Monday, October 29, 2007

Formula One Goes Channel Five

Is it only me, or is there something distinctly pornographic about this and other recent photographs from the Formula One Championships? I remember laughing with O a few years ago, when Kimi Räikkönen won his first Grand Prix, at how even Helsingin Sanomat plastered a photograph of the boyish, downy-cheeked, "barely legal" Kimi in a similar pseudo-bukkake pose, but now I realise that the photograph in question, and the one above, are part of a much larger genre.

It's startling quite how closely the imagery of Formula One resembles the aesthetics of porn. The above picture might in another context be called an "autofacial" or something similar. Another common image is what I'll call "the ejaculation pose" (photographs which immortalise the moment upon which the winner first corks the champagne bottle at crotch-height, letting the contents spurt forth). Then there are those in which the winner drenches the other two drivers standing on the podium in the remaining fluids... I mean, champagne.

For all its inherent masculinity, the world of sport is positively brimming with homoeroticism, both overt and covert. For years I've wondered why footballers embrace each other, jump on top of each other and generally frolic on the pitch when somebody scores a goal; rugby scrumming has always held a certain amount of interest; and as for Greco-Roman wrestling... the sight of two men in tight (and I mean tight) lycra jumpsuits grappling each other on a court is quite a spectacle. I'm sure there's been much more written on the subject of homoeroticism in sport and the portrayal of the victorious man (do women shower themselves and in each other in champagne?) – numerous sociologists and queer theorists have doubtless had a stab – though for the time being I'll just have to make do with the pictures.

PS: I promised K last week that I would post on this subject, so thanks for your patience! Your comments, insightful and otherwise, are most welcome. My computer was at the repair store all week... Technology, eh! I don't know whether you can live with it, but as I've discovered you certainly can't live without it...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Coz it's really, really important

I promise to write something on a subject other than British politics soon, but this was too good an opportunity to pass up!

You can always count on The Sun for some informed debate on burning issues of the day. I mean, who wants to listen to politicians' opinions anyway? They're all the same, I say, can't trust any of them! Far more interesting, not to mention edifying, are the opinions of Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson and one of the singers from Girls Aloud, both of whom are, of course, renowned for the insight and depth of their political commentary – or something like that...

To give him credit, Clarkson does present a rather cogent argument for what the Treaty means and why it is important that we, the great British public, ratify it. He argues in favour of a referendum and, I was surprised to read, says that he would vote Yes. I'm surprised Mr Murdoch allowed such dissenting, pro-European opinions to be published in one of his papers.
And before I’m accused by the Guardian of being a Little Englander with his head stuck in the 1950s, I should like to say that I like the idea of a common Europe with the same money, the same airport trolleys, the same plug sockets and the same property laws. [...] I like the idea that I could work in Greece or France and it’d be just the same as working in Swindon. I also like the idea of a giant European state tempering American stupidity and Chinese economic might. I would therefore vote YES in a referendum. But since we live in a democracy, I would absolutely respect the result if everyone else voted no.

Far more in line with The Sun's traditional politics is Nicola Roberts. Who? You know, that singer from Girls Aloud. Oh, her! Apparently, the paper claims, she is "more concerned about Britain's future than her nails or make up". Good to know.
Personally I’m against us signing up under the terms being suggested because it means we will be handing over so many powers to unelected representatives in Europe. It will mean they could bring in new laws and dictate the way we lead our lives in Britain. That’s why I think that, if we do get a referendum, we should vote No. Others might disagree – that is their right in a democracy – but at least let’s all have a debate about it.
If young people today don’t know anything about the EU constitution they should go and educate themselves and find out how it could effect [sic] them because it’s important. Do we really want to end up living in a country where we can’t make our own decisions based on what is best for Britain?

Why do I get the distinct impression this was not written by Ms Roberts? The text has Sun propagandist rhetoric written all over it. "They" (the terrible other, the foreign, the European, "Brussels") could bring in new laws... Do "we" (the pure, the righteous wronged, the non-European) really want to end up living... And so on and so on ad nauseam.

How frustrating that this represents the current level of "debate" on this issue, and how saddening that one paper and its Australian owner seem intent on derailing decades of work simply to protect their own megalomaniacal agenda.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Defending our right to stupidity

Polly Toynbee does it again! Another marvellous article in today's Guardian regarding the frenzy of misinformation in the UK over anything "European". Ms Toynbee is absolutely right. A referendum on this issue should never have promised in the first place; Blair should not have given in to pressure from the xenophobic Tories and the right-wing press. Now, instead of addressing the facts surrounding the signing of the Treaty, the debate has descended to bickering over the referendum "we was promised".

Democracy is a term often bandied about in the referendum debate. One poster (again, the comments to this article are worth a read: prepare to get angry!) talks of Ms Toynbee's "undemocratic vision"; another, in an echo of the Patriot Act, says that she "intensely dislikes her country". Dissent clearly means you are anti-British – can someone please explain the logic in this equation? Tory sympathisers seem to have conveniently forgotten that it was a Conservative government which, in 1992, voted against a referendum on the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. But we don't mention that, okay?

The whole point of electing government is that these people are better equipped to run the country than you or I. Gordon Brown understands a great deal more about the workings of the economy than most of us. Government ministers also understand far more about the Treaty than the average citizen. At the very least they will have read it. Would it be undemocratic to insist that everyone read the Treaty before voting on it? Are any of the readers of The Sun planning on printing off the Treaty (which is available online), reading it and engaging with what it actually says? One wonders whether they would even be capable of this, so poisoned have they become by the vitriolic (and highly misinformed) anti-European sentiment the Murdoch-run right wing press feeds them. The Daily Telegraph is not much better either. When I was in the UK this summer I was shocked (though not surprised) to see, on the front page of the Telegraph, a sign saying "Sign our Petition Against the EU Treaty" printed in bright yellow and purple, the colours of the heinous UK Independence Party. The paper's affiliations could not have been made any clearer.

Far more undemocratic, in my view, would be to hold a referendum in which people end up voting on an issue they know little or nothing about because they cannot be bothered to engage with the issues, casting instead a vote against "Brussels" (whatever that means) and the Euro. It pains me that many people in Britain seem incapable of understanding that the Euro wasn't created simply to further facilitate their holiday to the Costa del Sol.

More frightening, however, is the speculation that a No vote would ultimately result in Britain's exit from the EU. In the event of such a catastrophe, I would find it very difficult to have anything further to do with a nation that is prepared to espouse such idiocy.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Definition of Grievous

What does "grievous" mean in the phrase "grievous bodily harm"? The precise definitions of this and other similar legal terms seem rather vague. Where should be we draw the line between ABH and GBH? At what point does the harm inflicted cease to be "actual" and must therefore be considered "grievous"?

This question came to mind in the light of two recent cases I read about in the Finnish press this week. "Grievous" is the closest translation I can think of for the Finnish legal category of "törkeä something"; pahoinpitely is the legal equivalent of ABH, while törkeä pahoinpitely is GBH.

This, however, is where the similarities between Finnish and British legal terminology end. The Finnish legal system has a strange concept of what is grievous and what is not. All manner of misdemeanours can be considered grievous or not grievous. The most shocking example is the legal distinction between "rape" and "grievous rape" (raiskaus and törkeä raiskaus). This distinction seems to suggest that some rapes are less grievous than others and that not all rapes are considered "grievous" enough to warrant a stiff sentence. What exactly is a non-grievous rape? Was her skirt too short?

Earlier this week, a man who murdered his wife appeared in court charged with "murder" (in the US this would probably be "first degree murder"). His defence argues that the charges should be lowered to "manslaughter", because the crime as a whole cannot be considered "grievous" enough to warrant a murder charge. Here is a rough translation of an article in Helsingin Sanomat, 10th October 2007:
At the hearing of the Vaasa High Court in Jyväskylä on Tuesday, district prosecutor Pentti Hiidenheimo called for a life sentence for Jarmo Björkqvist, charged with murder. Björkqvist killed his wife Paula Björkqvist, chairperson of the Jämsä Town Council, on 18th July 2006. Jämsä Municipal Court charged Mr Björkqvist with murder in May [...]
Björkqvist's defence counsel has appealed against the decision because, in their opinion, the crime as a whole does not fulfil the notion of grievousness required by law for a charge of murder. Counsel for the defence, Henry Saleva, said his client would plead guilty to manslaughter, and suggested that a suitable sentence should be at the higher end of the scale [...]
His wife escaped into their daughter's room, lifted her from her cot, and said she was leaving. Jarmo Björkqvist did not accept this, and stood in the doorway to prevent them from getting out. The couple argued for about 15 minutes, after which Mrs Björkqvist opened the window and shouted for help.
His wife's cries for help allegedly made Mr Björkqvist "lose his temper". He shut the window, then ran to the kitchen to fetch a bread knife. Björkqvist says he had no intention of harming his wife; he merely wanted his daughter back. She was hiding under the table. Mr Björkqvist soon began a frenzied attack on his wife until the knife's handle had become so slippery with blood that he could no longer use it. He then went back to the kitchen to fetch another knife and continued stabbing his wife using his left hand. A total of 69 stab wounds were found on the body.
In the eyes of the prosecution the crime was extremely cruel, brutal and deliberate. Fetching another knife from the kitchen indicates premeditation, though not "wilful premeditation" as indicated in the statute book. Mr Björkqvist paid no heed to his wife's cries for help, the fact that she was unable to defend herself or the fact that their daughter was all the while in the same room.

This all begs the question: how grievous does this crime have to be before Mr Björkqvist will be charged with murder and sentenced to life? Under UK law this would be clear; this was not accidental. If fetching another knife is not considered grievous enough, my faith in Nordic justice will be seriously dented.

Compare this with the case, reported both in Finland and the UK this week, of a British woman who helped her terminally ill Finnish partner to die. With the body in the back seat of the car, the woman then drove straight to the nearest police station and told them what had happened. Under British law she will now be charged with murder (not manslaughter) and could face a life sentence.

Now which of these two crimes is the more grievous?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Yo, Cameron! Pimp my election...

So, after weeks of speculation, frantic phonecalls to county hall, printing off my electoral registration papers, finding a British witness who isn't a member of my family, the threat of postal strikes and the prospect of another Florida 2000, there isn't going to be a general election after all. It's quite a relief, not least because of the potential debacle over postal votes from overseas: would there be time to send them out and return them by the deadline given the current situation with the postal service?

Hindsight, of course, is a fine thing, but only if we can look back at events without distorting the facts to suit our own agendas. In this respect, the rhetoric coming out of the Conservative Party this week is most interesting indeed, and highly revealing.

Who actually wanted this election to happen, I began to wonder. It certainly wasn't anybody within the Labour Party. From Labour's point of view, the only conceivable reason for holding an election only two years after the last one would be to give Mr Brown a mandate of his own, one that doesn't come with the uncomfortable baggage bequeathed him by Mr Blair. In all honesty, the likely outcome for Brown would have been an even larger majority than he has at the moment; Old Labour voters are more inclined to vote for Brown than for Blair. But who really wanted this election? It seems rather spurious of Mr Cameron to accuse the PM of "bottling it", when all along it was the Tories goading him to hold an election he neither wanted nor needed.

With this in mind, Mr Cameron's recent comments in the House of Commons all seem rather mystifying:
You are the first prime minister in history to flunk an election because you thought you could win it. [...] Do you realise what a phoney you now look? Have you found a single person who believes your excuses for cancelling the election?

I for one fail to see how the PM could "cancel" an election which he had never once "announced". Is your memory so bad, or are we being slightly disingenuous with the facts, Mr Cameron? You may be well advised to remember that electorate's memory is not as short or failing as your own.

Another hilarious upshot of last week's alleged election fever is the Nuspeak now coming out of Conservative party HQ. "Bring it on", bellowed Mr Cameron, and, in what seems like a paraphrase of a grammatical construction common only to porn films, "call that election"! Brown is, apparently, a "phoney" for "flunking" the election. Where is this all going to end? Before we know it, the Tory manifesto will be available in txtspk to appeal to all those underprivileged people who can't spell properly. It's too absurd for words... I did giggle listening to interviews of the Tory faithful immediately after Cameron's "virtuoso" speech at the conference:
– What are your feelings about a snap election?
– Bring it on, I say!

Sadly, as I heard this all on the radio, I didn't have the pleasure of witnessing for myself as the blue-rinse brigade of affluent, upper-middle-class England gushed with phrases more common in the "broken society" they so wish to mend.

Polly Toynbee, who shadow minister cum Tory image consultant Greg Clark suggested should replace Winston Churchill as one of the key social commentators of Nu-Toryism, wrote a marvellous column in yesterday's Guardian, in which she points out that Brown must not spend the rest of this term playing it safe. He has leadership skills, but now he has to show people what he can do with them. He has to demonstrate that cutting taxes isn't the answer to all our ills – Mr Cameron, are you listening?

In offering £3.5bn in tax cuts (exemption from inheritance tax etc, thus making the rich richer. "But only millionaires will pay". Why doesn't this thought comfort me?), the Tories might as well have pledged a commitment to longer hospital waiting lists, less funding for schools (not to mention the arts), worsened public transport in areas of the country that badly need more investment... Shall I go on?
The deputy leadership elections did briefly throw up some passion - revulsion at excess at the top, the word "inequality" spoken out loud, debates that touched on fairness in schools admissions, faith schools and all the barriers to social mobility. That's what Labour is for. The Tory masterplan for cutting inheritance tax by £3.5bn while taxing non-domiciles £25,000 each has drawn a key battle line. Labour may have to give assurances that the inheritance tax threshold will never reach more than the current 6% richest, but the principle remains. It will take hard work to remind people what tax is for, why it is a public good and not a burden, how it is the agent of social justice. Those ideas have been allowed to atrophy in the last decade. Labour has redistributed more than any government to the poor, at least slowing the rate of increase in inequality - but by never framing the argument in ideological terms, a generation has never heard how inheritance tax helped shape social progress in the last 100 years.

Every bit as interesting as the article itself are the comments people have posted in response. It seems that a lot of people read Toynbee's columns in order to disagree with them, much as I often read Finland for Thought. It's good to be reminded why you think the way you do; anger can be a very useful tool. One comment on Toynbee's article stood out:
I have to say, Polly, that when I read your columns these days, there's a distinct aroma of Animal Farm: "You don't want Mr Jones back, do you?" The idea that the big, bad Tories will be markedly worse for the poor than Gordon Brown is a puerile fantasy. I don't know if you believe it or if it's designed to frighten Guardian readers back into sullen submission to New Labour [...] [Brown is] obsessed by [sic] courage in the same way that some poor people are obsessed by money: the lack of it defines their lives.

That's beautiful – poor people are obsessed with money. Of course, it's easy to ridicule "the poor" from a life of luxury. David Cameron may make overtures to the middle classes by promising extensive yet unrealistic tax cuts, talking about the abolition of grammar schools, advocating a more inclusive definition of "the family" (to include, for instance, same-sex couples), but there is a gulf between what Mr Cameron says in public and what the rest of the party faithful truly believe. Essentially he and other "moderate" Conservatives are banging their heads against a brick wall, preaching to the unconvertible. The Tory party does not want to be modernised; Tories do not believe in freedom of opportunity for all (the grammar schools debate), they do not believe that a family can also consist of two women or two men. It is comments like this that make the question of who to vote for blindingly obvious: we do not want Mr Jones back, thank you very much. Too much progress has been made since 1997 for it all to be undone by, as Toynbee puts it, "rich boys protecting their own". I'll let the marvellous Ms Toynbee have to final word:
Some things don't cost money, only bravery. Brown yesterday left open the scope of the coming constitutional reform. To give away his right to choose the timing of elections might feel a blessed relief after this week - and so would a sharp curb on party spending. The spectacle of one Tory millionaire swaying votes in a few marginals to buy the next election is all the evidence anyone needs of the democratic dysfunction of party funding and of an electoral system that hinges on 200,000 bored swing voters. Jack Straw has already led the way in supporting the alternative vote, giving voters the right to put their choices in 1, 2, 3 order, a first step towards fairer voting: it could be done for the next election. Better by far for Labour to do it before a hung parliament forces them.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Blowing the Proverbial Brass Instrument

Of course, one doesn't like to blow one's own brass instrument too much and too often (take that as you will), but since last week was one of the most professionally challenging in living memory – for reasons that I'd better not go into on this forum – I think I can be excused a little self-indulgence.

After a week of unfounded criticism of my work, the seeds of doubt having been thoroughly sown in my mind (but let's not even go there), it was heartening to come across this review in the New Statesman of my recent translation of Maria Peura's At the Edge of Light (Maia Press). I spent a few days at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with Peura at the end of August (post here), and was very pleased at the reception with which her book was met. What's most pleasing about this review is that the reader has actually taken the time to put the novel in its proper context – a context with which most UK readers will be largely unfamiliar – and has realised that, though death is omnipresent, this is ultimately a book about survival, about living. A fascinating read, I'm sure, for all those with a Scandinavian bent, or does such blatant plugging count as one blow of the trumpet too many?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Itchy Feet

The autumn is well underway here in Helsinki; the view from my window is fresh and colourful. I like autumn, the colours, the cripsness in the air, gradually having to wrap up warmer and warmer before leaving the house. The thought of winter, however, is somewhat harder to deal with. In Finland it's long, dark and – if you're lucky – cold. There's nothing worse than a slushy winter with no snow (last year, for instance). But global warming is just a communist myth, right?

To help alleviate the darkness, two friends who have just embarked on trips to far-away climes have started blogging to help us all keep in touch. Anyone interested in reading about how other people are having a great time while we're stuck here may enjoy reading them too. The only drawback for our international friends is that both blogs are primarily in Finnish.

One friend, the cellist from our summer Schubert project, has taken off for Australia and New Zealand where she'll be travelling around until the end of November. We all met up at the Aussie Bar in Helsinki (where else?) for a final drink beffore she left, and I really encouraged her to establish a blog to keep us up to date on what she's been getting up to. The results can be seen at The Australiasia Trip 2007, where Eevukka has promised to post photographs as soon as she finds a computer that can cope. Apparently the computer in the hostel is State of the Art 1983.

The other new travel blog of interest is Iranoia, written by a translator friend who has set off for Tehran for at least the next six months. There he plans to, in his own words, "brush up his Farsi"... As you do. Posts at Iranoia tend to be in a mixture of Finnish and French, with the occasional smattering of Arabic and Farsi, so anyone with those languages should check out what must, I'm sure, be one of the most enthralling travel diaries on the net. There can't be too many Finnish translators living in Tehran :-)

All this talk of travel is making me restless... O is off to India in a couple of weeks, another friend is in Cyprus, another just came back from two weeks in Thailand and Laos, the list goes on. The furthest I'm going to get this autumn is probably the UK - I don't think a travel diary will be necessary!