Category Archives: rant

Long to reign over us? I hope not

Badge from 1977’s Silver Jubilee – how times have changed
Photo by dannybirchall on Flickr

The Jubilee celebrations reminded me of a fundamental flaw in British society: the monarchy

In the weeks leading up to Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, a 100-metre wide photograph of the royal family celebrating 1977’s Silver edition was unfurled over a building on London’s South Bank. The image shows a fresh-looking, middle-aged Queen smiling and waving to her subjects from the Buckingham Palace balcony – soaking up the adulation, flanked by her adoring husband and children. Had Kim Jong-un unveiled a banner so ostentatious, inflated and pompous in Pyongyang, Newsnight’s talking heads would’ve been up in arms over the North Korean “personality cult”. The similarities between the Windsors and the Kims are thankfully few, but the picture still rankled with some, who were left to wonder why, in the second decade of the 21st century, are the citizens of a supposedly democratised nation paying homage to a woman who has been its unelected head of state for 60 years?Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the Jubilee was the context within which it was so heartily celebrated. The duumvirate of real power, David Cameron and George Osborne, have spent the past two years sliding down the greased-up opinion polls at an alarming rate. The Labour leader Ed Miliband has been keen to impress the pair’s wealth and perceived sense of entitlement (both are old Etonians and come from vast familial fortunes) upon the public, who seem to be taking note. Yet, simultaneously, the royal family hasn’t been this popular in years: a recent poll conducted by ICM and theGuardian found that 69 per cent of Britons say the country would be worse off without a hereditary monarchy – while only 10 per cent support reverting to a contemporary presidential head of state.

Smiling weddings clearly have a more positive impact than growling public divorces, but these figures still baffle me. I pull no punches about my politics. I’m a republican and feel that the head of a state – no matter how notional its powers are said to be – should be a fully elected figure, whose actions and operations are transparent, accountable and dictated by a clearly stated mandate. I find it difficult to reconcile any of the arguments in favour of a monarchy with these principles, or, indeed, with the opulence on show last weekend. As a £12 million (!) flotilla made its way down the Thames on Sunday, the only emotion stirred within me was one of regret: regret that a further £12 million of taxpayers’ money had been pissed down the river. As the no doubt handsomely remunerated Grace Jones and Stevie Wonder were – on separate occasions – wishing her Majesty a “happy birthday”, hundreds of unpaid jobseekers were being bussed in from across the UK in order to steward the event and then – like a scene from the most dystopian of Dickensian works – forced to sleep under London Bridge before turning up for duty. The duality of Britain’s modern society, laid bare.

Royal minted

As it is, most pro-monarchy arguments are fairly easy to unpick, but rather than sifting through all of them, I’ll focus on some of the most commonly used. Arguably the most frequently propagated is that having a royal family is great for the national coffers. Yes, tourists flock to pick up tacky souvenirs and get their picture taken in front of Buckingham Palace – but not in the droves you might think. Only one of the top 20 tourist attractions in Britain is a royal abode (Windsor Castle, #17). Royal tourism accounts for just 1 per cent of Britain’s total tourism revenue: a drop in the ocean.

In its Value for Money Monarchy Myth report, the pro-reform group Republic points out that the monarchy costs the taxpayer £202.4 million annually, rather than the £38.3 million figure officially released, a figure which excludes, among other things, security and royal visits. This financial hole, claims Republic, would cover the annual salaries of almost 10,000 nurses and over 8,000 police officers. In comparison, the monarchies of Holland, Norway, Denmark and Spain cost their taxpayers £88.3 million, £23.9 million, £10.5 million and £7.4 million, respectively. If you add them all together, the Windsors’ budget is 150 per cent greater than the total. The monarchy, we’re told, assumes the same ambassadorial, figurehead role as the Irish President (democratically elected), but annually, runs up a bill 112 times bigger than Michael D. Higgins or any of his predecessors.

The most controversial facet of the regal finances, perhaps, is the income generated by the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall. The duchies comprise lands, assets and property held in trust for the crown, yet are not the personal property of the royal family. The costs of running the duchies come from taxpayers’ contributions, but profits from them are withheld from public consumption, even while they’re being held aloft as a reason for retaining the monarchy. The monarchy retains all capital generated through the duchies (you may be familiar with Prince Charles’ Duchy Originals range of organic foodstuffs sold in upmarket grocers, such as Waitrose). That the royal family is entitled to retain these profits while still being in receipt of the civil list (the donation made to the upkeep of the royal family by the government) is wholly undemocratic – particularly considering payments into the civil list have increased by 94 per cent in real terms over the past two decades.

You can choose your friends…

Another argument often reeled off by monarchists is that the Queen is a figurehead – a harmless individual who successfully represents her people, while not interfering in political matters. When quizzed on how exactly she completes the above task successfully, supporters usually return a nebulous answer. Apologists often point to her entertaining of state visitors (bypassing the fact that guests first must call on the Lord Mayor of London, further diluting the Queen’s essentiality), yet, such leaders often deserve to have the rug pulled from beneath their feet, rather than rolled out before them. 

In a pre-Jubilee state dinner, the list of invitees was a who’s who of global tyrants. King Mswati III of Swaziland was there, a multi-billionaire monarch of a country whose GDP per capita ranks below that of Iraq and East Timor and who has been implicated in a kidnapping affair (his future teenage bride – to add to his harem of ten others – was the victim) and has claimed that all HIV-positive people should be “sterilised and branded”. He was joined by King Al Khalifa of Bahrain, who arrived fresh from crushing an uprising in his island state, killing 85 civilians and torturing almost 2,000 more. Granted, the Home Office is most likely to have drawn up the list of invitees, but by dining in their company (in her house!), the Queen legitimises regimes of brutality across the world. As someone representing the supposedly suffraged British people – surely her guest lists should be more reflective of their national values.

Domestically, the Queen may well steer clear of party politics (although, given the fact that liaisons between parliament and palace are subject to a secrecy rivalling parliamentary privilege, we may never know if it is the case), but when she eventually cedes power to the first in line to the throne, her heir is unlikely to remain so blank, unopinionated and politically irrelevant. Charles, should he succeed his mother, is a much more vociferously minded individual who has, for his forthright views and willingness to expound upon them, been described as “the republicans’ best friend”.

Good time Charlie 

His views on “complementary” medicines, fox-hunting, architecture and governmental agriculture policy have been widely publicised and roundly condemned (indeed, in 2000, the Prince of Wales lent his support to a strand of “spiritual healing” which can reduce the effects of chemotherapy. In this case, his views are not just controversial, they’re downright dangerous). In a recent column in the Observer, Nick Cohen proposed that the ascension of Charles III would be the final nail in the coffin of the British monarchy: for the moment he starts meddling in matters of national, political importance, the number’s surely up.

My concluding questions are these: are the British public really happy to be represented by a lady who, while thankfully not openly airing views as offensive as some of those of her son, has not once in her life uttered an opinion worth recording, let alone remembering and whose supposed political irrelevance and detachment are held up as virtues? Shouldn’t a country that is seemingly content to go to war with “less democratic” nations and individuals in the name of freedom practice what it preaches abroad, at home? Shouldn’t we do away with such nepotism in favour of something more meritocratic that produces a figurehead who more clearly represents and articulates Britain’s supposedly democratic values?

In the 10,000 years since Britain became an island, there have been many things worthy of celebrations on the scale of last weekend. To name but a few, there’s that language that we all speak to varying degrees of competency, which seems to have caught on fairly well in other parts of the world; the Magna Carta – the first step in transferring power from the antiquity of monarchy, almost 1,000 years ago; London becoming only the second place in the world after Venice to outlaw the trade of slaves and serfdom way back in 1102 (the rest of the country wasn’t free from the shackles for another 600 years); the establishment of universal, free healthcare in 1948; the inventions of the television, the jet and steam engines, the telephone and the internet; the long overdue legalisation of gay matrimony in 2005. The list goes on: there are many things that make Britain great. The monarchy, I’m afraid to say, is not one of them.

Originally published here

An apologetic update

No matter how good my intentions, it always seems to be this blog that bears the brunt of my neglect when I get busy. Sometimes, it’s out of laze or lack of motivation; lack of inspiration of ideas. This time, though, I’m happier to report it’s been due to other creative commitments. The past few months have been hectic and exciting. I have continued my writing and am currently a staff blogger with Gwangju Blog. I am contributing regularly to Gwangju News and The Line Of Best Fit and also randomly featured in other publications.

The past four or five months have also seen me take my first steps into the world of radio. I appear weekly on the English speaking radio station in Gwangju and the surrounding area of Jeollonamdo, GFN (Gwangju Foreigner Network). I’m not quite sure who listens to it, or how many, but I’m grateful for the experience. It’s never an area I had considered in the past, but it is certainly one which I’ll investigate further when I return home. I speak weekly about online developments, the internet and viral videos. Occasionally, I get the chance to spin some tunes, too.

Last month, I was also invited to give a talk in the Gwangju International Centre. Public speaking is something I was never that comfortable with in the past and so, it was a challenge. I chose to speak on ‘Growing Up In The Troubles’. I’ve been surprised at how little people knew about Northern Ireland here… it seems that many Americans aren’t versed in any history or current affairs other than their own. The Koreans, too, can be insular, but with the similarities between the Korean peninsula and Ireland, they seemed to find the topic interesting. I spoke for 45 minutes, with a 15 minute Q & A session afterwards and so spent a full week in preparation. I hope it was worth it. You can watch a ‘highlights reel’ compiled by the GIC below.

The past few weeks also marked the first times I have ever been interviewed. For his excellent website the Clear Minded Creative, Milo McLaughlin thought my chosen path was worth speaking about and I was greatly honoured that he featured me there. You can read the piece here. Because of my contributions to Gwangju Blog, News and the radio show, Hughie Samson, a Canadian writer in the city, ran a profile of me on the site. You can read that piece here.

For both, I found it slightly unnerving, but also insightful. I am so used to firing off questions to folks I’m interviewing without giving a cursory thought to the fact that they may find it tricky, or feel uncomfortable. If they delayed, I got frustrated. I think having completed these two projects, my attitude will slightly change and I hope to become more patient in such situations.

I have also been training for my first marathon, which takes place next week in Seoul. I have been meaning to blog about running and how it has changed my life for some time and will try to do so once (if) I’ve completed the marathon. But it has been a big part of my life for the past six months and the past two, in particular. It can be quite time consuming and energy zapping, but equally inspiring.

I will update the blog more regularly through March and I hope April, but after that, I will be on my travels for a couple of months in Australia. Thanks for reading!

Ukraine’s Got Talent. Yes It Does

I’m not a fan of talent shows: X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, Popstars… anything like that. Mostly, because it’s very rarely that the audience is presented with anyone with much discernible talent. Sure, for the most part they can sing – but in a conveyor belt kind of way. The winner of one show is often a carbon copy of a previous winner, or of the current flavour of the month, riding high in the charts.

If they were actually dedicated to uncovering unique talents, unreplicated and unlikely to be, then it may be more interesting. I might actually watch from time to time. This clip baffles me. I can’t decide where I stand on it – whether this girl should be catapulted into superstardom, given space at the Tate, or plonked down at Trafalgar Square in a sandbox to earn a crust. But she’s definitely unique.

Kseniya Simonova is a sand animator from the Ukraine. She only started doing her thing properly after her business collapsed in the financial crisis of 2008. Last year, she won the final of Ukraine’s Got Talent after spending 8 minutes creating a series of sand drawings depicting the life in the USSR during the Great Patriotic War against Hitler’s Third Reich in WWII. The video below is breathtaking.

Not only is the girl scarily gifted, but she attempts to do something absolutely unheard of on the British equivalents. She invokes a sense of history, courts areas of controversy and races from cultural and historical touchstone to touchstone, bringing members of the audience to tears.

How can anyone still be content with being subjected to Jedward or one of Simon Cowell’s latest protegees after watching the clip below? And to think, we got Rolf Harris…

I Don’t Know Why I Love You, But I Do…

I haven’t had a television for a while now. But if I were to buy one, one of the main reasons would be to watch Match of the Day. I, like many, have been known to schedule my Saturday night around the show – which is crazy really, because for many reasons MOTD is truly awful.
Not having much of a yardstick to measure it against, I might not be in a position to properly gauge, but I am still fairly confident MOTD is one of the smuggest, most infuriating and most poorly produced programmes on television just now.

The BBC has always been liberal with the taxpayer’s cash. Handing Steve McClaren a huge wad of cash to offer his views during Euro 2008 on 5 Live was, I know, perceived as a kick in the teeth to many England fans. Here, after all, was the man who had failed to guide his country to the Finals, maddening millions with half-baked observations on those that had actually made it there. Hadn’t he pocketed enough from his failure?

As an Irishman (living in Scotland at the time) I admit chuckling at the irony. It was a glitch on the otherwise commendable record 5 Live has for recruiting expert opinion. MOTD, however, is a different matter entirely. In Mark Lawrenson, Alan Shearer and Alan Hanson, they have possibly the most ill-informed panel ever to have graced our screens, collectively possessing all the insightfulness of a blind goldfish.

I was of the understanding that part of a pundit / commentator / co-commentator / broadcast journalist’s job was to offer expert, authoritative opinion. At the very least, a basic understanding of the rules of the game should be expected. However, I recall on at least one occasion, “Lawro” having to ask John Motson how many substitutions were permitted in a game he was co-commentating on. Whilst he may not have the opportunity to make such slip-ups on MOTD, it gives us an idea of this cretin’s credentials.

Xenophobia is something public bodies are constantly striving to eliminate. Yet on the sofas of MOTD, it is alive and well. Case in point: Kevin Davies earlier this season took Frenchman Gael Clichy out with a near knee high challenge. From whatever angle you look at it, it was a red card: a career threatening challenge.

What was Lawrenson’s reaction? To call the Arsenal player a ‘Jessie’. Davies was eulogised as a ‘hardworking pro’. The tackle was adjudged to have been a ‘good, honest English challenge.’ I am quite confident if the roles had been reversed, the ‘experts’ would have been up in arms over the nerve of Johnny Foreigner. Similarly, when Kevin Nolan almost took somebody’s leg off with a late challenge recently, he was described as ‘not that kind of player.’ Funny how it’s always the players that supposedly ‘aren’t like that’ making exactly those sorts of challenges.

The bias is blatant to the point of embarrassment. Last weekend, Steven Taylor of Newcastle (a player with a nasty, nasty streak but frequently defended as ‘an honest pro’) punched Russian playmaker Andrei Arshavin square in the face. What was the pundits’ reaction? Well, nothing of course. The editing crew at MOTD felt this assault wasn’t worthy of 30 seconds footage. It reeks of base level jingoism, the likes of which are unseen since Jackie Fullerton’s last commentary on a Northern Ireland game.

You would think Alan Shearer would know better, having only recently retired from a career during which he suffered numerous horrific knee injuries. But he’s obviously been given his brief. His insight is pathetic. Is stating the obvious enough to justify his undoubtedly handsome salary? I think not. When Andy Townsend wheeled out his Tactics Truck on ITV’s Champion’s League coverage, I cringed, but at least he was showing some tactical nous.

Alan Hanson has long since become a parody of himself. The rate at which he pedals his clichéd, hyperbolic ‘quotables’ is excruciating.



Nobody’s asking you to adopt a Thom Yorke-esque approach to punditry, Al, but do have a bit of perspective, man. If Hanson was indeed shocked on the regularity he purports, one would expect his hair to be a more brilliant tone of Linekar.

Surely there is not a program on television which gets so many of the basics wrong? Surely, there is nothing else out there in which the individual rudiments – the analysis of football matches, in this case – are all so annoying, hackneyed and prejudiced?

So why the Hell do we all love it so much?

For the rest of the season, I have decided to challenge Bagpuss Lawrenson. His results predictor on BBC Football’s website can’t be too difficult to beat. Can they?

The video below shows a slightly alternative stylee of punditry. Messr Eamonn Dunphy: