Thursday, 28 April 2016

I Don't Believe In Happiness

I once sat in an interview with a man I greatly respect. He looked at me with a smile on his face and asked "Happy?" He may not have known what happened in my head during the one second pause I took to answer. I thought about telling him the truth but then that would lead to a well-meaning but ultimately demeaning interrogation. So I replied with what I knew he wanted to hear. I said "Yes, thank you."

A bare faced lie. Normally I would say my talent for prevarication is pretty poor. This time, however, and especially with this topic, because it is the answer everyone is looking for, they buy it with limited effort on my deceptive part.

My answer, had I been willing to put up with the predictable reaction (one that I am fairly confident most readers will offer too), would have been "I don't believe in happiness."

People will tell me that happiness exists whether I have faith in it or not. This is not about knowing of its existence. I don't believe in it like I don't believe in politicians to effect lasting change, an England football coach to bring home major silverware or a rom-com to genuinely entertain me. I think it is a principle so prized by people when it is full of fallacies.

A friend of mine who has done the Three Peaks Challenge told me that climbing the mountains is not the hardest part. Yes, it is a struggle but there is something worse. Going back down the mountains. You'd think with gravity helping you, it should be far easier but that isn't the case. You have to be more careful and more in control. The joy of arriving at the top is short lived. The trek down is arduous.

Why do I bring it up? Because that is what happiness is to me. It is standing atop a mountain, enjoying a glorious view and an overwhelming sense of achievement, only to know that you're going to have to get down some time soon. Happiness is a ledge that seems above all that is bad but it is crumbling beneath your feet until you fall into inevitable misery. And the fall is the worst thing. Once you're down in the ravine, it's not so bad.

I know what you're thinking. Surely you should want to be happy? Don't your family and friends make you happy? Why wouldn't you want to be happy?

If you have thought those questions, then the interrogation has already begun. Let me explain why your questions, no matter how well-intentioned, should make you ashamed.

You see, if I turned to you and said that I wanted to be a woman, you wouldn't question that. You would support my decision to go through major surgery that presents a possibility of death and life changing consequences. Yet I say that happiness isn't for me and that is okay to question. It won't kill me. It won't even put me at risk of death but you can be supportive about one and dismissive about another, irrespective of potential adverse effects of either.

Then you dangle my family and friends in front of me, as if using them as a guilt trip into accepting the treacherous happiness is an acceptable thing to do. If you took that similar line with someone who announced that they are gay, telling them "Think how your family would feel", you would be called homophobic. You might say that one is born that way and the other is a choice but I've written about this before here. Just because it is a choice doesn't make it of any less value. Being religious is a choice. Choosing to be vegan is a choice. Who you date, what you do for a profession, who you vote for is a choice. None of those should be derided because choice is a human right.

And that final question... "Why wouldn't you want to be happy?" I've already answered that but you're not willing to accept that. With that statement, I have hit the killer point on the predicament of preferring to be sad.

The problem is the near guaranteed rejection. You see, if someone who prefers melancholy tries to explain why they feel the way they feel, it is dismissed. They are told that they are being silly, ridiculous or ungrateful. When I have done it, they tell me I wasn't always a 'sad' person. That just makes things worse. It shows that they don't know me. They were probably dismissive at those stages of my life too.

As for saying, I wasn't always sad, I ask them when I was.

Was it when:-
  • I was bullied in school
  • Not supported by teachers in school
  • Served a mission for my faith for 2 years and hated every soul destroying second
  • Sacrificed for friends and strangers trying to make things better in my faith to be left forgotten, tired and broken, to get no reward in return
  • In all the jobs I have done which I have not enjoyed

I watch people get encouraged when they try their best, even when what they've done is of a poor standard. Then I try to do something and it is very easy to criticise me. At this moment, I find myself between a rock and a hard place. Either I take it on the chin and it continues or I speak up and I'm told to man up.

Man up... what an awful phrase. Because men should bottle up their emotions because they are not valid unless they are conducive with the destructive banter.

Look, this is not a cry for help. I don't want cuddles or someone to talk to. If you offer those things, you really have missed the point.

What I want is people to allow me to be sad, grumpy or whatever you call it and just let me be. Stop lecturing me on being more chirpy or being grateful for what I have. I am grateful but if the only way to show that gratitude is soaking it in joy, then it would be painfully disingenuous.

Some would say "How do you think that makes the people you care about feel?" If I am a slave to someone's emotions, then am I really happy? The kind of happy that you're comfortable with because it conforms to your ideology. You know what that makes you? A bully. You may say that it is a good cause but it isn't. It is akin to Americans invading a nation to impose democracy. Yes, democracy may be good in our eyes but not the nation that is left in blood soaked rubble and ruin.

I don't want happiness. The only consistent thing about it is how it lets me down. If you knew someone who let you down time after time after time, you'd stop being their friend. Happiness is a lurking betrayal, waiting to strike. I don't want it. If you can't understand that, fine, but at least be understanding. I don't try to take happiness from you. Don't force it down my throat. It wouldn't be real anyway. It would only make me sadder.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Brexit - Why I'm Voting Leave

Putting myself in the same group as Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson isn't something to do lightly. I liken it to the Allies joining with Russia in World War II. Yes, despicable as the company may be, the common alternative is not acceptable to me. I don't do it with glee. I do it having considered the facts, trying to scrape off the hyperbole and cutting to what matters. Having done that to the best of my ability, I have concluded that I will vote for the UK to leave the European Union.

I am not interested in the statements made by either campaign. Remain and Leave have both assumed that their job is to become the most impressive Project Fear outfit. They have indulged in a heavy amount of guesswork and thick slices of scaremongering. That, sadly, is the nature of politics. It is an incredibly emotive topic and thus the name calling and mudslinging is in full flow. Hell, I started this article effectively the same way but those three men won't care because they have my vote. Not by anything they have done, mind you.

To see how Europe works for and against people in this country, you only need to contemplate the contrasting fortunes of two cities in the north of England; Liverpool and Hull.

Liverpool was made European Capital of Culture in 2008 (a title that will belong to Hull in 2017) and, since then, the city has blossomed from the investment that has come its way. Liverpool, for all the tired stereotypical gags, is a vibrant city with plenty going for it. Any Liverpudlian who says staying in Europe is a bad idea would struggle to argue their case to their fellow citizens.

Hull, however, has seen Europe decimate its standing. Built on the fishing industry, the regulations that came in from Europe regarding fishing have left the city economically on its knees. I always find it intriguing that when Thatcher and her Tory government shut coal mines down, despite them being completely non-viable in financial terms, they were castigated all the way to her grave and beyond. Europe destroys Hull's industry and... nothing. Brussels rolled along. No pickets or real protests of note. We rolled over for that one. Either that or we just don't like Hull.

These two cities demonstrate that the European Union can be good and bad for us as a nation. I'm not attaching myself to the people of Hull over Liverpool. Not at all. I'm an egalitarian, in the sense that I dislike everyone equally. There are a few reasons, however, why I have come to my conclusion and they seem to be issues the media are not discussing.

Greece is the first reason. No, not because I don't want us to pick up the bill for a country that had no concept of how to tax and spend properly. That is their problem but they wouldn't be the first to do that and we, the UK, would be hypocritical to point that finger. It is something else. There are a deeply unsettling series of events that happened in the build up to Greece accepting the austerity measures it has now imposed.

The European Union had tried to get Greece to impose austerity measures, which were so extreme that it was a near privatisation of the Greek nation, with the EU being the private equity firm purchasing it. The IMF then colluded with the EU to enforce these measures. This was in spite of the democratic wishes of the Greek people who demanded that excessive austerity ended.

Whether austerity measures should have been implemented or not is irrelevant. The fact that the EU commands such sway that it can comfortably crush the will of a nation is not something I wish to be part of; namely a bully super state. Membership, especially once in the Eurozone, is so treasured that Greece was willing to risk anarchy to cling onto it. The reality is the best option for Greece would have been bankruptcy. As ugly as it sounds, it would have been a few years of pain but it would have allowed the Greeks to rebuild. Instead, they have been forced to their knees and made to crawl. If you honestly think this is the last time the European Union will do this, you're wrong. They tried it and it succeeded. They've done it before, they'll do it again.

The IMF is just one example of how the EU could put us in positions we don't want to be in. Barack Obama visited the UK in April and seemed to jump on the Remain bandwagon immediately. Some might say that Obama has nothing invested in how the UK votes. After all, what difference does it make to the USA what the UK does?

The answer can be summed up in four letters: TTIP.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is another article within itself. The short hand is it tries to equalise the differences in trading and business regulations between the EU and the US. The thing is that it is heavily slanted towards the US culture. Profit first. Less regulation. Dollars before democracy. While we share many things with our American partners, there is plenty we disagree on.

The TTIP is something that will be imposed upon member states. Why would the US be okay with the UK, the 5th biggest economy in the world, wriggling out of that imposition? Obama, for all his eloquent oration, is fundamentally a politician who represents the interests of his nation. I don't blame him for being skilful with his words. I just don't trust them either. And I certainly don't trust the EU with ensuring that the terms of the TTIP will be fair to all member states, nor match the philosophy we have in the UK.

Next up is the increasing stupidity and imperialistic attitude of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). There are some truths that have been dissolved by this institution because they don't match their ideology. Women have been proven, by empirical data, to be safer drivers than men. Despite the misogynistic remarks that state the stereotypical and inaccurate opposite, it is a fact but the ECJ ruled that insurance companies cannot offer cheaper car insurance to women based solely on their gender. That is idiotic. And if you really are a sexist man and believe it is unfair, what if the data in a decade swings the other way and shows men to be safer drivers? Then you would want it to play in your favour. It is an enforcement of rights that are backed by nothing but a PR image.

How about this truth? When you are a prisoner, you have lost your entitlement to some rights. The right to freedom, for example. The ECJ, however, says that prisoners have not lost the right to vote. That's right, the people who broke the law get to have a say in who should make law. It is akin to allowing a paedophile to have a say in the hiring policy of a school. It is utterly moronic but the ECJ has spoken.

To make things worse, the ECJ rulings circumvent the UK's veto. While we think we can stop EU laws we disapprove of, once the ECJ has set a precedent supporting it, the law has to be enforced. It is a massive, immovable loophole in our legal system that we cannot stop. 

To make things worse, not a single member of the ECJ is elected. They are appointed by member states. So if the majority of the EU is swaying one way and we want to go another, they can drag us back with the mighty ECJ. Put this into perspective, you have to kill four people before an unelected party becomes the President of the United States, someone who can shift the entire legal direction of that nation. This has never happened. In the EU, they install unelected officials who can determine the legal direction of multiple nations every 6 years.

There are other examples I can give. In this country, there has been a movement to demand that VAT be removed from tampons. The Government were mocked for reducing it to 5% and offering that money to women's charities. The problem is the Government can't take the VAT off them because the EU marked them as a luxury item. Therefore, a minimum VAT must exist on them in accordance with EU law.

Farmers are instructed to restrict the amount of goods they produce to maintain a false market in the food industry. Fishing, as the people of Hull know, has gone through similar restrictions.

Immigration is a double standard. Someone from the EU can walk in but someone from, say, Canada needs to be earning above a certain amount or be sponsored. While some will say that light immigration controls are a good thing, I would respectfully disagree. I have seen the tensions of societies when multiple cultures mix. Controlled immigration is not only about being responsible about those who come in to the country but ensuring all are catered for once they are here. Japan, Australia and Denmark have some of the strictest immigration laws in the world. Social Justice Warriors are not smashing up their keyboards over those countries. Why should the UK be any different in ensuring immigrants can support themselves and assimilate into our society?

The talk of jobs going is nonsense. Leaving the EU does not necessarily dissolve any trade or business partnerships. On top of that, we can set more preferential trading terms with countries outside the EU because we can determine the tariffs. That would have been a handy fiscal tool to have when China was dumping large quantities of steel on to the market. Too little, too late for Tata Steel and the rest. What I'm saying is what will be lost on the swings would be gained on the roundabouts.

I don't know a time when the UK was not part of the European Union. When it was established, it was to create a trading bloc that would negate any sense in going to war. Now, it is a power hungry political machine. That's not what we signed up for. It is like we got into a business partnership with someone and after a while realised that we got married under the radar.

I don't like how things are. Just like a lot of Scottish people do not like being ruled from Westminster, I don't like being ruled from Brussels (as a model of consistency that I endeavour to be, I supported Scottish Independence too). Something has to change and I honestly can't see how I, one man in the street, am better off because of the European Union. 

Ask yourself. Are you happy with the status quo? If you are, I would encourage you to vote to remain in the European Union. If not, isn't it time we tried something different?

Friday, 15 April 2016

TV shows you should watch: Suits

Mike Ross has one of the most brilliant minds. He can remember everything he sees and can process it like he is a biological Google. Unfortunately, he hasn't utilised that skill all the best, leading him to spend time with shady company. So when a chance encounter lands him in a job interview with one of the top lawyers in New York, an opportunity to rise above comes his way.

That lawyer is Harvey Specter. I call him a lawyer, he's more a poker player with all the swagger of a sports star. Seeing the huge potential in Mike, he agrees to hire him, despite him not having a law degree and the tiny detail of it being illegal.

And so it goes. The premise is one they keep coming back to as the point of tension and drama in the show. That's not what makes it stand out.

This show is all about its characters. Razor sharp dialogue, quick fire banter and insightful, punchy statements are standard in a show swimming in all that is sassy. What you come to realise is you love them all, even though they are all scum bags. You root for them. You feel their pain. Honestly, when something starts to go wrong, you feel sick and want it to stop. You keep watching in the hope it will turn out okay.

The first few seasons of Suits can be found on Netflix.

Recommended watch: The pilot is a solid 90 mins but I would give it 3 more episodes on top of that.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

TV shows you should watch: House of Cards

Based on the book and UK TV mini-series, House of Cards was one of Netflix's first self produced shows. It could have been a tired American retread of the UK show but it developed into its own beast. Quite a magnificent one too.

Kevin Spacey plays Francis Underwood, the Democratic Chief Whip, who has a promised position in the Cabinet snatched away from him, dashing the hopes of him and his wife, Claire, played with icy precision by Robin Wright. Off the back of this betrayal, they set in motion a plan to take revenge on all who oppose them. And the Underwoods are willing to do whatever it takes to win.

The quirk of this show is Kevin Spacey's Francis talks to the viewers directly, voicing his thoughts and even giving us annoyed side eye glances. In theory, such a device should take us out of the moment but it doesn't for this show. The reason being is we are watching it for Frank, as they call him. Sure, there are plenty of other interesting characters and some shocking sub-plots but we watch to see if the Underwoods will win. Despite their despicable nature, we want them to win.

Recommended watch: Stick it out until you've watched episode 1 of season 2. One of the all time great WTF moments you'll ever see on TV.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

TV shows you should watch: Boston Legal

James Spader is one of the most watchable actors out there. Here he is a dark delight, playing Alan Shore, an eloquently verbose lawyer with capricious morals, alongside William Shatner as the law firm's crazy owner, Denny Crane.

This show is nuts. It consistently breaks the fourth wall without being too panto about it. The cases vary from a black girl suing Broadway for refusing to cast her as Annie to a therapist launching a suit because he was sacked for believing in UFOs. Ordinary cases do come along but ordinary this show is not.

It is quick fire in its dialogue and yet deeply thoughtful in its statements. Spader is frequently allowed long monologues, disguised as closing statements in court, that put the world to rights. Shatner is having the time of his life being a senile old man with far too much money (yes, yet again, he is playing himself).

It was a show that never got the respect it deserved, despite winning plenty of awards. Give it a try. There are 101 episodes to enjoy and you never want them to end.

Recommended watching: 3-4 episodes should be enough for you to know if it is your thing.

Monday, 11 April 2016

TV shows you should watch: The Shield

Forget what you know about police shows. This was the best there was and there ever will be.

Following a fictional precinct in LA, it features various story lines involving beat cops, detectives, the hierarchy and, primarily, a corrupt Strike Team. Vic Mackey, head of said Strike Team, keeps organised crime in the area in check by keeping them in his pocket or in the ground. His blood soaked, avarice laced crusade is the main crux of the whole show.

When I say blood soaked, I am not exaggerating. This is one of the most violent, gritty shows you will ever see. Just when you think that the show can't go any further, they find two or three more notches. The violence is never used to be sensationalistic. It is reflective of how dark a path Mackey and his team keep going down.

It isn't afraid to tackle other hard hitting issues. The individual turmoil a gay man experiences within law enforcement. The political machinations of the police. The divisive attitudes surrounding race. Even autism in children is tackled. This is a show that is not afraid to ask the difficult questions about the world in which we live and offers no black and white answers. Villains are heroes, vice versa and every shade in between.

If you like your TV happy and skippy, this isn't for you. But if you want unrelenting drama and action, if you have a stomach to handle the depravity and destruction this show is willing to share, then you'll find 7 seasons on Netflix without a single bad episode. No padding. Just hard hitting story that twists like viper and stings like a scorpion.

Recommended watch: After the pilot, if you're not hooked, you'll never be.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

TV shows you should watch: The West Wing

Aaron Sorkin has written many great scripts. The Social Network, A Few Good Men and Moneyball, to name a few. Hell, if that man wrote a Chinese menu, I'd pay to hear someone read it. In The West Wing, however, we have the man's magnum opus.

Focusing on the President's staff within the White House... nope, that's about it. Sure, a few things do happen but in the first two seasons, major plot lines can be counted on one hand. This is a show that proves that character driven drama can be just that. TV shows can be about creating people so interesting that you just want to spend time with them.

The intellectual insights these people have on the world challenge what you think. Snarky, sharp and smart, it could easily become a preachy show about why Democrats are right and Republicans are wrong (a trap Sorkin fell into for another one of his shows, The Newsroom). It isn't. It is about these flawed, brilliant people who try to make their country a better place. If politics was always like this, you'd have far more faith in the government of the day.

If you don't want to invest yourself in a show based on the scant amount I can offer, just YouTube some of the best clips. There is an ocean of them. That's because The West Wing is about great moment after great moment. Not just in a season but relentlessly through every episode.

Recommended watch: When President Bartlett has his first moment on the show, you'll probably be hooked. If not, give it six episodes.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

TV shows you should watch: Person of Interest

First in my series of articles of TV shows everyone should watch is Jonathan Nolan's first foray into TV, namely Person of Interest. With a pedigree of scripting the Dark Knight trilogy on his CV and JJ Abrams backing him up, this show had a lot of promise. Now, as it nears its 5th and final season, it will almost certainly continue to be a tour de force in storytelling.

The premise is relevant to our time, in that it is built off the reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Harold Finch, a brilliant computer whizz, has developed a Machine that can assimilate all surveillance that the Government collects and use it to anticipate terrorist attacks before they happen. Except an unexpected ability kicks in. The Machine starts to anticipate pre-meditated violent crimes and provides hints to the potential victims and perpetrators. Finch, riddled with guilt or a sense of morality, can't ignore it and recruits washed up CIA operative John Reese, played with monolithic coolness by Jim Cavaziel, to help him stop the crimes before they happen.

At first, the show seems to be a standard procedural with a near sci-fi twist. Find out who the Machine has identified and save or stop them before it is too late.

Then, after a dozen episodes, it becomes clear that some characters who appeared to be one offs were actually pieces in a bigger game of chess. Organised criminal gangs, a group of corrupt police officers, vigilante groups and an ever lurking big bad become more prominent. Soon, stand alone episodes step aside for serialised arcs that are far richer experiences for the viewer.

Yes, it has plenty of action, dark humour, tragic twists but one thing that makes this show stands out is its allegoric warning of what the world is becoming, especially under the possibilities of an artificial intelligence that isn't too far from reality. If you like your action shows to be intelligent, this is the one for you. See if you can unravel the conspiracy hiding among the episodes. Trust me, when it is revealed, you realise they have been slapping you in the face with it for three seasons.

Person of Interest seasons 1-3 are available on Netflix as of posting.

Recommended watch: Give it ten episodes. Nolan played the long game with this show and so should you.