Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Brexit art

Prints, t-shirts, tote bags and notebooks are all available via Redbubble. I will also be doing a STRICTLY LIMITED run of FIFTY hand signed prints. If you are interested, details can all be found on my Facebook page: facebook.com/dotmundart/

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved

I want to talk a bit about Martin Luther King, a great man.

I got to thinking about Martin Luther King today because a British MP was shot and killed in Yorkshire. The motives behind this are unclear at present. Some say that the perpetrator said "Britain First", the name of a far-right group in the UK. Perhaps he said "Britain first", a remark aimed at his victim's support of the campaign that seeks to keep the United Kingdom from voting to leave the European Union. Perhaps he said neither. Perhaps nothing. It doesn't matter, does it? Whatever he said, thought or did, his action was the snap of a society that has been stretched and stretched and hectored and frightened and alarmed to the point that it couldn't take the tension any more. Stretched and warped and terrified by the self same politicians and media that will now duly dole out their platitudes of shock and sorrow.

I spent the early afternoon doing the live blog for Twohundredpercent, the critically-acclaimed football website. I was covering England's match with Wales. It should have been a good day. Unfortunately, it was not.

When I checked to see Twitter's verdict at half time, instead I found out about this shooting. Shortly after the final whistle, the MP's death was announced. Her name was Jo Cox. She was 41 years old, 42 in a couple of weeks. She was only 6 years older than me and had two young children. She stood up for lots of causes that I, personally, find very admirable. But that doesn't matter, either, does it? What her political beliefs were aren't the issue here, the reason this is so numbing and horrible.

At moments like these nowadays, I find myself compelled to keep checking Twitter. Twitter - social media generally - has been such a force for good in my life that, when I am feeling lost or hurt, I guess I look to it so it can work its magic. But there was nothing there today. Just my own feelings reflected back at me. A scream in an echo chamber.

I saw all sorts of things being said. People who had never previously expressed any faith wondering if this year had been portentous of some sort of Biblical reckoning. People wanting to leave. People not wanting to come back. The journalist Abi Wilkinson asked "Does anyone have any thoughts about what we're supposed to do?". It's a good question.

Luckily, her erstwhile colleague Martin Belam had an answer. He posted a thread of tweets talking about expressing his thoughts and feelings and finished it with a picture of Ron Mael, from Sparks. It was a bit cryptic, but I assumed that it was an act of defiance. Why not defiance? I immediately went to YouTube and put on This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both Of Us. It summed up my feeling towards the growing cloud of extremism and extremist views in the UK. This may have been exactly what Martin Belam had in mind, too, for all I know.

Music is one of life's great consolations. When the world outside is raging in tempest, I use it as a coping strategy. Shut out the noise with something I can control. Try to find some calm, some sense of perspective.

Recently, I've been listening to Star Time, a 1991 four-CD compilation of James Brown's most essential work. Out of reflex, I think, I started there. I'm glad I did, because it immediately got me thinking about the Civil Rights struggle in the United States.

I am decidedly pro-EU. Next Thursday I will be voting to Remain and hope that as many of my fellow UK citizens as possible will do the same, But as big an unknown as a Leave victory is, as nauseated as worrying about it has made me feel lately, even Brexit isn't as bad as what black people had to endure up to the middle of the 20th Century in America (and beyond, and elsewhere). Being a member of what is now increasingly angrily decried and dismissed as "the left" is not nearly as niche or as vulnerable a position as it perhaps feels this evening. What it needs - what we need - is leaders.

Which is how I got to thinking about Martin Luther King. Few of us could ever aspire to match King for his measure, calm and constructiveness in the face of the most impossible, virulent and hate-filled odds. But we can aspire to at least try, in our own small way, to remember his example and to act on it.

Above all, leaders are brave people. It takes courage to stand up and speak your mind, to stand up for what you think is right. It is tempting to curl up in a ball and wish it will all go away. Brexit, terrorism, mass shootings in America, hooliganism in European football and now a political assassination on the British mainland. The world seems like it is out of control.

I choose to believe it is not. I choose instead to believe that the media is out of control. There is now infinite space on websites, timelines and airwaves to saturate the world with every single event that is happening. It is quite overwhelming, which is the problem to the greater extent. But it is a reality of life these days. To disengage from it would not be the brave thing to do. Not what a leader would do.

Jo Cox MP was a leader. Let's stand with her. Let's make every Jo Cox who falls doing good for humanity spawn ten more Jo Coxes. Not in a militant sense, but a regenerative one. A quiet determination to see everyone doing a little better, to see a wrong and try to make it right. To be brave. To stand up. To be counted in the best way anybody can: by example and by compassion; with humility and with humour; with humanity. Without ever losing sight of the world we would have our fellow live in.

This post is dedicated to Jo Cox MP (1974-2016). Here is a link to Oxfam's Syria appeal donation page, one of the many good causes she supported during her life.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Muhammad Ali, 1942-2016

Muhammad Ali left us today, in as far as he ever can.

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was just a boxer. A boxer in the same way, perhaps, that Pelé was just a footballer, but just a boxer all the same. Muhammad Ali, however, was a politician, a poet, a wit, a diplomat, a contrarian, a storyteller, a peace campaigner, a husband, a father, a religious advocate, a motivational speaker, a pillar of the civil rights movement, a television personality, a social theorist, a comedian, a villain, a hero, a martyr.

He was also twice the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Having been stripped of the title for his social and political ideals in the turbulence of 1960s America, he regained it - aged 32 - against George Foreman in Zaire with such a breathtakingly audacious combination of brawn and brains that it walked the unseen line that divides life and death. Just under a year later, he retained the belt fighting Joe Frazier in the Philippines. Flirting with that line again,  The Thrilla In Manila was a contest of such punishing circumstances that everyone involved was pushed to the outer limits of the known human capacity for endurance: physical, emotional, spiritual.

Muhammad Ali

In the end, Muhammad Ali was a leader. Never before or since has a sporting figure so supervened their station and entered the wider public consciousness with such vitality or luminous brilliance. Ali is a hero to more than just those who follow boxing or saw him fight. Some, I'm sure, don't even know he was a fighter. After a time, it became incidental anyway. Muhammad Ali went beyond labels, beyond time and place.

Muhammad Ali gave people hopes and dreams; his foibles, mistakes and indiscretions serving only to make us feel better about those of our own. To come across Ali's story is to be moved, thrilled, excited. It is energising in a way that speaks to the human spirit at a most fundamental level.

His story will be discussed for as long as human beings are. The words "The Greatest" will never be far away, drawn magnetically towards one another. It was Clay - the boxer - who first immodestly bestowed himself with the moniker. In later years, Ali would admit he had done so without even realising yet that he was. Nevertheless, it was prescient in the extreme: Ali's life continued along a path of transcendence as if, at times, guided by an unseen hand.

Those of us today, living on in his wake, are blessed and cursed. Cursed because we are too close to properly appreciate Muhammad Ali with anything like the true perspective that his life, his achievements, his personality, his essence, will ultimately demand. It may take tens, or hundreds, of years for that to be possible. But we are blessed, too: no-one else in human history will be able to boast that they had shared a planet with him, had the opportunity to see their lives directly impacted or influenced by his in real time.

Muhammad Ali was bigger than boxing, bigger than sport. His was the ineffable spark of humanity. This was as good as it gets. He is the greatest.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Sport by Numbers: Number 15

Today's notable sporting integer is 15. Fifteen is the first number, counting from one, which is not immediately associated with handfuls of notable sporting heroes. Why should this be? I have absolutely no idea, as it seems to me to be a perfectly serviceable number . Anyone wearing it would no doubt look very handsome and make their grandmother enormously proud.

It is the number that is always worn by the full back in rugby union however, so there is no shortage of competition for our purposes: even if they haven't strictly chosen it for themselves. I like to think that if they could have, they would.

As such, I have picked one of the most notable rugby full backs ever to play the game, a legend of the sport in the British Isles: former Scotland captain and six-time British and Irish Lion, Gavin Hastings. Hastings also played 61 tests for Scotland and, with a combined 733 points, he is the all-time British rugby union top scorer.

Gavin Hastings

Friday, 29 April 2016

Sport by Numbers: Number 3

Today's sporting number comes from the hotly contested series from one to fifteen. These are the numbers that cover the action for all but the most lunatic of sporting occasions and, as a result, have come to be associated with all kinds of different personalities and disciplines. Number 3 is the number that AC Milan retired in honour of their stalwart defender Paolo Maldini; it is also the number carried by the legendary Dale Earnhardt throughout his career in stock car racing.

However, it would have been remiss of me to not award my number 3 to the Sultan of Swat. The 20th Century saw the invention of many things that we now accept as facts of life without really thinking about them and one of these was international sporting superstars. George Herman "Babe" Ruth was one of the first and, over a century on from his Major League Baseball debut, he remains one of the biggest. If he hadn't been born, someone would have had to invent him.

George Herman "Babe" Ruth 1895-1948

Friday, 22 April 2016

Sport by Numbers: Number 33

Today begins a new series of pictures combining sport and the iconic numbers associated with some of its greatest practitioners. I'll be trying to add a new one every Friday morning, but you know what I'm like. Flaky.

Keen-eyed viewers will also notice that I am not doing them in any kind of order, least of all numerical order. This is a deliberate strategem on my part to make the project seem like more fun and less like a self-imposed prison. Where, of course, the gaoler is me and the terms are fairly lenient. Flaky, you see.

Anyway, the first entrant is probably best known to British people as the co-pilot in the 1980 disaster comedy film Airplane! but the majority of Americans recognise him instead as perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Virtually every other rival he has for that title is also on my list awaiting being drawn by the way, so don't panic too much.

He is also an excellent reminder that US sporting greats can appear in motion pictures and not subsequently murder their wife.

Number 33: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Disaster Film Olympiad: Countdown To Looking Glass

Countdown To Looking Glass is an unlikely name for a film but it has a similarly unlikely premise: financial instability caused by a banking collapse suddenly intensifies the significance of a regional dispute in the Middle East, one that quickly descends into a proxy war between the Soviet Union and NATO forces which threatens to spill over into a global conflagration. None of this could ever happen.

As the new Soviet-backed, some say puppet, regime get down to business in Oman, the Western news media swing into action to help placate and inform the viewing trillions. The responsible souls of the major news outlets understand the significance of their role and would never dream of trying to spread panic or propaganda. They are our true heroes.

The disaster movie-as-faux-real-time-news-coverage is not an unusual concept, nor did it begin with Countdown To Looking Glass - 1983's Special Bulletin is a notable earlier example. However, Countdown has a few interesting twists and tweaks to the format designed to keep things fresh and interesting. Firstly, they engage the services of real life contributors: veteran American TV news stalwarts Eric Sevareid and Nancy Dickerson both appear as themselves as a senior analyst and senior reporter respectively. Additional opinion is provided by US Senator (and five-time former Presidential candidate) Eugene McCarthy, defence analyst Lincoln Bloomfield and Congressman (and all-round right wing diarrhoea cannon) Newt Gingrich. Although it is perhaps debatable as to the exact degree which each of the above understood what was actually going on, it nevertheless adds an interesting vérité to proceedings.

Patrick Watson and Newt Gingrich in Countdown To Looking Glass (1984)
Don Tobin reports in Countdown To Looking Glass, shortly before kissing his ass goodbye

The second change to the format is that the real time news coverage is broken up by portions of melodrama, dealing with the real lives of both the lead anchor Don Tobin (played by Canadian news veteran Patrick Watson) and Washington reporter Dorian Waldorf (Helen Shaver). We watch on day by day as an increasingly anxious Tobin yaks on to his wife about the likely outcome of the unfolding crisis and, more significantly for the story, we see Waldorf's romantic relationship with a White House staffer lead to exclusives, high anxiety and heartbreak. Having gone to the trouble of getting real world contributors to weigh in on an entirely fictional story, these soap opera-style interludes could have been an eccentric move on the part of the producers. But oddly, it works: Shaver's story in particular has some very interesting and incisive points to make about the way that news events and the news media have become so interdependent as to have become self-sustaining; the exclusive story she uncovers from inside the Oval Office seems to have the potential to help defuse the spiralling situation only to be held back by the station's editorial policy.

It's all so grindingly predictable. This would ordinarily make for a damning condemnation of any film, but in this case it is not: the unfolding news coverage portions of the piece are done well enough that any despondency you feel tends to be despondency at the worst excesses of global politics and its vainglorious pride, its high ideals at the expense of the lives of its people. Sobering stuff, not least when - on the cusp of a nuclear exchange in the Strait of Hormuz - Newt Gingrich justifies the action as being crucial to the United States' vital stewardship of freedom and democracy around the world. Gallingly, this is something which required no acting talent at all on the Congressman's part because it also happens to be what Gingrich (in company with all of his contemporaries on the right of American politics) really thinks. Thanks, America.

Countdown To Looking Glass gets a spine tingling EIGHT out of ten Disaster Points.


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