Voskhod instruments by Tom Royal on Flickr
Valentina Tereshkova with Vostok 6 by Tom Royal on Flickr
Voskhod Capsule by Tom Royal on Flickr
Chartwell by Tom Royal on Flickr
Chartwell by Tom Royal on Flickr
Heron by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr

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March for the Alternative

March 27th, 2011

Meet the Big Society:

[swfobj src=”http://www.tomroyal.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/march_pan.swf” height=”500″ width=”640″]

The March for the Alternative, as viewed from the Royal Festival Hall as it set off around midday. Move mouse over image to pan.

So yesterday I went to protest the Government’s agenda of public sector and welfare cuts. About 400,000 of us marched slowly and peacefully through London to Hyde Park, although from reading the papers today you’d think that we all took part in some kind of riot. Here’s what it looked like if you were actually in the crowd.

The March

March for the Alternative

That’s the march passing under Waterloo bridge at about 12.10pm. It had been moving for some time, but there were so many people that it would take us at least 90 minutes to get to that point ourselves. As you can see, lots of union groups, Labour party groups and so on, but also thousands of individuals and smaller non-aligned groups: I was marching with, if I can remember this correctly: two local government employees, a handful of teachers, a musician and another writer. Behold the terrifying face of British political extremism.

There were many families, many kids and, because this is a British protest march, lots of jokey signs (“Down with this sort of thing”, “Careful now”, “I’m not best pleased”, jokes about kettles and tea, and so on). Believe it or not, none of us felt compelled to start a fight with the police, smash a window or two or throw any paint about. We didn’t have any paint, of course, only coffee and chocolate buttons.

"I'm not best pleased"

So, we joined the march. And marched. And stopped. And started. And marched some more. There were bands, and a bike playing terrible music very loud (cue derisive comments from the crowd when Linkin Park came on). At one point it rained a bit. We made some placards with biro, lipstick and abandoned card. A few hours later we passed Westminster, where approximately one million police were standing around waiting for trouble that didn’t occur. As we passed Downing Street, the whole crowd did some pantomime-style boo-ing. We passed the Cenotaph, which was of course untouched, and Trafalgar square.

The Occupation of Fortnum and Mason

As we came up towards Fortnum and Mason it became apparent that something was happening – a squad of riot police ran past the march, sirens sounded and some smoke went up in the distance. The march ambled on, passing at this point some banks that had been Jackson-Pollocked by some paint-throwing types earlier (coloured splotches, a smashed glass door, police outside). As we were passing F&M, UK Uncut protest signs appeared in the windows:

Fortnum and Mason

.. and then a flag waved from another just to the right. We stood and stared up, and you could see that there wasn’t exactly a riot going on inside: the protesters just stood by the windows. Police blocked the doors below.

Videos and photos taken inside the store make it clear that those inside were peaceful and did not cause any damage to the shop or its goods – they stood or sat aound on the floor, mostly. The whole stunt has seen a so far largely negative reaction, though, with many citing the charitable work done by F&M’s owners as making it an unsuitable target.

I can’t say I agree with that – giving to charities you like isn’t an acceptable alternative to paying taxes to help the country as a whole – but I do think this one backfired. UK Uncut has done well at drawing media attention to companies participating in tax avoidance, but in this case all it managed to do was attract attention away from a larger – and, in my opinion, more important – demonstration. The reaction from some parts of the press to the “occupation” has been ludicrous, but I nonetheless wish they’d protested another day. But that’s my 2p worth.

Anyhow, we – and the rest of the march – bumbled on. We waved at the tourists. Some took photos of my “CATS NOT CUTS” placard. There was some jokey chanting. Eventually, about four hours after starting, we arrived at Hyde Park. The speeches had long passed, but the march stretched on behind us.

March for the Alternative

After a while I dragged myself back across town and home. At this point, it looked like things had gone off relatively well – a huge turnout to demonstrate the vast number of people who don’t buy the coalition’s lie that its cuts are the only way forward – with few distractions for the right-wing press to focus on.

Didn’t quite work out that way, of course.

The Square

I wasn’t in Trafalgar Square yesterday evening, and have yet to read an account that I find entirely convincing. Whatever did all take place there to kick it off, though, transpired around a protest entirely separate to that of the 400,000 people marching earlier in the day.

It’s normal to see a couple of angry-smashy-fuckwits appear at any left-wing march, and they showed up as per usual earlier in the day, but the events in the square, like the UK Uncut action earlier, seem to have been quite different to that – this was a bunch of young protesters sitting about in a square until it all went sideways. Instead yesterday’s big problems seem to be a case of well-intentioned protesters not realising the damage they could cause the the overall message of the day if their secondary actions ended up going awry.

And, for whatever reason, awry they went. Meanwhile, many millions of people will be reading about a half-hour of scuffles in a square rather than the 400,000 people – this gentleman included – whose voices were drowned out by more noisy and photogenic events elsewhere.

March for the Alternative


March 19th, 2011

From the Telegraph, yesterday (I’m not linking). Online journalism checklist:

  • Apple and/or iPad angle to get the Google traffic? Check.
  • Related to something that has happened recently? Check.
  • Sense of perspective in light of huge tragedy? (Awkward silence)

Because this is a rare example of shockingly angry-making journalism that falls under my work remit, I’ve written about it on the magazine blog, here: Because some things are clearly more important than the iPad.

Norwegian Wood (ノルウェイの森)

March 14th, 2011

A few people have asked, so here’s a review of sorts: if you love the book, should you see the film?

Two disclaimers up front: I’m no film expert, just an idiot with a history of low-rent literary criticism. Your level of agreement may vary. Also, I’m focusing purely on the perspective of those who know the book. If you haven’t read it, please stop here as I am going to spoil it in a huge, horrible way – go buy a copy. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is great, too, as are Murakami’s other novels – they are, to a great extent, the reason I spend hours every weekend battering my head into kanji textbooks and the conjugation of regular-1 and regular-2 Japanese verbs.

And with that out of the way: there’s both a lot to like and dislike in this film adaptation.

First of all, the good stuff. This is, no doubt, a tough novel to film – there’s a lot in it, it’s written from within a frame where the central character narrates back historically, and some decent chunks are explicit in a way that’s going to be hard to film without it looking either pornographic or just naff – but the director has clearly made an effort to create something more than a television movie. Although quite a bit of the plot is omitted, little is changed. Some of the acting is excellent and none is poor, and a few of the scenes (the dinner with Nagasawa and Hatsumi, in particular, and the pacing scene out at the sanatorium with Watanabe and Naoko) are really very well done.

It’s also important to note the overwhelming artfulness of the cinematography. Every single shot in the film has been made to count, from huge vistas of the countryside to the panning close-ups of just about every conversation and the macro wildlife shots used to break scenes. A few fairly peripheral scenes – one in the university, and another introducing Nagasawa and Hatsumi – use long huge tracking shots that are genuinely breathtaking.

The problem, though, is that I found myself noticing how the camera was moving, rather than what was actually happening. And although the clever filming has much to do with that, I think it also demonstrates that the story doesn’t have the same arresting power in this adaptation as it does in the novel.

There are other, bigger, problems, though. The film is two hours long, so some cuts from the book were probably unavoidable, but some are strange: at one point Midori apologises for arriving late to meet Watanabe, but only those who remember the novel will know why, as that part of their close-distant-close relationship isn’t included. Similarly, the dinner scene with Nagasawa and Hatsumi may be a highlight, but it arrives in a blink of an eye with no explanation.

Watanabe’s commentary on the student occupations is missing, Reiko’s background is cut out completely, leaving events at the end of the novel isolated and almost nonsensical, and the significance of the song “Norwegian Wood” is stripped out entirely – Reiko sings it, as do the Beatles over the credits. No plane, no connection to Naoko, no money in a jar, no point.

And if the director might have been forced to cut stuff out, you have to wonder why on earth several scenes are added. Kizuki’s suicide is shown, rather than described in the past tense, and Naoko’s death is handled in a manner that’s not only less powerful than the novel but, in my opinion, borderline distasteful. Watanabe’s subsequent journey into the countryside is reduced to five minutes of awful overblown yowling that’s so bad I comtemplated leaving the cinema, while Hatsumi’s character also deserves better than the way her death is handled here.

And finally, the ending. The ending of Norwegian Wood is, to me, almost perfect. In the movie it’s relocated, stripped of the location’s significace (Midori’s story about the train journey is cut entirely), and marred by a tacked-on conclusion from the narrator.

So, if you love the book, should you go to to see it? The answer probably depends on how much you enjoy the cinema for the cinema’s sake. If you love film, beautiful camerawork, artful landscapes, interesting ways of filming close conversations and/or want to see one of the best “light beams through trees” shots ever, then go: although the book is trampled on, you’ll find much to like. Similarly, if you’re studying the Japanese language then much of the film is easy to understand, not least because Watanabe spends almost half the time saying “もちろん” in answer to an assortment of questions from the female characters.

If you’re primarily interested in the story, though, this adaptation is likely to leave you disappointed at best: the narrative mostly survives, but its nuance and significance are lost in the trees.


March 10th, 2011

Something I knocked up the other week while playing with DIY Chromakey. The green screen (four sheets of A4 paper) worked fairly well. The camera, on the other hand – an early consumer HD model with no effective manual focus – was a bit crap.

Facebook news: divorced from the facts

March 5th, 2011

Everyone loves a good Facebook news story – or rather, a bad one. And over the past few days, a classic has emerged: Facebook will wreck your marriage. See for example:

Facebook cited in 20% of U.S. divorces (CBC News): “Facebook use has been cited in 1 of 5 U.S. divorce cases, according to a recent survey among American marriage lawyers.”

Facebook Linked to More Divorces (Consumer Affairs): “The source of this observation is the nation’s divorce lawyers, who may be in a position to know…”

Reason for 1 in 5 divorces in the US: Facebook (Perez Hilton): “According to a study..”

Facebook Blamed for 1 in 5 Divorces in the US (ZDnet): “According to a recent survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML).”

And of course, many more.

So far, so tedious – an association of lawyers has conducted a recent survey, and so on. It’s not groundbreaking news, but hey, it’s a job. But if you go looking for that recent survey – to check how it was conducted, perhaps – you’ll find something a little odd: there doesn’t seem to be one.

All the stories, in fact, seem to stem from a press release entitled (yes, in all-caps): “DON’T LET YOUR MARRIAGE BE AMONG THE 1 IN 5 DESTROYED BY FACEBOOK”. It was issued by Loyola Medicine, a University in Chicago, and includes lots of nice media-friendly quotes from a PhD there. Top two paras:

MAYWOOD, Ill. – If you’re single, Facebook and other social networking sites can help you meet that special someone. However, for those in even the healthiest of marriages, improper use can quickly devolve into a marital disaster.

A recent survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that Facebook is cited in 1 in 5 divorces in the United States. Also, more than 80 percent of divorce lawyers reported a rising number of people are using social media to engage in extramarital affairs.

So, there’s the recent survey, but there’s no link. Take a look at the AAML website, and there seems to be no mention of a recent survey there, either – which is odd, as recent press releases from the last month (none mention Facebook) are prominently displayed.

Dig back in the archive a bit, though, and you’ll find this: “Big Surge in Social Networking Evidence Says Survey of Nation’s Top Divorce Lawyers”:

Chicago, IL, February 10, 2010— If your status is separated or going through a divorce, you might want to stay off Facebook. An overwhelming 81% of the nation’s top divorce attorneys say they have seen an increase in the number of cases using social networking evidence during the past five years, according to a recent survey of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML).   Facebook holds the distinction of being the unrivaled leader for online divorce evidence with 66% citing it as the primary source.

It goes on. But note the date: February 10, last year. There’s no mention that I can see of the “1 in 5” statistic, but other parts of the story (the “over 80 per cent”, for instance) seem to come from this release.

So where does this leave the news about Facebook and divorce? Well, there are two possibilities.

It could be that there’s a new survey, or at least new press release, not commonly available, at the heart of the whole story. I contacted the AAML asking for a copy of “its recent press release regarding Facebook and divorce”, but have received nothing. If it shows up, I’ll post it here. It’s probably bollocks, but at least it would be *new* bollocks.

But I think the second possibility is more likely: that this is a non-story, sparked by an unimportant press release that misquotes year-old “research”, that has made it into the output of several news outlets who should know better (and many others that perhaps shouldn’t) on the back of a nice negative line about a popular website. And, more worryingly, I don’t see any evidence that the news outlets even attempted to check the data – if they had, they would have found the same as me.

Or to put it another, more media-friendly way: Facebook causes bad journalism.

— UPDATE 9/3:

The Guardian ran the story last night, here, and as I write this it’s the most popular story on its Technology section. According to Twitter it’s also running on CNN, and of course the Guardian story has been picked up by websites, blogs etc.

In the meantime, Loyola Medicine responded to my request for a copy of the AALM release. The press officer sent me a link to the February 2010 research. When I questioned the source of the “1 in 5” he apologised and put it down to a mathematical error on his part, then supplied me with a corrected release without that statistic.


Loyola has replaced its original press release online with an amended version – you can see it here, or the original in Google’s cache here. The key changes are in the third paragraph, which has gone from:

A recent survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that Facebook is cited in 1 in 5 divorces in the United States. Also, more than 80 percent of divorce lawyers reported a rising number of people are using social media to engage in extramarital affairs.


A survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that “Facebook holds the distinction of being the unrivaled leader for online divorce evidence with 66% citing it as the primary source.” Also, more than 80 percent of divorce lawyers reported they “have seen an increase in the number of cases using social networking evidence” during the past few years.

So it’s now correct, in as far as reporting the original AAML release.

— UPDATE 10/3:

BBC Radio 5 Live is the latest outlet to run a 13-month-old press release as news – it’s on iPlayer here. The Guardian story now clearly states “a 2010 survey” as its source, which is true, although “February 2010” wouldn’t have looked so good. It was the top story on the Guardian website for some time yesterday.

— UPDATE 12/3

It’s still going. I particularly like this story, which half-way through even references the fact that the website has covered another AAML release (hint: it’s the same one) some time previously. The good news is that the Wall Street Journal’s Carl Bialik has picked up the myth on his Numbers Guy blog, here, and in print. Another good round-up of the nonsense and its sources has been posted here.