Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Remembering Skippy

If you are my sort of age then you may have watched the adventires of Skippy the Bush Kangeroo as a child. Apparently there was a kind of Skippy the next generation in the 1980s. However, I think that version was short lived and quickly forgotten. The 1960s Skippy was about a boy and his pet kangeroo who lived with his father (a park ranger) on a nature reserve in the Australian bush.
I got a nostalgic reminder of Skippy a few weeks ago when I was channel hopping (no pun intended) absent mindedly. One of the BBC channels was showing a Skippy documentry. I tuned in and was immedialty engrossed. They talked about how Skippy strange vocal clicking language was developed. Apparently real kangeroos don't make any kind of noise like this but they felt some sort of vocalisation was needed to imply that Skippy was communicating to and listening to humans interactions. Before shooting 'talking scenes' Skippy would be fed somethign which would require chewing and was then her 'voice' was dubbed on. Then they explained Skippy's amazing dexterity. Apparently a pair of kangeroo legs were used for close ups where Skippy apeared to be lifting or manipulating objects. Skippy did a fair bit of animal sleuthing and sometimes had to secrete important evidence in her pouch. Most amazing of all was a clip showing Skippy sitting in fronty of a set of drums- the artificial paws were manipulated in front of her to make it look like she was playing the drums.
The documetry did dig up some dirt on Skippy, however, -well on the pervy camera crew. Apparently during breaks in filming they would shoot up-skirt shots of the female guest stars. A compilation of this footage was shown sugggesting that did rather a lot of this.
The documentry went into some deep psychological and sociological territory. It was banned in some scandanavian countries because they thought that seeing animals with impossible levels of intelligence would be psychologically harmful for children.
For Australians Skippy was remarkable because it wasd the first Australian programme to be shown widely across the world and it showed the beauty of the Australian countryside to the worls with some excellent cinematography.
Germaine Greer considered the fact that the child companion of Skippy lived in completely adult domiated world at the ranger station and had no friends his own age to interact with. This experience was paralleled by the young actor who played him. There was also discussion of the the treatment of women in the show. Generally girls were the but of jokes, getting frightened by bush animals and not very competent.
Skippy did show some very progressive social credentials however, in relation to aboriginal people. At a time when Aboriginies were fighting for basic civil rights, they were portrayed realistically and sympathetically in a number of episides of Skippy. There were some positive messages about valuing diversity and equality between peoples.
No mention was made of what hapopened to the original Skippy though I understand that she was stuffed and can be seen in a Skippy museum somewhere. If you really want to experience the Skippy phenomenon first hand then it is available on a set of dvds packed with extras. Even I amn't nerdy enough to have them but they could be a good pouchfiller for someone you know.

Meeting David Hewson

We all have preconceptions about what our heroes will be like in real life. Sometimes they are just what we expect- Harlan Ellison was just as argumentative, opinionated and feisty as I imagined, Isaac Asimov had the gravitas which you expect from a distinguished scientist and author, Todd Rundgren was as fun to chat and chill out with as you would expect. David Hewson was another matter, however. If you are not familaiar with his work -they tend to be dark, violent, fast paced and sometimes gory novels set in historic tourist cities such as Rome, Venice and Madrid. Hewson clearly relishes his research. He spend weeks living in apartments in the centre of Rome or wherever his next novel is to be set, finding out about local life and local legends. We often recognise bars and places which he refers to because we also like chilling out in apartments in Rome and doing things off the beaten tourist trail. Hewsons novels resemble our holiday settings, apart from the brutal murder scenes of course- although we did see a motor cyclist knocked down by a car on one holiday- it took the ambulance 40 minutes to get to him. If this is how they deal with an emergency in downtown Rome I would not like to see the response to a deadly snakebite in the Tuscan countryside.
Anyway I am digressing. Hewson's novels are real page turners and once started they cannot be put down. When I went to see Hewson last month on a 'meet the public' event in Gateshead I expected hewson himself to be a dynamic, driven individual like hs characters. In person, however, he was rather dry, downbeat and a bit crusty. I got the impression that he was very ill at ease meeting his public. He did a bit of reading from his latest book and answered some questions from the audience. Most of the questions were rather ill inspired and I don't think the questioners had actually read any of his books. An example as 'Do you uase the internet for research?' Hewson's answer was equally uninspired, trotting out the usual cliche that you have to be careful about the validity of things on the internet. Just once I would like someone to say that you can't trust half of what is in mainstreamn books and newspapers and at least the internet levels the playing field for ordinary citizens to share their voice with the world. I managed to get a question in about his use of the pagan deity Mithras in one of his novels. poor Mithras had all his best bits stolen by Christianity and is all but forgotten now. There are some excellent Mithraia in Rome at San Clemente and Osita Anticca (the latter can bst be appreciated by scrambling over bits of ruins and descending into underground chambers- bring a torch out and watch that no custodians are on the look out
Hewson did tell an amusing anecdote about a writers convention which he attended in America. This involved meeting other writers (which he probably thought there were rather too many of )and the public and reading between the lines I think his US publisher probably twisted his arm behind his back to get him there.
What really disgusted Hewson, however, was an incident which took place in a lift at the convention. He got into a conversation with a woman in the lift who clained to be a writer. Hewson asked her what sort of stories she wrote and she said 'cat mysteries'. Hewson had apparently just about fallen over. However, his agent was later to tell him that apparently cats who solve crimes are becoming a very popular sub-genre especially in the USA.
When I met Hewson individually at the end I explained that the crime busting animal genre has antecedents such as DC comics' Detective Chimp. I don't think I succeded in raising his appreciation for the form as he ranted a bit more about how ridiculous the idea of crime solving moggies was.
Anyway I struck a blow for cat lovers everwhere. Wehn I asked DH to sign his books I got him to sign them to Liz and Jim and their super-sleuthing cats. I don't know if he saw the funny side or just thought we were cranks.
An interesting evening but lighten up a bit David!

Monday, 1 February 2010

Why I wasn’t ‘misled’ by Tony Blair -Not even for 45 minutes

Last week Blair’s the Chilcot Enquiry dominated the news media. Those ‘lucky’ enough to get winning raffle tickets had actually attended and some had tried to demonstrate near to the enquiry. Apparently, one attendee said very loudly that he couldn’t stand it any more. This was probably the only honest thing said all day by anyone present. The Times has compared the whole thing to an episode of the Muppet show.
As anticipated there were no new revelations. Tony Blair’s raison d’etre for the war, however, went through another metamorphosis. Before the war Tony Blair claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction which could be launched in 45 minutes. Later he claimed that he just had weapons of mass destruction stowed away. When no weapons were found he claimed that he Saddam had been engaged in a ‘programme’ of weapons construction. Now at Chilcot he was more or less saying that Saddam had been thinking about having weapons of mass destruction. To Blair’s impressive list of talents we must add clairvoyance.
Many people are annoyed about Blair for having misled Parliament and the country. However, I didn’t believe the justification for war for a minute and I don’t think that that anyone who took time to think about the issue should have done either.
One does not need insider knowledge to critically examine Tony Blair’s claims- only the application of logic.
It is impossible to disprove a negative. None of us could ever absolutely disprove an accusation which has been made against us. This is why the burden of proof in criminal cases is on the prosecution. They would have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that we had committed the crime we were charged with. Saddam was expected to prove that he did not have weapons of mass destruction. An impossible task for anyone. Quantities of materials for chemical weapons were unaccounted for. However, this is hardly surprising. Even the UK loses hazardous material and we have a record of losing confidential data on memory sticks.
The important fact about Iraq was that in the run up to war it was crawling with weapons inspectors. If the west had reliable intelligence about weapons then the sensible thing would have been to feed this information to the weapons inspectors who could then ask to visit the sites. If they found weapons then it would have given Bush and Blair convincing grounds to secure a new UN resolution. If they had been refused access to the sites then this would have convinced the rest of the world that Saddam had something to hide.
In fact, information was passed onto weapons inspectors. Hans Blix speaking on radio 4 two weeks ago said that he visited a number of sites after being tipped off by the intelligence community. On these occasions he got full co-operation from the Iraqis but found nothing. He said that he assumed that the intelligence community would have given him their best intelligence. The lack of weapons ought to have caused scepticism about the rest of the intelligence. Some of these false starts were reported in the press in the run-up to the war. Examples of claims by Iraqis were also reported in the media. One was by a man who claimed that he had been told that he had seen a giant warehouse which someone had told him was full of weapons of mass destruction. The man making the claim had not actually seen inside the warehouse himself. Hardly a very convincing piece of information. The fact that many of those making the claims had an axe to grind (even if that was just getting out of the country) did little to add to their credibility.
There were other bizarre stories being circulated such as the infamous ‘human shredder’ story which was widely reported in the Guardian. Apparently Saddam had dispatched some of his enemies using a giant shredding machine normally used for shredding plastic. Anyone who has experience of using a paper shredder will know that these devices don’t take kindly to you putting anything in then that they are not designed for. Where would all the blood and gore go? Do plastic shredders exist? Can you buy one on ebay? Why do we not have the names of anyone who was shredded? Would their relatives not have objected? At that time anyone who asked for those sorts of details was castigated for being insensitive. Yet like the WMD- no shredders were found.
This may sound like a trivial issue. However, the appearance in the media of stories which don’t hold up to any kind of critical scrutiny (when there ought to have plenty which would), ought to have raised people’s suspicions. Of course Saddam Hussein did commit atrocities- but mentioning the real ones would raise the important question of why we were intervening now rather than when they had originally occurred. It would also raise the awkward question of who had sold him the weapons that he had used on his enemies and why it was once considered okay for the west to sell him WMD.
If we were sure that Saddam had weapons that he could use in 45 minutes then there would have to have been very detailed information about what the weapons were and where they were held. Otherwise, how could we possibly know the precise amount of time needed to deploy them? Why was this information not released to the public? Where were the satellite pictures of weapons installations? How could Saddam have large caches of weapons ready to trundle out without us having high definition satellite images of them?

So what was Tony Blair’s motivation? My scenario is like this. Blair believed that the US was going to attack Iraq anyway. By siding with Bush Blair, thought that Britain would be on the winning side and therefore well placed to share in the spoils of war. Britain would also share the credit for bringing democracy to a former rogue state and Rupert Murdoch would have another country to broadcast his satellite tv to. Saddam was bound to have some weapons stashed away for a rainy day somewhere or at worst have some that he had forgotten about. This would retrospectively provide a justification for war. If even only a few weapons had been found then people would accept that war was justified. It was ‘no-brainer’ a ‘slam dunk’ and a ‘win-win’ for someone with enough hubris and no moral scruples. By actually obeying international resolutions, Saddam had spoiled it all and exposed the war for the con that it was.

Then we come to whole issue of the events after the invasion. Bush and Blair had banked on the idea that they would be welcomed with open arms by the Iraqi’s, that they would embrace democracy and western values. This was also extreme hubris and showed a complete failure to understand the relationships between different peoples and cultures at even the simplest level. The criminal failure to establish proper security in the post war period resulted in a terrible wave of destruction of property. Hospitals and homes were looted, businesses were destroyed, priceless artefacts were stolen, infrastructure was damaged and unguarded weapons stores were raided by the terrorists of the future. Soldiers, politicians and newsreaders said that this was simply the sort of hi-jinks that we should expect when people are freed from an oppressive dictator. I saw it for what it was- an act of extreme negligence perpetrated against a whole society. The fact that this was allowed to happen spoke tellingly of the value which the invading forces placed on the culture and heritage of the country they had come to ‘liberate’.

Lastly we should examine the political backdrop to the war. Blair recently said that he saw the conflict in Iraq has part of a wider battle for Islam. Why Blair, as a Catholic thinks he has a right to have an opinion on this is not clear. Why he thinks it should have anything to do with war is even less clear.
Even last week, Blair was conflating Iraq with 9/11, when in fact Saddam had no truck at all with Islamic fundamentalism. In fact, he had a secular outward facing view of the world and women had greater freedoms and rights in Saddam’s Iraq than they do in may the countries the region.
By stating that only his maker can judge him (ridiculous when it was the British electorate that gave him is position of power), Blair is showing that he is the real religious fanatic.

In conclusion, Blair did fool part of parliament and part of the country- but only the parts who wanted to be fooled or who didn’t care about the issues enough to critically examine what they were being told. Politicians who voted for the war probably belong to the first category. It was easier for them to convince themselves that it was okay than think about the consequences of what they were doing. Like Blair, they probably thought that it would all come out alright in the end and that they would risk losing their seat if they voted against war. Rupert Murdoch, (one of real holders of power behind UK and US politics) apparently said at the time that the main benefit of the war would be cheap oil. That is the real elephant the room that Chilcot hasn’t considered, but even that was not achieved.
Years later, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi’s are dead. International terrorism is more of a risk than ever and Britain’s esteem in the world is greatly damaged.
Iraq is a criminal matter. We don’t need to go over what the intelligence said or did not say. In any case, Blair has now said that he would have invaded Iraq whether he thought there was WMD or not. At the end of the day it was a judgment call by the Prime Minister and Parliament. With a few honourable exceptions they made the wrong decision morally, ethically and strategically based on the information in front of them. We don’t need any more enquiries to establish this. We never have done.
The real lesson which should come out of the Chilcot enquiry is that we all have a responsibility to think about what is being done around us- by our politicians and in our communities. We can’t afford to just sit by and assume that those in power know what they are doing or that things will turn out for the best. We have duty to be mindful of consequences of our actions in every moment of every day.

Does airport security make you feel any safer?

BBC Breakfast had for once interesting item this morning about full body scanners which are being rushed into operation at Heathrow along with sniffer dogs and doubtlessly other methods of terrorist detection. I have to say that I m not a fan of BBC Breakfast. At any other time of the day BBC News 24 is a very good source of news. In the morning, however, it is full of fluff and my preferred choice is Euronews or CNN. But getting back to the item- Lots of people were interviewed and they all without exception were happy to have scans of their nude bodies examined provided hey did not show up on the internet. The only dissenter was a man in the studio from a civil liberties organisation who asked the pertinent question of what liberties are we actually defending if we need to have pictures taken if our genitals to safeguard it.
No doubt the majority of the audience thought he was a crank and will fall back to the usual rhetoric of ‘If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear’ and ‘The more security we have the more secure we will be’.
However, let’s examine some of these ideas in more detail. First the idea that people who have done nothing wrong have nothing to fear. Try telling that to the people who have been incarcerated for years I Guantanamo Bay without any rights and in most cases without any charges being made against them. Or the people who have been kept under house arrest in the U.K. without being told who their accusers are or what evidence there is against them. Or the alleged perpetrators of the chemical vest plot who had their whole house systematically demolished looking for materials that have never been found. Could this happen to you? If you think that it couldn’t then why?
How many of you reading this would think twice about putting up a blog posting like this in case it put you on the security radar or upset somebody who had power over you? If it would give you a moment’s pause then you must realise that you no longer live in a society as free as you used to. If terrorists are trying to undermine our way of life then we seem to be hell bent on making sure they succeed.
Similar justifications are used in the increasing use of police checking of people who work with vulnerable people. The terrible murder of Holly and Jessica was used as a justification for increased use of police checks for people who work with vulnerable people and children. However, Holy and Jessica’s murderer did not have a Police record. In fact, he would have been prevented from getting a job as a school janitor by a much more low tech form of checking. If his new employer had asked for a reference he would not have been able to obtain a satisfactory one. Similarly, the person who tried to blow up a plane over the holidays could have been stopped using existing intelligence. He had been reported to the authorities by his own father who was concerned by his extreme views and behaviour. Conversely, the equipment being installed at Heathrow may not have been able to detect the type of explosives he was carrying. The intelligence that this man was dangerous was already there but was ignored. On Christmas Eve the Pope was attacked by a woman suffering from mental illness at the Mass at St Peter’s. Apparently the same woman had attempted this last year. Why was she allowed into the church? Surely security staff would have seen her photograph as part of their briefing. Why didn’t she get the psychiatric help she needed after she did it the first time?
Police checking and body scanners are appealing because they turn security into a procedure. They look good because we appear to be doing something. Something magic will happen inside the computer which will keep us safe provided we have faith in the technology. If it doesn’t work we just need better technology or better Police checks.
Here’s a better suggestion for making us more secure. Lets try changing how we engage with rest of the world. Redeploy the money spent on war in the middle east into helping people there and in countries like Haiti. Use the information we have at the moment wisely rather than abdicating our responsibilities to computer databases and new forms of snooping. Try to make the image we convey to the rest of the world in synch with how we would like to portray ourselves.
Now, wouldn’t that make you feel more secure?