Sunday, January 30, 2005

Book review: Hard Times by Charles Dickens

It was good to dip into the master again. Charles Dickens wrote well-constructed stories (if you ignore the occassional howling coincidences, but then these are a bit part of life) using delightfully constructed sentances. The language is very understandable - he is far less likely to over construct than many of his contempories. The characters are great - usually just a dog's hair larger than life, and showing us people really haven't changed all that much in the last 100-odd years. He is also a master of the catchphrase, and often done so subtly you don't realise there is a catchphrase going on. Despite the satire in many of the sections, his books are filled with compassion for us humans stuck in situations we made without even really trying.

Hard Times itself depicts a ficticious northern industrial town, where ordinary inhabitants aren't even considered full people, just 'Hands'. The people who run the behemothic factories that consume them every morning only to spew them back out into the smoggy town are shown to be false, self-deluding men of narrow ideals and no real understanding of anything other than figures. An amusing yet saddening book, funny in a troubling way. It would be nice to smile at this book as a picture of a time that has long since left us. A time where people were just fuel for the factories. But in many places in the world, this is still true. Coketown may not exist any more, but Niketown does.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Habouring Thoughts

The Chinese have announced figures which show that Shanghai is now the world's biggest harbour, knocking Rotterdam off the top spot it has enjoyed for many years. The figures come from the Chinese government and so are possibly not completely to be trusted. But they are believable. Shanghai's (and indeed the whole of China's) growth of late has been phenomenal.

There's a lot of 'em, and the contry is no longer run on purely communist lines, if indeed it ever was. In fact, in my experience, the Chinese are not natural communists. They have an entrepreneurial spirit that leaves most countries to shame.

There have been a few stories about Shanghai over the last few months. Not for any single reason, but they have all served to give me pangs of something like home sickness. I think another visit is due.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Liver Aid

Having said what I said about Charity records, I should say I don't count Charity Concerts in the same bucket. (If that's the phrase.) These are not the pile of eviless charity records are. Admittedly, they are always littered with the latest teen sensations, over-rated TV hosts and other unworthies, but they are hupefully not all gathered in one place and singing something so lame that if it were a horse, they'd have to shoot it. Mind you for some latest teen sensations and all over-rated TV hosts this is not an unusual state of affairs. Their songs being typically lame. But charity songs plum depths of lameness that do not normally make it through the (admittedly low) quality threshold of the guardians of pop music. < /spleen>

The point I was trying to get to was that on Thursday I went to the impromptu charity concert constructed in Amsterdam's Dam Square. The concert featured such Dutch luminaries and Bløf and DJ Tiesto and was not surprisingly very well attended. It was free, but many people went round with the modern equivalent of the bucket, the clipboard and pile of bank transfer forms. No one can object to this. All the money you spent on beer from the alcohol stands went straight to the charities, which is a great idea. I must confess I woke up with a hangover, but my conscience was clear.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

International Rescue

All New Years feelings were tempered a little this year with news of the ever-increasing Tsunami death toll in Asia. The figures were shocking when they were first put out at over 10,000. Now the estimates are in the region of 150,000 it's quite overwhelming. The Dutch press is a little less timid than the Press in other countries about printing pictures of dead people. It's not (usually) done gratuitously, more when it is a representative picture. The one of a pool of muddy water chock full of floating wood and bodies really summed it all up for me.

In the wake of such a disaster, there are always terrible after effects. Disease, food shortage, and, further afield, Dutch B-list music stars have already set a date to get together to record a charity song. Not to sound flippant - it is very little to endure compared to hunger and disease - but it is unnecessary. Especially as charity is already flooding in and it is not a forgotten or under-publicised tragedy. So rather than buying a record where all PROFITS go to charity, isn't it better to NOT have another weak and aggravating song to be overplayed on the radio and to give the money direct so that all of the MONEY goes to charity.

And before you ask, no I did not like Feed The World. In fact the first moment I heard it, I though, here is a song that will haunt my generation. Having said that, as charity records go, it was one of the better ones. But that ain't saying much.

In summary: help charities you believe in to the amount of your choosing, but by no means ever buy a charity record, it only encourages them.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Whiz Bang

Many countries have a day when the people set off fireworks in celebration of something or other. In the Netherlands it is New Year's Eve. A few days before, the build-up begins. Occasional pooms of firecrackers litter the soundscape. The frequency increases gradually, at first, but actually it is an exponential curve so that the rate of firecracker explosions and rocket launches increases until the evening of the day itself. This is when kids are to be seen throwing firecrackers at cars and occasional bursts of cluster-firecrackers. Through the evening, there are increasing numbers of fireworks launched.

Upon the hour of change itself, all hell breaks loose. What before sounded like sporadic gunfire, becomes a full-on assault. The world, his wife and their 8-year-old son are on the street setting off huge rounds of firecrackers and launching all manner of fizzing, popping, whooshing, whizzing, spinning, sparkling, sploffing, poofing, booming things. Mostly in a way that is frighteningly unsafe.

In the UK, our firework day is the 5th of November and celebrates a failed attempt at what today would be called terrorism, but was probably more of a revolutionary thing. The plan was to blow up the seat of government, and there are those that joke that Guy Fawkes was the last man to enter Parliament with honest intent. The joke would be somewhat different had he succeeded, I am sure. But in the lead up to the celebration of the thwarting of the gunpowder plot (celebrated by setting of fireworks and burning effigies of Mr Fawkes), there are so many public service announcements and advertisements about the dangers of fireworks that most English people are convinced even looking at one can cause harm. And as a rule, they are set off by following the instructions to the letter.

I am always surprised at the lack of death and injury the day yields. I read that one kid was killed from a firework to the face, but have not seen any figures for injuries. They must be high. Alcohol, exuberance and fireworks are not the safest combination there is. That is probably lukewarm tea, light enjoyment and a nice warm scone. Happy New Year, everybody, raise your scones high.

Fireworks - Scones - The Choice is Yours

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Happy 2005

This year I promise to be:

1. Less sarcastic.
2. Less cynical.
3. better in my sentance structure.

Yeah, like all that's gonna happen.