Posted in bastards, Books, Publishing, Review

Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler

Hitler and Elvis 1A couple or three things before I get into the review of this book. First, it was originally published as The Total Rush: Drugs In the Third Reich, but for the publication of the English translation was retitled as Blitzed. I don’t like this retitling, possibly because it’s too on-the-nose, though “on-the-nose” is not a phrase I’ve got much time for.

Second, Ohler is a novelist and not an historian, which probably means he’s played up his angle for, you know, the narrative. Which is not to say that he hasn’t somehow come across something that mainstream historians have underplayed.

Third, I don’t like the cover. They obviously wanted a picture of Hitler looking deranged, but to me Hitler looks deranged in every photo of him. Aside from that, I dislike the graphic design aesthetic. I get that the black and red colour scheme is meant to evoke the Third Reich, but I just hate the way the subtitle is placed in relation to the author’s name, and the overall effect is just tacky.

514QN3Fg-2L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_All of which means it’s hard to escape the feeling that you’re in the hands of a marketing department, reading something sensationalist and exploitative, designed to garner headlines and promote sales. Which is of course the job of the marketing department, but my emotional response to all this is pure Generation X. I’m reading this because I’m interested in spite of not because of your attempts to market it to me. To clarify: I heard this mentioned on a podcast, without knowing the title, author’s name, cover design, typography, or anything else about it. So, holding my nose, here goes:

This is fascinating. Not just because it explains how the Nazis were able to roll so quickly into France and Belgium without waiting for logistical support or allowing the troops to rest, but because of the ways in which the secret sauce of doping up combat troops for a fight has clearly been picked up by every fuckhead with a pip on his collar ever since. Short version: German soldiers and Luftwaffe pilots were consuming mind-boggling quantities of methamphetamine, marketed under the name of Pervitin. At first, they were obtaining it privately (Ohler refers to letters home by one soldier, whose ulterior motive for staying in touch with his family seems to have been drug seeking to feed his addiction); but after a while, the pills were being issued.

As a non-historian, I grew interested in the power dynamics at play here. Hitler wasn’t giving the instruction for soldiers to be given crystal meth, although he may have been insisting on otherwise-impossible outcomes, which seems to have been his stock in trade. There were powerful figures in the army who were competing either for his favour or to be seen as the architects of victory. Or maybe they were competing with the Luftwaffe. The culmination of all this was the bizarre halt order which was enough of a pause to allow the British to escape at Dunkirk. Strategic error, or power play, or whatever it was, it meant that the retreat was less of a disaster than it might have been.

The use of performance enhancing drugs by the army, navy, and airforce was widespread and ongoing. Crystal meth helped the Nazis to defeat the French, but it also allowed them to retreat from Moscow, the drugs allowing soldiers who were dead on their feet to keep marching through the snow. Towards the end of the war, when the Germans were wildly experimenting with technologies that allowed them to keep fighting in the face of certain defeat, the navy were trying various drug combinations to keep mini submarine pilots awake for 4 days at a stretch. The ultimate outcome was a dismal failure, but along the way, drugs were tested on concentration camp inmates in typically inhuman ways. Needless to say, I’ll never look at the marketing around Bata Toughees shoes (designed to walk long distances) in the same way again.

Behind all this is the history of drug development in Germany, which is really an incredible thing. Did you know that the scientist who invented aspirin also invented heroin? Eleven days later? The Germans were popping pills like nothing else, and securing supplies of narcotics during the war seems to have been as important as securing supplies of oil. And, after the war, it seems as if the Americans and the Russians (and everybody else, probably) continued to experiment with drugs for military and sporting performance, as well as “truth serums” and psychological experiments, using the same Nazi scientists in many cases. For example, the CIA’s MKUltra programme was a continuation of one of those horrific concentration camp experiments.

Meanwhile, back in his various bunkers, Hitler was being injected with “vitamins”, steroids, pain killers, and anything else that might help him through the day by his personal quack doctor, Theodor Gilbert Morell. I was reminded of nothing so much as Albert Goldman’s exploitative follow-up to his Elvis biography: Elvis: the Last 24 Hours. According to Goldman, Elvis needed drugs to help him wake up in the morning, to help him sleep at night, to help him shit, stop shitting, and so on, all of which were prescribed by his personal quack doctor, George Constantine Nichopoulos, also known as Dr. Nick.

Elvis was constipated, up in the middle of the night trying to take a shit and reading a book about the Turin shroud when he died of heart failure. Like Hitler, he convinced himself that he wasn’t a drug addict because his doctor was his enabler, and these were on prescription. Morell seems to have been dismissed when he ran out of Oxycodone, the opioid marketed in Germany as Eukodal. Ohler suggests that Morell was dosing Hitler with Oxy more or less every other day, especially as the Reich shrieked towards defeat and after the bunker bomb that left Hitler trembling uncontrollably. It’s usually suggested that Hitler’s shaking might have been Parkinson’s, but Ohler more straightforwardly suggests that he was just an addict.

Talking of impossible-to-prove-by-now diagnoses, as someone who has recently been diagnosed with a food intolerance, I couldn’t help thinking as I read that Hitler’s bowel spasms, uncontrollable farting and various other digestive symptoms might have been signs of lactose intolerance, or something. Who knows? Either way, it seems that Hitler couldn’t function without Morell’s injections.

Some historians have reacted against Ohler’s work, saying that it appears to be offering an excuse for Hitler’s actions, but Ohler is clear on that point in the book: Hitler needed drugs because he was a drug addict, and the drugs that enabled him to function were not behind his atrocities but simply gave him the ability to go on committing them.

As repelled as I was by the marketing, I did find this a fascinating read, and Ohler’s research is exhaustively documented. The Hitler section became repetitive, but I guess that’s the nature of addiction.

Anyway, do what I did: borrow from your local library.

 

Posted in bastards, musings

Teachers Doing It Wrong Revisited

tsunamiAbout five years ago, I wrote a post suggesting that teachers needed to be lazier, look for shortcuts, and resist the pressure to work long hours.

Everybody ignored me, of course.

As we accelerate towards these new GCSEs, I’m being hit with a tsunami of resources created by other teachers: practice papers, posters, guides, crib sheets, tips, and so on. These are a godsend, bypassing as they do the commercial resources and foiling the government’s plan to help their friends the publishers make a killing on the new, ‘harder’ GCSEs and A Levels.

But every single one of these resources has been created by a teacher in his or her own time. None of us get time within the contracted hours to produce any of this stuff. I get two and a half hours per week planning, preparation and assessment time. Of course, it’s reasonable to expect a teacher to work for a few hours beyond the limits of the school day. But how much is reasonable?

For me, nobody should be working more than, say, 37 hours per week without overtime pay. 35 hours is a reasonable working week: 7 hours a day with an hour or so break/lunch, meaning you’re on site for somewhere over 8 hours a day. At a stretch, in a week with a parents’ evening or something, I might have to put up with a 40-hour week. But this is 2017, and nobody should really have to be working 40 hours a week. Only in some dystopian science fiction future would you be doing that.

But then you hear these horror stories about teachers working 60-hour weeks in order to stay on top of the marking and the planning, and to create all these resources. And you see TES and Guardian articles about teachers cracking up, or leaving the profession early, or otherwise crying out for respite.

A standard teacher (outside London) at the top of the upper pay scale, working a 60 hour week, is earning just over £16 per hour. That’s not particularly good, and even worse if that same teacher is doing any work at all in the school holidays, because I’ve divided the annual salary by 39, which is the number of weeks you work in a school year. The reality of course is that the holidays are paid, so dividing the year by 52 means that a 60-hour week is paid at £12.26 per hour. Twelve pounds and twenty six pence.

If, on the other hand, you limit yourself to a more reasonable working week (37 hours), you’re on about £19.88 per hour.

Laziness being the key, I thought I’d take a look at my own working hours by keeping a spreadsheet for a few weeks. Last week, a four-day week (bank holiday), I worked just over 30 hours, which would equate to a tad under 38 hours in a normal week.

Am I on top of all my marking? No. But how could I be? By working an extra 10-15 hours, maybe, but why should I do that? Fuck the marking.

Did I produce a bunch of whizzy resources and share them on the internet? No. But how could I, except by working an extra 10-15 hours? Fuck the resources.

I used to follow teachers on Twitter, but then for my own mental health, I stopped. I shouldn’t even be writing this, but I’m doing it as a public service, just to spell it out.

If you’re a teacher and you take work home, stop. Stop working weekends. Stop working holidays. Stop trying to stay on top of it. You’ll say you’re doing it for the students, but the best thing you can do for your students is be the best teacher you can be in the hours you are paid for being a teacher.

While we’re here, stop tweeting about teaching, stop reading shit about amazing new tips and techniques, stop spending all your waking hours thinking about your fucking job.

If their own parents cared about them, your students wouldn’t be enduring their education under a government run by privately educated millionaires. If their own parents aren’t willing to light some fucking fires under some fucking politicians, why are you staying up late into the night creating practice exam papers?

Posted in bastards, documentary, entertainment, Podcasts, Review

Notes on Shit Town

Now, I’ve had enough, my box is clean

You know what I’m sayin’ and you know what I mean

From now on you’d best get on someone else

While you’re doin’ it, keep that juice to yourself

Odds and ends, odds and ends

Lost time is not found again

Bob Dylan, “Odds and Ends”

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 17.03.16

Spoilers for S-Town below.

Since the original Serial (and consider this your regular reminder that I listened to it before you did), podcasting has exploded all over again into a smorgasbord of true crime, true stories, true documentaries, true meditations and true history.

Serial itself spawned an array of spin-off shows, with mixed results. The original Adnan Syed / Hae Min Lee story was continued and given more detail and depth by the Undisclosed crew, who (notwithstanding patchy production quality) managed to bring a nitpicking legal rigour to the story that led to a landmark court case. It’s fair to say that Adnan wouldn’t have got his post-conviction hearing without the tireless work of people who picked up the thread abandoned by Serial, once it had reached its concluding shrug of a final episode.

Then there was Serial season 2, which focused on a case (Bowe Bergdahl’s desertion of his post in Afghanistan) that had far less global resonance, and in the end a lot less human interest than they’d perhaps hoped. It too ended on an inconclusive note, and perhaps people started to yearn for a less open-ended style of podcast. It must be hard being Serial.

Meanwhile, true crime stories spring up all over the place, and the recent Missing Richard Simmons tried to create a fascinating mystery over the abrupt retirement of a minor celebrity. Again, the global recognition wasn’t there, and I’m afraid Missing Richard Simmons (which credited three production companies) was being hyped by certain media organisations trying to muscle in on the success of podcasting. (Stitcher)

The second season of Undisclosed was a salutary lesson for the Serial people. Rather than casting the net wider, it focused on another potential miscarriage of justice, this time in a small town in Georgia. Giving the people what they want, in other words. The case of Joey Watkins lifted the lid on the petty jealousies and rivalries of a small community, and gave an insight into the aimless and violent lives of American teenagers living on the edge. It demonstrated the sad poverty of outlook and opportunity in such towns, and how ordinary teenage angst and upset can lead to deadly violence in the land of the gun. It also revealed how easy it is to end up rotting in jail, all avenues of appeals used up, even though nobody believes anymore that you committed the crime for which you’re in.

Counting against this second season, however, was the nitpicking detail brought to the case by the team of lawyers, which dragged the narrative into the weeds of 24 episodes. It turns out that 8-10 episodes is a sound length for a pod-umentary. Very few people can stick the course for the full 24.

Which brings us to what might have been Serial Season 3, but which instead has been spun off into its own brand: S-Town, or Shit Town. All seven episodes dropped at once.

It’s focused on the petty jealousies and rivalries of a small town in… Alabama. At the beginning, it seems to focus on a possible murder and possible miscarriage of justice (in the form of a cover-up). It features a colourful, larger-than-life character who is flamboyantly (probably) gay in a redneck community, not unlike the missing Richard Simmons had been when he was young. So it seemed to be a mash-up of the original Serial, the second season of Undisclosed, and even Missing Richard Simmons.

But then things take a turn.

At first, as I listened, I thought this was going to be a meditation upon what you might call Broken America, the Deep South of grinding poverty, not just in economic terms, but cultural and aspirational poverty, which manifests itself in racism, sexism, Trumpism. What would it be, the show seemed to be asking, to be an intelligent, educated, liberal in a small town to the south and west of Birmingham, Alabama? And are there corrupt police, and senseless violence and cover-ups and favours and sexual assaults, and a disproportionate number of child abusers?

Then came the turn, and the show became instead about the death by suicide of an individual who seemed complex and strange, a puzzle of a man whose contradictory personality seemed to be embodied in the hedge maze he’d created on his land, a labyrinth with multiple solutions. Who was this man? Was he a millionaire, or was he broke? Did he have gold buried on his land? Did he leave a will? If he hated tattoos, why did he have so many of them? Who are all these people who claim ownership of his stuff?

So then it was about that: a still-interesting, but perhaps smaller story of a life lived in a small town, of a man so depressed at the state of the world that he couldn’t bear it any more, and all the people whose lives he touched.

And then, I think, as I listened to the sixth and then seventh episodes, I came full circle, and decided that the show was about Broken America, and that the central metaphor of the podcast was not this man, or his maze, or his gold, but his profession: clock restorer.

The show’s opening episode talks about the marks left on old clocks by the people who make and repair them: witness marks. And by the end, you understand that this “deep dive” into the intimate life of a lonely and depressed middle-aged man is all about looking for the witness marks of a well-lived life, but also about thinking back to the lost time that is not found again. And then there’s the lost America, the great democratic experiment, which has descended into a mere sketch of the country of Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass.

As America sinks into its swamp of wilful ignorance and denial of reality, here is the story of a man, a modern-day Ben Franklin, an inventive polymath and raconteur, who tried to face up to the truth but who gave in to despair. And, at this time, at this precise moment, we are all facing this choice. Whether you consider climate change, which is being officially denied by America’s new buffoon of a president; or Brexit; or the erosion of the tax base and the end of social cohesion: there are a great many reasons to despair. And here is a show about a man who got lost in the maze of that despair and then gave into it and killed himself. And the question is, what do we do? How do we bear witness to our times and also live through them?

Posted in bastards, entertainment, music, musings

Charles “Chuckles” Berry, 1926–2017

To paraphrase Mark Ellen (who was talking about Van Morrison), I would guess there are two kinds of people when it comes to Chuck Berry: those who like his music; and those who have met him. As a black artist whose work had been appropriated, stolen, lifted, plagiarised etc. several times by white artists, Chuck Berry had every right to be a miserable old git. But while Lennon was a very naughty boy when he stole “Here come old flat top”, I’ve always considered it more of a reference/quote/homage than an outright steal, and I don’t think the Beatles thought they were pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. They weren’t trying to pull a Led Zep.

After all, The Beats had already covered both “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music”, and if Chuck Berry had a beef it was with the organised criminals who owned his publishing, notorious as they were for not paying out royalties. Lennon recorded “You Can’t Catch Me” in 1975 for Rock ‘n’ Roll, so Berry was paid back in spades.

Anyway, Berry’s own “Maybelline,” one of the first rock ‘n’ roll records, was heavily based on the song “Ida Red”, which was recorded by Bob Wills in 1938. And “Ida Red” itself included lyrics from F.W. Root’s song “Sunday Night”, written in 1878. In other words, it’s disingenuous of anyone to sue anyone else over copyright, which is really designed to protect artists from exploitation by greedy and unethical corporations and shouldn’t involve artists getting pissed at each other for doing what creative people do.

Great artists steal. (And even that quote is problematic, having been borrowed/stolen, reframed and so on, through multiple iterations. In its current form, it probably owes more to Steve Jobs than Picasso.)

So where does that leave us with Chuck Berry? Watching Springsteen work up and perform “You Never Can Tell” is one of the pleasures of my life; but watching Springsteen stand awkwardly to one side while Berry performs “Johnny B Goode” at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, treating Bruce and the E Street Band like just another one of his cheapskate pickup bands, is simply embarrassing.

Berry was an originator, one of the first to make this thing called rock music, and the first to write literate, intelligent lyrics that stand the test of time.

But he was a miserable old git and impossible to like. Which is before you get to the video cameras he allegedly hid in toilets at various properties he owned; or the 20 months he served for transporting a 14 year old girl across state lines for “immoral purposes”. Now you can point to the latter incident and consider the all-white juries and the different times, as they say on the Simon Mayo programme (it was 1959), but filming women with hidden cameras in the toilet is just nasty.

All of which is before you get to the armed robbery rap.

Monstrous ego, shoddy live performances with badly rehearsed pickup bands, sexual offences, armed robbery… Add to this the crime of “My Ding-a-Ling” and I’m afraid Chuckles is just not my kind of guy.

Posted in bastards, musings, Television

The end of civilisation, reality TV style

1480638381-trump-tie-tapeThinking about the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, which involved at least one person who thought she was participating in a TV prank show, it struck me that our civilisation has been in the process of being laid low by our consumption of trashy media.

For sure, we live in the platinum age of TV drama, which is a surprise to me. A few years ago, when ITV shares were a few pence each (9th March 2009: 17.5 pence per share), it felt as if scripted TV drama was going to be a thing of the past, as advertising revenues collapsed and the BBC was chipped away by the neolibs and their tame newspapers.

But enter Netflix, and enter Amazon, and enter HBO, and it turns out that scripted drama has never been better. Left to the likes of Fox/Sky, the US networks, and even the BBC, it would not be so healthy. We’d have wall-to-wall procedurals, and the stuff the BBC makes these days, which seems calculated not to frighten the Daily Mail horses and attract as little attention as possible.

No, when I talk about trashy media, I mean three things, in the main:

  • 24 hour news
  • Talent shows
  • So-called Reality TV

Unlike a lot of my fellow Media Studies professionals, I could never bear to even watch a single minute of reality TV, so I kind of pretended the topic didn’t exist. But I know for a certainty that if I was looking at so-called Western civilisation from the outside, I would see reality TV and talent shows as a sign of the degradation and decadence of liberal democracies, and the wealth and fame heaped upon individuals with little or no talent as emblematic of our debased values.

That Donald Trump, a stupid man who fell into a heap of inherited wealth, who doesn’t know what a tie clip is, could become a household name is something you’d point to as evidence of a degenerate culture. Add to that the fame and wealth of Simon Cowell, a person who wears v-necked t-shirts, and yet was still given a job as an arbiter of taste in music, and you’ve got enough evidence to damn a whole civilisation.

And then there’s the 24-hour news cycle, which, turns out, didn’t mean more news or more depth of coverage or more analysis, but less and less and less, until journalists are churning out a dozen ore more clickbait stories a day and political coverage is reduced to whether someone can eat a bacon sandwich or bow his head at the correct angle when showing respect to the war dead.

Looking at all this from the outside, of course you’d hatch an assassination plot in which you’d dupe somebody into thinking they’re participating in a TV prank show. It’s Art of War 101, right? You’re using the enemy’s own decadence as a weapon.

What North Korea does on a small scale to deal with its own domestic issues, Russia (very much not a liberal democracy) is doing on a much larger scale, having apparently exploited the stupidity and venality of a range of assets in a very long game in order to undermine the ability of the US to oppose it. The game is Smileyesque in its complexity, but it appears to have involved Wikileaks, various online hate groups, and a reality TV star who was able to exploit the inability of news organisations to do their job* and win an election. What Smiley did to snare Karla, Putin has done to snare a whole nation.

Back when Twitter was new, when Facebook was new, some of us naively thought that these new platforms would be for us, that we’d be able to organise and resist using these agile new tools. Cynical voices pointed out that these platforms were owned by corporations, but we thought we knew better. Of course, it turns out that these platforms were far more effectively exploited from the right than they ever were from the left. Because the one thing the left can never stop doing is squabbling amongst its various selves.

And then this week, just when you think that something is up, when the new President is denouncing the media like a newly minted North Korean dictator; just when you think the Western media might start doing their job*, even if it’s too little too late; just then, there’s an explosion of news (and social network coverage) of an event so fucking trivial and unimportant that you can’t believe anyone would be taken in by it for even a single second.

Yes, I’m talking about the Oscars, an awards ceremony in which a small, self-selecting coterie of previous winners votes for a new set of winners in their own image, usually in order to promote a few films that hardly anybody saw. And yet, when someone cocked up and handed the wrong envelope to a presenter so facelifted he probably couldn’t open his eyes wide enough to read the small print on the card, we not only got the immediate reaction, but ongoing coverage of the incident, including Zapruder-like frame-by-frame analysis, as if this was 1972, and this was a break-in at the Watergate hotel.

It was almost as if the media were waiting for something they could switch their attention to, so that they didn’t have to keep reminding people that they’d elected a tie-sellotaping  Russian stooge to high office.

*SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER

Posted in bastards, musings

Shut down, log off, fade away

Mini DV TapeWe are surrounded by digital ephemera.

A while ago now, I reactivated the Facebook account (total of friends = 1), just so there would be one place on the internet where you could find me by my actual name. My timeline consisted almost entirely of my Instagram feed. But I hate Facebook, always have, and as Zuck appears to be preparing to run for office (as a Republican, according to one thing I read), it’s time to kill it. So that’s gone.

I still use Instagram. Although owned by Facebook, it’s fairly harmless, and since I stopped using Flickr (destroyed by Yahoo), it’s the only place I upload photos. But my finger does hover over the button sometimes.

I was attempting to put together a Photos book for 2016 the other day, and I had an enormous number of those red warning triangles, because the “original image could not be found”. Massive database corruption in my Photos library – perhaps caused by my use of CleanMyMac. The photos are there – I can export them and re-import them and fix the triangle issue – but the application doesn’t know they’re there. So that is a massive pain in the arse, and brings to stark relief the eternal problem of what is going to become of all our digital photos in 5–10 years. Apart from low-resolution uploads on early Flickr, I’ve got whole clusters of photos missing.

This came up again when I was rewatching my kids’ childhood DVDs a while ago. A couple of years have gone missing, and one of the DVDs wouldn’t play (though I managed to rip the file off it). I noticed an old MiniDV camcorder at work the other day, which nobody (probably) is ever going to use, and it reminded me that I have a case full of MiniDV tapes with my kids’ (unedited) childhoods on, and I have nothing to play them on.

Digital ephemera. We live in a streaming world. Timelines flick by, news churns 24 hours a day, people are up in arms about one thing after another, ricocheting between issues of import and issues of no import as if it were all the same.

I spent half an hour this morning unfollowing a bunch more people on Twitter. People I like and respect, even admire, but I cannot bear to read their political and news tweets, because they make me feel impotent with outrage, powerless, depressed. Muting keywords doesn’t work because things always leak through, and in the end I came to the conclusion that, for the foreseeable future and for my own sanity, I’ll probably end up unfollowing most of the Americans on my feed, and many more besides.

I’ve said it before: complaining on Twitter achieves nothing; the people you need to reach are not on there; it’s not a substitute for activism. Twitter is for jokes, for people-watching, for aphorisms, art, wit, photos, videos, all of that digital ephemera. But it’s not for politics or climate change, or bringing down capitalism or fighting nazis. People get mad about stuff, sure, but never so mad that they put down their phones and do anything.

 

Posted in bastards, movies, Review

Swallows and Amazons (2016)

photoThis 2016 adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s first S&A book sank without trace as far as I was concerned. I remember reading about the pointless name change from Titty to Tatty, which smacked of the kind of asinine decision that gets made when there are six separate production companies involved. How anything gets made with so many captains on deck, I don’t know.

I rented it on iTunes, and watched with a kind of fascinated horror – mixed with tearful nostalgia for the books I read as a boy and the 1974 film adaptation (which, for the record, had one production company and one distributor). That version featured my schoolboy crush, Kit Seymour, as the “Ruthless” Nancy Blackett, an actress who appears to have been plucked from obscurity, immortalised on celluloid, and then forgotten by posterity. The children in the 1974 film were, for the most part, cast for their ability to handle a boat rather than their training at some stage school. They were clearly non-actors and yet, for all that, were natural enough in their parts. The magic of film is that you only have to capture that one good take.

To be fair to 2016 Swallows and Amazons, then, it couldn’t hope to compare to that slice of my childhood, even if it had stuck to the fucking plot. But these charlatans, these bunglers, couldn’t even do that. Alarm bells begin to ring almost immediately, in the sequence featuring the children travelling up to the Lake District. There’s some nonsense involving men chasing each other around on the train. It’s as if a drunk editor was editing this film and The 39 Steps at the same time, and got mixed up.

Sure, Arthur Ransome was a spy and adventurer who witnessed the Russian Revolution, but we don’t need that biographical nonsense in the film. Its presence is a clear sign that the producers had nothing but contempt for the material and the audience: what could we do to make this shit interesting? The spy crap continues throughout, taking up valuable screen time that should be devoted to the children and their story, which at times seems so neglected it’s reduced to the status of a sub-plot.

And after all this indulgent espionage peril is spooned into the film, like so much thin gruel, it doesn’t manage to whet the appetite. As one reviewer pointed out, the sequence in which the kids lose their picnic hamper overboard is more gripping, by far, than the attempted kidnap by Russian spies of the Captain Flint character – who could so easily have been left as grumpy uncle novelist trying to finish a book instead of indulging his nieces’ pirate fantasies. The food the children manage to procure, in the hungry 1930s, is such an important part of the story that the loss of the picnic hamper is as devastatingly dramatic as this film manages to be.

Still, there are moments. Or, there is one moment. The discovery of the Swallow in the boathouse had an emotional impact that was squandered by the lack of attention that the film paid to the actual sailing. The shame of it all is that, what you really want out of this is the chance to make some of the other books into films: Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, Pigeon Post, The Picts and the Martyrs… there are some really good storylines to be had, and all of the books had really strong female characters baked in, with no retrofitting required.

And it’s with the female characters that this film falls tragically short. Nancy and Peggy get precious little screen time, about which I have mixed feelings. The actress cast as Nancy just seemed completely wrong to me. Wrong colouring, wrong age (in year 11 doing GCSE drama, when picked). In a way, it was a mercy, but Nancy is supposed to be the heart and soul of the stories, so it really matters that they go it so wrong. I don’t blame the actors at all. This was clearly a scrambled mess of a production, made by people with no feel for the stories and no understanding of their appeal.

All I want to do now is watch the ’74, to restore my memories.

 

Posted in bastards, Television

So, Farewell then, Amazon Prime

amazon-prime-video-1-800x420

I’ve got a few months to run, since I pay annually, but I’ve cancelled my Amazon Prime subscription. It’s a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts. Not really. But it is a kind of protest. Here’s why I’m cancelling.

I’ll start with the most concrete reason why: although I’ve had a lot (too much!) of use of the free delivery side of things, I’ve not really accessed the video content much lately. Partly, that’s because it’s not very convenient. I’ve got an Apple TV, which I quite like. It’s got a good interface, it’s reliable and stable, and most of the things I now watch can be accessed through it. But Amazon have dug in their heels and refused to develop an Apple TV app. They’ve got apps for the iPhone and iPad, and you can watch on your MacBook, but they’ve arbitrarily picked on this one device not to support.

I can still throw stuff from my phone onto the Apple TV using Airplay, which works fairly reliably. Problem is, when I do that, I can’t use my phone for anything else. My other way of watching Amazon content is via the shonky app on my (old) Sony Blu-Ray player. The interface on that is terrible, and finding content is painful and slow.

So reason number one is this: Amazon are playing stupid games with Apple and their lack of support for AppleTV is nothing short of malicious.

Will I miss the actual content? Not really. Some of their stuff is okay, but none of it has that hooky, addictive quality that makes you care if you miss it. The show I enjoyed the most, Bosch, is pretty decent, and beautifully made, but it’s not so wondrous that I’d continue to pay for the service, as inconvenient as it is.

In fact, decent and beautifully made is a good descriptor of quite a lot of Amazon’s content. The Man in the High Castle looks incredible, but as far as character and story go, it’s just not that compelling. Red Oaks is pretty good, but I didn’t find season 2 as charming as the first. Then there’s Mr Robot, which is brilliant, and which is must-see TV, but since it’s not actually an Amazon production, I should be able to get it on DVD.

Which brings me to my most petty and childish reason for cancelling my subscription. The biggest ballyhoo Amazon has ever made about its content concerns The Grand Tour, Clarkson and co’s self-indulgent money pit show. Now, I’m sure many people over the years threatened not to pay their TV Licence because of various things Clarkson said or did. I wasn’t one of them, but I came to hate everything Top Gear stood for, so now I’m taking the opportunity to cancel my Amazon TV licence, because I don’t want to contribute one more penny to Clarkson’s lavish Chipping Norton libertarian lifestyle.

This last reason is petty, and if Amazon were to suddenly about turn and produce an AppleTV app, I might think again. But I’ve waited long enough, so the cancellation is in.

Posted in bastards, musings

Kill All Humans

proxima-stephen-baxter-gollanczI’ve been reading Stephen Baxter’s novel Proxima and its sequel Ultima. I’d been prevaricating about these for a while. I always quite like Baxter when I read him, but I don’t quite trust his prolificacy. Let’s take a chunk of time:

  • In 2006, he published Emperor, the first in the Time’s Tapestry sequence, following it with two sequels in 2007 and a third in 2008. Emperor came in at 368 pages, the first sequel 320, and the final two 336 pages each. So that’s 1360 pages in three years.
  • In 2007, he also published Firstborn, the third volume in the Time Odyssey trilogy, a collaboration with Arthur C Clarke, which was 388 pages. And a YA novel, H Bomb Girl, which was a mere 288 pages.
  • In 2008, he also published Flood, which was the first of two books dealing with catastrophic flooding caused by climate change. 548 pages.
  • In other words, between 2006 and 2008, he published works totalling over 2500 pages, and this period of time is not unusual; it’s fairly typical, in fact.

So I didn’t quite trust that these two novels would be any good, coming as they do amidst his multi-volume collaboration with the late Terry Pratchett, the Long Earth series, which was concerned with the multiverse, or the idea that we live alongside multiple parallel universes.

At first, Proxima seems like it’s going to be a space colonisation narrative, with the twist that all the colonists have been press-ganged into participation. But there is a parallel narrative about a mysterious source of power (“kernels”) that appear on Mercury, which turns into a story about a mysterious Hatch that appears; and then all of a sudden we’re into Long Earth territory and alternate histories. Huh. Oh, and there are artificial intelligences, some of them robotic.

And it’s all perfectly readable and it rolls along, but it’s a bit of a mess, thematically, and you kind of get disappointed that the characters you invested in at the beginning never really get a chance to develop satisfactorily, or that other characters just appear and then disappear without really doing much.

So in the end, I was probably right to feel wary, but these were library loans, so never mind. This isn’t even a review, not really, but it made me think about some things.

Those robots, those AIs.

There’s a Cory Doctorow story that pokes fun at the idea that you would risk actual humans in human bodies in space exploration rather than constructing robot explorers or using AIs. Imagine: instead of having to develop cryogenics to enable human bodies to travel long distances, you send off a ship and then later on transmit (at the speed of light) an uploaded intelligence into an artificial body or robot in time for the exploration to take place.

Because it seems obvious by now that, where humans can be replaced by robots, they will be. Robots don’t need tea breaks, holidays, sleep, maternity leave, or regular pay rises in line with inflation.

So if you’re a human, and I’m assuming you are, you probably want to be in a profession in which you can’t possibly be replaced by a robot. But what is that, exactly? In Proxima, the colonists are aided by a robot/AI that can make soil, produce genetically engineered crops, offer medical treatments and assist in births. So it’s a farmer, a scientist, a doctor and a midwife. Oh, and it could teach children as well.

I’m a teacher. One of the key pieces of jargon in the profession these days is the word consistency. We all need to be doing the same thing. Managing behaviour in the same ways. Following the same classroom routines, setting homework on the same days, issuing sanctions and rewards. It’s easy to dismiss all this as Emerson’s “foolish consistency” that is “the hobgoblin of little minds”, but of course the agenda is far more sinister.

The latest aspect of the hobgoblin is the idea that, within departments, we should all be teaching the same stuff at the same time. A manager on a tour should be able to visit the classrooms while, say, Year 9 are being taught, and find the same lesson being taught by all the teachers. So as well as following the marking policy and the behaviour policy, we’re all expected to subsume our individuality as teachers and just follow the scheme of work… or the textbook… or whatever piece of courseware the corporate education publishers produce.

The first step is, can we replace expensive qualified teachers with cheap unqualified teachers? That’s easier to do if you have a bunch of pre-made lesson plans and schemes of work. But of course, the end game is, can we replace the warm body in the room with a robot and some software?

Bang.

So: raise a glass to inconsistency, to unpredictability, to not planning, to winging it, to charisma, to the messy, disorganised, impossible to programme, human being in the room.

Basel

basel-1We went to Basel. Strange that we’d never been before, because it’s only 88 kilometres (55 miles) away, an easy enough drive. Closer than Strasbourg and Freiburg, about the same distance as Colmar, a little further than Mulhouse. But Basel is in Switzerland, so there’s that.

Anyway, we were thinking of going to the Christmas market in Montbéliard, which is fairly close, but also tough for parking, and someone recommended Basel instead, and an underground car park under some kind of retail space.

We didn’t need our passports. This, in spite of the fact that Switzerland isn’t in the EU, and another reminder that Britain is a shit country with a shitty, xenophobic national character and I wish I didn’t live there. Another piece of good news is that our phones (on the Three network in the UK) continued to have a data connection in Switzerland at no extra cost. The list of countries that you don’t pay roaming charges in on Three is now pretty comprehensive. So Google Maps kept working, and we sat-navved our way into the centre of Basel (Bâle in French), and parked in the underground car park.

One Swiss Franc (CHF) is worth 79 pence, so fairly comparable to the €uro (85 pence). There’s an Apple Store in Basel, so I’ve now realised we could have bought my daughter’s new laptop for 1999 CHF (£1584) instead of £1749. I guess exchange rate smoke and mirrors would take care of the rest. Anyway, some places would take €uros instead of Francs and give you change in Francs, a good deal for them.

But we weren’t there for shopping, and our only transactions were for blow-your-face-off mulled wine, pretzels, and bratwurst. We were there for the market, and the lights, and to wander the streets. I’m assuming there’s one big Chinese town that supplies all the tat for Christmas markets? There can’t be that many artisans making laser cut wooden ornaments and suchlike. We saw truffles for sale at CHF 3.33 per gram (so, um, 33 francs for 10 grams), and enjoyed wandering around the Harrods-like food hall of the Globus department store.

The Christmas market was defended by strategic concrete barriers, and I noticed the police turning away all commercial vehicles from around the area – even a van was not allowed.

Apart from that, what was most pleasant about walking around Basel was the almost complete absence of cars. Trams everywhere, lots of them, quite old-fashioned looking, but charming, and frequent. But everywhere else, you could pedestrian without being molested by the Busy-and-Important motorist types. Now, there are pedestrian zones almost everywhere, but in my experience, you almost never walk down a pedestrian precinct without having to dodge multiple delivery/service vans, and a seemingly endless procession of people who, for whatever reasons, have decided that the No Motor Vehicles sign doesn’t apply to them, and that they are therefore perfectly entitled to drive their car up and down the narrow cobbled streets. Everywhere you go, there are mini Clarksons with sharp elbows and rumbling engines, telling you that they’ll relinquish their cars when you pry their cold dead hands from the steering wheel.

The other really nice thing about Basel was that there were lots of places to sit. I mean, benches and seats and all kinds of sitting-down surfaces were everywhere. And no spluttering exhausts. Sure, your stereotype of the Swiss would have them exceedingly well-behaved, and the streets were remarkably clean and (unlike Berlin) almost graffiti-free, and there were no visible homeless people, all that, but it was just really nice to walk the streets without being annoyed by cars. And cars, as we should all by now have realised, have basically ruined everything. Without cars, everywhere is a nicer place to be. It’s just one of many reasons to look forward to the apocalypse.