Was that a week, or just weak?

It’s been an odd week. The best part is that I was only required to attend “The Unpleasantness” on three days, during which the management were so busy managing each other’s mistakes that I was left to manage myself. But enough of such drudgery.

Once it stopped raining, Tuesday was spent helping set up the Global Village for Tynwald Day. Then Wednesday morning I was back there, bright and early, to take my place on the Amnesty International stall for the day. And I really wouldn’t want to have been anywhere else.

The thing is, I have no interest in anything that happens around the main field. Each year my token visit there to check if I’m missing anything gets shorter and shorter. This year I was actually back on the stall within ten minutes, and feeling physically sick.

For me it’s a sad collection of colonial klingons, UKIP-lite losers and war-gamers. Tiny minds, no ambition beyond selling the next lame cow to buy a wide-screen TV. The mud, the diesel fumes, the attempts to crowd more and more paying punters into a smaller and smaller space? The increasingly desperate and clueless attempts to demonstrate “Manxness”.

Well…. thanks, but no thanks. If there is a Manx way of life, that field is not where you will find it. Quite the opposite in fact.

By comparison, the Global Village is a model of what we could have. The antics of some of the participants may well annoy or frustrate me, but it is the willingness to communicate with others not like us that has to be encouraged. There is none of that around the main event.

Last year things wound up with a sort of multicultural conga of performers, stallholders, and spectators of African, Bulgarian, Indian, Filipino, Manx and I-know-not-what other descent around the field. It was all totally spontaneous and totally infectious: the kind of thing that happens when people of very different backgrounds get together with a positive purpose. Nothing up the hill matches that.

Instead, we get dreck like http://www.manxradio.com/news/isle-of-man-news/church-service-resonates-with-tradition/ . Which is also, incidentally, inaccurate. On the quiet, even compulsory clergy attendees tell me that the entire ceremony bores them to tears and makes them wish they were somewhere else – just interacting with humanity. This is when you realise how bad things really are.

Thankfully, this year there was http://www.iomtoday.co.im/article.cfm?id=34684&headline=Silent%20protest%20over%20island%27s%20abortion%20law&sectionIs=news&searchyear=2017 , which rather put things in context. The last time anything comparable occurred would be 1991, when ACT UP popped in to protest the continued complete illegality of homosexuality, along with police and civic harassment of local gays. At the time police tactics were bad enough to drive some to suicide.

And then, a day or two after the main event, came https://www.gov.im/news/2017/jul/07/value-of-arts-and-culture-emphasised-as-strategy-is-published/ . Apparently, “A vibrant cultural scene boosts people’s sense of identity, assists wellbeing and contributes to the Island’s economy and international reputation.”

Well, it might well do if we actually had one. But this has nothing to do with culture, as in the everyday life of people, and everything to do with product that can be measured, bought and sold.

Rarities like the Handmaids aside, anything I would recognise as culture is not to be seen in the public eye. It exists on the Isle of Man only in the cracks between the official version, which it wouldn’t surprise me to know government has trademarked.

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Going for a song

This little item (see http://www.isleofman.com/News/details/82375/new-york-bound-choir-perfoming-this-weekend ) has been the source of some amusement to me and mine in recent weeks. If I was related to Martin Luther King Junior I might also be very embarrassed – even if the rumours that his family aggressively chase a financial percentage in any scheme involving his name did turn out to have substance.

For various reasons I knew of this sad enterprise (for it is little more than a financial enterprise) some time ago, and can safely say that media reports are a little light on the fuller facts. In brief, this isn’t so much an invitation to take part in a world premiere as a bizarre pyramid crowd-funding scheme, and both Jenkins and Manx socialites have form for this kind of thing.

It goes something like this…..

In the traditional arts model, a composer is commissioned to write a work, and in order to maximise impact obviously wants the best venue and performers for the premiere – which can require a lot of upfront funding if that work is ambitious, involves a lot of performers and only works well in a large venue. More recently, it would be quite normal for the composer or performers to get some sort of TV, DVD and CD deal to lay off those costs. But the management behind Jenkins – whose product sells well in the amateur and semi-pro choir world – found a way to take that even further.

Jenkins has built a reputation for producing safe, middle of the road, vaguely religious waffle to order for public authorities, the Beeb and Arts Council. It’s cheesy enough for any small town mayor to sit through – no controversial themes, no postmodern wierdness, just do-goody topics like World Peace with extensive plagiarisation of the words of religious “thinkers”. It has the added attraction that even a beginner can pick up the tunes in about 5 minutes, so the sheet music sales and performing royalties flowing back from small town choirs are humungous.

Then the Jenkins marketing machine had another wizard wheeze. What if, instead of paying professional singers for the world premiere, you “invite” amateur choirs to do it, then charge them an arm and a leg to perform? You can even take it further than that – having milked one lot for the world or national premieres, why not tender for places on the CD recording too?

So somebody at the IOMCS answered the web call for choirs, and oddly enough somebody in New York wrote back to say that a choir from a place known worldwide only for a tax-avoidance industry had made the shortlist.

Crikey, that must have been a surprise. Almost as surprising as the comparative absence of choristers from poorer countries with top quality amateur classical musical groups like, say, Bulgaria.

Having – of necessity – endured numerous performances by the IOMCS and other local choirs over the years, I would have to say bluntly that if the selection for the NY gig was purely on musical ability they would not have a prayer. Because Manx musical groups prefer to overcome technical shortcomings by sheer numbers and volume, rather than diligent practice.

Ten people singing slightly out of time and tune is obviously and painfully wrong. With 140 wrong, but in roughly identical ways at the same places, the audience will tend to think it’s right – especially if they are not too familiar with the music. On that basis Manx national ensembles are falsely judged “better” than smaller groups, and being both “national” and expensive to join attract socialites of minimal ability (who do nothing to drag standards up but do ensure sufficient funding).

What the local reports also neglect to mention is that (1) the real cost for each participant is around £1500, of which about a third is paid direct to the Carnegie organisers and (2) the performers are not allowed to view either rehearsals or performance of any other item on the concert programme.

But presumably the offer also pulls in more than the choirs, because relatives will pay to go and watch it too. Which is where the next sting comes in, because friends and relatives have to pay for their own concert tickets (prices start about $500) and if they want to come along to the post-gig reception with the singers (who have already paid for that as part of the package) that would be about another $500 – possibly far more depending on what Noo Yawk glitterati are prepared to pay to swan about with the likes of the Luther Kings.

So, to sum up, you go to New York at the height of winter, get herded into two long rehearsals, kicked out again and told not to come back before the night. If at any stage in this a connecting airport is closed, New York is snowed in for a week, etc., you are on your own. Nightmare if you actually have to work for a living and a family to worry about. Minor inconvenience in return for some swanky pics when you have money, time on your hands, and nothing better to do.

But something about it this also reminds me of a scam a senior Manx cleric used to run to pay for his (frequent) foreign holidays. In essence, he struck up a deal with a local travel agent to run tours to the Holy Land, or some traditional UK or European pilgrimage site. For every 10 places on the package holiday the cleric flogged, he got one free. So, 20 and he and the Mrs got a free holiday.

Being connected to charitable and government bodies, he soon branched out, to the extent he was taking maybe half a dozen free foreign holidays a year. Oddly enough, his church and various statutory bodies he chaired managed perfectly well without him, which says something else about the way such organisations work on the Isle of Man.

I hear that invitations to perform, at first restricted only to the richest members of IOMCS, are now being thrown about ever more desperately to a wider circle of less and less musically able (or even interested) punters. It is quite possible that the eventual Manx contingent will entirely consist of tone-deaf wealthy retirees.

It is even more amusing to speculate if (on the same basis as their own concerts) their duff notes will be drowned out by more able singers from elsewhere, or if this is a global phenomenon. In which case I hope at least the sound engineer at the Carnegie recording this for posterity will be a professional and get union rates for the job. If he’s as mercenary as the Jenkins machine he could even make a small fortune on the side flogging unedited versions of the master-tape.

Flower arranging

Plans for one of the island’s most cringe-worthy annual events were revealed yesterday. If we needed any more evidence of the tourist department’s utter incompetence, may I refer the jury to http://www.manx.net/isle-of-man-news/81949/theme-for-2017-isle-of-man-flower-festival-is-announced.

In a nutshell, this event consists of….well, flower displays in churches. Um, that’s it. No, honestly, it is.

The only really interesting feature (at least for number-crunchers who make a living from “re-interpreting” statistics) is the clever way in which a few carloads of grannies wandering around a church magically becomes “thousands” in the official annual tourist figures. It works like this….

The organisers in each church are issued with little clickers, which they press every time a visitor or volunteer walks in the door. The thing is, there are 11 churches, and the event makes no sense unless you visit every one. So, if 100 genuinely interested people visited one church in a week, by the time they’ve seen the lot the total becomes 1100. If you consider that the obligatory party comprising the governor and his entourage alone adds up to about 12 the numbers go down even further. Then there’s town and village politicos, tinies from the local primary school and other compulsory attendees. It all adds up – in a not entirely honest way.

This scam was developed by local heritage bods in a linked government department around the millennium, when an expensive “historic attraction” was losing money hand-over-fist, partly because of constant new repairs demanded by initial bad design, partly by sheer lack of punters. Outside of compulsory school visits and TT Week, the suspicion was that on many days the real footfall for a massive public investment that demanded, for example, the entire re-routing of a town traffic system (killing off all local shops in the process) was in single figures.

To inflate reported attendance, an electronic scanner counted all who passed through the front entrance, and the figures produced became the official attendance quoted in annual reports. This sounds fair until you know that the centre’s own staff pass in and out maybe 20 times a day. Then, because of the constant repairs, there was a constant flow of electricians, plumbers, carpenters, roofers and other tradesmen, passing in and out with each plank, brick, bag of nails, fuse, light-bulb, etc. etc. Amusingly, the attraction won a “Museum of the Year” prize not long after. Some might wonder if a prize for fantasy fiction might have been more in order.

I merely add that the same government body, for about a decade now, has also underwritten an event called Praying the Keills. The tour claims to allow devout Christians to follow the steps of the Celtic saints. In practice quasi-geriatrics and other social misfits are led from one random pile of stones in a windswept spot to another. I am not sure if an ambulance actually follows them around, but I suspect one would have to be on permanent standby.

Seriously, in what parallel universe does a government body go out of its way to promote tourism for retired faith-heads? And in what real world will some very well paid public servants ever get judged on actual good ideas or success?

Sick notes

The Inhuman Resources Manager at The Unpleasantness set up compulsory meetings for us all to learn about a new health plan this week. Yet another hour of my life I’ll never get back – though at least someone was paying me to sit through this one.

Like most (apparently) respectable employers, mine already operates one private health plan with a well known con artist, with free basic membership for all employees and a chance to include your family and add other “benefits” if you pay extra. Knowing that, behind the scenes, private hospitals and clinics are rackets run on a shoestring while billing each item of medical care (from a paracetamol or surgical swab) at about 10 times the cost that a diligent NHS manager would compute it to be, then adding “extras” like a glass of water, a bath or change of sheets at, say, £50 per unit, and also knowing such centres of clinical excellence will be staffed by surgeons who rarely meet basic training requirements, assisted by moonlighters who struggle into theatre after a double shift on underpaid NHS facilities, I choose not to.

I’m also trying to get out of my “free” membership, surmising that it’s little more than a tax scam whereby I get taxed for a compulsory “ benefit in kind” that I never wanted and will never use (for the reasons outlined above) while my employer gets a tax break on alleged payments to the health plan. Because the thing is, employers rarely have to pay for such schemes anyway. What happens is that the insurance companies behind them offer free basic plans to employers in return for the employers recruiting staff, who take up paid options which bring in all the real income.

All that aside, the reason for this week’s meeting was to get round an apparent glitch whereby the service provider (having noticed employees generally use the service for routine and trivial treatments such as dental check-ups and chiropody) introduced a £250 excess fee. The company’s answer to this was a second health plan which meets that fee, then offers other “benefits”. In practice, these are things like gym memberships and a range of voodoo medicine such as acupuncture, homeopathy, aromatherapy or untested teeth whitening procedures. Always nice to know your employer is so concerned for your wellbeing (and so rigorous in their vetting procedures) that they place it in the hands of some shyster with all the academic and professional qualifications of, say, a Victorian village wart-charmer.

Then there’s the “confidential counselling” service by telephone which purports to help with things like substance abuse, stress, financial and relationship worries, bereavement, etc. That sounds fine until you know it is offered by a company with a lousy reputation for unethical behaviour (such as selling on client details) that you would never – ever – want to share personal problems with. For one thing because it is owned by and reports back to an insurance company which many have their company pension and life insurance with. This means all your personal worries end up on their files and cause them to up your premiums, then when you get ill or pop your clogs they have reasons never to pay out (or more precisely pay back a small portion of what you gave them).

Finally, though, I suspect it’s just that old Manx disease – Brown Envelope Syndrome – flaring up again. Seriously, I have never known such a place for petty officials who won’t do anything without a “present”. I know many Eastern Europeans who grew up with such a culture, and even they laugh at how crudely it works here.

The Manx public sector has been riddled with it for decades, and in the various supply trades it is an open secret that nothing like foodstuffs or stationery gets supplied until the relevant company employee has their palm greased. It was inevitable that such a culture would spread to bigger, supposedly more rigorous, professions. I have already mentioned that private health providers actually pay companies to get their employees on board so, as with “independent financial advisors”, it should be no surprise that insurance companies routinely give “introduction fees” to the HR or accounts personnel who are throwing millions of pounds their way – which in 99% of cases never flows back to the customer.

It’s enough to make you sick.

Back to work, then

Well, having been back from my “short break” for almost a week, I suppose I should start posting again.

My time away was time to reflect. Because, with the best will in the world, the painful truth is that ideas which I used to take for granted no longer stand up.

Maybe that’s the problem, most of us never do revisit these things, or take a step back and examine them objectively. I have, and now wonder how I could ever believe them.

One problem locally is that if you come into contact with people who agitate over one issue, they’ll be the same people who agitate over others. So they become an insular little group who assume that if you think A then you also think B, C …. and right through to X,Y and Z, without once examining any of the issues on their own merits.

A little clique, no different to the ones who control all decisions over certain political issues, and do it, not in recognisable civic groupings which anyone can join but in the golf club bar, or church, or masonic hall, or just drinks parties in someone’s home supposedly to celebrate something totally unrelated.

Networking would be the polite term. There are much ruder ones.

So, mooching around Edinburgh just before the Fringe got going was a pleasant change. A little under a week surrounded by people who were, in the main, quite sane, and none of whom appeared to be married to their cousins. Some proper art, some museums, shops, restaurants and bars staffed by people who wanted to help (rather than moody adolescents or smug “take it or leave it” merchants who knew you couldn’t go anywhere else). I think Edinburgh has the hang of this tourist thing, unlike the Isle of Man.

On the other hand, you know the UK economy is really screwed when even the begging is outsourced.

I kid you not. As I have family there, I’ve known Edinburgh all my life and was well used to the “jakies” who begged for coins from tourists. Not any more.

All the good pitches were taken by foreign beggars with exactly the same quasi-religious victim pitch I’ve seen East European gypsies make in Hungary and Romania. Even the bloke we bought a Big Issue from turned out to be Romanian. The local bums don’t have a look-in – totally outclassed by professionals who’ve really thought their act through ….. if only the fringe’s street performers and their sad, cliched acts could get such a kicking from similar new competition.

No, seriously though, a pleasant few days with time to think. Then it was back to the office last Thursday morning to pick up exactly where I left off, and count the minutes down to Friday night and a peaceful weekend catching up on my sleep and dreaming of Edinburgh…

…except that it wasn’t peaceful. In fact, the reason I didn’t post over the weekend is that it was such a blur of creative effort, from which I’m still recovering at work (where feigning labour while filtering out the inane is second nature to me).

Firstly, I came home from holiday to find that a book I’d promised to review had finally arrived – the morning after we left. Not just any book, mind you, but a philosophy professor’s first novel, which, for reasons to complicated to go into, the author only sent to one of my editors, who trusted me to review it. So, the thing had to be read by Friday night, then written about by Sunday. And to further complicate matters, my other editor e-mailed – also the day after we left – to say his publication was, as you might politely put it, “re-grouping” after a fall out amongst the publishers. An entirely new publication is to replace it, so from now on I have half the space for the column I’ve written for over a decade, but carte blanche to write on contemporary issues only elsewhere. Oh, and the deadline is next Friday.

ULP!

But somewhere amongst all this I do intend following the sage (if drunken) advice Francis Bacon once gave to Jeff Bernard, that the only way to survive life is to regard very, very nearly everything as totally unimportant.

Enough for now. A single malt awaits.

If you did miss me, I’ll take that as a compliment. But if you want more rubbish, you’ll still have to wait for the weekend.

Jingle Hells

I was amused by the reference to ‘community carol singing’ in http://www.iomtoday.co.im/news/isle-of-man-news/head-to-ramsey-for-lantern-parade-community-carol-singing-and-fireworks-1-7616500 . It’s all part of a ghastly local authority plan to try and entice visitors to Ramsey for Christmas shopping, as also outlined at http://www.iomtoday.co.im/what-s-on/manx-entertainment-news/penguin-christmas-family-fun-in-ramsey-town-centre-1-7612479 .

A penguin nativity, put on by Baptists? Is that for real? Well, maybe as close to reality as anything involving evangelical oddballs, I suppose.

I assume this is an attempt to cash in on that dippy penguin film that such fundies have (wrongly) taken as some sort of ‘proof’ that only families with one daddy and one mummy are ‘natural’. Best not to tell the witless that, rather interestingly, zoologists say that penguins quite happily adapt to a nature red in tooth and claw by bringing up babies in groups with two males, or females… or really any combination of supportive adults available, and that mating for life with same sex partners is also nothing unusual for them.

Sadly, this will be a gathering of the kind of people I’d never voluntarily spend time around outside the one building in Ramsey that, until last week, was staffed by people I would. For your sanity and stomach’s sake, best to stay well clear.

I also fear all this frantic activity will be enough to break the new Chinese paving slabs. Perhaps it’s all part of some fiendish plot so that the company run by a disgraced politician’s family who got the contract to wreck the square in the first place can get paid to make it suitably ugly – yet again.

And seriously, who on earth sings carols in public? These days, who, below the age of 40, even knows the words or tunes?

Now, I’m happy enough singing all the wrong words to Christmas carols I learnt at junior school in some church out of mischief – if only because it’s twice as funny when I’m the only one who knows either the right or wrong ones. In fact, I have one obligatory visit this very Sunday, so will make up for it by doing just that.

But in a public place, and funded by public money? Not really. Just give the whole disaster a wide miss.

And if you must waste time and spend your hard-earned buying useless objects for ungrateful sods who have no need of them and will never use them, here’s a tip. If you order online via the chain stores, you only need to deal with the adolescents who staff such places for a minute or two while you pick them up. As all the real work putting your order together will have been done by real people (probably migrant workers on agency contracts), then there is nothing these grumpy little zit-farmers can do to screw it up.

Ugly Butties

A year or so back, a new freebie magazine appeared on the Isle of Man and was briefly interesting, Firstly because any challenge to the provincialism or dull corporate sector brown-nosing of other local publications is to be welcomed. Secondly because it actually had some style, and fashion shoots featuring local models who were obviously neither born here nor ugly.

Sadly, while the fashion shoots have generally maintained standards, any pretence at written articles was dropped within two issues and the mag now fills more and more pages with Manx ‘society’ pictures.

In my own experience, historically Manx society photos were taken by photographers more often called on to snap prize-winning agricultural specimens. There was often little to differentiate the subjects – except that the Fresians and Tamworths appeared to have taken more exercise and avoided junk food. In this new manifestation the photos are badly framed, out of focus and apparently taken on cell phones by drunks, but still feature noticeably bovine subjects.

I blame Warhol myself – not just for ‘in the future everybody will be famous for 15 minutes’ but his groundbreaking Interview mag and films that blurred the line between beauty and ugliness (later briefly taken up in a more constructive way by punk). I must confess, I was vaguely involved in a similar mag in the UK back in the mid 1990’s – though even that had proper articles and both photographers and subjects with a lot more taste.

It is side-splittingly funny to see this hangover from 1980’s New York reach a raindrenched, windswept bit of rock (though I suspect the youngish producers more likely picked up the idea from OK and other supermarket mags). And I find it absolutely hilarious that most of the plug-uglies who sent in their snaps thought they were worthy. How far we have come since the golden days of Hollywood.

Because the thing about old Hollywood glamour was that beauty was rigorously policed. It certainly moved things on from 19th century paintings of bland heiresses or the corpulent daughters of the new rich. It was even more democratic in one way, because for the first time there was a chance that any stunning beauty spotted by a talent scout in a bar – regardless of race, class or background – could become a movie star.

But back then standards were expected. By comparison, these days every butt-ugly pig princess or management trainee can get faces that would sink a thousand ships in a glossy.

In the old – paid for – regional press editors sent photographers in search of large groups of children or sports players. In either case, this meant guaranteed sales to all their relatives.

But when a free publication depends entirely on advertising the needs are different. It is the advertisers who need it to be seen by as many potential clients as possible. As the girning grotesques in these pictures are not likely applicants for family trusts, can’t all be planning plastic surgery and self-evidently do not use beauty products or buy upmarket clothing they hardly fit the bill.

Warhol, Punk, the New Romantics, and many of the brave little attempts at reinventing glamour or living outside the norm that they spawned…these I understood and loved. But this product celebrating small town dullards and styleless freaks? It defies all publishing models, so it puzzles me.

Perhaps the whole thing is a guaranteed money-waster to front some elaborate tax scam. Perhaps the models, photographers and stylists all work for free in the vain hope they’ll be talent-spotted by a paying client. The Manx marketing sector – as I know only too well – is staffed by some of the most spectacularly stupid individuals ever to emerge from private education. Yet surely even they would not be dumb enough to pay to place their product close to such gargoyles for fear it might be contaminated.

Would they?

On second thoughts…. yes, they obviously would.