Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Elf on the Shelf - a Precursor to the Police State

I was interested to read an article in The Washington Post about how the Elf on the Shelf is really preparing your kids for life in a police state.

At least that's the view of Laura Pinto, a digital technology professor. The article, I'm sure has provoked much ridicule. Who could possibly think the cherubic, rosy-cheeked Elf who shows up in play rooms about now, could be preparing our kids for life as future Edward Snowdens?

Well me for one. Back in the days of happy familydom (cue coughing fit) we enlisted the help of an elf on the shelf, called Stuey, to ensure the kids behaved in the run-up to Christmas. Every time they stepped out of line, we warned them Stuey would rat them to Santa. The news would hit the production line at 1 North Pole and it would shudder to a halt. Santa's permi-frost smile would become a grimace Bundy would be proud of and and Stuey's intelligence would result in the kids being allocated a bucket load of reindeer poo in their stockings.

Make no mistake; Stuey was hardcore. He had an unnerving habit of showing up in the most disconcerting of places, like showers and above the cooker, a blue flame threatening to ignite his rear quarters. The kids would wail at the very sight of Stuey and what his silent and sinister intelligence could mean. He was even equipped with a pencil and an incident report sheet. We thought the Tazer might be going  bit far.

To ensure maximum effect, Stuey's entrance was set to the strains of I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me by Rockwell.

Stuey was all watching and all seeing, like the NSA with metal testicles on the back of its truck, a long time before Pinto started warning of the evils of the Elf.

In a recent article she wrote: "It sounds humorous, but hem in their home, it normalizes the idea of surveillance and in the future restrictions on our privacy may be more easily accepted."

You bet. In fact Stuey was so effective we decided not to retire him at Christmas. He would make sudden and dramatic 'guest appearances' throughout the year at times of maximum misbehavior, his elusive smile a thin veneer behind which hatred simmers. To add maximum effect, we'd tell the kids Stuey had been fired by Santa and had all of the passive aggression of a spurned employee.

I'm sorry to say at some point Zara read my previous blog about Stuey and thus discovered he did not move around on his own but required some parental assistance, all of which undermined his power to intimidate. Oh well - Happy Christmas and all that...

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Paris - City of Love and Blood

You don't forget the first time you see Paris, nor the small thrill of excitement you feel. In my case, it could have been the cold. I had taken an overnight ferry and a slow train in the early hours. I was bleary eyes. Now I was shuttling through the endless periphery of the great city at 6 a.m. watching a pale and cold sunlight rise on the pale blue apartments with their shutters.

Soon we were hanging out at the Gare Montparnasse trying to get to grips with the basics of ordering a coffee under the withering gaze of a waitress who looked like a model and had all the haughtiness of someone who dealt with a long series of brain dead British backpackers all day. In Paris, even the rail stations are architectural wonders but little prepared us for the grandness of the buildings that rose up around us. In Paris, everything appears to be laid out with a view to its composition. Buildings, squares and bridges are carefully laid out to be pleasing from every angle. Even the trees seem to have been designed to throw an impressionistic light on the pavements, as if dappled by the brush of Monet.

Paris is known as the City of Light or "La Ville-Lumiere because it was one of the first city in the world to pioneer street lighting. Today it uses lights to a dramatic effect. At night the bridges over the Seine glow with pale white light and the great palaces and museums are lit up like wedding cakes. The chill washes over you when you stand on the beautiful Pont Alexandre III and look at the gold dome of the Invalides lit up against the purple sky. You realize whey Adele filmed that video here.

Paris is also known as the City of Love perhaps due to the seductive cityscape, the legacy of decades of movies and the tacky love locks that were out on the Pont des Arts before they collapsed a section of it. In reality, about 51 percent of Parisians are single.

Nevertheless, there is something seductive about Paris. On my first trip, I slipped out of the cheap lodgings early in the morning and immersed myself amid the blooms and shady fountains of the Jardin du Luxembourg. It remains one of my favorite places.

Later that night we met my French friend Wilfy. He took us to the spot below a wall by the Seine where he told us he took his love interests. On the other side of the dark, lapping water the high vault of the Musee D'Orsay glowed against the evening sky. I asked about Bridgette and if she was going to show up. I had met her in England, and she had told me in a nonchalant way we might meet up Paris. Wilfy shrugged, and Bridgette never showed. Memories came flooding back of Natalie, my first ever love interest from the French exchange trip, and how it had disintegrated under the withering glare of her parents in her pool room. Later that night Wilfy took us around Paris in his car. He took us to some hidden places, palaces that slept in the moonlight, with courtyards filled with checkerboard works of art.

The next two times I returned to the City of Love I was with love interests, albeit not French, Still the city beguiled me with its sudden and unexpected vistas. The feeling of being in the big enamel bath tub in the chilly hotel room watching the Eifel Tower far off and flickering out the frosted window, still lives with me.

It was easy to become seduced by the City of Love, unless you ended up in one of the overpriced pavement cafes or experienced the notorious stand-up toilets. It was easy to block out the undercurrents of hate.

The appalling terrorist attacks of Friday 13, have made it a lot harder to filter out the hate. From now on Paris will always be mired in sadness and images of bloodshed. What those who fell for the marketing myth might not realize is the fact it has often been thus.

In the 1790s, the inhabitants of London looked east in horror at the events in Paris. The revolution in 1789 had overthrown the regime of King Louis XVI but it had initially been about the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the lofty ideals that were first developed by the writers of the US Constitution. By 1793, the revolution had turned in on itself and the king was executed. From 1793 to 1974 the Reign of Terror ruled Paris and as many as 40,000 people were guillotined in the streets. Around this time the brutal journalist Jean-Paul Marat was stabbed to death by Charlotte Corday, a young woman avenging the death of a friend. The painting The Death of Marat became an icon of the revolution.

The chaos on the streets of Paris only ended when an ambitious young officer called Napoleon Bonaparte took over the country and involved it in a series of wars and empire building. Napoleon experienced astounding success, establishing France as the most powerful nation on earth, before his empire was eventually dismantled. The world's first truck bomb was invented on the streets of Paris in 1800 in an attempt to assassinate Napoleon.

The monarchy was restored, but the great underclass of Paris, known as the Sans-Culottes set up, the barricades again in 1830 and 1848, overthrowing the monarchy. In 1871 after France's devastating defeat by the Prussians, the barricades went up again, and a radical government called the Commune took over Paris. It was eventually crushed by the French army in a series of bloody days that left as many as 10,000 Communards dead.

Urban design in Paris helped push the Great Unwashed to the sidelines. The beautiful boulevards we see today were a conscious attempt to clear out the slums of Paris and to remove the revolutionaries. Still they festered, out of sight but not always out of mind, in concrete satellite towns.

Although Paris stabilized after 1871, the order threatened to disintegrate again during World War One. With the German front line not far from Paris, massive missiles would hammer into the city on a regular basis, killing people.

In 1940, the Germans succeeded where they failed in 1914 and occupied Paris. Inevitably there was more bloodshed and sorrow as Jews were rounded up to be taken to the extermination camps. In the post-war era, France became embroiled in a bloody war in Algeria that saw frequent bombings in the capital. During one fateful day in 1961 as many as 200 Algerians were rounded up by the security forces in the city and murdered by its famous landmarks.

In 1968, students occupied the Sorbonne and rioted on the streets of Paris. A night of running battles with police left 300 injured, although there were no deaths. In 2005, the city was again the scene of riots, this time by disaffected Muslims.

Notwithstanding the violent history of the City of Love, 2015 will go down as one of the darkest years in the history of Paris, a year when new and more ruthless methods of terrorism were brought to bear. But while the horrors may seem to seem like new ground to us, it's easy to forget that more than 70 years ago millions of people in Europe were being shipped to camps for mass slaughter and thousands were dying each day on the front line. We forget the human capacity to hate at our peril.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Has James Bond Bombed?

James Bond is an odd British institution which, like the Queen, seems to have been knocking around forever.

Growing up, we were exposed to Bond in the most pervasive of ways. Goldfinger always seemed to be on the tele in the 1970s, the seductive voice of Sean Connery mixing up a powerful cocktail with the deep strains of Shirley Bassey.

Daniel Craig as Bond

Then Roger Moore came along. My parents made disparaging comparisons with the great Sean and the plots became as flimsy as Bond's one liners which still worked for him on getting women into bed.

James Bond was an odd concept. He was a spy who killed lots of people in a non-gruesome way. He was a Brit who was clinical and ruthless in what he did, a particularly un-British characteristic in itself.

It's odd to find Bond still making headlines in a very different era, but you have to wonder for how much longer. Daniel Craig is arguably the most effective Bond since Connery but he's admitted to being bored with the role. While Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace and Skyfall were critically acclaimed, the new offering Spectre is described as a bit of a dog's dinner, even if it's served from a classy plate.

Connery was a hard act to follow

Although it may be unpatriotic to say so, Bond movies have always left me a bit cold, although I liked to watch some of the exotic locations. However, the fast cars and the death-defying antics, always seemed to unreal and formulaic to me and there never seemed to be any reason why Bond was doing what he was doing apart from giving movie goers an adrenalin rush. Other action franchises such as Mission Impossible seemed to do it better. In his recent incarnation, Craig has been given more of a past and themes have been carrie across the episodes. It may not be enough to save James Bond, although I have been proved wrong before, recalling how Doctor Who became mired in low budget anonymity amidst ropey doctors like Colin Baker in the 1990s, only to gain a new lease of life in the modern era.

Bond has never been as quirky and imaginative as the Doctor, which gives him less room to get out of a tight spot in the modern era of reinvented superheroes. Nor can he fall back on the work of Ian Fleming which was exhausted rather a long time ago. The other problem is Craig will be a hard act to follow when he decides to do some real acting again, You have to wonder if it's time to give the character a golden gun to the head.

Pointless Bond Trivia

James Bond was the name of the author of a book called Birds of the West Indies. Fleming was rather taken with it as he was a keen ornithologist (otherwise known as twitcher). He thought James Bond would be a great short and unromantic name for a spy. Of course it was rather act as Bond certainly has a thing for the birds.

I Don't Queue : Does That Make Me Unpatriotic?

I'm bemused by the scenes from Westminster today. People are queuing for 24 hours to see a wooden box. OK, it's a fancy box surround...