Saturday, 19 December 2009

It pays to be chicken when crossing the road

The van-driver saw me late. So late that as he braked to an emergency stop and I leapt back for my life, I could reach out and touch his wing-mirror.
It was a closer call than I liked, and I think it shook him up a bit too.
I wasn’t jay-walking. I was on a zebra crossing and the green man had told me I could go. The driver, who was very apologetic, simply hadn’t seen the red light.
Probably because he was a stranger in the area and was paying more attention to his sat-nav than to the real world around him.
His view of the lights may also have been obscured by a lorry that had pulled up almost on the crossing. It certainly obscured the van from me, and me from the van, until the nearly fatal last moment.
And why was the lorry there? Because its driver had stopped to make or take a phone call.
Using a phone at the wheel is a scarily common act of madness. And, though illegal, it’s back on the rise, as a recent survey found.
We’ve all seen dreadful driving by drivers whose minds and hands were on their phones instead of on the road and the wheel.
I had to take emergency action the other day to avoid a chap who suddenly veered across lanes while texting. He probably never knew how close he came to a high-speed crash.
The common advice is to stop and pull over if you need to use the phone. But that has its drawbacks too.
That truck at the zebra crossing wasn’t the first time I’ve seen people stopped in silly or dangerous places to have a chat. We’ve all seen numerous examples of that too.
The only sensible thing to do with your phone while driving is to turn it off – or pass it over to a passenger.
The hands-free set is legal, and supposed to be safer than the hand-held mobile. But I worry about the whole culture of in-car phones, sat-nav and entertainment systems.
I fear it’s led drivers to forget they’re in charge of heavy, powerful, fast-moving lumps of deadly metal.
I had to take extra care on the A12 recently to steer round an erratically driven Mercedes 4x4. The woman at the controls was unfolding a large map in front of her as she went.
But even that wasn’t the craziest thing I’ve seen lately.
On the very day the Transport Research Laboratory revealed their latest figures on phone misuse, I was again waiting to cross that same zebra crossing I mentioned.
This time I was taking no chances. Even though the lights were in my favour, I watched the approaching truck rumble past before I stepped off the kerb.
It was moving slowly. Slowly enough for me to see the make of the laptop computer that the driver was using, balanced on his steering-wheel.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Rage Against The X-Factor

NOT being Noddy Holder or Cliff Richard, all I register when I hear Christmas songs tinkling out over shopping streets is mild irritation. Not the happy kerr-ching of ethereal cash registers.
And, frankly, the pop charts have been a matter of indifference to me since some years before Ipswich lifted the FA Cup.
Yet I can’t help thinking it would be a pleasant and amusing change if the punk-funk thump of Rage Against The Machine were to be the soundtrack to this year’s late Christmas trade rush.
The American band’s trademark song Killing In The Name has been around since 1992. It’s long since disappeared from the shelves as a single.
But of course it’s available to download any time from a number of music websites. And there’s a very appealing campaign under way to get you to do just that next week.
The plan is that if enough people do it the track will defy the inevitable by beating the X-Factor winner to the Christmas Number One spot.
I have no idea who is about to become Simon Cowell’s latest cash cow, but it’s a dead cert their karaoke offering will be a feeble trill alongside the uplifting rebelliousness of Rage.
The campaign is not only Rage Against the X-Factor, though that’s a reasonable reaction in itself. It’s also Social Networking versus TV, which could be quite an interesting contest.
As far as I can see, ordinary fans are behind the Rage plan, not some Cowell-like suited executive. But of course their chief promotional tools are Facebook and Twitter.
Personally, I hope they pull it off. And not only because I like Rage’s music (and their politics) rather better than anything ever likely to be aired at prime time on ITV.
I’d like to be a fly on the wall of those TV and radio boardrooms where it’s discussed whether to or not play the Christmas chart-topper.
And if they do, whether to cover it in bleeps or fade it out early. Which would be a shame.
It’s a pity Susan Boyle hasn’t been persuaded to cover anything by The Sex Pistols or The Dead Kennedys. Her take on Let’s Lynch The Landlord or Anarchy In The UK (which, incidentally, is a lot less anarchic than Killing In The Name) would surely have been pure Christmas gold.
In the absence of that, I’m rooting for Rage to hit the festive jackpot.
But isn’t there just a shred of irony in being told to go out (or, rather, stay in) and buy a track whose most notable and repeated lyric is a forthright refusal to “do what you tell me”?
Or, indeed, as the (no) pressure group’s neat slogan has it: “Fuck you, I won’t buy what you sell me.”

The curious incident of the deer in the night-time

THE barking in the night was insistent, faintly mysterious, almost haunting.
It seemed to come from somewhere among the town streets, then in the wood behind the house, where it was answered by another bark. An almost identical sound, to human ears at least.
For a time the two voices seemed to echo each other, speaking to one another. And then together they moved away, leaving the night to the owls.
It was a very distinctive bark. One I’d heard before when lying awake, as now.
What creature was it? Not a dog – if it had been, mine would have been yelling his head off in affronted response. And not at all the same tone as a fox either.
From somewhere the words “barking deer” came into my half-asleep brain. And from there it became a quick and simple matter to identify the sound the next morning, thanks to the wonders of the internet.
To hear what I heard in the night, visit, click on his Sound Diary 2008 and look for the muntjac.
Even as an audio file the barking deer makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. But what a wonderful illustration of the fact that even in town we share our world with the wild things.
The muntjac is only here because people brought it here from China. But since escaping from Woburn Park in Bedfordshire in about 1925, it has done very well all across southern England.
Numbers are increasing apace. I’ve caught occasional glimpses of the little deer among the trees in Rendlesham Forest.
On one memorable occasion I stood and watched one watching me for a good minute or two in the woods near Dunwich. Only as I raised my camera did it disappear like smoke, as if it had never been.
But I didn’t realise until now how often I’d heard muntjacs calling. Or how close to my home they make theirs.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Dubai to all that?

DUBAI. Undoubtedly one of the most fascinating places on the planet. And for all the same reasons one of the most repugnant.
Ten years ago, if you’d even heard of the place you probably wouldn’t have been able to place it on the map. You’d almost certainly have had no image of it in your mind’s eye.
The shiny high-rise city centre, the extravagant, spectacular skyscrapers, the world’s glitziest marina were not there then.
Today they stand for modernity as Manhattan once did. But if the towers of Manhattan in the 1920s were the summit of capitalism triumphant, those of Dubai in 2009 are the pinnacle of its decadence.
At 2,684ft, the Burj Dubai is – of course – the world’s highest man-made structure.
It’s not beautiful, or even particularly striking to look at, unlike some of those it dwarfs around it. Just big. Full of look-at-me arrogance. Merely show-off rich.
The perfect symbol, in fact, of all that modern Dubai represents. Right down to the huge number of immigrant workers who have built it.
And the grim poverty and dire working conditions in which they’ve done it.
For that’s what Dubai is really about. Not just the fabulous new wealth that has attracted pop stars, top tennis and motor-racing events, but the bitter exploitation that has made it all possible.
When Pink, whose songs reveal a real social conscience, played in Dubai, I wonder what thought she gave to the thousands of the city’s inhabitants who couldn’t have afforded a ticket if they’d saved for a year.
And was Elton John’s concert there a flag flown against the repression of homosexuality? Or was it about the money?
The theory of evolution is considered taboo in Dubai. Strange, considering how quickly and dramatically the city state itself has evolved.
Alcohol is also taboo there. Officially. Which is also odd in a place recently dubbed partying capital of the world.
Of course, it’s not the locals doing the partying. And it’s not most of the resident immigrants, either, who account for 84 per cent of the population.
Some of those have been drawn there by the opportunities for fast living, fast cars and glamour. Some no doubt have been satisfied by all that.
But most have been drawn there, predominantly from south Asia, by the promise of an escape from poverty. And found themselves in a worse poverty trap than they have left.
A mostly male world of long working hours, nights on crowded floors and little prospect of ever earning enough for the flight home.
While around the corner a patch of desert is watered to host the world’s richest golf tournament.
What was the European Order of Merit has become the Race to Dubai. Which just about says it all.
What was a noble sport has become an undignified scramble for dosh.
And talking of noble sports… Though you won’t yet find Dubai, or anywhere near it, among the world’s Test-playing nations, the International Cricket Council has moved there from London.
Horse-racing and heavy metal have sprung up there. It’s a place where Kylie Minogue, The Jonas Brothers and investment banking all belong in the same sentence.
Where the fabulously rich and wealthy gather – in flagrant disregard for the city’s Muslim traditions – to be fabulously decadent.
Decadence. Defined in my dictionary as “moral degeneration or decay”. Often considered to be what ushered in the fall of the Roman empire.
Or, from Wikipedia: “Decadent societies are often prosperous but usually have severe social and economic inequality, to such a degree that the upper class becomes either complacent or greedy, while the lower classes become hopeless and apathetic.”
Which sounds like Dubai, except that it’s not all home-grown. This small spot on the Arabian peninsula has become a magnet for the greedy upper and hopeless lower classes of a wider world.
A desert meeting-point of rich West and poor East. A place with no more obvious reason to exist than Las Vegas.
Both are frontier gambling towns. Where Vegas is built on roulette wheels and slot-machines, Dubai places its chips on the world’s stock exchanges.
It’s tempting to see Dubai’s decadence as a focus of capitalism’s dying throes.
And those glittering towers are certainly a crystalline encrustation of the world’s banking system, now tottering.
But it’s more complicated than that. Because Dubai, where much of the wealth and all of the law-making are in the hands of one family, is the place where capitalism meets feudalism.
Those workers existing in medieval poverty are living in a medieval system.
In their way, Dubai’s towers are like the cathedrals and mosques of the medieval world. Except that they stand to the glory not of God or Allah but of Mammon.
The colossal Burj Dubai is due to be officially opened a month from today. Not great timing, as it turns out.
I can’t find it in me to be sorry about the imminent collapse of the Dubai economy – though I fear for the trapped migrant workers.
What the effects of the giant’s fall will be everywhere else may be another matter.