Saturday, January 28, 2012

From off spin to spin-offs

What did cricket writers do in the days before Twitter? They probably read books, wrote poetry, knocked off a crossword puzzle or two, drank plenty and even, God forbid, spoke to each other. Now we fill the duller moments by bashing out half-baked thoughts in 140 characters or less.

I resisted Twitter for a long time and have perhaps embraced it too enthusiastically since I took it up nine months ago. A colleague here admonished me for filling up his timeline, although I try to give good tweet, sharing amusing thoughts (amusing to me, anyway) or odd bits of information rather than the bland statements others make (why do some people need to tweet "good morning", for instance, or tell me that they feel peckish?).

Sometimes an idea on Twitter is too good to waste on one tweet or gets a life of its own when others comment on it, which brings us to #WestWingSpinOffs, an idea I had while discussing with a friend what might have happened to Nancy McNally, President Bartlet's National Security Adviser, after Matt Santos entered the White House.

The West Wing is one of the greatest programmes ever made but after seven seasons the avid fan is left wanting more. What we need are spin-offs. Good spin-offs, mind, like Frasier or Torchwood, not another Joey or the bizarre AfterMASH, a spin-off featuring Klinger, Mulcahy and Colonel Potter after they left Korea (I'm not joking ...)

So what's next, as Jed might say? Well, in case you are a Hollywood producer looking for fresh ideas, here are the West Wing Spin-Offs I and a few Twitter friends came up with. If you're not a West Wing fan, most of these won't mean anything and you probably gave up reading this by now.

All fresh (and better) suggestions gratefully received.

  • The Nancy McNally Mysteries, in which she, Donna and Elsie Snuffin solve crimes in New England
  • Butterfield and Co: the hilarious farce of a former Secret Service head who retires early to run a gentlemen's outfitters
  • Confessions of a Scruffy Hack: Danny Concannon's late-night chat show
  • Quincy and Bing: a Friends/West Wing crossover in which a lawyer and a statistics analyst, both played by Matt Perry, are room-mates
  • Stop It! A new gameshow in which contestants see how long they can put up with Donna's bird tapping at the window 
  • Marbury and McGarry (deceased): Lord John Marbury tries to sort world peace, aided by Leo's ghost who only he can see (hat-tip @jedmiliband)
  • Where's Mandy? A panel show in which a guest tries to find where Mandy Hampton has disappeared to this week (hat-tip @arjones77)
  • Big Block of Cheese Day: The US economy cracks as those in power spend weeks tucking into a good Camembert (hat-tip @alan_curr)
  • Ball Against the Wall: A game show featuring Toby Ziegler. Can you beat the master at his own game of bounce? (hat-tip @eddie_corrigan)
  • Weatherman: Will Bailey ends droughts across the world by screaming to the skies for rain
  • CJ Cregg vs the World (featuring Taylor Reid and Big Bird) (hat-tip @paulframe85)
  • The Ziegler Follies: The speechwriter travels the world looking at whimsical structures (hat-tip @zyohnnymac)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Learjets and the shark-sellers: the two sides of Dubai

England's cricket tour of the UAE has limped on to Abu Dhabi after the stuffing they received from Pakistan in the first Test. Before we moved along the coast I got a chance to see a bit of the unknown side of Dubai.

I've been to the Dubai half a dozen times for work but it is not the sort of place I would ever choose to visit on holiday. Andrew Flintoff loves it, which tells you all you need to know. I've found it crass, boring and rather depressing, a stream of hotels, malls and nightclubs, none of which really appeal to me (why do people always talk about Dubai as a great shopping destination when the products are generally more pricey than back home?)

However, there are people I respect who like Dubai, not least my friends Toby and Lindsey who live out here, so with their guidance I ventured away from the strips of concrete and the hotel bars (£6 for a pint of Hoegaarden, by the way - God knows what Flintoff spends out here).

Down by the creek, where passengers are carried from bank to bank on precarious-looking wooden abras for the cost of a dirham (about 20p), we found a rickety platform on the water's edge where we ate meze and drank a delicious lemon juice and mint concoction.

As the wind picked up, shaking our platform, and a Hitchcockian swarm of birds came diving for scraps of bread, it felt a world away from the bland sterility of the rest of Dubai. Tourists were few and far between.

On we went, deep into "Little Pakistan", to Dubai's Billingsgate, the fish market where under a vast corrugated roof, dozens of fishermen sold their catch. Barkers tried to tempt you to their stall as squid jostled with crab and swordfish with shrimps for space in the wheelbarrows that porters wheeled round the narrow gulleys.

A whole tuna and a kilo of shrimps bought for the barbeque, we then took them to a separate shack where they were cleaned and gutted for a handful of dirhams. Outside, a few small sharks were laid out on the concrete walkway and a gaggle of locals gathered for what seemed to be a bidding war.

It was a fascinating display of noise and passion, the exact opposite of our trip the next night, when we were taken to Meydan, the great Dubai racing centre, for an evening with the horses.

Meydan is a majestic stadium, the stand of corporate boxes and seats looking like a grander version of Stansted airport. In front, the horses paraded before the race, patted as they passed by their wealthy sheikh owners. The place smelled of money and luxury.

And yet the racing was disappointingly sterile. No roar from the crowds as the horses thundered past, no gasps as the favourite slipped back or cheers for the 20-1 outsider who took the post. Barely any noise at all.

This is what happens to racing when you remove the alcohol and the gambling. I'm sure some betting must have gone on, punters using their mobile phones to access websites based overseas, but the lack of evident passion or concern for the result led to an immensely sterile atmosphere.

This is the anomaly of Dubai. The wealthier you are, the more soulless life seems. The immigrant population who built these edifices may live in penury, but they have passion and enthusiasm. I found myself envying the fishmongers and pitying the sheikhs. All the money in the world, but no real reason for being alive. In the battle between the Learjets and the shark-sellers, I'm on the side of the men who fish.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Postcard from Dubai

Dubai is a city of skeletons. Everywhere you look, particularly around Sports City where I am covering England's cricket tour against Pakistan, you see half-built shells of buildings. High-rise concrete frames waiting for the gaps to be filled in, yet no sign of anyone working.

No one has worked on them for quite some time. The skyline is full of unmoving cranes. One hopes that they are not leased by the day. This is a stagnant economy, a tourist resort built both literally and figuratively on sand.

If you search online for images of Sports City, all you will find are CGIs. It will look great when - if ever - it gets built.

It is a curious place to be watching cricket, although there can be no complaints about the stadium where the Test match starts on Tuesday or the ICC Global Cricket Academy down the road where England have been practising.

The facilities there are first-class, designed to replicate conditions around the world. The main square is laid half with soil from Lahore and half from the Gabba in Brisbane. The outdoor nets have been imported from other countries, including English clay wickets, while the indoor ones have different surfaces to allow you to practise on spin and pace-friendly pitches. It is an oasis surrounded by acres of neglect.

We're deliberating what to call the two ends at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium (right). Possibly the Building Site End and the Unbuilt Mall End. In the near distance, a canal network has been dug, with elaborate but unfinished Venetian-style bridges poured in concrete but undecorated at regular intervals. A scaffold-clad block of would-be Italianate villas stands dusty and ignored.

“All buildings in Dubai are either half-built or they are fantastic,” an expat said to me last week, but Dubai has long had a dichotomy. This is my fifth visit, having been to a few rugby sevens tournaments and the sevens World Cup in 2003. They are always great fun and a huge piss-up, which contradicts the stories you hear of people being thrown in prison for being drunk.

The Dubai Sevens is the only sports event I have been to where they check your bags for alcohol as you leave the ground – drink all you want in western company but don't touch a drop in front of the locals. There is similar hypocrisy in attitudes towards sex. Public displays of affection are frowned on, you are told, but in certain hotel bars and even as you wait in line for a taxi the amount of very evident prostitution is shocking.

A near-slave workforce from Asia has created this country out of nothing – the UAE only came into existence 41 years ago – but now there is no money to complete their works and many of the workers are unpaid and unable to return home.

Dubai has an Ozymandias feeling to it: a multitude of vast and trunkless legs of concrete. Shelley's poem could sum up the Dubai of the future: “Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.” It is indeed an odd place to play cricket.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Citizens (back) on Patrol

OK, so the return to blogging hasn't quite taken off as instantly as I thought last week. I was waiting for a suitably weighty subject on which to give an opinion, so which shall it be: the Ed Miliband rebrand? David Cameron telling Scotland to shove off or stop whinging? The New Hampshire primary? HS2?

No, there's only one story that has grabbed my interest, grabbed it like a Moroccan carpet-seller grasps a window-shopping tourist, pours him a cup of sweet tea and manages to sell him a rug that he doesn't have room for, and that is the impending remake of Police Academy.

Police Academy was part of my childhood. More even than Ghostbusters and The Goonies, perhaps second only to Star Wars, the Academy films were the ones I would stick in the video player again and again. David Graf's gun-happy Tackleberry, Bubba Smith as the mild-mannered florist Hightower and Michael Winslow's sound effects copper Jones were my heroes.

The early films had all the right ingredients to appeal to teenage boys
  • loveable failures as the heroes
  • comic-book baddies who either have mullets and pencil moustaches or are bully-boy jocks
  • slapstick
  • car crashes (you can never go wrong with a police car on its roof, lights still rotating)
  • a reformed druggie (Zed) who spoke like the Tasmanian Devil
  • a dominatrix with pneumatic breasts
  • a very tall character and a very short one sent on patrol together
  • an absent-minded man in charge with a goldfish fetish and no idea of what is going on
  • someone trapped outside naked with only dustbin lids for protection
  • someone impersonating the bad dubbing of martial arts films
  • and, of course, the Blue Oyster.
Even now, if you whistle the first six notes of a 1970s tango called El Bimbo to men of a certain age you will get a sudden smile and, if they are of a certain orientation, perhaps a wink as they recognise the music played whenever someone was lured into the over-the-top Village People gay bar.

The Police Academy films tailed off quite a bit by the time you got to the sixth and seventh in the franchise - for some reason, it was never as good when Steve Guttenberg left, even those his character, Mahoney, was insufferably smug - but if New Line, who have bought the rights, can avoid taking the remake too seriously and keep it as a borderline camp, puerile visual comedy, they could be on to a hit.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

A new year, a revived blog

Look, I know it's been a while since I last wrote anything on here, months in fact. Muammar Gadaffi was still alive when I last blogged, but never leaving any comments as usual.

Blame overwork, blame the baby, blame Twitter for absorbing far too much of my spare time, blame Ed Miliband, blame our switch to Googlemail for the office email which means that I have to log out of the system if I want to blog, blame the Coalition, blame Jonathan Trott, even blame it on the boogie although I really shouldn't.

But we're at the start of a new year and a few people - maybe the only people who ever read my wibblings - have asked why I don't blog anymore, so perhaps it is time to start again. I'm fed up with constricting my thoughts to just 140 characters.

I have a few resolutions for 2012 - lose weight, be happier and more patient at work, try to be a nice person, break 95 on the golf course, write a book, hold a catch, read books, teach my daughter to read books, teach my daughter to hold a catch, learn poetry, stop picking my nose, go to church more often - but like most resolutions some of those will be quickly jettisoned.

I will try to keep this one, though. In 2012 I shall start blogging again and I shall try do it often, a few times a week at least. All encouragement gratefully received. Happy New Year.