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Fiddling while Barcelona burns

I was surprised earlier this week to read of the drought in Barcelona, which has been ongoing for the last three years. I don’t think I’ve heard about it previously. Sandrine Morel’s article in Le Monde sets out several drastic actions which have been taken, including painting patches of grass green, restricting the use of showers in gyms and sports clubs, and planning to fill swimming pools with seawater. There’s a concerted effort to hide the problem from tourists, given the degree to which the local economy is reliant on them.

On February 12, Barcelona mayor Jaume Collboni visited the Pedralbes monastery and asked the nuns to pray for rain.

Two new desalination plants will come online in 2028, but I’m sure that feels a long time away for residents who can’t shower after playing friendly football games on the municipal pitches. As the summer looms, there are interim contingency plans to import (relatively small) quantities of water by ship, as became necessary during a less severe drought in 2008. The drought also affects trees: as more of them die off, less carbon dioxide is absorbed, fuelling climate change further.

It continues to be confounding how little impact these sorts of events have on UK politics. We still drown in endless debates about what’s ‘affordable’ in mitigating climate catastrophe, seemingly disregarding the costs associated with the inevitable consequences of inaction. It’s unconscionable that climate change is nowhere to be found on Rishi Sunak’s list of five priorities—though given his singular inability to make progress on his priority areas, perhaps it makes little difference.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , , .

The Venerable Bede

From this visit to Saint Bede, I learned that he popularised the use of the Anno Domini year-numbering system, without which it would have been much harder for me to work out that he died 1,288 years ago.

The idea of people still talking about me or visiting my shine a millennium from now is both depressing and terrifying, but the odds suggest it’s really not something worth worrying about.

This post was filed under: Travel, , .

The luxury of time

Trung Phan wrote about the luxury brand Hermès last weekend.

I wasn’t delighted by Phan’s dated and unnecessary gender-jibes about ‘steering’ his wife away from Hermès stores—in our household, it’s me who buys the occasional Hermès item.

I was, however, struck by this particular item in the list regarding what makes a specific type of Hermés handbag a coveted luxury product:

The training to become an Hermès bag maker takes a minimum of two years (often up to 5 years) and the company only trains 200 people per year. Each Birkin bag is made entirely by hand and takes 20-25 hours to make.

It strikes me how unremarkable that is. Many professions require years of background training, and individual jobs often take 25 hours or more, from writing a report to fitting a kitchen. We don’t necessarily regard the outputs as luxuries, and certainly nowhere near as luxurious (or costly) as an Hermés handbag. Perhaps we should.


The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, , .

Pinging news

I often hear people complaining about notifications from the BBC News app and whether they really represent ‘breaking news’. I don’t use the BBC News app, just the website, and most of the notifications on my phone are turned off, so I don’t spend much time thinking about this. But perhaps I should.

On Tuesday, the FT’s Stephen Bush wrote about the impact of these push notifications on people’s awareness of policies and how this may become more salient in the forthcoming general election. I was surprised to learn that the decisions on which stories get push notifications are ‘made by comparatively low-ranking journalists, certainly compared with the six and the 10 o’clock news.’

But then, I’ve frequently been surprised by the BBC’s willingness to downplay or delegate its most crucial role. The editorial decisions taken by BBC News about what matters in the world—what it puts at the top of its news bulletins, what gets the big slot on the website homepage, what it sends notifications about—are among the most significant decisions anyone in the organisation makes. Yet, too often, the decision is ceded to others: parroting the front pages of openly biased newspapers or perverting the news agenda to promote its own programmes are two common sins. It’s rare to log on to the BBC News website on a Sunday morning and for the ‘top story’ not to be that their political discussion programme is on the air: that’s not news.

This is also reflected in much of the marketing BBC News undertakes: the focus is regularly on ‘news that matters to you‘. But it ought to be the exact opposite of that: the BBC ought to be the source of the news that matters to all of us. The organisation should cherish and embrace its unique position in directing the national conversation. It should talk to us about it.

In the third episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, anchor Will McAvoy gives an on-air speech which includes these words:

From this moment on, we’ll be deciding what goes on our air and how it’s presented to you based on the simple truth that nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate.

We’ll endeavour to put information in a broader context because we know that very little news is born at the moment it comes across our wire.

We’ll be the champion of facts and the mortal enemy of innuendo, speculation, hyperbole and nonsense. We’re not waiters in a restaurant serving the stories you asked for, just the way you like them prepared. Nor are we computers dispensing only the facts because news is only useful in the context of humanity.

You may ask: who are we to make these decisions?

We are Mackenzie McHale and myself. Ms McHale is our Executive Producer. She marshalls the resources of over 100 reporters, producers, analysts, and technicians, and her credentials are readily available. I’m Newsnight’s managing editor and make the final decision on everything seen and heard on this programme.

Who are we to make these decisions? We’re the media elite.

I’d love to see that kind of confidence and pluck from BBC News.

This post was filed under: Media, , , , , .

‘The Iron Claw’

When I’ve been cooking recently, I’ve been mildly frustrated by struggling to find the right spices. Spice pots all look the same, and it’s difficult to find the correct one when they’re all stuck on a cupboard shelf. I’ve been wondering in idle moments whether I should buy a spice rack.

There’s a scene in The Iron Claw which features a wall-mounted spice rack quite prominently in the back of the shot. It looked awfully dated. It put me off.

All of which is to say: my mind was wandering as I watched this film. It didn’t hold my attention.

In fairness, it’s another film I picked by time slot, and which I otherwise wouldn’t have seen. It’s based on the true—and desperately tragic—story of the Von Erich family of wrestlers. This is ‘wrestlers’ in the sense of American wrestling, not some kind of Greco-Roman oily business.

In a nutshell, Fritz Von Erich—an overbearing father-figure—is a former wrestler who moves into the business side of the industry. He pushes his sons to become wrestlers and to seriously strive for the world title. Various tragedies befall the family. The film ends.

The film has received numerous positive reviews from audiences and critics alike, so don’t let anything you’re about to read put you off seeing the film. I don’t claim to know what I’m talking about, I’m just a bloke who sat in front of a screen for a couple of hours.

This is a story evidently based on tragic real events. Yet, the tragedy didn’t translate to the screen, mostly because it felt like a cast of crudely drawn cartoon characters. I had no emotional connection with any of them.

The film is sold as a reflection on toxic masculinity, but that also didn’t come across for me, for much the same reason. Characters who say things like ‘men don’t cry’ and ‘if we’re the strongest, the toughest, nothing can hurt us’ seem like satirical caricatures, not incisive social commentary. A man crying at the end of the film does not have the redemptive power that the script-writers imagine it has.

The film makes no attempt to reconcile its suggestion of 1980s hypermasculinity with the high camp of the wrestling industry itself. There are balletic scenes in the ring and discussions of choreography before bouts, but the characters discuss them entirely in terms of fighting. The film acknowledges that wrestling is a sort of theatrical performance, but never fully explains itself. This undercuts the main narrative of the film, which is about winning the world title, because we never really get to understand how that is achieved. There’s no explanation of who writes the ‘scripts’, or on what basis, or how our heroes might influence that outside the ring.

There were two stand-out performances.

Maura Tierney, who (despite a dazzling career) I know primarily as Maddie Hayward from The Good Wife, is wonderful. The film hints at an observation about faith—in God or in wrestling—which is achieved entirely through shots of a crucifix and Tierney’s face. The persistence of faith is a rich seam, and I wish they’d leaned into it further.

Michael Harney almost stole the show with a role which I can only assume was a creation for the film, a combination of television sports presenter and business advisor. Harney equipped his character with an unruffled warmth combined with a professional detachment from the emotion of the events happening around him. He became of beacon of sanity and depth.

I’ve noted that others have called this the performance of Zac Efron’s career. I thought his character was too crudely drawn for anyone to be able to perform it greatly. But I did spend a lot of the film marvelling about how much he looked like Rob Lowe, and low-key fantasising about a reboot of The West Wing.

The Iron Claw wasn’t for me, but other people think it’s the bees knees, so maybe you’d enjoy it.

This post was filed under: Film, , , .

From curiosity to business model

Nineteen years ago this week, I blogged about a curious story on the now long-defunct silicon.com website site.

A burglar is today behind bars after picking the wrong house to burgle. His crime was caught in full by a webcam, which the hapless thief stole along with the computer, but not before it had sent pictures of him to a website.

A couple of decades on, it’s remarkable how twee this story seems. These days, there’s nothing remarkable about burglars being caught on webcams: Ring, Blink, Arlo and more have made it their entire business model. There are many millions of webcams set up for this exact purpose.

People often mention the pace of the change of technology, but the pace of change in how we use technology is equally astounding.


The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Technology.

I don’t know Mrs Hinch

Sometimes, it takes distance to understand the culture that surrounds us.

I’m vaguely aware of the popularity of Mrs Hinch, who posts cleaning tips on social media. For many months, I assumed the lady in the Fariy Non-Bio advert was Mrs Hinch, but that turns out to be Vogue Williams, whose claim to fame has passed me by.

I didn’t know that Mrs Hinch posts exclusively on Instagram, nor that she now works for Procter & Gamble, nor that her early social media posts had transformed the fortunes of a cleaning product called ‘The Pink Stuff’. I had heard people casually mention ‘The Pink Stuff’ and assumed it was a reference to a Vanish product: ‘trust pink, forget stains’ and all that. I buy all the cleaning products for our house, and I’ve never seen a tub of it in real life.

I, therefore, learned a shocking amount about British culture from this New York Times article by David Segal. It’s an education.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, , , , .

The Royal Northern Sinfonia and Isata Kanneh-Mason

On Friday night, Wendy and I returned to the Glasshouse International Centre for Music to hear the Royal Northern Sinfonia play works by Beethoven and Schumann, plus a Clara Schumann piano concerto featuring Isata Kanneh-Mason. We saw Isata’s cellist brother several times last year, including in this very hall. The talent in the Kanneh-Mason family is astonishing.

The RNS now stream most of their home performances on YouTube, as they did with this one. It’s both fascinating and discombobulating to see the same concert I’ve witnessed in person streamed online, with all of the televisual close-ups and changes of angles that medium provides. I guess it’s a uniquely twenty-first-century experience.

I almost booked the seats behind the stage, and given how prominent they are in the streamed production, I’m glad I didn’t!

This post was filed under: Art, Music, , , , .

Choice isn’t always good

I recently dined at a restaurant in Leeds. It was part of a chain described by its owners as ‘sophisticated’, ‘elegant’ and ‘flawless’. The food was, indeed, delicious—much better than I expected. Regrettably, the bill was also larger than I expected.

I was surprised that the maître d’ handed me six menus as he seated me: the main menu, a prix fixe menu, a specials menu, a wine list, a cocktail list, and a mocktail list. In situations like this, my mum is wont to request a filing cabinet, though in her absence, I just muttered something like ‘goodness’.

In the years since the pandemic, I haven’t been anywhere where I’ve experienced a similar surfeit of menus, and it struck me as a little strange. It wouldn’t have seemed unusual a few years ago; the range might have been a plus, the keenness to fill so many pages indicative of a desire to wax lyrical about the virtues of the dishes.

These days, it reads as a lack of confidence in food quality. The menu served not as a brief collection of equally excellent options but an endless list of things one might fancy.

It’s interesting to note how my perception of an approach has changed without me noticing.


The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Travel, .

‘Saltburn’

What is there to write about a film that has already had so much written about it? Emerald Fennell’s comedy / psychological thriller has seemed to divide viewers, some thinking it’s just a bit silly, and others thinking it’s a masterpiece. I thought it was both, and therefore neither.

If you’re unfamiliar, the plot concerns a young lad from Prescott, Oliver, taking up a place at Oxford University. He is marginalised by the wealthy, entitled majority of toffs. After he confides that his social background is especially challenged, and that his father has suddenly died, a popular wealthy student, Felix, invites him to spend the summer with his family at their ancestral country mansion, Saltburn. Weirdly obsessive and comically macabre events ensue.

After the film was repeatedly recommended to me by friends, I streamed it at home. I suspect this isn’t the best way of experiencing it: the cinematography was the biggest star of this film. Aside from the odd misfire (there were a few too many ‘reflecting’ shots for me), it was aesthetically remarkable.

There were also some brilliant acting performances. Rosamund Pike entirely inhabited the character of Lady Elspeth, effortlessly treading the line between comedy and psychodrama. I also loved Archie Madekwe as Farleigh, a part that offered much more depth than his character in Gran Turismo. And Alison Oliver brought a beautifully unhinged quality to Venetia, which rescued some desperately uneven writing for that character.

I wasn’t sold on either of the two lead actors, though. Jacob Elordi’s performance was a bit flat, which was a problem when playing a ‘magnetic’ character. Barry Keoghan is a 31-year-old actor who didn’t read as an 18-year-old character. The less said about his ‘Scouse’ accent, which intermittently became his native Irish, the better.

But the main issue with the film was the writing: the plot was indecisive, the dialogue was startlingly stodgy, and the film as a whole seemed uncertain about its message. I’m not sure what I was supposed to take away from it.

There were several scenes which were clearly intended to shock, as though to lift the writing. These fell flat: the resolution of the plot undermined them, and the casting of a far-too-mature Keoghan considerably undercut the weirdness factor.

The comedy also falls flat. Fennell misunderstands what the rest of us find funny about people with inherited wealth. Fennell thinks it’s funny that, despite their wealth, the family live in closeted chaos. They don’t appreciate their wealth: despite a library, they all read Harry Potter. They care only for their own: they don’t know the names of their footmen. Their knowledge is limited by their experience: they don’t know where Liverpool is.

But none of that is funny, it’s just irritating. Fennell even seems to expect us to find the idea of fancy dress among the wealth amusing, as though ‘normal people’ imagine the fabulously wealthy to be clad in nothing but the latest designer clobber at every given moment.

At the risk of being a boorish man explaining a joke, the comedy lies in the absurdity of the assumption of entitlement. It is amusing that the owners of stately homes fail to appreciate the weird myopia of their ancestral claims: ‘it’s ours because it’s been in the family for generations’, without recognising that it’s also been in the community for generations, and the wealth only exists because of historic abuse of that community and its less fortunate inhabitants. The assumption that only their family, or only their class, are of worthy of consideration is ripe for ridicule, and is such a jarring contrast to the way most people live their lives as to be intrinsically funny.

To labour the point, there is no humour in Pike’s character not knowing the location of Liverpool. The humour ought to flow from the underlying assumption that she will never need to know where that is: an arched eyebrow, a dismissive ‘very well’, a look of profound disinterest; all would have served the script better than a brief discussion of whether Liverpool is by the sea. And hence, the comedy doesn’t land.

In Saltburn, Richard E Grant plays the same ‘unhinged wealthy father’ role that seems to be his stock-in-trade now: you could slot in one of his scenes from The Lesson and no-one would notice. Indeed, the thriller-ish elements of the plot are strikingly similar: they’re both about outsiders spending time in wealthy people’s country houses, where dark things happen. Heck, both have a rich kid called Felix as a central character. It’s remarkable that they were released only a few weeks apart.

For my money, The Lesson was the better film overall, though it received only a fraction of the media coverage of Saltburn. The Lesson may not have had the shock factor of Saltburn’s more unhinged scenes, but it had far more to say, and it said it more assertively. And the soundtrack of The Lesson blows the overdone, clichéd score of Saltburn out of the water.

So: Saltburn. It’s difficult to forgive a film that lacks both a coherent plot and meaningful insights, no matter how beautiful it looks. It ends up feeling just a bit disappointingly run-of-the-mill, a bit scripting-by-focus-group, a bit mass-market, a bit average. I’d hoped for better.

This post was filed under: Film, , , , , , .




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