Tuesday, 30 December 2008

The Great and the Good

While Britain chose Churchill (despite the Daily Mail's annual lament that an implausible percentage of the population think he was the nodding dog off the adverts), and Russians (as announced yesterday) opted for Braveheart-esque folk hero Alexander Nevsky, the various global versions of the BBC's Great Britons have turned up some interesting results.

As you might expect, France picked De Gaulle, Germans chose Adenauer (after having been expressly forbidden to nominate Nazis) and South Africa voted for Mandela, but the Portuguese version was won overwhelmingly, and rather disturbingly, by former military dictator Antonio Salazar. Spain's version was servile, selecting the current king above Cervantes and Columbus, and voting both his wife and son into the top 10 for good measure.

As a sign that the public can't always be trusted, Romanians voted Vlad the Impaler into 12th, 2 places behind adolescent gymnast Nadia Comaneci. New Zealand predictably struggled to find 100 people to fill the list, topped by Ernest Rutherford. Russell Crowe ranked 100th, beaten by a pioneer of bungy jumping, a safe sex campaigner and the man who invented jogging.

The last word on these fascinating and bizarre personality contests: In the results for The Greatest American, Thomas Jefferson came 12th. 6 places above him - George W. Bush.

Name of Russia

Sorry to any readers left cold by yet more Russia-centric coverage, but the results of the Name of Russia poll (essentially a transported version of the BBC's Great Britons) are worth a look, either here in a well-written Guardian report, or here in the original.

The results are interesting less for the winner (medieval prince Alexander Nevsky, a safe choice) than for the strength of passion and number of agendas involved. In the end, Nevsky pipped Tsarist reformer Piotr Stolypin to the post, with Stalin coming a close third. However, the poll became more controversial than a Strictly Come Dancing phone vote with a nameless Blue Peter kitten thrown in, as the government, the Communists and even the Orthodox Church weighed in.

The various machinations surrounding the poll provide a fascinating portrait of the various forces at work in modern Russia. Putin's support for Stolypin was emphasised quietly but firmly (an uncharacteristically frank aide admitted that since Stolypin wasn't certain to win, Putin could not afford to support him more openly). Stalin had a commanding lead until the programme's own producer launched an 'anyone-but-Josef' campaign. The Man of Steel's performance here was quite likely due to his rehabilitation under Putin as a strong leader who did only what was necessary, and the fact that viewers could vote as many times as they liked, which the Communists seized upon.

The various figures were each presented to the public by various Russian luminaries, including a former general and 1991 Communist coup plotter for Stalin, a film director and personal friend of Putin for Stolypin, and for Nevsky - no less than the leader of the Orthodox Church in Russia. The British equivalent was Jeremy Clarkson.

Since this was a TV vote as well as a Russian election of sorts, it was bound to be dogged by allegations of vote-rigging (a victory for the rather bland Nevsky, after all, sends out a message that is rather better for business than a Stalinist triumph). It also opened the way for the delicious spectacle of disgruntled communists bemoaning a lack of democracy: "[The result prompts] the same level of trust as in the central electoral commission", one party spokesman said.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Putinophobia - it's racist, apparently

Few things irritate me more than when legitimate criticism of the Russia's undemocratic and threatening government is silenced as Russophobia, but I think the most infuriating example has to be found in this Guardian comment piece.

According to Anna Matveeva, any stereotype about Russia is racist, no matter how justified. Mentioning corruption is taboo apparently, as is writing a novel where the oligarch population of London (who, of course, are famously untainted by any impropriety) come out less than favourably.

Perhaps she also disapproves of references to cold weather - she certainly mentions one (feeble and unfunny) joke about Russians not having a sense of humour. Replace 'Russian' with 'German' and I wonder if Matveeva would object.

However, there is a more sinister side to this piece. Criticising the Russian government is racist, too. The "embittered idealism" of "Western liberals" disappointed by such trifles as state repression has led them to argue for Russia's castration, apparently.

According to Matveeva, a visiting fellow at the LSE, no less, even covering the war for South Ossetia is discriminatory, a chance to poke fun at the backward Russkies. By that logic, no one would care if Turkey invaded Armenia, just like no one did when it was just Britain and Northern Ireland. This argument is either deeply cynical or unimaginably blinkered.

I'm not a 'Russophobe'. I don't fear Russians. I have some close Russian friends, I have chosen to devote four years of my life to studying Russian culture, and I will be living there for several months next year. What I am frightened of is an unaccountable and repressive government that is deeply implicated in the torture and murder of its own citizens.

There is nothing racist in the fact that in Russia I often have to keep my voice down when near the police, to avoid marking myself out as foreign, and thus a prime target for a shakedown, or that I feel sorry for Russian friends studying hard for degrees made almost worthless by the festering sore of corruption.

Just type in 'buy a degree' on any Russian search engine, and you can find charts listing the going rates for bribes at Russia's most presitigious universities. There is every reason to chastise the Russian government for its unwillingness to tackle these embarassing and dangerous problems.Being angered by this, and by the unaccountable political system that tolerates it, isn't racist or Russophobic - it's human.

Dawn of the Dull

- It's the end of the world, not that anyone would really notice the difference

James Ellingworth

Throughout human history, the apocalypse has generally been imagined to be a fairly exciting event. From Medieval paintings of judgement day, full of devils leering over cauldrons of boiling oil, to the visceral 28 Days Later, the one thing depictions of the end of the world haven't tended to lack is drama.
Viewed in terms of this tradition, Survivors is worth watching, for the simple reason that they've managed to make the apocalypse look, quite frankly, a bit boring.
Firstly, the disaster itself. Everyone just gets the flu, goes a bit clammy, and keels over politely, doing their best not to get in anyone's way. It's all very British. Some people are immune to this pandemic, and they don't die. And that's that. No zombies, explosions or chases – in fact, no drama of any description. Mad Max it ain't.
The survivors of the title stand about a bit to a soundtrack of mournful piano, looking a bit confused. Their blank stares mostly seem to reflect their surprise that they don't really have anything to do, especially now that the dead haven't got back up and started on their expected high-protein human brain diet.
The first episode's ten-minute ending scene (stretched out with yet more dirge-like piano) basically boils down to: “I want some milk in my tea, but all the milk's going off now and everyone I know is dead. I'd still like some milk, though. I've heard it comes out of cows, we could get one of those.”
Survivors' vision of Armageddon isn't only bland, it's surprisingly female-friendly. What plot there is concerns a mother searching for her lost son, and the obligatory rugged male leads are neutered by silly roles. One just wants to settle down, another is a playboy who becomes a father figure to a young boy, and the 'criminal psychopath' character is played by a fugitive from the multi-coloured high-camp dross that is Hotel Babylon. Enough to snuff out any lingering embers of credibility.
Survivors, therefore, is for anyone who wants to watch the world end with minimal fuss, some emotional bonding and mournful piano chords. It is in fact, so unique, that I can think of only one conceivable use for it.
If ever your granny asks to see 28 Days Later, show her this. There's no nasty eye-gouging, it's marginally less exciting than overcooked peas, and you can even enjoy a nice scone as you vegetate to the ever-present sound of that mournful bloody piano.

Bands Bjorn Again

- James Ellingworth hasn't written the greatest story in the world; this is just a tribute.

I'd like to begin with a short message for the faux world-weary trilby-wearers of Razorlight. At a recent sold-out gig at the Edinburgh Corn Exchange by the Complete Stone Roses tribute band, the management were desperate to sell tickets for Razorlight the next day. Now that's just embarrassing. So Razorlight, please stop now. It'll be better for everyone that way. Right, that's that sorted.
Tribute bands are the methadone of music – filling the gap in the user's life where the full-strength hit should be. And it's a big business. Just look at Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana, who can pack arenas full of screaming ten-year-olds, despite essentially being a tribute to herself.
There are thousands of tribute bands out there, with names ranging from Abba-apeing housewives' favourites Bjorn Again, through the Antarctic Monkeys (billed as “the UK's hottest tribute”) to the frankly rubbish-sounding Oasis wannabes Definitely Mightbe . There are even tribute bands to fictional groups such as Spinal Tap and The Commitments, which prompts all sorts of philosophical questions.
You can even invent your own, given 30 seconds and a stereotype. How about Kneecap, a Northern Irish take on the post-modernism of Elbow? Or Rabbie Williams, Stoke's finest given a Scots twist? Or even Gaye Marvin, making “sexual healing” fabulous?
Some tribute bands have even reached a certain level of respectability, even credibility. The Complete Stone Roses, for example, have played festivals, and even had the real band's bassist, Mani, play alongside them as a 'special guest'. However, there does come a point where the line separating faithful imitation from actually thinking you're the band in question begins to blur. When the Complete Stone Roses played Edinburgh recently, in between the stonkingly-rendered big , numbers, they inserted about 30 minutes worth of obscure early material that left the audience cold, a sign perhaps of the confusing situation tributes can find themselves in if they start to be appreciated for what remains someone else's work.
There are also those acts that pay their tribute in an altogether more creative, some would say bizarre, way. The Red Hot Chili Pipers add bagpipes to Californian rock, while Dread Zeppelin are probably the only people in the world ever to think that what Robert Plant's vocals needed was reggae delivery from an Elvis impersonator.
But finally, spare a thought for the poor deluded souls who are destined to fail, who imitate the wrong band and then wonder why no-one turns up. Yes, I give you Razorlike, “the UK's only Razorlight tribute”. One word: why?

A sheepish apology

Sorry for the unforgivably long absence. Various things have kept me away from blogging over the past month, one of the main ones being work at Student, where I am now News Editor. The website is now back online, and really starting to generate debate, which is excellent. Over the next few days, I'll try to make up for my absence with a glut of published and unpublished pieces. Enjoy...