Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Layer 133 The Little Things, the Bigger Picture and the Desert Island.

Having perfect eyesight, children scrutinise everything. They see the minute detail in everyday things, and are mesmerised, fascinated and incredulous in the face of the awesomeness and wonderment of it all. How could they not be?

Pre-verbal children see colour, form, shape, proportion and texture and go “Wow!” A baby will stare at a colourful object time and again for minutes on end. We can surmise that the colour and shape alone are worthy of their unblinking attention.

A re-birth in the art of seeing takes place when children, usually at school, have access to a 3-D microscope and can see things like the hairs on the legs of insects and spiders, the texture of their eyes, and the incredible surfaces of human skin, and the leaves of plants, when highly magnified.

Many adults who went through school prior to the availability of affordable powerful 3-D microscopes have missed out on something truly awesome.

One of the downsides of growing older is that eyesight becomes less acute and we literally stop seeing the little things in their glorious fine detail. We put on glasses to read, but can’t normally be bothered to take them out of their case to look closely at the everyday things which we take for granted.

A cup has some artwork on it. A postage stamp has some kind of design. An insect has an unusual colour and shape. They remain a blur. In any case, there’s no time to look properly, and it’s not as though they’re important. We have more pressing things to attend to. So much passes us by.

Having perfect long sight I take it for granted that I can see the world in general in all its glory. I never stop to think about the children or adults for whom it’s a blur if they don’t have corrective lens or can’t be bothered to wear them. I have a complete lack of empathy with such people, because I’ve never asked myself what it must be like NOT to be able to see the wonders of the world all around - trees, clouds, hillsides, buildings - all of the time, in proper focus.

There’s a new optical telescope orbiting the earth that will enable the human race to observe the universe in unbelievable detail. I can still remember the pictures that were taken with the Hubble telescope when they first became available, after much corrective surgery. The universe is un-be-bloody-lievable!

Radio is a kind of telescope for the ears. Through it we can hear things happening far away, and can be incredulous and amazed by what comes into our lives. The BBC is a kind of hearing aid and telescope combined, feeding the brain with incredible and sometimes awesome, sometimes appalling, information.

Thanks to television and channel FX it’s recently been possible to see, through the combined efforts of some very technically and artistically gifted people, an approximation of what life is like in far-away places like America’s drug-infested ghettos (The Wire) and Iraqi towns and cities (Generation Kill), and the sheer horrific and brutal nature of what went on and still goes on there.

It’s hard to give a damn about something if we don’t really know about it. That’s the reason journalists were ‘embedded’ with troops in Iraq - so that we never got to see or hear what it was really like.

The final episode of Generation Kill showed young troops confronted with the non-attached or detached viewpoint of a journalist through the lens of a collage of images he took on his personal digital camcorder and left with them before he flew home - showing close-ups of the carnage caused by the war. They sat around and cheered at the opening shots of buildings being blasted apart by bombs and rockets. They quietly drifted away when confronted with lingering shots of dead and maimed bodies of civilian adults, and children.


The other day I persuaded my 94-year old aunt to put new batteries in her hearing aids and to insert them in her ears. The sheer joy of having one’s quietly-spoken non-shouted words heard at first utterance! And as for her - “What’s that noise?” The upstairs cistern re-filling. “What’s that ticking?” The kitchen clock.


Desensitised, we cope with the world, but we don’t really see it or hear it. It doesn’t impact on us the way it could, or should.

I read the other day that Gordon Brown tends to watch only sport on television when he wants to relax. That’s relax, as in, switch off from reality. Not for Gordo, then, gritty dramas portraying the reality of other people’s lives. The writer was pointing out that Gordo is unlikely to ever watch any of the collection of films on DVD given to him last week by Barack Obama. I wonder if we can find out which ones he was given . . .


I’m going to make a pitch to the BBC for a programme and a series called Desert Island DVDs. Celebrities and interesting nonentities will be filmed talking about the eight films they would take with them to a desert island.

Which films could we bear to watch more than a couple of times? Surely most films only hold our attention because of our innate desire to find out ‘the ending’? Which films are worth watching when we already know what the ending will be?

That was the amazing thing about the Frost/Nixon film - we already knew how it would end - so how did it manage to be both interesting and exciting? The fact is, we remember roughly how the Frost/Nixon interviews ended, and approximately what happened. We have a hazy and fuzzy recollection. Or some of us do.

The film focuses tightly on the characters and their relationships, and by three quarters of the way through the film it’s still almost impossible to see how on earth Frost can get from a position of absolute defeat and humiliation by Tricky Dicky - a formidable opponent - to a position where Nixon admits to his culpability for the Watergate fiasco and its attempted cover-up. I’ve written elsewhere about what happened to make Frost wake up to the reality of what was going on, and start to focus and work hard at defeating his opponent.

A proper work of art gets beneath the surface of things and lets us see glimpses of the human condition in all its tragedy and majesty. A true artwork is our instrument for looking at things we otherwise overlook and fail to perceive, even when it’s just showing us what true beauty looks like and feels like. Even that perception of beauty or simple truth gives us some insight into the awesome nature of reality, and connects us to metaphysical truths.

If we ever take the time to look closely at the credits for films we notice what an incredible piece of coordinated teamwork a feature film can be. The best films require a lot of genius to make the end product watchable, arresting, entertaining, comprehensible, enlightening and enthralling. Brilliant directors, editors, producers, camera operators, scriptwriters, lighting specialists, scenery makers, actors, location scouts, special effects people, composers and costume makers work together and sometimes produce something magical. The annual film awards pay homage to these people.

But it’s one thing to produce something profound and wonderful - it’s another to want to view it repeatedly on a desert island. Presumably the cast-away would want a mixed diet. Something to provide escapism, something to remind them of home, something to nurture the soul and spirit, something to provide spectacle for the eyes and ears.

I wonder which ones Gordo would choose. He’d maybe just dimly remember a couple he saw back in his youth, before he became a full-time politico. The presenter would have to put a ban on him taking DVDs of great sporting events, repeats of Scotland’s occasional victories at football and rugby. I wonder what Sarah watches while she’s waiting for him to roll home of an evening, or at Chequers at the weekend.

There will no doubt be some wonderful films of the Great Financial Crash of 2008, in years to come. There are probably scripts being written already, with directors already considering who they want to play Gordon Brown and Alistair - Dahling! Who will be Bush and Greenspan and the bank chairmen?


Business ethics, unscrupulousness and under-regulation was big in the Observer yesterday. The paper seemed to major on lap dancing, and its increasing prevalence, even in places like Bournemouth and Newquay, both of which are said to have 4 of these ‘gentlemen’s clubs’. It seems they’re very popular with wealthy young high-spirited bankers, as well as other varieties of saddos and desperate fools who are easily parted with their money, to the tune of around £200 per visit, and £1,000 for a bottle of posh champagne.

Oxzen holds no brief(s) either for or against such ‘businesses’, but he’s very interested in their treatment of their workers, whom the bosses claim are not operating in the sex industry. They also claim they enjoy good protection, good working conditions and high rewards, all of which appears to be less than the truth.

An ex-lap dancer, Nadine Stavonina de Montagnac, (crazy name, crazy gal), wrote a half-page article for the Observer, saying the business was ‘not what it was portrayed to be’. Shock horror. Gosh - really? Who knew?

She has a strange way of expressing herself, as a self-confessed exhibitionist, looking for ‘an exciting life’ and wanting to ‘feel like a superstar’. She says she ‘conditioned herself to think that removing my clothes was a sacrifice worth making to feel special’. Sacrifice? Sacre bleu!

Call me old-fashioned, but I can see how women make sacrifices by working two or three jobs a day and studying for better qualifications in order to better support their families, and I can see how very able and intelligent women make the sacrifice of doing cleaning and shelf-stacking in order not to go on state benefits. But taking your clothes off for the benefit of men who want to ogle women’s bodies, and by doing so ‘feeling like a superstar’ - that’s not a sacrifice!

The serious point here is that these women, like most workers, are exploited, and whilst they make serious money for the bosses and owners, they make little if anything for themselves, unless they’re prepared to make ‘private’ arrangements with the ‘clients’.

What happens is that the ‘dancers’ are ‘self-employed’, and have to pay the clubs for the privilege of plying their trade on the club’s premises. You therefore find situations where there are too many dancers for too few customers, all competing with one another to do £20 dances after paying the club’s owners up to £80 a night for just being there. They also have to perform regular pole dances for free, and they say that some nights they might only get to do one or two lap dances, if any.

The club’s owners are trading on the naivety and gullibility of the performers - a bit like financial advisers and bankers trading on the naivety and gullibility of people who need to invest their money, who are led to believe they’re getting a good deal, and that riches await them. The only ones who actually benefit are the insiders who really know that it’s a pack of lies they’re peddling.

But we already knew all this - Channel 4 showed a documentary on lap dancing last year. It was appalling seeing how the young women were deluded and desperate, and had no come-back against the unscrupulousness of the club owners who knew full well that they were ripping off these pathetic individuals, who were just trying to earn some money and stay solvent.

The problem clearly is lack of regulation by ‘our’ government, so that the exploitation can take place. People are protesting about the effect on their neighbourhoods of having the clubs setting up near where they live - but do they even give a damn about the exploitation that goes on within their unregulated walls? Surely that’s the much bigger issue?

Thanks to Channel 4 and others, the government has known full well what’s been happening to these women, but has it done a damn thing to regulate these practices? Er - NO.


Returning to the subject of radio, and what it can tell us about the wider world to which many of us have no immediate access, Desert Island Discs has been very interesting lately.

The more you listen, the more you realise that most of the third-rate performers and presenters who wash up on the desert island had pretty awful childhoods, suffering from lousy parents and spirit-crushing boarding schools. Of course there are exceptions, like David Walliams recently, who was amusing and chose some excellent music.

More often though, you get people like Brian Rix, who, whilst he’s done wonderful things for Mencap, made his living in the theatre by dropping his trousers. He was sent to a boarding school he hated, and was ‘bullied’ there, and has been dropping his trousers ever since. His choice of music was abysmal. Very troubling.

This week there’s Richard Madeley, a self-madeley man, an extrovert, a show-off, a hyper-competitive self-promoting ‘presenter’ who’s done more or less anything to try to appear talented, interesting and special, short of actually dropping his trousers. Mental and spiritual undressing he’s done plenty of, and his wife’s been known to get at least some of her kit off in public. His choice of music was abysmal.

How could anyone seriously think that something by Sting or The Police is in the top echelons of fabulous music? Some of their songs have been very good pop songs - but would you really want a pop song as one of your choices on the island? Consider the alternatives!

The Police above all bands were about fake blondness and pretty-boy image, not music, as such. Pretty much what Madeley has traded on. Some of his ‘blond’ quotes will haunt him to the end of his days. “So who’s written your autobiography?” Bless.

He did say one thing, though, that’s worthy of note. He’s finally learnt that show business isn’t worth a damn compared with the worth of a good family life, which he’s now focused on having. The boy’s growing up.

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