Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Military recruitment -- Brit style

The military recruitment ads take a different approach here than in the U.S. They have much more emphasis on shooting guns (I guess the desire to use them is strong for some in a country where you basically can't own them? I personally don't care for guns, but it's kind of a macho thing everywhere, I think, that lots of men like to shoot guns. It's kind of like the love of zombie movies and kung fu. But guys can get those here, they just can't go out to the shooting range with a pistol and pretend they're James Bond -- unless they join the Army). The ads also include typical fare similar to U.S. ads about joining up for the challenge and teamwork, but the Brit commercials add in glimpses of how much fun you'll have partying with your Army mates! Because this is Britain, and by God, beer and clubbing had better be involved if you want to get the youths to sign up! Here's a British recruiting commercial.

In America, recruiting commercials traditionally emphasize learning skills that will serve you when you leave the Army, and getting money for college. There's also much about camaraderie and patriotism. Really lots about patriotism and pride, actually. And while you see glimpses of soldiers with guns, I don't think you often see them shoot the guns. Here's a recent U.S. recruiting ad. There's no gunfire, no blowing stuff up, no partying. It's focusing on pride in being involved in something larger than yourself, and making the most of yourself. It's interesting to see the contrasting appeals made in the U.S. and UK to recruit a volunteer force. Both appeal to a sense of wanting to make the most of yourself or challenge yourself, and the brotherhood of being a soldier. But they do diverge quite a bit in other areas. Hey, ya gotta know your audience!

Friday, 26 October 2007

Funny business

I've discovered a funny British comedian (Ok, it's not like I found him performing in some dive, became his manager and brought him to fame). He's not really new, but he's new to me. His name is Russell Brand, and he has quite possibly the coolest Web site I've ever seen. Check it out; the least bit of the fun you'll find is that his eyes on the main screen follow your mouse all over the page. I don't really know how it stacks up on content as I haven't gone over it closely yet, but on form, it rocks.

I discovered him through a series of specials that have run on the BBC all week. This is a uniquely British way of giving a comic a special -- instead of one show, he gets five -- one each night all week. It's kind of weird, but in this instance it worked well as Brand tackled a different topic each evening and made them all funny.

This multiple-show thing doesn't always work so well, as when a series of weekly shows called "A Bucket of French and Saunders" aired recently. I liked French and Saunders from their TV shows and had never seen their duo act. And still feel like I haven't. Even though they had something like six specials to go into a retrospective of their long career and to add some new bits, the shows were mostly a series of montages showing short bits of old skits. Do you mean to tell me that in six episodes, they can't show the entire freakin' skits if they selected their best? It ended up being something that you could get no humor out of whatsoever, unless perhaps you had seen the original bits and it refreshed your memory. It was all a bit crap, really. And had a bit too much of the gross body fluid humor that Brits seem to love (I do NOT need to see someone barf, spit up a loogie, have a bowel movement or make any joke that involves any fluids or poo that is ejected from the body. That's way nasty, y'all).

I was pleasantly surprised by Brand's show, as a lot of British comedy doesn't translate well. The only Brit comics really known in the U.S. right now are Eddie Izzard and Ricky Gervais, and Gervais isn't really known for his stand-up act (which I've seen on TV in the UK and really enjoyed). And until I saw Russell Brand, those were the only two Brit comics I really liked. I think Brand's humor would fly in the U.S., with just a few slight changes to some material U.S. audiences wouldn't get.

The odd thing I've noted in the UK when it comes to entertainment is that the country embraces the best of the best AND the worst of the worst. The country has entertainers that are as good or better than the best that any other country in the world can muster. But, the worst crap actors, musicians, what have you, they get embraced, too. People that would be laughed offstage in the U.S. get specials here, musicians that are so bad I thought some shows on them were parodies (they weren't) can become huge hits here. I mean, we have some acts in the U.S. that it's hard to fathom how they sell records, it's true -- but acts that are much worse become huge icons here.

It's all just part of life in the UK. From the outside, we just see all the world-class range of things, from performers to restaurants to whatever. When you live here, you get to see the bottom of the barrel, too.

It's an odd thing that the highs are so high, and the lows are so low. But if you're a bottom of the barrel hack, try coming to the UK, you might get rich and famous here. If that doesn't work, move on to Germany and Japan; if they'll buy David Hasselhoff as a singer, they'll buy anything.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Gimme Shelter

Oh my god, I'm finally interested in the Rolling Stones. And it's all because I watched a documentary filmed before I was born.

All my life, the Rolling Stones have been in my consciousness, but only slightly, occasionally in the background. I liked some of their songs, I'd seen Mick do his unique style of dancing (which would've looked geeky as hell on anyone else, but Mick made it seem sexy), and I'd heard about them touring -- again. And again. I always admired that they kept performing, even though they've entered a time in their lives when the only thing most of their contemporaries rock are chairs.

But now I've realized they really are a great rock 'n' roll band, and all because I watched "Gimme Shelter" on BBC Four last night. The film follows the band on its 1969 tour, which culminated in the ill-planned and ultimately fatal free concert at Altamont.

It should've been a beautiful coming together of stoned hippies, rock music, and the resulting feeling of brotherhood with everyone else there that a good concert can bring. It turned into a rather grim look at how poor planning and using the ultra-macho, definitely not love-in types the Hells Angels (who were paid in beer) as security became known as the death knell of the spirit of the '60s. An "Angel" stabbed a member of the audience to death, and Angels beat many others, often using sawed-off pool cues to do so. They also had an altercation with a member of Jefferson Airplane and knocked him unconscious on stage. The news of this is what caused the Grateful Dead to drop out of the show.

There were three other accidental deaths at the show (not related to the Hells Angels) and four women gave birth (which shows the spirit of the '60s right there -- even if you were about to pop, you still went to an outdoor concert for 300,000 in December and whatever happens, happens).

For many other bands, all of this might have been grim enough to overshadow the excitement of the music and concert footage. But with the Stones, it was fascinating, and the music and Mick Jagger's stage presence left me really wanting to know more about the Stones and to listen to their music more. It was amazing to see this guy who was so skinny and not really the most attractive guy seem really sexy, and exhibit such appealing charisma that I'm pretty sure he was getting the babes even before he became a rock star.

It was also amazing to watch my husband react to the music from the concert footage shot before Altamont -- my wannabe badass, in reality very responsible and scholarly, husband kept going "Yeah!" and raising his arms in the air like we were at the concert. I think the Stones' music speaks to men in a special, gut-level way -- like war movies or Victoria's Secret models do. It just rivets them and gets them all fired up.

I'd love to read more about the Stones, Jagger or Altamont. If anyone knows of any good books on those topics, please share the titles!

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Hell, yeah!

A new study found that swearing at work boosts team spirit and morale. I've always been a fan of being able to swear in the office (keeping in mind that there are inappropriate times to do so and excessive swearing is uncalled for), because it's a good verbal way to let off steam when your computer crashes on deadline. Not to mention some words are just more expressive. These are often the words that will get you fined by the FCC.

It is interesting to note that the study was done by the University of East Anglia. That's interesting because it's a UK university, and you have fewer evangelical Christians in the UK (at least that's the perception I get). And those are the folks most likely to act like you sucker punched a toddler if you curse in their presence. Meaning I'd bet cursing at work is more likely to get you odd looks in the U.S. than the UK, which may be why a study done here found positive results from cursing (you can always spin a study). I could be wrong on that, but either way, I like working somewhere that it's OK to use the full range of your vocabulary -- warty words and all.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Excessive drinking is bad. Who knew?

The British like to drink. A lot. Or at least that's what people say. It's just one of those stereotypes that came about because it was like, true, or something. As one British friend told me, the Brits who don't like to drink went to America centuries ago. It's not as though Americans don't drink, it's just not as widely accepted that the only way to have a good night out is to drink enough to forget where you are, who you are, and how to make your legs work.

So today a lot of UK papers ran stories about how it's not just lower-income people who pound back the pints, but the middle-class do it too (gasp!). They do it with wine, but they're still tipping a bottle back a bit more than experts recommend is wise.

Is this really shocking news? The heavy drinking culture seems like a source of national pride more than a cause for concern to some people. Seriously, commentaries scoffed at any warnings about excessive alcohol consumption. What, tell us alcohol is bad? How dare you! There are other problems out there, so just ignore this one, OK?

Some said it was just another case of the government telling you what to do. I don't agree. The government would be telling you what to do if they banned alcohol or if they sent people to your door to get all up in your business and see what you're drinking and chastising you for it. But merely warning the public of a problem is more of an obligation than an intrusion.

People don't want to hear that what they like is harmful, but they need to know so they can at least try to make informed decisions. Americans may not want to hear that they should eat a healthy diet and exercise more, but it's important that they know, even if too many fail to act on that knowledge (a problem Britain is sharing more and more).

If you want to ignore the warnings, go ahead and do what you want. It's just a guide, a bit of advice. Few of us make the perfect, healthy choice all the time. Do what you will; I'm just saying burying your head in the sand doesn't make everything all better. Although, ironically, a few glasses of wine might make it seem all better ... hmm, there's a dilemma.

Monday, 15 October 2007

A case of art threatening life

Art's a funny thing. Some of it is striking and obviously took great talent. Other art is like something you came up with as a joke and couldn't believe someone paid $600,000 for it. That's what they've got at the Tate Modern in London -- a new piece of "beautiful" post-modern art that will leave an impression -- especially if you trip over it. It's a crack on the floor. As the Daily Mail reported:

Three women have been hurt by falling into Tate Modern's latest installation - a crack in the floor.

At 548 feet long, up to three feet deep and 10inches wide, it zigzags the length of the Turbine Hall and has been described as a highly original work of art.

But visitors have already paid the price for failing to heed warning signs. And a builder said if he had been responsible for the crack he would be sued for health and safety breaches.

One young woman had to be dragged out by friends after falling into the crack in the floor but was otherwise unharmed.

A few minutes later, another visitor to the gallery, who thought the crack was painted, also fell in - this time injuring her wrist.

One observer said: "Instead of art imitating life, here it's threatening life."

Colombian artist Doris Salcedo's work Shibboleth, nick-named Doris's crack, is the latest controversial installation in the Tate's massive Turbine Hall.

What a racket. Maybe next they'll cover the floor with broken glass and spikes, just to separate the true art lovers from the wimps who'd rather stay home where everything is safe and lacking in deeper, barely conceivable meaning.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Strikes suck

The postal service here is on strike. According to the Times, the strike ends Wednesday and then starts again next Monday. Are you freakin' kidding me?! They have been on strike since last Thursday as it is. I imagine postal workers going to unload mailboxes overflowing with mail, and by the time it gets all sorted they might deliver one or two pieces of it before they strike again!

This is a major problem. It's the mail. Many of us rely on e-mail and cell phones for most of our communication needs, but the mail is still invaluable when it comes to getting items ordered online (I've got a couple of things I'm waiting for now), when you subscribe to an online movie rental service (thanks to the strike, I won't be able to get my money's worth this month at all), and when you're waiting for important items being mailed from the States. I was awaiting some items that I was going to need to be very concerned about and report them missing if they didn't arrive in a reasonable amount of time. Then the strike came, and I no longer know what to consider a reasonable amount of time. And some people, like my mother, don't do e-mail. They like to send and receive letters; it means a lot to them to receive their mail. I'm sure lots of older people are the same way.

I don't remember a strike of the postal service, ever, in the U.S. Perhaps it's illegal. Good. If the postal service can't solve its issues, get its act together and actually deliver the mail here, I sure hope other mail services rev up their competitive natures and step in to fill the gap. Amazon UK had already stopped using the Royal Mail for its first class packages before this strike even started. I can see why.

I understand the postal workers may have genuine grievances (though the Times story said one of the complaints was the workers didn't want to work the full hours they were being paid for). But work it out without tampering with something as potentially vital as mail service, or get a job somewhere else. We've all had jobs we didn't like, due to low pay or crap hours. And I know I lived with it and kept looking until I found another job.

Its good to try to stand up and change a bad situation, but an action that causes so many problems to the general public in a variety of ways is not the way to do it. In short, strikes suck.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

A new Sunday paper ritual for England

The experience that is enjoying a Sunday paper is different in England. I wrote about that before; but now I've created a new experience, my England routine.

I discovered that the Sunday Times is always a broadsheet (I don't like a tabloid on Sundays as part of the joy of a Sunday paper is sharing out sections with your sweetie in bed). I didn't know this as when I asked the newsagent if it ever came in a broadsheet, he said no. He also told me no when I asked if the store carried bread (I couldn't find any). I went back a different day and saw some (they must've been out before). Which means the clerk, while always friendly, probably didn't have a good grasp on English and found it easier to say no if he didn't understand the question.

The Sunday Times still isn't quite what I was used to in America -- only a couple of sales papers for expensive furniture stores, no coupons, no stores offering huge rebates on electronics items (you will never get a new printer for $20 here or a usb thumb drive for free after rebates like I did in the U.S.). And getting the paper delivered to the door seems unlikely and not worth the trouble. The newspaper company doesn't hire a delivery person; you get a newsagent to deliver it. I'm not sure how I can communicate that I want only the Sunday paper to my newsagent, who always smiles and says no if you ask him anything. I could go to another one, but then there is the problem of living in a gated community. I could give them a code to get in the gate, but the delivery person can't get in my building unless I open the door (no code will open the front door, only a key). I lived in a secure building in the U.S., too, but there the landlord gave a key or door code to the Washington Post. Here, there are different keys for each section of the building and I just don't imagine it's possible to get one for newspaper delivery. I've never seen a newspaper on anyone's doorstep. And I sure as hell don't want my Sunday paper ritual to include waking up early to let the delivery guy in.

So the comfort of home delivery and not getting out of the PJs until afternoon is gone. But I've got a new ritual that I enjoy, even if I'd trade it in a heartbeat for a good ole Washington Post delivered to my door for about $1.5o and then getting it free the rest of the week.

Now I go out in the late morning or early afternoon and buy a Times, take it home, put the PJs back on, and me and the hubby go back to bed. The Times may lack some of the cheap sale papers and coupons I like, but it's a great paper with lots of good magazines inserted. At $4, it's a lot more than I'm used to paying, but the several magazines inside make it worth it. The Times isn't ludicrous like a lot of England papers. By that I mean many will resort to name calling and outright accusations in headlines and stories that would never fly in the U.S. The Times is one of the "Qualities", meaning it's not a scandal sheet like The Sun. Papers like The Sun report all stories the way The National Enquirer would -- very sensational and hyped up and with seemingly little interest in truth, fairness or accuracy.

But the Times seems like a real, serious newspaper -- even if the layout often looks like something I would've gotten a failing mark for in college. As someone who has designed more news pages than I can count, I notice the look of a paper in addition to the content. I still don't get why the shoddy layout exists in a major paper in a city like London, where you'd expect more polish. But what it lacks in a polished look, it makes up for in offering an enjoyable read.

Here's a prime example: The Times had a long, interesting excerpt from Eric Clapton's autobiography last Sunday. They wisely included a section dealing with his love for Pattie Boyd, the wife he stole away from Beatle George Harrison. This sort of thing is good reading for a lazy Sunday and really nice to find included in your paper. Check it out. :)