Category Archives: Minitrue

Bulletins from the Ministry of Truth

They come over here, they buy our handbags

I think it is fair to say that the Daily Mail has an uneasy relationship with foreigners. Not very keen on them remaining in their own countries doing strange things, they are even less fond of the ones that decide to make Britain their home. Warnings about legions of poor migrants from various parts of the world planning to abuse Britain’s hospitality – ‘swamping’ our ‘over-generous’ benefits system and pride-of-the-world NHS in particular – are a staple of the Mail’s journalism.

However, it seems from an article that I read this week that they feel ambivalent even towards those foreigners who arrive in Britain for a very short time, bearing tons of cash that they plan to leave behind in exchange for luxury items. Especially, it seems, when those shoppers are of a particular ethnicity:

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Caption reads: Oriental customers queue outside Selfridges

The accompanying article features brief interviews with (I imagine) fairly atypical consumers – the diplomat’s wife with £10,000 to spend and a young Thai student with a generous allowance from home – in order to ramp up the outrage. What sensible person could contemplate spending thousands on handbags? Shouldn’t students be starving in attics somewhere rather than shopping on Bond Street? run the subtexts. Yet it is in the caption to the photograph that the framing of the story really becomes clear, with the use of the term ‘Oriental’ to describe a group of people waiting to get into Selfridges department store.

The debate over the use of that word to describe people is neatly summed up in this NYU Livewire article, and while you could expect the Daily Mail to be resolute in ignoring what it will no doubt consider ‘political correctness gone mad’, even a brief glance at the Oxford English Dictionary would have told their reporter that:

it tends to be associated with a rather offensive stereotype of the people and their customs as inscrutable and exotic.

When really, of course, what is on display here is nothing of the sort. Stronger currencies in Asia mean that London is a very attractive shopping destination for a large proportion of those consumers usually so dear to the Mail’s heart: the suburban middle-classes. The people in the Mail’s photograph are behaving no differently than the denizens of Surrey and Hampshire did, when hopping over to New York for a weekend on Fifth Avenue, back in the days a decade or so ago when the pound had similar strength.

Rather than pointing out supposed differences, what the Mail’s story shows is that shopping is an international hobby and the  love of a bargain is universal. A more perceptive article would perhaps have dwelled on the irony of Chinese consumers flying miles to spend thousands on supposedly ‘British’ items their compatriots were paid pennies to stitch together or the emptiness of this acquisitive culture. Even the diplomat’s wife, with her five-figure sum to spend, was enjoying saving hundreds in the sales. Thriftiness (of a sort), a love of Britain’s quaint customs (queuing) and tills ringing across London. I would have thought the right-wingers at the Mail would find something in that to smile about, instead of such mean-spirited carping about this particular group of visitors.

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Justice, though the heavens fall

I was lucky, or unlucky depending on your perspective, to begin my legal training when it was considered Quite The Thing for everyone involved to know a little Latin. Quoting the correct words at the judge at the correct time would demonstrate that you knew your stuff and were one of the gang. Latin maxims and terms were scattered through the language of law degrees like Roman coins in the English countryside.

Thankfully saner counsel prevailed and, by the time I started venturing into courtrooms, Latin had been put to one side in favour of a legal process where the non-lawyers might stand a chance of understanding what the heck was going on. Most of the maxims I had learned gradually slipped out of my head through lack of use. But there is one phrase that stuck, although I doubt I could give you the correct pronunciation. It is this:

Fiat justitia ruat caelum

and it means, ‘let justice be done, though the heavens fall’, neatly summing up that right must prevail and damn the consequences. In a battle between procedural correctness and what is morally right, the latter should always win. Throughout history, commonly during the anti-slavery and civil rights movements in the UK and US, judges have invoked these words to give legitimacy to their actions when doing something the rulebook forbids, but which can be universally accepted as right.

These words apply perfectly to the Hillsborough inquests and the families’ long fight for justice.

The inquests relating to the deaths of the Hillsborough victims (at the time numbering 95 people, as 22-year-old Anthony Bland was still on life-support) were initially delayed while the Taylor Inquiry was ongoing and there was a possibility of criminal proceedings. Once LJ Taylor’s Interim Report was published, the inquests resumed. However, because the Director of Public Prosecutions was still determining whether criminal charges would be brought, certain of the usual inquest procedures were changed.

The Coroner decided to hold a general inquest into the circumstances leading to the disaster, followed by ‘mini-inquests’ dealing with the specific facts relating to particular victims, with a small group being considered in each session. Perhaps most unusually for an incident of this nature, the evidence would not be challenged under cross-examination, instead being presented as fact to the families. The opportunity to ask further questions was denied as the evidence could not be examined further.

An additional controversy was the Coroner’s decision not to hear evidence from after 3:15pm on the day of the disaster, as he reasoned that by that time ‘the real damage was done’ and death was inevitable. Crushing was given as the sole cause of death for all 95 victims. The 3:15pm cut-off time – chosen because the first ambulance arrived in the stadium then – meant that medical personnel did not give evidence at the inquests. A verdict of ‘accidental death’ was returned by the jury.

The families have, understandably, always found that impossible to accept, yet an application for Judicial Review failed and the Stuart-Smith Scrutiny of evidence did not recommend that the inquests be reopened. Anne Williams in particular, the mother of 15-year-old Kevin, faced with inconsistencies in the witness statements of those who last saw her son alive and the expert pathology evidence, has repeatedly sought via applications to the Attorney General to have his inquest reheard and death certificate amended. All applications were denied, citing a lack of new evidence.

Liverpool fans knew that the release of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report meant that the journey was only part of the way over. The truth is now finally revealed, but the unravelling and overturning of the many contentious decisions made after the disaster has hardly begun. And a stunning blow was to follow, as Anne Williams – having been so much a part of the fight to expose the Hillsborough cover up – announced she has terminal bowel cancer.

In a recent article for Well Red magazine, I wrote that:

for many of us, the steps that follow [the publication of the Report] will take place in locations where we have little influence, as inquiries and inquests are reopened, criminal investigations and legal processes resume.

Yet perhaps that isn’t completely the case. Anne Williams’ supporters are petitioning the Attorney General to bring forward the date of the reopened inquest into her son’s death because of her illness. At the time of writing, it has over 35,000 signatures – enough for a response from the Attorney General’s Office. So far, that response has not been favourable.

Please, if you are eligible to do so, do not let that response dissuade you from signing the petition. 100,000 signatures are needed to force a debate in the House of Commons, which could be vital in speeding up the process so that Anne may live to see its outcome. Fair and balanced Hillsborough inquests are already 23 years overdue and further delays are inexcusable. While the procedures may say one thing, the right thing to do lies in the opposite direction and so – as it seems unlikely that the heavens will fall – Anne Williams deserves justice. She and the other families have deserved nothing less since April 1989.

If you are able to, please sign the petition today. Confirmation will be sent to you by email, with a link you must click for your name to be added. Thank you for your support.

Photo from the Liverpool Daily Post

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Well Red magazine Issue 16

A captivating image from the incredible tribute from Everton at their match with Newcastle, which took place shortly after the publication of the report by the Hillsborough Independent Panel. It was the perfect choice for the cover of the latest issue of Well Red, the independent Liverpool fans’ magazine.

Issue 16 contains reflection on the disaster and the contents of the report, as well as the government and media responses to it.

I also contributed an article, about my hopes that the report’s publication can bring to an end sick terrace chanting, regardless of which club it is directed at. Take a look and let me know if you agree or otherwise!

The magazine is out now in Merseyside newsagents and can be ordered for you by your local one if you aren’t lucky enough to be in the area. Alternatively, there is a digital version available for iPad, iPhone and Android devices here.

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‘Cracker’, To Be a Somebody by Jimmy McGovern

For all the many words written about the Hillsborough Disaster in the last 23 years, some of the most powerful have come from the Liverpool writer and playwright Jimmy McGovern. His 1996 drama about the disaster is being repeated on British TV at the moment but, before watching it, I wanted to go a little further back. McGovern also wrote the criminal psychologist show ‘Cracker’ and the episodes that make up the story ‘To Be a Somebody’ – screened two years earlier than ‘Hillsborough’ – are worth tracking down if you haven’t already seen them.

Robert Carlyle’s performance as Albie Kinsella, the Hillsborough survivor struggling to cope with his father’s death from cancer, allows McGovern to explore reactions to the disaster from a number of different perspectives. He shows us the police struggling to decipher the significance of Kinsella writing the numbers ’9615498′ in his victim’s blood at the scene of their murders, a brazenly nasty journalist insisting that she as only freelanced for The S*n her conscience is clear, while Albie asserts that:

We’re getting treated like wild animals. And, yeah, one or two of us start acting like wild animals and the cages go up and ninety-six people die.

There are many details here which, while familiar to football fans in general and Liverpool fans in particular, must have shocked when broadcast on a popular, national, primetime show just five years after the disaster. The intervening years have seen them lose none of their impact. Viewers are reminded exactly how grim the early nineties were for large parts of England, our sympathies constantly provoked and confused.  We are led to feel desperately sorry for the grief which has destroyed Albie Kinsella’s family and those of his victims, yet disgusted by the journalist’s joy in instigating a bidding war for the story of her encounter with the killer. Despite telling his wife that he enjoys police work, psychologist Fitz almost gleefully tells a roomful of Manchester’s finest that Albie has:

got to kill 96 people in revenge for Hillsborough, and if there’s any justice in this world, most of them will be coppers.

Words that will return to haunt him later in the story. This was always one of the strengths of ‘Cracker’, that the police officers and title character were as flawed and three-dimensional as those they were seeking to lock up. As McGovern explains in this 2008 interview with journalist Paul Du Noyer:

 I always say the thing about ‘Cracker’ was that it was post-Hillsborough, that was the key thing for me. The way contempt for a huge sector of humanity could lead to something like that.

That mistrust and disquiet threads through the tale, perhaps most noticably in the family of a murdered shopkeeper. Of course, a major difference between drama and reality is that while McGovern’s story has the trauma of 15 April 1989 turning a gentle man into a murderer, many of those traumatised by what they witnessed on that day instead turned the anger in on themselves and died by their own hand. Others still live with the psychological effects of the disaster:

Hillsborough took away my life. It is hard to cope with sometimes. It is the first thing on my mind in the morning and the last think about when I go to bed. Every day, 365 days a year.

It is running through my head like a video tape: people screaming for help but that help never arrives – they were in pure pain and agony, that’s what goes through my mind most of all.

According to McGovern, following the screening of ‘To Be a Somebody’, members of the bereaved families asked him to help tell their story, which he did to great effect in ‘Hillsborough’. These episodes are then an invaluable prelude to that perhaps more complete story, but as drama they stand alone – as testament to what Stephen King calls,

the truth inside the lie

of fiction – that it often does as much as a factual report to illuminate and inform. It is arguable whether the Hillsborough Independent Panel report would have been commissioned without the campaign by the families which Jimmy McGovern’s writing did so much to assist. This is television at its best, controversial but not for the sake of it, challenging and ambitious in scope, disconcerting and disturbing, yet always compelling and intelligent without losing its capacity to entertain. And so I am reminded, once again, of George Orwell’s words:

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

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‘Bollocks – no one would have been killed!’

One of the first things to strike me on starting to read the report by the Hillsborough Independent Panel was, that although I considered myself to be knowledgeable about the causes of the disaster, there was much still to learn. The panel’s incredibly thorough research doesn’t begin with the disaster involving Liverpool fans which took place on 15 April 1989, but instead takes the 1946 crush at Bolton Wanderer’s ground Burden Park – which killed 33 and injured hundreds – as its starting point. By doing so, the report’s authors clearly set the events of April 1989 in the context of a series of fatal incidents which took place at UK football grounds in the post-war period.

This has the effect of making the 1989 disaster somehow less unique, while still deserving of its dubious ‘honour’ as the country’s worst ever loss of life at a football match. It appears against this background as less of a freak occurrence, one which took the police, club officials and footballing authorities by surprise, and more as something that was predicted by many and therefore should have been better anticipated and thus avoided.

That is especially true in light of events at the same ground, on the same terracing, just eight years earlier. Spurs fans were well aware of the potential for supporters getting into serious difficulty, following their own experience of an FA Cup Semi-Final at Hillsborough against Wolves in 1981:

Spurs fans faced the prospect of a pain that Liverpool fans eventually had to suffer. Those at the front were bruised and battered well before kick-off and realised quickly they simply could not escape as things got worse. Some still speak of the crowd being packed so tight that their feet were off the ground as they moved.

As noted by the Spurs fans, the reason why there are no memorials to the victims of this earlier FA Cup game is that the police reacted much more promptly to the crushes. In a move that caused Sheffield Wednesday Football Club (SWFC) officials to express their anger in a debrief with police after the game, as it made the ground ‘look untidy’, fans were permitted to sit on the perimeter of the pitch, as shown in this video:

SWFC Chairman Bert McGee didn’t contain his anger at South Yorkshire Police’s (SYP) response or his disbelief that a fatal situation could have occurred, using the words from the title of this post [quoted on p. 64 of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report]. The report states that this disagreement lead to a souring of the relationship between the club and SYP which would have consequences for the day of the disaster and its aftermath.

If the club was certain that the risks were being over-stated, one important group was less convinced, but disregarded. Football fans themselves knew very well that being herded onto terracing in numbers that rarely conformed to stipulated safe capacities, to be fenced into pens with unsuitable crush barriers and tiny perimeter gates, was asking for trouble. As fanzine When Saturday Comes noted in 1989:

Complaints about safety and comfort were ignored because they were being made by supporters. Official action will be taken now, because the same points previously raised by fans are now being made by the government and the media. Their stupidity and cowardice over a long period of time allowed Hillsborough to happen.

There has been an unprecedented show of solidarity since the report’s release from fans of other clubs, with good reason. Spurs have reasons to count their blessings, as well as Nottingham Forest – our opponents on 15 April 1989 – who know that they could easily have been allocated to the Leppings Lane terrace instead of the safer Spion Kop end. Forest knocked out Manchester United in the quarter finals while we went past Brentford to secure our place at Hillsborough. Everton and Norwich City played the other semi-final that took place that day at Villa Park and so it is fitting that the ‘Merseyside United’ tribute by Everton at their game on Monday this week was one of the most moving.

From the first chapter of its report, the Hillsborough Independent Panel makes clear that the seeds of the disaster were the unheeded warnings of earlier games at other grounds as well as at Hillsborough itself. The summary is stark:

The risks were known and the crush in 1989 was foreseeable.

Despite the many warnings, as kick off approached at 3pm on 15 April 1989, fans in the Leppings Lane central pens were once again in harm’s way:

This time, there would be no ‘untidy’ yet lucky escape.

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Hold your head up high

Everyone who knows even a little about the Hillsborough Disaster knows the name Jon-Paul Gilhooley. Whether because he was the youngest victim, aged only 10 years old, or because of his younger cousin, another little Huyton lad who didn’t die young and grew up to be Steven Gerrard. The Liverpool captain has spoken of the effect of losing Jon-Paul on his life and that of his family:

It was a difficult time to know that one of your cousins had been at the game and had been tragically crushed. Seeing the reactions of his mum, dad and family helped me drive on to become the player I have developed into today.

For me, Jon-Paul Gilhooley’s name always stands out on the Hillsborough memorial, not because he is more important than any of the other 96 people who were killed, but because I was one year older than him on that sunny day in April when Liverpool fans came from all over the country to watch a football match and not all made the return journey. For a city and many beyond it, life would never return to how it was.

As children at the time of Hillsborough, we saw our fathers and mothers – always so together and in control – left grief-stricken and powerless in the face of police and politicians’ lies. We learnt to hide our anger at playground taunts and jokes because we had to prove we were better, weren’t hooligans in embryo as they said we were. Even young Liverpool fans knew not to trust what it said in the papers, years before the Leveson Inquiry.

We saw inquests run in a way to bring shame on the worst totalitarian regime, witnessed a report by a senior judge confirming what we all knew, ignored by those that had called for it. Watched private prosecutions falter, allowing the senior police officer on duty at the ground that day to retire and spend more time with his pension. Through it all, we heard the chants from the ignorant at the other end of the ground, telling us: you did it, if it wasn’t for you we could stand, more of you should have died, you killed them.

The high-profile idiots get the media attention: the unrepentant ex-editor, the Prime Ministerial wannabe, the quiz show panel member. All prepared to use the hidden evidence and official obstructions to sound controversial and elevate their own notoriety. But actually, far worse are the everyday morons who say it to your face. One of the first conversations I had on arrival in Japan was with a fan of some no-mark club who told me ‘there were hooligans at Hillsborough though, weren’t there.’

Now imagine hearing that, hearing that you are wrong, to blame, paranoid or mawkish for 23 years, even as you try to mourn. As you try to recover from the loss of your child, parent, cousin or friend. That has been life for the Hillsborough families since the day of the tragedy.

So emotions on Tuesday were heightened. By midway through the morning here, with the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report still hours away from release, a number of news reports had already brought tears, especially this one telling of a family coping with the treatment of their seriously ill son, injured at the disaster. It seemed incredible that the families were moving closer to getting the answers they deserved, after so many setbacks.

It was afternoon in Japan when the first reports began to come through, at first shocking news – worse than even imagined – about blood alcohol tests done on Jon-Paul Gilhooley and the other child victims. Then it all followed swiftly, the Prime Minister apologised, then Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, South Yorkshire Police, so many apologies that after 23 years with none, the head began to spin. Even the S*n and its ex-editor tried to get in on the remorse,  offering too little too late.

If in fact it ever resided in Wapping, ‘The Truth’ belongs to us now.

Too many years have passed for this to really count as a victory. The Prime Minister spoke of new evidence but later amended his statement to acknowledge that all of this information had been known at the time, but deliberately concealed. It didn’t feel like a day for vindictiveness, but I felt glad that the PM at the time, Margaret Thatcher, was alive to see the scheming she must have approved fall so completely apart. I hope someone showed her the headlines.

Of course, the campaign doesn’t end here. Now the evidence is revealed, there must be reviews, reopened inquests, amended death certificates, fairer inquiries and hopefully, prosecutions to come.

But they did it. They did it for you: for all of the 96. Your mums and dads, brothers and sisters, cousins, wives, husbands, loved ones, friends – even your children – some of whom were only tiny when you were killed. They fought for you and never gave in, these ordinary yet somehow superhuman people took on the whole establishment and got them to admit what we all knew. They lied.

As our song tells us: at the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky. So long cherished as an idea and a shared goal, on Tuesday 11 September 2012, the clouds finally parted.

Justice for the 96.

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Give Me Some Truth

I discovered a collection of essays by George Orwell on Project Gutenberg Australia this morning, some familiar and some new to me, so everything else I was planning to do today has pretty much gone out of the window.

Not for the first time, I find myself wondering what he would make of recent events, when the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee is being called out on a speech which contain more lies than facts, and the same campaign’s pollster can espouse a breezy disregard for those who seek some kind of factual basis for the claims made in political advertisements.

It looks like the era of ‘spin’ is finally over, not with a return to honesty, but because politicians have realised that they don’t have to give much more than a slight appearance of sincerity. Lie with a knowing wink, the loyal base believes whatever matches their own set of values and prejudices, the other side howls and the partisan bun-fight continues for another news cycle.

Forty years go by and you realise how little has changed:

Truth has now become such a debased currency, relative to who is making the claim and who to, that I almost hesitate to recommend an article which takes as its headline ‘The Truth About Mitt Romney and Bain Capital‘. Yet Taibbi’s writing about the antics of Wall Street – before and since what he calls The Great Recession – has been consistent, long after other commentators have ducked out of an examination of what went wrong.

In this latest article, he shows how Wall Street darlings such as Bain Capital operated – with a ruthless sensibility – closing previously healthy businesses, paying huge bonuses despite looming bankruptcy and never being unafraid to take a government bail-out:

A takeover artist all his life, Romney is now trying to take over America itself. And if his own history is any guide, we’ll all end up paying for the acquisition.

It is the exact opposite to the image the candidate projects and one I doubt many avowed Republicans will be able to stomach, instead preferring to attack the bias of the writer, as evidenced by the comments section below the article. We all hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest, as Paul Simon sang. So it looks as if the short-haired, yellow-bellied sons of Tricky Dicky will be with us for some time to come.

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When I wake up

It won’t have gone unnoticed that I have been neglecting ten minutes hate in favour of other writing projects and sitting about drinking iced tea while trying not to melt in the summer heat (always tricky for redheads). Normal service is likely to be resumed as autumn approaches, in the meantime, here are some of the best things I have discovered elsewhere.

Starting with two very different perspectives on the Obama presidency, the first from Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing in The Atlantic, considers the irony of America’s first black president virtually ignoring the issue of race. Looking at Obama’s first term in the context of racial politics since America’s founding, he notes:

[W]hat are we to make of an integration premised, first, on the entire black community’s emulating the Huxt­ables? An equality that requires blacks to be twice as good is not equality—it’s a double standard. That double standard haunts and constrains the Obama presidency, warning him away from candor about America’s sordid birthmark.

The hope and change are also in short supply in this Voices on the Square conversation between actor John Cusack and Constitutional Scholar Jonathan Turley, as Cusack charts the death-by-drone-strike of his belief in Obama’s claim to be different to what preceded him:

There will be a historical record. ‘Change we can believe in’ is not using the other guys’ mob to clean up your own tracks while continuing to feed at the trough. Human nature is human nature, and when people find out they’re being hustled, they will seek revenge, sooner or later, and it will be ugly and savage.

In light of recent tragic events, the GQ article, ‘Guns ‘R Us’ is an essential read. Detailing the weaponry available over the counter in suburban America and the motivations of the people who buy and use it, the writer considers whether sales clerks are the best people to spot those likely to freak out and kill large numbers of their fellow citizens:

So these are the people who stand at the front lines, guarding America against its lunatic mass murderers? Clerks at Walmart. Clerks at sporting-goods stores. Minimum-wage cashiers busily scanning soccer balls, fishing tackle, and boxes of Tide.

With various idiotic pronouncements by various idiotic politicians on both sides of the Atlantic about rape, this week has been a dispiriting one to be a woman. I will return to the subject in greater detail soon, but in an attempt to redress the balance, here are two inspirational women who – in their own very different ways – have refused to take any crap from the patriarchy. Shown battling her own demons, the weighty expectations wrought by ‘legend’ status and a Syrian Army deliberately targeting journalists, Vanity Fair’s coverage of Marie Colvin’s Private War is a respectful and illuminating portrait of a peerless war reporter. Her advice to a younger reporter in Afghanistan:

You always have to think about the risk and the reward. Is the danger worth it?

is a difficult one to answer, but we are left the poorer without Marie Colvin to bring our easily distracted attention to the innocent victims of war.

Last, I really enjoyed writer Rebecca Solnit’s account of having Men Explain Things to Me:

Men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don’t. Not yet, but according to the actuarial tables, I may have another forty-something years to live, more or less, so it could happen. Though I’m not holding my breath.

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Inspiration is everywhere

If there is one thing I have learnt from the last couple of weeks of reactions to the London Olympics on the social media sites, it is that you can look at event of this nature and see whatever takes your fancy. All manner of commentators from an array of political standpoints have been able to use the Games to support their previously held views. As pal and mortal bath-dweller, Mark Woff so eloquently puts it:

There seem to be thousands of humans spending hundreds of hours commenting on threads with such earnestness, glibness, vitriol, lack of self-awareness… one wonders what drives it. More crassness in people hissing comments over the Twitterfeeds at athletes, people seeing and sustaining the dark side everywhere…

And yes, there was plenty to hate, especially the grasping behaviour of some of the companies involved, the empty seats a slap in the face for everyone who had tried to get tickets in the ballot and failedincluding athletes’ familiesthe Tory MP who deemed the celebration of British accomplishments in the opening ceremony to be ‘leftie multicultural crap’. All buzz-killers.

But also, yes, plenty to celebrate, even for those of us in parts of the world who had to experience serious sleep deprivation to follow our heroes. I don’t know if I have failed or passed the Norman Tebbit ‘cricket test’, but I have been keeping an eye on the Japanese victories as much as the TeamGB ones, if only because national broadcaster NHK seemed to have a policy of only showing events Japan was doing well at.

Japan’s women footballers – nicknamed the ‘Nadeshiko’ after the name of a flower – may have been disappointed not to stun the US again following their victory in last year’s World Cup, but showed a lot of heart to take the silver. The game could have gone their way if they had taken all their chances, but they still surpassed the men’s team and – perhaps – earned a seat in business class on the way home.

Seen from here, where gender equality lags far behind that of comparable countries, the most inspirational outcome has been the pleasure Japan has taken in the success of its female athletes, especially in wrestling, table tennis and judo. It is too soon to tell if that will be enough to overcome the workplace inequalities, lack of affordable childcare and adherence to traditional gender roles common to most of Japan. Hopefully it is a start.

In addition to this celebration of the kids at school who were really good at running and suchlike, there was good news for the ones who prefer to be nose-deep in a book too. NASA managed to land a robot the size of a small car on Mars, following a journey of eight months and a landing by way of a sky crane and parachute. Sending back pictures, communicating via Twitter – both on 100% real and verified, as well as the predictable but still funny spoof feeds – the Curiosity should be enough to get us dreaming of space again.

And so, just as every other commentator has used these events to reinforce whatever it was they already believed about something, so I choose to see them as a light in the dark, proof that so long as there are people prepared to risk it all, work harder than the self-confessed lazies like myself ever could to push their minds and bodies to achieve more than was thought possible, we might not be quite as doomed a species as previously suspected. Who knows what our future could hold?

If we can sparkle he may land tonight

- David Bowie, Starman

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Content creation

There is a commonly held belief that in these days of social media, what we do is manufacture content. How many times have you been told that when you use Facebook or similar sites, you are not the customer, you are the product? Your engagement, your clicks, your likes, these are the items that are being sold, and for huge numbers if the Instagram purchase is taken as evidence.

This is, after all, the way of our new product-based civilization — in order to participate as a citizen of the social web, you must yourself manufacture content.

And manufacture it we do, every occasion photographed and uploaded, often before even saying farewell to our companions, for every location a check-in, every issue from the critical to the trivial can be extensively and rabidly commented upon. We must be the generation both with the greatest opportunity to express ourselves and the least inclination to notice when others do the same – who can say that they regularly keep up with everything they have bookmarked or flagged? Most days, scratching the surface and sharing a little of what we have unearthed is the best that can be hoped for.

A camera-phone photograph is a captured moment, a tweet or a status update is a passing thought crystallised. None of them are meant to stand for eternity, perhaps for the first time our means of recording what goes on around us are designed to have a transitory quality (if you don’t believe me, try searching for tweets you wrote more than a year ago as I did when writing The Teas That Bind, it was the biggest headache of the whole process).

So, where does that leave those creators, the writers, photographers and artists who are trying to produce something of more lasting value? In this eloquent exploration of ‘the Facebook Problem’ for photographers by Martin Parr – a photographer who relies on a seeming lack of awareness of the camera on the part of his subjects – he notes that:

[n]ot having everyone looking at you in these situations is a major achievement.

As we have become more aware of our roles as content creators, so we are also developing a more heightened sense of our public image, so that calls for unflattering photographs to be deleted and retaken are now so routine that they pass without comment except in jest. Few of us, I expect, would be happy with an unfavourable photograph being displayed on the internet, even if the button was clicked by a legend like Mr Parr.

For writers the social media problem is often one of focus, as when everything ever written is available for you to read – often via the same machine you are attempting to use to create – it takes a strong soul to turn away from the delicious yet distracting fruit being proffered. Writer Sean Lotman notes, in this interview with the Diverse Arts Project:

[Doing art] … entails removing yourself from the outer world with its tweets and status updates and general distractions. It’s not easy to do. In fact, it can be like hitting your head against the wall…  it’s easy to be influenced by others’ work.

It appears to me that creators are caught on the horns of a twin dilemma, building your social media presence to establish an audience for your work takes you away from doing the work that the audience are meant to be appreciating. Investing time in the creation of vibrant online presences will only enhance the wealth of some Silicone Valley entrepreneurs. Hell, at least in the ‘bad old days’ the writers and photographers routinely got paid, without having to send emails like this.

In that case, why do it at all? Back to Sean Lotman for a final word:

Don’t expect to get rich or famous. Don’t let your ego be manipulated by ‘views,’ ‘faves,’ or ‘likes.’ The best art is rendered because it had to be. You don’t have a choice in its creation.

The only choice, then, might be who you create the content for. That being the case, be sure to choose wisely.

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