Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The universe and nuclear submarines (yep, a BIG subject!)

This is a shortened version of my Bath Chronicle column of February 21.

Allow me to say something that may shock you . And that is that the universe we live in is BIG. No, not just big but pretty damn massive. Think of the biggest thing you can think of and then multiply it by the biggest number you can think of and you might go some way to understanding just how big the word big can actually represent.

The reason I feel the need to express this so very loudly is because last week our galaxy suddenly seemed very small indeed - more of a Galaxy bar than an infinite Milky Way (if you get my drift). This occurred to me when I heard that two communications satellites had managed to crash into each other in space.

What I can’t get my head round is why, if our galaxy is approximately 100,000 light years in diameter, contains 200 billion stars and could be anything up to 1,000 light years ‘thick’, then how come two tiny satellites still managed to crash? With all that space to play with, it is surely impossible for two independent satellites to crash and need the space equivalent of the AA to help them?

I was just about getting to grips with this mindboggling accident when I picked up a paper and read about a recent crash in the mid-Atlantic between British and French nuclear submarines. Now, I know the seas and oceans of the Earth are not exactly of space-like proportions, but let’s not forget they too could reasonably be called ‘big’. There is billions of gallons of water swishing around by our land forms, so how did two nuclear submarines somehow manage to collide in the midst of all that? As Jon Snow pointed out on the news, I know these things haven’t got any windows but this is ridiculous . . .

And there’s another small, tiny, minuscule thing about this issue which also worried me. And that is the word ‘nuclear’. It has been revealed that these British and French submarines (whose sat-navs sound as bad as the cheap one I bought before Christmas), were carrying enough material to carry out (wait for it) 1,248 Hiroshima-size bombings. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem that funny any more does it? Put simply, this could have been the transport accident that may have ended the world. Barmy.

So, what does the fact that it is dangerous to go under the sea and into space (let alone on the local roads!!) tell us? What it tells us is simply that what will be, will be. All the planning in the world simply can’t account for the fact that there is simply no such thing as the impossible.

The chairwoman of CND said this week that what occurred under the Atlantic was a “nuclear nightmare of the highest order”. Just read those words again and ask yourself ‘if that was the case, how come fewer column inches have been devoted to our near-oblivion than the recent dusting of snow’?

Crazy world, isn’t it?

Oh, and perhaps not that big after all . . .

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Shock horror...Slumdog wouldn't get my Oscar

Sunday is of course Oscar day and all the talk is that Slumdog Millionaire will walk away with the big prizes (unless that rather dreary looking Benji Button film beats it).

Well, it wouldn't get my vote from the available choices and I sense that is almost heretical at the moment in some quarters in the UK.

Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed the Indian feast that is the Millionaire movie...but I just thought there were better movies last year.

For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, Slumdog is billed as a 'feel-good' film but I just don't get that at all as it features torture, child poverty, abuse, murder and many dark moments. Just because something has a happy ending and a few laughs on the way, doesn’t mean it is a feel-good film.

The reason we love this film is because it takes you, literally and metaphorically, to a different place. And that is the escapism we all crave in Credit Crunch City.

For the record, however, I would argue that one of the other big winners at the BAFTAs, The Reader, is an even better film. Kate Winslet is absolutely wonderful in this challenging film and it is worth the entry fee alone to see her wrestle with her conscience as it is revealed that she has a horrible Nazi past.

It is up against Millionaire and Benji and others for the top gong so it won't win sadly but let us hope the Academy see sense and resist Angelina Jolie's charms to give 'Dame' Kate (only a matter of time!!) the actress award she deserves.

As it happens, although not nominated for the top Oscars, I also thoroughly enjoyed three other films last year in what may just have been a vintage year.

I loved Batman movie The Dark Knight (I don't normally rave about superhero flicks but this was outstanding), The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas (a film which made my entire family cry) and In Bruges which was a fantastic black comedy and a real cult movie in the making.

Oh and even though not many others did, I want to reserve my last praises for Valkyrie, the story of the 1944 plot to kill Hitler. That is a cracking movie which didn't get the credit it deserved because of the bizarre anti-Tom Cruise feeling that abounds in some quarters. A real shame that because he, and the rest of the cast (especially the extraordinary Bill Nighy) really made this great story come alive.

Crunch or no crunch, we NEED entertainment

This is a truncated version of my Bath Chronicle column of February 12

Last Tuesday morning at the latest of our excellent Bath Chronicle business breakfasts, we enjoyed an entertaining talk by Alex Timms about how he is trying to put a smile on the city’s face with the launch of the first Bath Comedy Festival, which begins (appropriately enough) on April 1.

In many ways it could be argued that at a time of such economic doom and gloom, this sort of festival might seem like a good idea but at precisely the wrong time. There is no money around, you could say, and let’s face it, there’s not much for us to laugh about either.

But, quite contrary to this, it could be that the festival is arriving at exactly the right time.

And that is because when the going gets tough we tend to get going. Going, that is, on the lookout for something that will feed our need for escapism and fun.

Towards the end of Tuesday morning’s session, Nod Knowles, from the Bath Festivals, reported that despite the economic situation which has affected everyone from prince to pauper, ticket sales for the forthcoming literature festival are better than ever.

In addition, I was delighted as a keen fan of both film and the Little Theatre, to see our report that this superb cinema had its most successful week ever in January.

The signs are therefore clear – when money is tight, people are still prepared to dig deep to find ways to cheer themselves up and, for that reason, the idea of a comedy festival in the bleak midwinter of our economic gloom suddenly seems very logical.

Of course, people will only turn up for entertainment if it is of good quality and that is where the literature festival, the Little Theatre, the comedy festival and indeed the Theatre Royal (have you seen their latest fantastic, star-studded programme?) have scored.

When every penny counts, every event must be of a standard to get us to part with that cash and it seems all the local entertainment providers have taken up residence on Quality Street.

But can a comedy festival or indeed a dance, singing, music or fringe one really work in a climate where there are more tears than cheers?

The answer is an emphatic yes because we need quality art, quality culture and great escapism now more than ever.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Salute the 'rock of ages'

This is an edited version of my column in the Bath Chronicle of Thursday, February 5.

On Thursday morning, I will be sitting on a hot, sweaty coach bound for the delights of Paris surrounded by around 80 old punk rockers who really should know better.

For, as I’ve mentioned in my Bath Chronicle column many times, I am a devoted (or as some would say ‘dangerously obsessive’) fan of those delightful musicians called The Stranglers and over the next couple of days I will be joining a double-decker bus worth of fellow stalkers and groupies in following the band to see them in concert in both France and Belgium.

This trip has been organised by one of the band’s biggest and most committed fans, Owen, who thought he may get a little bit of interest in the idea of a European road trip but was duly overwhelmed at the response from fellow fanatics.

The fact that those of us in our 40s are still willing to laugh in the face of the credit crunch and indulge our teenage-borne passion proves that rock music is now like classical and jazz in that there is simply no age limit to enjoying the art.

Once upon a time rock and pop were regarded as the preserve of the young but nowadays that concept has been well and truly blown apart and I regard this as very good news.

Put simply, I never want to “grow out” of loving high quality rock music and trust me, oh reader, there is no greater quality than the might of The Stranglers.

And it is not only the fans who are ignoring their birth certificates in all of this because most of the bands are ‘knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door’ themselves. The Stranglers youngest member has only been with them for around eight years and is a mere boy at the age of 44 but the bassist and keyboard player are comfortably into their 50s while our ultimate hero, Stranglers drummer Jet Black, is now 70. Seventy is an age where many think of the pipe and the slippers rather than the base drum and the hiatt but nothing seems to stop ‘young’ Jet and this enthusiasm is symptomatic of the fact that rock no longer belongs only to those with youth club membership.

If you wanted any further proof, last week I bought the new album by another of rock’s elder statesman – Bruce Springsteen – and it is an absolute joy from the start to finish.

Although he is heading for bus pass territory, Springsteen gives not a hint of failing powers and in many ways his new album is as fresh, uplifting and exciting as any he has done. Age simply cannot whither his infinite variety.

So as I toodle across Europe this week I do so safe in the happy thought that I’ve got at least another 20 or 30 years of this to come. Lovely.