realisation. So will I be watching when the new series starts in a couple of weeks? Of course I will! And not just because of the aforementioned Dad-appeal either! But I'll be doing so with a wry grin, as I inevitably recall the somewhat puzzling schoolboy crush I had on Tegan, the Doctor's Australian air stewardess assistant... sigh...

Tuesday, 8 March 2005

Great Britain? Think again...

Shakespeare, Newton, Darwin, Churchill... Stonehenge, Canterbury Cathedral, Edinburgh Castle, The Angel of the North... The Lake District, the Cornish Coast, the Norfolk Broads, Snowdonia... few would argue that Britain has a heritage, culture and history that is unsurpassed. It's easy to look back at the past and feel a warm glow at being part of a nation that has done so much, given so much.

Think again. Instead of looking back through such red, white and blue-tinted spectacles, take a look through your window at the Britain of today. Take a walk down any provincial high street. What do you see? Gangs of teen thugs, studies in ignorance, loiter on street corners, their every characteristic designed to suggest menace. If you are lucky, they will content themselves with a bit of mindless vandalism, or using their numerical strength to be intimidating. A bit of verbal abuse aimed your way, perhaps. Dare you say anything back? Of course not. At best you will be vilified for abusing their human rights by telling them to behave. At worst they will be carrying a knife.

A trawl through any mainstream newspaper will yield further evidence. Just last week, incredible as it may seem, a two-year old died in Glasgow after being shot with an air rifle. Yesterday, the BBC News website informed us that Police were questioning a man about a missing 34-year-old building society worker after a woman's body was found near an airfield. Such stories are no longer shocking to Britons, it seems - this story came below such "important" news as Virgin Radio offering 3G mobile phone services and Manchester United missing two players for their next Champions League match.

Perhaps such problems are inevitable, given the cartoonish nature of violence in Hollywood's TV and film offerings, the supposed credibility afforded to gun-crime by gangster rap, and computer games wherein success is dependent on aggressive "play". Sadly, the problems in Britain's streets don't stop with violence and anti-social behaviour. Soaring teen pregnancy rates, rampant compensation culture, a justice system that can legitimately favour the criminal over the victim, an education system that is hamstrung by bureaucracy and on obsession with quantitative testing, a health service that is as likely to make you sick as cure you (when you finally get seen, that is)... I could go on...

... so I will. This "green and pleasant land" is anything but - compare our recycling rates with, for example, Australia (something like 12% of all rubbish is recycled here, compared with something like 60% down under). This tiny country, with its burgeoning population, can ill afford more land-fill sites, let alone the ecological catastrophes that are commercial incinerators. What's more, an aged and failing public transport network has led a situation where the only viable solution to the nation's transport woes is just to build more (and wider) roads. That, together with John Prescott's absurd house-building plans, mean that this fair nation of ours is in the process of being tarmac'ed over.

And what has become of the British public? It seems that every other person one meets is like a character from "Little Britain" or "Wife Swap" and, incredibly, finds no shame in this. Worse still is the number of people who are quite happy to act in a self-centred, ignorant manner and do so without so much as a second thought. By way of an example, I challenge you to take up a vantage point in any British high street and time how long it takes for you to see someone littering. Quite often this will be done in clear sight of a waste bin. If you're feeling brave enough to take issue with the offender, prepare yourself for the inevitably profane response. Society as a whole has become so obsessed with its rights - "I have the right to do whatever I like" - that it has completely neglected the concept of personal responsibility. Who's to blame? I don't know, to be honest. Directly, parents who are more concerned with their own lives than being responsible parents, perhaps. Indirectly, 18 years of right-wing Tory rule may have bred a "me, me, me" culture. The increasing globalisation, specifically Americanisation, of mainstream Britain is another factor, perhaps. Maybe the media should take some of the blame, for establishing the cult of celebrity as a new religion, and disseminating its pathetic gospel. Whatever the cause, I fear it is too late for Britain; too large a proportion of its population seem happy to embody everything I've outlined here, favouring their rights over their moral responsibilities because it's easier and provides more instant gratification.

Great Britain? Don't make me laugh. If not for family and friends, I would leave tomorrow.

Tuesday, 1 March 2005

Despair and Microsoft... for once, unrelated!

If, like me, you work in a corporate environment with motivational posters on the wall, you may enjoy the products offered at, guaranteed to provide minutes of fun. Sadly, these products are commercial offerings, being offered for cold hard cash. Of course, there's nothing to stop you (except copyright, naturally) browsing the pictures, doing a "Save Image As..." and then e-mailing them to all you friends...

On a slightly different note, Microsoft comes in for a lot of stick, not just from the committed anti-Redmond brigade. Well I'm not going to jump on that bandwagon. In fact, I'm going to sing their praises, for kindly Mr Gates has released a free anti-spyware tool... and it's magnificent! This may be because MS just bought a company who make a good anti-spy product, rather than develop it themselves, but there you go. Either way, I recommend you download MS AntiSpyware at your earliest convenience. As well as finding and cleaning ad/spy/malware, trojans, keyloggers, etc, it also offers real-time protection to stop IE and the operating system being interfered with. Plus it runs nicely alongside such stalwarts as Ad-Aware and Spybot Search and Destroy without any problems or conflicts. So... download it, install it and use it.