Saturday, 27 June 2009

The king is dead

It's always a little strange when someone famous dies, especially when it's unexpected. Amid predictable public outpourings of grief - even covering, according to this rather sanctimonious and tabloidesque headline, an entire continent - reactions to Michael Jackson's death on Thursday will undoubtedly provide as much theatre and drama as when he was alive. His star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame has already been turned into a makeshift shrine, complete with obligatory memorabilia sellers and conspiracy theorists.

Interestingly, such public displays of grief provide something of an insight into the deceased's relative fame or popularity - Charlie's Angel actor Farrah Fawcett, who died earlier in the day, has already been largely forgotten despite her full page obituary in The Times and elsewhere. Whilst the 'King of Pop' continues to dominate the headlines - to the exclusion of pretty much everything else - Fawcett is nowhere to be seen.

The same thing happened in 1997. Mother Theresa, Nobel prizewinner and global figure of humanitarian aid, died relatively unnoticed. Why? Because a week earlier the former wife of the heir to the British throne was killed in a car accident in a Paris underpass.

Princess Diana's demise in France was probably the first death of a major public figure I remember, one of those 'I can remember where I was' moments. Even as a sullen teenager I thought the mass outpourings of public grief - and later anger - somewhat strange, creepy even. Lessons were halted at school so we could watch the funeral - live - on the telly before having an 'assembly of remembrance'. The piles of flowers left at Buckingham Palace grew so deep that those at the bottom started to compost. It was a seminal moment - the age of celebrity had surely arrived.

But perhaps I'm being a little harsh. Unexpected deaths of public figures have always provoked strong emotions - look at the likes of John Lennon, James Dean, JFK and Will Rogers. Losing someone to illness or age is sad, but to be expected; the sudden death of an individual, particularly if they are young, will always carry greater impact.

And yet there is something distinctly 21st century that the death of an entertainer - and one that many, even his most ardent fans, would admit was past his best - can be regarded as more important than, say, two terrorist organisations responsible for around 1,000 deaths between them placing their weapons beyond use. There appears to be no real sense of proportion. It's a worrying trend that shows no sign of slowing down soon.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Sign of the times

Talking of the dangers of multilingual signs, this story a while back made me laugh. A roadsign in Swansea directing lorries away from a residential area had an unusual Welsh translation directly underneath:

"I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated".

It transpired that no-one at the local council appeared to have any working knowledge of Welsh. So when the transport department e-mailed the sign's English text to its in-house translation service and received the response in Welsh - the translators obviously not feeling the need to write auto-replies in both languages - they happily assumed it was what they asked for. The error was only spotted - by a member of the public - after the sign had been in place for some time.

Whilst this says something about the inept bureaucracy of local government it also provides a rather profound insight into the dangers of giving languages equal footing with English in areas where they are not widely spoken.

Something similar has occurred in Ireland, where the ultra-nationalism of Éamon de Valera's generation despised the dominance of the oppressor's tongue on the island. So much financial assistance has been granted to the support - and revival - of Irish Gaelic that Irish can be seen on signs and buildings throughout the Republic. And yet there are only around 50,000 Irish speakers of a total population of around 5 million on the island as a whole. As with the SNP and Scots in Scotland, the promotion of Gaelic in Ireland has been hijacked for political means.

Few people would argue that language death is desirable - I wholeheartedly support the allocation of public funds to prevent threatened languages from dying out. But it seems faintly surreal that languages should be subsidised and given equal legal status with English in places where they are not spoken, for little more than dubious political reasons. Perhaps it would be money better spent in areas where the language needs it most.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous tattie...

An interesting article from Sunday's Scotsman, where a war of words has erupted over the language supermarkets use to label their produce:

"The battle for independence has moved into the fruit and veg aisles. A Nationalist politician has written to supermarkets demanding that they translate the English names of fresh produce into their Scots equivalents, such as "tatties", "neeps" and "brambles".

Rather predictably supermarket chains have rubbished the idea, arguing that using a non-standardised dialect - the status of 'Scots' as a language distinct from English is widely debated - could cause considerable confusion and - as is the case in Wales, where bilingual signage is the norm - would be extremely expensive. Other critics have pointed that supermarkets might have other priorities given the current global recession.

But in defending his position SNP MSP Bill Wilson said, "I can't see why they shouldn't use Scots words. For example, nobody uses the word 'blackberry' in Scotland."

Other than the obvious point that standard English is widely spoken in Scotland - mutual intelligibility between the languages spoken in both England and Scotland has always been rather high - and that 'Scots' itself is subject to a high degree of regional variation, it's interesting to note that such a campaign is allied closely with the nationalist cause. In a modern, mutlicultural - and multilingual - United Kingdom there is no reason why it should be. That it is a Scottish nationalist politician, pressing for the 'Scotticisation' of Scotland's retail sector as part of a strategy of emphasising cultural difference and justifying separation, shows that the SNP is not nearly as inclusive as it makes itself out to be. Shame.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The Guardian Development Competition

I've just sent off my entry for this year's Guardian International Development Journalism competition - it's not exactly award winning stuff but as is often the case with these things it's always worth giving it a go. It's a fairly broad brief; write an article - Guardian-style - of around 1,000 words, choosing as a subject anything that fits around one of a dozen or so pre-determined 'themes'. My submission takes a look at whether globalisation is a 'modern' concept or if it is a much older process disguised as a recent phenomenon.

Today's the last day to enter so if you haven't done so already there's always next year...

Friday, 19 June 2009

An oily mess...

The issue of Scottish oil - and whether or not Scotland is actually a drain on the UK economy - is once again in the news. Two reports looking at the role of oil revenues - one by the Scottish Office and one by Scottish Government statistics experts - have painted wildly different pictures of the country's economic performance. The former makes the case that if all North Sea oil revenue had gone to Scotland the country's finances would have been in surplus in only nine of the last 27 years. Government Expenditure and Revenue for Scotland (Gers) figures, however, paint another picture; if Scotland's "geographical" share of oil revenues were put into the equation there would be a surplus of some £219m - if capital expenditure is discounted. Coming hot on the heels of the Calman Commission's recent recommendation that Scottish oil revenues should continue to flow to Westminster, the reports have rather unsurprisingly been either welcomed or rejected by Scottish nationalists and unionists in equal measure.

Now I've always found the oil revenue argument - that "it's Scotland's oil" - to be rather disingenuous; I doubt few nationalists would suddenly switch their political allegiance to the Union if it could be conclusively proved that Scotland gains more financially from membership of the United Kingdom whether it had exclusive access to North Sea oil or not. It's long been apparent that this argument is deployed more to justify pre-held - but less objective - desires for independence than as any real argument for greater economic efficiency. Why do Scottish nationalists, after all, rarely argue for the relinquishing of sovereignty over areas that would prove an economic drain on an independent Scotland, even as it claims the rest of the United Kingdom is already doing so?

What makes me most sad, however, is that the argument for Scottish secession from the UK has been boiled down to a financial numbers game, ignoring over 300 hundred years of mutual co-operation and understanding between the countries of these islands manifested as a successful, modern "nation of nations". I just hope that those calling for independence for Scotland remember that it's a history that has lasted far longer than any fossil fuel source under the sea will.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Voting with their feet...

Worrying news from Iran. The dispute over the outcome of Friday's presidential poll has spilled onto the streets, resulting in the deaths of seven people. Supporters of moderate candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi have contested President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's apparent re-election, alleging widespread fraud. The latest news is that the protests have forced a partial recount.

Many people outside of Iran, myself included, have no great desire in seeing Ahmadinejad restored to power. His constant sabre-rattling and desire to "wipe Israel from the map" are viewed with growing concern by the international community as being both aggressive and inflammatory.

And although it's impossible to say at this stage whether the election has indeed been rigged, it's heartening to see the general population of a country which is ultimately ruled by unelected Shia clerics so ready to take part in - and be ready to defend - the democratic process. Perhaps our own political establishment should take note.

Ultimately, however, the country is not a true democracy. It's possible that the events of the past few days may see the dawn of a new, more democratic Iran. And then again, perhaps not. All we can do is hold our collective breath and wait...

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Free speech or free protest?

An interesting incident today outside the Houses of Parliament, that erstwhile bastion of democratic freedom - including, cynics might add in the light of the ongoing expenses saga, the freedom to fleece the taxpayer.

Recently elected MEP and leader of the far-right British National Party Nick Griffin has been forced to abandon a press conference after a group of protesters, organised by cross-party group Unite Against Fascism, pelted him with eggs and forced him to flee. One protester told the crowd that his message to Mr Griffin was that "wherever you go in this country we will make sure you are welcomed by demonstrations."

Now the vast majority of people's aversion to the policies of the BNP is well known; it is without doubt a racist and morally corrupt organisation. Supporters of first past the post, the system in use for national elections, gleefully point out that Mr Griffin and fellow BNP MEP Andrew Brons owe their promotion to the European Parliament to proportional representation. That their election is primarily due to dissatisfaction with current mainstream political parties and low voter turnout rather than a noticeable swing to the far right is widely understood.

But, hate it or love it, Nick Griffin is a democratically elected political representative. Whilst many may find his views repugnant, he has the right for them to be heard, just as he has the right for these views to be openly debated, rubbished and outed for the racist bile that they are. It's a dangerous and counterproductive precedent when we allow democratically elected individuals to be silenced by mob rule.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Pennies and pounds...

Something I've noticed during my stints working for various shops - including the current weekend grind at a small supermarket - is the general public's resistance to receiving their change in notes issued by any institution other than the Bank of England. I suspect this has less to do with the various complications arising from strict definitions of legal currency and legal tender regarding British banknotes and more to do with unfamiliarity and, in some cases, sheer ignorance. It might surprise some people that, in addition to the Bank of England, there are seven retail banks in the United Kingdom who issue their own notes. Personally I rather like getting a Clydesdale Bank or a Northern Bank note in my change, but that's by the by. Try giving someone one in their change and they'll look at you as if you've just thrown up on them.

What I find rather interesting about the whole banknote debate is how little cross-circulation there is; it's unusual to encounter Scottish and Northern Irish notes in large quantities outside their respective countries. I do wonder if this is just because notes are of a higher value and thus not liable to emulate the cross-border movements of their Euro cousins over in the Continent where it is coins - used for everyday business - that bear marks of their country of origin. Or could it be that, despite forming one nation state, the United Kingdom really is as fractured as those Scottish nationalists who oppose UK Treasury plans to extend legal tender status to Scottish banknotes would have us believe?

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Traffic Wardens

Here's another practice radio package I've been working on, this time on the trials and tribulations of being a traffic warden. The presenter cue is:

"Parking is a notorious source of friction between residents and city councils. So what’s it like to work on the front line? Keith Ruffles reports..."

One world, one religion?

US president Barack Obama is currently doing the rounds in the Middle East, having enjoyed the hospitality of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah yesterday and spending today with the President of Egypt. With his own Islamic ancestry and names Obama is already proving to be a somewhat different proposition to his predecessors in the region.

At the University of Cairo the president has just made a key speech, where he said the "cycle of suspicion and discord" between the United States and the Muslim world must end. He admitted there had been "years of distrust" and said both sides needed to make a "sustained effort... to respect one another and seek common ground". At the end he received a standing ovation.

Now I doubt many people would argue that Obama's efforts to reach a mutual understanding and to promote tolerance between his country, still the major overseas player in the region, and the Middle East, are unwarranted or unnecessary - the anger over the perceived military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are still damaging to US public relations.

But by referring to the Middle East collectively as the 'Islamic world' Obama is ignoring the vast and very real ethnic, cultural and political differences that exist in what is a tremendously fragmented part of the world. Presenting Muslim majority countries as one great homogeneous religious bloc lends credence to the Islamic extremist view of Bin Laden et al that Islam is indeed just that. It most certainly is not.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Singing for freedom

There's something quite surreal about Northern Ireland, how alien it's politics and history can seem when compared to everyday life in the rest of the United Kingdom. In no other part of the country have such diametrically opposed sections of the population taken up arms in the recent past to defend their own political aspirations. So when one of the Province's most famous political representatives says something funny - inadvertently or otherwise - it can be rather refreshing.

So imagine how people tittered when Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams told a Dublin radio show that he and his fellow inmates had sung Monty Python favourite Always Look on the Bright Side of Life to keep up spirits during his time at the Maze prison from 1973 to 1977. Unfortunately the track wasn't recorded until 1979.

One for a future Northern Ireland truth commission methinks...

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Time to choose...

Talking of the European elections, it's looking likely to be one of the most unpredictable political contests to date. Will David Cameron be able to translate healthy ratings in the polls into hard votes? Will Labour's fears of an exit from government at the next general election seem a step closer to reality? And will everyone who hates all politicians in general - and that does seem to be just about everyone at the moment - be voting UKIP and BNP?

The elections will be the largest transnational political exercise in the world, with some 375 million European citizens in 27 countries eligible to vote. It's an excellent rebuttal to those who claim the EU to be a bloated and publicly unaccountable anti-democratic institution, especially when some of those same people choose to stand in said elections. The irony that UKIP's (chief manifesto pledge: "The United Kingdom shall again be governed by laws made to suit its own needs by its own Parliament, which must be directly and solely accountable to the electorate of the UK") current seats in Europe were gained by a system of proportional representation not present at Westminster - where UKIP have no seats thanks to first past the post - surely can't be lost on leader Nigel Farage. Let's just hope his latest MEPs prove far less susceptible to corruption than the last lot. Or then again, perhaps not.

That said, it's a peculiar situation that disaffection with the current political status quo in this country - whether that be resentment over 'expensesgate' or fears over the ongoing recession - could make this election the hardest to call in recent years. Hold on to your seats, folks...