Category Archives: Comment

GTA V: A fleeting distraction in our terrifying reality

After playing GTA V, the latest instalment of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series, the Mail’s James Delingpole recently gave “his verdict” on the title. With thousands of frothy-mouthed gamers primed to ransack their local branch of Game, they waited expectantly for word from the great bespectacled one.

For the benefit of his eager readers, he launched straight into the action:

“Yesterday, in the process of robbing a bank, I beat up an elderly security guard before shooting dead perhaps 15 policemen, exulting in their murders with the flip dismissal: ‘Shouldn’t have been a cop.’ After that, I stole a succession of fast cars, evading my pursuers by driving on the wrong side of the road, mowing down passers-by and killing more police by ramming straight into them. Then I went home for a change of clothes, a nap, a beer and a joint before getting into my stolen vehicle to wreak more mayhem, pausing briefly to enjoy the services of a prostitute.”

When my wife used to take control of the CJ character – back in the old GTA: San Andreas days – she used to run everywhere because she flatly refused to carjack anyone. She would then spend two hours strapped into a jet pack, hovering high above the bustling streets of Las Venturas, quietly looking for horseshoes. A fun, non-violent way of making some money, and every bit as important as my ruthless gang-banging and thirst for fast cars.

My wife contributed to the game on her terms, only doing what she felt comfortable with (she also used to hit the gym and go shopping). Delingpole, on the other hand, sounded like he wanted to squeeze in as much violence and depravity as possible. He shot dead “perhaps 15 policeman”. He doesn’t know the exact figure because he was lost in the moment, happily spraying those uniformed visualisations of image data with cop-killing lead.

It certainly sounds like he’s improved since he played the first Grand Theft Auto back in 1997. “It involved an awful lot of driving around motorways and I crashed so often I kept failing in the missions the characters were supposed to carry out,” grumbled Delingpole, reminiscing about the time he played his stepson’s copy of the original game – and hated it. Perhaps if the gameplay had involved driving a Vauxhall Zafira around the Cotswolds (sensibly, at 50mph) with a mission to find a boutique hotel before nightfall, it might have been a more enjoyable experience.

Still, Delingpole’s “spree of orgiastic destruction and drug-fuelled violence” in GTA V left him in no doubt as to how gamers should approach the game, neatly observing: “The idea is that rather than disapprove of all the unpleasant things [the game characters] have to do in the course of their missions — drug deals, heists, assassinations — you should revel in every moment.”

Of course, there’s nothing to say that gamers can’t have the best of both worlds. In future, Rockstar might look to provide some kind of in-game Points of View programme, where people who hate GTA (but for some reason find themselves deeply engrossed in its gameplay) can complain about the missions they’re being asked to carry out. If a gamer would rather do a bake sale to raise funds for a local hospice instead of committing a violent armed robbery for kicks, they should rightly have the means of communicating their concerns.

But let’s face it, no one immerses themselves in a game world to disapprove of things that, here in the ‘real world’, we might consider unpleasant or amoral. We accept that our violent actions are confined to our games consoles, where we can commit the most appalling acts with impunity (and even a wry grin). We’re the stars of our own ridiculous comic.

Typically, Delingpole’s Mail Online article carried two prominent screenshots of GTA V’s interactive torture scene, which players have no choice but to confront. Every instalment of GTA always has a controversial, headline-grabbing element – and this is it.

In a 2009 Telegraph blog post about torture, Delingpole reminded us that he, too, believes that “full-on torture is basically wrong”. However, his reference to “full-on torture” suggests that he sees torture as a car wash-style menu of packaged options. He’s probably OK with ‘basic torture’ as it likely involves nothing more brutal than a light beating or flagellation with a bare flex. The next level up from that is probably just a few stress positions and some psychological torture, like forcing a man to listen to the sound of a squealing pig for 24hrs (looped endlessly over the title music to Last of the Summer Wine). So far, so good.

This psychological torment is actually known as ‘torture lite‘ in U.S. Military circles, so it’s perfectly acceptable! It’s like a spread or carbonated drink with all the evil taken out, then repackaged as the healthy option. But “full-on torture” – waterboarding, tooth/fingernail extraction, possibly even genital mutilation – well, that is basically wrong.

Given that the torture scene in GTA V sees the gamer’s character (Trevor Phillips) torturing a terrorist suspect for information at the behest of the FBI, I assumed it would’ve been right up Delingpole’s street. After all, his Telegraph blog questioned why “hand-wringing liberals” in the West spend so much time agonising over the human rights of various terrorist suspects “while giving scarcely a fig for the memory of the numerous innocents they have managed to wipe out by bullet, grenade or suicide bomb”. With this in mind, the opportunity to sharply twist the handheld controller and wrench out a tooth, roots and all, from a terrorist’s gaping, blood-filled mouth should have been quite appealing.

[Incidentally, if James Delingpole were ever to torture a man, he strikes me as someone who would go about the task with all the restrained unpredictability of Gus Fring.]

But it would be wrong of me to spend this entire blog post focusing solely on James Delingpole (992 words is more than enough). The GTA V torture scene has also caused outrage among human rights groups and teachers’ unions. (Oh, and also Labour’s Keith Vaz, who, let’s be honest, would probably describe a vigorous massage as one of the most sickeningly violent things he has ever experienced.)

Alison Sherratt, president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, warned that young children watching their siblings play GTA V may not be able to tell that it’s fictional. “The graphics are so realistic that little ones don’t think what they’re watching is a game,” she said. “Four to five-year-olds have a tendency to copy what they see on TV, whether it’s this or Fireman Sam putting out fires.”

I assume that if a child copies Fireman Sam by extinguishing a fire – rather than hurling flammable cushions into the flames to accelerate the conflagration – that’s a GOOD thing. Forcefully extracting a friend’s milk tooth at playgroup, probably less so. But that’s not very likely.

Maybe I’m expecting too much for there to be a level of parental responsibility here, but parents shouldn’t be buying GTA V for children under 18 years of age anyway (plonked in front of a 50″ plasma TV, mouths agape, controllers in hand). And they and their 18+ teenage offspring should certainly know better than to allow their five-year-old children/siblings to be witnesses to their violent video game exploits. But people are fucking stupid, so I guess some do. That’s not the video game industry’s fault, though.

I also disagree with the view that inserting torture into a video game “glamourises” it in popular culture.

Few people bat an eyelid when storylines of kidnap, murder, violence and drug taking are ‘glamourised’ in prime-time soaps like Eastenders. In fact, the 2007 episode of Coronation Street, which saw womanising builder Charlie Stubbs tie up teenager David Platt and force his head under water, was deemed to be “editorially justified” by Ofcom “even if there were some risk of imitation”. TV audiences are obviously considered to be more sophisticated and intelligent than gamers, who are so backwards that they simply cannot distinguish between reality and digital fiction.

[There are exceptions, obviously, like 14-year-old soap fan Daniel Bartlam, who bludgeoned his mother to death with a hammer in 2011 in a reenactment of his ‘favourite’ Coronation Street storyline.]

Furthermore, beyond the open world of GTA V, in our terrifying reality, we’re already exposed to an unrelenting daily diet of some of the most appalling and inhumane acts of cruelty and barbarism imaginable. We see Syrian rebels eating the hearts of their enemies and beheading captured helicopter pilots for the benefit of the camera (all available on YouTube…or in multiple pixelated screenshots on the Mail Online); Syrian civilians left writhing in contorted agony following Sarin nerve gas attacks; and yet more mass-casualty shootings in America. Added to this, we hear harrowing details of defenceless children in our own communities, tortured and starved to death by the parents who should have loved and protected them. We have homicides casually posted to Facebook, teenagers bullied into suicide by callous online trolls, and people who will literally kill for a free breakfast.

James Delingpole prays that the on-screen violence in GTA V doesn’t “bleed into Britain’s streets”, which is a woefully simplistic view. A violent video game isn’t going to unleash a wave of heavily-armed, glassy-eyed imitators, hellbent on wreaking death and destruction. The world is a fucked up place already, with more than enough real violence and inhumanity to chill our bones. In the whole scheme of things, Grand Theft Auto is just a fleeting distraction.



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Genuine role models…for a few weeks, at least

In the long run-up to the Olympics Opening Ceremony, my Pavlovian response to the merest mention of London 2012 was to emit guttural groans and expel such lengthy, heavy sighs that I was frequently in danger of vacuum-packing my internal organs with a tightly hugging cloak of skin. I didn’t even hear myself doing it after a while. It was like the ever-present hum of a nearby electricity substation that you naturally block out. The moaning was just there…in the background. The soundtrack to my apathy.

So it was a curious experience indeed to find myself transfixed by Danny Boyle’s wonderful Opening Ceremony on Friday night, lurching uncontrollably from laughter and excitable applause to hard-gulping efforts to quell a rising tide of emotion, which constantly threatened to send an undignified gush of snot and tears pissing from my face.

It’s all a bit of a blur, but my wife and I may even have declared that we were “proud to be British”. Jesus, I think I even said “fair play to the Queen” at one point. That’s difficult for me to admit, let alone explain. But as the last fireworks fizzed over the Olympic Stadium, I was happy to concede that Danny Boyle had achieved the impossible: he had created an opening ceremony that I could easily have sat down and watched all over again.

The experience was made even sweeter when I noticed a Facebook friend decrying the fact that the Arctic Monkeys had performed live, when Take That would have been a much more appropriate act. I got genuine chills when they started playing ‘Come Together’, as an army of cycling doves flooded into the arena from beneath the stage, like a Critical Mass demonstration populated entirely by an illuminated squadron of Prince Vultan’s Hawkmen. Alternatively, I guess we could have had Robbie Williams gurning through a rendition of ‘Do What You Like’ while a sexy dove girl enthusiastically devoured some Wenlock and Mandeville-shaped jelly wobbling around on his bare arse.

Actually, Robbie Williams’ arse would probably be an official Olympic Partner. You wouldn’t be allowed to enter the Olympic Stadium and unfurl a flag featuring a rival singer’s arse, or paint anyone else’s arse onto your children’s faces, for fear of being arrested and deported by LOCOG.

Beyond the Opening Ceremony I’ve found myself watching as much of the Olympics as possible, which is entirely unexpected. Even though I enjoy sport, I can’t think of a previous Games when I’ve watched the events with such unrestrained excitement. I’ve been completely engrossed. Furthermore, I’ve wanted to watch sports that I’ve never really watched with any interest before. I’ve watched the cycling, the beach volleyball, the badminton, the hockey, the rowing, possibly every swim and dive event, and the awe-inspiring men’s and women’s gymnastics. And it’s all been wonderful. I’ve been completely transformed from the groaning, Olympics-weary man from only a week ago to someone who’s genuinely enthused by it all.

When Lizzie Armitstead claimed the silver medal in the women’s road race on Sunday, I welled up when she was interviewed immediately afterwards. She was breathless, bewildered, emotional and humble. It was her sheer determination that made me tearful. She’d pushed her body to the absolute limit, and after years of training, dedication, commitment, sacrifice and maybe the odd dream, she’d claimed a stunning silver medal and thrilled an entire nation. And on top of that, as I’ve found with every young Olympian I’ve seen interviewed over the past few days, she was unflinchingly polite, intelligent, focused and full of genuine thanks for all the support she’d received.

Following their Olympic achievements, almost every newspaper front page on Monday morning featured photos of Lizzie Armitstead and Rebecca Addlington. There wasn’t a TOWIE cast member in sight. It was a joy to behold! Finally, if only for a few weeks, we have some genuinely inspiring role models. And rather than being force-fed a diarrhoea-inducing diet of weepy X-Factor/BGT back-stories courtesy of Simon Cowell, or bombarded with a variety of brain-deadening and entirely unrealreality series’ (and the associated daily antics of their vacuous ‘stars’) the nation is actually talking about people who are out there creating real stories. People who’ve worked tirelessly just for the opportunity to perform at the Olympics in the first place. People who are actually good at something, who have earned their shot at success.

I have a well-documented hatred of ‘reality’ stars, WAG’s and the ‘famous for being famous’ brigade, but the shit that gets them into the newspapers seems even more ridiculous and meaningless next to the stories of triumph and heartbreak coming out of the Olympics.

Only last month, the Mail Online ran a fascinating article – complete with photographic evidence – about how Alex Gerrard had visited a supermarket without wearing any make-up. This was followed by a high-octane sequel in which she emerged from a hair salon without make-up a few weeks later. “Pushing a supermarket trolley and stopping to get cash at an ATM machine, Alex, 29, could have been any ordinary woman,” wrote the Mail.

Of course, this sentence suggests that Alex Gerrard is actually an extraordinary woman; an inspiring role model that young women can look up to. But unless your ambition is to marry a Premiership footballer and dribble a load of banal shit about body butter and Top Shop summer collections in OK! magazine week in, week out, she really isn’t. But these are the kinds of idiots that are paraded before the nation on a near daily basis as the embodiment of success.

I know sport isn’t for everyone. But the elite athletes gracing our TV screens at the moment are the finest examples of what you can achieve in life without Simon Cowell and his SYCO behemoth, and without idly waiting to be plucked from obscurity and parachuted into a ten-a-penny reality show in the vain hope it will deliver a threadbare ‘celebrity’ lifestyle.

Only a couple of hours ago, Helen Glover and Heather Stanning triumphed in the women’s pair rowing event, becoming the first British women to take an Olympic rowing gold. When asked about whether young people watching at home might be inspired by their achievement, Helen Glover provided the perfect response: “If I can do it, just take the chance. Not just rowing – anything. If you work hard, if you try your best, absolutely anyone can do anything.”

Wise words. Spoken by a true role model.


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Heckling the vulnerable

Last week, I happened upon a depressing local news story about a teenager who jumped to his death from the top of a multi-storey car park in Digbeth, Birmingham. Admittedly, that’s hardly a side-splitting opening to this blog post – but stay with me. Because sadly, this tragedy has an even darker element to it.

Apparently, prior to the teen falling to his death, with police officers engaged in delicate negotiations to talk him down, a 25-strong “mob” of warm-hearted souls gathered at the site of the incident and proceeded to shout helpful words of encouragement, like: “JUMP!”. It was also reported that they whistled and shouted abuse while recording film and taking photos on their mobile phones, like some kind of ghoulish T-Mobile flash mob (Life’s for Sharing! Even the end of someone’s life, apparently). A witness at the scene later told the Birmingham Mail: “One boy, aged around 14, kept screaming at the man to jump. It was shocking.”

For someone so young to act so callously is indeed shocking. And sad. I find it difficult to understand the mentality of anyone who displays an eagerness to see someone kill or seriously injure themselves. Unless I caught wind of news that Tony Blair and George W. Bush were about to wheel themselves off the top of a 20-storey building in a shopping trolley, I would never dream of pulling up a chair at a police cordon to heckle and cheer.

The motivation for people to bark cold-hearted words at a suicidal stranger, teetering precariously on a ledge several storeys above them, seems to vary. But more often than not it’s linked to the pure outrage they feel at the inconvenience of it all. In a similar case in 2008, when 17-year-old Shaun Dykes jumped to his death from Derby’s Westfield car park, one member of the baying crowd was reported to have shouted that he was “wasting taxpayers’ money” (which is a wonderful thing to shout at someone who probably felt worthless to begin with).

Good point, you bleating idiot! I’m always much happier when our taxpayers’ pounds are spent on genuine and more deserving police incidents, like a good old fashioned armed siege or something. When Paul Gascoigne arrived in Rothbury in support of Raoul Moat, with a can of lager, some chicken, a mobile phone and some warm clothes, it was obviously a gift hamper to thank him putting taxpayers’ pennies to such good use. But as for desperate and vulnerable time-wasters…let ‘em jump! Then leave ‘em for the urban foxes to pick at so that we don’t incur the costs of transporting their bodies to the morgue.

Of course, some people turn up at a police cordon and simply become impatient for something to happen. This type of spectator doesn’t see a troubled human being lost in a fog of confusion and desperation, casting fleeting downwards glances at their own mortality. Instead they see a dog in a tutu about to plunge headlong into a paddling pool filled with custard. They’ve turned up for a show and they don’t want to be disappointed.

But whatever the reason for such a lack of compassion, it’s awful just the same.

Thankfully the comments beneath the Birmingham Mail article about this tragic, and very public, suicide were largely compassionate – save for a few hastily deleted comments from trolls (which probably read something like: “Who cares? Hiz hed went splatt! LOL!). But there was one comment I noticed, left by a user called ‘JanR’, which attempted to understand how some of the onlookers in Digbeth could have behaved in such a callous manner:

I’m not making excuses for these people but their attitude reflects a society where a man’s life pales into insignificance when compared to earnings on U-Tube (sic). When we see people dying every day on the screen (whether they are real or virtual) you must expect some people (especially the young with no experience of real life) to fail to grasp the facts before them. The ghouls who stood by and watched were just as un-sympathetic, just less vocal.

Even though YouTube’s community guidelines clearly don’t prevent people from uploading shocking suicide footage (as a quick search for “Budd Dwyer” has just proved) it’s not really the kind of material that makes you a prime candidate for YouTube’s Partner Program. There isn’t really a strong financial incentive for choosing to video someone’s harrowing final moments on a mobile phone for the purposes of uploading it to YouTube; you just have to be a despicable shit with a kernel-sized brain and a brick for a heart.

As for seeing death on-screen (both real and virtual), is that really something that can desensitise people to the point where they’ll happily take a few minutes out of their day to goad a troubled stranger into jumping to their death?

I recently wrote another cheery blog post about the multiple ways in which we absorb depressing news these days – through print, 24hr rolling news networks, dedicated news websites and social media, not to mention videos on YouTube – so we certainly live in an era when disturbing scenes of death and destruction are easily accessible and almost inescapable. But I don’t believe our exposure to such images – across so many platforms – has robbed us of our compassion, or the basic knowledge that people who jump from tall buildings tend to die rather than respawn.

It could be argued that the Birmingham Mail’s live-tweeting of the Digbeth suicide bid may have inadvertently directed many of the ghoulish hecklers to the scene in the first place. The instantaneous nature of social media enables us to pinpoint exactly where the news is happening at any given moment. Maybe it’s turned some people into news tourists. And maybe we do live in an entertainment-driven society, where everything – even someone’s darkest final moments – is packaged and consumed as an entertaining, interactive distraction, where we’re expected to gawp and cheer and jeer.

Let’s face it, every year millions of people tune in to I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! where we, the public, spend the first couple of weeks relentlessly targeting the weakest and most neurotic contestants, forcing them to devour kangaroo anus for our entertainment. It delights us. So maybe the heckling of broken, suicidal individuals is a reflection – or at least a product – of our modern society.

Having said all this, I’ve actually led you down this wordy black hole so that I can reveal that hideously awful wankers have always existed! Well before the advent of the internet, social media and rolling news stations, there are numerous stories of people gathering on the streets below motionless, suicidal husks, who have then proceeded to yell terrible things skywards.

In 1938, after nearly 11-hours, a 26-year-old man called John Ward jumped from the 17th floor of the Hotel Gotham on Fifth Avenue and 55th Street in New York, with thousands of pairs of eyes tracking his plunge through the night sky. “Look at all those people down there,” Ward was reported to have said. “I can’t disappoint them.”

A news article about the incident claimed that, even though fear initially “chilled the hearts” of those who saw Ward perched on the ledge, it was a feeling that was soon replaced with “speculative talk…gibes, arguments [and] wise cracks”. Furthermore, the longer the incident went on the more cynical the crowd became about whether he was going to jump at all. “And so a kind of perverted holiday spirit grew upon the crowd that watched him teeter on his dizzy perch,” chirped The Telegraph Herald.

In addition to this strangely cheery report about Ward’s suicide, the Herald also ran an article in the column below which calculated that his “death leap” had cost $130,000. “For 11 hours [Ward] tied up traffic, paralysed the business of the fashionable shops below, engaged the attention of hundreds of policemen [and] disrupted the routine of the old, ultra-conservative Hotel Gotham,” the article sniffily noted.

In 1969, in Kassel, Germany, a suicidal 19-year-old man called Jergen Peters had essentially been talked down from a 104-foot water tower by his girlfriend and some firemen – much to the disappointment of those who’d turned up to watch. However, each step closer to the ground only increased the volume of the “bloodthirsty” crowd’s booing and jeering, with one man shouting “JUMP, you coward!”.

Sadly, in spite of the firemen yelling at Peters not to listen, he quickly scrambled back up the tower and gave the crowd exactly what they wanted. “He heard their shouts, and 104-feet later…a real crowd pleaser,” went the chillingly upbeat newspaper headline.

There are, of course, plenty more awful stories from the dim and distant past about suicidal individuals being cruelly heckled to their death, but I’ll leave it there for the now.

The small group of people who hurled abuse at the teenager in Digbeth last week aren’t a reflection of ‘Broken Britain’, or the emotionless product of the Internet generation. They’re just the scum that naturally collects around the edges of society; a dark tidemark that unfortunately encircles us. It’s always been there, and I guess it always will to be.

The most we can hope for is that these hecklers will one day wake in the middle of the night, with the cold sweat of remorse beading across their haunted faces and the sickening thud of the suicidal stranger’s body hitting the pavement looping endlessly in their minds, like a scratched vinyl record. Forever.

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Royal white noise

How long has the Diamond Jubilee been going on for now? Two weeks? Two years? Anybody? How long have we been in Afghanistan? Had the Jubilee coverage already started before we invaded? Was there even a time when it wasn’t going on? I honestly can’t remember. I feel like I’m emerging from a claustrophobic pod, bleary-eyed and disorientated, after being sensorily deprived and relentlessly bombarded with nothing but Royal white noise.

Not being a Royalist, I’ve barely watched any TV over the past few days (except for The Terminator which, I’m pleased to say, hadn’t been re-versioned with digitally inserted Union Flag bunting, or a scene in which Schwarzenegger’s ruthless cyborg enjoys a Pimm’s with Sarah Connor as they watch the Jubilee Thames pageant together). Still, I definitely feel like I’ve seen and heard enough about the festivities – even accidentally.

For me, the highlight of the weekend’s coverage was a live local news report coming from a damp street party in the Midlands, which concluded with the reporter instructing some children – cowering beneath a sodden gazebo – to cheer for the camera. They mustered a half-hearted “hooray!” (bless their Dunkirk spirit!) before one of the girls broke off into a wide-mouthed yawn, which brilliantly conveyed the aching tedium of it all.

My wife sternly told me on Sunday afternoon that she wouldn’t think kindly of me if I revelled in the fact that street parties up and down the country had been torrentially rained off, and I can honestly say that I haven’t revelled one bit. It’s perhaps not my cup of homemade Jubilee punch, but I genuinely felt sorry for everyone having to squeeze into local community centres to escape the deluge. It meant that footage of celebrations up and down the country looked more like the Louisiana Superdome post-Hurricane Katrina rather than the spirited community get-togethers they were meant to be, which was actually rather sad after all the planning that must have gone into such events at local level. There you are, see, I’m not a monster!

But having said all this, can the coverage stop now? It’s all just a bit, well, too fucking much.

Unsurprisingly, the Mail Online has led the way with typically gut-wrenching, sycophantic coverage. In fact, with celebrations gradually drawing to a close, the main headline on the newspaper’s website was re-written three times over a few short hours this afternoon – just to make absolutely sure that it was fawning enough to secure Paul Dacre a knighthood.

Tens of thousands descend on Buckingham Palace at climax of Diamond Jubilee,” said the Mail Online’s original headline. That was then tweaked to read “tens of thousands of cheering subjects,” before they finally settled on the more understated “One and half MILLION adoring subjects descend on London at climax of four-day Jubilee“. Yeah, that should do it.

The Mail Online has also dedicated as many column inches to lambasting the BBC’s coverage of the Diamond Jubilee than it has to the pomp and ceremony of the Jubilee itself – and from which they appear to have derived just as much pleasure.

  • “Appalling! BBC cut to Dick and Dom playing ‘Bogies’ as Tower Bridge rises in salute to the Queen.”
  • “Bizarre! BBC cuts away from river pageant and shows a repeat of Keeping up Appearances in A SNUB TO THE QUEEN!”
  • “Matt Baker gets Queen’s name wrong! Calls her HRH Ian.”

Admittedly, it is difficult to defend some of the BBC’s Jubilee coverage. We had the Thames river pageant on in the background for an hour or two on Sunday (in case Jubilee Police ‘snatch squads’ were monitoring people’s television signals) and I remember looking up at one point to see a bearded man in a plaid skirt knighting Tess Daly with an oversized sword. Obviously, that could/should have been so much bloodier, but it hardly screamed ‘quality coverage’.

And of course, the minute you drop Fearne Cotton into any major broadcast the tone plummets to the level of a zany charity telethon. Place her at the future state funeral of the Queen, and rather than seeing Her Majesty lying in state I’d fully expect to see her slumped in a bath of beans, with Pudsey pissing around in the background and Fearne shouting “wicked!” at shuffling lines of tearful mourners.

However, it riles me that the Mail Online should be the one to bemoan the BBC’s coverage, which it said “smacks of yet another desperate attempt [by the corporation] to appeal to its precious youth audience”. Especially when every Royal article that has appeared on the Mail’s website over the past few days has been accompanied in the right-hand sidebar by umpteen pointless articles about the TOWIE cast holidaying in “Marbs”, and the usual ten-a-penny articles about Kim Kardashian (the most recent being a fascinating article about Kim “challenging her spaghetti string bikini not to ping off as she squeezes her infamous curves into a two-piece”).

The Mail Online became the world’s biggest newspaper website (well ahead of the BBC News website, it was keen to stress) by running trashy, bullshit ‘celebrity’ stories that appeal first and foremost to a youth audience, and which encourages them to click through the site – so they’re knowingly chasing a similar crowd. Still, they managed to sound suitably arrogant and superior in their condemnation of the Beeb.

Furthermore, I object to the Mail’s supposed ownership of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Admittedly, the point of the whole shindig was to doff our caps in the direction of Westminster and applaud 60 years of the Queen waving and turning up for stuff. But it’s surely not beyond the realms of taste and decency for people to expand on what the occasion personally means to them.

Apparently not.

“We saw Clare Balding aboard the magnificent rowing barge Gloriana shouting that the event was all about ‘empowerment’ and ‘diversity’. Er, no it wasn’t, it was about the Queen,” scoffed the Mail’s Bel Mooney. Yeah, fuck diversity! This is about one woman, and nothing else.

Similarly, following his speech at today’s St Paul’s service, the Mail Online spoke scathingly about the Archbishop of Canterbury, who they accused of hijacking “a celebration of the Monarch’s 60 years on the throne and head of the Church of England” in order to spout his “liberal views” about the financial greed in the City and various environmental concerns. Pipe down, preacher man! How dare you express thoughts about the true state of our nation, which our glorious Queen reigns over! Why couldn’t you just have thrown down a few vol-au-vents, waved a flag and fucked off? You’re ruining the party!

Anyway, it’s nearly over now. Mercifully, while I’ve been writing this, I’ve missed Rolf Harris Paints the Diamond Jubilee, which just leaves us with a weekend highlights package before normal service can resume.

As the Jubilee wind downs, the Mail Online proudly announced that this was “the weekend we remembered who we were”. Even though I genuinely hope that everyone who wanted to celebrate has had a good time, I just hope we can all forget just as quickly. I’d hate for this gushing celebration to be terminal.

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Good evening, this is the news. Depressing, innit?

I know the news has never been a source of mirth, but it seems to be unrelentingly depressing on just about every level at the moment. It’s almost impossible to watch the nightly news without envisioning a near future in which we barter for goods and services around a camp fire, over which the slowly rotating body of an expired neighbour sizzles and crackles, breaking the silence of the oppressive darkness surrounding our makeshift encampments.

These dark imaginings are only superseded by harrowing images of the latest Syrian massacre – darker than anyone’s imagination could ever muster – with wailing mothers and distraught fathers in bloodstained clothes, clawing at the camera to direct the world’s gaze down to their tiny, lifeless bundles wrapped up on a hospital floor. The news only ever leaves you with one question: ‘why?’.

On the other end of the news scale (but upsetting nonetheless) was the recent story about two giraffes dying from stress at a Polish zoo after vandals broke in and threw benches and bins into animal runs. Yet again, we can only ask: ‘why?’.

I long to hear a story about hooligans breaking into a zoo only for staff to later find their trampled and mauled bodies in a twitching heap, perhaps with vultures picking over their steaming entrails and chimpanzees playing catch with a severed, baseball-capped head. But the universe isn’t that kind. Good news is in short supply.

Other grim news stories of late sound like they’ve made it to air via Channel Five’s documentaries department. Only this week, there was the disturbing news that a naked man was shot dead by Miami police after devouring roughly 80% of another naked man’s face (Channel 5, 8pm, ‘Zombie cannibal attack!’). The unfortunate victim was a homeless man called Ronald Poppo and his violent attacker was Rudy Eugene, who was apparently high on ‘bath salts’ – a mixture of chemicals sold as a synthetic alternative to LSD, PCP, cocaine, and methamphetamine, which can be snorted, smoked, or injected and can drive users into a state similar to ‘cocaine psychosis’ – (Channel 4, 9pm, ‘Bath Salt Psychosis: Jimmy’s Homemade High’).

[I genuinely thought that regular aromatherapy bath salts had been the cause of this unspeakably violent act, which had the potential to transform Boots’ ‘Here come the girls’ campaign into a terrifying, but wonderfully naked, zombie apocalypse. But on reflection, perhaps not.]

This story was disturbing in the extreme, but one that online news outlets simply couldn’t get enough of. Typically the Mail Online went to town on it, running multiple screen-grabbed images from video of the aftermath of the attack. They even ran two heavily censored, pixelated photos of Poppo’s bloodied face, so it felt more like you were looming over a slain demon on the SNES version of Doom instead of staring at something gorily real. “Only Mr Poppo’s goatee remains,” the Mail morbidly noted under the photo (which I guess makes a refreshing change from their usual caption style: “What was he thinking? Ronald Poppo’s goatee looks unkempt and matted as he attempts to carry off the mauled and featureless homeless look.”).

But if the multiple screen-grabs and graphic description of the attack wasn’t enough, you could also scroll down to the bottom of the Mail’s article and watch a two and a half minute video featuring an aerial shot of Eugene’s and Poppo’s lifeless legs jutting out from beneath a Miami flyover. (Well, you could do after you’d sat through a 30 second advert for Windows 7. Morbid voyeurism is all about patience.)

Typically, Rudy Eugene’s attack on Ronald Poppo brought other dark news stories to the fore – each more disturbing and depressing than the last. We’ve had the Swedish professor who cut off and ate his wife’s lips after suspecting her of having an affair; the 21-year-old student from Maryland, U.S., who murdered his room-mate and then ate his brain and heart; the homeless woman who snatched a baby from a pram and tried to break off its arm to eat it. And to top everything off, there’s Luka Magnotta’s murder of Lin Jun; a sickening crime that’s as disturbing as people’s appetite for watching video of the murderous act online.

It’s the level of detail that accompanies news stories these days that sometimes makes it feel like depressing news pervades our lives. News still had the power to shock and disturb before the advent of the Internet, but we didn’t have the capacity to absorb those stories on so many levels. Today, we consume news through print, TV, dedicated news websites and social media, watch accompanying videos on YouTube, then free-fall down Google’s rabbit hole in a hopeless effort to quell our appetite for more and more information.

Years ago, the news also used to be largely confined to newspapers and around four daily news bulletins on TV (save for the heart-skipping occasions when ‘Breaking News’ used to flash up on screen in the middle of Bullseye, when that term used to actually mean something), but now the news is everywhere – and constant – with rolling news stations providing us with forensic, though often completely unnecessary, analyses of absolutely everything.

In an effort to break up the constant stream of bad news, celebrity stories – in all their aspirational glory – are hurled at us relentlessly, like the aforementioned chimps flinging generous handfuls of shit at a Perspex window. And like visitors at the monkey enclosure, we watch with fascination and react with uncontrolled glee whenever a fruit-filled turd thuds against the window before our eyes. So we hold our faces closer to the windowed divide to encourage more of the same.

But celebrity news is so achingly vacuous that it regularly leaves me feeling just as bereft and bewildered as if I’d just watched a harrowing ‘real’ news story. I’m always left with exactly the same question: ‘why?’.

Kerry Katona furniture shopping at IKEAis that newsworthy? Kim Kardashian taking her own pillow onto a flightwhat a fucking scoop! Endless coverage of the cast of TOWIE sunbathing in Marbella – that will only truly be considered news if a vast meteor obliterates southern Spain during their stay (and so far, that’s only happened in my imagination). Imogen Thomas visiting a skate park in the middle of the day, wearing Daisy Dukes and a bikini – and wouldn’t you just know it, it’s the exact same park in which paparazzi are lurking with their telephoto lenses and pitiful erections – WHY?!

There’s nothing remotely interesting about celebrity news. It may pretend to offer us respite from the daily news grind, but it’s every bit as bleak. It’s just a shower of [cosmetically enhanced] tits performing mundane tasks. Isn’t there anything to lift the gloom? Something good we can turn to? Something uplifting?

The only thing that’s made me cry for the right reasons lately was a hilarious photo of Graham Linehan on the toilet. I’m thinking of saving it to my iPhone, to look at whenever I need a welcome distraction from unending bad news and bland celebrity mind-dribble. I suggest you do the same. And with that, I shall wrap up this most miserable of blog posts.


Filed under Celebrity Culture, Comment, News, Rant, Television

Eric Pickles spilling out of a négligée

If I was in charge of English football, I would radically overhaul the entire game. GONE would be the highly engineered footballs constructed from the same material that NASA astronauts wipe their bum with in space, and in their place, the trusty inflated pigs bladder would return. On match days the players would travel straight from the abattoir to the stadium, where they would step off the team coach, ashen-faced, with blood-spattered tracksuits and pigs entrails dangling from their Beats headphones. Adoring fans would quickly withdraw their autograph books and either avert their gaze in revulsion or vomit at their heroes’ supremely talented feet. A humbling experience indeed.

Sky Sports would also be forced to introduce a red button option for the TV audience watching at home, which would enable bored viewers to substitute the pigs bladder match ball for, say, a hand grenade. And instead of ‘parking the bus’ against top quality opposition, players would be instructed to park their Bentley Continentals and Lamborghini Gallardos.

And GONE would be the football shirts made with ‘breathable fabric’, which no doubt sigh with orgasmic pleasure each time they’re stretched over the players’ muscular torsos. Instead,  footballers would be forced to play the whole game in their post-match designer threads. The repellent stench of sweat and pigs bladder would then hang heavily over the VIP areas of exclusive bars and clubs, which would be so overwhelming, women would rather plunge headlong into a blooming ‘corpse flower’ than venture beyond the red velvet rope to join them. Footballers would be left with nothing to do but quaff champagne, compare expensive watches and pick flecks of mud from each other’s matted hair like grooming apes.

Footballers also wouldn’t be able to gain entry to premier nightspots unless they wore augmented reality beer goggles, with the power to cloak attractive women behind a vision of Eric Pickles spilling out of a négligée. The goggles would eventually make going out after matches a deeply traumatic experience. Any players refusing to wear the goggles would risk having their contracts terminated.

This tough approach could clean up football once and for all, eradicating sex scandals and deflating even planet-sized egos. We should give it a whirl!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big football fan. I love to watch football. But the recent conviction and imprisonment of Sheffield United’s Ched Evans – for raping a 19-year-old woman at a Premier Inn Hotel in May last year – has once again shone a blinding stadium spotlight on the debauched behaviour of some players.

In 2007, a ‘roasting’ sex tape emerged featuring Manchester City’s Micah Richards and one of his friends – also a Premier League footballer. If you were to go off the screen grabs of their faces alone you would be forgiven for thinking that Richards had just discovered that he could ejaculate £50 notes. The story went public after the two footballers circulated the sex clip around their group of friends because they thought it was “hilarious”. But unless the rhythmic slapping of Micah Richards’ balls – sounding like a disapproving slow hand-clap by the women of the WI – is something that his social circle delights in, it’s not a video that anyone could possibly find “hilarious”. The video was circulated simply because it was a result. It was a win.

When these players were starry-eyed kids emulating the skills of their footballing heroes down at the local park, did they dream of playing professionally for their boyhood club? Or did they dream that, one day, they would be able to gurn into a mobile phone while filming themselves ‘roasting’ a female fan in a spacious disabled toilet? What the hell happens to these talented, ambitious sportsmen that turns them into arrogant, self-aggrandising, amoral and, some might say, dangerous fuckheads?

When the aforementioned Ched Evans was arrested, he boasted to police that he and his friend “could have had any girl” they wanted in the nightclub they had visited. He told them: “We were drinking, having fun there. It’s not uncommon we pick up girls. Clayton [McDonald] is an attractive guy. We are footballers, that’s how it is. Footballers are rich, they have got money, that’s what the girls like.”

Unusually for two obscenely rich and attractive men, packing the kind of pheromonal power that can apparently render an entire nightclub of women utterly helpless, they decided to have sex with the one woman who was barely conscious. Evans’ brother and another friend, Jack Higgins, who clearly don’t have the same magic touch with women, had to make do with watching events unfold through a window, with Higgins filming the action on his mobile phone. I imagine they watched and sniggered like a couple of village idiots gawping through a car window at some Knowsley Safari Park baboons trying to hump a car aerial. Despicable.

Ched Evans’ incarceration for rape has since led to the creation of a #justiceforched Twitter campaign; the naming and subsequent harassment of his victim online (leading to the arrests of three men); and a misguided outpouring of support from some Sheffield United fans who don’t seem to see what all the fuss is about. One fan even showed his support for Evans by shaving “CHED” into the back of his head (with the same kind of results you’d expect if you asked Stevie Wonder to shave the name of your favourite convicted rapist into the back of your head). A group of fans were even planning to orchestrate two rounds of supportive applause at Sheffield United’s game last Saturday – in the ninth and 35th minutes of the game in homage to Evans’ old shirt number and the amount of goals he’s scored this season – but thankfully nothing of any significance materialised.

For the kids playing football right now in the parks and backstreets of England, with jumpers for goalposts, boundless amounts of energy and nothing but football on their minds, I hope the behaviour of their footballing heroes improves off the pitch. I am, of course, more than happy to implement my sweeping changes to English football to bring about the positive shift we need. But whether they like it or not, footballers need to remember that they’re role models…and it’s not the last days of Rome.


Filed under Comment, Current Affairs

Banning Nintendogs

When Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was first released a few years back, I played it relentlessly for an entire weekend. After 48 solid hours, I was a little bit twitchy. In fact, when I finally managed to wrench myself from the me-shaped depression in the sofa to venture out into the real world, I found that my eyes were constantly darting towards all the high positions around me. The reason? I was checking for snipers.

Thankfully my local Tesco is light on snipers, and I was more likely to run into the path of a mobility scooter than an armoured vehicle packed with dead-eyed enemy combatants. But still, I skittered across the open space of the car park as if my life depended on it.

I later encountered a group of burly Russian men at the self-service tills who were scanning a random selection of items from their basket, which included 24 cans of premium strength lager, a bratwurst and Finding Nemo on DVD. Given that I’d spent so many hours in virtual combat against Russian Spetsnaz forces, it’s perhaps surprising that I didn’t suddenly snap and beat them all to death with their truncheon-like sausage, or attempt to waterboard them with the Munch Bunch yoghurt they were incongruously adding to their shopping bags.

But then again, it’s not really surprising at all. My brain was certainly tired after spending hour upon hour tearing around the war-torn virtual environments of Modern Warfare 2, but the experience hadn’t turned me into a violent killer. I could still separate the virtual from the real, right from wrong. My checking for snipers was more habit than a genuine belief that I was still inside the game and about to be ambushed. If anything, my lengthy gaming session had left me with nothing more than a heightened sense of awareness (and a t-shirt spattered with chicken Super Noodles).

The seemingly annual debate over whether violent computer games fuel aggressive behaviour twitched back into life last week. On Tuesday, 15-year-old Daniel Bartlam was jailed for a minimum of 16 years for murdering his mother with a claw hammer, before setting her on fire. And on Wednesday, a motion at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) annual conference called on ministers to introduce “stringent legislation” to counter the “negative effects some computer games are having on the very young”.

It’s been widely reported that Daniel Bartlam’s sickening crime was inspired by his “favourite” soap opera plot, which saw Coronation Street character John Stape bludgeon Charlotte Hoyle to death with a hammer before leaving her body in the wreckage of a tram crash in order to cover up his crime. The police said that Bartlam saw himself as “a murderous soap character” and they apparently discovered a montage of violent clips from a number of other soaps, including Hollyoaks and Emmerdale. He’d even written his own violent soap opera plot a few days earlier on his computer (a wonderfully cryptic tale about a character called ‘Daniel’ who murders his mother with a hammer and then sets fire to the family home).

Yet in spite of these details – and with several newspapers referring to Bartlam as the “Corrie copycat killer” – many reports were still keen to highlight the disturbing influence of violent video games. “Children as young as four are becoming addicted to the kind of violent computer games from which twisted teenage murderer Daniel Bartlam got his kicks,” warned an article in the Mirror (which you could only start reading once you’d scrolled past Bartlam’s police mug shot, with his doe-eyes, teenage cherry lips and expressionless face).

Of course! Video games are the problem here! They’re much worse than the early evening kill-fests that soap operas have become in the relentless pursuit of ratings – and much easier to create a moral panic about!

There’s a distinct lack of good news stories about video games. It’s always “violence” this and “aggression” that, and media-led calls for bans, boycotts and blame. If David Berkowitz had gone on his brutal killing spree today, blaming his murderous actions on his neighbour’s demonically possessed dog, Harvey, the press and mainstream media would probably call for a ban on the sale of Nintendogs.

But violence in soap operas, well, that’s just entertainment! Some might even call it healthy population control. Let’s face it, without the staggering amount of deaths from blunt force trauma ‘soap land’ would be hopelessly overpopulated. Characters have been dispatched with hammers, spades, crow bars, monkey wrenches, irons, doorstops, statuettes, ashtrays and picture frames (although there will always be a place in viewers’ hearts for good old-fashioned stabbings, shootings, beatings and maybe the odd hit-and-run). Not to mention the more creative attempted murders, like, say, burying your cheating husband alive or gassing your entire family.

If Eastenders’ Ethel Skinner was still alive today, doddering around Albert Square with her little Willy, it would only be a matter of time before she popped up in the Christmas Day episode to hurl a beaker of acid into the ruddy faces of some Walford carol singers. The scene would probably go on to win a British Soap Award for ‘Best Depiction of Random Violence Leading to the Horrific Disfigurement of Innocent Extras’.

During the trial of Daniel Bartlam, prosecutor Sean Smith said: “The boundaries between real life and fiction became very, very tragically blurred.” Not the boundaries between the virtual and the real, but the boundaries between real life and fiction. That distinction obviously doesn’t make Bartlam’s crime of parricide any less shocking and reprehensible, but it does make me wonder why the influence of video games has been a prominent talking point in some of the reporting on the case.

In a speech to the aforementioned Association of Teachers and Lecturers annual conference last week about the influence of video games, Alison Sherratt, a teacher at Riddlesden St Mary’s Church of England primary school in Keighley, West Yorkshire, said: “We all expect to see rough and tumble, but I have seen little ones acting out quite graphic scenes in the playground and there is a lot more hitting, hurting and thumping in the classroom for no particular reason.”

I grew up in a time before video games invented violence, but I still remember kids hitting, hurting and thumping each other for seemingly no reason. And as for the “graphic scenes” that kids are supposedly acting out in the playground – is that really all down to video games? When children pretend to “throw themselves out of the window of the play car in slow motion” and act out blood “spurting from their bodies”, how do teachers know they’re acting out scenes from a violent video game and not the denouement of the latest ill-fated Eastenders, Emmerdale or Coronation Street love triangle?

Alison Sherratt also said: “Obesity, social exclusion, loneliness, physical fitness, sedentary solitary lives – these are all descriptions of children who are already hooked to games.” I certainly don’t doubt that these can all be by-products of a life spent slouched in front of the TV pressing shapes on a joypad repeatedly, but video games are designed to entertain – they’re not designed to provide parental nurturing and support.

Captain John ‘Soap’ MacTavish isn’t going to pause midway through an intense firefight in Modern Warfare to remind children to go and eat a healthy, balanced meal, or to go outside and get some exercise, or remind them of the importance of maintaining real-world relationships with friends and family. That is, and always will be, the parents’ responsibility. (‘Soap’ MacTavish is only ever going to tell a child to “stay frosty”.) If parents allow their children to have a games console in the bedroom and buy them violent, age-restricted video games for Christmas and birthdays, they can’t then complain that said video games are a dark and corrupting influence.

Still, I can’t talk. I think there are snipers watching me.

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Filed under Comment, Television