The London Underground Fail

Good lord. I’m sure I’m not the only one who occasionally, or rather frequently, steps off the London Underground feeling like I’ve just been through some sordid affair that sadly must be often repeated by necessity. It’s not a question of snobbery, the Tube isn’t some strange world full of people I wouldn’t daaaa to associate with for fear of social graces, it’s practically an intrinsic part of my life as a Londoner, as well as the buses and most forms of public transport the city offers. No amount of use however will ever shake the feeling that the Tube system itself is a fairly woeful thing that for the duration of whatever journey, fundamentally changes its passengers.

This phenomena is probably worthy of its own psychological profile. The nigh on feral clamber for a space really not suitable for a person to squeeze themselves into in regular circumstances, the sudden disappearance of any sense of spacial awareness that prompts a platform full of people to relentlessly press into the carriages that are already actually very full… the temporarily abandoned convention that a matter of inches or less is a bit too close a proximity for one’s face to another. And residing over all of this, the complete lack of communication between all these people sharing a commonly unpleasant experience. Try for a knowing smile towards a fellow sardine and you may get some sort of coy recognition, if you’re lucky.

Anything so bold as striking up a conversation is more times than otherwise going to elicit a marginal look of fear or confusion, masked sometimes by a nervous smile, followed by the minimum of number of words required to disengage without being overtly dismissive. No other place in the city will stir up that sense of being solitary in a sea of people. Rarely if ever is there a sense of camaraderie, despite this being the plight of hundreds of thousands of people every day. Around 1.229 billion people, and growing, use the Tube annually, but compared to other services around the world this isn’t all that much. God help the people of Seoul, Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, New York, Paris, Mexico City or Hong Kong.

Or perhaps rather, adequately-serviced-metropolitan-rail-links-with-remotely-sufficient-capacity help these people… and it seems in some cases this alien concept actually does. I don’t want to rant, rave and give wholesale condemnation to TFL, as I know perfectly well that there are structural inhibitions that severely hamstring any hopes of London sporting the same kind of facilities as say, Taipei, where the boulevard-like platforms sparkle underfoot as you await a high speed train that arrives with pinpoint precision and invites you into truly spacious and immaculate carriages. The MRT, as it is known in that city, only came into service in 1996 and had the benefit of being planned and constructed with modern transportation expectations in mind.

Its annual “ridership” is also only about half of what London is required to accommodate, but still… memories of those journeys can’t help but spring up every time I’m directly inhaling the sweat vapours of some beleaguered, besuited professional entirely transfixed on the screen of their iPad in a hopeless bid to suppress the genuine discomfort and frustration of the commute. I think to Tokyo or Seoul also, where either by the military precision of operations, and perhaps by some unspoken communal contract between passengers that order trumps chaos, things seem to work relatively well, and generally speaking while managing around twice the numbers of voyagers as London.

I do not think it is unfair to say that the London Underground is deficient, a problem that will only become more obvious as the already strained service is further put under pressure in the years to come. There are and have been dribs and drabs of alleviation from TFL, such as the DLR, Tramlink, improvements to the Overground, the utterly gimmicky Emirates Air Line… and we can look forward to the unveiling of Crossrail, but is it all enough? Are updated fleets for the Metropolitan Line and Hammersmith & City really going to tackle this looming crisis of critical over-congestion? The Piccadilly Line at rush hour screams no.

I wonder if it’s inevitable that the planners will one day have to bite the bullet and think about tackling the core issue of the blatantly outdated and constrictive tunnels that worm their way through the city with a quaint sort of Victorian character, but are albeit insufficient to cope with future needs. I dread to think of the disruption caused by a project of such magnitude, and even wonder if it’s actually feasible at all. But if it was possible I could only ever conclude that it should, if not must be an undertaking worth pursuing. And not just because it would ultimately make life that much more pleasant for the residents of this global city.

Every Tube journey brings with it the sight of a legion of tourists, which lends itself to the “Where are they from?” guessing game. Integral to these inner queries is also the somewhat forlorn thought of their probably less than impressed judgements of London’s facilities. There’s no question of the city’s high standing in the league of international hotspots, but when it comes to the Underground you can only help but feel we’re at best slightly ashamed pretenders. On a similar note, Heathrow Airport is probably a more shocking indictment of the same kind of failure. If HS2 does go belly up then I have some fairly reasonable suggestions for what to do with that loose £50 billion.

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Expand Your Horizons – Anime

The “cultural” half of my project has been neglected a little, but then so has the current affairs and politics half in the midst of the first real English summer in seven years. I love my writing, just not when the sun is out, though as mentioned this is England and the weather usually permits me to be prolific. A friend has prompted me to talk a little about one slightly esoteric area of my entertainment canon, that admittedly I completely agree gets short shrift outside of certain circles in the West. I speak of Japanese animation, or animé.

Japanese media throughout the last several decades has often been of the most outstanding quality, and it’s certainly easy to find someone to fawn over Akira Kurosawa films, myself included. That reference on its own might be like a foreigner saying to you, “I’m such an American film buff, I think Stephen Spielberg is amazing!”, but I actually don’t consider myself to be a resounding expert, certainly not yet anyway. Also the focus here is animé, which to my sadness is often misperceived in Western understanding as limited to the high escapist tendencies of the largely superb Hayao Miyazaki films, or as being the refuge of overly sexualised young female characters for a pervy male audience, or worse. 

These genres certainly do exist, and the prevalence of harem ecchi styled media, which feature dominant central male characters surrounded by a cast of scantily clad  and usually worshipping ladies, doesn’t help expose other audiences to what in some cases are some of the finest things to ever be made for a screen, period. Skip over the ultra-violent, the nigh on soft-pornographic or otherwise the downright weird and there are some true diamonds. What I might offer up here is likely only scratching the surface in terms of a real otaku (borderline obsessive mange or animé lover) but I wouldn’t want to take you on an expansive hipster odyssey anyway.

Locate for yourself two particular series, both by the same genius mind, one Shinichiro Watanabe. Knowing eyes surely roll, as I’m recommending to you none other than Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. To begin, they stand out as sensational works of art. These are all animated after all and the drawing is of a remarkably high standard, so if that’s something you take any appreciation from, don’t hesitate. What I particularly love about them, and is a trademark Watanabe stylism, is wonderfully imaginative genre blending. Bebop is a crime noir space western, if you can wrap your head around that, and Champloo mixes the Edo period of Japan with anachronistic elements of hip-hop and youth subculture.

These conceptual aberrations aren’t the only reason to love these two series however, I’m not just advocating these for being quirky. They are genuinely exceptional in their characters, plots, development, pacing, emotive quality, you name it, any and every cinematic facet of value is present in abundance. If there was one cultural lost in translation factor it might occasionally be the sense of humour, although Watanabe is considerably more disciplined than some of his industry compatriots. I’ve seen a few series that would otherwise be outstanding and objectively accessible but for the slightly skitty or frenetic injections of rather over the top comedic segways.

But no, these Watanabe productions are mature and thoughtful while still being outrageously entertaining. They are surely the best place for the uninitiated to start what could end up being a long journey. I’ve met very few people who weren’t engaged by these, regardless of their preconceived notions of animé or affected dislike of something sometimes seen as a bit nerdy. A love for animé however, is comparatively little more than a love for any major cultural media institution. The Japanese invest just as much creative firepower into this world as any other country might into whatever the mainstream media form is, hence the great breadth of genres, styles and degrees of propriety and quality.

The best of it stands with the best of anything. Go and have a look, really. I’m highly confident you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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Tennis, Of Course

I love tennis. Yes I do. I’m watching tennis right now, such are the joys of home employment. The Aegon Championships at The Queen’s Club, West Kensington, London, meeting ground of some of the finer acts on the ATP circuit, currently hosting messirs Murray and Mahut for my entertainment pleasure. What is there not to enjoy? Tennis demonstrates some of the finest examples of athleticism, strength, coordination and mental power in all of sport. No team mates to rely on, nothing to hide behind, just you, your tools, the court and your opponent.

Can I play tennis? God no. Not for years anyway, prior to the days when I consciously decided that a pace faster than brisk was just uncouth and not for me. I, like millions of others, defer my prowess and aspirations to the likes of Murray. I remember in the dying days of the Henman era there were whispers of the up and coming talent in the then scrawny Scotsman. Junior US Open Champion generally says very little for the later main circuit success rate, but then being British, anyone who could even spell ‘tennis’ was probably going to be a little bit exciting.

Murray, however, actually was exciting. With Henman and his excruciating but thoroughly enjoyable years heading for the exit, there was the grim prospect of an Alex Bogdanovitch number one, so thank god. 2004 marked the end of Murray’s junior days and brought him his Junior Grand Slam success, and early 2005 saw him enter full ATP events during the clay season. Having trained through his youth in Spain on the red surface, this perhaps made sense but his weakness on those courts in comparison to hard and grass was somewhat evident. He didn’t make his mark until the grass season and good third round runs at Queen’s and Wimbledon.

It was his epic five set defeat to David Nalbandian on the SW19 Centre Court that probably lit the spark of interest in Murray for most people. Henman had made an early second round exit and Nalbandian at the time was a major force. Seeing this puny little chap taking on the gruff and intimidating Argentine instilled an instant sense of hope. That is I think a distinctly British thing. The moment Murray took a set in that match I was daydreaming about his woad covered face terrifying the enthusiasts as he stormed triumphant around the grounds at the end of the last Sunday, Federer’s severed head in hand.

While it took a few more years, a few finals heartbreaks, a lot more muscle and couple of different coaching set-ups, he got there. 2012 was a barnstormer, and although tragically falling to Federer at the actual Wimbledon event, Murray was glorious in defeating both Djokovic and Federer on his way to Olympic Gold at the All England Club. Defeating Djokovic again for the US Open Championship sealed the deal. The UK has a genuinely world class tennis player, not to mention in the time of arguably the greatest players who ever stepped on court.

Just watching him finish off Mahut, his 2012 Queen’s dominator, in straight sets, over the course of two rain disrupted days, I’m gearing myself up for the pre-Wimbledon hype again. All the speculation and comment and column inches in the world won’t make a jot of difference, but as if believing it will happen is the currency of reality, I will read it all to reinforce my own hope that Murray will finally bring the Wimbledon trophy home after more than 80 years of British failure. He has to. He must. There are meak signs of the talent in store after Murray, with the likes of Ward, Evans, Corrie, Golding, Baker and Edmund all toiling for success.

But if Murray can’t do it, short of dramatic advances for the younger cast or the emergence of another unlikely talent, the wait could prove to be indefinite. Keep your football, spare me the cricket until the Ashes, forget this lame F1 season and accept the Lions will have a strong tour of Australia, this year, all eyes should be on Wimbledon.

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Pfizer Finally Grants Men Sexual Liberation

A recent report on pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and their decision to directly market Viagra online was a curious one. I understand this would be the first occasion in which a major manufacturer did this, but the story itself is something of a side note in a broader discussion about the availability of certain drugs. Particularly those drugs that are purposed for what could be described as sexual empowerment, but in this instance it might be better to phrase it as individual empowerment with regards to control of one’s body.

Possibly since the dawn of email, spam messages marketing the since nigh on infamous man pill have indiscriminately plagued users. Alongside the post-watershed “twinkle in the eye” suggestive undertones of the oddly cryptic TV ad, and other slightly veiled but public means of getting the product about, this was albeit an indication of the general social acceptability of its use. A use, no doubt, preferably kept discreet for the implications inherent to its requirement, but in this regard it’s no different to many a treatment for an embarrassing ailment.

What makes this issue more interesting is when you contrast this ethos of broad agreement that a man needs to “get it up”, with a rather unbalanced approach to the same idea when considering women. Clearly a woman doesn’t have precisely the same consideration but the objective for men is basic biological sexual empowerment, an objective that for women still remains mystifyingly controversial in much of the world. The biological element differs substantially from broader sexual empowerment in terms of attitudes, behaviours and cultures, thus my distinction at the beginning, but control of one’s body should be a clear and inalienable platform for gender equality.

Obviously this notion then informs the larger debate but I want to focus on the core aspect. Here in the UK there seems to be a reasonably healthy attitude and women have easy access to gender specific birth control, free on the NHS, and the somewhat gender neutral condom is commercially readily available. But even in America the debate still rages over whether or not it’s even moral to use the “pill”, with recent efforts to widen it’s availability on the public dollar stirring up another hornet’s nest. The debate over abortion is an even nastier one, and although more complex than birth control it speaks to the same matter.

I’m sure none of this is ground breaking feminism on my part but I couldn’t help but wonder that if an astoundingly powerful company like Pfizer wanted to do something genuinely remarkable, they could provide a similar service to women as they supposedly have just provided men. Apparently the Viagra move was in the name of fighting counterfeit erectile aids on the black market that could contain anything so horrible as printer ink and pesticides. Well, some of the stories I’ve heard from near every corner of the globe that talk of the horrors that women sometimes endure for want of control over their own bodies are a goddamned greater deal worse than that.

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Mission Adjustment

This half of the blogging enterprise was established primarily as a refuge for observational things that don’t relate in any strict way to politics or current affairs. It was also a handy place for depositing my efforts in The Daily Post’s Weekly Writing Challenge. If you weren’t sure, The Daily Post is in essence the WordPress bloggers blog. Tips and encouragement on how to make the most of your blog etc… I fear my brief regular involvement in these challenges is drawing to a close.

Mainly because the content of the challenges is so variable, and convolutes the theme and purpose of this blog, which it would perhaps be fair to say was only recently (not) clarified. I like the idea of a loose second blog that can broadly deal in film, art and philosophical theory with the odd dash of humorous or scathing random commentary. But in labouring over this philosophical piece, still forthcoming, I determined it was best to at least be far more selective.

I certainly won’t be touching any of what some might call the “twee” blogger’s art. Emotive creative writing, all forms of emotional introspection, most other forms of creative writing (except a few that might amuse me) and assuredly anything that tries to get me to practice generic conventions in writing – style or habit – that don’t appeal to the things that I’ve grown more than confident in. I’m not looking for inspiration, which I guess is what The Daily Post is peddling.

Plus those sunsabitches never Freshly Pressed me.

So, henceforth you might begin to a glean a more consistent vibe from the articles found here, starting with this piece on objective realities, rational actors and subjective ideologies. I can tell you already that it has evolved slightly from the originally stated concept. I have been convinced of certain things by friend and effective collaborator Jack Reilly, and the whole thing is going to be much longer and much, much more dense. Doesn’t that sound fun? Read here soon.

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Iconic

The Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge

This week’s challenge is dead simple. Throw up an iconic image, and discuss or write about it. What is or isn’t iconic is another subjective matter, one person’s notion meaning potentially little to me and mine little to them. We all live in different worlds with different influences, but I like to think some things transcend our personal spheres.

jimi-hendrix2

Enough said? Not quite. This is an image of a man who defined for me pure artistic freedom. Jimi Hendrix’s music has appealed to me from the moment I heard it, due in part to my own musical pursuits, but much more still. Here we see him smiling the simple innocent smile of a fundamentally joyous being, in his element. This feeling translated into his music and was shared. Listening to Hendrix still gives me an energy unlike anything else.

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The State of the State

The Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge

The challenge of the week allows for a huge range of response but at its core is the question of what we individually believe government should be, and what it should do. This is of course a matter diffused with subjectivity and wishful thinking. What I’m about to describe will never happen for a variety of reasons, most of all reality, but here goes. My vision of a perfect government. Subject to mood and possibly the weather.

If I had to express an ideology it would be vaguely libertarian but with a social conscience. Personal freedom is essentially paramount in the understanding that it is restricted by not infringing upon the personal freedom of others. Government should not have the authority to dictate a person’s tastes or activities that are not demonstrably harmful to societal good, but this is countered by the belief that of course government still has an incredibly important function.

Healthcare, law and order, justice, infrastructure, education, defence, sanitation, and all the other generally common services of government are, in theory, well administered by government. They are the completely necessary elements for an effective modern society, should not be for profit and thus should not be privatised. Society should have no qualms about contributing in fair measure to properly enabling these things, sacrificing a portion of the rewards of their labour.

I believe in regulated capitalism, inherent to which I strongly believe is the notion of social mobility. In practice, capitalism has forged indisputable problems and as part of a complex dynamic involving mainly, but not limited to, education, has created entrenched economic classes. But it is at its heart a good economic model. Individual endeavour, ambition and success should be rewarded, just never disproportionately. Excessive, lavish, unfettered wealth is not desirable.

It may be to an avaricious fool, but at the core of all my beliefs is rational self-interest. And it seems empirically clear that the best way to promote this is to promote societal interest. A good, strong, healthy society is the perfect environment in which the individual can thrive, and I can identify no societal interest in the wealthiest people, even in a nominally modern, post-industrial western nation, possessing an earning power many millions times greater than the poorest.

Good government should be a reflection of a good society, so in both you would expect that there be support for those who need it. Monetary welfare is clearly a contentious issue and I’ve played with ideas of material welfare and so on so forth, but the basic principle is this. Every human is entitled to a basic degree of security and dignity, so a decent, warm home and adequate sustenance is a good start. More than this is up for debate.

“Entitlement”, if you were to take the negative connotation with regards to welfare, is a problem, and while it’s easy to moan about benefit fraud or moochers, in less than egalitarian terms, there should be a realistic acceptance of at least a modicum of frugality should a person be relying solely on the government. But I confess, this is a tricky area as clearly disability or a lack of available employment has no relation to a conscious decision not to contribute.

But welfare shouldn’t be a significant burden on the government that does all the aforementioned things right. In probably the greater majority of cases, the need for welfare is the product of a poorly run system. With a raft of well managed services offering stability, and a well managed economy, there should be less individual vulnerability.

Although here we get to the crux of the matter. It’s all well and good having a thorough and robust concept of what has been discussed, and frankly it’s easy to propose all the theoretical aspects. Communist, socialist, fascist, conservative, liberal, libertarian, technocratic, autocratic, despotic, democratic, monarchic, oligarchic, republican or theocratic, all and more, basically irrelevant.

You need competent people performing competently or it’s all worthless. That’s what I really want from government I suppose, hence my slightly defeatist tone at the start. Competence. The Holy Grail. Underlying most of the failures of every incarnation of government was an idiot who got it wrong, not an integral flaw to the theory behind that government. Just do it right and you’re already somewhere.

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