I have a little list

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Despite their apparent omnipresence on the interwebs, listicles are not a new thing. When I first went to work in the UK, every mid- and downmarket tabloid newspaper was running daily items such as “15 things you didn’t know about Jimmy Saville” (although they missed out the really important one).

I don’t think they were called listicles then, but they were a staple of journalism because the editors knew that the readers liked them. Oh, and they were (and are) very easy and cheap to compile (except that the researchers had to used the newspaper’s clippings library to find their facts rather than Google).

If only they’d have devised a way of making people buy more than one copy of the paper to find out the next fun fact, which is essentially what websites do know by requiring you to click through to the next page for another meaty morsel.

Anyway, it got me thinking about what kind of clickbait headings I might use if I lowered myself to the level of running regular little lists.

Here are some off the top of my head:

Ten celebrities you don’t give a damn about any more

Twenty foods that will make you even fatter

Seven sex positions that will send you straight to hospital

Thirty-five excuses for not going straight home tonight

Eighteen people you wouldn’t spit on if they were on fire

Eleven countries you never knew existed — and one that doesn’t any more

Three things you’ll have forgotten by this time tomorrow

Fourteen places you may have left your car keys

Six billion people who don’t even know you exist

 

 

The future is not free

Doctor Who from the BBC
Doctor Who from the BBC

Back in March, 2012, I wrote a few articles on my former blog about how we will consume television shows and films in the future, noting that the free-to-air television stations were living on borrowed time.

Now that was before Netflix and other streaming services  had taken a hold in Australia (which was my specific market of reference then), but there were already all sorts of offerings on cable, satellite and the internet that seemed a lot more interesting to me than what the free-to-air (FTA) networks were offering.

The day after I tackled the subject, I received a confidential message from somebody who worked in the television industry.

Noting that “fatal decay” in broadcast television had begun many years ago, my correspondent noted : “Who wouldn’t rather order from a menu?”

As I wrote then: the food analogy is a useful one, but I’d employ it differently. I’d say, who would want to choose from a limited menu when there’s a whole smorgasbord to be enjoyed? Oh, and not everybody wants to eat at the same time, and no matter how good the chef is, we don’t always want to eat at the same restaurant.

This is why, even with the greater flexibility offered by having extra digital channels, free-to-air television can’t compete with pay-TV, let alone the internet.

This is a global phenomenon. At the moment, network production resources are largely devoted to sport, news and current affairs, and reality TV. That’s a good thing for short-term ratings results but, in general, these programs have a very short “shelf life”, meaning limited returns in terms of repeat fees.

To survive, networks  must focus on being production houses first, and broadcasters second. The BBC, for example, is constantly under threat of having its budget slashed through the reduction (or ultimate elimination) of the licence fee that Britons pay to support it. Its ultimate lifeline will be its vast back catalogue of quality drama and comedy — including the likes of Fawlty Towers, Black Adder, (the original) House of Cards, Bleak House and so many more —  its ongoing role as producer of such shows as Doctor Who and Sherlock, which are popular beyond the UK, and its international news, entertainment and documentary channels.

If other broadcasters are not out there seeking fresh talent — starting with writers who can produce great scripts — and prepared to take a punt on drama and comedy, then they are signing their own death warrants.

Ultimately, even material produced by what are now the FTA networks will appear first on paid-for platforms. FTA TV will be a wasteland of repeats with little or no marketable value, or with some appeal to particular advertisers (think of a supermarket chain sponsoring a cooking channel).

There may be a few people who are prepared to wait until the content they want to see to appear on FTA, but most of us will opt to pay for what we want to see, as long as we can see it now. Right now.

Meaty questions

A meal with meat
A meal with meat

I’ve been part of an on-off conversation, in person and over social media, about the pros and cons of vegetarianism and veganism.

As usual, especially in the internet age, it’s easy to find scientific “evidence” to prove the worth of any dietary whim. The latest is that lard and butter are better for you than some vegetable oils, which may cause cancer, and that three glasses a champagne a day can stave off dementia (it’s a shame that I only drink to forget).

I can certainly understand the argument that eating meat involves animal cruelty. But that is one of the unpleasant truths that I and other carnivores choose to put to one side, or simplistically explain away (“they were bred to be eaten, and as long as they have a nice life out in the paddocks don’t suffer too much when they’re slaughtered, well, that’s OK”).

If people have made a conscious choice to eschew meat for that reason, more power to them. But, like the religious fringe-dwellers who knock on suburban doors on the weekend, they should not expect too many of us to convert to their way of thinking.

What I don’t buy, however, is the argument that vegetarian or vegan diets are actually better for us. Maybe I’m not meeting the right people, but all the vegans I’ve ever met have looked incredibly pail and frail. And, as far as I know, there is no evidence to suggest that they are healthier than the average person (although, as I said before, Google will surely turn something up that favours that proposition).

For better or worse, humans have adapted to being meat eaters. There is even some evidence that eating meat made us who we are (again, for better or worse), giving us an advantage over all other species to the point where we dominate the planet. But, once again, I got that from the internet.

What is demonstrably true, however, is that I personally am not a perfect specimen of human health and fitness. I eat too much, drink too much and exercise too little. I suspect this may even be the case if I were a vegetarian.

Anyhow, whatever you do, don’t take this post as me preaching about my lifestyle, which clearly is not superior.

But I would appreciate if somebody could answer one burning question: why do vegans create food that looks like meat? If you’re committed to a plant-only diet, why sculpt processed food into the shape of sausages and burgers?

See also: Is tofu food?

Sticks and stones

We all face criticism in life. The healthiest thing to do, of course, is to brush it off. But sometimes it gets a bit too much.

I’m thinking about a situation about four years ago when a television program dedicated 12 minutes of its one-hour running time in an attempt to eviscerate me over a few tweets I’d exchanged with the show’s host.

All is fair, I thought, until a young woman co-host, who I’d never met, started making comments about what my reaction might be to seeing her on the screen. I won’t repeat what was said, but it was highly defamatory.

I was encouraged to take legal action, but I didn’t because I knew that to do so would only draw attention to a show on a community station that had a very small audience. Better to do nothing than to give publicity to somebody who didn’t deserve it.

I was reminded of this tonight while reading some comments on a Facebook post linking to this piece I wrote about the shrinking size of airline seats. (Please read it and let me know what you think.)

Here’s the comment:

Facebook comment
Facebook comment

Now, I don’t know who Ian Staples is, and I really can’t complain about being called a “fatty singleton” in any jurisdiction where truth alone is a defence against libel.

But I do buckle at being called a “moron” by somebody who makes a plural by using an apostrophe.

 

 

Finding myself

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When is life’s journey about exploration and confronting the new, and when is it about running away and escaping the past? Or is it always a bit of both?

That’s what I’ve been wondering about much of my adult life, and especially now that I seem to be a confirmed, serial expatriate, exiled from the place of my birth but, thanks to technology and annual holidays, not entirely separated from those who mean the most to me.

Since I fled overseas in 2008 — first to China, then to Scotland, then back to Australia (working, briefly), then to Thailand, back to Australia (waiting far too long for a visa and a work permit), and now to the UAE — I’ve had a lot of experiences. Some jolly japes with mates, old and new, and pleasant encounters with people I’d not have otherwise met.

So there’s a lot to be grateful for. And a lot to be said about travelling to, and immersing oneself in, new places. But there’s always a feeling that I’m missing out on something by not being somewhere else.

There are a lot of questions, but not so many answers.

To be continued …

 

He really likes me!

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One of the great delights of social media is the (albeit slim) opportunity of directly engaging with somebody famous.

When I first signed up for Twitter, I followed Stephen Fry and was absolutely delighted that he followed me back — although I later found that, at the time, he followed everybody back and the process was probably automated.

A little while ago, I had a short Twitter conversation with Sally Thomsett, who was my schoolboy crush when she starred as Jo in the British sitcom Man About the House.

And last night, I got a retweet from Danny John-Jules, who plays the Cat in sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf and policeman Dwayne Myers in Death in Paradise.

Is my virtual life complete, or are there other celebs to stalk?

Flights I fancy

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On my recent trip between Abu Dhabi and Munich, flying Eithad Airways, I was fortunate enough to be upgraded from business class to first class in both directions.

When I mentioned (boasted about?) this on social media, I received replies from envious folk wanting to know how I’d managed this feat. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure.

Like everybody else, I’ve read those “how to get an upgrade” stories and blog posts — which are mostly about getting promoted from economy to business class — and what I did doesn’t fit their recommendations. That’s because what I did was nothing. (By the way, a lot of the advice they give is often contradictory: arrive early, or be the last to check-in; be nice to the staff, or be angry …)

On both occasions, I was simply told at the gate that my seat number had changed. The first leg was a reward flight, so I thought they were going to move me around in the business cabin, perhaps to a less-desirable seat (although they’re all pretty good) to accommodate a full-paying passenger. Instead, they put me into first class.

On the second occasion, the flight was part of a fully paid business-class return fare (yes, I splurged on myself*) to Australia, with a stopover in Abu Dhabi, which is where I am now. (Brisbane, you’ll see me in mid-December.)

So on the first occasion, I could think that it was an extra reward for being a Gold Etihad Guest member and having accrued enough points to afford the reward flight. On the second occasion, it may have been a reward for paying full fare. But they seem like contradictory things.

I’m only guessing here, but I think that travelling on my own (cue: sad violins) has something to do with getting an upgrade, especially on Etihad. Unlike other airlines I’ve used, where business class is full of suits, there seem to be a lot of couples and family groups on Etihad, and one person is easier to move than two, three or five.

I suppose the biggest factor is that I’ve become quite a loyal Etihad customer, which is not difficult when a) I live in their home port of Abu Dhabi, and they are the airline with the widest possible choice of destinations and greatest convenience, and b) Etihad is a truly top-notch airline, with its in-flight service running rings around almost every other carrier I’ve ever flown (and that’s quite a few).

Also, I have no idea whether Etihad (or any other business) keeps a record of these things, but I’m almost always a fuss-free passenger. I can’t imagine any business really wanting to look after a customer who constantly complains. It may work once, but I’d like to think that there’s a little list somewhere to make sure that the difficult people don’t get rewarded in the future.

Oh, and I’m not reluctant to broadcast it when I get good service. I tweeted my delight at getting upgraded, with shout-outs to Etihad’s Twitter account. But I have not done that with the expectation of getting further upgrades, I’ve done it because I appreciate being looked after and I know that word-of-mouth is important to all businesses.

Because I care about my personal credibility, I’m not going to promote a product or service that sucks just because they did me a favour. And even if a business I like doesn’t quite measure up on occasions, I’m not going to be afraid to say so.

Without exception, I’ve found Etihad’s ground and cabin crew to be friendly, cool under pressure and competent. It’s always pleasure to recommend a business that serves me well, be it a corner store or an international airline.

(By the way, if you are travelling first class on Etihad, I recommend the New York eye fillet — one of the best steaks I had in a long, long time, and certainly the best ever in the sky.)

* And, as I’ve noted before, I’m a big guy, I like to be comfortable when I fly and I’m prepared to pay for it.

Holiday diary

The holiday in Nuremberg and Munich is now over. It ended, rather delightfully, in an upgrade to Etihad Airways first class on my way back to Abu Dhabi. I’ve written about that here. I’ll be in Abu Dhabi for a few weeks, doing my regular job and writing on this blog about travel and other things that interest me, and then I’ll be off to Brisbane for Christmas. If all goes to plan, I’ll be blogging that too.

Sheraton risotto
Sheraton risotto

Better than wurst: I spent my final day in Germany at the Sheraton Munich Airport Hotel. The staff were extremely friendly, the room comfortable and the service excellent. But the highlight was this (above) prawn and scallop risotto. One of the best meals I’ve had in a hotel — and the perfect antidote to all that tasty but stodgy German sausage.

Munich Hofbrauhaus
Munich Hofbrauhaus

Beers in a brewery: I finally made it to the Hofbrauhaus and tasted the local brew. Those 1-litre steins are heavy! I had trouble picking one up; no idea how the staff manage to carry six at a time. I also did the mandatory hop-on, hop-off tour. Munich has changed a bit since I was last here, and I already have a few places in mind to visit the next time I’m here (which, according to my airline ticket, is March).

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City of contrasts: November 5. Munich is a bustling place at the best of times. Yesterday, the lead-up to last night’s Champions League football game between Bayern Munich and Arsenal brought a sea of read and white (the colours of both teams)  into the central Marienplatz. The famous Hofbrauhaus was full to bursting, but I got a seat and a homemade brew at the nearby Weisshaus. You don’t have to go too far to quench your thirst in Bavaria. There are some street scenes here; I hope to take more photos and share some deeper insights later today.

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Southern comfort: Although unimpressed with the train service — my reserved carriage and seat did not exist, among other hiccups — and the scene around Munich station — it reminded me of Fortitude Valley in Brisbane in the early 1980s, right down to a drunk doing 15 rounds with a lamppost — I’m starting to warm to Munich

The welcome at the Mercure City Centre has been very warm and the extras — free wifi, breakfast and minibar — have made this the best-value hotel stay I’ve had in ages. Here’s a picture of my room.

Mercure Munich
Mercure Munich

55 not out: By taking this trip to Germany, I made a deliberate choice to spend my birthday on my own. Why? Well, that’s something I may write about one day.

Nevertheless, I’ve been overwhelmed by the messages I’ve received by text message, Twitter and,especially, Facebook, where my timeline runneth over.

I’m heading off for breakfast now (they do a nice hot and cold buffet at the Hampton by Hilton in Nuremberg, with an emphasis on products that are not widely available in the UAE), then will be catching a train to Munich. Depending on how it all goes, I will update this blog later today or tomorrow.

Nuremberg
Nuremberg

A day at the museums: First, the Documentation Centre near the Nazi Party Rally Grounds. When you think of Nuremberg, you can’t escape that elephant.

This is where, in “the most German of all German cities”, Adolf Hitler held his annual egofest. It’s all documented in the museum, which was constructed around the unfinished Nazi Party congress hall.

It’s quite chilling, especially for somebody with German heritage, to see the footage of those thousands of people completely mesmerised by Hitler, and ponder how the human mind works; what separates good from evil.

On a lighter note, I went to the Railway Museum, and saw trains, big and small, old and new. The picture, above, is something fancy my new camera did automatically to a shot I took in the Old Town. The pictures below are a swan near the rally site; a train at the museum and a view of the Pegnitz river running through the Old Town.

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When in Rome … November 3, 2015 I always like to sample the local delicacies. In Nuremberg, it’s the sausage or Bratwurst. Three small ones on a bread roll with as much mustard a I can drown it in — a bargain at 3 euro. Below are some other pictures taken yesterday. These are from the new camera, and I’m a little disappointed in the quality. I’m not ruling out operator error yet, so hopefully things will improve.

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Nuremberg
Nuremberg
Nuremberg
Nuremberg

 

Sightseeing: It’s autumn and the last of the green leaves are turning yellow or brown. It’s cold but quite magical here in Nuremberg. Here’s a picture of the opera house.

Nuremberg
Nuremberg

The train trip and the hotel: November 2, noon. A smooth connection from Frankfurt airport to the train station. A 30 minute delay, but now in Nuremberg at the Hampton by Hilton hotel, and about to take a nap in the bed pictured below before I take on the town.

Hampton by Hilton, Nuremberg
Hampton by Hilton, Nuremberg

A surprise: Upgraded to first class. What can I say? I was feeling a little down because of a heavy head cold, so this was the tonic. Etihad service is great all the time, but especially so in business and first class. I’m not sure why they chose me but it may be because I was travelling alone. In any case, a few Bollingers and a real steak, and a flat bed, made a big difference.

Thai noodles
Thai noodles

The pre-flight procedure: I don’t usually have spicy foods these days (long story, don’t ask), but I thought the spicy Thai noodle in the Etihad premium lounge might clear up my sinuses. I have no evidence that the champagne will help me in any way, but, hey, I’m on holiday. the flight boards in about two hours so I have plenty of time to experiment.

 

Marina Mall, Abu Dhabi
Marina Mall, Abu Dhabi

The shopping. 1-2pm November 1, 2015. There’s always the last-minute shopping before. This time I went to Marina Mall and bought a jacket and a fleecy thing from the fat men’s store. That almost guarantees that the weather will be warm when I arrive in Frankfurt. The thing is that I shop quickly. The clothes were selected, tried on and bought within 10 minutes. Then I had a coffee and I wandered into Carrefour, and walked out with a new camera. Yes, I know I don’t need a camera because I have a phone. And a camera. Now I have a phone and two cameras. Hopefully my pictures on this trip will be more in focus than the one above, which was taken with my phone.

 

The cats that returned

A cat in Muscat
A cat in Muscat

Here is another excerpt from my unpublished book for young people and general readers:

There are many stories of cats who have travelled incredible distances on foot, by car, train or plane. Many cats have demonstrated a remarkable “homing” instinct, which guides them back to their homes over many miles.

In England, a cat called Sooty made it home from 160km away. Another British cat, Pilsbury, walked the 12km trip to a former home at least 40 times – and each time was retrieved by its owners. The champion of them all, though, is an American tomcat called Ninja who moved with his owners from Washington State to Utah in 1996. He disappeared soon after they settled in their new home, but turned up at his old place – 1370 kilometres away – a year later.

Skittles, a scruffy orange cat, went missing after travelling with its owners to a trailer park in Wisconsin, 568km from its home in Kelly Lake, Minnesota. The cat disappeared and the owners went home without it. About six months later, Skittles returned to Kelly Lake with calloused paws and bones showing through its skin – indicating it had walked all or most of the way back.

Sometimes, though, cats don’t get home under their own steam. In 2001, an international rescue mission was mounted to save a New Zealand cat that had stowed away on a cargo ship bound for South Korea. The cat, a female named Colin, was adopted nine years previously by dock workers. Her safe return, accompanied by quarantine officials, was sponsored by a pet food company and the Korean airline. “She’s been a bit of a naughty girl but we’re all looking forward to seeing her again,” said John Hacon, a spokesman for the Westgate tanker company, on the eve of her return to Port Taranaki.

A Florida woman was reunited with her cat in 2004 – seven years after it went missing. The 10-year-old cat turned up 4500km away in San Francisco. Authorities said the feline, Cheyenne, didn’t walk all the way, though. She was either adopted by a Florida family who then travelled to California, or hitched a ride with a cross-country vehicle.

News that Cheyenne had been found and identified by her microchip reached owner Pamela Edwards on the same day she was forced to her other, 19-year-old cat put down. “It has just been an amazing experience,” Ms Edwards said. “It’s really like reuniting with a lost family member.”

In July, 2004, British officials were mystified when a cat found on the streets of the university town of Oxford was found to be carrying a microchip that was registered in the United States. RSPCA inspector Doug Davidson said there were three theories as to how the cat, nicknamed Jasper, got to be in the UK.

“The first is that he’s a strong swimmer,” he joked. “The second is that he belongs to Americans living in Oxford and the third would be that it was a British family in the USA who adopted him and then brought him back.”

Probably the most-travelled cat of all was called Hamlet, who escaped from his container in the hold of a Canadian jet. When he was found behind an aircraft panel seven weeks later, the plane had flown 600,000km.

Another cat, Ozzy, had a similar adventure. He completed 10 round trips from the Middle East to the UK over 10 days before he was found in the cargo hold of a British Airways jet.

Sources: Homing Instinct, PBS Nature television program, pbs.org; Current Science, March 5, 2002, Vl 87, Issue 16, page 13; Cat rescue mission reaches Korea, Whiskas press release on Scoop.co.nz, December 3, 2001; Microchip reunites cat with owner, BBC News (news.bbc.co.uk), August 30, 2004; US ‘ambassador’ cat baffles RSPCA, BBC News (news.bbc.co.uk), August 5, 2004; Julia Wilson, www.cat-world.com.au, 2002-2005; Stowaway cat clocks up 63,000 miles, BBC North Yorkshire (bbc.co.uk/northyorkshire), July 19, 2002

Five reasons to love cats

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Curious cat

 

1. Cats can be good for your health. Scientists at the University of Virginia discovered that kids exposed to cat dander at an early age were less likely to develop allergies than those who had only been exposed to dust mites. (Scholastic Choices, September 2001, Vol 17 Issue 1) 

2. Cats don’t shoot you; dogs do. In the past five years, at least six Americans have been shot by their dog. According to the Washington Post, there have also been recent incidents in France and New Zealand.

3. Cats can sense illness and display empathy for people suffering bereavement.

4. Cats learn quickly to use a litter tray. You don’t have to take them for walkies just for them to follow nature’s call.

5. Cats are adorable.

 

 

D’oh, nuts

Chief Wigggum and a doughnut from The Simpsons. Copyright Matt Groenig.
Chief Wigggum and a doughnut from The Simpsons. Copyright Matt Groening.

 

A little while ago, a friend noticed this caption on a picture attached to an Australian newspaper report about overweight police: “No doughnuts: Top cop wants to build a slim blue line.”

My friend asked: “From which comics or TV shows do they get the idea Aussie cops eat doughnuts?”

I guess whoever wrote the caption (or “blockline” as we used to call them in the old days) was thinking of police chief Clancy Wiggum in  The Simpsons, whose fondness for doughnuts has been a part of popular Western culture for the past quarter-century. (Although it probably predates that.)

So an observation made by a humourist in America, and perpetuated on a popular TV show, gets somehow transferred into real life in Australia.

The danger is that it becomes accepted as an Australian stereotype, even though it isn’t true. I would venture to suggest that, if Aussie cops are indeed getting fat, it’s more to do with more popular fast foods such as burgers and fried chicken — all be they also largely American — rather than doughnuts.

In a world full of horror and pain, this sort of thing probably doesn’t matter very much — except that, sometime in the future, what is distinctly American will be mistaken as global, and what is uniquely Australian will be absent altogether.

 

Fat chance of flying

According to a news website many of my friends say I shouldn’t read, Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer of the United Kingdom, has suggested that fat people be forced to pay more for their airline tickets.

This viewpoint is supported, on the same website, by Julia Stephenson, who says: “I just hate being plonked next to someone who – how shall I put it? – is a little too large for their seat.”

As a fat person who flies quite a lot, I have a fairly strong opinion about this. Firstly, I’m tempted to say that judgemental people like Dame Sally Davies and Julia Stephenson should be required to pay more for their airline tickets because there is a danger that they might start spouting their opinions to an unsuspecting neighbour. But I won’t say that because it wouldn’t be nice.

What I will say is that, for better of worse, people are getting bigger yet airlines are doing all they can to squeeze more of us on to a plane by providing smaller seats that are closer together. If seats were the same width and distance apart they were 20 years ago, there would be less of a problem.

Personally, for my own comfort, I try as often as possible to fly premium economy or business class, but this is expensive — more expensive, indeed, than it ought to be compared to the size of an economy-class seat.

If, for example, a premium economy seat is half as wide again than an economy seat (although they generally are not) and maybe there’s a little more leg room, then the airline would be justified in charging 150 per cent to 200pc of the price. And, if they did, I’d snap that up.

 

A tale of two codes

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Loyalties have been tested among my gang of friends over the past few weeks as the Rugby World Cup has tried, largely unsuccessfully, to drag fans away from the regular English Premier League fixtures being screened on the weekend.

At my usual haunt, the rugger fans congregate around the big-screen TV at the back of the room, while the footy fans are in the middle of the room, watching the football from their usual vantage point.

Occasionally a roar arises from the other end of the room, which temporarily distracts the fans from whatever game they are watching. They check the score on the other code, then go back to their preferred viewing.

The situation has also led to comparisons being made between football and its petulant child, rugby union.

The obvious ones have been rolled out — including the inescapable fact that the footballers try their best to feign injury while the rugger players try to shake off their pain and get back into the fray, even when a flow of blood or a dangling limb suggests the situation is quite serious.

One of my friends from the north of England, who is familiar with both games, also pointed out something that I’d not noticed — that the rugby players, despite the ruggedness of their game (and, sometimes, their personalities), are generally far more deferential to the referee than the footballers.

I posited that this may be because, in much of the world, rugby is the game of private schools (or, as the English know them, public schools), where class is king and everybody knows their place.

“Yes, Sir. No, Sir,” a rugby player will say, whereas a footballer will do his best to show complete disdain for the ref, and even chat back, often resulting in a stiffer penalty, turning a caution into a yellow card or a yellow card into a red card. Even their captains don’t have the sense to drag them away from a volatile situation.

Of course, Premier League footballers earn so much money that it must be difficult for them to have any respect for anybody. But that’s no excuse for being stupid.

Whose Halloween?

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Around this time I nearly won a prize for best Halloween costume at my local haunt in Abu Dhabi. The thing was, I left early because I had to work the next day, so they gave the prize to someone else.

Maybe I should have seen that as reminder that, as an Australian, I really have no right to celebrate Halloween?

Or do I?

While the Americans have made Halloween their own, with lots of add-ons to the original, it essentially is a Christian celebration, albeit a fairly minor one that had its roots in pre-Christian Celtic traditions. That was until somebody saw its commercial potential.

The costumes, the cards, the chocolates and candies all keep the cash-registers ringing until it’s time to start thinking about Christmas (or Thanksgiving, if you’re from North America).

I suppose it’s all harmless fun — but whose harmless fun is it?

As somebody who has travelled a lot, and lived outside of my home country for a fair amount of my life, I’ve seen people of all cultures embrace each other’s traditions.

What’s the harm in Buddhists giving Christmas presents, or Hindus joining in Eid celebrations? As long as they are welcome to do so where they are, and they are respectful, it all adds to mutual understanding. And that’s something we have far too little of.

Lessons from Lehrer



I’ve had satire on my mind for the past few days, which led me to write this piece about why this particular type of humour can fall flat in the Arab world.

In the course of my discussion of the history of satire, I mentioned Tom Lehrer, a particular favourite of mine.

Space then didn’t permit me to discuss his contribution in more detail.

Lehrer came to prominence as an undergraduate in the mid 1940s with a parody song, Fight Fiercely Harvard. He went on to sell self-funded records on campus.

Within a decade, he’s become something of a sensation, and by the early 1960s, he was appearing on the cabaret stages of the world singing such songs as Poisoning Pigeons in the Park and The Masochism Tango.

It is widely believed that Lehrer came unstuck when he dared to send up Dr Werner von Braun, the German rocket scientist who might have faced war crimes charges had he — and many others — not been whisked away to America to work on what would become the space program that eventually took the good guys to the moon.

Lehrer’s statement that von Braun’s “allegiance was ruled by expedience” became the subject of a law suit. But Lehrer wasn’t sued out of satire, he just went back to being a mild-manned maths professor.

Thankfully, he left behind a wonderful legacy of satirical songs, including The Vatican Rag (about the Vatican 2 reforms of the Catholic Church), Be Prepared (about the Boy Scouts) and I Got it From Agnes (about venereal disease).

His songbook even inspired a musical, Tomfoolery.

Enjoy the videos above and below and, if please Google Tom Lehrer to seek out more about him and more of his material.



Clutter detox

clutter
 

Last week, I wrote a piece for The National about my fears that I was becoming a hoarder.

At the time I said I was in the process of cleaning up my act, or more specifically my flat.

Here’s an update: I’ve thrown quite a bit out, but the sorting continues and I’ve hit a wall.

I don’t know why it’s so, but I’m still far too fond of stuff like novelty pencils and pillows, plastic hats, receipts from good times had, and tourism brochures.

And then there are those airline comfort packs. I’ve grown very attached to them, deciding that they, above all else, will “come in handy one day”.

The day, of course, never comes.

And so the cull continues …

Dick Whittington’s Cat

 

Another excerpt from my as-yet-unpublished book for younger readers

The story of Dick Whittington’s cat has its basis in fact – but only just. There was a Richard Whittington who was actually Lord Mayor of London four times (1397-98 and re-elected the following year, 1406-7 and 1419-20), but he was not from a poor background and, as far as historians can tell, he never owned a cat.

The tale, first told in an early 17th Century play and popularized in a 19th Century children’s book by Raphael “Father” Tuck, is entertaining nevertheless.

As it goes, Dick is a poor farm boy from Gloucestershire who decides to chance his luck in the big city. When he arrives in London, he works for a merchant named Fitzwarren and falls in love with his boss’s daughter Alice.

One day, Fitzwarren is gathering money for a speculative venture. Dick has no money, but gives the ship’s captain his cat. Months later, with no word from the ship, Dick sees no future for himself in London and decides to return home to Gloucestershire.

As he leaves he hears the church bells ringing, and they seem to be telling him: “Turn back, Dick Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London”.

He returns to the Fitzwarren house, where he learns that his cat has been sold for an enormous sum to the king of a foreign land whose court was overrun by rats. Overjoyed, Dick marries Alice and becomes a respected citizen who is eventually elected mayor three times.