Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Last Breakfast by Alistair Mason

My head looks like an egg
So I put it in a cup
Then someone put a spoon in me
And scooped the insides up
They supped my yellow yolky brains
And dipped their soldiers in
Then took my shattered, shell-like skull
And put it in the bin.


Saturday, 13 July 2013

Stuart Broad and the myth of the modern walker

It always seems to be Stuart Broad, doesn't it? Like the headmaster's kid at school who is the most badly behaved child in the class, it's the son of the ICC match referee who always seems to be the England player involved in the controversies. Except the latest one - when he stood his ground and did not walk when he clearly edged Ashton Agar sip on the third day of the first Ashes Test and was given not out - wasn't really controversial at all.

First of all, let's forget the idea that there's any kind of row going on. None of the players seem to care too much. Australia's Mitchell Starc played the incident down in his post-match interviews. It hasn't started a row between the players, just between fans on Twitter, former players and members of the media - and that's what those people are there for.

The argument that players should walk feels thoroughly outdated. Diving in football, on the other hand, is horrendous and should be stamped out. There are subtle but important differences. Implicit in a dive is a false accusation of wrongdoing against an opponent, which is absent from what Broad did. Also a dive is designed deliberately to trick the referee - it is manufactured, false evidence to support your claim. Failing to walk is simply allowing the umpire to come to his own conclusion. It's not as if Broad shook his head and said: "Never touched it." Conversely, bowlers, wicketkeepers and slips constantly try to deceive the umpire. Countless times in a day they will appeal for a caught behind when they know full well there was no contact with the bat. They implore, they beg umpire to give the batsman out. Then when he is given out, DRS notwithstanding, nobody calls him back and says: "He never touched it." Why should a batsman have to put up with that, but then nobly fall on his sword when he gets an edge behind that the umpire misses? It's a clear case of double standards weighted, unusually for cricket, in the bowler's favour. So do you ask a bowler only to appeal if they're pretty certain the batsman's edged it? Do you stop the bowler from appealing completely in case he sways the umpire? Or do you just carry on as things are and have a bit more understanding when a batsman gets away with one now and again?

There was a great tweet last night, retweeted by the comedian and cricket writer Andy Zaltzman, which made an excellent point.

Commentators often talk about respecting umpires' decisions. Isn't that exactly what Broad did? Admittedly by doing what he did, he has forfeited any moral right to be upset when decisions go against him - a right one suspects he will be reluctant to relinquish. But equally, to be consistent, anyone who argues that Broad should have taken the decision out of the hands of the umpire by walking off cannot then complain if players express their displeasure when a tough call goes against them. Either you leave it all in the hands of the umpire or you don't. The argument from the pro-walkers is that Broad should have toddled off simply because he knew he was out. The flip side of that is that Jonathan Trott should have stayed on the pitch the previous day because he knew he wasn't out. Then he would have been roundly chastised for failing to respect the umpire's decision and certainly fined.

Another thing this further exposes is the ridiculousness of the ICC having fined and suspended West Indies wicketkeeper Denesh Ramdin for claiming a catch he knew he had dropped. In a one-day game against India last month, Ramdin appeared to have claimed a catch which replays showed he had dropped, and Misbah-ul-Haq was duly given out. Ramdin did not join in the appeal with the slips and bowler Kemar Roach, but neither did he tell the umpire of his error. This was enough to earn him a two-game ban from the ICC for "conduct that is contrary to the spirit of the game". It was a dangerous precedent to set. Once you start policing the spirit of the game, it's no longer the spirit of the game - it's the rules. In cricketing circles, falsely claiming a catch is seen as a far worse crime than failing to walk, perhaps because of the deception aspect mentioned above. But Ramdin did not appeal - in this sense he did not deceive the umpire - so this and the Broad incident are almost entirely analogous. The ICC has made a rod for its own back and must surely now punish Broad too. Fair enough, if they continue to do this (maybe they can fine bowlers for appealing for clear not outs too), they may well get their way and players will start to walk to avoid being banned and fined - but that will have nothing to do with the spirit of the game. It will just be another law for Stuart's dad and his fellow match referees to enforce.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Why Nick Clegg is not betraying the progressive majority

To all those badmouthing the Liberal Democrats: what did you want? What did you expect? What would you rather they had done?

I do not believe they are betraying the left by choosing to help govern the country. They are attempting to keep the right wing in check by implementing as many of their policies as possible.

They were in an impossible situation after this election. Side with the Tories – alienate your core support. Side with Labour – form an unstable, probably unpopular government which would be unable to get anything done without strong-arming every MP on every vote ever, possibly setting back both parties a generation. Allow the Tories to go ahead and form a minority government – risk an almost certain election in a year or so in which they would likely lose more seats.

On top of all that, a party arguing so strongly for PR is arguing more or less for a permanently hung parliament. They have to show a hung parliament can work or their argument for PR would be seriously compromised.

If anyone seriously thought a progressive partnership was a viable option, they were simply wrong. I would have loved that to have happened – maybe with 10 more seats between them, it would have. But the maths didn’t add up. It was unworkable. Such an alliance would have required every Labour MP, every Lib Dem MP, every SNP, every Plaid Cymru, Green MP to vote with the government every time to achieve anything.

There’s no way that would have happened. And frankly, I want my MP to be able to vote with his conscience sometimes.

With no viable purely progressive option, frankly, I would rather have the Lib Dems there, tempering the more right-wing elements in the Tory party, than on the outside having spurned a chance to help govern and having damaged their credibility.

This is compromise. This is democracy as most of the democratic world knows it. This is how it works. I’m, by and large, a Labour supporter, but I voted for the Lib Dems this time, for several reasons. I don’t like Labour’s record on civil liberties, I still haven’t forgiven them for Iraq – and most importantly, in my mind at least, this country is in desperate need of electoral reform.

We have a system designed for two-party politics, which, frankly, doesn’t work in the modern world. It was designed when all constituencies had only two candidates, so to win you needed to get more than 50% of the votes. Now you can reasonably win with about 30%. This just isn’t right.

The big advantage of ‘first past the post’ is supposedly that it produces a clear winner. Well, it didn’t. And increasingly as the influence of smaller parties grows, it won’t.

We desperately need a more proportional system, where every vote counts.

People have been trying to paint the talks between the parties over the last few days as ‘grubby’ and in some way undemocratic. This is absolutely wrong. It’s democracy.

The image of Nick Clegg touting his party for sale is a lazy one. Of course he wants to get the best deal he can for his party. He owes that to his party, to his MPs and to everyone that voted for them. And all this talk of the national interest is a little disingenuous. Of course all parties believe what’s in their manifesto is best for the national interest. That’s why it’s in their manifesto.

Since when was it a bad thing to have politicians talking to each other, discussing policy, finding things they agree on and compromising on things they don’t?

Already, we hear, he is getting concessions from the Tories – for example, raising the income tax threshold to £10,000, a Lib Dem election promise. A socialist policy, even?

As Gordon Brown just said in his speech to his staff, there is a strong, progressive majority in this country. In a proportional system, that majority would now have its way. In a proportional system, a Lab-Lib coalition would now be in power. Personally, I can’t wait for the day when the progressive parties are in control. The prospect of a Tory PM, frankly, frightens me. I do not want David Cameron as my PM. I do not want a Tory government.

But that’s what we have. That’s what, much as we on the left would like to pretend it wasn’t the case, the result of the election made inevitable. I don’t like it, but I accept it. And with that being the case, it’s a blessed relief to have one of those progressive parties in there with them, keeping the Tories in check.

I gave my vote to the Lib Dems. I don’t believe Nick Clegg is betraying me in any way by taking the opportunity to help govern the country. That’s what I voted for.

I trust him to do all he can for the progressive majority from the inside. I'm sure I'll still be opposed to much, if not the majority, of what our new government does - but less for for Lib Dems being involved.

And if the situation proves impossible, I trust him to pull out of the coalition and do all he can in opposition.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

A Goodyear and an advent calendar

With a good friend to entertain this weekend, I made my second ever trip to the Leeds Art Gallery, which is currently hosting an exhibition showcasing the shortlisted artists in this year's Northern Art Prize.

Among the videos, installations and sculptures - the sort which so outrage when the Turner Prize nominations are announced - is an astonishing set of pictures by Rachel Goodyear.

Her works, pencil drawings with splashes of watercolour, are striking in their simplicity, their clarity of thought and their quiet elegance. They have the feel of twisted gothic fairytales; they are the familiar and the comfortable made strange.

Many of her pictures put intricately drawn human figures in difficult, awkward situations, often involving animals or plants, for example stroking bees or kissing a bear. They show humanity as part of nature, but also in conflict with it.

The pictures, which are tiny things in the middle of otherwise vacant pages, create beauty out of pain and isolation. They are warm, but also unsettling and at times menacing.

Highlights include the creepy 'imaginary friend', the resigned discomfort of 'stump' and, best of all, the languidly painful and beautiful 'mermaids'.

Goodyear is an artist with a growing reputation, and these works have been brought together from collections all over the world, so this exhibition, which runs until February 21, is a rare opportunity to see a meaty body of her enthralling art.

:: Apologies for the lack of blogging of late - continuing laptop woe has left me a bit restricted for computer time.

Hopefully this will be rectified soon so I can blog away to my heart's content - if not to anybody else's.

In the meantime I urge you to check out the Ragged Glories blog throughout December for the much anticipated (by me) Musical Advent Calendar project.

I and around 10 others have picked our top 24 albums of the year and will be revealing them, advent calendar-style, one per day throughout December.

I hope that some of us manage to introduce a few people to some new music they might like.

And if not, everyone loves lists, right?

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The art of Dexter

Having finished The Wire, I’m now partway through the second season of Dexter. It’s not thought of as being in the same class as David Simon’s show, but certainly it’s gripping stuff and is characterised by a visual flair which is never more evident than in the opening credits.

The show, if you are unaware, focuses on Dexter Morgan, who works for the Miami Police Department as a blood spatter expert, but is also a serial killer.

Because of a code devised by his adoptive father Harry, Dexter is able to manage his urges in such a way that he only kills ‘bad people’ and in such a meticulous way that he seems certain not to be discovered.

There are many things to love about the show, such as Dexter’s foul-mouthed sister Deb, of whom I recently told a startled colleague: “She’s my favourite character in any show ever. I love her. It’s not a crush; I actually love her.”

The second season also introduces us to possibly my least favourite character in any show ever, Lila, a drawling, nasal, languid Englishwoman who at one stage mutters the unforgettably irritating line: “Paaaaaaaaaardon myyyy tits.”

A glorious constant, though, is the credit sequence – surely the finest TV has ever seen, and something which, were I still at university, I’d be looking for an excuse to write an essay about.

It takes us through Dexter’s morning routine as he shaves, flosses, dresses, cooks and eats breakfast, before leaving the house on his way to, well, somewhere.

The sequence’s genius is in how it implies the proximity of death in everything Dexter does, from the moment he awakens to slap a blood-thirsty mosquito on his arm.

The extreme close-up of his face as he shaves reduces his flesh to the same status as the bacon he cooks and eats.

A cut sees blood splash across the white bathroom porcelain, just as red sauce stains his plate as he twists his knife in the vibrant, lifeless yolk of an egg.

Power is in his hands as he grips and plunges his cafetiere, slices and squeezes the juice out of an orange, or pulls taut his dental floss and shoe lace.

Finally there is a suffocating thrill as he puts on his t-shirt, before looking conspiratorially at the camera.

It perfectly encapsulated the show’s menace and dark humour – and rightly earned an Emmy for creator Eric Anderson.

More than that, though, as something that takes the mundane and shows it in a new, vibrant, visceral way, I would contest it is art in the truest sense.

How close am I to death as I plod through my daily routine?

Am I close to drowning as I sink into my morning bath? When I put on a tie, am I an enthusiastic tug away from strangulation? Could ceding to a mischievous, mistimed impulse send my car careering off the motorway or into another vehicle – or, just as pertinently, another vehicle into mine?

The sequence shows us that death is a constant, lurking presence in our lives.

Its proximity frames and informs everything we do. It is a constant motivation. It’s the reason we don’t just stay in bed all day, but seek to inject meaning into everything we do. It is the clock on our action, our deadline.

It also gives us power. Every day we decide to continue living. On some level, we all decide to let others continue living too.

It is the most basic counterbalance in every relationship we ever have, from someone passing you in the street who doesn’t push you in front of a car, to the person who makes you tea and does not poison it, to the person who sleeps beside you and keeps their pillow below their own head, not on top of yours.

If this sounds morbid, it is exactly the opposite. It is the most basic human courtesy from which all respect emanates – it shows good in every person you’ve ever met and inspiration in every day you’ve ever lived.

There’s no particular conclusion to these thoughts. There doesn’t have to be. But any show which could inspire them and more is worthy of attention. A title sequence which can illicit them is something to be savoured.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Poster Posts...

My loyal band of (three) followers. It seems almost careless at this early stage of my blogging career to break what conventions I may appear to have set up, but here goes. Think of this more of establishing a model for the future.

Ali Mason's The Blog is, it turns out, a two-man project - I am one of the men, but not the other. He, bewlideringly, is remaining nameless for the time being. He will also feature on the forthcoming almost-certain-never-to-happen podcast, Ali Mason's The Podcast.

So here is an introduction to the way the man's mind works. Read, digest, enjoy. I'll put everything he writes in italics. This is a convention.

"Last month I broke free from the welcoming confines of the house twice in three days. Granted, the 20-year-old version of myself may not have deemed this noteworthy. It may not even have registered as a deviation from the norm.

"But, truth be told, it’s a hard push to get me out and about these days. I don’t count work because, you know, it’s work. I don’t count the pub down the road because it’s really just a part of the house I don’t own yet. I have, though, been buying pint-sized instalments for the last four years.

"On the other hand, I do count two gigs in 72 hours. A respectable achievement given that the closest thing to a music scene in the town I currently call home is the ailing in-store radio in the Co-op.

"But venture I did, leaving behind me the five unwatched DVDs I bought on a whim on my last day off and temporarily abandoning my work with Annan Athletic on Championship Manager. You’d be surprised how hard it is to leave behind a squad of computer simulations and their fictional sporting endeavours. But they coped. They and I.

"The first involved a trip to Hull to see indie-folk darlings Mumford and Sons (consider this my early tip for Mercury Music Prize recognition in 2010), while the second, on a discernibly different tack, saw me take on Leeds’ harrowing one-way system for a meeting with the impossibly cool forefathers of trip-hop, Massive Attack.

"Now, lest this turn into a music review - wrong place, wrong time - let is suffice to say that both were excellent.

"They couldn’t, of course, have been more different.

"Mumford and Sons were on the verge of releasing their debut album, combined whisky-worn harmonies with lilting mandolins and twanging banjos and played in a curious venue that was equal parts common room and working men’s club.

"Massive Attack, meanwhile, are two decades into their genre-hopping career and peddle a live show that flits dizzyingly between soul, dub, rap, reggae but settles most often on a sound the band themselves have called ‘phantom funk’. Lovely.

"Now, Nick Hornby fans will be well apprised of the fact that men of a certain ilk like nothing more than music and lists. Nothing, that is, except combining music and lists. By the time the weekend hit I was already unneccesarily mulling it over. Which band was better? Which night offered the most entertainment? Who was first and who came second?

"A more incomparable pair of subjects one could not have asked for, but the temptation to compare, contrast and rank proved irresistible.

"In the end, the factor that swung it was derisory. A small, already crumpled piece of card. Yet there it was, my Massive Attack ticket.

"Slightly curled around the edges, torn a little by the attendant at the venue but nevertheless ready to take its place in my collage of wristbands, stubs and passes. Time, date, price. Conclusive evidence that I was there.

"I will look on it in years to come and, when it finally joins my other ticket collages on the wall, maybe somebody will strike up a conversation about it. Mumford and Sons, no less enjoyable on the night, employed a pay-on-the-door policy and issued no lasting reminders.

"To a hopeless muso like myself shouldn’t this be an irrelevance? Mere frippery. An irrelevence designed to ease passage into the building.

"I should rate the two gigs on some kind of innate sense of sonic satisfaction. I should. But I won’t.

"I’ve got a ticket from Leeds. 'Phantom funk' wins. Spooky."

Thursday, 8 October 2009

When is a haircut more than a haircut?

Every so often – not often enough, in truth – I catch a view of myself in a mirror, or a shop window, and realise how terrible my hair looks. Months go by without me visiting a barber and this means my mop can get a little wild – well, just a mess really. And this, I noticed, was the case when I was trying on my new winter coat in Top Man (good God those things are expensive). So, to the hairdresser’s I went.

There are two I use regularly – one in Ilkley, which is, well, functional, and one in Leeds – Modern Hairdressing in the Thorntons Arcade – which is a little more upmarket. Usually the hairdressers there are very competent, very efficient, often chatty. Then I get hit with a bill for 20-odd pounds and wonder whether it was worth it.

Today was different.

An unusually diffident guy took me upstairs and sat me in front of the mirror. I asked for some guidance – should I get the whole lot shaved off, something which I regularly threaten to do, or keep a little length on top?

“Don’t have it shaved,” he said, immediately. “I’ll taper it, texture it – it’ll look much better. All it needs is a good cut.”

He was off to a good start. The easier option would have been to shave it all off, and he didn’t choose it. Perhaps this guy actually liked cutting hair.

Everything about this haircut was different. It’s hard for me to see what’s going on with my glasses off, but it was clear this guy was taking care. He started with the edges – the back of my neck, my sideburns, around my ears; snipping carefully, skilfully. He moved onto the top, measuring the correct lengths through his fingers before snipping off just the right amount – then the damp strands hanging limply on my forehead were trimmed and reshaped.

“Now I’m gonna whack off the back and sides,” he said, so naturally I assumed clippers. But he did the whole thing with scissors, flicking up and down back of my neck, the side of my head, methodically but artfully pruning it until it was just so.

“Can you see without your bins on?” he asked at one point.

“Not really,” I replied.

“It looks good,” he assured me. “Much better than just shaving it.”

Finally the clippers came out, just to tidy things up – the back of my head, naturally, but he also attacked my cheeks and my neck to tidy up my beard.

“I’ve lined up your beard a bit,” he said somewhat sheepishly. “Just makes it look a bit... better.”

He measured angles with his hands, he felt textures with his palms, he fluffed, he flattened, he pruned hairs from bits of my face that shouldn’t even have had hairs on them.

At this point I didn’t care what it looked like, I was just privileged to have witnessed a master at work. He was a craftsman, an artisan, a sculptor – and I was proud to be his subject.

Of course, when, finally, I put my “bins” back on, he had done an excellent job, but still he wasn’t finished, producing a little pot of product and working some into my hair.

“This has got volumiser in it,” he said. “When you’ve got fine hair – and I’m the same – you don’t a gel or a wax, nothing oil-based. It’ll do you more harm than good.”

I marvelled that nobody had thought to tell me this before.

He said: “ I’m not saying you should buy some, but something like this, something matt, will work wonders.”

Of course, I bought some.

And along with the product, my haircut came to a grand total of £35. Not a penny wasted. A bargain: next to the opportunity to watch a master practising his craft, the haircut – and the defining paste – were happy by-products.

I shook him by the hand as I left. Next time, I will ask for Ben by name.