This is Robert Llewellyn's personal blog. The views contained in here are mine alone and do not reflect the views or opinions of anyone else I work with or for. Just thought I ought to make that clear.

Tuesday
Jul092013

Final Days of the Boomers

I appeared at the Cornbury Music Festival in glorious West Oxfordshire last weekend. Unlike so many outdoor events in the UK, this time the weather was nothing short of glorious.

The festival takes place in the grounds of some massive house with an even more massive private estate, many hundreds of acres of rolling hills, beautiful trees and spacious lawns which even in this very crowded island, all belong to one person.

Ah yes, 4% of the people of this United Kingdom own 92% of the wealth, splendid, what a wonderful arrangement for a caring, settled society.

I was there to do a reading from News from the Squares which is published this September, and also take part in various QI based shenanigans which were great fun. The TV show and Unbound, the wonderful publishing group I work with are inextricably linked through the people who work in both roles, primarily the wondrous John Mitchinson.

Aside from meeting loads of lovely people, answering questions about Red Dwarf and writing books and having a bit of a laugh, I went for a wander in the very relaxed atmosphere while casually observing the large gathering of people who attend such prestigious events.

I say prestigious because, unlike the holiday camps of the 50's and 60's, it's anything but cheap to attend. Due to the neighborhood, the festival takes place in Prime Minister David Cameron's constituency (Yes, he was there and no, I didn't see him)

Cornbury Festival is a middle class event turned up to the max.

I don't say this while trying to pose as some angry, disenfranchised working class activist, I am as bourgeois as anyone attending but it's not often even I get to mix with such a concentrated dollop of the British middle class at play.

Due to my role as 'artiste' I had access to the VIP area. So, within a festival that is by definition and ticket price a kind of VIP event, there is an even more VIP area.

Of course, who should also be in the VIP area but Mr J Clarkson of the Gear of Topness and Ms Rebekah Brooks of the late lamented News of the World and other such prestigious rags.

They are both mates of the current Prime Minister although I didn't see him, I imagine he's keeping his distance from Ms Brooks at the moment even though they are best buds, allegedly.

So, my slight discomfort at being a wet liberal ‘egalitarian’ in the VIP area was considerably increased by their presence. Of course everyone noticed and the VIP set were all a twitter at the appearance of these two corner stones of modern ultra-right-wing politics.

I'm clearly saying nothing of any pending court cases involving Ms Brooks, although I overheard a few shall I say, uncaring and occasionally amusing comments from some of the folk around me.

Other than that, it was all very jolly. Sure, you can get all old school and radical and say that this exclusive event featuring old bands on their last legs is typical of the era.

Of course I can remember when a festival was a political statement, where there was no entrance fee because there was no entrance, it just happened man. But that was in the early 1970's and the police came and closed the whole thing down and people got arrested and there were no toilets and it rained.

So what if I first saw Osibisa, who played at Cornbury, in 1972! Yes, that long go, and they are still at it! All power to them, just like the lovely old Stones fellas who did Glastonbury this year.

It's fine, I don't mind, I'm truly not that bothered about it.

Sure, you could get all youth culture radical and say this is tired old rock industry has nothing new to offer and it's all very Coldplay and samey or J-Zeeee repetitive.

But you have to remember that our demographics have changed dramatically.

In the late 1960’s to mid 1970's the massive bulge in the population, the baby boomers, were coming into their own. The explosion of popular music from that era is still dominant because the old folk who enjoy it are still around and can afford tickets to Cornbury.

In a very few years all the baby boomers will have retired, the ratio of working people to retired people will be so unbalanced it's very likely the whole economy, already on its knees, will collapse in a heap.

I'm only just a baby boomer, born in 1956, the proper full on boomers are already in their 60's but again, I'm as culpable as any bloated banker who once had long hair and wore a peace badge on his Army Surplus great coat.

The fact that tickets for the over 70's attending Cornbury were the first to sell out says it all. At the moment this big crowd have the spare cash to spend the weekend getting pissed and listening to Elvis Costello and Van Morrison, but it won't last long young people.

The old codgers will start popping their cowboy boots and the last power chords will be but an echo in the glorious trees of England.

As I wandered away through the brightly lit night, helped by charming security guards, I couldn't help sensing a light breeze of shame for my generation, some of the most spoiled, greedy, most self aggrandizing middle class bastards ever to squash the posh sod under their Birkenstocks. 

Not all of them of course, most of them are lovely.

Thursday
Jun202013

Fracked Up  

So, Horizon, BBC 2, 9pm, Tuesday.

Professor Iain Stewart presented a 1 hour documentary about fracking. Yes, it was one hour long, it was balanced, it gave both sides of the story, sort of, and told us…… nothing.

The problem for the Horizon team behind this show was the truly brilliant and far more informative documentary ‘Gasland’ which is biased, opinionated, unbalanced and incredibly informative.

You can watch Gasland knowing nothing about fracking and at the end of it you know a lot and you can decide that the man who made it, Josh Fox, is an idiot greenie fascist do-gooder, or a young man with a fresh take on an absurdly short sighted and dangerous industry.

Josh Fox made the Gasland film, the decisions on what to include and the style of the show himself. The result is his fault.

Not the case with Professor Iain Stewart who, I’d like to point out, is a scientist and not a TV producer. The producer of the program, Jeff Wilkinson, will have had a far greater input into what we saw.

So this isn’t a criticism of Professor Iain Stewart or his opinions, I’ve got no idea what they are, we are none the wiser on that point after an hour of television, this is a criticism of the style of the program, the ethics behind it and the evidence that this show came out of the protective bubble of the BBC and their deep terror of being seen as ‘biased.’

For a start, we had to watch Iain driving and rubbing his chin for such extended periods of time it was hard to believe. This was a style choice, this didn’t just happen, this was padding to a degree we are not used to in modern fast cut TV.

We had to endure endless shots from a car driving through rural Pennsylvania, the car driving down long country roads, or even a car driving through English towns at night. At times it appeared to be some kind of advert for Chevrolet or Nissan.

Again, not the fault of the man on the screen, but the baffling choices made by the production team. It was padded out to such an extent the very act of padding was saying something to us.

Was it saying ‘this show is an hour long and we can’t say much, it’s too contentious so let’s pad with moody shots and relevant music clips?’

 I don’t know but I’m guessing they shot a great deal more and due to the very nature of fracking it was possibly more alarming than the top brass at the beeb thought wise to release.

We are being cajoled through various outlets to feel good about fracking because ladies and gentlemen, we are about to be fracked. For the outraged UKIP members who are horrified by wind turbines, just wait until there are 40 drilling derricks on the horizon, surrounded by ten million gallon ponds of highly toxic water.

All the way through the program I got the intense feeling that Prof. Stewart was ready to burst, he was holding back so much. It was the uncomfortable way he spoke to camera, I could almost sense the person behind the camera giving him a stern look. Be balanced, be careful, this is dangerous stuff. Hang on, let’s cut to you saying nothing and driving, that’s safer.

I’m not sure which way he might have gone if he’d blown his top and started ranting at the camera.

‘Look, you pathetic head in the sand anti progress hippies, fracking is amazing! It’s a huge new super cheap energy source that can transform our economy overnight with no side effects! Look what’s happened in America, it’s employed thousands, it’s made gas cheap, it’s transformed their economy!’

or

‘For pities sake, wake up, this isn’t the solution, this is shortsighted madness! We drill and pump and waste billions of gallons of fresh water extracting this stuff, we burn it, we increase carbon in the atmosphere and then it runs out. Remember ‘North Sea Gas?’ Yes it’s easy and a stopgap and a final, last ditch frenzied attempt at keeping the crumbling edifice of the fossil fuel corporations going, but it’s insane.’

So the whole exercise was a massive waste of time and money, we don’t know what Prof Stewart thinks but it’s fairly clear the producers behind the show are from the shrug and head shake ‘what else can we do? brigade.’

 ‘We’re reliant on this stuff.’ Said the Professor standing by the big ships bringing gas from the middle east and Russia.

Simple statement of fact. Not ‘should we be reliant on this stuff? Should we maybe find another way of keeping warm, lighting our homes that doesn’t require us to burn gas, or coal, or nuclear fuel.’

No, that’s unbalanced and opinionated. But explaining, very badly I might suggest, that drilling two miles underground and then pumping vast quantities of water and chemicals of such skin peeling toxicity that no one is allowed to know what they are and then not asking ‘this is a bit desperate isn’t it’ is balanced.

I came away from watching this thinking one thing. Balance is bullshit. I’d rather watch James Dellingpole tell us fracking is awesome, or some dreadlocked activist shouting ‘fracking is the human race pulling the trigger for the 6th time in fossil fuel Russian Roulette.’

Addendum

After a tip from someone on Twitter, I had a quick look at Professor Iain Stewart's Wiki page,  and then at the page of  The Centre for Research into Earth Energy Systems for which he is a member of the board of directors. They do research into Petroleum Exploration and Production, Carbon Capture and Storage and that old favourite 'Clean Coal.' Oh yes, and Geothermal, good job.

There is no need to infer from this information that the Professor is paid by oil companies, bribed to paint a positive picture of fracking or any other scandalous conspiracy theory. However it does imply that he resides in a world where extracting 'energy' out of the ground is seen as 'sensible' 'economically viable' and 'the only way we can do things.'

So, massively biased in favour of fracking.

 

 

Thursday
Jun132013

FitBit

For the last couple of years I've been using a simple, free app on my phone called Pedometer to keep a rough record of how far I walk.
I set myself a goal of 60 miles a month and was always happy when I got over 100 miles.
As of this afternoon I've started using a fitbit One. Just taken the dogs out for their afternoon stroll, I did a mere 2.09 miles, 4434 paces, and burned a meagre 1769 calories.
Interestingly it thinks I climbed 17 flights of stairs which gives some indication of the hilly nature of my surroundings.


The best bit for me is the FitBit dashboard. If you like walking and data, what's not to love. I'm already obsessing about super long walks I could do. 
Can I generate graphs? Can I have full colour bar charts on the wall of my office? Will I loose the FitBit in 3 days time? It's tiny!

Saturday
Jun082013

The Hermit Lure

A few years ago I listened to a man in his late 50’s moan on like a drain, he blurted every conceivable ignorant cliché about young people, new technology and changes in society he didn’t like or understand. He was so dull and annoying I made a promise to myself.

It was the era of ‘Grumpy Old Men’ on the telly and I already had my foot on the threshold of the closing chapters of life.

‘If you ever start moaning on like that,’ I said to myself, ‘just jump off a fucking cliff.’

There are days when the prospect of being a mad, white haired old hermit who lives in a shack in the woods with a dog, an aluminium pan and a straw mattress is very alluring. No net connection, no phone, no hassle. Just sit outside the creaky front door in the morning with a grubby cup of tea, smoke a pipe and ignore the nightmare unfolding in the real world.

But I can’t do that, I was and indeed still am determined to be positive, to be as open minded as possible, happy to embrace change and welcome innovation, remain intrigued and enthusiastic about the possibilities that are emerging for a different, fairer, more open less brutally short sighted human society.

As you may have surmised, it’s really hard work to keep that up.

It’s so much easier to moan about governments and big multi nationals as we hear news about the total surveillance system anyone who’s ever used the internet or the phone system is constantly under.

Some grumpy old bloke saying ‘See, it’s Big Brother, I told you, they’re listening to everything we say or do. I told you it was all shit!’

Can I say I’m not in the least bit surprised, concerned yes, but not surprisecd.

Right from the start of the internet it’s been clear to me that because we’re using wires, cables and servers belonging to other people, what ever we do on the internet, someone is obviously going to know about it and have records of it.

I have always been aware that anything, and I mean an-y-thing I do on the internet is in the public domain.

Personally I don’t give a stuff who sees it. If someone has records of every web search, e-mail and tweet I’ve ever sent, every comment I’ve made on a blog post, every rant I’ve done on YouTube, so what? How bloody boring would it be to comb through that mess and I am just one of several billion people doing the same thing every day.

If I’ve got an actual secret, a bit of gossip or knowledge that could be hurtful to my family or someone I care about, the very last place I would ever place that information was on the internet. I’m lucky enough to be blessed with a goldfish memory, 9 times out of 10 when I am furnished with something resembling a secret I’ve forgotten about it 5 minutes later.

The revelations about the NSA, GCHQ down the road from me in Cheltenham and every internet company we’ve ever heard of don’t make me grumpy or depressed mainly because they don’t surprise me.

GCHQ Cheltenham (image- Guardian)The investigative journalist Duncan Campbell revealed the existence of GCHQ way back in 1976, up until that point no one had ever mentioned its existence in public. Governments eavesdrop, they read mail, listen to phone calls, record our movements on CCTV. It’s certainly not new, it's obviously now on a bigger scale but it’s not new. However our ability to communicate across borders, languages and cultures is also on a bigger scale and that is new.

 This information doesn't make me want to be a grumpy old know-all, sitting alone at the end of the bar in a quiet pub saying, ‘yeah, I always knew the internet was shit but no one believed me, they believe me now, oh yes sir.’

These revelations might make me want to question the wisdom of spending all that money, time, resources and effort into storing and collating this truly mind numbing amount of information.

Is that really the best option? Since this vast data gathering exercise has been going on, and I’m talking way before the emergence of the internet, as we all know there have been hundreds of horrific attacks by crazed zealots, none of which have been stopped by data collection.

Sure, we don’t know about the bearded religious nutters who have been thwarted, I really hope there have been some success stories that the quite folks who work at GCHQ would love to tell us about, but it’s no panacea. Listening to what everyone is saying isn’t the solution, the way people are raised, the religious rubbish forced on children, the brutal cruelty of the free market, the obscene disparity of wealth and poverty may also have something to do with our troubles.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be concerned, we should be aware that this information we freely offer is of immense value to the corporations who gather it and the governments who access it. Of course there should be official safeguards, people should be held to account, but while they do that, they will of course continue collecting everything, absolutely every keystroke we make…. just in case. Therefore I remain optimistic, we should all be aware that we are chatting in a public square, not a private room, a public square and there are people listening.

 

Wednesday
May292013

The Third Type

I have reached a stage in my life where admiring other peoples intelligence and ability to think through an idea now fills me with admiration and respect rather than silent resentment and feeling of inadequacy.  I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some people who anyone would put in the category of really bloody clever and their company is stimulating and humbling.

I no longer wish I was better informed or more able to formulate an idea than they are. I’m happy to absorb at least a smear of their wisdom simply by being in their presence.

I recently added someone to this list of bloody clever people when I heard the playwright Michael Frayne say “It’s always been said that there are two types of people, those who obey the rules and those who break them. But I think there’s third type, people who simply don’t understand the rules.’

When I heard him say that another small piece of the confused jigsaw of my life fell into place. I’ve never been keen on breaking rules, I haven’t wanted the attention that serious rule breaking brings with it but I have often simply failed to understand rules.

Michael Frayne was talking about his days at school, of course he went to a private British boarding school as did an uncanny percentage of the most successful people in my class blighted country of origin.

Frayne saw the boys who understood and obeyed the rules, and the bad lads who understood and broke the rules. Frayne just didn’t get the rules, they made no sense to him.

That is my life in a nutshell. At school I didn’t want to upset the teachers by breaking the rules, I don’t think I ever intentionally broke the rules as I could see no advantage in doing so, I simply didn’t understand why the rules existed.

From my earliest memories I have found rules confusing, sometimes frightening, sometimes obvious but more often than not, utterly baffling.

I don’t mean obvious written down laws, don’t murder people, don’t steal things or obvious rules asking you not to do something that would have a detrimental affect on others or the world around you. For example, a sign saying ‘Take your Litter Home’ doesn’t confuse me, I understand that and I don’t throw my litter down on the street. I don’t want to walk around a world that is knee deep in litter so I don’t throw it around. I don’t assume it is someone else’s job to pick up my rubbish. Rule easily understood, of course I worry about where the all the litter will end up after you’ve taken it home but that’s another issue.

It is more the behavioural rules I’m thinking of, the ones that change over time, cultural rules, gender rules, relationship rules, those are the ones that leave me in a mess of confusion.

Relationship rules, the things you are meant to understand when you embark on a sexual relationship, oh goodness me, I never understood those. I made such a mess of so many potentially life long, fulfilling relationships I can’t bare to recall them.

Marriage, I never really got that one. I must have grown up in a peculiar little time bubble as I have attended so few weddings. Young people I know now get married, when I was a little kid people got married but during the maybe 20 year period when my peers should have been getting married they never did. They shacked up, they had kids, the raised kids but they didn’t get married.

It seems far more young people do get married now, I know of loads, and they go on stag and hen nights. I’ve never, not once in my entire life been on a stag night. I wouldn’t know what to do.

I am married now but I’d already lived with my wife for 18 years and had two children by the time we got around to it. Thankfully my Mrs seems as incapable of understanding those types of rules as I am. Our kids understood, they were the ones who encouraged us.

A proper job. I’ve never understood how you get a proper job or what you’re meant to do with it when you’ve got one. I’ve been self-employed in one-way or another since I was 18. I’ve never had a salary, I’ve never had a paid holiday or a company pension plan. The nearest I’ve ever got to anything like that was a car park space with my name on when we were shooting Red Dwarf at Shepperton Studios. I was so proud of that I took pictures and tweeted them.

Marriage and proper jobs both require an understanding of rules. Unwritten rules, the rules of life. I want to point out that I don’t think the rules governing these concepts are in any way flawed, wrong or oppressive. Far from it, I admire people who understand them and live within their boundaries, life is so much easier if you follow them. Notice I said follow them, these aren’t legally enforced rules, you can’t really break them, you can either follow them or, if you are of a radical state of mind, refuse to follow them. Either of those options are admirable, it is the third state that maybe questionable, just simply not understanding why the rules are there or what they’re for. Just living your life outside such rules without anxiety because you didn’t know there were any rules. Maybe it’s not so bad, but I can see now that social rules are helpful. Living outside them is fraught with danger and pitfalls and I’ve fallen into just about every pit there is. There is one guideline I came across when I was a young man which at least gave me some clue as to how to behave. It is a quote from one Robert Allen Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan.

‘To live outside the law, you must be honest.’