The Plastic Hippo

March 15, 2010

Just enough education to perform

Filed under: Media,Sport — theplastichippo @ 1:43 pm

The hippo has never been an avid or regular reader of The Sun. However, the odd discarded copy is sometimes blown across Hatherton Lake and a headline or two will occasionally catch the eye. Setting aside the insensitive “Gotcha” splash over the sinking of the Belgrano, the poisonous “Truth” headline perpetrated by Kelvin MacKenzie following the Hillsborough disaster and a reputation for sexism, homophobia, jingoism and scant regard for facts, the sub-editors at the paper who write the headlines do a very good job.

When North Korea conducted a nuclear test, The Sun ran “How do you solve a problem like Korea?” and when Barack Obama recently met the Dalai Lama, they had “Obama Lama Ding Dong.” The current form of a Mr Wayne Rooney, a professional footballer from the North West of England who is enjoying a goal scoring bonanza, particularly using his head, provoked The Sun headline: “Wayne shots keep falling on his head.”

Rooney is undoubtedly a player with a rare natural talent and great tenacity but would be unlikely to trouble the scorers in an edition of celebrity mastermind. He is, however, very good at thinking with his feet and the current goal spree seems the perfect preparation for the World Cup in June. On the day that David Beckham limped out of the AC Milan game with a torn Achilles tendon, ending his hopes of playing in South Africa, Rooney banged in two more against Fulham. The danger now, for both Rooney and England, is that papers like The Sun will talk him up into a world beating God and make the national side a one player team.

There is some history between The Sun and Rooney. In 2006, the paper paid out £100,000 in libel damages after wrongly alleging that the player was a wife beater. After the disgraceful reporting of the Hillsborough tragedy, sales of The Sun on Merseyside plummeted as the result of a boycott and it`s not clear if Rooney is one of the many Scousers who use The Sun to keep warm by burning it outside newsagents every morning. The Sun has a schizophrenic approach to the England team; fiercely patriotic when they play well, witheringly critical when they play badly. The back pages report on performances on the pitch whilst the front pages luridly report very different kinds of performances taking place in nightclubs and hotel rooms.

It is very easy to dismiss The Sun as a tabloid tittle-tattle rag peddling sensation to the barely literate, but with a daily circulation of nearly 3 million copies and an estimated daily readership of nearly 8 million, the paper knows what it is doing. A quick scan through any edition will tell you more about the state of Britain in 2010 and what occupies the minds of its readership, than endless legions of politicians and pundits. The paper has come a long way since it was first produced in the 60`s as a replacement for the left-wing Daily Herald and although Rupert Murdoch and News International are criticised for attempting to sway the democratic process through editorial policy, defenders say that the paper holds up a mirror that reflects our society.

With 13 domestic and European games left, Wayne Rooney has every chance of adding to the 32 goals he has already scored in various competitions this season. If he avoids any indiscretions that might attract the attention of The Sun and, more importantly, ends the domestic season without being clogged off the pitch and into hospital by a clumsy tackle from a full back with Group C nationality, he could be the star of the World Cup.

However, with so much at stake at the top of the Premier League and in the Champions League, his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, will work him until he drops and, as a Scotsman, will not really care where Wayne and Colleen go for their summer holidays. With the Glazer brothers bleeding Manchester United dry with extraordinary levels of borrowing, every game means more pounds, Euros and dollars for the American owners and if you think Gordon Brown has a temper, half time team talks from Ferguson are said to be terrifying.

Meanwhile, sub-editors at The Sun will continue to write the headline and then think of the story. They must have wept bitter tears into their beer when Romania failed to qualify for South Africa. The prospect of a group match or better yet, a quarter-final with the guys from Bucharest would have given them a field day. Sadly, they will have to wait another four years to run the headline: “Roo Mania.”

Mr Rooney is a fan of the Stereophonics and carries a tattoo on his arm displaying the title of the bands third album.

March 11, 2010

Lest we forget

Filed under: Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 1:25 am

When the Prime Minister decided to make a “surprise” but pre-planned visit to Afghanistan immediately following his lacklustre performance in front of the Chilcot inquiry, opponents bellowed accusations of lies, deceit and of using the armed forces as political props. At about the same time that grumpy Gordon was touching down in Laskhar Gar, something horrible took place much closer to home.

The damage caused to the memorial on Barr Beacon is indefensible on so many levels. The reaction to the incident, though, seems to be a reflection on how we, as a society, view remembrance, heritage, sacrifice and criminality.

For those not familiar with the sad tale, a person or persons unknown scaled the memorial and tried to remove the copper dome in the dead of night. The bungled attempt at metal theft saw very little copper removed, but left a whole lot of damage that will cost an awful lot of money to repair.

The abject horror and futility of the sacrifices made by men and boys who fought and died and survived the obscenity of the First World War has to be commemorated. Lions led by sheep, they fell in their thousands. They deserve a remembrance.

Nicking the roof off a war memorial is just plain wrong. Vandalising a piece of communal heritage is equally out of order. Reaction to the deed has ranged from apathy to anger with a great deal of sadness thrown in. But the most hysterical display of apoplectic rage was reserved for our own dear leader, Councillor Michael Arthur Bird.

Describing the perpetrators as “sewer rats” who “need taken out of society”, the leader with dulcet tones uttered with such decorum, suggested that the villains be shipped out to Afghanistan to serve in the front line against the Taliban. Some of his cabinet chums joined in and lots of words like despicable, disgraceful, shocking, outrage and sickening were being bandied about.

This laudable defence of the sacrifice of the fallen comes from a leader who defended issuing parking tickets to war veterans and the families of the fallen on Remembrance Sunday last November. When words like despicable, disgraceful, shocking, outrage and sickening were used, Mike was forced to offer a half-hearted public apology. So why is the leader so angry now?

The answer is simple and shrewd. No-one likes to see a war memorial vandalised, unless you make your living as a war memorial repair-man, and the leader, battered from all sides for his and his cabinet colleagues incompetence, has seized on the public mood of outrage to try and make him look like the good guy defending the honour of those who sacrificed their lives. If Gordon Brown is using the armed forces as political props, at least he is using the live ones.

The other reason the increasingly unbalanced leader is so purple with rage is that the council will now have to spend loads of dosh to fix the damage. After a bodged attempt to gain lottery money to do up the place failed because the council refused to stump up any cash, grand plans for a visitors centre were kicked into the long grass. When graffiti was cleaned off the monument, it was not the council who picked up the bill, it was Aldridge Rotary Club. It seems that remembrance is vital, as long as somebody else pays for it.

The outrage expressed by members of cabinet that a favourite haunt of doggers, druggies and boy racers has been desecrated is a completely honourable and understandable reaction. However, it seems a shame that such sentiments were not expressed when other precious heritage sites such as Shannons Mill, Mellish Road church and The Bell Inn in Willenhall were allowed to rot and then burn when cabinet were in a position to tackle their owners to do something about it.

It is also a shame that the vociferous leader and cabinet members have taken decisions to close care homes, increase the price of meals-on-wheels, introduced transport costs for elderly people who attend day centres, close leisure facilities and increase the council tax. It would seem that the sacrifices people made during the second war will continue. Perhaps the leader and his cabinet colleagues should consider the words of Laurence Binyon, the poet of For the Fallen:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

The old soldiers who survived, the widows, the children, the sisters and brothers of those that died, will remember the way this council operates.

March 8, 2010

Two and two make three

Filed under: Education,Health,Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 12:53 am

The great Tom Lehrer, acclaimed mathematician as well as possibly the wisest American satirists of the last century, did not care for modern mathematical teaching methods.

“In the new approach,” he said, “the important thing is to understand what you`re doing, rather than get the right answer.” Professor Lehrer allegedly gave up writing witty lampoons on hearing that Henry Kissinger had been offered a Nobel Peace Prize saying that such news meant that political satire was dead. Now in retirement, a quick look at Walsall`s books might make him want to give up mathematics as well.

The ever vigilant and caring council recently trumpeted the allocation of a further £100,000 for road repairs. After the apocalyptic and calamitous natural disaster that saw Walsall buried under several hundred feet of snow for the last six months, four-wheel-drive vehicles are now obsolete. A tracked vehicle, preferable a Chieftain Tank, is the safest and smoothest way to get around Walsall. With road surfaces breaking up faster than footballers and eye candy, and the pavements crumbling under the weight of rhubarb spoken by the council, recovery from the ice age is proving difficult for good folks entrusted to spend our increasing council tax burden. Chucking a £100k bucket full of black stuff down a pothole is the same as chucking green stuff down a rabbit hole to lure Alice back from Wonderland.

Sage, cyclist and fellow speleologist, Brownhills Bob reproduced the council press release on his admirable blog site, both of which make interesting reading. The PR talks of green lights and investment, the national picture and how that naughty snow caused the damage. The relevant bland cabinet member was wheeled out to read the quote prepared for him by the press office but a significant actual fact emerged through the spinning slush. It seems we should be grateful that the road maintenance budget has reached a noble and mighty £5.7 million for this year. Hoorah.

In May 2009, a similar gushing press release, this time from Tarmac, boasted that their four year contract with Walsall Council was worth £7million a year. Here is a quote from Tarmac:

“The contract will see Tarmac’s National Contracting division deliver an integrated programme, which will include road surfacing, winter maintenance, 24-hour highways related emergencies, footpath reconstruction, sign manufacturing and erection, gully cleaning and reactive works such as pothole repairs.”

Curiouser and curiouser.

Now, if we take away 5.7million from 7million what are we left with? Now please, let`s not see the same hands going up. You…at the back?

The young people at the newly refurbished Mossley Youth Centre, about to be kicked out of nearby Sneyd secondary school, could easily answer that questions and must be delighted that £35k has been spent on doing up their space. The money has come from the government in the form of a grant from the Youth Capital Fund Plus, a funding stream that aims to give the yoot something to do as they are unlikely to get a decent education or a job. But spare a thought for the young people of Chuckery. About a year ago, our arithmetically inept council announced that they were going to build a £450,000 youth centre on a field where they played football and cricket. Locals, who rather like the field, suggested some alternative sites. No, said the council, the money has to be spent quickly or we will loose it. The funding was from the Youth Capital Fund Plus.

No youth centre was built and the brainiacs inside the Council House said they would spend the money on buses full of computer games. So, next question. What is 450,000 minus 35,000? You may answer this question when you are waiting for a bus. Extra time will be given if you are waiting for a bus to take you to a hospital.

It`s not just the council who can`t do sums. Over £5million has been spent on external consultants in Black Country hospitals with nearly £1.8million going on services that Walsall Manor Hospital cannot provide internally, no pun intended. In the same period, Walsall Primary Care Trust received £425million from the government and in the next financial year, £448.5million has been allocated.

So what is 425 plus 5 plus 23.5? Now look, you lot at the back, Bird, Towe, Ansell, Walker and McCracken…if you refuse to concentrate I shall report you to your house master. Now keep up!

Lewis Carroll, another outstanding mathematician, may have been looking into future when he described the branches of mathematics as “Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision.” If we combine this axiom with that of Tom Lehrer, Walsall Council does not know what it is doing and consistently fails to reach the correct answer and then attempts to baffle us non mathematicians with erroneous figures.

To again quote Lehrer:
“Come back tomorrow, we`re doing fractions.”

March 6, 2010

All we hear is Radio Ga Ga

Filed under: Media — theplastichippo @ 4:16 pm

Some years ago, in the mid 90`s, a gullible bunch of media journalists boarded a specially equipped BBC bus as part of the Radio Academy Festival in Birmingham. Fuelled with Belgian lager and fine French wine served by buxom lovelies, the event was intended to demonstrate the power of Digital Audio Broadcasting, heralding the start of the digital age.

The bus was driven around Birmingham city centre and the drunken hacks were treated to a specially arranged DAB broadcast that moved some tired and emotional scribblers to tears at the sublime quality of the radio output. They subsequently reported that the future was digital and that teenagers would have to hide half a hundredweight of hardware under the duvet to listen to their favourite boy bands or death metal iconoclasts late at night. Sadly, it was a fraud, the “broadcast” came from the back of the bus with a BBC techie loading pre-recorded mini discs into a rather splendid quadraphonic, surround sound system that was so loud that it could induced a bowel movement in Beelzebub.

The BBC, under the control of an item called Mark Thompson, has now decided to shut down 6 Music and the Asian Network and cut funding to the BBC website. Digital Audio Broadcasting seems destined to go the way of vinyl flexi-discs and Light Programme. The greatly missed John Peel and his underrated but equally magnificent producer, John Walters, must be spinning in their graves.

These two Gods of independent music championed unsigned bands who had actual talent and gave us music that was worth hearing. The decision by the BBC to close a platform for new music plays into the hands of entrepreneurial parasites with names like Simon Cowell who prefer to peddle manufactured pap where pretty people show lots of flesh and raise themselves from stools at the inevitable key change.

It seems that the music has died. Young bands, practising away in garages, bedrooms and attics cannot now hope to break into the top 40 monotony of drivel pumped out by mainstream radio. As the serial Beatle tribute payer, Paul Weller said: “The public wants what the public gets.”

The Asian Network was successfully building an audience that defied its imposed demographic with quality broadcasting and an output that drew listeners from as far east as Great Yarmouth. Commercial radio would never even attempt to reach such an audience. The people that run the station know what they are doing; the people who run the BBC do not. Seen as a ticked box on the BBC charter listed under diversity, the Asian Network now has a global cross-over audience and the BBC accountants have no idea what to do with it. So, it`s going, along with 6 Music and 25% of the website to provide funding for “quality” programming. Strictly Come Dancing perhaps, yet more puerile bike shed humour from Jonathon Ross or the dire Midlands Today?

The BBC still produces quality output, but this is increasingly being marginalised off the air and into niche markets in the free view box and on digital radio. DAB was supposed to be the biggest change to radio since the Beeb sank the pirates and then employed them all on the newly created Radio 1 in 1967.

Now, Radio 1 consists of public schoolboys assuming sarf London innit accents, shouting between indistinguishable tracks. Radio 2 is fine if you like avuncular curmudgeons, camp music hall entertainers and endless Michael Buble. Radio 3 remains hard work and only Radio 4 provides interesting and varied content but not, generally, music. Five Live – let`s not, along with so many others, go there. “Our next caller is Daz from Bloxwich – hello Daz, I understand you want to complain about migrant budgerigars stealing our bird seed.”

As record company profits plummet and the download is king, tired old dinosaurs rumble out of retirement and onto the road to try and earn a crust. If Macca wants to buy Abbey Road, 200 quid a ticket for Hyde Park will do very nicely. Nostalgia is profitable; record sales, diversity and innovation are not.

At the event in Birmingham back in the 90`s, then Director-General John Birt, had an audience of broadcasting professionals hooting with derisive laughter when he committed the BBC to supporting “new music” genres and embrace the digital age. The hilarity was brought about by hearing a grey man in a grey suit, more John Major than John Peel, pretend to know what Dub, Trance and New Jack Swing sounded like in a voice style that resembled a 1930`s BBC announcer.

Current DG Mark Thompson celebrated his 21st birthday in 1978, the year Elvis Costello recorded “Radio Radio”.

“And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools trying to anaesthetise the way that you feel.”

The image of young Mark, pogo-ing and singing along as he was being given the key to the door is almost as hilarious. These days, he will not wish to bite the hand that feeds him. There is no accounting for taste.

March 3, 2010

A good man has passed

Filed under: Politics — theplastichippo @ 11:29 pm

At the age of 96, some may say that Michael Foot had a decent innings. He did, but not just in terms of longevity. Possibly the last of a generation of politicians who put substance before style and oratory before the sound bite, young pretenders like Cameron, Clegg and the Milibands would be mistaken to airbrush him out of history.

In the early 80`s, when Labour in opposition nearly disappeared after the gang of four and militant tendency factions almost made the party irrelevant, Foot steadied the ship and paved the way for Kinnock, John Smith, Blair and Brown. The 1983 election manifesto was described by Gerald Kaufman as “the longest suicide note in history”, but the manifesto proposed the nationalisation of banks, government intervention in failing industries and unilateral nuclear disarmament. That was nearly 30 ago.

Not exactly photogenic, the old, long-haired bohemian will forever be Worzel Gummidge to the right wing press and his choice of coat at the remembrance service in 1981 caused a Labour MP to say that his leader “looked like an out-of-work Irish navvy.” In these days of trough snuffling MP`s, that could be now considered as something of a compliment and in no way detrimental to our friends across the water.

A founder member of CND and an unlikely ally of Enoch Powell in plans to reform the House of Lords, Foot was never one to give up on a lost cause. At 90, he became the oldest registered “player” in the Football League and was presented with a number 90 shirt by his beloved Plymouth Argyle. He never gave up on socialism, on justice, on freedom or the Labour Party. This next generation of 30 something suits should take a look at what a real politician looks like.

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