50 Shades of Dismay

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to radio four and they were discussing the new Fifty Shades of Grey film. The conversation involved two film critics, one male and one female, and the presented of the discussion show. What is interesting about this film is that it seems to have split opinion almost as much as the books did, but for different reasons.

The consensus of the male critic, who had already seen the film, is that the Director had managed to ‘rescue’ a good film out of a relatively poor book and managed to make something really rather credible. However the female critic, who hadn’t seen the film, seemed more interested in proclaiming that the books, and therefore by association the film, were anti-feminist pieces of filth that were derogatory to women, portrayed an immensely stupid and naive character in Ana Steele that undermined women everywhere and that Christian Grey is the worst kind of man imaginable. Her view was very much that there is no place for that kind of sexual relationship in society.

Now I have to take issue with her views on more than one level, but as a starter why don’t we focus on another feminist comment made very publicly recently. Yesterday Patricia Arquette used her OSCAR acceptance speech as an opportunity to make a point about equal rights for women in pay in the USA. Now this is a point that I can completely get on board with. The concept that because you are a woman that you should be paid differently to a man is abhorrent. The idea that your gender can in some way dictate your ability and skill level is laughable, at best and should have gone out with slavery. It certainly has no place in a supposedly modern and forward thinking world. My issue with this ridiculous film critic suggesting that 50 Shades of Grey is derogatory to women and that it is an anti-feminist story is that she has firstly completely failed to appreciate the fundamental focus of the book, and secondly she is using the feminist movement is completely the wrong way.

So let me examine this in a bit more detail. The premise of this woman’s objection to E.L. James’s book is that the story features a man exerting power over a woman. Her view is that it suggests it is ok for a man to use violence in the context of their sexual relationship and that the male is repressing her and taking her power away from her by degrading her, simply treating her as an object and possession. Perhaps she should read the book again and actually take note of what is happening.

There is no doubt that Ana Steele is a naive woman, but stupid? No. If you strip all of the sex out of the trilogy you end up with two things; a much much much shorter story and also a compelling look at how two characters, through love, completely change through their dedication to each other.

The interesting thing about this critic’s stance on 50 Shades of Grey is that she has completely failed to see that the power in the story lies not with Christian but with Ana. Unintentionally, and at times completely intentionally, Ana manipulates Christian. She puts him under a metaphorical spell that he has, by his own admittance, never been under before. She transforms his world, through a reluctance and refusal at times to engage on his terms, from one where he is always in control to one where he must accept the control, or at least involvement, of others. And by the end of the story Christian is a very different man, whereas Ana is by and large the same woman.

So what about the sex? There is a valid argument that Christian exerts his power and influence in order to coerce Ana into taking part in acts that she wouldn’t otherwise choose to do, but she does this mostly willingly. She certainly lets him know when she is not happy about it or when something has gone too far and the consequences are emotionally harder on him than on her. In fact in many parts of the story Ana is the one yielding the power, teasing Christian or suggesting that she would like to do things. She becomes the leader as her confidence grows and Christian has to sing to her tune.

The idea that the more risque end of the sexual spectrum is anti-feminist is simply unfounded. It is not at all unhealthy for a couple to engage in these sorts of acts if they wish to and to suggest that this should not exist in society displays a lack of understanding. Different people are turned on by different things and, as long as those are legal, there is nothing wrong with that. The reaction of thousands of women to the books shows the repressed attraction many people harbour for playing with their partners in this way. And the DIY stores did well out of it as well.

So what is my point? Well mainly this. Feminism has an important role in a society where women still do not receive the same professional respect and benefits as men to. It serves a valid purpose, one which Patricia Arquette quite rightly used her fame to make comment on yesterday. The problem though is when someone cheapens it by taking half-truths, misunderstandings and a completely lazy reading of a story to then try and suggest that a story is anti-feminist, when it clearly is the opposite. As a writer I find it amazing that someone can criticise a work so fiercely without understanding it, as a film lover I find it amazing that a critic could be so against the film without even having seen it, and as someone who believes in fairness I find it annoying that feminist movements that are doing a huge amount of good constantly get tarred with the same brush as this foolish woman!

At the end of the day this is a story that reveals a compelling lifestyle, one which clearly affects a large group of us in many ways. Like all good stories it gets us talking, we feel involved and we feel compelled to watch, read and discuss. We don’t need anyone telling us how we need to feel about it though, we can judge that for ourselves.

In the pursuit of mediocrity

For the next 90 something days we have to put up with an ever increasing amount of what politicians would like to think is rhetoric, but which is largely just hot air. That is because the circus is coming to town again, as it does every five years, and all the favourite clowns are on the bill again, with some new ones making their debuts as well.

One thing is certain, this election is going to be quite different to any other we have seen before. Chiefly the reason for this is that more people are taking notice than previously because they genuinely believe there may be an alternative vote to red or blue. The rise to public notoriety of the beer drinkers choice, Nigel to his mates, has opened an interesting new door. He is a moderate version of the outright racist BNP and more importantly his views are resonating with a disaffected and growing population who might previously have relied on Labour. But there is also appeal from Tory defectors who feel the blues have gone soft on immigration. UKIP won’t win the election, but they may well be the balance point in who becomes our Prime Minister in May.

So what choices do we have? Realistically Ed Milliband or David Cameron will be Prime Minister, but how they get the title will be the more important issue. It will either be a hung parliament or, more likely in my opinion, we will get another coalition. And this is where UKIP could make the biggest difference. But the major concern for me is that whichever party gets in, it looks like we are in for five more years with a lack of ambition, a lack of commitment and a continuation in the decline of a once great nation.

Let’s start with Labour, English politics’ answer to Henson’s workshops. Leading them, in the loosest sense of the word, is someone who seems incapable of eating a sandwich and generally doesn’t seem to have any actual points to make. The problem with the Labour party is that they don’t seem to have any answers or any detail. They talk about sweeping changes they will make, but no idea of the actual detail of what they are going to do. They have the map and they are sailing towards Eldorado, but the problem is the map doesn’t have any details on it. The most concerning thing about what they promise is that it is entirely at the expense of the wealthy and the elite. They plan to punish big business, handcuff wealthy individuals and force high performing institutions to focus they time in areas that will distract from the good they are already doing. Take private schools, responsible for a high percentage of the highest academic achievers this country outputs. Labour plan to force these schools to engage with mainstream schools with the aim to help them improve through resource swapping. And if they don’t do it? They will lose their charitable status and relevant tax breaks that brings. This is blackmail which palms of the problems inherent in the current mainstream schooling system rather than actually dealing with them. They plan to do the same with the NHS, a hugely wasteful institution currently, rather than dealing with the actual issues. If the issues aren’t dealt with then a short-term sticking plaster will fall off and the wound will be festering underneath. Labour have got some great ideals, but without actual answers they won’t be able to fix the problems. One thing is certain, they won’t listen to the people, they don’t even intend to ask the question of whether we want to be in Europe, a question that the public deserve to have their say on. More worryingly, their process they will alienate the wealthy and cripple the high performers. Wealth drives economy, that is a fact of economics. They will be like the blind man walking through a field of cow pats.

So what about the Conservatives, led by a toff, protecting the toffs. Their big pledge is an in/out vote on Europe. The irony about Dave is that in very many ways he is very similar to Tony Blair. He likes to talk like he is one of the people, despite the fact we know he isn’t. But he genuinely tries to be one of us and to understand us, even when his butler brings him the milk in the morning he will ask how much it costs for a pint at the shop now!

Unlike the Labour outlook, the Tories are interested in fixing the problems we face without crippling the country in the process. Austerity isn’t something any of us like, but it is better than running to a pay day loan lender when we realise we have completely cocked it up and there are no rich people left to chip in because they’re all moved their bank accounts to Luxemburg. Tighten the purse strings and we’ll get there. The problem with the conservative plan is that it is just that, too conservative. With UKIP offering anything for your vote from a Berlin wall installation at Dover to personal beer delivery every Tuesday (ok, that one isn’t real) and the Labour party pandering to the working classes by telling everyone that if you have money you’re evil, the conservatives need to stand up and show the people they also care about the most talked about issues; namely immigration, the NHS (which they haven’t yet mentioned) and tax avoidance.

I grew up with the ethos instilled in me that doing the best you can is the only outlook to have. My daughters attend a school where the motto is “In the pursuit of excellence”, and they truly mean it. The results are excellent because the environment is setup to encourage that very outlook on life, not just in the pupils but in the families as well. England was once a great nation on the world stage and that was largely founded on the same principles. We had the best armies in the world, the best education in the world, one of the best economies in the world. That is driven from the top down. Unfortunately, looking at the current outlook of the election pledges, England’s new motto is soon to be “In the pursuit of mediocrity”.

Sorry to drone on…

At last week’s tech show in Las Vegas there buzz was all about one thing, drones. It seems that you can now get almost any type; big drones, small drones, pink drones, selfie drones, drones on a stick!

It isn’t just the techys that are getting all hot under the collar either. At Christmas at least three of my friends and my god son (who is only five) got one as well. I even noticed that the BBC used one to get footage from above of the Hoegh Osaka cargo ship that had beached on the sand bank in the Solent last week.

It would seem that these drones are everywhere, or at least they will be soon. And whilst it is incredibly fun to waste ten minutes of your life trying to stop the thing crashing (the batteries only last for ten minutes) it does raise a few concerns.

In the USA there are already some laws in place about the usage of drones. The FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) strictly regulate the commercial use of drones there, but this doesn’t yet extend to privacy. The BBC’s use of a drone for footage demonstrate the potential issues well. Whilst hovering over a stranded ship isn’t a problem, it does become a problem when one is hovering over your house.

Last year a case arose when a woman noticed that a billboard featuring an aerial shot of the housing estate she lived in had been erected. The problem was that she had been sunbathing topless in her garden whilst the shot had been taken and she was therefore featured in the photo. She contacted the company who were advertising with the image and it was duly changed, red faces (and other parts) were avoided and life goes on. But this is where the problems start. Although the image was taken from sufficient enough a height that her face wasn’t visible, nonetheless she should have been able to assume that her back garden was a place of privacy. Instead her privacy was invaded. I’m sure most of us find this story quite funny, but the fact that drones are cheap means that it will make getting photographs of areas that are otherwise off limits is now easier than ever.

You might ask the question “it isn’t really that bad, is it?” But lets put this into perspective for a moment with a couple of scenarios. The world was up in arms a couple of years ago when a French pap managed to photograph a topless Kate Middleton from over a wall. She was in a resort and should have been safe from prying eyes but Pervy Le Pew still got his shot and a magazine still published it. If he’d had a drone then his shot might have been a lot closer and a lot more invasive. But no one really cares about celebrities and Royals do they? They’ve got it coming.

So here is scenario number two. Your children are playing in the paddling pool in your enclosed garden on a hot sunny day and over comes a drone with a camera attached. It catches images of your children which are beamed back to the dark hole that some horrible character resides in and then they add them to the personal collection on their laptop, or worse, the web. Access to this technology opens up whole new ways for pedophiles to access images in a way that we currently have no real way to stop. Personally the idea of someone hovering their little machine outside of my bathroom window whilst I’m taking a wee doesn’t exactly cheer me up.

Which presents another question, what are acceptable actions to take to protect your privacy? Would it be acceptable if one of these little gadgets came hovering over my garden wall to hit it with  baseball bat. And if it was hovering above my house at 50 feet, in ‘my airspace’, could I take a pot shot at it? I am guessing that before the dust had even settled I’d have a claim for damages on my hands. And bearing in mind we live in a country now where a burglar can break his leg whilst breaking into a house and win damages for it, I’d probably have to pay up as well.

Another consideration is that if we all go out and buy one of these things and start flying it around then the sky is going to be blackened by a locust swarm of the things. And if people fly them like they drive cars then the courts are going to be very busy with damage claims. The potential for crashes will be huge, not to mention what happens when Granny Ethel gets one round the face on the way home from the shop. She won’t be able to get any treatment because the A&E has declared a crisis and she won’t get a doctors appointment because no one can cope with a cold any more.

So what to do? I suppose at the moment it doesn’t much matter because by the time you’ve got your drone in the air it has run out of battery. And if you do own one that can last for over ten minutes then it will probably crash before much damage can be done anyway. But soon enough the battery life will be improved and they will be much more stable, and then what? Well here is a novel suggestion, that you have to get a license in order to fly one and that includes both practical and moral sections. If you want to fly a drone then you should be able to prove you aren’t either a moron, deviant or pleb. The punishment for subsequently being caught acting like an arse? Well it’s obvious, you should have your genitals removed!

Christmas in three words…

When I was a young lad, in my more mischievous days, I would attend church with my parents. Christmas was a particularly good time to attend church, not least because the biscuits would be replaced with warm mince pies and the candle light mass, rather than the drab electric lighting, made the building take on a rather more magical feel. One particular Christmas sermon though that still stands out in my mind today was when the vicar preached about “Christmas in three words…”.

That particular year Marks and Spencer had released their Christmas advert. This was in the days before John Lewis had set the precedent for elaborate stories and adverts were simple things that featured products. And after we’d seen hansom couples wearing sweaters and children in scarves and hats, fancy food on a Christmas table in front of a roaring fire…you get the idea…a final voice over said “Christmas in three words? Marks and Spencer”. All in all it was an inoffensive portrayal of a family Christmas and an honest and clever advertising message from a much loved high street store.

Well, not so much for the vicar, who seemed to have a right old holy bee in his bonnet about this. In fact, I think the breaking point for him had been when he was stood in the queue to buy stamps (remember those?) in the post office and heard two old ladies saying to each that Christmas is “all about the children, isn’t it dearie?”. Well that was enough for the vicar’s dog collar to get in a tizz. He informed them that Christmas was in fact not about ‘the children’ and was all about the birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour…who is apparently actually the messiah and not a very naughty boy as I thought…I might be getting mixed up with someone else there?!? Either way the vicar stormed off out of the post office without even buying his festive addition stamps. At least they featured some nativity scenes!

Well, his dog collar was so thoroughly in a twist that our dear old vicar felt the need discuss this issue at length with us on Christmas morning. He informed us that Christmas was not about shopping, or about the children, or even about presents and the sharing of gifts. Christmas in three words, according to our vicar, was about “the holy birth” and this was not up for negotiation.

Some fifteen years on and adverts are no less controversial, stamps are phenomenally more expensive, vicars are almost all women and some are even bishops (heaven knows what will come next!) and my mind still, for some reason, remembers that particular sermon. Now I’m not a religious man, and can’t quote the bible and nor would I want to. It certainly isn’t my bedtime reading book of choice. But as we approach Christmas once again I began to think a bit more on our long retired vicar’s sermon and how, in fact, his three words are rather inaccurate as well.

I can understand why he would get upset. Christmas isn’t just Marks and Spencer’s busiest time of year. The church receives more people at Christmas than any other time of year. In fact the holy order must rather think of it as their copyright. After all, it is the big boss man’s son’s birthday and all. But what if I was to suggest a rather more controversial Christmas in three words…’Stolen from pagans!’

The premise of the vicar’s sermon on that day was basically that Christmas should remain about the religious significance of what Christians would believe is one of the most significant moments in human history. Hence the name. But where did it come from? It is almost entirely certain that the man known as Jesus was not born on Christmas day. Basil Fawlty may or may not have had room in his Inn, and there was no census around that time as far as historians are aware. So if Joseph and Mary had decided to take the donkey express to Bethlehem it was most likely for a summer break. Even the church admit that they have no idea exactly when Jesus was born. The main reason that Christmas is celebrated in December is simple, when Christianity spread throughout Europe in the early centuries the pagan religions celebrated Yuletide. The word ‘Yule’ actually predates Christianity and is Norse in origin. The long-bearded god Odin bears the names jólfaðr (Old Norse ‘Yule father’) and jólnir (Old Norse ‘the Yule one’) – perhaps part of the beginnings of Santa Claus? When Christians marched across Europe, converting pagans, they changed Yuletide to Christmastide. Let’s be honest, it was a better way to do it than cancelling Christmas altogether…that didn’t exactly work for Oliver Cromwell either!

Along the way, some of the pagan traditions will have been absorbed as well. But the most significant thing to remember is that the winter solstice, when the Sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees (when the North Pole is tilted furthest away from the Sun) has actually been celebrated for thousands of years. In ancient human society this was one of the biggest parties of the year. A time to ask the gods for favour in the coming year and to thank them for the harvests past. There is no doubt that this festival, which is still observed today by some, is a big factor in what later became Yuletide and then Christmas.

So what about the other things that we associate with Christmas? The Christmas tree is an interesting one to consider. There are many theories about where they actually originated from but what is certain is that in England Queen Victoria was one of the first people to start decorating a fur tree in the modern sense. They would cover it in ornamental candles, and it was a sign of their prosperity. But long before that the tree is frequently traced to the symbolism of trees in pre-Christian winter rites, in particular through the story of Donar’s Oak (more on that one another time, perhaps). But the use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands was also common in ancient Egypt and in China and by the Hebrews. Tree worship was common among pagans and survived past the conversion to Christianity. Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year, to scare away the devil, and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime, still exist. Our vicar’s claim to Christmas is beginning to look a little shaky!

Mistletoe is another symbol of Christmas. Who doesn’t like to try and get a cheeky kiss at the party…it is the modern losers only way to get a kiss! Well Mistletoe was originally significant to druids in ancient culture, particularly in significant ceremonies like the solstice. And similarly the association of holly with winter celebrations almost certainly pre-dates Christianity. Druids wore holly wreaths on their heads as well. They loved a bit of nature those guys!

Which brings us on to our dear old friend, and what Christmas is all about for everyone under the age of ten (and a few of us a little older!)…Santa Claus. I hear people already getting on their high horse about Coca-Cola but calm down, that is a myth. Coca-Cola no more invented Santa Claus than you or I did. But the modern vision of him is in fact mostly due to the significant influence of the 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. The poem is still a tradition in our house, it is the modern romantic vision of Father Christmas, Pier Noel, Santa Claus, St. Nicholas (how many names does he need?) that we all know and love. But definitely not to do with Coca-Cola. They have the modern monopoly now in Christmas adverts but that is “largely to do with lots of trucks and even more lights! “Holidays are coming, holidays are coming…”

To be fair to our vicar for a moment, the mainstay of the concept of Father Christmas is seated in St. Nicholas, the fourth century Greek Bishop who used to deliver presents to the poor. But the modern symbol bears little resemblance to him and has taken on a life of his own (literally). No matter how you look at it though, the argument that Christmas is a Christian trademark simply doesn’t stack up. So how about this for an alternative Christmas in three words, “evolved from many”?

So what is Christmas then, at the end of the day? It is a time when we all can be united in celebrating our friends, family, our fortunes, and indeed our religion if we are that way inclined. Christmas is not and cannot simply be considered a Christian festival, even if they have bullied their way into monopolizing it. The fact of the matter is that the traditions behind Christmas are just as much pagan, or ancient, as they are about the church. It is an amalgam of cultures, beliefs and traditions from not just a few centuries, but millennia. Like languages, it has evolved. We get all snooty about the use of the English language, arguing that it should remain classical, but how many of us wonder around talking like Shakespeare? And our language is about as varied as any could be. It has been bastardized and changed by centuries of influences; Roman, Viking, Saxon, Celtic, Flemish, the list is long and convoluted. Christmas is the same, it has evolved to mean many things for many people…but I am not aware of any of those things being particularly negative.

For me Christmas is about spending time with family. It is about appreciating what we have and being happy in a world that can so often be miserable. It brings us together and gives us a focus when we are often not able to get together as one at other times of the year. So what would I say now to our pent up vicar who insists Christmas is about the baby Jesus? I would say Christmas in three words, “friends and family”.

To quote a jolly fat man and his antlered friends…”Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”

Internet killed the paper round!

It’s that time of year again, when I go to work in the dark and come home from work in the dark. In fact, during the week the only exposure I get to natural light is when I decide to pop out at lunch to grab a sandwich and play dodge the Christmas shopper. It reminds me of when I was much younger and had a paper round. In the summer that little round was really rather enjoyable. I’d hop out of bed at six thirty in the morning, the sun already warm and the birds singing in the trees. Short and t-shirt were ample coverage. The advantage of growing up in a rural Wiltshire village is that the average paper round was a lot more scenic than your inner city route. The round was less pleasant come mid December. Rather than popping out of bed I would have to scrape myself off the mattress, dress in the dark desperately trying to wear every piece of clothing I owned to fend off the paralyzing cold. It is quite difficult to get a bike helmet on when you are already wearing three wooly hats! I would then gingerly cycle round my route, listening to the fizz of my bike tires on the layer of crystal ice and hope that when I turned the handlebars that my bike didn’t decide to just go straight on anyway. The worst day was Sunday, when all the broadsheets added in their extra bits. I’m sure they only had all those supplements so that little paper boys like myself could grow up looking forward to a curvature of the spine. On a cold winter morning, lugging that bag around was a nightmare. And whilst I was desperately trying to get The Sunday Telegraph wine supplement to fit in a piece of pipe that doubled as a paper bin, inside the house the owner would be merrily bobbing around in slippers and a dressing gown with a cup of steaming tea. I’d even sometimes get a jolly wave or a nod of appreciation. Getting home with a numb face and fingers that actually hurt from the cold isn’t my idea of fun, but owning a cat is a win win for warming your hands again. They like the attention and, unlike a hot water bottle, they never get cold!

All in all, I’m rather glad I don’t have a paper round any more, even if at this time of year I do sometimes still get dreams about having to get up and do one. What I do know is that doing a paper round instilled a sense of responsibility and a work ethic that I have never lost. I’ve always said that every young person should have to do a job like a paper round. Delivering those papers, come rain or shine, frost or snow, is character building. It is the kind of spirit that made England what it is today…well, what it was in the eighties maybe. But what I have noticed recently is a distinct lack of paper boys and girls. I can’t remember the last time I saw one trudging through the streets, pulling a bag behind that is so heavy they can barely lift it. The problem is that the news is so freely available on line that people don’t need a bulky printed paper these days. There simply isn’t  the market for it. I can get my news on the move on my mobile phone, so why would I sit down at the weekend for an hour and try to read something that is so large you have to use the entire dining table in order to read it. And maybe that is the problem with our country today.

We are being told by the politicians at the moment that the biggest issue, indeed the deciding issue, at the next general election will be immigration. Everyone has a view on it. Whether we should get out of the EU to close the open borders, whether it is that immigrants are coming over here to steal our jobs, maybe even that it is a good thing. No matter where you stand on the argument though it seems that one thing is noticeable. Most of the foreign labour that comes over here are only too grateful to have any job. They don’t moan at the menial jobs, or the nasty jobs. They get stuck in. And whether you like it or not, that is a good work ethic. There might be 6% of the UK population unemployed at the moment, but how many of them are unemployed because they don’t want to accept the jobs on offer? I’m willing to bet those same people didn’t do a paper round when they were young either. And I’m also willing to bet that those people who go on strike simply because they don’t get their own way didn’t do a paper round either. We are coming out of a double dip recession, welcome to the real world. Those of us who work in the private sector don’t have a guaranteed wage rise, or even a guaranteed job when it comes to it. But we did paper rounds so we know not to moan about it and sulk like a spoiled child!

There has been talk time and again that bringing back national service would be a good way to ensure that the youth of today grow up understanding the values of respect and doing their best. But I say a cheaper way would be to introduce mandatory paper rounds for all young teenagers. Get them out in the dark and the cold, dodging angry dogs and getting frost bitten fingers that Sir Ranulph Fiennes would be proud of then you’ll grow up only to glad of a nice job. You certainly won’t go on strike when the price of the office doughnut rises by 3p!

I’m a celebrity, let’s exploit a penguin!

It’s Christmas season again. You can tell this not by the fact that advent has begun, which it hasn’t yet, but because every major retailer in the country has released their Christmas advert. The reality TV shows are also everywhere, counting down to a Christmas finale of no doubt epic proportions, where an idiotic Irishman will declare that someone who is tone deaf is the greatest singer since Arion, two little Geordie’s will crown a non-celebrity king or queen of the five star jungle and some moody blokes in black ties will say that a dance that none of us have heard of was sequin-tastic.

And whilst I am trying to control my undoubted excitement and hoping that Santa Claus doesn’t fall out of his sleigh, I will change the channel in the hope of finding something more educational for my daughters to watch. My hope will be to find something that is more stimulating than the mind-numbing anti-entertainment that now makes up weekend prime time programming. Of course my daughters won’t care, they will only have eyes for the iPads, browsing for the toys we haven’t bought them for Christmas and then not talking to us for a week because we clearly don’t love them.

Every year is the same. Whilst the rational people use advent as the earliest opportunity to even start thinking about Christmas, the rest of the world starts to get ready just after Halloween. This is the reason I can now read my book at night by the light of my neighbour’s Christmas lights, which could also double as the approach lights for Heathrow. I can hear the whirring of the electrical meter from down the street. But on the plus side Southern Electric shares are going up in price by the hour. We’ve got to get out of this recession somehow. I’m fairly sure though that he has paid for the lights with a Wonga loan!

Don’t get me wrong, I really like Christmas, I like to ‘do’ Christmas and have a merry old time. I like my children to think Christmas is magical and all that, because those memories will stay with them forever. But what I don’t like is that it seems to last for three months now, it is shoved down our throats from all angles and that underneath all this false merriment everyone is basically miserable and moans about everything.

Take TV adverts. John Lewis has for years now been producing high end adverts especially for Christmas. It has become a spectacle that people wait for with baited breath. And on the day the advert appears social media goes mad for it. Last year’s was a touching animation about a bear, accompanied by a mediocre Lily Allen cover of a well loved Keane song. The year before was an equally heart wrenching tale of a snow man and snow woman. The nation universally shed a tear for a wonderful piece of storytelling. This year’s is no different. Monty the Penguin is a visual masterpiece that cost them £1 million to produce and tells the lovely story of a boy’s lonely Penguin in desperate need of more penguin companionship.

But this year John Lewis doesn’t have the monopoly, almost every major brand has cottoned on to the ‘Christmas Epic Advert’. They want a piece of the action and so the marketing boffins have been scratching their heads since Easter to work out what story they can tell that’ll get us all crying. No doubt they’ve been out experimenting, taking candy from babies and poking dogs with sticks to see what is most touching. Well maybe not, but it would seem that Sainsburys probably should have done that, as they wouldn’t have got as much backlash as their Christmas advert seems to have stirred up.

This year, on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, they have produced an advert that dramatizes the legendary Christmas Truce that took place in 1914. Their treatment is a sensitive, understated and yet very thought provoking tale of two soldiers, one German and one British, who venture out into no mans land and meet in the middle to offer seasons greetings. A football match ensues and there is much merriment, until the idyllic scene is shattered by distant gun fire. The advert ends with the German having a blue wrapped chocolate bar from the Brit, and the Brit a biscuit from the German. But barely had the advert finished than social media was going mad with complaints of outrage. How dare Sainsburys exploit a conflict where millions died in order to make profit? OFCOM say they have received hundreds of complaints about the advert.

So let’s put this into context for a moment. Sainsburys has worked with the Royal British Legion for over 20 years, and made this advert in conjunction with them. Bearing in mind the significance of the anniversary on which this has been released, it is unlikely this wasn’t discussed in some detail on more than one occasion over the last year or so. During that period of planning, which would have been quite in depth for a production of this level, one presumes that some of the members of that organisation, who are uniquely qualified to have a view on such things, might have mentioned if they thought this advert was in bad taste. Presumably no one did because Sainsburys went ahead with it and have also released additional footage about the making of the film as well.

And yet they are apparently exploiting the memory of the war. And yet funnily enough I don’t remember seeing British soldiers strolling across no mans land with hands full of supermarket products. Or the hun coming in the other direction armed to the teeth with toiletries and wearing orange overalls. One assumes the same people who are throwing these accusations around on social media were quite happily chuckling away when they were watching Blackadder, or taking their photos of the poppy display at the Tower of London, which has no doubt enjoyed increased revenues as a result. Exploitation? No. The only product Sainsburys actually displays in its advert is a retro styled chocolate bar in a blue wrapper and, whilst plastering the advert with “Live Well for Less”, their motto, would have been a gigantic an error of judgement, all I remember is simple logo on black of equal weighting to that of the Royal British Legion. Those who are mortally offended that they are peddling their retro chocolate bar in this manner may like to know that the proceeds of the sales of those particular bars are going to the Royal British Legion as well and not into the pockets of Sainsburys executives. No wonder everyone is so annoyed, they really do have a nerve don’t they? How dare they donate money to a veterans charity at Christmas!

The problem is that at Christmas these sorts of stories come out because this is the time of year when we start to take stock of what we have. Lets get one thing straight and do away with the naivety here, all adverts are exploitative. They are designed specifically to make you do something that you would otherwise probably not consider doing, that is the point. This is the reason that in Sweden advertisers are banned from showing adverts during childrens programming. So what is worse, emotionally manipulating someone year on year and dressing it up as a sweet little story about penguins, or showing a well put together and rather touching dedication to those brave men and women 100 years ago, whilst raising money for that charity? If that is exploitation then exploit away because those charities need all the help they can get.

And for those who feel the need to sling accusations at the morally corrupt big wigs at these companies, I ask you to do this. Drag yourself off the crumb encrusted sofa for more than a few seconds, block out the sounds of the morally extinct, obese wastes of oxygen on I’m An X Factor Get Me Dancing and look a little deeper at what is going on. The reason you consider this exploitative is because you feel the need to defend something that you only have a passing attachment to, so that you can take a moral high ground. Your complaint is that a company has produced something for profit, using imagery of something abhorrent. But what they actually did was show a moment of compassion that highlights an extremely important and under discussed moral issue of the war. That both sides were human. They did this as a dedication to those who fought, on the 100th anniversary of a war that we all pledge we will never forget. And they did it to sell the only product they actually feature, for which the proceeds go to help a military charity. Of course they are trying to make profits but so are all businesses. I’m sure if this had been produced as a short drama you’d all love it, but that production company didn’t do it for free either! Or of course you could just sit back on the sofa and smile at the little boy playing with the toy penguins and forget all that morally important stuff. Now where are my ten million watt Christmas lights, I want to be seen from space!

It’s the end of the world, or is it?

If you believe the media we are all going to die. Sorry to be morbid about it, but basically that’s it for us. If Ebola doesn’t get you then the quadruple dip recession, that we are apparently teetering on the edge of, will mean we won’t be able to afford as much as a piece of bread. And if you are lucky enough to be spared these fates, struggling around in haz-mat suits and desperately trying to avoid anyone else sneezing on you, then there is always the impending global warming disaster and power shortages to look forward to.

Not much of a choice really; catch an aggressive virus, starve to death in abject poverty or freeze to death in the dark. Lets be honest, it is a bit like the Daily Mail made a disaster movie. But the problem is that this bleak outlook is simply not accurate. Only this week scientists have started saying that they may have drastically overestimated the onset of global warming and that the effects are likely to be less severe than first thought. And whilst this week the recession is back on, last week everyone was in recovery. So what on earth is going on?

What it basically boils down to is that the news corporations have nothing better to do with their time than lead us all up and down the garden path. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, you can take it or leave it. But when it does become a problem is when they start reporting unhelpful things about the spread of a virus like Ebola. At the end of the day we aren’t really impacted if a footballer did or didn’t do something, or even if the latest Yew Tree suspect is guilty. They are both relevant stories but they don’t individually affect us. However, reporting that the Ebola virus can be spread through the air is not just inaccurate, it is irresponsible. It causes panic in a lot of people who get their only source of information on the subject from the media.

And this is the problem with the media, in so many ways. They have the remit to pronounce whatever they like and then repent later. This can be the cause of mass panic at the stroke of a pen (or printing press). Years ago they reported that there was going to be a fuel shortage. So everybody rushed out and filled their cars, jerry cans, even wheely bins with as much fuel as they could, and low and behold there was a shortage. Irresponsible reporting led to the shortage in a situation that otherwise would have been quite manageable.

And this is also the problem with the ‘right to be forgotten’ law. It gives people the remit to do whatever they like, without fear that it will haunt them forever. They can just have the search result removed. No harm, no foul. But there is harm here. The news corporations should be held more accountable to report information accurately. If they don’t have the detail then they shouldn’t report it. Of course, this won’t happen. The system is balanced in their favour. So for now we will just have to be content to ignore the news and hope that we don’t die of one of the many things we are apparently at risk from:

200 different forms of deadly cancer, terrorist attacks, deadly viruses, rampaging illegal breeds of dogs, swallowing lithium batteries, snow storms, avalanches, out of control buses crashing into your home, mad men, dementia, heart attacks, strokes, obesity, sink holes, drug overdoses, asteroid collision, global warming…

…but don’t worry, you’ll be glad to know that when you do die, which is apparently any minute now, your body will be handled with care!