Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Guernica

America is a nation of background babble, of TV screens in every room that blare away into a semi attentive netherworld.
Last night my senses were assaulted by a noise akin to a chainsaw coming up against an obstinate tree branch. It turned out to be the voice of Nancy Grace in vitriolic cross examination mode.
The subject, it goes without saying, was the Caylee Anthony case, the dead 2-year-old girl from Florida whose mother Casey is accused of her murder.
It seems strange that Grace has been talking about the case every show for at least six months when kids killed in the ghettos are apparently not worth the airtime and kids who die in Darfur don't even make it onto the radar.
If you start to talk about genocide in African countries people tend to shun and avoid you unless you happen to be an actor, an aid worker or Christiane Amanpour.
It's a sad but probably inevitable consequence of capitalism that there is little air time for much beyond tabloid TV that caters for short attention spans. Even in the midst of a recession we learn more about obscure household gadgets from the adverts than we do about the Janjaweed or atrocities on our doorstep in Mexico.
The stars of this throwaway TV culture are people like Flo, the hyper enthusiastic sales rep from Progressive who - let's face it - would be fired in the real world for being too weird.
Then there's Billy Mays, who is like the token annoying guy that turns up at every BBQ, with his loud voice, his OxiClean, his Mighty Putty and Mighty Mend It. If you believed Mays the Navy could use this stuff to stick wings on their F-18s.
"A broken heart, no problem. Try Mighty Mend It," Mays would probably say.
It's enough to make anyone resort to drugs or subscribe to "turn on, tune in and drop out" to coin the catchword of Timothy's Leary's '60s counterculture.
Travel has been my drug and means of escape for many years, although I am currently suffering from the absence of travel.
The real world is the best antidote to the background babble. I still miss the streets of Madrid where we walked one day five years ago after a wedding in the mountains.
Nursing a mild hangover from the night before when we had met up with some of our friends in the maze of streets that never sleep off the Puerta del Sol, we took the Metro to the 18th century Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.
As the morning sun rose higher in the sky and the air became warmer we wandered around a small market in a plaza under the high shaded facade of the museum, perusing jewelry and bags from North Africa and local crafts. We had a coffee under the trees before the museum opened.
For me time stands still in art galleries with their soaring ceilings and works of frenzied inspiration now at rest in heavy frames.
But one work in the museum gives no time for the human soul to rest. Picazzo's Guernica is a huge, abstract mural depicting the terror of the Nazi attack on the village of the same name on April 26, 1937, when the Germans used Guernica as a testing ground for their bombers during the Spanish Civil War.
Animals and buildings are torn apart in the painting, a bull gores a horse and there are stigmata on the hands of a dead soldier.
It's sobering to realize Picasso was commissioned to paint Guernica not in a placid post war peace time but for the Paris International Exposition in the 1937 World's Fair, just two years before the atrocities that befell the village would be repeated all over Europe.
More than 15 years earlier TS Eliot had given a voice to the modern age with his poem The Waste Land, representing the disillusion of an increasingly metropolitan population in the post war climate.
Artists like Picasso put the feelings on canvass in a bold new way, while Adolf Hitler put aside his paints and turned that disillusion in on itself to bring a second instalment of horror on a shell shocked world.
Back in Madrid that April it didn't feel like the cruelest month, although it had been cruel to Guernica.
A couple of days later we headed to Atocha Station to take a train through open fields to the walled city of Toledo.
When the evening sun fell on the water gardens outside the hotel and the high tower of the cathedral it was hard to imagine anything bad ever happening again in Spain.
But it did. A year later Al Quaeda bombs ripped through trains in Atocha Station killing perhaps more people than the Nazi attack on Guernica.
Sometimes it's easier not to think too hard, to get lost in what Leonard Cohen called that hopeless little screen than to take in Picasso's big picture.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Whatever happened to ... Sarah Palin

A strange thought hit me as I was driving to work recently. I realized I missed Sarah Palin.
The enormity of this epiphany proved dangerous to other users of the Interstate because my car veered across the road as I tried to slap the errant thought out of my fevered brain
I slapped to no avail. I still miss Sarah Palin.
Six months ago there surely wasn't anyone with a pulse in America who'd have believed they'd find themselves missing Palin. The country was in the grip of mania for the Governor of Alaska and even if you missed her in person there were plenty of willing stand-ins such as Tina Fay.
Sadly Sarah Palin impersonators have now had their day. Their outlook is as rosy as John Cleese's parrot or Circuit City employees.
And in place of Sarah we have to make do with the trinity of Barack, Barack and Barack.
If Obama doesn't own all the TV networks he surely will soon. Every time I look up to the screen he's there; like a benevolent Big Brother (more like an uncle really) trying to save the world.
As for Sarah, she tried to salvage her reputation after the election with a few interviews about the evils of interviews and slowly disappeared into obscurity.
But for a few weeks last fall Sarah Palin landed in our living rooms with all the subtlety of HG Wells' aliens in the War of the Worlds and showed no sign of budging.
She took the Republican conference by storm, causing people to forget she wasn't actually the one running for the White House. I'm told it was a man with white hair.
Middle aged men froze at Palin's glassy right-wing stare and amazing up and down hair, and rushed off to divorce their wives.
Although Palin didn't quite possess the face that launched a thousands ships, she could claim (with some degree of inaccuracy) to have the face that sunk a thousand bridges to nowhere.
And boy could she shop.
But a series of "soft" interviews given by Palin have cemented her reputation as a superstar of the electoral circuit.
When Katie Couric asked Palin why Alaska's proximity to Russia enhanced the vice presidential nominee's foreign policy credentials you could almost hear a vital cog fall out somewhere and sharply hit an unsuspecting toe.
"Well it certainly does," replied Palin, in the sort of timbre that people use when they want to say "hell if I know," and the rest is incoherent history.
If Vladimir Putin ever reared his head and shoved it into Palin's airspace - something unkind commentators said was located between her ears - he's not likely to bother with her anymore.
But now that Palin is no longer in our air space, I have to admit she has left a void.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Facebook

If I drank a coffee every time I logged into Facebook I'd be six foot under with caffeine poisoning by now.
I don't think I'm an addict. I don't get withdrawal symptoms. It's just that there's so much going on there that it draws my attention on quiet days.
And I'm not alone. Most of the people at my office are on Facebook including technophobes, sensible people and people as old as me.
If Facebook had been around in the 18th century when the Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk (the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe) was marooned on a Pacific Island, he'd probably admit he never managed to start a fire but he had poked someone on Facebook.
Yet if you suggested these eminent work colleagues 'hang out' on MySpace they'd look at you as if you suggested membership of the street gang the Bloods was possibly a jolly good idea.
Still there's a kind of law of diminishing returns going on with Facebook. I know there are people who like to lord it over others because they've got more 'friends' but I am ashamed to confess I have some 'friends' on this site who I'd walk past and in a corridor and not a - recognise b - talk to (the latter probably goes without saying because it's not very English to talk to complete strangers).
And the more friends you have on this site the greater the potential for you to be bombarded with photographs of children of relatives of 'friends' who you wouldn't recognize in the corridor closely followed by photos of those children's friend's new bicycle.
Then there are those mindless status updates, which I am as guilty of as anyone, in which you are informed the friend you wouldn't recognize in the corridor had bagels for breakfast and they tasted good.
Then a friend of that friend will tell you they had sausages but ended up throwing up.
Facebook also allows you to comment on an update from a friend who you would recognise in a corridor and to then be ritually bombarded by follow-ups from people you wouldn't know from Adam (or Eve) who are attacking you for being an unreconstructed pig.
Then there are some of the more annoying features of Facebook - the pokes, the super pokes, the nuclear pokes, the opportunities to throw oxes at people, or buttons with smiley faces or council estate memorabilia such as white dog turds, snow balls, Christmas trees, potted plants etc.
The list is endless.The weird thing about Facebook is that I have good friends from back in the day on there but they're not friends as I used to know them, Jim.
Instead of having a good chat over a beer, you make do with sending a bijou Halloween cat or super poking them from 2,000 miles away.
Facebook has brought us closer to our friends but paradoxially pushed us further apart by consigning us to a sterile parallel universe in cyberspace.

The scanner

My best friend most evenings is a gray box about 8 inches by 5 (I'm not nerd enough to have measured it).
It's called a scanner and picks up messages on radio channels used by the emergency services. Given that I'm close to the scanner, physically as well as emotionally, I should give it a name, although I wouldn't spend a lot of time thinking about it as if it were a child.
We're not friends of choosing, rather we are thrown together by circumstance. My scanner is like a big, sweaty tattooed sailor who one is forced to bunk next to on a transatlantic crossing. You try to strike up a conversation but after "nice green anchor - did it hurt?" is met with a monosyllabic mutter, you give up and spend the next week listening to him snoring.
I haven't started talking to the scanner yet. That would suggest I had finally lost the plot like Max - the eccentric kid at school who talked to his feet and whose metallic voice was famously heard coming from behind a toilet cubicle on a field trip addressing the toilet paper: "OK paper -now for it."
I should be careful. In the wonderful new world of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter (whatever that is) people from school can track you down.
The other day I was contacted by the kid brother of a guy who I only have a dim recollection of from school.
"Do you remember me?"
"Of course, you were the kid who um...how is Bob anyhow."
"Just lost his job and was at home living with his parents but he's out of there now."
"Great, well that's progress - of sorts."
"He's in jail."
I digress. Max isn't the real name of the kid who was friends with the toilet paper and nor does my scanner have a name. I'm thinking of christening it Sam. It's slick and androgynous. It lends itself to inflated claims and is an ad man's dream. Nobody can scan like Sam. Scan with Sam and you'll uncover a Scam. When you need to Scan Sam's your man.
On balance Sam is probably a better name for a scanner than Sebastian.
A scanner called Sebastian wouldn't be satisfied with 75-year-old males with fluid on their lungs, or threatening groups of people with firearms.
He'd want to blow out of this place and go to a cocktail party.
And I'd want to go there with him.
Sam has limitations. I coudn't live Sam's world for ever.
At least he's kept me entertained. The talk of the suspicious sandwiches left on the seat of a Ford Taurus aroused my interest along with the suspect sighted with "unfortunate hair."
And while the language of the emergency airwaves is normally prosaic in the extreme, it has its moments when police dispatchers start shouting about multiple shooting victims and people jumping out of the window during fires.
This is a cue for me to jump up from my desk, alert my good friend the snapper and head in her (sometimes his) car to the scene of the outrage where I'll be greeted by a happy little reception party of blue lights and yellow tape.
Sometimes Sam can be wildly inaccurate to the point of requiring medication. The building that collapsed on an old woman in a storm in Hampton turned out to be a tree limb that had scraped her window.
Recently a colleague asked me if I had a portable scanner that I could take around in my car. I'm sure such things exist because the 21st century is an Aladdin's cave of portable gadgets, but I don't trust Sam in my car.
Maybe there's a small scanner device - a son of Sam - that will fit round my wrist so as I can wear it 24/7.
That way I can jump out of bed every time someone points a gun at a cashier in Newport News, dream in crackly, truncated sound bites and be at his beck and call.
It's a bad idea, though. Sam's like one of these slightly tacky people who are instantly written off when they first come to work at a company.
People mock him behind his back and say he wears slip-on shoes because he can't tie laces. It's a bit embarassing when he quotes the company motto.
Then one day you wake up and he's your boss. That's when the problems really begin.

RIP Woolworths

When I was growing up in England in the 1970s we didn't have a visit to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory to aspire to.
The closest thing was the pick 'n' mix section of Woolworths, a vast glittering realm of cheap candies and hardboiled sweets, normally positioned near the door that helped cement its nickname of 'pick 'n' steal.'
I never met a kid who hadn't swiped at least a couple of candies and even parents turned a blind eye.
In those days you could buy enough candies to fill a small wheelbarrow for 50p.
Like Woolworths itself the chocolates in the pick 'n' mix aisle would melt under the glare of a connoisseur, although there weren't too many of those around until the '80s.
It's, therefore, mind boggling to imagine a bag of "Woolies" pick 'n' mix selling for £14,500 as one did on eBay this weekend - the highest of 115 bids that were received.
The 800 gram bag was sold by Ed Adams, the former manager of the Petts Wood store in Kent, who picked it up before his store closed for the last time.
I can imagine Mr. Adams standing in the store with a large Gothic bunch of keys in his hand, ready to lock up the last store in the country for the last time, switching off the lights strip by strip on a cold winter night.
His tear smudged eye falls on a bag of candy the liquidators had missed on the empty shelves and and he picks it up and rescues it.
But I'm sure it didn't happen like that.
Still the demise of Woolworths, with the last of its 807 British stores closing on Jan. 5, is sad for anyone who grew up with the Great British institution that was actually American.
The psychological loss was described in an article in the International Herald Tribune.
F.W. Woolworth closed down in 2001 in the United States, reinventing itself as Foot Locker Inc., but the British company - long separated from its U.S. parent - remained as what the article described as a "symbol of something, a vestige of a simpler past when the country had few department stores and no giant retailers, when shopping still seemed like a treat."
In other words Woolworths was always a synonym for mediocrity.
The goods were unremarkable and the staff were notoriously "Woolly headed," as my mother would remark.
If Marks & Spencer was a grammar school boy in a blazer whose dad drove a Rover, Woolworths was the scruffy kid from the unfashionable side of town who was ferried to school in a battered Vauxhall Viva.
But people get nostalgic about Woolworths because it was like Britain itself back in the '70s, a country where pasta was an exotic food, a social life was a pair of roller skates in a scruffy church hall and nightlife was the baleful light of a fish and chip shop at the end of the street.
The demise of Woolworths is not just the fault of the recent recession. The store struggled for an identity in the 1990s and hit on a new logo and wooden floors.
When that failed it went for more wooden floors.
Now it's gone it's strange to read on its website: "Coming back soon, better than ever."
There's even tentative suggstion left hanging in the post retail ether, that pick 'n' mix could be sold on line.
I'm all for nostalgia but this is surely wishful thinking. For a start how can kids possible steal candies on the internet?