Warming Up the Rubber Chickens

I don’t often agree with Tom Harris, the Labour MP for Glasgow South and Twtter ‘attack dog’. Lovely chap, probably, and a Doctor Who fan like me, so there should be some level of understanding between us; (I’ll check by way of these stock answers;

1) Patrick Troughton
2) Chiwetel Ejiofor
3) The sonic screwdriver
4) Still nowhere near as bad as RTD
5) I don’t think anyone, from producer downwards, actually knows what was blowing up the TARDIS in Series 5, so let’s just leave it as that)

Harris recently wrote against the leaders debate, those moments of “groundbreaking”/”useless” televisual delights from 2010, around which the general election of that year appeared to orbit. And like Harris, I would rather they never happened again.

I’ve written against the debates before and indeed hindsight suggests that even when writing about them at the time, there was an underlying sense of their uselessness. Looking back three years as we stand approximately two years away from the next general election and it all looks clear; repeating the leaders debates would be a huge mistake.

As a Liberal Democrat – and a small l liberal, no less – my default setting is “reform”.  There’s no cog or wheel of the British democratic system, which doesn’t need fixing. Our voting system is broken, our unwritten constitution needs writing, our Parliament needs reducing in size (and one part of it needs scrapping completely), the relationship between local government and local electors requires serious repair, and so on, etc, forever. Of course “leaders debates” seemed part of the solution back in 2010, within the context of the expenses scandal and total collapse in respect for politicians. They could even help decide the result, mixing in the “West Wing at Westminster” attitude Tom Harris writes about.

The debates had been part of the “reform” process, though as we look back, they’ve enacted more damage than repair.

Harris is not the first MP to bemoan the presidential manner of our elections. Shirley Williams and Anne Widdecombe used their allotted time with Jeremy Paxman during the 2005 general election programme on BBC One to do just that; and the then Ms Williams did much the same on the 1987 equivalent [yes, I’m the kind of person who watches general election reruns on YouTube. Judge me, go on.]  The British system has always been in danger of turning presidential, and it wasn’t specifically Tony Blair in 1997 who accelerated the process. By 1979 the media had already chosen to focus on the suitability of individuals as Prime Ministerial material in the context of that decade’s political and social unrest, with little in the way of opposition for them doing so. Margaret Thatcher’s handbagging of all and any opponents (usually within her own party), increased the importance of figureheads in the British system, despite that very system not being built to suit such a system.

By 1997, the PR driven “New Labour” campaign took advantage of the accelerated media let attitude towards presidential style politics. Forget the 650-ish individual fights across the country, many of which are interesting, complex, charged contests, it’s all about the money shots; three British party leaders getting on open-topped bus…(no, no, no, they get on helicopters and get cheered on arrival by hundreds of specially invited/vetted guests).

The good old days election campaigns which Harris invokes – men dressed as rubber chickens following candidates down the road being one of the great British traditions – are increasingly rare. That’s something to mourn. Like most people I want – expect even – a proper and thorough election campaign, something the leaders debate actively destroyed. They weigh down the efforts of all other candidates, blocking their efforts like the school bully standing guard at the top of the stairs or the toilet doors. Everything which the British system used to focus upon – the local contests in marginal seats, the make do and mend campaigns with cash-strapped associations – have been gradually pushed off camera. Little wonder that some people with whom I used to work assumed that the role of Prime Minister was directly elected.

Maybe this is nostalgia. Or senility. Nobody wants to become the old men huddled around pub tables moaning how music doesn’t quite sound like it did, and the last thing any political nerd wants to do is turn into an auto-anecdote robot; (“Oh, when Guildford declared first in 1974 you just KNEW things were going to change.”). But there’s a lot to be said for the low-rent, small change, and yes, honest way British elections used to be run. Let’s try to tempt one or two genies back into the bottle. The media must be persuaded to stop treating elections as Prime Ministerial bunfights, though political parties will also need to disable most of their machinery too. There are hundreds of MPs whose fights against placard waving, chicken suit wearing, leaflet waving protesters are ignored because of the bright lights of three (plus one) party leaders and their choreographed routines.

I can’t bring back cheesy 90s dance, or decent storylines to Neighbours (or Doctor Who for that matter), but sure as damnit I can try to move British elections back to Britain….Even if it means aligning myself to Tom Harris…

Game Over

The new video game sensation is ‘The Last of Us’, and for the Guardian’s Stuart Heritage, it’s bringing to clear focus just how hopeless he is playing them.

And you know what, Stuart, me too.

As a child of the 80s and 90s, my game memories begin with the beige box of dreams that was the Commodore64, cassette tapes and all. And whilst “New Zealand Story” and “Paddington’s Garden Game” passed off without incident, and the most basic of basic racing games attracted my borderline autistic tendencies, anything beyond “point, click, shoot” made my heart sink.

Upgrading to the Mastersystem and latterly SNES didn’t help. I could do Mario, I loved Mario, and Prince of Persia, all 2-D scrolling platforms and minor difficulty curves. Sometime between the SNES and not having anything at all, I had a brief relationship with the original PlayStation, though only for the aerial-shot “Grand Theft Auto”. And then…nothing. For about 20 years, give or take.

As expected, the subsequent years without anything more taxing than matching coloured shapes to each other to pass the time has not been without moments of computer game awkwardness. I’m the trainee judge, the clueless grandfather, the nervous first-date, politely taking a controller only to have it taken off me with barely hidden pity. Football classics such as “ProEvo” become lessons in advance mathematics, my eyes forever focused on a player unable to move, or unwilling to join his teammates, or just more interested in dancing around the touchline than touching the ball. “That one, that one to shoot!”, “SHORT! Just needs to be SHORT!” and all other manner of spirited instructions come my way for no great benefit.

A few months ago a friend asked if I wanted to join in as a third player in some crazy looking multiplayer first-person shooter effort. It soon came to an end; he and another player ran ahead shooting, killing, jumping, crouching, attacking. I was stuck. “Is that the sky?” I asked. “Yes, Liam, press that to run, run over here, we’ll wait.”

Oh, “We’ll wait”, how often I heard that. They would clear a room of enemies whilst I banged into doors, walls, or had my lower half cut to shreds by an unseen assailant. “We’ll wait ahead,” he’d say, watching me spinning around confused. Sometimes literally.

People I know are left bemused. Me, of all people, should be up to my elbows in computer games, eager to throw myself into words of warcraft and such. No, alas, not. I lose all my concentration, understanding of basic functions and sense of normality. Heat rises, confusion reigns, sense drips away like a badly coded Health Bar. I watch others play, say, “Red Dead Redemption” and think it would be possible to learn that sort of thing pretty easily. Then I have a go, and there’s more “dead” than “redemption”. Whoops, there goes my guns/horse/legs. Oh dear, I’m face to face with a leopard and all I can do is scroll through music options or pause-restart-pause-restart like a jumpy teenager worried about an XTube video has woken his parents.

Now games are growing more complex and complicated, not to mention components of multitudes of add-ons, downloads and the like, I’m left on the casual gamer island watching the Good Ship Video Game sailing off into the horizon. Where once I worried my mum with my inability to leave the Commodore 64 loading screen, I’m now sat at the back of the living room whilst everybody else crowds round the flat screen. I’m a regular visitor to ZeroPunctuation, only for the laughs rather than first hand knowledge of the latest installments of Shooter-Season 2011 or whatever the trend is at the moment.

Whether I like it or not, I have to accept that video games fell from my grasp at the first sign of advancing into what they are now today, leaving me with regular psychological check-ups for addiction to WordsWithFriends. Maybe “The Last of Us” truly is the newest high-point in a good few years in gaming, I really wouldn’t know. I’d spend too long fathoming out how to stand up straight before crashing into a wall. And then maybe I’d try to turn the game on….

Lea Road – a forgotten station

As eager as I am to blame one man and one man alone for ruining British railways, the case of Lea Road in Preston has no connection to him. For once.

“The Civil Parish of Lea and Cottam” is the long-winded formal way of referring to the north-west parts of the city of Preston. The “Lea” bit is really two communities, one of your actual semi-rural villages right up against the city border, and a compact suburban sprawl. “Cottam” really was one of those “in my day, all this were fields” type of places, where the fields are now mere fringes for numerous new-build estates all constructed to look like glossy-magazine spreads. In an act of daft marketing brainfarts, which blights every new-build estate, the contrived look of a rural village is somewhat ruined by the ever decreasing amount of untouched rural surroundings caused by….new-build developments.

Maybe it’s just me.  I’ve seen new-build apartments built with bricked-up windows and pretend delivery doors five floors up, just to give the impression to those paying over £100,000 for their shiny new IKEA playground it’s 17th century olde England. Baffled, I am.

Anyhoo, splitting Lea from Cottam, broadly speaking, are the Preston-Blackpool train line and the Lancaster canal. It’s typical of this country that it’s the latter which is more likely to take local people into Preston.

“Lea Road” runs from the main Blackpool Road in the south to Cottam in the north, running through a patch of well-to-do houses with crunchy gravel gardens and the like, before opening out to a field on one side and UCLAN’s recommissioned Westleigh House on the other. From here the pavement vanishes, homes become more stone than brick, and the distinct waft of a real life, actual working farm flicks over the humped canal bridge. This is the distinct boundary between Preston and….well, not Fulwood, so “not Preston”, where rural central Lancashire penetrates Preston’s solid urban core.

OS Map (Copyright to them) of Lea Road Station

OS Map (Copyright to them) of Lea Road Station

It’s about half-way along, just off a 90s housing boom estate running off Summer Trees Avenue, where the soon to be electrified Preston-Blackpool railway cuts its way through. Alas the nearby pub, latterly known as the Cotty Brook, has been closed for what appears to be a considerable amount of time, the nearside nettles and bracken encroaching in the way which proves the old maxim, “Nature always wins.”

There’s not much at ground level to show where Lea Road station used to be, particularly the old signal box or even so much of an entrance. The “Ashton On Ribble” website provides a snapshot of how it looked from the top and via the invaluable Preston Digital Archive there’s an aerial photograph taken from MARIO that gives some indication of how much the area has changed. The land to the left is still there (albeit FAR messier and over-grown), whilst to the right housing and business units have been built in recent years.

I made my jaunt to Lea Road on an overcast Sunday afternoon, which necessitated meandering through the overgrown and muddy sort-of-not-quite path through Haslam Park, a kind of sedate adventure playground for dog-walkers which uniquely amongst Preston’s parks hasn’t lost (much) of its charm. I found my way to the Millennium Canal Link “thing”, a project infamous for the construction and swift removal of “the Piddler in the River”, a statue ultimately lost for good at the expense of £25,000. That’s a lot for wood nobody thought checking for, say, water damage or, you know, going rotten. AS WOOD TENDS TO DO.

In all truth and honesty, the station probably wouldn’t have survived long after the War which followed its initial closure, particularly as Beeching would have noticed how little housing or even schools existed in walking distance, never mind driving, at the time of the ‘reshaping’ report. Added to that, it would be almost impossible to construct health-and-safety satisfying ramps and what-not today in such a cramped, tight space.

Almost all signs of the station have been long lost. The archways underneath the lines are bricked up, with REDUNDANT SPAN painted in white capitals. One long-lost plan for the station was an impressively ambitious project to link the Blackpool line with the West Coast Main Line at Broughton/Fulwood, enabling the under-strain Preston station to lose some of its stresses. A great “what if” opens up in the mind, as Lea Road would have almost certainly given Beeching something to think about if Blackpool – Scotland traffic justified the lack of construction opportunities around the expanded line.All which remains now are the bricked up arches, suggesting show much about its past whilst showing little.

Unlike in the days of my youth, it’s impossible to walk beside the track itself. (No, really, back in High School, it was quite the done thing to sit around the Blackpool line and…never mind. NOBODY DIED.)  Now there’s a metal fence with the usual warning signs, and a good set of spider webs set for the summer.

Thanks in part to BNFL Springfields (…no, really), the neighbouring Salwick station remains open, for around four trains a day, none on weekends. Alas the fortune was not smiling at Lea Road, for whom the 1930s were not sympathetic or full of promise enough to persuade powers that be to hold on.

By way of a coda, both Lancashire County Council  and Preston City Council support the construction of a new station at Cottam, although the current plans are sketchy at best (literally, one could say, as it depends on the construction of a “Preston Distributor Road” from two points yet to be decided). At least it’s something, albeit 20-odd years out of date, and a rare sign of positive attitudes towards public transport in a city with very little such evidence hitherto.

Advising long lost or forgotten engineers....

Advising long lost or forgotten engineers….

One for the entrance, one reportedly just in case of the Broughton extension

One for the entrance, one reportedly just in case of the Broughton extension

In my day, we'd sit around alongside this. INNOCENT TIMES

In my day, we’d sit around alongside this. INNOCENT TIMES

One way up

The slope on the left now used by engineers

The slope on the left now used by engineers

....there's at least a bus service. The Orbit takes about 3 hours to crawl around the outskirts

….there’s at least a bus service. The Orbit takes about 3 hours to crawl around the outskirts

Finland at Eurovision

The unconscious madness of Eurovision heads into its fourth era – “relative normality” – at a time when its place in the schedules appears even more tenuous than normal. At least during the third era – “beyond parody”, aka “the early 2000s”, aka “what do you mean, irony?” – there was a sense that eventually everything would calm down. Like the child left alone with a six-pack of Dr Pepper, “eventually” took a long time. Maybe too long. We shall see.

Waiting too long for something to come from investing time, money and, well just money into the whole affair was Finland, one of the nations which joined the family back in the black-and-white days. The booze-and-mobile country famous for giving those pesky Russians what for had to wait until the peak/nadir/plateau/trough of the “novelty years” to win, appropriately enough with a self-parody rock song which correctly balanced “camp” with “FLAMING” in a year when such a feat seemed lost to the ages.

Anyway, Finland began in the early 1960s, an era of Eurovision which underlined how out of touch it was with the music “scene” even then. If you’ve ever been hungover/coming down/humping on Saturday mornings with BBC Two in the background, you’ll probably recognise the orchestral background to Finland’s debut from the RKO “classics”.

“Playboy” was perhaps their first real shot at understanding how Eurovision actually “worked”, by proudly sounding so out of step with the music at the time it’s little wonder every passing American felt it their duty to flood radio stations with their own artists.

Finland eventually swigged every available drop of booze and vowed to remain as detached from reality as dear old Auntie Margaret for as long as possible. And by my measure, this trip on the HMS Batshit lasted from before my parents met to just after puberty smacked me around the particulars, so that’s pretty good going. Dear old Finland launched into the spirit(s) with “Tom Tom Tom”, “Pump Pump” and many moons later “Yama Yama” without a care in the world. They were trolling Europe well before it became fashionable – wouldn’t you say, Eastern Europe – and always with an undercurrent of sincerity, like the office bitch, if you will.

(In)Famously, the unhinged behaviour of Finland introduced the contest to moments of remarkable moments in television history, not just music. I doubt we’ll ever get over the initial impact of hearing a soft-punk-ish entry about nuclear war, complete with punches to the head at every chorus, never mind their joyful tune about the Rapture taking away all life on earth except for the singer (or at least that’s what I took from the lyric “Though a hundred lightning strikes at the earth and all of life explodes, nobody can take love from me.”)

As a child of the 90s, my fondest memories are watching Finland attempt to sober up. This was ultimately achieved when Eastern Europe gatecrashed the party, meaning the old hands had to sit out due to a low average score/just not being good enough/being sick over Norway, that sort of thing. In reality that meant coming down from the too good to be really bad to the crushing disappointment of being in Birmingham. I mean, the crushing disappointment of watching as their most grounded and sensible song in decades crashed and burned without mercy.

(I blame the man playing the plant pot)

The fallow years of the entire contest, not just Finland’s journey through it, was topped  by them winning the thing (sorry, Portugal, not going to happen). They made a good attempt at avoiding being forever associated with madcap lunacy with something soft, and something disco, both of which were welcomed by the Eurovision family with a reaction approaching that of a husband greeting the wife’s new haircut with too heavy a pause.

So anyway, Lordi happened, which the rest of Europe thought was good enough to copycat to a degree (Czech Republic, Albania, Macedonia, the usuals). When Finland tried to copy themselves, always a good card to play at Eurovision, it was with a better song (and therefore had no chance).

Most recently, we’ve seen Finland settling down to such normality (lad with guitar singing about saving the world, woman without guitar singing in Swedish and subsequently getting death threats from supporters of True Finns) that it was with refreshing to tune in this year to watch both Azerbaijan and feminism being shot with the one bullet of “Marry Me”. As a reprise of everything they once stood for, “Marry Me” was a plunge into the sauna – dance routine, dodgy lyrics (“I’m your slave and you’re my master!”) and a gay kiss, it’s as though  the 2000s had never happened…..

all trigger, no bullets

What we know in Britain as democracy is a clumsy and chaotic compromise position, moulded through centuries of give, take and establishment necessity. Without the structure from a written constitution, it’s been possible to grow electoral administration only as successfully as it is possible to call “gardening” the act of throwing seeds onto a pavement. Every element of our electoral and constitutional machinery is broken – from the way in which legislation is timetabled to the voting system for Town Halls. Nothing works as it should, or indeed could, and for all the talk of necessary “repair work” on that machinery, not one party leader seems willing to break out the WD40.

It’s only a few years ago that David Cameron appeared on television with his sleeves rolled up and a screwdriver in his hand. Politics was broken, and he was the emergency call-out man who could help fix it. With the formation of the Coalition, it seemed even more likely that something would be done, as after all there’s no group on these islands more obsessed with improving the democratic ills than the Liberal Democrats. Maybe, just maybe, something would actually be achieved.

And then they had to spoil it all by saying something stupid like, “It’s being considered very carefully”. This is establishment speak for “We’re not interested, go away”.

The cases of Eric Joyce, Patrick Mercer and to an extent Nadine Dorries in the jungle have brought into stark focus one of many problems which keep the 21st century United Kingdom anchored in the 19th century. The good voters of Falkirk, Newark, and Mid-Bedfordshire did not vote for their MPs to leave their parties (or for that matter the country to appear on reality television), nor did they vote for an MP to confirm he won’t stand at the next election after being arrested though would stay on as an MP, on full pay, away from his party. The people of Falkirk voted for a Labour MP, not an independent, and under our broken system they can’t do a thing about this. They can’t even protest at the next election, because Eric Joyce won’t be there to face their decision.

This situation is one amongst many cuckoo-banana realities of British democracy.

When Cameron and Clegg spoke of the “right to recall”, one of the ways these situations could be resolved, there was a sense that lessons had actually been learned. Maybe, just perhaps, “right to recall” was on its way, and Britain would be able to boot out errant MPs in-between elections.

And then, the proposals came out, and the chance collapsed like a flan in a cupboard. What the Coalition proposed was not “right to recall”, as wanted by Douglas Carswell, Zac Goldsmith and others, but a form of State-approved confirmation hearings. Rather than allowing members of the electorate to decide if an MP should be subject to a recall by-election, Nick Clegg and Tom Brake put their names to a process by which electors would have to wait for the establishment to make its own decision. Policing the police, and all that, and nothing close to how Cameron had initially voiced his determination to clean up politics.

“Right to recall” would deal with examples like Joyce, Mercer and Dennis McShane if there was a genuine will within their constituencies. There’s little to no danger of opposition supporters trying to “rig” referenda; who other than political obsessives would attempt to oust all 650 MPs? There’s plenty of clear and obvious safeguards against “rigging” – including only permitting the process to start after a resignation or under-12 month prison sentence – that fears expressed about all MPs being under constant threat sound nothing more than willing the long grass to grow.

The Clegg/Cameron approach to the “trigger” element of the process lacks exactly the power which voters need to keep their MPs in check. It’s exactly the same fault which killed off the AV referendum, boundary reviews and House of Lords reform – a lot of talk about weaponary, very little evidence of firepower.

There are so many faulty and failing elements of the British electoral system that’s it difficult to know where to start. I’d love to see a fully proportional system for electing local government, I’d love to see an end to the stubby pencil, I’d love to see votes at 16, but with every passing year it seems the UK is happy to slide back another decade into a dusty, irrelevant past. “Right to recall” is a sidestep into responsibility, maturity, and the present day. Or at least the 20th century. Let’s see it introduced properly.