Andrew Mickel - online portfolio

Thursday, October 06, 2011

CV - Journalism and Education

Award-winning journalist in both comedy and pop culture, and health and social care.


Comedy and pop culture

Co-editor, Such Small Portions

Jun 10 - Present

  • Writing and editing news and features for the stand-up and TV comedy site

  • Networking with comedians, agents and PRs to source stories, such as a Guardian-referenced interview with Doug Stanhope

  • Using social media to build an industry reputation for original features and interviews that have helped cultivate a dedicated audience


Freelance

Sep 09 - Present

  • Using the contacts developed at SSP, written several features on TV and comedy for FHM, including features on upcoming TV comedy, major TV boxsets and an interview with Angry Boys creator Chris Lilley

  • Written prolifically for Sky.com's TV section on everything from 30 Rock to comedy panel shows

  • Edited the gay and lesbian chapter in the next edition of the Rough Guide to London

  • Researched and written for supplements on pets and DIY for the Guardian

  • Penned several long-form computing features for Micro Mart

  • Formerly a columnist and writer on TV and film for Den of Geek


Freelance and work experience, The Guardian

June 07 – Apr 08



Health and social care

Freelance

Sep 09 - Present

  • Pitching ideas and writing features for several titles, including Community Care and mental health title Young Minds

  • Also screened media volunteers at Rethink for the Time to Change campaign, getting key details about their background while being mindful of their mental health problems


Journalist, OTnews magazine (part time)

Jan 10 – Present

  • Generating news for the monthly occupational therapy magazine; researching, writing and commissioning features


Feature writer, Community Care magazine

May 08 – Sep 09

  • Writing features on social care, and contributing to blogs, podcasts, and campaigns; editing weekly books page. Main article list available here

  • Wrote several pieces on government & prospective Conservative policy; interviewed junior & shadow ministers

  • Conducted FoI investigation into vacancy rates, producing many cover articles for print and content for the web. Available from here

  • Developing contacts and relationships in a niche sector; pro-actively generating content for print and web


Earlier Experience

Gair Rhydd, Cardiff

Sep 04 – Jun 06

  • Guardian student columnist of the year 2006, producing a weekly page on student and Welsh political issues. Columnist content here; links to award-winning content here.

  • Editing weekly political page, interviewing the local AM, MP, MEP and the First Ministerfor a student market.

  • Regular contributor to student magazine Quench. Runner-up, Guardian student critic of the year 2006. Quench content here.


Independent on Sunday: work experience. Article available here. Dec 07

Red Bee Media: Listings writer for the BBC, working on the iPlayer launch. Mar-Sep 07

Eye Weekly: Intern at the Toronto alternative newspaper, including a visit to Vancouver to see film director Uwe Boll box his critics. Aug - Oct 06

Buzz magazine: News Editor at South Wales monthly arts and entertainment magazine, writing in a concise news style; regular reviewer. Available here. Jan – Jun 06

Xpress Radio, Cardiff: Co-presenter and producer of twice-weekly radio show on Cardiff student radio station. Oct 05 – Mar 06

Spiked Online: internship at the politics and culture website. Articles here. Jul 05

Itchy Cardiff: contributor to the city guide. Articles here. Jun 05


EDUCATION

PGDip Magazine Journalism (Investigations)

City University, London, Sep 07–Jun 08

  • Developing skills in writing, reporting, shorthand at 100wpm, interviewing, production and sub-editing.

BSc Econ Politics, 2:1 standard

Cardiff University, Sep 03–Jun 06

  • Developing skills in confident writing, political analysis and philosophical enterprise.

  • Modules include international relations in ‘War, Poverty & Borders’, and decision making in ‘European Security’.

  • First year of BSc Econ Town and Country Planning completed, to a 2:1 standard.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

So, what's worth reading?

This is a log of the best articles I have written. You can also read my CV here.


COMMUNITY CARE
Delve through the main features list here from my time as a feature writer on the social care magazine.


I developed an investigation into social worker vacancy rates in England which led to several news stories and a cover article – they can all be found here.


Political coverage has included what the Tories would do to social care in power and what shadow children's minister Tim Loughton thinks of social workers.


A whole range of features on the workforce has covered everything from who should represent social workers to the tricky topics of what role political correctness and compassion have in social work.


And sensitive interviews have included the response to the Bridgend suicides, gang members in Peterborough and how a girl who was sexually abused by her father is now trying to help others.


THE GUARDIAN
As a freelancer, I have written two full-page features in Media Guardian covering Facebook and the student media awards 2007. There was guidance in Office Hours on how to avoid workplace misery and opinion on Comment is Free on walking and the London Mayoral election.


STUDENT MEDIA
I started my series of award-winning columns looking at an academic who was using the Cardiff University for his own purposes, and ended them looking at international students paying to have their dissertations written for them. I also wrote about Welsh Assembly politics, returning often to drug funding and arts management.


Political interviews include those with the First Minister Rhodri Morgan, as well as with all candidates in the 2005 General Election campaign for the marginal of Cardiff Central (Lib Dem, Labour and Conservatives).


Interviews for student magazine Quench include those with student icon Dr Karl Kennedy, and prison writer Erwin James shortly after his release.


OTHER MEDIA
At Toronto's alternative weekly newspaper Eye Weekly I wrote an editorial on why the city didn't need an Expo and went to Vancouver to see film director Uwe Boll box his critics. On Spiked Online, I wrote a piece on international news channels. And at the Independent on Sunday I wrote about Christmas in the 15 Bethlehems around the world.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Community Care - the main features

These are the major features I have written at Community Care. Looking for something more manageable? Try the general list of what's worth reading, or click here for full Google results of what I have writter at the magazine.


VACANCY RATE INVESTIGATION
Freedom of information investigation on vacancy rates and what effect it has on service provision. From April 2009


One in nine social worker posts are vacant

Adult social worker rates are similar to children's

Latest data shows sharp raise in vacancies

Is the ongoing focus on children's services at the cost of adults services?

How social work departments have become reliant on agency staff


POLITICS
What will the Tories do if they win the next election?

Interview: Tim Loughton, shadow children's minister

Interview: James Cleverly, the London mayor's youth ambassador

Funding changes hit London Councils


GENERAL FEATURES
Who should represent social workers to the public?

Global marketplace puts up the barriers to social workers

Political correctness and its effect on practice

How therapeutic communities help rebuild lives

What role does compassion have in social work?

Living and working in the same area: what are the risks?

Should social workers ever give money to help service users?

Are social workers gluttons for punishment?


CHILDREN'S FEATURES
Suicides in Bridgend: the lessons learnt

Contactpoint: will it work?

Diffusing racial tensions: gang members speak out

Why is crime committed by girls on the rise?

How can we better train children's services directors?

Interview: David Akinsanya, adoption campaigner

How a sexually-abused minor found the courage to speak out

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Student Media Awards 2006

Guardian Student Media Awards 2006

Winner of Best Columnist award
"Andrew writes like a self-assured, polished columnist, with pieces of substance that had clearly entailed much reporting and research. The pieces were well constructed and sought admirably to get to grips with student life. "
Jonathan Freedland, policy editor, the Guardian; Simon Jenkins, columnist, the Guardian; Lucy Kellaway, associate editor, Financial Times; Allison Pearson, columnist and author

Runner-up Best Critic
"Andrew's review of When A Stranger Calls made us laugh, and that goes a very long way. Keep it funny, and you should never be short of work."
Charlie Brooker, writer, the Guide; Peter Bradshaw, film critic, the Guardian; Charlie Skelton, writer


Cardiff Student Media Awards

Winner of Best Columnist award
"Andy Mickel won it for me for his Littlejohnesque pursuit of People & Planet, his vivacity over the longish haul of international student recruitment, but most of all for his skewering of Dr Cliff Arnall's grottiest day: good research, which told me things I didn't know as well as a sure grasp of the wider issue (mindless press, vapid PR pandering)."
Peter Preston, ex-editor of The Guardian

Winner of Best Interview award
Judged by Laura Barton, Features Editor at The Guardian
The interview is here

2nd Runner-up in best gair rhydd section
"Third place goes to the Comment section if only for Andrew Mickel's persistence. His demolition of "Doctor" Cliff Arnall was very good and based on talking to the man not just looting the web."
Meirion Jones, Producer at BBC Newsnight

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Editorial - Deus Ex Expo

Let's stop working on mega-projects and start building Toronto

The plan to host a World's Fair in 2015 was on its deathbed as we went to press. Bids for the event are due tomorrow (Nov. 3), but earlier this week, the provincial and federal governments couldn't agree on who would pay the multi-billion-dollar deficit the event usually rings up. And as an online exclusive report on the Expo process by Eye Weekly's Andrew Mickel (available at eyeweekly.com) shows, that's a good thing. If we scrap the Expo, we can get on with the business of building Toronto.

If by some miracle of backroom wrangling a bid goes ahead, we won't hear until December 2007 who will host Expo 2015. (Milan looks like a stronger contender than Toronto right now.) That's another year of expensive preparation for an event we have no guarantee of winning. For the fifth time in 20 years (see bids for the 1996 and 2008 Olympics and Expos 1998 and 2000), Toronto will probably narrowly miss out on hosting a major international event.

And if our bid is successful? That's even worse news. Expos cost a lot: conservative estimates put the Toronto bid at over $4 billion. To a politician with vision, that price tag buys the city a world-class makeover and some tourist dollars. If you don't embrace that vision, all it buys is a barely perceptible international limelight on Toronto for six months and some world-class white elephants.

That the event could increase tourism by some degree is beyond question, but it would be a very poor return for the money involved. It wouldn't put Toronto on the map as it did for Vancouver in 1986; Expos have become anachronisms. New technology is around us every day and nations hold a daily fair of what they stand for on the internet. Besides, staging a showcase of the world in multicultural Toronto is pointless.

The biggest loser in this sorry tale is the port lands. Throughout successive bidding for two Olympics and three Expos, development of the proposed site has been on hold. It's time we abandoned our daydreams of an international mega-event and started looking at developing the GTA's largest tract of underdeveloped land in a way that serves our long-term needs.

What the Expo bid has managed to do is revisit our city's unstoppable disbelief in its own worth. From the insecure days of Art Eggleton, through the bombastic nonsense of Mel Lastman and now to David Miller's flaccid push for an Expo, dreams of rebirth on the world's stage have pointed to an obsession with the city's international standing.

Expo would still tie up city agencies, public and private money, and political capital for the next decade.

Beyond the Expo, the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation is scheduled to spend $1.5 billion in the wider district over the next decade. The plans won't deal with the port lands for years, and will involve less money than an Expo. But local politicians should be putting their efforts into making existing plans work, rather than chasing deus ex machina solutions for the waterfront's woes.

Why wait for Hungary to build us a new pavilion in four years that we can jerry-rig into a hospital a decade from now instead of working to improve healthcare now? Why hold the TTC hostage to what the Expo team want, instead of helping make current services work? Why build a second exhibition site in the south end of the city, instead of affordable housing?

In short, why are we waiting for an international committee to declare Toronto a great city, instead of making it a better place to live now?

World's Unfair

If the Expo bid falls apart this week, Toronto may dodge a bullet

The eastern portlands have been the Cinderella of Toronto redevelopment for over 20 years. Rather than develop them directly, the city has attached revitalization plans to international event bids (the Olympics in 1996 and 2008, and Expos 1998 and 2000). It's currently a prospective site for Expo 2015. The potential the event does have has swung the city behind it; council is almost unanimously supportive and public opinion polls show support for the bid topping 80 per cent. Yet the fundamental numbers the Expo is based upon are optimistic at best; at worst, they would cost the taxpayer billions.

To be in the race, the city needs to have a bid entered with the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) by tomorrow (Nov 3), with the question of whether the provincial or federal government would foot the bill for the loss-making event so far thwarting a bid from going forward. If no bid is entered, portlands development will go back on the developmental backburner it's been on since its industrial heyday. But considering the massive financial risks involved in an Expo, would the city be dodging a bullet by pulling out of the race for 2015? And what would a fifth bid failure mean for the portlands?

World's Fairs, as Expos are fustily known, have had a mixed history. While the era of Crystal Palaces and Space Needles provided a world showcase of new technology, these days they are the poor man's Olympics. Like the games, Expos can mean tourism, prestige and legacy assets (the leftover buildings) for host cities. But unlike the games, there is no guaranteed income; while Olympics regain much of their cost through broadcasting rights, an Expo stands or falls on attendance figures.

The Toronto plan originally envisaged 72 million visitors over the Expo's six-month period. Michel Frappier, Chief Operating Officer of the city's World Expo Corporation still insists that would be "doable," despite several studies claiming otherwise. The equivalent of the entire combined populations of Canada, New York State, Michigan and Ohio would have to visit to meet the total.

Even with scaled-down plans, number crunching the Expo still involves some eye-watering numbers. The replacement estimate is 40 million, but many suspect this dramatic reduction may still not be enough. It's the same target as Hanover's Expo 2000. They barely achieved 17 million visits (millennium theme notwithstanding), and consequently had to deal with a $2 billion deficit.

Can Toronto succeed where Hanover failed? Last year's event in Aichi, Japan, recorded turnstile figures 17 million higher than expected. However, it garnered less than 5 per cent of its audience from overseas, so Toronto should expect to rely solely on a North American market.

Michael Shapcott ran a community group opposed to the Toronto's previous Olympic bids, Bread Not Circuses, and remains skeptical of the prospects for international mega-events. "One of the biggest aims of the bid is American tourists and they're not coming to Toronto," says Shapcott. "That's not to do with the city, that's to do with the American economy looking like it's tanking."

The odds of an American trek north are even weaker when you consider that as the US has failed to pay its membership fees to the BIE since 2002, which means it can't have a pavilion. Without that kind of hook, interest by the American media and public could be as low as the marginal international coverage that recent World's Fairs have garnered.

To make an Expo work financially, it also needs to come in on budget. The current plan is costed at $2.8 billion � numbers that Mr Frappier calls "incredibly conservative" � but few projects on such a scale even come close to original forecasts.

Vancouver is currently preparing for the 2010 winter Olympics. There are still four years until the opening ceremony, yet already the British Columbian auditor general has reported the bid will probably cost the province more than double the original prediction.

"I do not think this is a priority for Toronto at the present time," claims council candidate and former mayor (and former Eye Weekly columnist) John Sewell. "We've got lots of problems with the here and now and the last thing we should be doing is asking for very, very large financial commitments by other levels of government for something that's eight or nine years away."

Currently, the Expo won't pay for itself. Even with full attendance, on-budget construction and the value of new developments, there will still be at least a $700 million deficit. It's this number that Ottawa and Queen's Park are currently tussling over.

Of course, as Council rebel Rob Ford points out, in the end it "all comes out the same taxpayer's pocket".

But Frappier last week insisted that there won't be a deficit at all, with early reports of one being mistaken. "This is very high finance, but when we looked at the numbers it's the cost of investment," he says. "The cost [of the deficit] is $2.2B, resulting in $1.5B of legacy assets.

"It's not a misunderstanding. It's an investment."

If a bid does go ahead, could Toronto win? Until last Friday, only Turkey's Izmir has declared a bid. But with Milan throwing it's well-designed hat into the ring, Toronto would have a real fight on its hands. The city has already secured the backing of all levels of government, and is so outwardly confident that Provincial President Filippo Penati even tried to talk David Miller into renouncing Toronto's bid and supporting Milan. To underline how well-organized their bid team is, Milan representatives have had key meetings with Tokyo and Shanghai, the host of Expo 2010. The bid has full government support, good communication and successful lobbying; in short, everything that Toronto's been lacking.

Of course, even if a Toronto bid goes ahead, the portlands won't necessarily win the Expo. But from London's abandoned Millennium Dome to Atlanta's commercialized image to Hanover's financial ruin, a world of white elephants shows that big events can bring doesn't necessarily justify their bloated excess.

The area falls inside Councillor Paula Fletcher's ward. "There's the potential for it to mean much faster buildout of the portlands, that's the upside. But there's also a well-founded concern that it could mean the corporatization of the portlands."

This is, after all, the event that spawned the Vancouver McBarge. "The portlands is a wild area, people like that aspect," says the Councillor. "We've got community gardens, small sailing clubs, and dogs off-leash areas."

Should Toronto submit an Expo bid, then there would be no word as to which city would win the Fair until December 2007, preventing further large scale development until that time.

As it is, the city's Central Waterfront Strategy does contain some plans for the portlands outside of the bid. They are, however, nowhere near the scale of development the Expo bid would facilitate. "We are doing some park projects," says Waterfront Revitalization Corporation spokeswoman Kristin Jenkins, but for now the corporation is "focused on the West Don lands; we're many years away from focusing on the Port lands."

In terms of its own aims, major questions still dog the Expo bid. The venture is intended to put post-SARS Toronto back on the map, yet even the success of last year's Japanese Expo failed to become an international talking point. The potential of the event to aid the region's tourism and the Expo's solvency are both held hostage by the fortunes of the contemporary American economy. And while the event would provide legacy sites in the portlands, it's difficult to see why the city doesn't have had the confidence to do it outside an international event bidding process that neither guarantees a positive end result nor comes cheap (bid costs currently total $2.1 million).

As it is, we'll find out tomorrow if Toronto is in the race, or whether the portlands will once again have lost its direction � but at least be freed of the yoke of hosting an Expo.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Boll Fighting

Director Uwe goes Postal on his critics

VANCOUVER -- Uwe Boll has never been a conventional filmmaker. Shunned by Hollywood and consequently forced to raise funds for his movies himself, the German director's recent projects have been based on videogames, making way for such bargain-bin botherers as Alone in the Dark and BloodRayne. These movies are certainly not famed for being good, but Boll's internet critics (by which we largely mean "trolls from IMDB forums") go slightly further, having quite literally called for Boll's life.

A lesser director would just shrug off such derision. Then again, a lesser director wouldn't have used Romanian prostitutes as actors in BloodRayne. Nor would a lesser director undertake a film like Boll's current production, Postal, which is derived from a videogame so violent it was banned in Australia. And a lesser director certainly wouldn't box five of his biggest critics and film it for future use as a DVD bonus feature.

When Boll first put out a call for critics willing to box him several months ago, his loudest detractors fell oddly silent. But as Boll pointed out to Eye Weekly right before the fight -- in annoyed, Teutonic tones that suggested he should be allowed to do otherwise -- "I cannot force people to come here. They are really pussies hiding behind nicknames from the internet." Instead, a ragtag bunch of publicity-hungry scrappers, including one journalist who's never seen a Boll film, signed up late last month for a fight in Vancouver, where Postal is shooting.

Speaking of Postal, the movie seems set to take Boll to a high watermark of controversy, and the boxing match stunt perfectly complemented it. The overarching plot of the film remains baffling -- neither cast nor crew could shed any light as to what it is about -- and a gentle rummage through the script doesn't provide good signs. What's clear is that it's another shoot-'em-up, this time with hillbillies and an attempt at political commentary that spares no one. Even the Queen isn't sacred in the Raging Boll's latest:

"We will fuck Queen Elizabeth," he says, presumably about the film. "We want to kill Chinese drivers over 50. We have Little Germany in the movie. There is a mini-concentration camp also. I think we make fun out of everything. This is the best approach."

And the suicide bomber named Mohammed in the script?

"Look, it's only a guy, his name is Mohammed. Every Arab number five is Mohammed."

The film ends with George Bush and Osama Bin Laden skipping hand-in-hand through a field. A big-screen Daily Show, this ain't.

Predictions about Postal aside, the boxing match was always going to be an uneven affair, pitting Boll -- a trained boxer -- against three interweb geeks and a 17-year-old. But the final knockouts came even faster than expected. For the first victim, webmaster Richard "Lowtax" Kyanka, it couldn't finish fast enough -- he tried to rush Uwe before the bell in order to get disqualified on a technicality. Floored by a direct punch, he rebuffed Boll's calls for him to get up and carry on, arguing, "No, you hit me in the face."

The next competitor, Variety intern Jeff Sneider, put up a more spirited fight -- his effort was rewarded post-fight with an oxygen mask. Toronto's own Chris Alexander, from Rue Morgue magazine, made it the furthest by going deep into a second round with Boll, but even he was dispatched with some serious-looking cuts and bruises. The last hope was amateur boxer Chance Minter, 17, who'd spent two days skulking around in a hoodie like the Sith Lord of Boxing. Forgetting, perhaps, that the kid wasn't a critic, Boll pulled no punches: event sponsor www.goldenpalace.com threw in the towel for Minter after just one round -- no doubt keen to avoid a reputation for child abuse.

In roughly 10 minutes of actual fighting, all four critics were dispatched with little to show but an impressive array of bruises, both physically and to the ego.

But the whole one-ring circus, not to mention the apparent content of Postal, points to a bigger question regarding Boll: does he genuinely care about his films and the criticism they receive? Or is he a fantastic self-publicist capable of stringing together any old schlockbuster to make a buck?

While in Vancouver, I spent a day as an extra on Postal (be sure to look out for my acting debut on the film's release -- you can spot me as a gun-toting hillbilly with a full-length mullet, doing naughty things to my "wife" on top of a dryer in scene two). On set, the director seemed to spend virtually all of his time on the phone. Conflicting direction from sundry assistants led to chaos and re-shoots.

Boll does provide a spirited defence of his work, though, and is determined enough to get his films made without Hollywood money. "If you're Eli Roth, and you're the son of Joe Roth [sic], then you say after Cabin Fever that it was so hard to make your first movie. Or the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola -- she had it so hard, all that bullshit. The thing [that] pisses me off [about] the internet critics -- I had no connections to the film industry."

Boll is clearly as passionate about his ideas as he is about self-promotion -- and those are passions so vehement he's willing to hit people in the head over them. But his regard for detail in execution seems to be missing, which doesn't bode well for the director's prospects of breaking his trend of box-office bombs. It's a massive challenge to meet, but when you're dealing with Uwe Boll, you never know what might happen between now and Postal's 2007 release date. "I like Man on the Moon with Jim Carrey," he says. "Sometimes you have to do something really, like, strange. Why not?"

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Protector

Tony Jaa's performance in Ong Bak has been carefully replicated in all of the broadest details of The Protector. As a simple country hick, he has to avenge stolen valuables by traveling to the big city. But the film is so keen to charge off in several directions at once that Jaa seems to have almost become an afterthought.

The basic plot comes close to being an outright spoof, as Jaa murders bad guys and innocent bystanders alike in pursuit of his elephant, which was snatched by Australian thieves. Past the first 15 minutes of slow-mo pachyderms, the film is composed entirely of fights across Sydney, with a higher baddie count than the entire Death Wish series. A new major enemy turns up at least every 10 minutes; human colossus T.K. (Nathan Jones) and dominatrix gangster Madame Rose (Xing Jing) provide interesting feet fodder. Amidst the vast array of corrupt cops on Segways and henchmen on rollerskates, though, it�s difficult to pick them out.

Indeed, the redeeming features of the film are packed away in three isolated five-star fight scenes that deserve better than their surrounding padding. A fight up five floors of circular stairways in one continual camera shot beats anything out of Kill Bill just by its sheer scale. A later bone-shattering onslaught, meanwhile, is Xeroxed straight out of the end of Volume 1, and the final payoff scene creates a pace that is so desperately missing elsewhere. Yet various sub-plots wander in like remnants of other films -- whilst any plot point will inevitably be arranged around excuses to show off Jaa�s prowess, it�s all so episodically disjointed that it feels a little too much like a video game, even for the genre. Wait for the decent scenes to turn up on Youtube; the rest is pure filler.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Student guide content & listings

Contributions included the cafes and booze sections, as well as student stereotypes for jocks, nerds, hip hop kids and granolas.

I've never felt so American in all my life.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Step Up

There was a poster outside the screening for Step Up that featured a ticket stub from Save The Last Dance. Coincidence? Well, yes. But the comparisons are unavoidable. Channing Tatum plays a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, grudgingly serving a community service sentence in an arts school. There he falls for a ballet student (Jenna Dewan), and much street ballet and flirtatious brew-ha ensues.

Of course, this film is all about dancing and beautiful people. Considering many of the leads have been drafted in from their full time occupations as dancers and singers, this is quite fortunate. Tatum spends the first half hour uncomfortably sloping around the 'hood like the Second Coming of Snow; his sulking presence is a hollow effort to hang the whole movie on. Yet both he and a semi-naked Jenna Dewan seem to know that they're really just there to pout and bob around a lot. There are certainly no plot surprises in store, but the style and tone are spot on. The arts school buzzes with Fame-style energy and impromptu fits of dancing. The choreography itself should be enough to satisfy So You Think You Can Dance fans, and the extravagant waste of Rachel Griffiths as the whisperingly elegant school director adds an unlikely touch of class.

Step Up is straightforward enough to do the job for fans of such dance films. Everyone else might as well save the ticket cost.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

James Dean Bradfield - The Great Western

The ever-risky first solo outing has paid dividends for the Manics man, producing an album of startling originality. Avoiding the trap of falling onto one staid sound, each track has a different trick up its sleeve. From opening all-out pop That’s No Way To Tell A Lie, through to the soaring finale of Which Way To Kyffin, there isn’t a dud track here. He’s won this cynic over; this is a grown-up album with surprises at every turn.*****

James Dean Bradfield - That's no way to tell a lie

Blackwood’s favourite son releases his first debut work, and sounds a lot like Lloyd Cole. Mercifully missing the student politics of recent Manics, it’s all comfortingly held together with some poptastic drumming, of all things, and even some full on sha la la-ing towards the end. ****

Jamie T - Sheila

The ‘young man with a talent for modern day storytelling’ is a risky label to use, reminiscent of Hard Fi and other scally nonsense. But this single drips with lyrical genius and earnest vocals. Jamie T has a gift for song that marks him with that other notorious label– he’s one to watch. ****

Royksopp - Royksopp's Night Out

Shameless cash-in ahoy from Royksopp, with this live album picking a select few of their best tracks from their first two albums. The albums themselves were masterpieces, but that was largely thanks to the impeccable production values that the name Royksopp is synonymous with. This work is totally unnecessary, and for any fans of What Else Is There? in particular, it’s just plain painful. Get the originals instead, and pretend you just didn’t know this blemish on their career existed. **

Model Morning - Your Worst Enemy

Model Morning a deceptive band. On first listening to their album it sounds like a retro 80s shoegaze band, but as it goes on it suddenly creeps up on you with some more inventive riotous rock. Fashion Gay is a much-needed jolt after the first couple of dirges on the album. The songs are in places dark, bitter and pained, building songs with soaring vocals to make something that bit more epic. Competent, but it’s not going to set the world alight.
***

Relative Strangers

Boring psychiatrist Richard Clayton discovers his boring parents aren’t actually his, before his slightly less boring real parents turn up. This film is in the unenviable position of trying to recreate smugfest Meet The Parents, but fails to capture the comedy that kept it afloat. Implausibly dough-faced Ron Livingston is so monotonous he makes even Neve Campbell look like a comedy natural; Kathy Bates and Danny DeVito could be a great double act was this film not so almightily – say it with me now – boring. *

The Automatic - Not Accepted Anywhere

What’s that coming over the hill? Cowbridge’s finest’s debut album, as it happens. The big singles Monster and Raoul are fairly representative of what’s on offer. The surging electro disco feel never lets up, with the album speeding away and never sitting back for a break. This can get a little wearing and the more one trick pony-esque aspects suggest they will have to evolve a fair way for album number two. But if you like the singles, then you’re in luck.****

Clap your hands say yeah - Skin of my yellow country teeth

Drowsily mumbling the over length of the entire record, Alec Ounsworth’s vocals makes a homegrown feel for the band that is underscored by jangling guitars on this pretty catchy single. The record’s something of a grower, but give it time and it soon sounds like the tune of a harassed summer. ****

The Sleepy Jackson -Personality

Is celestial pop a valid descriptive? Well, heck, I’m sticking with it. The Sleepy Jackson harness a kind of Pet Sounds noise, with more vocals and orchestra sections than you could shake some candy floss at. If anything, there’s a risk of it all becoming a bit cloying, with the album meandering rather than explicitly going somewhere. But that’s really only a case of ‘too much of a good thing’; each song is produced to a highly polished standard that it’s hard to ignore. ****

Lorraine - Transatlantic flight

Lorraine were heralded as the new Pet Shop Boys, and first single I Feel It certainly heralded good things. But this single is a little flatter. The electropop still tugs away at the heartstrings, but it doesn’t really feel like it’s going anywhere. A grower, but nothing to rush to HMV for.
***

Monday, June 12, 2006

Masters in deception

Sat up here in gair rhydd towers putting together our final paper of the year, we’ve been blessed with a university that seems more than willing to give us lots of material to work with.

An enormous carnival of ineptitude seems to be slowly edging its way around campus, be it cancelled graduations, the absolute farce of exams at the medical school, or the fact you can now just buy your qualifications here without bothering to do any work.

A postgraduate friend of mine has recently been offered his dissertation to be written for him in exchange for money.

Ever felt that Cardiff University is more geared towards making money out of you than actually getting down to some education? The consumerisation of education here is not a new phenomenon, but it is certainly something that is gathering pace. And one of the easiest ways for the university to make money is through international students.

While undergraduate course costs are capped, universities can charge whatever they like for postgraduate courses - over £40,000 for the most expensive in the country. And with so many international students taken on at exorbitant rates, they unsurprisingly feel like consumers. Having paid for the privilege to study here, they expect a guaranteed qualification out of the other side of it.

This would perhaps go some way to explain why some students have paid to have their dissertations written for them.

But there is more to it than that. For many students, the language barrier is so high that they would have little choice but to find someone else to write their dissertations for them. The anecdotal evidence points to some international students relying on ghost-written dissertations and group work to pull through subjects they would otherwise fail.

The department in question says that English levels are ensured by language tests in order to join the masters scheme. When a British student off the course claims that “some of the students I do group work with are shocking; I’m amazed they make it here from Heathrow,” then it’s time to think otherwise.

This is not a problem that the university does not know about. It is alleged that last year four students were ejected from the course as their dissertations were clearly not written by them, although the University will neither confirm nor deny this. Whilst they were written in word-perfect English, the students could barely even speak the language.

But this is clearly not enough. A current student claims that “international students go home for the summer, so they can’t be kept tabs on…maybe there are different standards. I’ve had work handed to me that’s obviously been copied off the internet as it still has the company name on it.”

Is the University willingly turning a blind eye to the problem? An incredible story has emerged from one postgraduate module earlier this year. While a lecturer was out of the room, two students ran down to the logged-in computer and opened the module’s exam paper on the screen in front of 300 students. Then another student ran to the front and took a copy of the paper on disk.

Think this sounds ridiculous? It gets better. Other students unhappy with what was going on took pictures on their phones and showed them to the university. But with the student in question denying that the files copied across, all they had to do was make a half-hearted apology in front of his fellow students, and no further action was taken. The examination paper has since been replaced.

Academic staff have limits as to how much they can do, with subjects often limiting the contact time they have with students to just an hour a week. But shouldn’t it be possible for a department to test students on how much they actually know on their topic, much in the same way that Vivas are used in other subjects (effectively interviews on the year’s work)?

These are incredible stories that show the depths that the university will go to keep hold of fee-paying students. To international students the problem represents a massive blemish on the reputation of the majority who not only complete qualifications here, but often do so with the handicap of not using their primary language. And for the rest of us, the reputation of gaining a qualification from a university willing to take money as a higher priority than learning is self-evident.

The risk as always here is that the University is overspending the dividend we have of being an English speaking university. As I’ve written before, we currently have strong interest in postgraduate courses because for foreign students there is a premium attached to Anglophonic universities, coupled with a belief that British universities are of a high standard.

As universities in foreign students’ home countries improve, not to mention the various visa barriers that are being erected by the government to block international students, then they are not going to be convinced by the empty rhetoric of our standards.

The numbers of foreign students coming to Cardiff has slowed over the past four years, and is now such a small increase it doesn’t register a change.
Short-term money chasing does nothing but frustrate the long-term chances of the university maintaining standards in the face of international competition.

Masters degrees are already touted in emails from US institutions, for those willing to pay enough money. How long before the click-and-buy masters come to the UK?

You’ve probably noticed by now that we have avoided mentioning the name of the department in question. To do that would sabotage the reputation of the people that actually do the work they’ve paid an incredible amount of money for. But this is a warning to the department that what goes on in your grubby money-making schemes does not go unnoticed. The gair rhydd team will be keeping an eye on the story next year.

The short-term solution is for tightened standards in departments that currently do not monitor their international students closely.

But there’s a darker, more engrained problem beneath that the university doesn’t seem even remotely interested in dealing with.

SOUL less

It’s no secret that moral posturing is the default of the Students’ Union, but the morals in question do often prove to be somewhat disposable things.

The new favourite plastered around the Union building are notes that the Union promotes responsible drinking, on the bottom of Drink The Bar Dry posters. It flies in the face of the whole point of the event: one last gloriously irresponsiblechance to lose control of your self-restraint and gag reflex with your friends before the end of term.

The Union has something called the SOUL campaign, a Save Our Union Licence plan to stop students from disturbing people on their way home. It’s what’s behind the people handing out lollies on and off throughout the year, to try and make you keep your trap shut when you go home.

The Union also puts out a ‘Unity’ newsletter to its neighbours to keep them informed about what is going on.

Very commendable, but in the case of the SOUL campaign, based on flimsy half-truths.
First off, it quotes a local AM as saying that the Students’ Union is the “only licensee still adhering to the voluntary agreement discouraging drinks promotions”.
That would be the same Union that has cheaper drinks than Meths Night down at the homeless shelter.

More impressively, it also notes that the Union “has not sought to extend opening hours beyond those previously agreed”. Well, until it got its licence extended to 4am.

The Union says these weren’t central tenets of the campaign, but just notes in supplement to it.

But does that really change the fact that the Union is telling neighbours one thing, before disregarding it and doing something completely different?

The Union only maintains morals on a pragmatic basis – as soon as they get in the way of some other benefit, they’re shed like a snake’s skin.

Face less

So, Berliner, eh? Weeks of frantic work have paid off, but there are definitely a few problems with going Guardian.

Byline photos, it turns out, were created just to mock writers. I’ve been happily slumming in facial anonymity on these pages for six months, and now look what’s happened. Yes, hello puddingface, I’m talking about you.

Be reassured that in person I look more like the offspring of Mark and Jeremy in Peep Show; Peter Crouch; or Hugh Grant left in a test tube too long.

So the next time you think that wall to wall colour, pin-sharp digital printing and well-designed space is a good idea, just think of all the ugly, mewling faces up on the fourth floor and reconsider.

Old Boyo Network

It’s been seven years since the Welsh Assembly was inaugurated. Through virtually all of it, the Assembly has been headed by Rhodri Morgan, a First Minister with something of a two-sided reputation.

To his supporters there is ‘clear red water’ between Cardiff Bay and Westminster, a professed Welsh policy style that shows this isn’t just New Labour rhetoric in action. To his detractors he’s under Number Tens’ thumb, running a district branch of national Labour government rather than leading a proud nation.

He certainly doesn’t do himself any favours, having a reputation for sitting on the fence on the big topics – just look at his non-committal stance on supporting Blair over Iraq. It looks like the biggest issue on campus today, the lecturers’ boycott, isn’t going to be any different. “It would be very unwise of me to take sides,” he says. “It would just be great for everyone to get around a table and thrash out a deal that is fair to everyone - employers and employees.”

There’s something reassuringly Old School about Rhodri Morgan. There’s no attempt at a polished performance like there’s been for every other politician I’ve interviewed. Proper Old Labour; I get the impression I might get clipped around the ear at any moment.

And this has always been the inherent tension in his administration, balancing a pragmatic plan for Wales with what being a Labour government has to mean today.
He did try and bring in top-up fees for Welsh students last year, and was only blocked when the defection of the late Peter Law meant that he didn’t have the Assembly numbers to push it through.

For now it looks like Welsh top-up fees will be off the table. “We have no proposals to change the policy as we’ve only just brought it in,” he says. But this isn’t going to change the fact that his was the government that tried.

In place of top-up fees, the Government has been forced to pay the difference over and above the existing tuition fees. Still, the new policy has come under attack.

“We’ve heard this criticism that in some ways what we’ve done, with us paying the lost income to Welsh universities for not having top-up fees, is against the interests of Welsh students as they’ll be financially induced to stay in Wales to do their higher education.

“But what were we supposed to do? We can’t have the Welsh quote taxpayer unquote subsidising the English higher education system.”

The Welsh taxpayer paying for England? It’s not something that you would ordinarily hear of (or, in this case, believe).

But it is difficult to separate whether what I’m listening to is Welsh bluster, or just a politician not answering the question. In some cases it seems clear that the question is just being avoided (see gair rhydd 806 ).

A simple question on whether Mr Morgan agreed with calls to introduce a full-time scientific adviser was met with a five minute mini-speech on the virtues of IBM and Motorola. There never was an answer to the adviser question, just an admittance that they are “not fully exploiting the Welsh potential in science”.

Still, there is unlikely to be any major policy pushed through in the Assembly as long as Labour goes without the absolute majority it enjoyed for six years.
Many have scoffed at the suggestion by The First Minister and Secretary of State Peter Hain that any other party would be strong enough to take over, but Mr Morgan insists that “an anti-Labour coalition would be formed with the Tories in it”.

Is there any chance of a return to the days when a Lib-Lab coalition ruled? “I don’t think they’d be interested and I don’t think we’d be interested,” he says.

There has instead been some pretty underhand legislating in the form of the Government of Wales Bill.
Currently passing through the UK Parliament, it is the first extension of Assembly powers since it was first set up. The current Assembly structure has been criticised by the current presiding officer as being ‘horrendous time-wasting’, something the First Minister says has, “nothing to do with our side of the house, really.
“We stay this side of the exhaustion, but only just. Ministers work every hour God made, and what the Assembly work is not a matter for us.”

Instead, the changes will leave potential AMs forced to choose between trying to join the Assembly through only one of the two routes that they can currently take - they can either be constituency AMs (like MPs), or ‘list’ AMs - a top-up system to ensure a fair representation of the vote.

Morgan is convinced there’s something wrong with the current system: “It’s deception on the electorate really. People who’ve been defeated in a constituency sometimes imply that they are the representatives of that constituency.” By complete coincidence, Labour will be major beneficiaries of the change in rules, which have also come under heavy fire by the Electoral Commission.

The UK Labour government has vowed to push the Bill through, despite heavy criticism from all sides.

I still can’t decide whether I was on the receiving end of politicking or just a blustering personality. In fairness, I did always sense a fair contempt for being there, and a large awareness that the First Minister knew he was doing us a favour by giving us an interview - you can’t say the same thing about a lot of image-conscious politicians.


STORY UPDATE
In issue 806 we reported that the Assembly Government had announced they ‘expected’ Local Health Boards to fund Herceptin on the NHS for early stage breast cancer, despite the fact it has not yet met the necessary safety standards for its intended use, nor has the costly drug been properly costed.

“I don’t think it was suggested that Herceptin is dangerous, was it?”
Despite the fact the drug still has an as-yet-to-disprove link to heart disease for its intended use, and that oft-quoted study on its effectiveness was funded by the drugs company (both facts that appeared to come as a surprise to the First Minister), the Government chose not to wait for advice from the NHS body for testing such matters, but pressured health boards anyway.
Does he think this, therefore, creates a dangerous precedent for the many, similar forthcoming drugs?
“As a precedent, no I don’t think it’s dangerous, because Herceptin is entirely unique - well, it won’t be unique for very long - but it is a unique category as far as I’m aware, as it’s the first of what appears to be a family of very, very clever, smart drugs.”
Confused? Despite questioning the First Minister several times on the topic, the best he could muster was “they will either bankrupt every drug administration in the world, but nevertheless they will save thousands of lives, or they will have at least a moderate benefit in saving lives.”
If the clueless government don’t get a better idea of what they are doing soon, all that will be left is a bankrupt NHS.


In issue 812, we reported on changes to arts funding in Wales. While the Government currently gives money to the Arts Council Wales to give out to arts institutions, under the ‘Bonfire of the Quangos’ the Government is going to start funding the ‘Big Six’ arts institutions directly. There has been a lot of criticism that it could potentially lead to censorship of the arts.

The First Minister was resolute on the idea that there is no potential conflict of interest in direct funding. “We said that we would resist any attempt to - what’s the word - censorship, or restricting the freedom of the arts community to experiment and occasionally to fail in experimenting.
“Funding decisions will not be decided in that way.”
But even if that was true of the current government, what guarantee is there that a future government would do the same? Isn’t that exactly why there are institutional safeguards, like using the Arts Council to keep funding depoliticized?
“Whether you do it indirectly through an Arts Council or whether you do it directly because the sums are big enough in regards the Big Six, then you might as well just get on with it.”
As it is, it has proven difficult to find people willing to speak out against the changes for fear of the Assembly. The changes have, if nothing else, created a legacy of stunted pluralism.

Poseidon

Four stars, Dir: Wolfgang Peterson Starring: Kurt Russell, Josh Lucas, Richard Dreyfuss

Another wet afternoon, another blockbuster remake. But Poseidon has cheated by being – wait for it – quite good. Obviously not with a good script or acting, despite being helmed by drowning specialist, Das Boot director Wolfgang Peterson. That has quite rightly been jettisoned to leave nothing but spectacular set pieces and the joy of people dying in amusing ways. In short, this is a fantastic guilty pleasure of a disaster movie.

Like the original, after a massive wave hits a cruiseliner we follow a group of passengers make their way to the top of the overturned boat, with a surprisingly high body count for a 12A. There are only a few modern touch-ups: the tidal wave becomes a ‘rogue wave’ (make your own War on Terror joke), there’s some gayness, and Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas warbles a bit.

The opening doesn’t look optimistic, with blue screen effects that shame even Doctor Who. But by the time the boat flips, and that happens in double quick time, you can just sit back and admire the inevitable watery grave. The B-list cast just underline that the director knows what the audience are really here for, with only Josh Lucas’ death eyes and the perpetually shrivelling Kurt Russell (prolonged periods in water are not a good idea for the living prune) to mention.

I can’t remember the last time a shlockbuster was this well made without trying to shoehorn in some morals and teach me something. In fairness it could have done with a screaming Shelley Winters, but Fergie does get killed off. At sea, it turns out, lady lumps are not much use. Check it out.

The Omen

Two stars; Dir: John Moore Starring: Live Shreiber, Mia Farrow, David Thewlis

The Omen is supposed to be an all-time classic horror, although I was always slightly baffled as to why. American diplomat Robert Thorn (Shreiber) is moved to a new job in London, but he increasingly suspects that his own son is the Antichrist. Lord knows it would make a cracking episode of the House of Tiny Tearaways, but this remake (especially for the 6/6/06 – geddit?) is composed solely of what feels like shot-by-shot revisiting of the original’s most iconic scenes, with an enormous pile of extraneous guff thrown in for no clear reason.

This could have rattled away to fill up a couple of hours had a half decent editor been brought in to cut it down, and more fun been made of The Omen’s legacy. The opening half hour seems to house about three different introductions to the film, whilst Thorn’s tour of Europe is so prolonged you’d think he was trying to milk a Eurorail ticket. The pointless reshooting of the original’s best bits is perhaps the biggest loss. Given the dullard tendencies of the first, there was certainly plenty of room to make an improvement.

Still, one of the best features of the film is watching how they’ll make the prophecies of the coming of the antichrist fit world events – much as the Daily Mail has been predicting for years, the EU is actually an integral part of a Satanist plot.

With such a decent cast, there are some redeeming performances. Mia Farrow plays the nanny with such obviously deranged intent it’s clear from the outset she’s no Mary Poppins, but her relish brings light relief to the otherwise po-faced action. David Thewlis is also solid, even if he’s just playing himself; Michael Gambon, as usual, is criminally underused. But Liev Schreiber is his typically blank self on which to try and hang the whole film – the parallels between his performance here and The Manchurian Candidate are telling. The Antichrist, meanwhile, does little but squint to indicate evil (perhaps if he got new glasses, the world wouldn’t have to end).

The vacuous Schreiber is probably the reason there are so many shots to make you jump, in an effort to inject some life into the proceedings. Bog-standard shots of animals skulls in Satanist robes and the like do little to suggest this is worth watching.

Fans of the original will find nothing new, and newcomers will find what nothing more than a stale story that, more than ever, doesn’t deserve a second coming.

Monday, June 05, 2006

State of the Union

Having got bored of boycotting their own work in this country, lecturing über-Union NATFHE have gone international.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to bleat on about the assessment of our exams again. Who needs to criticise the union for that, when it is lining itself up for criticism with their boycott of sections of Israeli academia that won’t publicly distance themselves from ‘Israeli apartheid policies’?

Blimey. Good to see that isn’t an emotionally loaded proposition that was put before the conference. It’s pretty much the same as insisting that British academics have to proclaim their opposition to the War in Iraq to not be ostracized from their peers.

Is this really the academic way to get things done? To bar one side from even taking part in the debate on the future of the region goes against the principles they profess to be protecting. Barring one side of the debate means there is no debate at all.

Even while freedoms may be curtailed on the ground, the benefit of academia is that it comprises its own self-contained realm of discussion - and freedom of expression is essential to make that work. The Oslo peace process, for example, was kickstarted by links between Israeli and Palestinian academics. The importance of freedom of expression is not an abstract concept; it is the concrete basis for peace.

Instead, the union is trying to introduce politics into academia. Was I the only person who thought the point of a union was to represent their members’ interests in employment matters?

Anyway, in a thoroughly unusual piece of timing, the union doesn’t actually exist any more. My favourite inept unions NATFHE and AUT merged last Thursday to create the UCU, so this is the last chance they had to create such a hate-filled message.

Interestingly it is almost exactly a year since a boycott of Israeli academics by the AUT was overturned in the name of freedom of speech.

But the topic is muddied somewhat as there is more than one debate going on. There’s the question of freedom of expression; but underlying it there is also a debate going on about the validity of the state of Israel.

Regardless of what you think of the unions choosing to boycott Israeli academics, there is little doubt that the real arguments going on here are about the political hue of the unions rather than a great defence of freedom.

I’m not going to suggest that there is something anti-Semitic underlining the action. But why has Israel been singled out? Why not Russia or China?

It has been argued that Israel is different as Israeli academics are in a unique position of being free to criticise the creation of the security fence. An academic in China is not going to have the same freedom to criticise the state. But the AUT also supports the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, in defence of the socialist state. Cuba is hardly world-renowned for upholding academic freedom.

Instead the dividing lines of what the unions are willing to support or criticise are arguments professing a concern for freedom of expression, when all they really do is reinforce casual stereotyping of the political spectrum.

Still, every cloud has a silver lining. With the unions fighting themselves, their united front on negotiations over pay here stands a greater chance of collapsing.

Learnage

This is the last Mickelodeon; apparently the ‘-odeon’ suffix is too tabloid for next week’s fancy effort. So I’m taking this last opportunity to impart what I’ve learnt in my time here.

• There is nay a boy in this university who hasn’t used hair straighteners at least once.

• It takes exactly two years to plan how to open a burger bar.

• If you took all the Bob Marley posters from first years’ bedrooms and laid them end to end, you’d probably get arrested.

• You never really made it to the second year unless you completed the Blackweir Tavern Challenge (39 minutes – have it). Its end was the biggest loss to Welsh culture since the passing of Owain Glyndwr.

• If you’re going to crap yourself and lie outside the front of the Union, don’t wear white trousers (fortunately not from personal experience).

• Need to ask IT about a problem? Don’t bother, they really do not care.

• You will never again live somewhere with so many greengrocers.

• Friday nights may come and go but Factory is for life.

• There isn’t a famous person alive who the Welsh won’t try and lay ownership to. My favourite from famouswelsh.com: ‘Cilla Black, one Welsh grandparent’.

• That whilst there may be departments for Japanese, Archaeology or most fantastically Astrobiology, you will never meet anyone who studies them.

• If you miss Mr Scruff now, he’ll probably be on again within the fortnight.

• Without departmental secretaries, the uni would probably collapse within 15 minutes. Now THAT’S a strike people would notice.

• That after four years here, the only Welsh words I know are for: disabled, fire exit, people of the valley, free word, Wales, Cardiff, Monmouthshire. This has, or will never hinder me in life.

• No-one really knows what the All Nations Centre or the Temple of Peace and Health actually do, but they have lovely names.

• However ropey our university may be at times, our Union beats 14 kinds of crap out of every other one in the country.

Lending patriotism

Celtic head-scratching ahoy for the next couple of weeks, as Wales and Scotland have to decide whether or not they support the ol’ enemy of England in the World Cup.
This may sound like a rather minor thing, but in the minds of politicians, football seems to be perceived as a chance to connect with the ‘working man’. Think Gordon Brown’s revelation that his underwear all comes from M&S, or David Cameron’s choice of Benny Hill to play on Desert Island Discs.

They’re all about the grand political gestures, appealing to an electorate that politicians appear to think consists entirely of working men’s clubs and bored housewives, flicking through Bella and Pick Me Up.

It’s Rhodri Morgan’s turn next, with Wales’s First Minister announcing that while he’ll support England, he’s going to support their opposition if the fans start causing trouble.

Hardly the most constructive comments to be making on the debate, is it?

Old Rhodders has a history of sitting on the fence on just about any topic going. From whether to support Blair and the invasion of Iraq, to the lecturers’ boycott (read next week’s interview with the First Minister to find out more), the fence is very much there to be sat on.

So why couldn’t he just keep his trap shut now as well?

There was no gain to be made from making such a ridiculous statement about England fans making ‘trouble’.

All it’s done is ignore the enormous efforts that the authorities have gone to here to prevent hooligans travelling to the event from England, as well as reinforcing the impression that England fans are a bigger problem than their violent counterparts in countries such as the Netherlands.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Fuelling the grassroots

Budding musicians have until the end of the month to enter the international unsigned music prize, Diesel-U-Music. These are awards with an impressive pedigree of talent - Tom Vek, Mylo and DJ Yoda all found their break in these televised awards. Covering seperate rock, urban/hip-hop and electronic genres, there's a lot of room for bringing your own style into this grassroots event, and it doesn't even have to be in English. The global prize has already had hundreds of entries, so be sure to upload yours soon.

Vinyl Resting Place

Vinyl junkies everywhere are in luck this month, with Cardiff-based Catapult throwing the metaphorical doors open on their new online store. As the largest independent record store in Wales, the dance music specialist can now expand its base from its home in the city's High Street Arcade, and build up a wider following. The new state of the art online store is there for you to order both vinyl and all the DJ equipment you could ever want, as a new one-stop shop for DJ-ing needs. And as if that wasn't enough, there's free delivery on all vinyl over £14.

Word up

For those who feel like getting a bit lyrical this month, the Cardiff side of the Tri-Nation Poetry Slam is looking for new performers. If you think that you can work your way through a three minute performance in front of crowds cheering and jeering you on, then it's time to join the team and get practicing in time for the Bristol Slam in September. If you think you've got what it takes, or just want to see the lyrical action for yourself, then get in touch with the Adamsdown poet and Cardiff captain Christopher Brooke.

New foundations

Defying conventional laws of time, Architectural Week runs from Fri 16 to Tue 25 June, and Dyffryn Gardens are showing off their new buildings to the public. Putting up new structures in Grade I listed gardens is no easy task, so to show you how the new visitor and education centres are being sensitively constructed, the project architects are on hand to show you arond the site, before they are opened to the public in August. Although the new buildings are taking on the same dimensions as the neighbouring Edwardian lodge and Victorian buildings to ensure they fit it, they're both contemporary in design. The education centre, as a more hidden building, even has a green roof - not something youd normally expect to find at a traditional country pile. You'll need to call ahead to book for Dyffryn on Wed 19, but check the website to see what Architectural Week events are on in your area.

Green Day

If you find yourself filled with an urge to seperate your plastics on Sat 10 June, there's a good reason: it's World Environment Day. To celebrate, Fete of the Earth will be held in the Hayes, Cardiff. There's a wide range of organisations involved, with 23 loval schools joining up with everyone from spillmaster Dwr Cymru, to the food specialists of Riverside Market. There's also plenty on in South Wales for those who'd rather see the environment up close; the day falls in the Gower Walking Festival, which runs - or rather, walks - from Mon 3 to Sun 11 June. Priced at £2 each, they range from scenic family walks to watercolour challenges. Or for those who'd rather get nautical with the day, there's a Gower boat trip to see the coastline in the area for £25. Both have to be booked ahead, so contact the Mumbles Tourist Information Centre to go green for the day.

Swansea Flicks

Swansea's inaugral film festival runs from Mon 5 - Thur 8 June, bringing together workshops and films from around the world, and a little closer to home. Domestic talent is on show with Jealous God, a star-crossed lovers tale from 1960s Yorkshire, with Jason Merrells and Denise Welch; whilst Love Ludlow has been brought in from America, and stars Miranda's geeky fella from Sex & The City, in a girl's choice between her family and her boyfriend. South Wales, meanwhile, is represented by the premieres of family drama Teenage Wasteland, and Carmarthen-based horror in Footsteps; both are shown on Thur 8 and are followed by director Q&As. To establish the calibre of the event, Welsh comedy legend Victor Spinetti will be putting in an appearance at the awards to round the four days off. The event runs across several Swansea venues, and will also see the beginning of the Swansea Bay Film Society.

Cave Monster

A small Welsh national nature reserve has beaten the big names in the world of 'Britain's Finest Natural Wonder' to take the national title. Beating competition from world icons like the Giant's Causeway, Loch Lomond and the White Cliffs of Dover gives it an instant kudos that the geological wonder has so far lost out on. The Dan yr Ogof National Nature Reserve is the only place in Wales for safe family visits to see an underground world of lakes, rivers and 40 foot underground waterfalls - it's little wonder that the caves have become a massive underground classroom to kids. It was enough to convinve the prize's jury - including explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, actress Prunella Scales and wondergob Janet Street-Porter - that this was a site worthy of recognition. A new oak plaque will be unveiled in the colossal Cathedral Cave as part of a Geopark Day at the site later this month.

Snap Decision

Fast-paced photography gets going at Cardiff's Millennium Centre this month, when this year's Photomarathon comes to town on Sat 24. Over 12 hour entrants have to shoot 12 photos on 12 given topics. Organiser Betina Skovbro has brought the quickfire photo challenge to the UK from her native Denmark, and says that whilst the photos will be judged, the Photomarathon is really all about creativity. "Topics in last year's highly successful event included 'jackpot', 'over the line' and 'street life'. Those who took part had the pleasure of seeing their photos on show in an exhibition that was visited by over 1800 members of the public." With public transport free al over the city to get sneaky shots from Rhiwbina to Riverside, all anyone needs to enter is a 35mm film camera and the ten pound entry fee; but some good footwear to leg it between Kodak moments would probably be a good idea too.

De Rosa - Mend

Coming from a Scottish art-rock background throws up hefty expectations in terms of style and innovation these days, but De Rosa don’t really deliver. The energy on standout tracks Camera and Hopes and Little Jokes make great self-contained songs. But the hefty dose of Scottish folk heritage elsewhere on the album feels shoehorned in, as if the band is trying a little to keenly to find an identity. The Glasgow cries of Cathkin Braes and New Lanark just end up ringing hollow. **

The Magic Spring

Richard Lewis, Atlantic Books

Subtitled ‘My Year Being English’, {The Magic Spring} follows the author’s search for authentic English roots. Much morris dancing and folk plays ensue, with Richard Lewis’ dry but friendly style really trying to find out something about Englishhood. The whole project does feel as if it’s going to topple over into a Danny Wallace-esque ‘project’ at any time. But Richard Lewis obviously has a real aching to find something that is tangibly part of his own identity that pulls it through.

Senor Coconut and his Yellow Orchestra - Yellow Fever!

German/Chilean “electrolatino” interpreters of Japan’s answer to Kraftwerk? Senor Coconut may sound like a Eurovision headache, but it works. Taking laidback latino grooves and mucking around with them on the synths brings fun to the album; but everything is so carefully produced that something barmily beautiful has emerged. The best tracks are those that don’t pay tribute to the Japanese Yellow Magic Orchestra, but even they are techno-pop quality. It’ll have you electro-mamboing around your living room in no time. ****

Days of being wild

Directed by 2046’s Kar Wai Wong, this 1991 film follows 1960 playboy Yuddy in Hong Kong. The film follows two girls fight over him, whilst he gets to lean back in his own oedipal subplot. This film is so full of summer passion you can almost feel the sweat pouring off in a film that, with the fractured narrative, makes it feel like it’s a dream. A fantastic performance from the late Leslie Cheung as Yuddy anchors an incredible film. Hypnotic. *****

Matt Kirkpatrick, owner of Shot in the Dark

So how long has Shot in the Dark been running now?
Shot in the Dark’s been running four years now. It was owned by an ex-business partner who bought it from, of all places, Atlantic Coffee Shop. The idea was to convert it and make somewhere decent to go.

What marks Shot in the Dark out in Cardiff?
On Wednesday we have an open mike night; on Sunday we have bands doing acoustic sets. And the rest of the week we have DJs, the best known being Moneyshot.

Where do you think is the best place to go in South Wales for food?
Greenhouse, great veggie food and fish. It’s well priced and good quality.

And for drink?
One, the new place in the Bay.

What about going out?
Going out is crap in Cardiff. You might as well get on a train and go to the Jazz Café in London.

And what do you think overall of the scene in South Wales?
It’s crap; everything in Cardiff is run by big brands. What it really needs is, over time, for independent people to bring more things in.