Robert Hampton

Another visitor! Stay a while… stay forever!

Welcome!

This is my little corner of the world wide web. If you're visiting for the first time, you might want to start by reading a bit more about me. I blog here about anything that interests me: mainly culture, Liverpool, politics, trains and a whole lot more besides. The latest posts are below and there's more in the archives. For other sections of the site, follow the links in the navigation bar above.

21st November 2014

First the ballet, then the inevitable discussion
Posted by at 8.36pm | It's My Life, Stage | No responses

I have never been to a ballet performance before last night. But then I discovered that the English National Ballet was bringing its production of Swan Lake to the Liverpool Empire. It was Mum’s birthday a few weeks ago and I wanted to do something special for her, as well as try something new myself, so I snapped up a couple of tickets.

Our seats were in Row B near the front. So close, in fact, that if the orchestra conductor’s baton were to slip out of his hand, we were at risk of being skewered. We were happy with the view we had, but a woman in the row in front was unhappy as she didn’t have a proper view of the dancers’ feet. Either she wanted to appreciate the technical skill of the dancers, or she was just a foot fetishist; I wasn’t sure.

The show was three hours long with two intervals, so nobody can deny that we got our money’s worth. Going in, I thought that would be a bit on the long side, but that three hours actually flew over quite quickly. I will admit, I didn’t follow the story too closely, but the actual dancing was amazing. I can’t pretend to be an expert on ballet, but the skill and dedication was clear to see – especially in a series of pirouettes which left me feeling quite dizzy by the end.

In a strange way, it made me grateful to be gay. I come from a working-class background in Liverpool – a straight guy in my position would probably never even think of seeing something like this, unless he was dragged under protest by his girlfriend. But I, now comfortable in my sexuality, can sit and enjoy the show without any threat to my masculinity. Ahem.

Oh, and it has to be said: the male dancers’ tights leave very little to the imagination – they cling to the buttocks so tightly, they might as well be naked. It was spellbinding.

17th November 2014

Flight of Fancy
Posted by at 8.42pm | It's My Life | No responses

Regular readers (all three of you) will recall my flight from hell back in September, when my plane was delayed by seven hours (SEVEN!) en route to Berlin, after funny smells wafted into the cabin. It was not a fun experience.

At the time, the sole compensation offered to me was a £3 gift card to buy snacks from the shops in the departure lounge. EasyJet did offer a refund of my ticket – but only if I didn’t fly at all.

What the airline was keeping secret from me was that I was in fact entitled to €250 compensation. This is thanks to legislation from the European Union – the same EU that never does anything worthwhile for us, according to UKIP and the Tories.

I thought this compensation offer may be too good to be true, but I decided it was worth the cost of a stamp. So a few days after returning home from Berlin, I composed a letter to EasyJet customer services.

I heard nothing for a few weeks. Then, on 9 October, I got a generic e-mail, advising me that my claim was “on hold”. There was a legal dispute over whether cases like mine, where the delay was caused by a technical fault with the aircraft, are eligible for compensation. A court case involving Jet2 had ended with the High Court awarding compensation, but the airline had decided to take it to the Supreme Court.

The e-mail advised that the case would likely be settled… in late 2015. Well, that’s annoying, I thought. But there was nothing I could do, so I shrugged my shoulders and put it to one side.

However, the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal, meaning that the High Court judgment stands. On 31st October I got another email from EasyJet, conceding that my claim was eligible for compensation, and asking me to confirm my debit card details to process the payment.

And so today, £197.76 (equivalent to €250) was deposited into my bank account, representing the full compensation which I was due. To be honest, I would have been satisfied with a refund of the flight cost, but this is even better – apart from anything else, that’s most of my Christmas shopping money sorted. :)

It’s likely that this ruling will open the floodgates for more compensation claims. Any flight departing from an EU airport (or an EU-based airline landing at an EU airport) within the last six years is eligible. It’s a rare David v Goliath battle where it seems David has actually won.

I highly recommend pursuing the airlines and getting back the compensation you’re entitled to. MoneySavingExpert.com has a guide on claiming, including form letters that can be used as a template for your own letter to airlines.

14th November 2014

War! What is it good for? Ad-solutely nothing
Posted by at 7.02pm | Television | No responses

The unveiling of the big store chains’ Christmas ads seems to be a big event these days. Leader of the pack is John Lewis, who have given us adorable kids, shopping snowmen and, this year, horny lonely penguins.

Sainsbury’s, meanwhile, have upped the ante on heartstring-tugging with their commercial inspired by the First World War. It’s based upon the legendary Christmas Truce of 1914, when some German and British troops emerged from their front lines to exchange gifts, sing carols and even play a football match or two.

Watching it for the first time, I felt uncomfortable. There was something, I don’t know… off about it. The ad was made with the co-operation of the Royal British Legion, who will receive a cut of the proceeds from some of Sainsbury’s Christmas food. But exploiting one of the bloodiest wars in history to get people through the doors of a supermarket? That seems wrong to me.

There was something beyond that, though – something which was unsettling to me, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. Then I saw this column by Ally Fogg in the Guardian, which nails it:-

Exploiting the first world war for commercial gain is tasteless. This, however, is not what disturbs me most. The really upsetting details are the stunning shot of the robin on the wire, the actors’ trembles as they cautiously emerge from the trenches, half expecting a sniper’s bullet, the flicker of understanding in the eyes as the young soldiers reach into their pockets at the end. The film-makers here have done something to the first world war which is perhaps the most dangerous and disrespectful act of all: they have made it beautiful.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that higher-ups in the army on both sides forbade the Christmas 1914 events from happening again. On subsequent Christmas Days the soldiers blasted away at each other, as they did every other day of the war.

Iceland’s advert (starring Peter Andre) looks positively tasteful by comparison.

13th November 2014

# …and him and Steve from corporate too… #
Posted by at 8.00pm | Fun, Television | No responses

Too Many Cooks is my favourite 1980s sitcom. You will be humming the theme tune for days, I guarantee it.

12th November 2014

Poppycock

I’ve had a changing attitude to the Poppy Appeal. Through my childhood and early teens I always dutifully wore one. I distinctly remember floods of tears one year when I lost mine in the playground at primary school.

As I entered my twenties and increasingly became a bleeding-heart liberal, I stopped wearing one. My opinion was probably soured by seeing Tony Blair laying a wreath at the Cenotaph, at the same time he was happily starting wars in the Middle East, on dubious pretexts, with seemingly little regard for the men and women he was putting in harm’s way.

I’m also concerned at what Jon Snow calls “poppy fascism” – the increasingly-prevalent attitude that anyone who isn’t wearing a poppy somehow hates their country and the armed forces. If that’s true, then approximately 75% of the commuters on my train to work fall into that category.

Woe betide you if you’re in the public eye and choose not to wear one. ITV presenter Charlene White received death threats when she chose not to wear one. Perhaps a similar fear explains why Chris Kamara turned up on Sky Sports the other day, wearing two poppies.

After all that, I’ve come back around to wearing one again. To my mind, the soldiers fighting on the front lines should be separated out from the politicians back home giving the orders. To face the horrors of war full on is no small task – I freely admit I would hide under my bed if I was asked to fight.

There are many ways to serve your country, and not all of them involve picking up a gun and heading out into enemy territory. But for the people who do put their lives on the line, I’m happy to put a few quid in the tin and show a bit of support in return.

9th November 2014

Berlin, Take My Breath Away
Posted by at 12.18pm | In the News | No responses

Imagine you’ve just arrived in London, after getting off a train from the provisional capital, Manchester. You get on a Northern Line train (Bank branch) at Euston. After King’s Cross you hear an announcement that you are about to leave the Western Sector. The train proceeds, but it doesn’t stop at Angel – it crawls through the platform at walking pace, enabling you to peer out at the dimly lit station. It is dusty, derelict and dimly lit. You can just about make out some guards standing at the platform exit. They look bored, but the guns they are carrying are still intimidating. The pattern is repeated at Old Street, and Moorgate.

Finally, you reach a station that is open – at Bank you alight to change onto the Central line. You take a wrong turn and find yourself heading for the exit, only to find your way barred by a border guard. You don’t have the right papers, of course, so you turn back and return to the platform. This time you were lucky; you could have been arrested for trying to cross the border.

This is the daily grind that Berlin’s U-Bahn passengers faced during the Cold War. The division of the city between 1961 and 1989 sliced through the public transport network, leaving it very much a Tube of two halves.

Read the rest of this post »

3rd November 2014

Windows 10, then

Thank you for downloading

Much like Star Trek films, the received wisdom has it that only every other version of Windows is good. If you look at the pattern, it’s a fairly compelling argument: 3.1, 95, 98, Me, XP, Vista, 7 – the experienced computer user will have no trouble identifying the clunkers in that list.

Windows 8 is filed away safely in the “terrible” category, so if Microsoft is sticking to the pattern, this means Windows 9 will be excellent, yes?

It’s slightly worrying, then, that Microsoft has chosen to skip 9 completely and jump straight to Windows 10. No official explanation, beyond the usual marketing guff, has been forthcoming, although some media outlets maintain that it’s to prevent badly written legacy code checking for “Windows 9*” and falling over.

Almost everyone now acknowledges that Windows 8 was something of a misstep for Microsoft. It was a fairly radical departure from the familiar Windows we know and “love”. Gone was the Start Menu that we had used to launch our apps for the best part of two decades. In came the Start Screen, with its assortment of animated tiles, designed for a new generation of touch screens. This was an interface designed to be poked, swiped and generally fondled. Keyboard and mouse navigation was still available, but seemed to be very much discouraged.

Windows Preview Feedback

The desktop was still there, but the future seemed to lie in “Metro” (or “the new UI”, as Microsoft clumsily renamed it). Apps no longer lived in windows, but instead ran full screen. You could, if you really wanted to, run two apps side by side – multitasking is for losers.

This seemed a massive step backward: users could have a 3 Ghz quad core CPU and 8 gigabytes of RAM, but if you wanted to run a calculator and e-mail program side-by-side, the OS would struggle.

The most important problem with Windows 8: users hated it. Really, really, despised it. It’s not just the lack of start menu – commonly used features are buried behind a mystifying set of “gestures” which are completely non-intuitive. The first time I used Windows 8, I had to Google how to turn the computer off (on a different machine, because I couldn’t figure out Internet Explorer either). Online news sites quickly filled up with complaints about the new OS.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to Windows by any means. Remember the howls of outrage when “new Twitter” was rolled out a few years ago? Can anyone now remember what “old Twitter” was like? That’s because, after a few weeks using the new interface, people got used to it and moved on. Perhaps Microsoft expected something similar to happen with Windows 8.

Windows 10 Alarms App

But Windows is not Twitter. Nobody is forced to upgrade to the new version, unless they get a new PC (even then, you can still find new Windows 7 machines out there). People voted with their feet and stuck with the familiar. Microsoft’s most important customers, in business, government and industry, refused to move away from Windows 7. Some even decided to stick with XP for a while longer.

Windows 8.1 addressed some of those criticisms: the Start button was reinstated (although it throws you straight back to the Start Screen) and Windows could now run four Metro apps at the same time, although overlapping the windows was still forbidden. A baby step in the right direction, but not enough to convince many people.

This probably explains why, two years after Windows 8 launched, it still has less than 17% market share, still lagging behind the 13-year-old (and, since April, obsolete) Windows XP.

So Windows 8 was a flop. It tried to unify Microsoft’s desktop, tablet and phone operating systems under a single UI, but failed miserably. Microsoft needs to win back its core audience, and it’s going to do it via the worst-kept secret in computing world – the return of the Start Menu.

Then, back in September, Microsoft announced the Windows technical preview, an early test version of what would become Windows 10. My curiosity got the better of me, so I headed on over to Microsoft’s web site and downloaded the ISO file.

Read the rest of this post »

30th October 2014

Farmville
Posted by at 8.21pm | Stage | No responses

Animal Farm poster

I don’t get out as much as I’d like to. Working full time and studying for a degree in the evenings limits the amount of time I have for extracurricular activities. My routine recently has been get up, go to work, go to gym, come home, do a couple of hours of Open University study, (maybe) watch a bit of TV, go to bed. Lather, rinse, repeat. There’s not even much spare time to write any blog posts.

The above are all necessary parts of my life, but a bit of variety is needed to spice things up. So on Wednesday evening I arrived at Arts Club on Seel Street. I was there to see Animal Farm, a production of the small Liverpool outfit, Tell Tale Theatre. A bit of culture to break up the mundane week.

Animal Farm is an adaptation of George Orwell’s classic story. My memories of it are mixed. I remember it being a good book, but I read it as part of English lessons at school, which means it has negative associations for me. It was good to put those to bed and watch the show.

The main notable thing about Animal Farm is that nearly of all of the characters are animals. How do you portray that on stage? The solution adopted here is simply to have the cast, wearing normal clothes, depict the animals through their physical movements. It’s a bit surprising and disconcerting at first, but after a few minutes you get used to it. Certainly a lot better than running down to Primark for a job lot of animal onesies, which is what I would have done – and this is why my career as a theatrical producer never took off.

The performances were excellent. Rob Kavanagh is especially good as Napoleon, the leader of the pigs who starts to abuse his power – getting gradually more power-mad and terrifying throughout the show.

You only have one night left to see it, as the last day of the show is tomorrow, October 31st. Some tickets might still be available, either you can buy online or pick them up from the box office on Seel Street. As for Tell Tale, I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with next – it might even convince me to leave the house again. :)

19th October 2014

Miner Miracle
Posted by at 7.03pm | Films, Gay | No responses

Pride

I saw Pride a few weeks back, but because of my own ineptitude I’ve only just gotten around to writing about it. I’m really sorry about that, because it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen and deserved better.

Let’s go back to 1984 and meet our protagonists: In one corner, a Welsh mining community devastated by pit closures and the long-running strike. In the other, a small group of gay activists struggling to cope with (sometimes violent) homophobia.

The leader of the latter group, Mark Ashton, identifies a common cause: both gay people and the miners are being attacked by the government, the tabloid press and the police – so why not help each other out? They form LGSM – Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners – and start rattling buckets.

This doesn’t sound like the setup for what has been described as the “Feel Good Movie Of The Year”, but it’s all based on a true story – one which has not received much attention. Jonathan Harvey’s 2010 play Canary, which I saw at the Liverpool Playhouse, includes a scene about it, and it came as news to me that such an alliance existed.

What follows is some riotous culture clash comedy, first as LGSM arrive in the miner’s village and clash with the gruff, traditional locals, then later as the union leader travels to London and addresses a rowdy crowd in a gay bar.

I won’t give away any more – suffice to say it’s an incredible film, with some great performances from pretty much every British actor you’d care to name: Freddie Fox, Andrew Scott, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, Paddy Considine, and probably some I’ve missed. It’s an American actor who is the real standout: Ben Schenetzer as Mark Ashton is a standout, with a fiery, passionate performance.

It’s fascinating to watch this piece of history and see how far we’ve come in terms of gay acceptance and equality. However, in another sense we are going backward, as the dignity of workers is compromised and their rights are eroded. Watching David Cameron and his chums once again treating “union” as a dirty word while greedy bankers get away with all sorts, it’s easy to feel like we’re back in the throes of the 80s again. We’re in a world of zero hours contracts, a £500 “fee” to launch employment claims and threats to curb the right to strike. Thatcher may be gone, but her legacy lives on – unions are still “the enemy within” as far as our ruling class is concerned.

The ending is a true roller coaster of emotions, both happy and sad, but ultimately inspiring. It’s the first time ever that I’ve heard a cinema audience break out in spontaneous applause at the end of a film. I sat through the credits – not because I wanted to find out who provided the rostrum camera, but because I needed a few minutes to compose myself. It’s rare for a film to make me cry – we’re talking full tears down cheeks mode here – but this managed it.

It’s an amazing film – if you haven’t seen it, don’t wait for the DVD – try to track down a cinema that is still screening it. Gay, straight or bi – you’ll all love it. In fact, the only people who won’t approve are Tories.

11th October 2014

UKIP me hanging on

Was Nigel Farage the UKIP candidate for Clacton? You’d think so, seeing as how it’s his grinning face staring out from the front page of every newspaper and web site. Douglas Carswell was the actual candidate, and the by-election triggered by Douglas Carswell’s resignation and defection to UKIP has resulted in a historic win for the anti-EU rabble.

UKIP is still very much a protest vote, the way the LibDems were until 2010. The shallowness of UKIP’s support was demonstrated recently, when a caller to an LBC phone-in couldn’t name any policy other than “immigration”.

Meanwhile, back in Clacton, evidence emerged that the voters were not as well-informed as they could have been:-

As it stands, Thursday will go down in history as the day when voters rebelled against old-style politics by re-electing their incumbent MP – a middle-aged white private schoolboy – to a party led by a former investment banker. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (if we’re permitted some French in this brave new world).