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Giving Argentina a Sporting Chance

Cardinal Jorge M. Bergoglio SJ (Pope Francis I)

The transition from avid Pope watching to fervent Argie bashing was almost seamless. Less than 24 hours after Pope Francis I (the one-lunged Pontiff) made his first balcony appearance in Saint Peter’s Square, the British press was reminding us of supposedly inflammatory comments he made 12 months ago about the Falkland Islands. Speaking on the 30th anniversary of the start of the Falklands War, Jorge Bergoglio (as he was then), led prayers for the fallen and referenced the disputed territory as “the country that is theirs and they were usurped”.

Meanwhile, The Guardian had its own axe to grind, delving into the murky history of the Argentine junta in the 70s and 80s and Bergoglio’s role as part of the discredited Catholic hierarchy of that era.

Not to be outdone, The Sun weighed in with its “Hand of God” headline – a none-to-subtle reference to Diego Maradona’s controversial “goal” for Argentina against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final. By tonight, I fully expect to be reading that the new Pope Francis cheats at cards and has been caught riding the bus in Buenos Aires without paying.

I’m not a Catholic but I am a sports fan, and the real story here seems to be Britain’s longstanding antipathy towards lying, cheating Argies of all shapes and sizes. On the same night that Pope Francis was elected, Andy Murray was having a run in with Argentina’s Carlos Berlocq at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. The Scot eventually won their fourth-round match 7-6, 6-4, but he was enraged by his opponent’s “extremely, extremely loud” grunting at key moments during the match.

“Murray annoyed at stupid grunt”, claims The Sun, in what by that paper’s high standards is a rather limp headline. I’d have gone with something a bit more indignant – “Muzza blasts grunting Argie”. That might strike a chord with the Telegraph reader who quipped earlier today in reference to Pope Francis, “I thought we’d sunk the General Bergoglio”.

Having listened to the brief clip on the paper’s website, I think Muzza does have legitimate cause for complaint. As far as I know, Andy’s never criticised his good friend and rival Rafael Nadal for inappropriate on-court noises. That’s probably because the Spaniard keeps his grunting at a consistent level throughout – much like his legendary whipped topspin forehand. So let’s hope that Berlocq doesn’t team up with Victoria Azarenka or Maria Sharapova for mixed doubles, or the decibel count will be well off the Larcher de Brito scale.

Closer to home, another Argentine we love to hate is in trouble yet again this week. Manchester City striker Carlos Tevez has been charged with driving his white Porsche while disqualified and without insurance. If found guilty he could face a jail sentence, a fine, or even an ASBO, though probably not a lengthy spell in manager Roberto Mancini’s bad books. Unlike the British press, Mancini has been notable for his forgiving attitude towards Tevez – whatever the provocation. Last weekend he joked “I hope that the police can stop him every day”, after Carlos celebrated his arrest by scoring a hat-trick against Barnsley in the FA Cup.

But there are some Argentine sportsmen who enjoy an unsullied reputation. In the 70s we marvelled at the muscular tennis player Guillermo Vilas, whose successes in the mid-70s have been rather overshadowed by those of Bjorn Borg. A few years later, there was Gabriela Sabatini, whose film-star looks are now ideal for promoting her own range of perfumes.

Formula One fans still revere Juan Manuel Fangio, who won five world championships, survived a kidnapping and heart surgery and lived to the ripe old age of 84.

But perhaps the greatest Argentine sports star is the man who was dominating the headlines 24 hours before Pope Francis. The majestic Lionel Messi scored two goals on Tuesday night, to help Barcelona beat AC Milan 4-0 in the second leg of their Champions League tie. Carlos Tevez may struggle with tricky English words like “constabulary”, but for the prolific Messi, “phenomenal” and “fantastic” don’t really need translating.


iPhone: 5 Things I Hate about You

Iphone_4G-2 (pic DanielZanetti)

The shine has gone off the iPhone 4

It will be thinner, taller, faster, instantly covetable and probably even more expensive than the last model. No, I’m not talking about the next Mrs Tom Cruise — though she’ll doubtless be unveiled just as soon as they can get the prenup sorted. Today, 12 September, is Apple’s big launch day, when months of feverish speculation about the size, weight and capabilities of the iPhone 5 will finally end in the crushing realisation that it is just another phone.

Sandwiched between the Golden Summer of British Sport and the inevitable Winter of Discontent, there will be a brief autumn burnished with a shiny array of Apple gadgets. Was this what John Keats was anticipating in “Ode to Autumn”, when he wrote about a “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”? Increasingly the calendar seems to be marked out in terms of smartphone launches: harvest festival has been superseded by Apple Day.

If you’re one of those Luddites who doesn’t already own an iPhone, you have my sympathy. Perhaps you’ve recently splashed out an eye-watering sum for that oversized hunk of polycarbonate and Gorilla Glass that is the Samsung Galaxy S3. You’ve had your fun boasting about how big it is and talking up the capabilities of your 8 megapixel camera. Now it’s time to get with the programme. I guarantee that by the time Apple reveals its latest plans for world domination, you’ll be willing to sell your granny, mortgage your kids or flog a few (non-vital) organs in order to get your hands on the world’s sleekest, sexiest handset.

As the countdown to the iPhone 5 continues, I’m not going to add to the feverish speculation about battery life, screen dimensions or pre-loaded apps. Unlike this enterprising YouTube user, I’m afraid I haven’t had time to knock up my own iPhone 5 Concept video. My version would be presented by the boys from South Park and would be more scatological than reverential.

Instead, I’ll be ruminating on the more troubling aspects of our growing obsession with Apple and its (not-so-smart) phones.

Fifty Shades of Grayscale

Even the queen of middle-class smut EL James can’t compete with the iPhone 5 when it comes to generating daft headlines and a veritable blizzard of blog posts. It turns out that there are a lot more than 50 ways to rehash the same set of guesses, half-truths and leaked photos of Apple’s new product. My favourite, from today’s Guardian, is the tongue-in-cheek “iPhone 5 features: crowdsourcing the specifications”.

Playing Appy Families

I come from a very argumentative family with a healthy disrespect for consensus. But since most of us acquired fistfuls of iPhones, iPads and MacBooks, the only question anyone asks now is “What’s the code for the wi-fi?”

Pulling the Plug

One of the more consistent rumours is that Apple will replace its 30-pin dock connector with a new, smaller 9-pin version. So that drawer stuffed full of obsolete phone chargers from your Nokia days is about to get even fuller.

A Burnt-Out Case

Budding philanthropists who shelled out $3,000 or more on a luxury Brikk titanium iPhone case also had the satisfaction of knowing they’d donated a metric ton of rice to the world’s poor. Sadly, this piece of bling wasn’t designed for a supersized iPhone 5. Back to the drawing board . . .

iPhone 5 vs Richard III

Perhaps Britain’s most unfairly maligned monarch, King Richard III has suffered yet another grave misfortune today. Archaeologists excavating a council car park in Leicester believe they have unearthed the remains of the warrior king who died at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. This stunning discovery really deserves a better fate than being upstaged in the headlines by an Apple launch in San Francisco.


Trash Talking on Twitter

Keeptidy_ask

“If you can’t say something nice… don’t say nothing at all.” (Thumper, Bambi (1942))

Wouldn’t the world be a nicer place if we engaged in a bit of self-censorship and followed the maxim handed down by Thumper’s father? No, the Disney fairy hasn’t waved her wand and turned me into an Evangelical Christian overnight. (God forbid.) I’m just getting really bored with reading about the daily outrages perpetrated by splenetic Twitter users.

Not a day goes by without someone making a complete arse of themselves on Twitter, and then paying the price with a barrage of negative headlines — or worse. Hard on the heels of last week’s racist tweets directed at Stan Collymore, came yesterday’s news that Oxford City had sacked their striker Lee Steele for a “homophobic” posting about Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas. I’m not going to repeat Steele’s tweet, but let’s just say that if I had a hash tag for him it would be #shitforbrains.

I’m a relative newcomer to Twitter and I remain deeply sceptical about my forays into the Twitterverse. In terms of embracing the possibilities of “microblogging” I’ll admit I am still cowering in one of those Victorian bathing wagons, while everyone else is on the beach letting it all hang out.

For a writer or blogger at any level, Twitter is a necessity for publicising your posts. The sad fact is that figuring out how to link your Twitter and Facebook accounts is probably more important than knowing how to spell or use the apostrophe. If, like me, you’re looking for work, your CV will probably end up straight in the (virtual) trash basket if you can’t flaunt your social networking credentials. Last summer I got a pitying look from a well-known sports journalist when I told him how few followers I had so far acquired.

So, I’m happy to post links on Twitter and engage in some online banter — badinage if you prefer — but I would think twice before letting loose a stream of invective. As the headlines prove, it’s just too easy for anyone with two thumbs and a smart phone to launch 140 characters’ worth of insults at anyone, any time, anywhere. You don’t have to pass an IQ or spelling test to get a Twitter account (more’s the pity), which is why trolls who have hashtags where their brains should be think they’re free to bully and defame.

This is the age of snark, and Twitter is the gladiatorial arena in which top exponents battle it out with their pithy put-downs.

Twitter’s democratising effect has been good for celebrity watchers. If you want to be privy to the “thoughts” of Wayne Rooney, you don’t have to wait for an interview or the next volume of his autobiography. I also like the fact that frustrated consumers can now hold businesses to account in this public forum. You don’t need a journalistic Rottweiler like Anne Robinson to fight your corner. You can land a blow on your under-performing energy supplier or ISP, with a well-timed tweet. Rest assured, they are listening.

I think of Twitter like a giant cyber playground that’s open 24/7. Just like when you were at school, you will find that not all the kids play nicely together. Amongst all the millions of anonymous users, there are the popular kids (Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Stephen Fry); the big show-offs (the Beckhams); and the dunces. The latter camp is filled with very angry people spewing carefully crafted gems like “I hate [insert name of celebrity, politician here]” or “[A.N. OTHER] is a tw*t!!!” into your twitterfeed. It’s not big and it’s not clever.

This is the age of snark, and Twitter is the gladiatorial arena in which top exponents battle it out with their pithy put-downs. We can’t all be Giles Coren, though. If you must slag people off, just remember that you’re not holding forth from the privacy of your sofa or even your local pub. We won’t just dismiss your comments as the drunken, late-night ramblings of another sad loser. Racists, homophobes and misogynists should clean up their act, or start an online cesspool that’s more appropriate for their brand of “humour”.


Glad to be Gray

Tyne_Daly_and_Tim_Daly_at_the_2009_Tribeca_Film_Festival

This year I’ve given myself an early Christmas present by (belatedly) installing the Firefox CommentBlocker Add-On. It cost nothing to download, and just a few seconds later the Comments sections on every site in my browser had disappeared — as if by magic. It was the unpleasant mix of sexist and ageist remarks under a Guardian article about actresses Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless that finally convinced me to take action.

The stars of the 80s cop show, Cagney & Lacey, are now in their mid-60s and both were pictured with short gray hair. Some readers were shocked by their appearance and felt they were barely recognisable from their crime-busting heyday. It appears that these self-righteous, feeble-minded misogynists can’t deal with the sight of a couple of ladies just looking their age. They’re so used to seeing “mature” actresses who have been Botoxed, “lifted” and collagen-boosted to within an inch of their lives, that Daly and Gless looked freakish.

A Guardian reader who goes by the name “hermionegingold”, kicked off the fun by writing:

“c&l look a little like ‘whatever happened to baby jane’
trouble is i can’t decide who is blanche & who is jane?”

Hilarious. This movie-literate wag (or do I mean wanker?) is comparing these two respected actresses with the mad old crones played by Bette David and Joan Crawford in Robert Aldrich’s 1962 psychological thriller. Presumably, if Gless was still blonde and Daly a brunette our anonymous commenter wouldn’t have felt moved to make such a demeaning remark. Choose to go gray and you’re automatically a target for vitriol.

I should have stopped reading there, because the level of debate was depressingly low for a “quality” newspaper. Some cretin who styles himself/herself “roastpudding” wrote: “Oh dear, age hasn’t been too kind.” Meanwhile, over at The Telegraph website, they’d juxtaposed mug shots from the show with a new picture of Daly and Gless in London. This prompted someone calling himself Iain Sanders to write “Christ what horrors they are now!”.

I’ve no idea what age Mr Sanders is, or whether he’s really a man or an intellectually challenged eunuch, but what that comment says about attitudes towards older women is horrifying to me. I’m guessing he’s one of those sad little onanists who spends all his waking hours drooling over hairless, pneumatic, digitally enhanced porn stars. He’d probably be happy to live in a version of Logan’s Run, with all women over the age of 30 forced to choose between extermination or an ongoing programme of plastic surgery.

The popularity of trashy celebrity magazines and the Mail Online is a constant reminder of our warped perceptions about women’s looks. Any celebrity who’s overweight, underweight, hirsute or given to excessive perspiration must live in fear of being snapped, captioned and displayed for public ridicule.

The worst crime of all, though, is getting old. Last week The Mail captioned a black and white glamour shot of 31-year-old Pan Am star Christina Ricci “Natural beauty: Christina, whose appearance defies her years, is seen with smokey eyes, rouged cheeks and red lips.” I know we shouldn’t expect much from a Mail sub-editor (does such a person even exist?), but do they really believe that Ricci is well on her way to being a graying old hag?

Gray-haired people are grotesque and ridiculous. Just ask the creative geniuses who dreamed up the series of ads for Wonga.Com.

I saw one of these abominations wrapped around a programme on Channel 5 the other night and it made me want to put my fist through the TV. Here’s what the charmingly named AdTurds site had to say about this latest disturbing evidence of how we view the elderly.

I’m 48 and my hair has so far retained its natural colour, but it’s only a matter of time before I face a difficult choice. Should I go for a dye job, some expensive highlights, or perhaps a paper bag over my head? I wouldn’t want my appearance to cause offence to all those balding, paunchy misogynists out there.


Death Wish Dave

Prime Minister David Cameron

Just another storm in a (Westminster) tea cup

David Cameron has warmed up for Friday’s right royal knees-up with what you might call a right prime ministerial balls-up. Dismissing shadow Treasury Chief Secretary, Angela Eagle, with the words “calm down, dear” during Prime Minister’s Questions was a move guaranteed to upset women, Labour MPs and right-thinking citizens everywhere. “Arrogant tosser”, “What a dick” and “Plummy twat” were just three of the choice insults being bandied around this afternoon by irate Guardian readers.

You could argue that stealing lines from Michael Winner shows that the PM has an admirable knowledge of popular culture — or perhaps a death wish all of his own. But “Call me Dave” is such a canny political operator that I reckon his gaffe was a cunning ruse to steer everyone’s thoughts away from our stagnant economy and those controversial NHS reforms.

Of course, not everyone thinks Cameron’s hilarious put-down was actually aimed at Angela Eagle or even at “Mrs Balls”, the redoubtable Yvette Cooper. Over at The Spectator, Lloyd Evans seems pretty sure that the PM was directing his remark at the Leader of the Opposition, that young upstart Miliband Jr.

Unlike Guardian devotees, readers of the unashamedly right-wing Spectator tend to leave all that righteous indignation to the sandal-wearing, tofu-eating plebs. They favour the kind of straight talking practised by reader Bill Fraser, who comments: “Brilliant joke, at the right moment… it livened up for once the usual pointless weekly debate between the two rich posh prats Miliband and Cameron… that passes for PMQ’s.” Hear, hear.

Whatever you think about Cameron’s debating style, at least his comment was made out in the open. It was hardly on the same level of offensiveness as Gordon Brown’s now infamous 2010 General Election encounter with plucky pensioner Gillian Duffy. “It’s very nice to see you” he says, just moments before getting into his car and dismissing her as a “bigoted woman”. Nice one, Gordon.

Spectator reader “Magnolia” reckons that Labour’s Deputy Leader, Harriet Harman, was enjoying (Oh) Dear Dave’s performance at the Despatch Box. Perhaps she was recalling that it has only been a few short months since she was reduced to name-calling at Labour’s Scottish Conference. Labelling Lib Dem number-cruncher Danny Alexander a “ginger rodent”, earned her this stern reproach from Scottish MEP George Lyon: “‘This is absolutely pathetic and deeply offensive to red-heads across the country.”

What I’ve learned from this afternoon’s storm in a (Westminster) tea cup is that David Cameron is finding it difficult to break out of his media pigeonhole as the “posh prat/twat/dick” we all love to hate. Attempts at humour — even mild ones — are likely to earn him opprobrium. Best to stick with just being whiny and adenoidal like Ed Miliband or “sanctimomious” like Lord Ashdown.

Can you guess who’ll be top of esure’s wish list when dear old Michael Winner finally pops his clogs?


Hidden gems

Searching for philosophical nuggets on internet Comments boards can feel a bit like that notorious scene in Trainspotting in which Renton emerges from the foul depths of Edinburgh’s filthiest public convenience. A while ago I had some harsh words to say about people with silly user names who litter the message boards with invective, under the cloak of anonymity. But it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind. Lately, I’ve realised that there is some point in allowing Joe and Josephine Public to lend their intellectual clout (and lousy spelling) to the debate on the great issues of the day.

We can’t spend all our time worrying about “no-fly” zones, swingeing cuts or Victoria Beckham’s pregnancy bump. Sometimes we just need to laugh, and with Peep Show currently off the air I’m finding little to smile about. I’ve also realised that the search for original tweeting material entails looking further than the headlines.

So, in the interests of spreading a little happiness, I bring you the first in a series of blogs highlighting the mad, bad and syntactically challenged world of Comments.

Codpieces and Codswallop

Thank God for the end of those bloody Tudors. Showtime’s lavish historical romp concluded its run on BBC2 last night, no doubt leaving the field clear for another equally vacuous drama. I’m not a fan of “historical violence”, accompanied by over the top sex scenes, wooden dialogue and indifferent acting. The only thing that could have made this show less appealing to me would have been casting Maxine Peake as Anne of Cleves. But The Guardian’s irreverent round-up of the series almost made up for it, as did the comments.

@YourGrace claims “I have found myself being able to answer more questions on University Challenge” as a result of watching The Tudors. I can’t decide whether or not this is a piss take. I don’t think Jeremy Paxman would be impressed.

@HappyValley, who’s clearly a student of history offers this profound judgment on the series: “Give people absolute power and they fell [sic] free to shag anyone they want.”

@felik has helpfully identified the shortcomings of the BBC’s long-running soap opera: “Perhaps if EastEnders had the odd public disembowelling instead of people just shouting ‘Sort yerself ahht!” at each other I might watch it.”

Is this a pissing contest?

I thought Andy’s Gill’s interview with Fleet Foxes front man Robin Pecknold would be a nice appetiser for the band’s forthcoming album, Helplessness Blues. But the talk of “open space and untamed wilderness” sent rival fanboys @PF SHIELDS (24 years) and @JohnnyOh (45 years) into a tailspin (well, pissing contest) over which of them had clocked up more years of gig attending. Act your age, not your shoe size, guys!

Don’t rain on my parade

West End Whingers is the blog that saves you the bother of actually going to the theatre, shelling out £40 and then having someone’s big head obscuring your view of the proceedings. The guys’ recent review of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg awarded the show a whopping 5 “glasses”. Not all of their readers were so enamoured, notably the bilingual @JohnnyFox, whose comments need no translation by me: “Sacre Bleu, Zut Alors, Quelle Horreur … pick your own Francophone diatribes, this is awful. And as for the choreography: Fosse septique”. I think I’ll stick with Jacques Demy’s film . . .

Money for nothing

If there’s one surefire way to bamboozle a British citizen it’s asking them about David Cameron’s much-vaunted “Big Society”. Spectator reader “David” (presumably not the PM himself) helpfully sums it up as “total BLX”. David Blackburn’s piece on the furious reaction to a massive Arts and Humanities Research Council grant for research into unicorns — sorry, the Big Society — had commenters in a lather. Amongst all the spleen was this gnomic pronouncement from Rhoda Klapp:

“All enquiries are fixed. Everything is gamed. All statements are truish, but do not reflect all of the truth. And yes, ‘independent’ opinion follows its funding. I don’t think I’m saying anything new here. Who has yet to discover it?” Who indeed?

Just a Gigola

Finally this week, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw shared his enthusiasm for the French “lesbian crime melodrama” Gigola, which is showing in the BFI’s London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. This being a “thinking person’s” newspaper, you’d expect the comments from film fans to reflect a degree of maturity and enlightenment, wouldn’t you? But Bradshaw’s reference to the movie’s “gamey sex scenes” was like a red rag to a bull:

@whiteyed (or should that be witless): “i am a straight man but i do love these lesbian type roger the cabin boy films – i think i must be a lesbian trapped in a mans body -” Try locating your shift key and then your brain, halfwit.


Golden Wonders

April Fool’s Day is still a few weeks away, but some of the headlines this week had me wondering whether our newspapers were having a trial run. There was Lucinda Lambton in The Independent, declaring “Public WCs were once Britain’s pride and glory”, as another symbol of our nation’s proud heritage goes down the crapper. It’s those damn cuts, of course.

Then there was The Guardian, showcasing the unusual dietary habits of mum Debbie Taylor, “I’ve eaten only crisps for the past 10 years”. It’s a confession that will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever looked at their plate of meat and two veg and thought, “Nah, I think I’ll have a six-pack of Hula Hoops instead”. I know I shouldn’t be making light of Debbie’s affliction, but there was something about that opening paragraph, “I’m not a fan of the cooked meal. I’m much happier with Monster Munch crisps – beef flavour”, that made me want to laugh.

Only hours after reading about Debbie’s love affair with potato chips, I had an even bigger surprise when I belatedly realised that Amazon UK is flogging crisps alongside books, iPods and those ubiquitous digital reading devices. Yes, Amazon’s new online Grocery Store is, as they say, “in beta”. So while you’re busy downloading the “explicit” and doubtless unsavoury versions of “Do It Like a Dude” and “F**kin’ Perfect”, you can also stock up on savoury snacks, cat food and Lucky Charms.

It makes sense that Amazon wants to expand its plans for total world domination by selling us everything we need for our increasingly sedentary lifestyle. So, you’ve already invested in your flat-screen TV, Blu-ray player and enough boxed sets to see you through to next Christmas. The only thing you’re going to be exercising over the next few months is your credit card, right?

But before you get sucked into the magical world of HBO, Showtime or FX, make sure you’ve got enough salt, fat and artificial additives to keep you going. A 48-pack of Walkers Crisps (Worcester Sauce flavour) from Amazon UK (price just £10.28) should see you through a few of episodes of Dexter or Mad Men. To put it another way, it should be enough for two or three gruesome serial killings and approximately one and half Don Draper affairs.

Of course, Amazon customers in the US have been enjoying this facility for some time and I note that the Amazon.com website has a section for “Natural and Organic”. But I wonder whether those American customers have embraced the Amazon user review section with quite as much enthusiasm as their British counterparts. Fans of online retailing will already know that an important element of any purchase — large or small — is reading the ratings and reviews from other customers. If you want a crash course in nerdiness, check out the reviews of iPhone screen protectors and the ramblings of those obsessive compulsives who spend their lives trying to get them on straight.

Allowing customers to critique the groceries is a whole new ball game, though. But if the comments on the Walkers Crisps (Roast Chicken) are anything to go by, I think Amazon will be my first port of call next time I’m in need of a good laugh. As you scroll down, take a moment to peruse the “Product Specifications” — the important data you usually ignore in your haste to open the bag and get crunching.

Here’s a purchaser who rejoices in the nom de plume of “Benny Linguini” from Bath, who writes: “I am surprised that no one has mentioned that one reason to buy such a large bulk order of Walkers Roast Chicken crisps for domestic use would be to create a crisp blanket.” Though his DIY duvet wouldn’t keep you warm during those long winter nights, he claims it would be fine for spring and summer, providing “perfectly adequate insulation with the added bonus of an on-hand nighttime snack in small, manageable portions”.

Another user notes that “18% of people who view this item go on to select The Einstein Theory of Relativity by H.A. Lorentz. Chicken is not my favourite flavour of crisps, but perhaps once I have mastered Relativity (both Special and General) my opinion will have changed.” Thought-provoking stuff.

But my favourite contribution comes from the contributor who titles his/her 2-star review “they were better in vinyl”. Apparently 47 out of 54 people found this cryptic comment on potato chips useful: “I preferred their earlier stuff. This was all a bit too experimental for my tastes.”

The sight of British humour let loose on the humble British crisp is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a winning combination. Thank-you, Amazon.


Cut Down to Size

Bad subbing is the literary equivalent of letting a particularly ham-fisted toddler apply your make-up — the lipstick ends up somewhere near your ear lobe.

It’s hard to get away from talk of cuts at the moment. News of the shredding, slimming-down or wholesale dismantling of everything from our libraries to the police force, assails us from every angle. You want access to free books? Fear not, the Government is planning to give every household an iPad so that they can read, surf and download to their heart’s content. So much nicer than those grubby, 19th-century repositories for books and magazines. Actually, I just made that bit up, but you must admit it does sound plausible.

For writers the word “cut” has always had other, equally disturbing, connotations. I’m thinking of that process that occurs after you’ve turned in your finely honed copy, only to have it slashed to ribbons for reasons of space. Still, if the sub-editor knows what he/she is doing, your prose will emerge sleeker, tighter, pithier and somehow even more you. The down side is that bad subbing is the literary equivalent of letting a particularly ham-fisted toddler apply your make-up — the lipstick ends up somewhere near your ear lobe.

Imagine my surprise last week, when I discovered that my (unpaid) contributions to a movie blog had been given a completely unauthorised makeover courtesy of an “Executive Editor” who has more chutzpah than skill. I won’t name him or his insignificant organ here: the only “traffic” I’d like to send in his direction is a juggernaut with faulty brakes.

I knew he’d tinkered with some of my previous reviews, but chose not to dwell on it because, though irritating, the changes were relatively insignificant. Recently, I saw that he’d altered a line in my review for The Long Hot Summer to read “Deep Southern accents”, where I had put “Deep South accents”. As I was identifying a distinct geographical area, I felt my wording was correct. I remember thinking that he was a cheeky little bugger.

But his rewrite of last week’s Brighton Rock was something else. There’s a good reason why I don’t refer to the film’s star Sam Riley as a “youngster”: he’s not, he is 30. It’s a horribly twee, patronising characterisation, don’t you think? Does anyone out there think the sentence

“Inevitably, the menacing presence of Richard Attenborough’s earlier Pinkie looms over this update.”

is in any way improved by the addition of the adverb “forebodingly”?

“Inevitably, the menacing presence of Richard Attenborough’s earlier Pinkie looms forebodingly over this update.”

I felt I had made my point sufficiently with “menacing” and “looms”. Only someone with no feel at all for the English language would have made this alteration. To quote Homer Simpson, “D’oh!”

Going through the whole review line by line, would be just too painful, but I’ll give one more example. I wrote that Ida (played by Helen Mirren) “feels partly responsible for Hale’s fate and soon figures out that Pinkie is a bad lot”. This was changed to the clumsy and not nearly as precise “soon figures out that Pinkie is a potential danger to those around him”. Unbelievable, isn’t it?

I’m not saying that Brighton Rock is the best review I’ve ever written, or claiming that my writing could never be improved upon. I would happily have supplied a shorter version of the piece, if I had been asked. What I am outraged about is the idea that someone with no experience and no judgment should take these kind of liberties with my work.

I am 47 and a former sub-editor on a magazine (Radio Times) still noted for its high standards of grammar and spelling and its strict regard for consistency in issues of style. In other words, I have been around the block a few times. The jumped-up wannabe internet publisher who thinks he can write better than I do, is just 24 and has no significant experience.

It’s one thing to have your work sub-edited by professionals on a periodical or site that has paid you for your contribution. Significantly, no one at Radio Times or on The Guardian has ever felt the need do the kind of rewriting that Mr “Executive Editor” attempted last week. It’s a sign of his arrogance, insecurity and sheer insolence, that is made even more laughable by the fact that he can’t even spell.

An ability to spot typos is a prerequisite for anyone even thinking about being a sub-editor. (No, using a spell-checker is not an adequate substitute.) This big shot wrote Cohen (for Coen), Ruffallo (for Ruffalo) and Benning (instead of Bening) in a recent piece on the Oscar nominations. His review of The Fighter makes frequent reference to the director David O Russell as “O Russell”, as though he were an Irishman who’d dropped his apostrophe. Oh, and he thinks the Risorgimento happened in the 18th century.

While I was still at Radio Times, Giles Coren had his infamous and well-publicised rant about the subs at The Times. At the time we all laughed about his email and I probably dismissed it as what another former colleague would have dubbed “a queeny fit”. His expletive-filled salvo was a bit over the top and, of course, was never intended for public consumption. But now I really do get it.

As I composed my riposte to this presumptuous “youngster” (to use his own terminology), I felt I was striking a blow for experience and quality over those upstart abusers of the delete button. You can stick that up your HTML.


Requiem for the acronym

Victoria Beckham: Who are you calling a trophy wife?

Brevity is everything in this age of non-stop texting, tweeting, instant messaging and Facebooking.

As every England football fan knows, the team’s 2006 World Cup campaign was torpedoed by the distracting presence of all those WAGs (wives and girlfriends) wafting round Baden-Baden. A couple of years later, an anonymous poster on The Guardian website suggested that a more appropriate, much ruder, acronym for those credit-card toting time-wasters could be derived from the description “Trophy Wives and Tarts”. Think about it.

Welcome to the wacky world of the acronym. One minute you have a fun, tabloid-friendly and only mildly dismissive term for the Victoria Beckham, Cheryl Tweedy and the rest of the gang. Then, before you can say paparazzi, an aspiring wag (ie witty person) tries to tarnish our memories of those golden days with a suggestion that is much too anatomical.

Acronyms have only been around since 1943, when a man from Bell Laboratories wanted to formally recognise the practice of taking a bunch of initial letters and creating a new and more succinct word like sonar (sound navigation and ranging). It worked. Who even remembers now that scuba (a slightly earlier invention) refers to self-contained underwater breathing apparatus?

I can’t comment on the effectiveness of SWAT (special weapons and tactics) teams, but as an acronym it definitely gets the job done. A macho paramilitary unit can be condensed into a real four-letter word that actually means “a sharp or violent blow”. A unit calling itself PAT or TAP wouldn’t inspire much in the way of shock and awe, would it?

SWAT, ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) are examples of what I would call “A-list” acronyms. A body or organisation gets a short, memorable name that also has the virtue of sounding relevant. Unfortunately, the 21st-century mania for condensing everything into bite (or even byte) sized chunks, means that acronyms and initialisms are both proliferating and dumbing down. So, to borrow a popular initialism, I worry that it may soon be a case of RIP (Requiescat In Pace) for the acronym.

Brevity is everything in this age of non-stop texting, tweeting, instant messaging and Facebooking. But we don’t just need ways to shorten the long-winded names of government departments, sporting bodies or scientific terms. Regular conversation is now peppered with new abbreviations like HAND (have a nice day), OMG (oh my God), and my personal favourite PITA (pain in the ass). I bet you’re LOL (laughing out loud) at that last one.

I do sympathise with the desire to save time and money and avoid the misery of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, but this lazy new “language” is in danger of making monkeys out of us all. Or should that be goats? When tennis blogs and message boards are buzzing with debate about “Roger Federer the GOAT” (greatest of all time) I know the end is nigh.

So what happened? Well, I’m tempted to blame The West Wing. On the rare occasions when I dipped into that wildly overrated showcase for smugness, sentimentality and Rob Lowe’s teeth, there was usually someone talking about POTUS. This, in case you haven’t watched the show, stands for President of the United States. It’s not a proper word, though there is a passing resemblance to the Latin adjective potens (powerful) that makes me feel slightly better disposed toward it.

To be fair, creator Aaron Sorkin was only trying to reflect the rarified world of Washington political circles, in which acronyms help to make everything sound even more important and mysterious. As JE Lighter’s article in The Atlantic suggests POTUS was probably in play as far back as Franklin D Roosevelt. But FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States), which was bandied about during the Clinton years in reference to Hillary, is just horrible. As for the Republican Party’s cutesy nickname GOP (Grand or Good Old Party) — it really makes me want to reassess my anti-guns stance.

A galaxy of wildly implausible acronyms was part of the landscape of 60s spy yarns. Ian Fleming’s 007 novels introduced SMERSH, a Soviet counterintelligence organisation that apparently means “death to spies”. In the films, SMERSH takes a back seat to the parade of villains from that sinister body known as SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion).

But it’s the Bond imitators who provide some of the best pseudo or contrived acronyms from the period. The British spoof Carry on Spying has STENCH (Society for the Total Extermination of Non-Conforming Humans); the James Coburn Flint movies came up with ZOWIE (Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage); and the UNCLE franchise turns out to be nothing less than United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.

Headlines about WAGs and GOATs are one thing, but thanks largely to the moronic American Pie (1999), a far more unedifying acronym has now polluted popular culture. MILF (mother I’d like to ****) might have been mildly amusing if it had remained a throwaway line in that bafflingly popular franchise. Sadly, the infinitely more sophisticated sitcom, 30 Rock, has continued the joke with the hit reality show “MILF Island”, which throws super-hot moms together with horny teenage boys.

I know I should be laughing, but as acronyms become ever more puerile I’m starting to think that an organisation like STENCH might be the best way forward for the preservation of the English language.

(Article first published as Requiem for the Acronym on Blogcritics.)


War of words

OK, let’s get a few things straight. Anyone who doesn’t like the sound of vuvuzelas is a joyless xenophobe who wants to crush the spirit of Africa just so they can watch the World Cup in peace. The British Government wouldn’t need to make cuts in public spending if all those greedy bankers just agreed to give up their mansions, yachts and gold-plated pensions. Female celebrities are all too fat, too thin, too wrinkly or guilty of embarrassing wardrobe choices.

These, I hasten to add, are not my opinions but some conclusions I’ve drawn from recent exposure to the Comments sections of several British newspapers. I don’t use the word “exposure” lightly here, because I think a Hazmat suit might be a sensible precaution against much of the bile being spewed out by the readers of some of our more highbrow periodicals. I may need to be inoculated — or even sedated.

If Bridget Jones was slaving over her diary now, I think she’d be fixating on more than just her intake of calories, booze and fags. Like me, she’d probably be cursing her inability to stay away from those areas of the online media most likely to cause elevated blood pressure and a gnawing despair about the literacy, manners and sanity of so many posters. And, as she tried to avoid clicking those annoying banner ads festooning The Independent website, Bridget might wonder how she could adjust her browser to avoid seeing who was putting the boot into Johann Hari or Yasmin Alibhai-Brown today. It would be enough to drive her back into the arms of dastardly Daniel Cleaver.

Gone are the days when readers had to sit down and write a letter to the editor if they disagreed strongly with the views expressed in their chosen newspaper. Even the rantings of “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” would have been filtered through the letters editor, whose job it was to bring order to the rambling prose and tidy up any embarrassing spelling mistakes. Not any more.

The growing trend of message boards that allow online readers to comment on features, blogs and news reports has fostered an instant gratification culture. Commentators are now questioning why those intent solely on venting their spleen and pursuing their own personal vendettas should be allowed to do so under the cloak of anonymity.

That’s right: the age of tweeting and trolling is not about saying something coherent. It’s all about firing the first shot in the never ending war of (misspelt) words. So just sign up, grab yourself an avatar — the dumber the better — and join the growing community of losers squabbling over a few megabytes of cyberspace.

You don’t need to go to the pub these days to pick a fight with a stranger. Check out this recent testy exchange between bumsandbingedrinking (yes, really) and savonarola over whether “Chill-out Bach” was really an appropriate choice of music for a BBC tennis montage. Actually, this is a relatively polite example, but it demonstrates the pomposity, smugness and insatiable need to be right that characterises these playground exchanges.

More startling is the growing contempt for professional journalists that is seeping through into the message boards. Yes, as a former sub-editor I find it irritating when a critic credits Gillian Anderson with winning a Bafta for Bleak House, when she was only nominated. Factual errors and inadequate research are common, but it doesn’t make me want to write in and tell the pros how much better I could do their job.

But, speaking as someone who recently published a piece on The Guardian’s Comment is Free section, what really grates is posters offering their own patronising take on your situation, or just slagging you off because they feel like it. I got off lightly this time, but I’d think twice before throwing myself to the jackals (or should that be jackasses?) of the online community.

Do big shot columnists like Barbara Ellen consider it a badge of honour to have their work dismissed as “rubbish” every week by readers? I am not a fan of the woman or her views, but I can’t help thinking that all the venom she attracts is part of the post-financial meltdown trend towards lashing out at anyone who earns more money than you do. Perhaps the experience is “satisfying” for the culprits, but that’s no reason to condone it.

I’d like to see more moderation in the future — both from the news organisations and the serial offenders who use message boards as a perverse form of therapy. Get a spell-checker and get a life.


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