September 13, 2013

My problem with No More Page 3

Or How you can support a cause while attacking the motives
Or Fuck I love boobs though

I’ve had about five different discussions with people about No More Page 3 in the last month, and inevitably I’m always on that strange third side of the argument that neither of two main sides agree with.

“I wrote some time ago” about why I have a problem with Page 3, and you can read that but to summarise: having a daily, set, traditional place in a national paper where women are objectified and lightly mocked isn’t on. So I support the goals of No More Page 3. But I sure do have a problem with their motives.

If we lived in an ideal world, it’d be fine to have both naked men and women in our newspapers, there for us to enjoy having fun looking at their hot bodies. But we don’t. We live in a world, – hell, a country – where sexism is still rife, where misogyny is common, where rape is still depressingly commonplace. Page 3 is a symptom, not a cause, but since we’re still decades away from sorting out the cause we might as well tackle the symptoms. And one of those is a national paper maintaining a tradition of objectifying and belittling a woman on Page 3 every day.

Now, the way much of the press treat women is pretty awful, and most people I’ve spoken to tend to agree that things like the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame full of voyeuristic bikini and upskirt shots of female celebrities is far worse than Page 3. But Page 3, because it has this weird status as a British institution is a really easy and obvious target. It’ll help get people on board, it’s a great first step, and that’s why No More Page 3 is targeting Page 3 of The Sun and not, for example, whichever page happens to have Jeremy Clarkeson’s latest woman-hating rant on it. That’s why they’re targeting Page 3. Not because of something silly like nipples. So I thought.

Then something interesting happened. The Irish Sun dropped Page 3 . Except it didn’t really. It agreed not to print topless women on it any more. It was replacing them with “shots of women in swimwear”. So this is when I got excited [oh grow up]. This was it. This was when No More Page 3 were going shout from the rooftops about how the Irish Sun had totally missed the point. That the problem wasn’t with nipples, the problem was in having a page in their national paper which every day objectified and mocked a woman. And that they hadn’t changed that at all. And that a woman was no less objectified if she was in a tiny bikini, for men to lust over, than if she wasn’t wearing a bikini at all. That the problem wasn’t nudity, the problem was the casual, daily, inappropriate objectification of women.

Their actual response? “We think this is a huge step in the right direction and we thank the editor, Paul Clarkson, for taking the lead in the dismantling of a sexist institution like page 3. We are hoping that the UK Sun will follow suit and ultimately hope for an end to all objectifying images and a truly equal representation of women within the British press.”

Huh? No! It wasn’t a step in the right direction at all. It’s a step in the right direction if your final destination is “women in newspapers should be covered up”. It’s not a step in the right direction if that final destination is “women shouldn’t be objectified in the national press”. It’s a step sideways at best. A step in the right direction would be taking the smarmy comments out of the captions. A step in the right direction would be running Page 3 two days a week instead of five. A step in the right direction is not hiding the nipples. For that to work you have believe that a woman is somehow more objectified or demeaned if she’s displaying all her boobs for the pleasure of men rather than just most of her boobs. And that sort of thinking is entirely incompatible with any sort of sex-positive view of the world.

The signs were there of course, I’d just chosen to ignore them. In multiple places the campaign called Page 3 ‘pornography’ which is technically correct it seems. The line between sexy and pornographic is apparently nipples. But it’s a powerful word because if you say “what if kids see boobs in The Sun?” people will just laugh, because most of us don’t see that as a big deal. But if you say “what if kids see pornography?” it sounds so much more wrong.

And of course, the petition that kicked this whole thing off only talks about dropping the naked breasts. Nothing else. Not a single mention of objectification. Just an objection to boobs.

That’s my problem with the campaign. And I know lots of my friends and other people support the campaign because they’re after the end result, and they broadly agree with me. And the campaign has traction now and might actually do some good so I won’t criticise too much.

But when it comes to the people running the campaign, for them this is not primarily a campaign against objectification. It’s a campaign against nudity. I don’t know why. I don’t think they’re a bunch of crazy Mary Whitehouse-ite fanatics that despise sex and nudity. But somehow they saw getting women to cover up on Page 3 a win. And it worries me because this notion that the less clothes a woman is wearing, the more objectified she is seems to run very, very close to certain misogynist bullshit spouted about the morals of women that go out in skimpy outfits.

So that’s why I’m just a little bit cautious about these folk. And why when I see friends openly supporting them on social media or whatever I tend to offer a gentle nudge to be sure the stuff they’re linking to is actually what they think and that they’ve given some thought as to why they have a problem with Page 3, and if it really is the same problem that the campaign does.

Edit: it appears that since my last blog on the subject The Sun has dropped the “News in briefs” – the bit where they sarcastically mock the intelligence of the model. Unlike the removal of the nipples from the Irish Sun, No More Page 3 has neither commented on this change or called it a “step in the right direction”.

The old Left, The new Left, Billy Bragg and practical activism

There was an interesting moment in the Leftfield tent at Glastonbury this year, the ‘beating heart of the festival’ where they mix music with political talks and generally have a good time while pushing a solid message.

Billy Bragg curates the whole thing, and he was on stage and talking about the sad passing of anti-nuclear activist Crispin Aubrey, someone who had been heavily involved in the festival since the very start. It went something like this:

“He was a huge campaigner against the proliferation of nuclear armaments around the world”

Huge cheers from the crowd.

“And he campaigned against the expansion of nuclear power in the UK”

A few people cheer. Mostly an awkward silence.

In the UK right now, there’s a new Left. But they’re a Left born out of practicality, rather that principal. We know nuclear power isn’t great, but we also know that the previous generations ignored renewables while gorging themselves on coal and oil, and that it’s now just too late for a renewables-only approach. Or a nuclear-only approach. We’re quite aware that we’re screwed unless we get both of them sorted pretty sharpish. That’s the only feasible option on the table. In our hearts we’d love to run the country on solar and wind but we’ve yet to see a concrete, workable proposal on how that can be done with the timescale we have right now.

And so this week the privatisation of the Royal Mail has been in the news. Here is the Billy Hayes article being bandied about by the likes of Billy Bragg and the rest of the old Left.

Standfirst: “Privatising Royal Mail will destroy a cherished institution. The Labour party must commit to renationalise it”

First paragraph: “So the government is pressing ahead with flogging off our national assets. This time it’s Royal Mail, one of the country’s oldest and most cherished institutions, and which a Sunday Times poll last weekend showed 70% of the public don’t want privatised. What a disgraceful betrayal of the British public.”

You can read the rest if you want but short of small mention of working conditions, it’s more of a same. It’s philosophical, ideological arguments with no talk of the actual practical implications. And ideologically, I’m on board. I’d rather our infrastructure be owned by us than by the government. Practically, I just don’t care. We’re of a generation that sees posting letters as an anachronistic luxury. We’re of a generation who find it hilarious that the Royal Mail are struggling when they insist on delivery to every house in the country six days a week. Because if something is urgent we call, text or email someone. If important documents need sending, we use Special Delivery which needs to be taken to the post office, paid a fiver for, and uses mostly different infrastructure anyway. If regular first class post was dropped to three times a week, we wouldn’t notice. If it was reduced to once a week, we wouldn’t mind. And before anyone tells me we have to protect the poorest in society, you can get a cheap mobile phone for less than a book of 12 first class stamps.

And yes, some of the older generation still like to send letters and it’d be nice to keep doing that. But at some point the postal service, as it is right now, really did move from necessity to luxury. We’d rather have it than not, but there are far more important things to worry about. And when you look around the internet you find the likes of Laurie Penny quiet on the issue, while angry people call up Radio 2 phone-ins to complain about it.

Yet it’s interesting, isn’t it, that the media and the press are all over this Royal Mail privatisation story. Yet they were eerily quiet about the backdoor privatisation of the NHS. Apparently the right of everyone to send and receive letters is more important than the right of everyone to be treated for deadly illnesses.

Back at Glastonbury Billy Bragg is complaining. Apparently people keep asking him “why aren’t there as many political bands as there were in the 60s and 80s?” and apparently the answer is, “It’s people first. If young people go out there and start marching then people will start writing songs about what you’re aspiring to. It doesn’t work the other way around. Martin Luther King didn’t march on Washington because Bob Dylan wrote The Times They Are A Changin’, it’s the other way around.”

It’s a cute soundbite, but shows how out of touch the Old Left really are. In the 60s and the 80s marching was very much the only platform, the only way to make a noise and get heard. There’s not as much of that as there used to be, but now there’s the internet. Activism is no longer limited geography and physical possibility. There are 100s of leftist blogs that have a huge audience and are a great platform for our views. I genuinely don’t think that left wing activism has ever been so strong in our history. But the likes of Bragg don’t get that. We’re not marching, so it must be in decline. We’re making our points with social media because we can’t be bothered to march.

He doesn’t get it. Most of them don’t. We’re doing things different, better, to how they did things and they don’t understand that. They want to save the Royal Mail, not for practical reasons, but because it’s a British Institution. They want us to march, not tweet, because it creates a greater spectacle, not because it reaches more people. They want to achieve the same things they’ve always wanted to achieve despite the world moving on without them

And if you’re of Bragg’s generation, that’s an easy thing to do. You get to campaign against nuclear power from an idealistic standpoint because by the time the oil runs out, you’ll be dead. Meanwhile our generation are staring down the barrel of a gun, worrying less about creating some wonderful utopian society and more about just ensuring we have any sort of fair and workable society in fifty years’ time.

We don’t have the luxury of their ideology. We’re the realists of the Left. And we’re trying to make sure our generation isn’t utterly fucked.

August 25, 2013

The Frank Turner arena tour and the changing nature of a live show

So today Frank Turner announced a UK tour. Of arena venues. And despite being my favourite act to see live over the past five years, I find myself not being not desperately excited about getting tickets. But bear with me, this isn’t a venue-size/popularity thing. There’s something more going on that I’m trying to figure out.

It started at the last Frank Turner gig I went to, when for the first time in about ten gigs, a mosh-pit formed, right in front of me. Which is fine. Not my sort of thing – I like a bit of a dance but throwing myself into other people doesn’t really do it for me. It’s also a bit annoying when it forms right in front of you as you can’t ignore it (without risking becoming part of it) but you can just move. You get a worse view maybe but it’s not my place to tell people how they should be enjoying the music they all paid to come and see too. Hell, I was one of the annoying kids jumping around to James in 2001 while the fans from 1991 looked on mildly perturbed.

But then, towards the end of the set, he played I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous, for the fans who had been with him for a long time. And I realised something interesting: you can’t mosh to Prufrock.

The first time I saw Frank live, he spent as much time on stage playing solo as he did with a band. As the shows have gotten bigger that’s mostly vanished and the band and setlist louder and rockier. And less of something I want to see.

Now I’m happy for artists to change and evolve, and I don’t expect or even want them to cater for me at the expense of doing what they want to do. But one does get a feeling of losing something. Had my last Frank Turner show been my first, I probably wouldn’t have gone back. I’d have accepted it as “not really for me” and moved on. But when you’ve enjoyed it previously and seen it change, you feel your missing out a bit. Ironic in the case of Frank Turner as I’m sure there’s a ton of Million Dead fans that felt let down when he first picked up an acoustic guitar.

But what I do wonder is how much of this change is down to Frank, and how much is down to a perceived necessity to do things this way in order to play larger venues and to cater to a crowd that want to mosh themselves silly. Indeed, the latest album, Tape Deck Heart, is possibly the slowest and most restrained album yet. Which is perhaps why only two or three songs from it have been regularly making the live setlist.

This isn’t a solo versus band thing either. The full band versions of St. Christopher is Coming Home, Journey of the Magi and Father’s Day are hauntingly beautiful in a way that can’t be done solo, but generally absent from the set in favour of the faster, rockier numbers. And even within the same songs, the live arrangements are getting less and less on the folk end of the scale and moving further to the punk/rock end.

I’m trying very hard not to sound like too much of a cock in writing this, as I’m very aware it could easily be seen as just whining that an artist isn’t do what I want him to do.

But my point is more that there’s been a fundamental change in how Frank performs live as he’s moved to larger venues, and that’s why I might give the next tour a pass. He’s still one of my favourite singer-songwriters ever, and I’ll continue to get very excited about new album launches and so on, but perhaps the live show just isn’t for me any more. Or perhaps I’m just getting old.

August 05, 2013

Edinburgh Fringe 2013 picks for Londoners

Or The Edinburgh Fringe 2013 guide for people that live in London and are going to Edinburgh and want to see acts that aren’t the same people they see in London all year round

My social life, and hence the comedy I see, is split about 50/50 between the Midlands and London, and while many performers cross over between the two, there are plenty of London acts that I never see anywhere outside of London, and plenty of acts from around the rest of the country that rarely perform in London.

Edinburgh, of course, is where these two groups collide. So rather than write up regular Fringe recommendations, this is a list for Londoners traveling up to Edinburgh that want to see great acts that the rest of the country know are great, but that aren’t on in London all the time. We all know you’re going to go see Simon Munnery and James Acaster and John-Luke Roberts and Tony Law regardless, even though they did ten previews in London and will be performing the show there later in the year anyway.

A few caveats: there are some great Midlands-based acts that aren’t on this list purely because they perform in London so much that you’ve heard of them already: the likes of Gary Delaney, Joe Lycett and such. There’s also bound to be some people I’ve forgotten, sorry! It’s also entirely coincidental that most of these shows are free, and only one costs more than a tenner even on weekends. But it might mean something.

Paul Savage – Cheerful Shambles
Dragonfly, 16:20, Free

I’ve seen Paul go from completely new act to seasoned professional over many years, and this is his first solo Edinburgh hour and well worth catching. Upbeat, friendly, relatable – and very funny. It’s on at just the right time of day too for some fun light-hearted jokes and observations. He’s an act that continues to get better and better so this straight-forward, unpretentious stand-up show is a great way to fill that awkward 4pm gap in your afternoon schedule.

You can also see Paul in another show – The 3rd Annual Free Tea And Biscuits Show, The Speakeasy, 12:05, Free with the wonderful Aaron Twitchen, another of my favourite Midlands acts, and some great guest headliners along with the inevitable free tea and biscuits.

Joke Thieves
Laughing Horse @ Espionage, 22:00, Free

This is Will Mars’ new concept comedy night and is already consistently selling out. The premise is simple: the first half of the show comics perform five minute sets. In the second half, they perform the set of the act that was on before them.

The brilliance of this will lie in watching different comics subvert and mess with a wonderfully simple formula to create the sort of one-off comedy moments you just won’t get anywhere else. And for a comedy nerd it’s like a dream come true. This is the one thing I’m most gutted to be missing seeing in Edinburgh this year but fingers crossed I can bring it to Leamington at some point.

Will also has a great solo show (Will Mars: Americana, Laughing Horse @ Meadow Bar, 19:30, Free) that I very much recommend. You’ll probably be offended by it, but that’s kinda what I like about it – there’s a dark nihilism to it where Will comes across a bit like a passive-aggressive Jerry Sadowitz. It’s funny, but if you’re a comedy geek you’ll have fun after the show deconstructing why certain bits rubbed you the wrong way.

Tom Binns Does Ivan Brackenbury and Others
Heroes @ The Hive, 21:00, Free

Tom is bringing the wonderful Ian D Montfort to the Fringe elsewhere (Pleasance Courtyard, 18:40, £11.50-£14.50) and if you’ve not already seen that character or heard him on Radio 2 you really really should. But more excitingly this year there’s a free show featuring best of Ivan Brackenbury (his old Perrier-nominated hospital radio DJ character) plus a first look at some of the new stuff he’s working on.

The new stuff is more what you might consider ‘traditional’ stand-up, but Tom still brings a unique twist to it. Given that the last two things Tom did in the comedy world have been major hits, this is a great chance to see the start of something new. Plus most of the show is Ivan Brackenbury and if you weren’t around six years ago when he was a big deal then getting to see it for free this year is a no-brainer.

Sally Anne Hayward – Hey Follower!
The Stand Comedy Club II, 16:50, £7-£8

Sally is a fantastic comic who has been doing the Fringe for a long time and is, frankly, brilliant at it. There’s some wonderful material in her new show and she should be far more popular than she is. Friendly, laid-back and probably the most traditional show I’m recommending here but dammit sometimes you just need a good solid hour of funny stories and jokes.

Diane Spencer: Hurricane Diane
Gilded Balloon Teviot, 17:45, £8 – £9.50

High-energy, over-the-top, ridiculous, somewhat filthy, storytelling. At one point I wasn’t sure how much of Diane’s stories to believe, but then she posted photographic evidence on Twitter and it turns out her life is genuinely that weird.

She’s actually my new go-to response for when idiots tell me “women comedians aren’t funny” (because apparently Sarah Millican “doesn’t count” now) – and if you’re not sure all three of her previous shows are up on YouTube in their entirety (and legitimately) so why not find out how right I am.

James Cook: Adventures On Air
Laughing Horse @ Jekyll & Hyde, 21:00 (18-25 only), Free

I’m fairly sure this is James’ first full-length solo stand-up show in Edinburgh (being a follow-up to last year’s fictional outing, Beatrice’s Fortnight at The Frozen Ballroom) which is utterly ridiculous. He’s one of the best stand-ups I’ve ever seen with the pacing and timing of someone who’s been doing this twice as long as he has. The way he can control an audience is astounding. If you’re in Edinburgh the one week this is on you have to go.

James is also part of a second show – Assemble: The Lovely Men, Laughing Horse @ Jekyll & Hyde, 21:00 (5-17 only), Free – a four-man sketch show that I haven’t seen so can’t outright recommend, but I’m sure will be brilliant. And lovely. And have men in it. And sketches.

Owen Niblock – Calculating Comedy
Ryan’s Bar, 1.15pm, Free

You know that feeling you get sometimes in Edinburgh? That you’re having a lot of fun but you’d also like to learn a bit about computational humour and AI while laughing at some point?

Shows combining comedy and science are all the rage these days (especially down in that London) but Owen has been doing this sort of stuff before Robin Ince made it ‘cool’. He doesn’t just talk about computational humour, he a computer science graduate with a genuine robotic double-act partner.

This is pretty much the ultimate science nerd show. At one point he even puts the source code up on the projector.

Owen also has a second show, and I’d love to tell you it’s more ‘normal’ but, well, maybe not. It’s a greatest hits/compilation show of Owen’s club material. But Owen doesn’t tend to play normal clubs. It’s somewhere at the intersection of a venn diagram of Simon Munnery, Boothby Graffoe and Luke Wright (Twisted Whimsy, Voodoo Rooms, 3.40pm, Free).

The Bob Blackman Appreciation Society Bonanza
Laughing Horse @ The White Horse, 15:30, Free

These guys won the Malcolm Hardee award a couple of years ago and despite that they’re still not hugely popular, even amongst most comedy nerds who should love their weird deconstructionist approach. In writing this I’m realising why: the show is literally impossible to explain in writing. Also Stewart Lee hasn’t seen them and put them on TV yet, but he would if he had.

Johnny Sorrow is a Midlands-circuit legend, an old school working mens’ club comic trying to make it on the alternative circuit, a character which he pulls apart wonderfully. Tim Swann is a one-liner act with about three jokes. This show adds in a bunch of weirdness and pig-masks on top of that to make something… oh I don’t know. I really suggest seeing this on the same day you go to see Tony Law, just because it makes him look mainstream.

Honorary mention

Peacock & Gamble: Heart-throbs
Pleasance Courtyard (the bit outside on the left before you go in but get tickets from the box office inside please thankyou), 21:45, £8-£11

These guys don’t really count, as they’re London-based and do a ton of gigs in London, but despite that they don’t appear to be on the radar of any London comedy fans I know, and don’t tend to perform at those sort of gigs, hence aren’t in the club and so warrant a mention here. Also they’re bloody brilliant.

See, this isn’t a sketch show. Okay, it does have things sort of identifiable as sketches in it, but primarily this is a good old-fashioned double-act. A genuine, two blokes on a stage playing off each other like double-acts used to be before they basically died out. It’s wonderful, silly, joyous stuff, and I can’t write too much because I haven’t see this year’s show but I’m sure it’ll be good.

Don’t see:

Matt Richardson: Hometown Hero
Pleasance Courtyard, 20:30, CANCELLED

So yeah, Matt first performed this show nearly two years in Leicester and it won an award. He’s been honing and improving it ever since, getting ready for his solo Edinburgh debut. Matt’s a natural performer, wonderfully likeable, engaging, full of energy. The recommendation here was going to be “go see him before he becomes the next big thing and is all over TV”.

But typical Matt – he went and became the next big thing earlier in the year and got the job replacing Olly Murs on The Xtra Factor, so now you can’t see him in Edinburgh. So you already missed your chance, bad luck!

July 25, 2013

Fantasy, reality and the Conservative party

So along with the introduction of this optional, but default on, pornography filter came a far more worrying piece of suggested policy: David Cameron also wants to ban ‘rape porn’. Now lets put aside the huge slew of legislative problems that will produce in actually defining what that actually is, because I’m starting to wonder if there’s more to all this.

This article in The Independent made me think a little – the crux of the article is that we’re all quite capable of separating reality from fiction, and by equating pornography with the actual act, you equate fantasy with reality, which the opposite of what you want to achieve.

So here’s the thing: we should be confused that this is coming from a Conservative government. They are, theoretically, meant to about hands-off, small government policies. You cut back social services, the NHS, libraries and so on because of the overriding principle that everyone should be able to fend for themselves. As such, nanny state actions like this, the internet filter, minimum alcohol pricing and so on seem at odds with that.

But then it comes back to that line from earlier: we all know the difference between fantasy and reality? But do we? Is that actually a quality we all possess. See, I know, because I have always had fantasies – I’m not talking of a sexual nature now, I’m talking far bigger: fantasies of wealth and maybe power. We grew up wanting stuff and knowing we couldn’t have it. We got older and got jobs and wanted stuff but knew we couldn’t afford it. We sometimes play the lottery and think about what we could do with the winnings.

Now stop for a second and imagine that never happened. Imagine you grew up in a rich family where, if you wanted something, you got it. As a kid, if you saw an awesome toy you just asked your parents and you had it next week. When you grew up you had the best possible education with all the options in the world open to you, and you were born smart enough to take advantage of them. You got a high paying job, could easily buy a nice house, and if you saw something you wanted you just bought it. You weren’t particularly attractive, but you could afford expensive clothes, personal stylists and a nice car so you were hardly starved for attention from the opposite sex.

If you grew up in that world, a world where you had everything you wanted, up to and including being part of a small group of people who ran the whole country, would you know the difference between fantasy and reality?

I’m not sure you would.

July 18, 2013

The transforming face of The Apprentice

With the ninth UK series of The Apprentice drawing to an end, it’s interesting to see that it’s finally following the trajectory of it’s US cousin. See over the past few years The Apprentice has become a joke. It started as a mildly serious business competition, and slowly devolved into a farce.

It’s not really the show’s fault – as any reality show progresses the applicants start to skew more towards people that want to be on TV rather than be in business, and with the state of the economy at the moment, successful business-people simply don’t abandon well-paid jobs for a one in sixteen chance at anything. So the show gets sillier and sillier, the mistakes get stupider and stupider and it all becomes a joke.

But something interesting happened this series: the show got it’s own joke. It’s in the music cues, the editing, where the show focuses – it’s now a comedy, and the producers and directors are acknowledging that. As such the show focuses almost entirely on the silly statements, mistakes and screw-ups made by various candidates, and plays them for laughs. Seeing Charlie Brooker show clips of the show and then taking the piss out it on 10 O’Clock Live was like him showing a clip of Only Fools and Horses then mocking Del Boy for falling through the bar. Dara O’Briain’s “You’re Fired” show is also becoming increasingly redundant as it’s mandate to take a light-hearted look at the events of the week’s episode is tough when the episode itself is a comedy.

This tonal shift made the final a little odd as it reverted back to treating them as serious business people after eleven weeks of taking the piss. It seems the only person that doesn’t get the joke is Lord Sugar himself. Actually wanting to start a serious medical business using the face of the winner to market said business demonstrates a complete failure to understand the average person’s opinion of an Apprentice candidate.

June 12, 2013

Page 3

While we’re in ranty mood: The Sun’s Page 3 turned up again today in Parliament, as Caroline Lucas went from an awesome, incendiary, subversive protest by wearing a t-shirt calling for it to be banned in the House of Commons, to covering up and asking if the government would please help her ban it. Which seemed a bit like shouting “wanker” at a policeman before asking him to help catch the guy that ran off with your phone but anyway…

Page 3 is a horrid thing, but the reason I dislike it isn’t the reason a lot of people give. But I think it may be the reason a lot of people actually find it more uncomfortable than the likes of Loaded or Zoo. See when Page 3 launched, and for most of the 90s too, it was simple. “Here’s a hot girl, you can see her boobs, isn’t that great?” and I like boobs, and I like hot women, and I like seeing hot women’s boobs. I don’t really need it to be in a newspaper but it’s no big deal. Occasionally there’d be a bit of text about the girl, often with a double-entendre but it was playful and fun.

These days, not so much. The caption has been replaced with a joke. It’s the same joke every day. Here is Kelly from Daventry today:
KELLY is not surprised at the huge backlog of migration cases. She said: “It’s such a complex body. As 20th century author GK Chesterton once said, ‘Large organisation is loose organisation. Nay it would be almost as true to say that organisation is always disorganisation’.”

Haha! Hilarious isn’t it! Because she’s a girl with her boobs out, so she couldn’t possibly have read Chesterton or have an interesting opinion on immigration. So funny.

Now obviously you can make the argument here that I’m the sexist one, that those opinions are legit and written by the model herself. And that by saying it’s a joke I’m the misogynist. You could make that argument, if you wanted to defend The Sun. Thing is, even if the opinions are legit, even if The Sun aren’t purposefully joking about topless models being dumb (note: they are), with the best of intentions it’s still a shockingly patronising “Naked girls can be smart and have opinions too! Who knew?”. I mean The Sun has a Sports section too but they don’t feel the need to ask Wayne Rooney for his opinion on the issues of the day at the end of a match report.

And that is my problem with Page 3: it’s not a woman appearing topless in a national newspaper that demeans her. She’s hot, she has great breasts, people enjoy looking at them. Maybe she’s also an amazing mother, maybe she’s a particle physicist, maybe she’s the best salesperson in her job, maybe she raises tons of money for charity every year. Maybe she’s none of those. Maybe she commits benefit fraud. Maybe she’s a violent alcoholic. Maybe she hits her kids. It doesn’t matter. She’s on Page 3 that day for one reason: because she’s hot. That doesn’t mean that’s all she is. But it’s okay for that to be all she is in that context on that day. Now, if the only presence of women in the entire paper is with their boobs out (Hello, Sunday Sport!) then there’s a problem as that’s presenting a very skewed world view. And it’s been a while since I read The Sun, but I can certainly believe there’s an inherent, uncomfortable tone of sexism throughout the paper in general. But that’s not a problem solved by removing Page 3.

Because Page 3 is at its least offensive when it isn’t trying to be more than it is. When it’s just ‘hot naked girl’. Once you try and add context, comments, made-up quotes, then it becomes a problem. Because then the question becomes “Well why does this woman need to have her boobs out to tell us about immigration?” and there’s no good answer to that.

I think when people claim Page 3 is ‘playful’ or ‘innocent’ that’s what they’re getting at really. Those current captions aside, it used be “What’s this girl here for?” “For men to enjoy looking at.” That’s an honesty people find appealing, because you go to the Daily Mail website and there’s a sidebar full of women in various states of undress with flimsy justifications written for why it’s important we see holiday snaps of Tamara Rutland in a bikini or Britney’s latest nipple slip and you ask “Why?” and it’s “People want to hear about celebrities!”. We turn on the TV and there’s adverts with women in nothing more than underwear and you ask the “Why?” question and it’s “To sell you shampoo”. You open a woman’s magazine and there’s Photoshop’d photos of stick thin models in lingerie and you ask “Why?” and it’s “To make sure you keep buying our magazine for diet tips”.

I’m not really defending Page 3, I don’t give a crap about it really, it’s not like it’s hard to find tits on the internet regardless, but I struggle at understanding how Page 3 is any way worse than those examples in the previous paragraph. Surely if anything, you go after those first? The Mail especially seems to have far more boobs in it than The Sun, but because they belong to celebrities, are often taken without consent, and appear on different pages every day, it gets away with it.

Why ebook piracy sucks

I have a Kindle, but I’ve never felt the need to engage in ebook piracy. I’m not a big reader, I’ll get through one book a month if I’m lucky (and they’re short) and given the average price of a Kindle book is £4-£5, I can spare that monthly stipend for literature.

But since I (sort of) work in publishing, I have a look around from time to time to see what’s going on, and man, does ebook piracy suck. But maybe not for the reason you think.

Let me explain something: services like Steam (for PC games) and iTunes (for music) got where they are today by making one important realisation: the main driver for piracy is that the pirates offered a better product than the official sources. One could get a PC game without leaving the house, not have to faff around with registering for some DRM account system and not need the disc in the drive. One could get music without going to the shops, or having to risk buying online and being locked into a single device, or getting songs in a format that wouldn’t be around in five years.

Steam and iTunes said “fine, we’ll let you do (nearly) all of that”, plus we’re guaranteed virus free, a quicker download than you get on a Bittorrent, and no feelings of guilt”. See, that’s a sales pitch. See the first thing they had to do was be sure they were offering a product at least as good as what the pirates were offering. Because if they didn’t do that, they had no chance.

Here’s the thing: e-book piracy is already not offering as good a service as the legitimate publishers do, but the sucky thing is: you might not realise.

Last night I nosed around a bunch of pirated versions of ebooks I’d bought recently, or owned paperbacks of: some Star Trek novels and some Iain Banks stuff. Some of them were great: they’d clearly taken the files from Amazon or wherever, stripped the DRM and uploaded them again.

Some of them made me throw up in my mouth. Full disclosure: I used to work as editor, so I’m trained to spot this stuff. But this is stuff that will affect your enjoyment of a book, it’s just you won’t even know it.

Here’s the two most common problems I found with the pirated copies:

1) Lack of italics. Yes, no italicisation (and no bold) in the entire book. Not a big deal is it? Italics barely get used do they? Go to your bookshelf, pick up a fiction book, and flick through it and look for italics. Go on. I’ll wait…. There’s loads aren’t there?

Thing is, authors use italics for a lot of things. Not just emphasis like I did there. They use it to, for example, distinguish a character’s internal monologue from speech. To delineate terms in other languages (which in fantasy/sci-fi, may well be made up languages). For the names of ships or brands or other proper nouns. Here’s a thing: in Star Trek novels, when the characters are communicating via communicator (the away team is talking to the ship, for example) italics are used to represent speech over the comms. That’s the Pocket Books house style, and it’s so heavily ingrained and used so consistently in the novels, that after setting it up early on, authors just use it as short hand to avoid the whole “he said / she said” thing.

The net result of that is Star Trek novels without italics in are nigh-on unreadable the minute someone taps a comm badge, as you’ve no clue which dialogue belongs to which side of the conversation.

Of course, the issue here is that I’m telling you this. Had you never seen a legitimate copy of the book, you might think the writer was just a bit crap. Or that the author was trying and failing to do some weird stream of consciousness thing by not separating the character’s thoughts and speech. You’d be confused, but you wouldn’t even realise it was because some idiot pirate stripped the italics out of the file.

Oh and Discworld novels where Death doesn’t talk in bold.

2) No paragraph spacing, no paragraph indents. I’ve seen both of these as individual problems, and also together where they become a complete nightmare. In books, spacing matters. Each novel may do it differently, but early on you quickly learn exactly what spacing means. You don’t realise it, but in the early chapters the author teaches you almost a ‘grammar’ of spacing for that book, and then later uses that. For example, most commonly, books will indent every paragraph, but only space on a scene change. They’ll also indent speech as new paragraphs so you can quickly follow the back and forth between a bunch of characters. Some books will also use double spacing to represent a change in point-of-view character (or they’ll use a horizontal rule or other symbol, also often stripped out).

If you don’t do this stuff, things start to go wrong. No paragraph indentation means knowing when a new paragraph is starting is often difficult, which gives that whole ‘wall of text’ effect that just makes things hard to read. It also makes speech a complete pain to follow.

No spacing means scene changes can just come out of nowhere and confuse the hell out of you. The worst example I found was one where every paragraph had a line space after it (no indentation) except for when there was a scene change, where the paragraph was just run-on directly without so much as a carriage return! The complete opposite of what your brain has been trained to expect. I read a few pages and it was a complete headfuck. If you’re an author and really want to mess with your reader, try doing that.

And then there were the versions that lacked both spacing and indents, and so seemed to eschew the whole concept of paragraphs entirely.

There were other issues: typos, lack of proper chapter marks, all that stuff. But those two big ones make such a huge difference to your reading experience, and they’re things you might not even notice if you don’t know they’re meant to be there. You’ll think the author is just being weird, or worse incompetent.

Now, there’s a reason this happens, and the legitimate publishing industry itself is partly to blame. When ebooks first became a thing, lots of books were not available legitimately, so a bunch of enthusiastic people went out and scanned them and OCR’d them, and some of those were done quite badly. Then after that, plenty of publishers realised they should get their back catalogue out in an electronic format, so paid people to scan and OCR them. And some of those were done pretty badly too, and certainly weren’t proof read.

Things are better now. Not perfect, a book likely still won’t get another proof done at the electronic stage so the occasional spacing issue or typo can turn up, but nothing so egregious as the examples above. The companies that do conversions have gotten better, and the big publishers can now handle it in house. Many are returning to the back catalogue and fixing those errors (and Amazon will notify you if a book you bought has been updated) and this is where the pirates will let you down. They won’t go back, get the new version, and upload a fixed pirate copy. As far as they are concerned, if a pirate ebook exists, it doesn’t need doing again. They’d rather pirate something new or something very old that doesn’t exist in any format. And they can do what they want, but some of their existing stuff is nigh-on unreadable.

As an experiment, I tried to track down the collected works of my favourite author, the now depressingly late Iain (M) Banks. Of 27 fiction books (Raw Spirit isn’t available electronically anywhere, as far as I could tell), 6 of them did not have an accurate pirate version (I was comparing to paperback copies, and legit electronic versions from Amazon). To obtain the other 21, I had to download three separate “complete works” files, each of which had good copies of some books and awful ones of others, and piece a collection together. Even then there wasn’t a single version of Complicity with italics intact. All the Amazon versions are wonderfully formatted and well worth picking up by the way. Especially Complicity for £3.79 if you’ve not read Banks before.

But that’s an author who, while not at a Brown/Rowling level of mass market fame, is one you’d always find near the front of displays in Waterstones, a critical darling. Yet if you sample his work illegally, there’s a one in five chance you’ll get something that’ll put you off him for life.

In a way it’s nice that there’s a good incentive out there for people to actually pay for the work. It’s great that the publishers are beating the pirates in terms of the service they offer to customers. What worries me is that people don’t know this even happens. After all, if you get a ‘bad’ copy of a movie, it’s generally obvious: you can see the cinema audiences’ heads, or it has un-removable Chinese subtitles. If the pirated version just had the actors missing their cues on occasion and few scenes the wrong way around, you wouldn’t know, you’d just think it was bad.

This is what is happening now in literature. So if you must pirate, at least use Amazon’s handy ‘look inside’ feature to compare the legit version to whatever you downloaded, and make sure it at least looks right first. If it doesn’t then for god’s sake just buy thing instead of ruining it for yourself.

April 14, 2013

The Ding–Dong Thatcher controversy

I’m not going to talk at length about the whole Thatcher business, suffice to say the reaction and back and forth on social media has been quite interesting.

But then 1000s of people go out and buy “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” on iTunes, and the BBC has a very public fit over whether it should play it or not. Some have said the BBC is caught in a tough position: play it and be deemed distasteful or not play it and be deemed censorious.

But had the BBC wanted to keep it’s nose clean, they should have just played it. Because it’s not whether you play it or not, it’s how you play it. People have gone out and bought it just waiting for that moment on the chart show to see how it gets acknowledged.

For the BBC, therefore, all they need do is brief the host to just play the thing without comment, joke, or underhand reference: “And at number two here’s a classic number from The Wizard of Oz”. All those tuning in to see what the BBC say let out a sigh, see nothing interesting has happened, and the thing is done. There’s no clip to go viral or anything like that. It’d be a non-story.

Instead the BBC made a big song and dance over “will we play it or not?” in the end deciding not to play it in the chart show, but play a clip of it in part of a news story. I can’t think of a worse possible choice. Firstly you annoy one bunch of people by not playing it, then you annoy the other bunch even more by explicitly linking it to Thatcher in a news story, making everyone aware of the context and giving voice to the movement that you were trying to avoid engaging in the first place. It’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard and benefits no-one.

When the BBC banned “Smack My Bitch Up” by The Prodigy many years ago, they played a lyric-less version on the chart show. They didn’t then run a news story where the host read out all of the lyrics to the song to explain why they didn’t play it in the first place.

August 06, 2012

The Offensiveness Manifesto

Or A guide to being offended for comedy audience and performers

COMICS: You have the right to tell offensive jokes

AUDIENCES: You have the right to laugh or not laugh at a joke you find offensive. You also have the right to walk out of a show, and most honest promoters will, within reason, give you your money back.

AUDIENCES: You do not have the right to not be offended (in comedy shows, or life generally).

AUDIENCES: You do not have the right to interrupt a performance to loudly to point out how offended you are by it but…

COMICS: That protection only goes so far. If you decide to take issue with someone not laughing or looking offended at a joke (or frame you offensive routine around a piece of audience interaction), you’ve then chosen to enter into a dialogue with the audience. And yes, some people will happily laugh at jokes about kiddie-fiddling, rape and abortion, then not like a joke about lung cancer. That’s not hypocrisy or double-standards, it’s just human.

COMICS: You don’t have the right to attack, belittle or mock an audience member for being offended by something. They can’t help it. And if your ‘edgy’ and offensive routine involves bullying an audience member, you don’t then get to be annoyed when someone else in the audience ‘heckles’ you in the middle of it.

BONUS HINT: there’s basically just one reason someone will be offended by a rape joke. You probably don’t want to try and turn that into a bit of jolly banter.

AUDIENCES: If you’re offended by something and feel there’s a reason it shouldn’t be a subject for comedy, you have the right to approach a comic after the show and calmly explain why. Under those circumstances, you’re far more likely to be listened to and have sensible consideration given to your viewpoint than in the middle of the performance.

COMICS: You have the right to ignore someone that wants to tell you why they were offended after the show. But if they’re being polite about it, maybe you should listen. You may just have different opinions on the matter and that’s okay. Or maybe you’ll see something from an angle you didn’t notice before and reconsider that joke.

COMICS: It’s not a betrayal of the art form to drop a gag because it’s too offensive. Similarly, managing to offend someone isn’t a comedy badge of honour. It’s one less potential fan. If you’re Frankie Boyle then no, you probably don’t need that one person. If you’re a new open spot, you probably do. So if you’re going to offend people, you best be sure it’s worthwhile.

COMICS: You don’t have the right to tell someone they can’t be offended by something. Offence is a reaction, it’s taken, it’s not a considered, though-through viewpoint. You can explain why you, personally, don’t find the joke offensive, but you can’t tell someone that their being offended is wrong. The corollary to that….

AUDIENCES: Offence is a reaction. If it’s three hours after the gig and you suddenly realise that a joke you laughed at the time is ‘offensive’, it’s not. Or at least, it’s not to you. You don’t get to ‘be offended’ on behalf of other people not at the show. The easily offended don’t go to see Jerry Sadowitz or Frankie Boyle for a reason. If you then repeat the joke you think your friend might find offensive to them in conversation, on your blog, or in an e-mail to the Daily Mail, congratulations, you’re now the one offending them.

AUDIENCES: You do not, ever, have the right to request that comics be censored, banned or arrested because you were offended. You do have the right to not go and see them again.

EVERYONE: What offends differs from person to person. I’ll laugh at rape jokes but find the audition stages of X-Factor where kids are set up to fail and then relentlessly mocked hugely offensive and quite upsetting. So I just don’t watch X-Factor. We’re all adults. Just because no subject is taboo for comedy, doesn’t mean it’s necessary to test every aspect of that theory all the time. Nor is it necessary to let everyone know every time something happens that offends you.

Offence is a part of life. It’s not a great part, it’s not something we should aspire to create in others but nor is it something we should run scared of ever experiencing or inflicting. It’s just there. Maybe we shouldn’t make quite such a big deal of it?

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