Tuesday, 21 April 2009

New (and old) poems online

Departing from the usual, this is not a newspaper column, but a piece of shameless self-promotion: new poems of mine have appeared online in both Stride and Shadowtrain - and now in Great Works too; at the same time I've just put PDFs of much of my earlier poetry up on my own site.
You can find all these things by clicking on the links in the righthand column - or here:

Great Works



The News Pages etc (poems 1978-85)

You can also find a splendid (and very kind) appreciation of my long-ago editing of the sadly shortlived mag Molly Bloom on Alan Baker's excellent Litterbug blog.

OK, chest-beating over. For now :-)

Saturday, 18 April 2009

No more Sex, Death on the wane

IT was, by any standards, one of the great Test matches. Four blistering August days in the long hot summer of 1976 and a line-up of all-time greats on both sides.
Even the umpires, Bill Alley and Dickie Bird, have a kind of legendary status.
England opener Dennis Amiss, returning to the international scene at age 34, made a double-century – and still ended up losing. On the other side Viv Richards, ten years younger and with most of his greatness yet to come, struck a mighty 291.
It contributed to a huge West Indies first-innings total of 687 for eight declared. Having made a respectable 435 in reply, England ended up being asked to repeat exactly that score to win.
They fell short by 232 runs as Michael Holding returned the astonishing match figures of 14 wickets for 149. And all with a day to spare.
And why is that amazing game of cricket chiefly remembered? Not for any of those feats I’ve just listed, but for one moment of radio commentary.
Brian Johnston may have remarked: “The bowler’s Roberts, the batsman’s Knott.” If he did it might have been mildly amusing, but no one would have remembered for more than a minute.
But with Holding bowling to Peter Willey, Johnners’s comment became an instant classic. (Willey, curiously, was the only England batsman in that Oval Test not to lose his wicket to Holding.)
Names can be such a source of amusement. A source which may be under threat if we are to believe a very odd report by Richard Webber of King’s College, London.
For his survey, Webber compared data from 2008 with the British census of 1881. And he found that the instances of people with “amusing names” had fallen by up to 75 per cent.
And if it’s OK for a geography professor to play around with funny names, it’s good enough for me.
Apparently there were just 785 people in Britain last year called Cock, as against 3,211 in 1881. The number of people called Balls fell in that period from 2,904 to 1,299.
The number of people named Smellie decreased by 70 per cent, Dafts by 51pc, Gotobeds by 42pc, Shufflebottoms by 40pc and Cockshotts by 34pc.
Best of all, you might think, the number of Deaths fell by almost half. And all that in a period when the population of Britain roughly doubled…
Professor Webber doesn’t mention it, but I’m pretty sure the surname Sex disappeared completely during that time.
So what happened to all the Smellies, Cocks – and Sexes? Were they more likely than the rest of us to meet Death? Or less likely to breed?
There may, I suppose, be a slight element of the latter, which I’ll come to in a moment. But really, Webber seems to be stating the obvious when he explains: “If the number goes down it’s either because they changed their names or they emigrated.
“In many cases, people probably changed their surnames as they came to be regarded as in bad taste.”
Which, I believe, is why the last Mr Sex resorted to Deed Poll.
Back in about 1900, Mr and Mrs Bottom of Durham obviously felt they couldn’t do anything about their name – but did they really have to call their daughter Ophelia?
The poor girl got stuck with it too – she was a spinster of about 80 when I encountered her. And I couldn’t help wondering whether she’d have grown up differently, perhaps had more luck finding a husband, if she’d been plain Jane Smith. Or even Jane Bottom.
We all know of people whose names provoke a laugh. And they don’t have to be the obvious Ivors or Ivans.
Hazel is a lovely name for a girl. Unless your surname happens to be Knutt.
What could possibly be wrong with the name Jenny? Or Taylor? But put them together and some wiseacre is sure to corrupt it to ‘genitalia’ – as an old friend of mine found to her constant annoyance when she was at school.
You could draw the moral that you can’t be too careful when choosing names. Or maybe that kids will find something to pick on whatever you do.
My experience as a writer of sports headlines for the News of the World tells me that you can make some sort of pun out of almost any name. And if you can make a rude one, you can be sure some schoolkid has beaten you to it.
In some ways, I found the obvious “jokes” on my surname that followed me around at school a relief from the unkinder personal comments that provoked other nicknames. (No, I’m not going to tell you what they were.)
I don’t know whether my friends Dykes, Huggins and Haw felt the same. Or Peter Willey.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Google knows what you're up to

“LOOK, look, that bloke on the bike – I’ve got an anorak that colour, and a saddlebag like that – do you think it’s me?”
Well yes, Mark, it might be.
“And look, that’s my house. And there’s my neighbour’s car. And there’s my broken bit of drainpipe. But I fixed that ages ago, so they must have taken the picture last summer.”
Well yes, that’ll be why the trees are all in leaf and the chestnuts in blossom. And frankly, I don’t care much, beyond the mild interest of seeing what sort of street you live in.
This was a genuine conversation – one of a few like that I’ve already witnessed or taken part in. I reckon there must have been many thousands of them taking place in offices all up and down the land these past few weeks.
Even in places such as Ipswich, where the camera cars have been seen but the pics aren’t up yet, the chatrooms and messageboards have been full of it. Google must be delighted with their investment.
For now. How long, I wonder, before the novelty of Street View wears off?
Google Maps are great. The ability to hover over satellite pictures of almost anywhere on Earth, with identifying labels if you want, is fun and can be useful.
Finding somewhere on a map, then zooming in on a single street, a single house, in photo view, has helped me a few times to find my way.
And there are some brilliant surprises. Like being able to peer down, in remarkable detail, on the eerily deserted streets and buildings of Chernobyl.
Or getting a close view of the so-called Boneyard in Tucson, Arizona, where more than 4,000 out-of-service US military aircraft are mothballed in case they’re ever needed again. Close enough to clearly identify each plane.
Not that there is any spying potential in this. The online photos are not exactly a live view. The Tucson golf course where Aussie Geoff Ogilvy won the recent World Matchplay title still appears as a patch of desert scrub.
And I’m not sure there’s really much spying potential, either, in the new generation, Street View.
A bit of mild passing fun, perhaps, in spotting yourself on your bike. And maybe a tiny embarrassment potential for the cheating wife or husband caught where they shouldn’t be.
But, realistically, your chances of being spotted “in the flesh” are vastly greater than any risk of being caught months later when Google gets its snaps online.
No, I wouldn’t worry too much – or get too excited – about down-your-street Googling. Its very openness prevents it being much danger to anyone.
I’m much more concerned about the CCTV cameras that track our every move in real time – without us ever getting to see what they see.
And, incidentally, the rights of ordinary folk like me who are apt to be hounded by security guards, or even the police, if we merely turn up on the street with a camera.
But technology does pose very serious risks to our liberty and privacy.
The government’s hare-brained ID cards scheme; its bid to copy all our emails; its computerised tracking of car registration-plates via “safety” cameras; its burgeoning databases of everything from our tax records to our DNA. It all adds up to an array of state snooping the Soviets could only dream of.
And then there’s Google. Once just a nifty search engine, it’s now bigger than most governments. And potentially even better informed.
Most of us make use of some of its services. So it can tell what web pages we look at, how often and for how long.
It can tell what we buy – what books and records we like, what services we subscribe to. All, of course, in the aim of targeting you with the right advertising. Which you may regard as a good thing, at least in part.
But you can tell quite a bit about someone’s political views, for example, from knowing the books they read. They might know, if they care to look, that I recently re-read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
And then if you use Google as your diary… your roaming email service… to post your private thoughts in a blog… to store your family photos, maybe your private documents…
It can now even track your movements – or at least the movements of your mobile phone. If you want it to. Or, perhaps, if government or security services want it to?
That may not happen now. But it can, so it will.
And of course Google now knows what maps you look at, which streets you choose to take a virtual walk down.
OK, Google “takes your security seriously”. It should. Its whole enormous business depends on being trusted.
And let’s face it, we love it. But can we guarantee it will always deserve our love?
Because all that information could add up to an awful lot of power for whoever gets their hands on it.
And remember – Winston Smith ended up loving Big Brother.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

UN-justified attack on my human rights

UNWIELDY, certainly. Ineffective, often. But always, surely, on the side of the good guys. In fact, the United Nations ARE the good guys. Aren't they?
The UN was set up right after the Second World War to ensure such a thing never happened again.
Its 192 member countries include every generally recognised independent state in the world apart from (bizarrely perhaps) the Vatican.
You might think a club of which everybody is a member (well, OK, everyone except the Pope) might be a pretty useless club.
And certainly the UN has never succeeded in its glorious stated aim of stopping war. In its 64-year history so far there has not been a single day when someone hasn’t been at war somewhere.
Indeed, the country where the UN has its HQ (the USA, of course) has been involved in more wars in that time than most – though never on its own soil.
But still, there has not (yet) been another "big one", another World War. For which the UN may perhaps take some of the credit. (And let's conveniently forget here, as most people usually do, that the two Congo wars of 1996-2003 involved eight countries and killed 5.4million people. That's pretty big, and despite the official end six years ago the fighting and dying are still going on.)
The UN, though, has things other than war on its agenda too.
There’s the Economic and Social Council, the International Court of Justice, the World Health Organisation, the UN Environment Programme and the Food Programme. Big, important stuff.
And then there’s the UN Human Rights Council. That's surely pretty important too.
Of course, the countries that torture their citizens - and sometimes each others’ - that deny women equal legal status to men, that carry out legal murder by injection, electric chair or stoning, are all UN members.
But at least the Human Rights Council is working on that. Isn't it?
Actually, what the HRC was working on last week was freedom of speech. Not guaranteeing it. Not even encouraging it. Trying to stop it. As it does routinely, year after year.
The council's 47 elected member states voted by 23 to 11, with 13 abstentions, to urge all countries in the world to pass laws making "defamation of religion" illegal.
If they got their way, I might never again be allowed to assert my non-belief in God.
It could be a serious problem for astronomers, particle physicists, geneticists, geologists and others whose discoveries conflict with old Bible tales.
Followed to its logical conclusion, it could plunge the world into a 1984, Big Brother scenario. If the truth conflicts with the official fantasy, it's the fantasy that's right – the truth is not just wrong, but illegal. This column would certainly be illegal.
Of course, I'm not expecting such a law to be passed. Not all over the world. Not here in Britain (though some of the Blair government's madder excesses weren't that far from it).
But the very fact that such a resolution was passed by a UN council gives dangerous international "authority" to those madcap governments that do want to squash all opposition to their particular religious lunacies.
Condemnation of the resolution has come from many quarters including the World Jewish Congress and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church – neither of them noted for their opposition to religion. Still more honourable are the protests lodged by the American Islamic Congress and the Muslim Council of Canada.
Honourable because the motion was put by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. And while on the surface it sets out to protect all religions from criticism, the wording goes on to make it quite clear what they really mean.
It says: "Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism."
Yes, it frequently is – often wrongly. But not always wrongly. And this is a case in point.
Because what we have here is the Human Rights Council voting to try to take away my human rights. On behalf of the world's most powerful Muslims.