Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Preparing for the Adventure

And while we're on the subject of Alice, here's a poem I wrote some time ago. Trust me when I say that it scans the way I read it.

Preparing For The Adventure

I make a list headed
“Things That I’ll Need”.
Biscuits, chocolate, crisps, more crisps
and squash to wash down the feed.
I’ll be wanting a torch
and rope and a spade,
and a bag to hold all these
odds and sods for the plan that I’ve made.
I catch the bus to the woods
climb over the fence
by the “No trespassing” sign
crossing the line that doesn’t make sense.
I sit and I eat
and I wait for my prey
But the forest is empty.
I sigh , and I rise to call it a day
Then from the thicket
A rabbit runs past
Quickly I follow to
its home in a hole - on my way at last.
I take out my spade
and dig all around
I’m going to join Alice
Adventuring deep underground.

Sun goes down, sun comes up.

Nobody seemed to want to take a stab at the locations of my sunset and sunrise pictures, but here are the answers anyway.

1. A sunrise in Monument Valley, Arizona, USA. This one should have been really easy. It's an image that is seared into the brains of generations of Western fans. We had hiked out to camp on top of one of the mesas so that we could get up early and await the dawn just to get terrific photographs like this one.

2. Picture two is both a sunrise and a sunset which should tell you that it was taken in the arctic circle at the precise time of day when the sun dips to the horizon and then starts to rise again. It was actually taken in Norway.

3. Picture three is a sunset taken from the Laos side of the Mekong looking across the river into Thailand. I knew this was going to be a great picture as soon as I stepped onto the balcony of our extremely unpleasant hotel. The hotel was dirty and unhygienic and I slept fully clothed with my groundsheet stretched out over the bed. It was worth putting up with all those horrible conditions just to get this shot. I have no idea why the roaches put up with it though, none of them had cameras.

4. Surely the colour and quality of the light must give this one away as being somewhere in Africa? It was actually on a game reserve in Zambia and we sat in folding chairs on the plain drinking ice cold beers and watching the sun go down.

5. When we visited the Stone Forest in Yunnan Province in China I wandered around taking lots of shots but as soon as I saw this particular formation and noticed that I could stand in a position where the setting sun was going to reach the very bottom of the cleft, I knew I had to wait and get the picture. I didn't dare go to look at something else for fear of mistiming it and losing my chance. I waited for about twenty minutes.

6. This was taken a couple of days after picture number three as we travelled down through Laos. It was taken in Vang Vieng at sunset after a particularly harrowing day of travel during which we had almost run the truck down the side of a mountain in a mudslide.

7. Back to Scandinavea for another sunset, though to be honest I'm not completely sure where exactly we were when I took this one. I suspect we were on a ferry somewhere near Sweden.

8. And so to South America and a sunrise. Again we had got up early to get this picture of the strangely alien landscape of rising steam at Sol de Manana in Bolivia. We had stayed the night before in an isolated hostel at the glorious Lago Colorado and got up at five just to drive out for these sunrise pictures.

9. And anyone who didn't notice the pyramid on this Egyptian sunset should be thoroughly ashamed. Go and stand in the corner with a dunces cap on your head.

Alices In Wonderland: Part 3

Sometimes publishers of out of copyright works don't bother to put the creators name on the cover. I have at least one edition of Alice In Wonderland that fails utterly to mention Lewis Carroll. More commonly the illustrators are not mentioned - this happens for even modern works - perhaps because they work in-house for the publisher and are therefore not deemed worthy of a credit. I don't know why this should be so.

Alice, having followed the rabbit, does not hesitate to follow him into the rabbit hole. The illustration below comes from the Brown Watson Bedtime Books series. The only credit given is to Maureen Spurgeon who wrote the extremely abbreviated version of the text. There is no credit to Carroll and no mention of the artist although one web site that I found credits it to John Bennet, about whom I have been able to find out almost nothing.
If anyone can confirm this, or point me in the direction of an internet biography, I'd be very grateful.

Alices In Wonderland: Part 2

Alice of course, having seen the rabbit (or kangaroo!) immediately jumps up and follows it. This illustration is from Margaret Tarrant. She was born in 1888 and died in 1959, illustrating Alice In Wonderland for a 1916 edition.
The edition I have is, sadly, rather more modern, being the Bounty Books 1990 edition, which reproduces the Tarrant illustrations but, as far as I can see, fails to credit her beyond noting that their series of children's books are "illustrated with colour artworks by Edwardian artists".

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Alices In Wonderland: Part 1

For someone who is obsessed with the books as I am, I don't write nearly enough entries about Alice In Wonderland. It's occurred to me that there may be people who don't realise just how many different artists have taken a crack at this timeless children's tale and so I intend, in the coming months, to give anyone reading this a chance to reacquaint themselves with the story and see some of the art by showing, in story sequence, some of the many illustrations from my own collection. Pretty much every word of the book has been illustrated by someone so it could take some time. Still, we have all the time in the world, don't we?

Those familiar with the book, or with the Disney film version, will recall that as the story opens Alice is sitting on the bank feeling very bored, while her sister is reading a book with no pictures or conversations. As they sit there a white rabbit runs by and Alice follows.

In the translation into the aboriginal language Pitjantjatjara (Alitjinya Ngura Tjukrmankuntjala) the riverbank is a creek bed, the rabbit is a Kangaroo and Alice and her sister are playing a story-telling game… and the marvelous illustrations are by Donna Leslie.

The edition I have is by Ten Speed Press of California and contains a simultaneous back translation into English. You should get it. It's excellent!

Camera Trouble (a return to the travel annecdotes)

It's always nice when someone leaves a friendly comment on one of my blogs. Actually, with the sparse traffic I receive, unfriendly comments are nice too, they show that someone has stopped by. It's like being a sad lonely old hermit thanking the postman for bringing a bill. Well, on my other blog, the one that nobody EVER reads, somebody left a comment saying they liked my photography. I like that because I'm almost as proud of my photography as I am of my writing and I just love my writing. (It would be nice if more people ever read it, but you can't have everything.)

Anyway, for the moment the photography is the thing.

That blog is gradually documenting my tour of the Americas, a chapter a week (although I am a bit behind at the moment) with the book I wrote about it and some of my photographs of the trip. What hasn't so far been mentioned over there is the trouble I had with cameras. Which was considerable. It started before even the first leg was over. I was taking a couple of weeks to travel across from New York to Los Angeles in an arc that went Niagara, Chicago, Chamberlain in Dakota, Cody in Wyoming, Salt Lake City which is the scariest place on Earth, and Elko in Nevada which is surely one of the most depressing. It also took in some of the most spectacular National Parks anywhere in the world so don't get the impression I didn't like it.

Before I started out I had made a decision not to take my expensive Minolta SLR as the nine months bouncing about on the road would probably have killed it. Instead I bought myself a nice little compact. I shot a couple of rolls of film in the first few days and everything was OK. In Chicago I shot another but when I went to take it out of the camera, I couldn't. It was jammed. Jammed solidly and irretrievably. By the time I discovered this we had left Chicago and there was nowhere that I would be staying in for the immediate future for long enough to take it into a Camera shop. I buried it at the bottom of my gear and went in search of a new one. The only place available to me to get one was an out of town Wal-Mart where we stopped to buy some supplies for the van. Wal-Mart are believers in the pile-em-high, sell-em-cheap retail philosophy and so what I managed to get was of considerably lower quality than the one it was replacing but did have the merit of coming in at under thirty dollars. And it did the job. It lacked a zoom and didn't cope well with extremes of light but it did the job. It took pictures and the pictures it took were mostly clear enough and sharp enough and I managed to get by for a couple of months.

That camera broke in Quito, in Ecuador. Circumstances detailed elsewhere had put me in Quito for about seven weeks. It was a relaxing and pleasant time and about half way through it the winding mechanism on my camera stopped working. One shot it was fine, the next shot it wasn't. A camera shop quoted me a price to fix it that was marginally more expensive than buying another so I moved on to camera number three. This was another compact and this time, allowing for the plummeting value of the Ecuadorian currency at the time cost me about fifteen dollars. It was plastic with a manual winder and automatic focus only but it did the job. It took pictures and the pictures it took were mostly clear enough and sharp enough and I managed to get by for a couple of months.

It broke as we moved back up through South America, having been all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. This time it was my fault. We'd been plagued by insects and I'd been wearing a neckerchief covered in DEET to keep them away. I should have know better, because I had the same problem once before in the Far East, but I made a mistake. I forgot just what a nasty evil little chemical DEET really is. One of its nasty bits of evilness is that it eats plastic. One night I put my neckerchief down and I put my camera on top of it and when I woke they were welded together and there were holes in the plastic casing. Wearily I removed the film and went without a camera until we reached Buenos Aires where I could buy yet another. This time it was plastic, fixed focus, had a flash that went off for every photograph regardless of the lighting conditions and cost a stunning five dollars, but it did the job. It took pictures and the pictures it took were mostly clear enough and sharp enough and I managed to get by.

With this camera, the last of my trip, I got through the Iguassu Falls, the stunningly pretty town of Paraty and the Rio Carnival. OK the pictures of the Rio Carnival were, frankly, terrible. The camera just wasn't up to the lighting conditions but I got a complete roll of absolute belters at the falls and some rather nice shots of Paraty.

When I got home a week or so later I discovered that like my original camera this one had also jammed, with the film still inside. I took both of them to my local shop where the films were retrieved and processed. The best shots of the trip turned out to be the ones I had taken with the cheapest camera.

Nowadays I travel with a digital camera and I'm back to having sharp resolution, up to 40x zoom, the ability to work in any lighting conditions AND a memory card that will hold up to 5000 pictures. When I took it to Chicago , after a day of shooting I accidentally deleted the whole card.

I may be a pretty good judge of a camera angle but I do have a lot of equipment trouble.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

I confess to great bafflement

Travelling home on the Metro I ran into Dave, a friend to whom I had given the address of this blog. He was kind enough to be quite complimentary about it. However he said that a post he had particularly enjoyed was the one where I had listed my top ten favourite movies. Not only do I have no recollection of ever having made such a list, here or anywhere else, but I can find nothing in my back posts that resembles such a thing. I wonder what it was he saw? And what he'd been drinking when he saw it.

(There you go Dave, a mention in my blog. You have finally achieved the level of fame that you have craved all these years! BTW, I have tried to send you a couple of e-mails that have bounced back to me. There seems to be a problem with your account. Maybe you should try gmail.)

Wednesday, 19 November 2008


Here's a little snippet from the Guardian web site.

"A study to raise awareness of geography found that two thirds of people (65%) mistakenly believe Britain is made up of four countries, rather than the correct three: England, Scotland and Wales."

Here's another quote, giving slightly different information.

"Britain,UK: These terms are synonymous. Britain is the official short form of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland... Great Britain, however,refers only to England, Wales and Scotland."

The source of the second quote?
Why The Guardian Book of English Language, a condensed version of the Guardian's own Style Manual. Oops!

Friday, 14 November 2008

Very Small Things

Over at Monkey Falls Off Tower they enjoy writing new tag lines to give away the endings of films. This isn't that but it was inspired by the concept. Here in the form of a poster is my review of the new Bond movie. *

(* Yes, yes. I know. I don't do reviews. Blah. Blah. This was too easy a target to miss.)

Sun comes up, sun goes down

The latest picture on John's blog at Blue Wave is a sunrise (or maybe a sunset, hard to tell one way or the other). I'm rather partial to sunrise and sunset pictures myself. So here's a little competition with no prize other than your feeling of satisfaction when you get the answers all right. Feel free to post your guesses as a comment. Answers, possibly, in a subsequent entry.

Here are a series of sunrise and sunset photographs from my own collection. All you have to do is correctly identify the countries and whether the sun is coming up or going down.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008


When I made the second of my long trips, the overland from London to Singapore trip, I passed through Gallipoli shortly before Anzac Day. My diary for the day is rather sombre. A little less than a week before that anniversary I visited the cemetaries and the small museum. I thought that today, Remembrance Day, would be an appropriate time to quote the diary and also the poem that I wrote after my visit.

20th April 2001

The plan for today had been explained in last night’s daily briefing as ‘drive around the various cemeteries and monuments of Gallipoli’. It turned out to be exactly that - a drive, without stopping, around various cemeteries and monuments until we reached the Australian Cemetery at Lone Pine. Gallipoli was one of the most famous campaigns of World War One and if few people in England ever mark it nowadays that is partly because twentieth century history is a topic out of fashion but mostly because it means so much more to Australians, New Zealanders and Turks. Over 10,000 Australian and New Zealand troops were lost during the campaign. In total from both sides a quarter of a million were dead, wounded or missing. 86,000 Turks and 160,000 Allied troops were estimated as having been killed in the action. Considering that the Anzac forces and the Turks fought a series of bloody naval and military engagements to little effect other than the loss of so many lives each side came to have an unusual amount of respect for the others and a strange bond was forged between the enemies. Now every year on 25th April, the anniversary of the day in 1915 when the troops first landed, all of the nations involved commemorate the occasion with Anzac day when the dead of both wars are honoured. In Turkey, at the Lone Pine Cemetery preparations were underway for the service to be held there. Wooden decking was being erected for the seating and everywhere was being made even more neat and tidy than before. I walked around reading the plaques laid flat in the ground. On grave after grave the story was plain, soldiers still in their twenties had died here. It was a cold but bright day and there was a sense of peace and infinite sadness about the place made all the more poignant for the fact that this cemetery was on the ‘enemy’ soil.

We drove on to the main site where there is a small but moving museum. The displays of bullets, bombs and bones were not in themselves very interesting but a series of display cases filled with letters and documents from the Anzac troops and similar items with translations provided from the Turkish troops were especially moving. Saddest of all is the way that the sentiments in the letters home, if not the actual words, mirror each other perfectly to the extent that it is difficult to know simply from the words who was writing - an Australian far from home or a Turk in his own country. Every letter is filled with trivial detail of how beautiful the area is and how much they miss being with their families in their own homes. When the fighting and bloodshed is mentioned at all it is with a melancholy understatement as if there was an unspoken agreement to protect their loved ones from the full horror of the situation.

One letter from a Turk to his mother talks of how he wishes she could see how beautiful and peaceful the land here is and how sad it makes him to think of home.

The experience of visiting such melancholy sites affected me more than I would have expected. I am not an Australian, a New Zealander or a Turk. I am not a soldier or a fighter. Nevertheless, perhaps because of my already sombre mood I found that it was the most moving and emotional war memorial that I had ever seen. Perhaps that should be ‘antiwar memorial’ for no-one who has visited Gallipoli can fail to see the futile irony of conflict. Afterwards, reflecting upon what I had seen as we drove back to our campsite, I wrote the first draft of what eventually became this poem.

In Gallipoli Museum

I saw two letters, under glass
In a room of weapons
Uniforms and photographs
And more.
I saw the fragments of the shells,
Mounted, captioned
Memorabilia of hell
And war.
The letters drew me to the day
- The calm between the storms -
When two men had tried to say,
With words that might console
If grimmer tidings came
And their name was on the roll
Of those to die.
Transcribed afresh and copied clean
Where faded ink on yellow page
Might be no more than simply seen,
And yet not read.
Each wrote of optimistic times,
Comforted his family far away
Tonight on opposing battle lines,
Tommorow dead.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Here we go again (providing we can look up the times)

Well, the Daily Mail do just love their hobbyhorses, don't they? Once again it seems that the foundations of our language are under attack from the forces of evil. What, I hear you ask, is it this time? Is it children texting? Is it misplaced apostrophes and split infinitives? Is it the President Elect using the word "enormity" to mean "extent"? No, it's none of these things, though I'm sure that editors at the Mail fume regularly about all of them.
This time it's the dumbing down of A-Level English exams by including such reading fare as tram timetables.
If there were any suggestion that the tram timetables were being used instead of other texts, perhaps as a replacement for Romeo and Juliet, then I would certainly be in whole-hearted agreement, but there isn't. They are simply being used as one of a wide range of texts. I teach English for a living, albeit to students for whom it isn't a first language. One of the Governments skills descriptors says the following at the lowest level (complete beginner)

"Rt/E1.2 recognise the different purposes of texts at this level"

and this, at the highest level (pre-University entrance)

"Rt/L2.2 identify the purpose of a text and infer meaning which is not explicit"

Examining the latter more closely we find "identify the purpose of a wide range of texts, whether inferred or explicitly stated" and later, under a different code "use organisational features and systems to locate texts and information".
This, remember, is how we teach high level foreign language speakers but apparently it isn't a skill that native speakers require.
That's plainly nonsense. Reading doesn't just mean reading the very best of English literature, it doesn't even mean just reading books be they good or bad. It means reading everything. It means locating information on bottles of aspirin, tomato ketchup bottles, Government information leaflets and, yes, tram timetables.
Texts are different and have to be approached differently. It would be as ludicrous to read a tram timetable from beginning to end in order as it would be to read Oliver Twist by taking random sentences from a few disparate pages somewhere in the middle of it.
One of the great skills of reading, that becomes instinctive over time, is knowing how to approach a text. A tram timetable is just as much a text as a newspaper article or a sonnet and knowing how to read it is just as important a skill, arguably a more important skill, as knowing how to read them.
As ever, in its rush to defend Victorian values, the Mail has chosen to make a sensationalist article out of something very trivial and ignored the true heart of the matter.
Of course another important reading skill is judging how much trust you can put in the things you read. I wonder if they'd consider that to be dumbing down.


Apparently I'm supposed to be offended.

Offensive to atheists.

The cult of the individual and other educational disasters

I shouldn't say it, after all it might get back to the wrong people and lose me my job, but sometimes I get profoundly depressed about teaching and education.It's not when I'm actually standing in front of a class, and it's not usually when I'm doing the associated preparation, and it's only rarely when I'm doing the apparently endless admin. No, it's usually when I'm off at some obligatory training.

Last week we had some obligatory training. Each of the three sessions I attended, in it's own way, depressed me a little bit further.

The first session was actually quite fun. We played with wireless keyboards, digital voice recorders, smart boards, digital cameras and so on. No two ways about it, it was fun. Nevertheless it depressed me. It depressed me because it seems to me that in our headlong rush towards embracing every bit of new technology that is thrown at us we seem to be forgetting what teaching is actually meant to be about. Let's get right down to basics. Teaching is this: one person has some knowledge or a skill, one or more others don't, the one who does attempts to transfer that knowledge or skill to the ones who don't.

You can use whatever tools you like but it doesn't change the actual purpose of the job. Now I teach people, who don't speak English, how to speak English. That's the skill I have that they don't. The technology is nothing more than toys. I have a use for some bits of it and I have no use for other bits of it. But the prevailing thinking seems to be that all technology is good technology, that if I choose to teach using a board and a marker then I am somehow failing my students. I'm sorry, I disagree. In my classes there are students that like computers and technology and students that don't. I have one student who wants to be a sound engineer and will happily play with any bit of electrical equipment I hand over. I have another who after eight weeks of trying STILL can't even manage to turn on the computer. And why should she? I'm not there to teach them how to use computers. I'm there to teach them English. Forcing computers onto everybody is a ridiculous idea and I've lost count of the number of times I've been forced to defend a policy that I don't believe in, in the face of questions like "Why are we wasting our time on computers when I came here to learn English?"

I don't need all these toys to teach and for the most part the students don't want them.

On then to part two and one of my own favourite betes noire, the cult of the individual. The second piece of training was about preparing for an inspection and focussed largely on ILPs. Let me say from the outset that I believe absolutely and without question that it is important to know and respond to your students as individuals. I believe you should get to know their strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes, their preferred learning styles. I also believe that it is the gravest and most fundamental of errors to believe that you can teach a class of twenty people by perceiving it as twenty separate units rather than one single entity. And that's what's wrong with the whole concept of Individual Learning Plans. The idea that there is time to give each student a twenty to thirty minute tutorial once every six weeks and in that tutorial set separate goals and separate time frames (don't get me started on SMART targets) and then teach your class in such a way that those goals are achieved, monitored and marked is beyond ludicrous. It's flat out impossible. There are only twenty four hours in a day and you cannot teach twenty sets of individual goals without teaching each student for ten minutes and neglecting him for the rest of the lesson. In the training I heard people claiming that they do it and do you know what? I don't believe them.

Whenever we have training on this subject most people seem to nod a lot and say what a great idea it all is and how, if they didn't do it before, they certainly will now. And I NEVER believe them. I try very hard never to believe anything that is actually impossible. The few people that I know with certainty agree with me on this invariably remain silent in this training. Others go along with the assertions of the trainers no matter how far from reality they stray. Everybody is scared that voicing contrary thoughts will be seen as the kind of negative thinking that will be frowned upon and could, in extreme circumstances lose them their jobs. Agree or shut up are the only choices available. And that's what depresses me here.

And so to the third and final piece of training, the Government's laudable, Every Child Matters agenda. For those who don't know I should point out that even though I teach adults the principal applies not just to children but to "vulnerable adults" which, by definition, includes those who cannot speak English. There is nothing much to disagree with in the policy unless it's that it should really say "Every Student Matters". The five principals are entirely uncontentious; every child has a right to be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution, achieve economic well-being. All that is fine. There are two things about such training that depress me. The first is only mild. Is the training really telling us anything that isn't just a matter of common sense? It's just an attempt to codify something that we all do every day anyway. So far it's not much of a problem. The more depressing thing is the obsession with not just codifying things but with documenting the minutiae of everything we do. Made a phone call to the housing authorities on behalf of a student? Write it down, record it, annotate it. Helped a student get a bus pass? Write it down, record it, annotate it. Something in your lesson plan that could be construed as fitting one of those categories? Make sure it's documented as such on the plan. Nothing in the plan that does the trick? Change the plan to make sure there is something.

I help my students on all five of those "rights" every day. If I have to spend hours writing it all down will I be more or less inclined to do it in the first place? What do you think? As I said before there are only twenty four hours in a day and as I've said elsewhere the obsessions in education with targets, measurability and evidence are killing teaching. Possibly killing teachers too with the stress of it all.

Now I feel profoundly depressed again. I think I'll go and do some of the fun bits of the job and prepare some lessons to cheer me up.

Preoccupations of the times

Yesterday I watched, back to back, the 2008 television version of Michael Crichton's novel, the Andromeda Strain, and the 1971 film of the same novel. Both are good and I don't really intend this to be a review of them. Instead what I'd like to comment on is how they show up the prevailing attitudes and obsessions of their respective times.
I don't mean the styles of the films, nor the cinematic qualities, nor the special effects. I don't even mean the way that the "cutting edge" technology of the film seems so quaint (as the TV version doubtless will twenty years from now.)

No I'm thinking of the way that the characters lives and backgrounds are portrayed and in particular the way that the plot, substantially the same, varies to reflect the attitudes of the day.

Taken together these two films make an interesting and intriguing social document. Take the main characters, for example. In the 1971 version there are four main members of the Wildfire team, three men and a woman. They are all upstanding citizens, middle-class, middle-aged, respectable white scientists of good, honest morally unambiguous backgrounds. A single example will suffice. The leader of the Wildfire project is Doctor Stone. When the army comes to alert him to a problem, he is at a family dinner party. His wife's main worry is that there are men with guns in the street (whatever will the neighbours think?) and that the dinner party will be disrupted.

In the 2008 version there are five of them, three white, one black, one Asian. There is a much wider age spread. There are three men and two women. One of them has a military background, one of them was involved in some dubious biological warfare research, only one is happily married and that is just a plot device to allow her to be blackmailed later. The leader now comes from a broken marriage and has an embittered teenage son and a mentally unstable ex-wife. One of the other members of his team is the former student with whom his affair was responsible for the family breakdown. This characterisation would have been more or less unthinkable in 1971.

There is also a significant change to the background characters. Outside Project Wildfire there are no characters of significance in the original. One character survives – General Manachek (strangely changing his name from Arthur to George for no particular reason and his race from Caucasian to Afro-American in keeping with the multi-ethnicity of modern times). Initially a very similar character to the original (a career soldier, with a very military point of view), he undergoes a bit of an apotheosis at the end of the 2008 version and ends up on the side of the scientists, morally speaking, rather than the military. The fact that in the 1971 version the scientists and military are already on the same side shouldn't be overlooked.
There is an additional, plot-driven, character in the 2008 version. Jack Nash, a pill-popping, glue-sniffing, alcoholic journalist who is hot on the trail of the story while being pursued by sinister government types who want to kill him. This character simply couldn't have been put into the original, partly because of the lifestyle he is shown as having but mostly because it wouldn't have worked because his segment of the plot is very much a product of the post X-Files conspiracy-obsessed generation.

And that's where we come on to look at some significant plot changes. All of the main plot is intact. Satellite crashes to Earth. Deadly virus is released. Town dies except for two survivors. Scientists at secret lab race to find a way to destroy the virus. Many of the key scenes are almost shot for shot remakes. The trouble is that that is pretty much all of the original. It's a slow paced piece focussing entirely on what they are doing to solve the problem. There is a small subplot about a Senate Committee wanting to cut funding for the project and antagonism between the senate committee and the scientists. The project is temporarily cut off from the outside world by an equipment malfunction. (A device necessary for plot reasons.) However, everybody is on the same side. Everybody wants to save America and the world. Everybody is a good guy. Unsurprisingly the good guys succeed but where the "virus" came from and what it is remain a bit of a mystery.

What about now? Well now, we come onto the preoccupations of our time in a big way. The basic conflict is now between shadowy Government agencies who want to exploit the virus as a biological weapon and scientists who want to save the world. The project is intentionally denied contact with the outside world to force them to toe the line. The story is less about finding out what to do about the problem than it is about this conflict of interests. There is a subplot involving the flawed, but decent, journalist who tries to expose them while they try to kill him. There is another subplot involving injudicious exploitation of natural resources which may set the world on a path to disaster. And, because nothing is allowed to remain unexplained, there is a weird subplot about the virus having been sent through a wormhole from the future and containing microscopically coded secret messages.

We live in paranoid times. The X-Files and a thousand other programs have conditioned us to expect Governmental conspiracy. No program that involves Government can show it as being clean and acting in the interests of the people. The Government is always the bad guy. Here among other things, they shoot people, blow up their own helicopters and personnel trying to kill a journalist, kidnap a family to blackmail a doctor and want to use a plague that will destroy the world as a weapon.

This is the major theme of the new version. It's familiar ground. In everything, from the Sarah Connor Chronicles to Spooks, the government is shown as at best morally grey and at worst, downright evil. Apart from that bizarre and unnecessary time-travel-subplot, the Andromeda strain reflects the modern trend to jump at shadows and see conspiracies in what is usually no more than incompetence. Somewhere between then and now we have lost both our belief in the family and our trust in Government. Either or both of these things may or may not be good and may or may not be justified – I take no stance on the matter – but they have, to judge by our media, certainly happened. Whether the films are a product of the prevailing mores or vice-versa is a harder question but, as I said before, these two versions of the same thing make an interesting social document comparing the two eras.

(And oh boy, do those 1970s computers, and ticker-tapes, and medical equipment, and… …and everything, look quaint. I shall revisit this post in twenty years, if I'm still around, and comment on the quaintness of the computer simulations, the voice activated equipment and the biological hazard suits in the 2008 version.)

Saturday, 1 November 2008

And I'd buy it because...?

I am very rarely persuaded to buy something by an advertisement - my cheapskate approach to life means that I buy mainly supermarket own brands - but I have occasionally been persuaded NOT to buy something by advertisements. There are a couple of such self-defeating campaigns running at the moment. One is for a web based price comparison site. The advertisements in this campaign feature a number of characters (real actors) in poorly drawn cartoon sets using cartoon props (for example an oversize cardboard cut-out of a TV remote control). The trouble with the adverts is that the characters featured all come over as congenital half-wits, the kind of people for whom the Jeremy Kyle or Trisha* shows would be too intellectual. The kind of people who think that those appearing on Jeremy Kyle or Trisha are the creme-de-la-creme of the intelligentsia. The overwhelming impression that the ads leave is only someone with the IQ of a tapeworm would consider using the product.
The other spectacularly backfiring ad misses the mark for entirely different reasons. There is a campaign running trying to persuade us of the benefits of switching to high-definition TV. Now leaving aside my well-known technophobe objections to being sold a "better" system that isn't actually any better, there is something rather remarkable about the ads. They take bits of popular films and digitally process them to give a sharper image and a bit of a 3D effect and then show this to persuade me that I should buy an HD set. When I've looked at them my first though has been, "That looks pretty neat" and my second thought has been, "Hang on, it looks neat on my old non-HD set so why exactly am I supposed to buy a new HD set?" Clearly a bit of a waste of money.

As an aside, and not my story at all, I made the observation about HD to someone I was drinking with the other night. He told me that a shop he had been in was running, side by side, the same item in HD and in non-HD as a marketing ploy. The HD did indeed, he said look better than his own TV at home (although possible because it was a bigger brighter screen). The non-HD was where they failed to sell him though. According to him it was fuzzy, in poor focus and generally of about the quality of a tenth generation video tape copy and hence nowhere near the normal standard of a normal TV. If there was any real advantage to buying HD, he concluded, they wouldn't have to doctor the non-HD version so blatantly to sell it. My inner technophobe rejoiced to find a kindred spirit.

*For Americans who may not be familiar with Jeremy Kyle or Trisha, think Jerry Springer but dumbed down. They both run programs with titles like "My boyfriend's transsexual uncle molested my poodle" or "My mother's secret lovechild stole my husband". And sadly those examples are nowhere near as bizarrely outrageous as real ones would have been but I couldn't bring myself to Google for them.