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March 2nd 2012
Today is Friday and, as the poet said, you've got to get down on Friday. I'm not entirely sure how one gets down - it's been a good few years since I had to ask to get down at the end of each meal, but I've got a feeling that was something a bit different - so instead I shall drink some tea and watch a film. Roman Holiday, since you ask, in which Audrey Hepburn is currently reminding me very much of a young Felicity Kendal.
Watching the film has reminded me that I read about it in Gregory Peck's biography some years ago, while at University. Apparently Peck alone was going to have his name above the title (when you're an actor, such matters of billing are apparently regarded very seriously), but - much to the chagrin of his agent - insisted that Hepburn be named alongside him, because she was going to win an Oscar for her performance. And she did. This has got me wondering how many films I have got that won the big Oscars... I'm sure you're wondering the same thing (well, I know that many of you - including my mother - groan and roll your eyes when I start making lists of DVDs. But there's plenty of other internet out there, so feel free to loo elsewhere):
Best Actor (7): The King's Speech, Gladiator, Life Is Beautiful, Forrest Gump, Rain Man, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, To Kill A Mockingbird
Best Actress (6): The Blind Side, Walk The Line, Million Dollar Baby, Shakespeare In Love, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Roman Holiday
Best Supporting Actress (5): A Beautiful Mind, Shakespeare In Love, My Cousin Vinny, Murder On The Orient Express, Harvey
Best Supporting Actor (9): The Dark Knight, Million Dollar Baby, The Cider House Rules, Good Will Hunting, Jerry Maguire, The Usual Suspects, The Fugitive, Goodfellas, All The President's Men
Best Film (15): The King's Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, The Departed, Million Dollar Baby, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, A Beautiful Mind, Gladiator, Shakespeare In Love, Titanic, Forrest Gump, Schindler's List, Rain Man, Platoon, Rocky, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
Best Director (14): The King's Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, The Departed, Million Dollar Baby, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, A Beautiful Mind, Saving Private Ryan, Titanic, Forrest Gump, Schindler's List, Rain Man, Platoon, Rocky, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

On this day in 2007... Don't get me wrong, working for SL would be great, but (without even having been to the assessment centre yet) AXA seems ideal.

March 7th 2012
As of yesterday I am officially a fully-fledged member of Cairns Road Baptist Church, the first time I have ever become a member of any church: I grew up in the C of E, where they do things a little bit differently, and then I was not at Queens Road Baptist Church long enough to join the membership. Having been at CRBC for over four years, it felt the right time to commit myself to the church, and fortunately the assembled masses (c. 20 people) seemed to agree, as I achieved the required majority in the vote over my membership. In fairness, no one has ever not been voted in, but it's never wise to count your chickens until they're in the tikka sauce.
For those of my readership who are not familiar with church membership - and, as far as I know, it might work differently in other churches, anyhow - by becoming a member I am now allowed to vote on important issues (e.g. agreeing the 2012 budget, appointing a minister, how many tea bags to put in the pot for the post-church drinks). In return, I am committing myself to the church - this doesn't involve signing on the dotted line at all, but such things as attending church, volunteering for various jobs & donating money are generally par for the course. Of course, the reason I signed up was not for the perks, such as they are, nor the responsibilities, but as a symbol of commitment to a place and a body that has meant a lot to me over the last four years.
As I make my way in the secular world, it is extremely important to have a bedrock of friends who know and love God, and I'm pleased to say that I count some very good friends among the congregation at Cairns. I have felt their support, and their prayers, strongly throughout some of the trickier times I have been through in the last few years. Indeed, even on the first day I arrived at Cairns, feeling - though they didn't know it - very lonely in a new city where I didn't know anyone, I was made to feel very welcome and am still good friends with the people I met on that first day. I feel that Cairns is the place where I can serve God in this city, and committing myself to Cairns is basically just committing myself once more to God. Happy days.
In other news, Simon asked me to get involved in one of a blog series called 'My Life in Books', so I offered up my bookish thoughts - somewhat at odds with the clientele of his page, it must be admitted. I don't care what you say, Trev and Simon's Stupid Book is a work of damn genius. Anyways, the format of the thing was for two of us to answer questions about, y'know, books, and then form an opinion about the other person based on their answers. So if you want to find out which books I've read over the course of my life, and just how bad I am at estimating people's ages, check out Simon's blog.
In other blog news, allow me to point you towards a film blog by a friend of mine who appears to want to remain anonymous - Kirk's Movie Blog. And, in case you thought I'd forgotten what 'anonymous' means, I guess I should really have said 'pseudonymous', as my friend is not called Kirk, but instead has taken on the persona of Kirk van Houten from the Simpsons. Or something. Anyways, I own 300 DVDs but he's an even bigger film fan than I am, so I hope you enjoy.

On this day in 2011... You know that I regard the day wasted if I haven't directed you towards another blog to read (note: 'another' not 'an alternative'), and so it gives me great pleasure to tell you about Jimmy Lee's new online presence.

March 9th 2012
A couple of years ago Radio 4 asked their listeners: if they could change any law in the land, what would it be? I'm not sure what the folk at the Beeb were expecting to hear - tax breaks for people buying cous-cous? - but what they got was a whole bunch of listeners who wanted the right to kill burglars. I can't get on board with that myself, but that's not my point today. If they'd have asked me, I have no doubt what I'd have chosen: I'd remove squatters' rights.
It is a constant source of astonishment to me that we still have anything in law that's even close to squatters' rights. This is, to me, an open and shut case, with no reasonable argument against. If you own a property and someone goes onto that property without your permission, you should be able to remove them (or have them removed) - this is so obvious that it is almost embarrassing to state it. In the same way that people can't pop by and borrow your car without your permission, or wear your clothes when you're not using them, it is a gross violation of basic ownership rights to have people under your roof without your permission. Even if I owned a property that I had no intention of using, I would not want people living there without my permission, in the same way that I wouldn't want strangers wearing my jumpers just because I'm not.
This is the point in the post where I would normally cite, and try to refute, the case for the other side of the argument. But I'm struggling to think of one. There are a lot of homeless people, which is a genuine problem, but certainly not an argument for dishing out other people's property without their permission (until we become a socialist paradise, that is. I'm not holding my breath). My good friend Anthony disagrees with me on this one, I believe, and he has pointed out that some companies leave listed buildings empty to rot. This is regrettable, but there are already laws against this, and it's difficult to believe that many squatters move into buildings in order to renovate them. I have to repeat; I can think of no viable argument for keeping squatters' rights.
So, instead of proceeding with this internal debate, let me move on to some surprising information (surprising to me, at least - maybe you know English law better than I do) about what rights actually exist in this country. Did you know, for example, that since 1995 the 'residential occupiers' of a property that's being squatted in are legally entitled to enter it (even using force) and require the squatters to leave? Or, say, that Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke has announced an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which would criminalise squatting in residential buildings? I don't know whether this puts us on the road to criminalising all squatting - I hope so - but it at least shows that we're moving in the right direction.

On this day in 2004... America was born in the streets. This diary was born in meaningless drivel about me losing my coat.

March 14th 2012
I have to tell you that Nutri-Grain bars are much fruitier now than they used to be. A real treat.

On this day in 2006... To conclude, Scrubs rules. Yeah, baby.

March 17th 2012
I vaguely remember my brother and I being proud, at the age of nine, to be told that we had a reading age of 13. While Simon's reading age has progressed in the intervening 17 years to that of a 60 year old woman, it seems that mine has only got to that of a 15 year old girl. That, at least, is the conclusion I am forced to draw from the fact that I have just finished The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and loved it, having twice stayed up past 1am reading it. Which is late for me, because I'm old.
For those of you who haven't come across this phenomenon (and how have you not seen the adverts for the upcoming film adaptation?), The Hunger Games is the first of a trilogy set in a dystopic future version of America, where every year 24 teenagers are sent to fight in an enormous arena until only one is left alive. The story is told as a first person narrative by Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old girl living in the 12th District of Panem (as the USA has become known) who - and I don't suppose I'm giving too much away, here - ends up as one of the 24 in the arena. As you might expect, given the set-up, this is not one of those books in which "nothing much happens". There is an almost constant level of suspense throughout the tale, even if the educated reader can guess that Katniss isn't going to be killed off with two books left in the series, and enough twists and turns to keep the reader on their toes right up to the final page. But it is not just the action that keeps you reading - the strength of the novel (if I call it a 'novel' it makes it feel a bit less teenagey) lies heavily in the central character, who has been described as a feminist heroine but is rather more complex than the "look, girls can fight too" idea you might get from the film posters. Without laying it on with a trowel (mostly), Collins has created an immensely sympathetic heroine whose enigmatic relationships with her family, friends, fellow tributes (as the people selected to fight are known) and government drive the story as much as the fighting itself. Indeed, although there are naturally plenty of deaths in the book, they are not dwelt upon in the way that, say, Stephen King (whose favourable citation adorns the cover) would find necessary, and the satirical horror of teenagers killing each other for entertainment - it doesn't take a genius to see the ghost of Big Brother in the premise - is emphasised by being rarely mentioned. None of the characters seriously question the situation they are in - there is no rebellion against the powers that be, at least not in this first installment - which in itself paints a picture of how society works at this point in the future: the hunger games are an accepted barbarity. Because the book is set in this unfamiliar world there is necessarily plenty of exposition in Katniss's narrative, but it doesn't feel forced or unnatural, and is effective in communicating the set-up without detracting from the flow of the story.
Much of the hype surrounding the film, and no doubt the books as well, has drawn comparisons with Twilight (which I have neither read nor seen, so I can't comment a great deal), most obviously in that two young men (Gale & Peeta) are both fighting for Katniss's affections. Well, they don't actually meet in The Hunger Games, but I rather expect that strand to be developed in the following two books. Surprisingly, given that I am a sucker for a love story, that feels like the weakest part of the first book, perhaps because the focus is more or survival than romantic liaisons or perhaps because I prefer a clear-cut boy-meets-girl tale to a boy-meets-girl-meets-boy one. I rather expect that aspect to be played up in the film, but early reviews suggest that "is no Twilight romantic sap", which bodes well... the trailer is here, so have a watch for yourself. I look forward to seeing the film adaptation, as I look forward to reading the next two books, which are winging their way to me even now...
In other news, I finally gave up on Freewebs sorting out their comment boxes, so I'm trying an alternative one. It's the first one that popped up on Google - that's how carefully I researched it - so we shall see.

On this day in 2007... Went to a party at the house of some girls whose names I won't vouchsafe here, and just got back. It was a good evening, with plenty of prime number action.

March 21st 2012
Look, I know that if you're looking for analysis of the budget then this isn't the site you'll turn to. I don't know enough about such matters, nor can I be bothered to read up, to give an incisive commentary, but what I can do is read a bit about it in the Times and on the BBC website, and draw a few conclusions of my own. So I shall. If you want something better, I recommend the excellent Daniel Finkelstein in the Times (you can avoid stumping up for the paper by simply following him on Twitter @Dannythefink); if you want to read nonsense about the Tories hating the poor and the Lib Dems being responsible for every good thing in the budget, I recommend the Guardian.
The main headline in the budget is that higher earners (150k+) will have their marginal rate of income tax reduced from 50% to 45%, which will lead people in some corners to trot out the familiar lines about the Tories being a party of privilege... weighed against this, though, is that the Personal Allowance (the amount you can earn before you start paying tax) will shoot up to 9,205 p.a. And that the 40% tax rate hits sooner. And that stamp duty has gone up 7% on property worth 2m+ (or a stonking 15% for company-owned property). And the child benefit is reduced for earnings above 50k and removed entirely above 60k. All in all this is not a particularly exciting budget, but one that I'd argue is better for the very poor than the very rich. For me, the most contentious decision is to simplify (reduce) the Personal Allowance for people aged 65+, meaning that many pensioners are worse off, and not necessarily ones who can afford to be.
I've written before about the national past-time of hating the rich, and based on some reactions to the budget (including that of Ed Miliband) it doesn't seem to be going anywhere quickly. Let's crunch some numbers. The average annual salary in this country is 26,000, of which you would pay 12.9% in income tax under the new measures. If you earn 520,000 a year - twenty times the average salary - then you will pay 42.0% of it in income tax, which equates to 65 times as much as the average earner. As Sam Seaborn once said in the West Wing:
I left Gage Whitney making $400,000 a year, which means I paid twenty-seven times the national average in income tax. I paid my fair share, and the fair share of twenty-six other people. And I'm happy to because that's the only way it's gonna work, and it's in my best interest that everybody be able to go to schools and drive on roads, but I don't get twenty-seven votes on Election Day. The fire department doesn't come to my house twenty-seven times faster and the water doesn't come out of my faucet twenty-seven times hotter. The top one percent of wage earners in this country pay for twenty-two percent of this country. Let's not call them names while they're doing it, is all I'm saying.

On this day in 2010... The Great Animal Hunt seems to have gone down very well with the good folk of Facebook - never before has a collection of my photos been described as 'genius' thrice in such a short period of time.

March 28th 2012
The lovely Jennifer LawrenceAnother Hunger Games post from me, and there's good news and bad news. The good news is that I went to see the film adaptation at the weekend (which was kinda why I read the book in the first place), and found it very enjoyable, well-deserving of the four star reviews it's been widely given. I couldn't imagine a better Katniss than the excellent Jennifer Lawrence (even if, when I'm reading the books, my mental image is Ellen Page playing Kitty Pryde in X-Men 3. For some reason.), and she is ably supported by an excellent cast, with Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson particularly good. Stanley Tucci, as Caesar Flickerman, turns in a very good performance but is quite different to my somewhat more avuncular mental image, Toby Jones is woefully underused and I wasn't convinced by Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, but Liam Hemsworth does very well as Gale, considering he's given even less time in the story than he is the book.
The pacing of the film is very good, with just the right amount of time spent in District 12, the Capitol and then the arena, introducing new characters, places and situations quickly but without feeling too rushed - I was particularly impressed with the Capitol, which came across as a twist on Washington DC populated by the craziest residents of L.A. The juxtaposition with District 12 was just as clear as it should be. Once in the arena, the pacing continued to be a strength - it was never boring, nor too much of a bloodbath - even if there were a few too many exposition cutaways (I guess that's the price you pay when translating a first person narrative to the big screen) and the suspense was never built quite as high as in the book.
The main weakness of the film was, to my mind, the camera-work: even in the early scenes in District 12 there was far too much use of hand-held camera, making it difficult to work out what was going on, and this continued in the arena. Given that much of the strength of the story lies in its characters, I'd much rather have a steady camera trained on someone's face than a jerky run through a forest. Also, it's possible that people who hadn't read the book might get confused at times, and the decision to ignore District 13 entirely was an odd one.
That's the good news. The bad news is that I've now finished the trilogy, and the third book (Mockingjay) is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most disappointing book I've ever read - after loving the first book, and really enjoying the second installment (even if it did go down a couple of cul-de-sacs before it really got going), it was a punch in the gut to have such a terrible ending to the trilogy.
I don't want to let slip any spoilers, which is going to make this tricky... some supposedly sympathetic characters do terrible things, characters who should have been sympathetic are not, at least one person gets killed off who shouldn't have been and the ending is totally unsatisfactory. While there are some problems with most of the book, they are not massive until the final chapters where it takes an astonishing turn that made me cling to the small possibility that the most recent events had "all been a dream". But, as the pages ran out, I realised it was not to be and that these characters, this story, that I had become so attached to... would end like this. In doing so, the first books were somewhat tarnished, because they were building up to such an unnecessarily terrible ending... it's like Spider-Man all over again (which I should probably explain. I thought the first Spider-Man film was great, and Spider-Man 2 remains one of my favourite films ever, but Spider-Man 3 was a crushing disappointment that threatened to detract from my enjoyment of the first two).
I had a quick look through some reviews for Mockingjay, and it seems that I am in a minority - it was generally well-received. That astounds me, to be honest, but I mention it to give you hope, if you're planning on reading the trilogy... for myself, I'm not sure I'll even be able to bring myself to watch the final film. We'll see.

On this day in 2010... Anyways, my second big break is even more exciting, as I have recently been in correspondence with Caitlin Moran, of the Times. Yes, sir.

what was I listening to?
Definitely Maybe - Oasis
what was I reading?
One Day - David Nicholls
what was I watching?
Roman Holiday
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