London 2012 Opening Ceremony: Boyle pulls it off

I’m not much for the Olympics. I like that it’s here; all great cities need reminding how great they are, and the chaos and complexity of the London Games will shake things up and show us where the next round of public infrastructure’s needed. But the whole bread-and-circuses aspect isn’t really me.

But what I think is irrelevant. Because Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony last night was brilliant beyond belief.

And if one thing marked it out, it was just how different it felt from Beijing’s histrionics four years ago… and by extension, how different *we* are from China.

London basically grabbed Beijing by the scruff of the neck, slapped it around the face for three hours, then rubbed its nose into the ground.

Beijing’s theatrics – costing ten times more – were fantastical rather than fantastic, bravado rather than bravery. London showed the world not what Britain wants to be seen as, but what it actually is. And was better than the soulless Chinese Olympics, by a factor of about a hundred.

Where China had spectacular, Britain had spectacle: intimacy and interest, in a stadium seating 80,000. Where China replaced a young singer with a “more photogenic” Party Member’s daughter, Sir Steve Redgrave gifted his Olympic flame to a set of young athletes to perform the final honour. Britain’s opener was about celebration, humility, and humour. Totally different to Beijing… and infinitely better.

For me, this was the point that proved a theory at the core of my investment philosophy: China will not join the first rank of nations, its economic steamroller is winding down, and the way it steals and hacks and foils the rest of the world is now blowing back. (Two years ago, plenty of European train operators were actually considering the PRC’s 40%-cheaper locomotives, despite them being obvious copies of European designs. Today only a few are.) On the surface, China can do it by the numbers, but just doesn’t “get” the people stuff.

Britain does Story perhaps better than anywhere. Combining live farmyard animals with molten metal and 1000 drummers rarely ends well, but the narrative of Britain’s ascent from bucolic backwardness to the Industrial Revolution and universal suffrage – not sugarcoated, not even celebrated, just a story told – was brilliant, culminating in the rising smokestacks blowing blazing Olympic rings upward. The jukebox of British music fitted like a favourite shirt; the homage to the NHS, featuring dancing doctors and bedridden children somehow just worked. While the comic relief – Daniel Craig skydiving with the Queen into the stadium, with Her Maj playing along; Mr Bean getting bored with a one-note brief from Sir Simon Rattle – were something perhaps no other country could get away with.

Ridiculous. Incredible. Bonkers. Brilliant. And that’s Britain.

Welcome to London!

Iron Sky: don’t mention the…

After a six-month contract that kept me occupied pretty much fulltime, I’m back to being an independent. Working in town and out of suit and tie, this can only mean… the return of sneak-out Wednesdays*! This week at one of the few cinemas taking a punt on Iron Sky.

I went on the basis it’s the first cinematic release funded by crowdsourcing, and wanted to see if collaborative development had worked – the community also had input into set design and character bios. (It’s not “bunking off for the afternoon” it’s, “Continuing Professional Development”.)

While everyone applauds the *model*, it’s been getting mixed reviews *as a film*…. and when I hit the Prince Charles Cinema, it was obvious from the bums on seats that the business model hasn’t quite worked. This was a geek-only cinema with NOT A SINGLE GIRL IN IT. So my expectations started low, and I had a pleasant surprise: it’s so stupidly funny I enjoyed it straight off the bat.

First off: the cinema itself. The Prince Charles Cinema is a hidden gem: tiny, atmospheric, and what a *real* cinema should be: close and intimate. Less about watching a film and more about the popcorn-infused experience of going to the movies. it shows a lot of reruns you wished you’d seen the first time around. Go there: rents are high around Leicester Square and it needs you. 

But anyway, the film. In 1945, a Antarctica-based bunch of Nazis decided the best place to vamoose was not South America but … the Moon. And they’ve been there for 70 years, waiting for the right moment to return.

The enjoyable thing here: I expected to be annoyed by the way they skipped over the huge difficulties of living on the Moon – recycling air, growing food, building giant swastika-shaped bases etc. Not to mention getting a few hundred people there in the first place.

I’d have appreciated a ten-minute montage showcasing those first years on the lunar surface. The cramped conditions in the saucers … the breakthroughs by the scientists when their CO2 scrubbers and hydroponics worked … the gradual ascent into functioning machinery and mining the Helium-3 … the first Nazi children giving their first Seig Heils as their society developed an economy. But the film’s premise is so laughable you forgive it the dropped balls.

It’s perfectly acceptable that the Nazis don’t have any more trouble living on the Moon than, say, the Amazon. The gravity doesn’t appear any different to Earth’s, and Moon-born people don’t have any problem adjusting to the crushing weight they’d feel. The steampunk look just about allows suspension of disbelief; after all, during the Cold War ICBMs went into space with no more computing power than an abacus. But there are other errors. Air-breathing petrol engines appear to work just fine on the lunar surface. They’re on the dark side, yet the giant base is clearly bathed in sunlight. And in one shot, controls on the Nazi spacecraft are clearly labelled in English. It may have crowdsourced $millions, but this is still a low-budget independent film.

However, the plot goose-steps along at reasonable pace, and the moments of comedy – “In case of emergency break to hear National Socialist anthem” – mostly work. Sometimes it goes overboard (although whether a film about WWII-era Nazis living on the Moon can go over the top is debatable): the US President isn’t a parody of Sarah Palin, it actually is Sarah Palin.  And the ending is brilliant. Whether or not you’re into the whole Nazis-on-the-Moon genre, support independent film and buy the DVD.

And of course, apologies to my girlfriend. It’s impossible for a Brit to go to a film featuring German dialogue and not speak in an accent for hours afterwards.

* All right, Mondays. But I work so many weekends that my monthly cinematic escapes can legitimately take place any weekday.

Why Nations Fail: not a book review

A great new book provides a useful further confirmation as to why socialism and the left wing in general are wrong: Why Nations Fail, by Darren Acemoglu and James Robinson. (Although the authors, as academics and probable lefties, may not like their work being seen as a vindication of global capitalism.)

The book’s main idea: whether a nation turns into a prosperous land of citizen-stakeholders, or a lawless wasteland with a venal elite, is all down to how its institutions develop.

If they’re “inclusive” – applied to everybody equally, as Britain’s broadly are – rule of law and economic growth happen as a natural consequence, because everybody’s got a stake in things getting better. If institutions are “extractive”, sucking power out of the hands of the public to serve an empowered minority – as in much of Africa and Asia – the pie never gets larger, and all you get is a gaggle of guys in sunglasses seeking an ever-greater share of an ever-shrinking pie.

In the second case, even revolutions rarely change things for the better, since once the rebels are in the presidential palaces they tend to need extractive institutions to cement their newfound powers.(Hi, Big Men of Africa!) Acemoglu and Robinson use countless examples, both in their book and on their blog – from Argentina’s early success and current basketcase status, to why China will fail in the long term despite its apparent juggernautism today. (That’s something else I agree with: Chinese mercantilism will not lead it to global leadership, the Yuan will not become a reserve currency, and it will all end in tears around 2020. Call it a Big Short.)

But there’s no reason for us Brits to feel smug. Because whether countries go one way or the other depends on some very, very small nudges near the beginning. For example, I’ve long thought that the reason for Britain’s dominance of the world in the 19th century was a simple and subtle accident: the fact that British adventurers were allowed to be in business for themselves, rather than acting as agents of the State like the Conquistadores. English Kings and Queens of medieval times were weak, and didn’t really get to order the merchants around…. which led to us developing the boundless potential of big empty places full of promise, like North America and Australia. We weren’t better by nature; we became better thanks to a happy circumstance. There wasn’t anything deliberate or insightful about it, but Britain nudged itself in the right direction around 1600, and became perhaps the most inclusive and successful nation that ever has, or ever will, exist.

Fuzzy-thinking Labour and Liberal voters (is there any other kind?) will doubtless disagree with my take here. After all, doesn’t “inclusivity” sound more like the all-are-equal dream of the Left, and “extractive” sound like fat cats getting rich off the back of the masses?

But this is down to what (I feel) is the great misunderstanding of the Left: life isn’t a zero-sum game. Nor should it be. There is not a fixed amount of work to be shared out among workers (the false reasoning behind France’s 35-hr workweek), nor a set volume of wealth that must be divided equally (the apparent belief of Britain’s grab-it-all public sector.) Equality of opportunity does not mean equality of outcome. In an inclusive system, anyone can start a business … but not everybody will prosper from it. (If the outcomes are guaranteed, there’s no reason to work hard at anything.) Some fail, some succeed, the markets allocate capital accordingly, and the system pushes itself upward. In the capitalist system, an “inclusive” system, the pie gets bigger.

It’s why Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Castro, the Kims, and champagne-swilling charlatans like Marx were wrong. It’s why the worst of British leaders, like Blair and Brown, were wrong. It’s why today’s woolly-minded lefties like “Gogglehead Ed” Miliband are wrong. But of course, plenty of people like the comfort their wrong views provide… like Britain’s wrongheaded public sector. We won’t get rid of the scourge of leftism for a while – but in the long run, it hasn’t a chance.

Oh, Tesco: where did it all go wrong?

After yet another fruitless lunchtime sandwich-search in perhaps the most depressing supermarket I’ve ever been in, I asked the office “Does anyone else think Tesco is going downhill?”

Cue more nodding faces than a dubstep concert. (Or wherever the kids are going this year. I dunno, yesterday a 22 year-old said my “sex was on fire” and I didn’t get the ref.)

Tesco used to be my favourite supermarket, but it’s out in the open now: something’s gone badly wrong at the Big T, and I’m not sure it’s recoverable.

My fallen hero, there’s a simple problem: your food is crap.

Which hurts, because I know how difficult it is to do retail and Tesco is awesome at it. If I accidentally enter an Asda or Lidl, with their hunched masses of shuffling slackjaws – or worse, that TV woman slapping her bottom – I jerk backwards and grab the nearest blunt and heavy instrument*, thinking the zombie apocalypse has begun. Tesco has always felt like my supermarket, the place I’m happiest to invite into my kitchen.

(Waitrose is great, too, but the feeling I need to break out my tux and give my shoes a polish before entering is always a drawback. I mean, have you been to the Canary Wharf one on a Sunday morning? It’s more a dating club than a supermarket. They’ve got a wine bar and oyster restaurant right there among the aisles!)

Plus: Tesco does great credit cards. And of course it has ClubCard, probably the most worthwhile pointsback programme anywhere: some quarters I get thirty or forty quid in no-hassle vouchers in the post. (As a copywriter I’ve even written a few of their brochures, and enjoyed the experience.)

I think the chain started ossifying around the time it launched that ad campaign featuring talking trolleys. (You see two shopping trolleys in a park and what do you think? Blighted environment, that’s what.) But I think the real rot got a grip some years later, around 2009.

The shelves are well-stocked. The prices remain competitive.

But every dinner that began its relationship with you in Tesco is, today, a huge disappointment, isn’t it.

(Note the lack of question mark ending that last sentence.)

Tesco, oh Tesco. Did you really think we wouldn’t notice?

At the moment I’m working in cities a hundred and fifty km apart, and the limitations of a weekday rental make me more dependent than usual on stuff that’s top-oven-friendly. But the misses these days aren’t just outnumbering the hits; they are totally eclipsing them. Here are a few examples – and they weren’t hard to find.

Case Study #1: The not-so-Finest Pizzas. Has anyone in the Tesco boardroom actually eaten one of these things? If you drench one in olive oil and fresh herbs before cooking, it’ll be, at a stretch, just about edible… IF you also obliterate your palate with Dave’s Insane Sauce or something first. I mean, they cost up to £7 and they’re as blandly unsatisfying as Moshi Rox to a death metal fanatic. Appalling, especially when next to them on the shelf is Pizza Express at 2 for a fiver.

Case Study #2: A bunch of tasteless jerks. What on earth are those “Jerk [insert meat]” cartons that appeared around Q3? A box of lonely bones with a grain or two or rice spooned in? Trust me, the Carribbean contains few people who would recognise that ill-hidden strip of flesh under the jerk as chicken – and nobody at all who’d identify another dish as goat. What a shame; goat’s such an underrated meat and you’re turning off consumers at their first go. It’s an insult to goats (as well as to anyone who’s ever enjoyed a proper Jerk sauce.) I suppose I could make gelatine, but…

Case Study #3: The “Yes, We Mystery Shop in Marks and Spencer” Finest Meal for £10. The idea’s sound: main course, side dish, dessert and wine for a tenner. (I will make an allowance for the common supermarket lie “Serves 2”; everyone tells that whopper.) But my meatballs were like leftovers from a leather tannery. My potatoes had the generic consistency of yellowed lard. I don’t know what Gu thought it was doing, throwing that gritty white cake-like substance into the ring (I forget its name, but it doesn’t deserve to share space with their great chocolate puds.) And the wine? Come on folks, you wouldn’t sell that for £7 in real life.

Case Study #4: The Appalling Mr Hom. Tesco, this “Ken Hom” guy is widely known as a guy who can’t cook for toffee (including cooking toffee) – in America, a nation where half the population eats a minivan wrapped in carpet for breakfast. What’s your fascination with him? You’re not shy about pulling outside suppliers up by their bootstraps. Yet there, in the “Ethnic Food That Doesn’t Come In Jars And Isn’t Polish” section (okay, you call it “Chinese”) you give prime shelf space to a range of fried rice, spring rolls etc that are just appalling. Have. You. Ever. Actually. Tried. One? If your local Tesco isn’t open, go round the back and chew on a cardboard box retrieved from a dumpster to get an idea.

Case Study #5: I won’t rip you a new one over the takeaway sushi; supermarket onigiri are just too easy a target. But: if Lidl did sushi…

Case Study #6: A troubled relationship with alcohol. Now, most supermarkets are bad at wine (Waitrose excepted) but you’ve got noticeably worse since 2010. The white wine aisle is an endless acreage of Chardonnay, Chardonnay, and more bloody Chardonnay. If you’re really lucky, on the end of the aisle will be a chenin blanc, which is of course [Chardonnay]. There are other grapes, you know. I won’t go into here how alike the wines are – there’s barely one under £20 with any personality – because that’s just the market; most people like what they know. But c’mon, a little smoke or spiciness wouldn’t go amiss.

With great regret, it’s time to short Tesco. Could my future be that supermarket you never really notice… Sainsbury’s?

* Unless it’s the bottom. I mean, you can get arrested for that sort of thing.

No accounting for socialists

I’m at the other end of the political spectrum, but I’d really like to at least *respect* the few hundred motley socialists gathered in the City of London. The trouble is, they’re just so…. daft. Take this report in the Telegraph.

“The richest 10pc of the UK population have a combined personal wealth of £4 million, million. A one-off 20pc tax on those people would raise £800 billion. Those people can afford it, they’d feel no pain, they’re so fabulously wealthy. With that sum of money you could pay off the entire government deficit. No need for any public spending cuts.”

“Protester Peter Tatchell” aptly demonstrates the biggest problem with the Left: its complete inability to do basic maths.Let’s skip over the fuzzymouthed phrasing (£4 trillion would sound less preteen, buddy) and take a look at what this socialist’s “solution” would actually involve…

He wants £800bn. So let’s assume that “rich” ten percent, 5.8 million UK residents, is okay with paying an average £137,000 each. Whoops! First mistake right there!

In Britain today, people at the 90th percentile (those Tatchell calls “rich”) earn about £40k. Hmm. That’s the income of a hardworking plumber or electrician putting in overtime. Are these people “rich”? If that describes your household income, “beware” indeed: the lefties want five years’ aftertax salary from you. My word, this guy’s truly from the Gordon Brown School of Public Finance, where taxpayers’ money is something that rains from the sky in infinite quantity.

A silly socialist, doing silly socialist things

A silly socialist, doing silly socialist things

But what the hell, this is socialist arithmetic. So they could sell their houses to be part of this socialist utopia, right? Hmmmm again. The top 10% of the UK possess average wealth of about £60,000, mostly in the value of their homes. So at his suggested 20% level, the average tax per person will be about £12k, and most people will have to sell their homes to pay it.

And wait, wait… that’ll raise less than a tenth of the £800bn he feels entitled to! What a silly little socialist.

Next up for critiquing: the “Tobin Tax” on financial transactions. Which would, in socialist speak, “reduce speculation and be good for the economy, and raise at least £100 billion a year.

Hmmmmm once more. What happens in a global economy, Mr Socialist? When business feels squeezed, business goes elsewhere. Sweden had a nice little financial sector before 1984; when it introduced a Tobin Tax, they expected it to raise a billion and a half kroner a year. Nope. The business fled, and the tax never raised more than a twentieth of that level. Today, let’s just say if you want a job in finance, Sweden’s not the best place to look for it.

So, in summary: what this socialist suggests would raise less than a tenth of what he wants and throw over 5m people out on the streets. Perhaps that’s what he wants: socialists love the downtrodden.

Definition of a Socialist: someone who really, really likes getting his hands on someone else’s money. As I said, I wish I could at least respect them, even if their views are different to mine. But I just can’t.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Ok, so it’s not getting great reviews, and when a girlfriend pouts her way through the whole two hours it’s a fair bet she doesn’t like it either*. But I enjoyed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Which means it’s fair to say you probably won’t.

It was obvious rather a lot of the audience were expecting a James Bond-style thriller. (Comments overheard on the way out: “appalling”, “junk”, “boring”, “slow”.) But I take that as a sad indictment of today’s want-it-all-now, over-stimulated, X-factor’d up society – a society of instant gratification where not having to wait for stuff is seen as a basic right.

But real films are narratives, not rollercoasters. To get this film you’ve got to sit quietly and actually listen. Which, let’s face it, is more than most people are capable of these days. This film is a piece of art – from its pixel-perfect 1970s sets (remember those funny-looking Saabs and cans of Harp?) to the quality of the acting.

I’ve never quite “got” Colin Firth – nor what women see in him; he always seems to spend about a third of his screen time blubbing. But he’s pretty good here – and it says something that in TTSS, he’s one of the worst-cast. And Gary Oldman’s George Smiley IS the Le Carre original. The slightly effete awkwardness of the harmless-looking middle-aged man who was actually the most effective agent on either side of the Cold War … Oldman captures every twitch and shuffle. The one occasion he holds a gun, it’s dangling unwanted at his side, a slightly distasteful accoutrement rather than a tool of the trade. And there are a LOT of extreme close-ups. Half the narrative is in facial expressions; this dialogue-driven film has relatively few words-per-minute. People are civilised, waiting for each other to finish a sentence before presenting their rebuttal.

(Is this gentlemanliness what’s missing from British society today? The chavster classes inhabiting so much of the mass media don’t have the wit or breeding to consider any situation not pertaining directly to themselves?)

And the narrative gains a lot from being pared back to a movie’s essential elements. The setpieces are terraced townhouses and workaday government offices; SiS high command inhabits a grimy Cambridge Circus building and the overseas headquarters are grimy import/export sheds. You get the feeling this is how intelligence work really was during the Cold War – a lot of dull hours waiting around at Teletype Terminals, where privileged but intelligent and civilised men pondered tiny scraps of information and deducted Red military policies and Kremlin power structures from a half-hidden salute in an old photograph.

(Of course, the blue connections and personal relationships of such groupings led to things like the Cambridge Five in real life, but the point stands: this film works.)

And because it was a more formal decade, protocol and procedure seem a lot more important. Simple acts like looking up files in a fifth floor archive are imbued with sweaty-collared menace … no Tom Cruise wirobatics, no webs of red lasers, just the clenching anguish of doing stuff you’re not supposed to be doing. Everyday tradecraft was about not leaving a paper trail, right down to swapping bag-check chits and leaving woodchips in the doorjamb. You never see James Bond walking around in his socks while a friend listens underneath to see if the floorboards will creak, but such details are what distinguish a good agent from a bad one. The beauty is many such scenes are never explained; you’re left to work it out for yourself.

Go and see “Tinker Tailor”. Chances are you’ll hate it.

And by the way, Odeon, your cinema is still crap. For future reference, it’s normal practice to TURN THE LIGHTS OFF BEFORE THE FILM STARTS, without members of the audience having to come out of the theatre to tell you.

 

*Possibly connected to me upending her popcorn before the film started.