james debate
james debate

Monday, 14 August 2017

Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by James Graham
Starring Bertie Carvel, Richard Coyle
Theatre Almeida / Duke of York

ink rupert murdoch the sun almeida west end james graham this house

When you're writing a play about politics, there is a danger in turning your script into a soapbox. Many writers give in to this temptation, using the opportunity to press an obvious personal agenda in a way that's often naked and self-serving. But audiences don't go to the theatre to watch a cartoon. Excessive pandering can be a turn off, even where I actually agree with the opinion being expressed.

So you can imagine that when a play is dealing with a particularly prominent and controversial figure, that danger is even greater. Rupert Murdoch is undoubtedly one such figure, and it would have been entirely too easy to pander to the liberal London theatre crowd by portraying the man as some kind of monster. Murdoch has spent a career building the vast media empire News Corporation, and in doing so has earned himself no small share of revulsion for ethically questionable activities like phone-hacking, fake news, and a troubling influence over British politicians. Deserved though the public's general animosity may be, if I had walked into this theatre and spent 3 hours watching some anti-Murdoch circlejerk, I'd have been disappointed. Fortunately, James Graham is far too deft a writer to take such an obvious approach to this story.

Anyone who has seen This House, probably Graham's most famous work, will know roughly what to expect. Graham has shown himself to be a playwright singularly capable of bringing dry subjects as politics to life in a way that's both crowd-pleasing and insightful, whilst never feeling preachy. With Ink, Graham delivers yet again, with a production that's as energetic and funny as anything you will see this year.

The focus is on Murdoch's early years in the UK, his acquisition of the struggling The Sun newspaper, and the tumultuous road to turning it into the biggest paper in the country. At most the script only lightly alludes to his future controversies and political ambitions. Instead Murdoch is portrayed as an outsider, an irreverent upstart looking to shake up the old boys' club in the journalistic industry, and whose single-mindedness and ruthless business instincts allow him to succeed.

Murdoch is certainly not portrayed as some kind of saint; he's unashamedly arrogant and frequently puts his ethical views secondary to his ambitions, but Graham finds the kernel of humanity that motivates this drive, and presents us with an individual that is neither likeable nor detestable, but simply is. Taking such an approach is a wise decision by the writer, presenting a story that's less controversial, and yet still cuts to the core of what makes Rupert Murdoch so notable. It's also a far more entertaining story than what might otherwise have been. True to form, Graham packs his script full of wit, pithy observations, ostentatious montages... this is rock and roll politics with the tone and style to match.

Equally important to Ink's success is the quality of the performances, most notably Bertie Carvel whose Murdoch portrayal leaves an indelible impression. More than simply some likeness or impression, Carvel's performance is an entirely distinct creation, yet captures such an essence of the character that it becomes impossible to separate the two in the mind. Every now and then you see a portrayal so captivating that it replaces your mental image of that person. Carvel has achieved that here, and will surely be a contender for the Oliviers.

The combination of strong script, memorable acting and adventurous production make this an easy recommendation. This is an excellent play, possibly the best in what has been a very strong year for theatre so far. Bertie Carvel is sure to be decorated for his performance, while James Graham further establishes himself as unequalled in political storytelling. Ink is now set to transfer to the West End. Go get yourself some tickets.

Friday, 28 July 2017

The first months of the Donald Trump presidency have seen little in the way of legislative accomplishment. Without getting too speculative, there are many reasons why this Congress and this White House have not been especially productive, but chief among those reasons would have to be the heavy focus to date on healthcare. Indeed it has been all over the news, to the point where even the politically apathetic are probably aware that Trump and the Republicans are trying to do something with healthcare. The headlines have been full of buzzwords like "Trumpcare",  and "Obamacare repeal". Indeed Trump himself has declared frequently that Obamacare is already "dead". But what does all this actually mean, what exactly is/has/will be done, and what does it mean for the American patient?

trump obamacare trumpcare make america sick incompetence repeal death panels mccain

What is Obamacare?
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("ACA"), frequently referred to as "Obamacare" was a wide-ranging reform of American healthcare passed into law by then President Barack Obama. I will refer to it as Obamacare in this article, as this is the term with which most will be familiar.

Without getting too bogged down in the detail provisions of this law include children being able to stay on their parents' healthcare plan until the age of 26, greater protections for patients who would otherwise be refused insurance for having "pre-existing conditions", and tighter regulations on when patients can and can't be refused care. It greatly expanded the existing Medicaid program to cover anyone below a certain income threshold, and provided significant investment to medical research and healthcare infrastructure in order to bring the system into the 21st Century (these included, for example, online health insurance exchanges to give people greater freedom to find a plan that fits their needs).

All of this was paid for through a combination of new taxes, mostly targeted at the wealthy, and through a so-called "insurance mandate", which ultimately was more of a tax on people who did not buy health insurance, therefore incentivising otherwise healthy people to buy insurance and therefore contribute to the insurance pool for those who need it.

The effect of this law has been to expand healthcare coverage in the United States, achieving nearly universal coverage, and to control rising premium costs, which have largely stabilised since the law's passage. As a result of these benefits, Obamacare is generally a very popular law, scoring a high plurality or low majority of support in most recent polls, comparable with most laws that get passed. The specific provisions themselves have proven to be wildly popular in polls.

Obamacare is fairly popular, so why do Republicans oppose?
Describing the Republican opposition to Obamacare is difficult. For sure there are many things that can be improved with Obamacare, many things that need to be fixed, many bugs to be remedied. Strangely, these problems never get mentioned by Republicans, instead they have objected to the law from its inception for other reasons, including:

  • It was rushed into law, despite being debated over a 10 month period;
  • It was passed without any Republican input, despite the fact that votes were held on over 100 Republican amendments, many of which were ultimately included in the law, and despite the fact that many of the law's key provisions were based on previous Republican proposals;
  • The so-called "insurance mandate", despite this having been a key pillar of Republican healthcare policy since the 1960s, part of their national proposal in the 1990s, and part of many Republican Governor's statewide policies;
  • The expansion of Medicaid as an overreach of Government, despite many Republican Governors opting into the new expansion, and doggedly defending it during the current "repeal" debates;
  • New taxes.
As you can see, the logic behind many of these objections can be a bit inconsistent, and that's without even mentioning the ones like "death panels" and "Government takeover", which in retrospect are probably even embarrassing to the Republicans who used them. The only one on that list which doesn't require doing a complete 180 on longstanding Republican policy is the objection to new taxes. Strangely, there has been almost no noise about the actual flaws with the law, like the Medicare Part D donut-hole. Many more cynical observers have suggested the real reason has more to do with simple tribalism; Obama did it, therefore we oppose it. 

Whatever the reason, a full repeal of the law has been a core part of the Republican platform these past eight years, and now that they are in power with the White House and both chambers of Congress, many had expected them to follow through on this ambition.

The Republican Healthcare Plan
So what exactly have Republicans been proposing? What have they accomplished so far? Is Obamacare "dead" as Trump claims?

First thing is first. Obamacare is most certainly not "dead" despite the President's soundbite. It is still very much law, and that won't change until a full repeal of the law is passed by the House of Representatives, by the Senate (almost certainly requiring a filibuster-proof 60 vote majority), and then signed by the House. This has not happened yet, and as such the law is still law, and essentially unchanged from its status under Democratic governance.

So far, the House of Representatives has passed the American Healthcare Act of 2017 ("AHA"). The Senate has voted against this bill, and has also voted against two additional healthcare bills, the Better Care Reconciliation Act ("BCRA") and Health Care Freedom Act ("HCFA"), the so-called "skinny repeal". So at the moment, the Senate has voted "no" on three separate bills. If they vote yes on the House-approved AHA they can send it straight to the President for signature. If they vote yes on either of the other two, the House then needs to vote on it first. If the House and Senate can't agree on legislation, the two will enter a committee process in order to come up with a compromise bill, if one is possible.

So the current state of play is... not much has changed. The Republican controlled Congress so far can't agree on a bill to pass into law, and therefore the law remains unchanged.

But Obamacare WILL be dead, right?
So Republicans can't agree on a way to repeal Obamacare, but surely it's just a matter of time. After all they control the White House and both chambers of Congress. Surely they will eventually come up with a compromise and repeal that Obamacare once and for all, right?

Well actually, none of these bills, literally none of these bills, will repeal Obamacare. 

A repeal of Obamacare, actually removing it from law, will require 60 votes in the Senate. Republicans currently have 51, and no Democrat has shown themselves so far to be interested in cutting back people's access to healthcare. As a result, all of these proposals so far are so-called "budgetary reconciliation" bills, effectively just a budgetary adjustment of existing law, which only requires 51 votes to pass the Senate. 

So they're not even voting to repeal Obamacare?
Nope, they're voting to defund specific parts of it, a process which can be just as easily undone by the next Government, and has absolutely no longstanding effect on the Obamacare law itself. None of these laws repeal Obamacare, they just defund healthcare in America.

So why is Trump calling Obamacare "dead"?
Because he's a salesman, and he knows that the only thing voters care about is the perception. Make no mistake, if he could repeal Obamacare and replace it with an identical law called "Trumpcare", he would do it.

So do these bills actually do anything?
Yes, still very much so. The actual impact depends on the bill in question, but range from taking away access to healthcare from 22 million people (in AHA and BCRA) to 16 million people (in HCFA). All the bills in question would increase premiums significantly.

So these bills may not be an actual repeal of Obamacare, but their effect on sick people would still be significant. The good news is they can be easily undone by the next Government.

So where do we go from here?
Hard to say. The two likely scenarios are:
  1. Republicans pass some form of minor budgetary adjustment, declare Obamacare "dead". Next President just refunds Obamacare and we forget all about this charade.
  2. Republicans are unable to come up with a compromise and move on, defund healthcare services and then blame "Obamacare" for the deficiency.

What can we learn from all this?
The current Government is fairly incompetent, and they think the American voters are really stupid.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Jez Butterworth
Starring Paddy Considine, Laura Donnelly, Stuart Graham, Fra Fee
Theatre Royal Court/Gielgud Theatre

ferryman royal court theatre gielgud butterworth sam mendes

It's by far the hottest ticket of the year so far. The Ferryman sold out instantly when it began its original run at the Royal Court Theatre. Now thanks to a mix of glowing reviews and the desire to thoroughly milk a cash-cow, Ferryman is transferring to the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury, meaning those of us not fortunate enough to catch the fever first time around have a second chance to see what all the fuss is about.

Undoubtedly, part of the reason tickets sold out so quickly (and presumably one of the reasons they are so keen to recoup their expenses) is that Ferryman marks the much vaunted return to theatre of director Sam Mendes, former artistic director of the Donmar, more recently the Academy Award winning director of American Beauty and, of course, the recent James Bond movies. But for those of us who really love our theatre, Ferryman is at least as exciting for having been written by Jez Butterworth, last seen at the Royal Court with his excellent 2008 production Jerusalem. Does this ultimately justify being the fastest selling play in Royal Court history? Not necessarily, but hype aside Ferryman proves itself to be well worth the price of admission.

Set in 1980s Ireland against the backdrop of hunger strikes and IRA violence. The focus is on Considine's Quinn Carney, an ex IRA man now retired to life on his farm, surrounded by extended family and a bevy of foul-mouthed kids taking whisky with their breakfast. The core of the tension surrounds his relationship with Laura Donnelly's Caitlin, married to Carney's brother who has been missing for a decade, presumed killed by the IRA.

The quality of production is outstanding right from the start. The elaborate set design feels lived in and familiar. The lighting is ingeniously choreographed to unobtrusively create atmosphere, casting dancing shadows around the stage at key moments. The most striking example comes during an early moment of tenderness between the two lead characters, sharing a blindfolded slow dance by the light of the early morning. The heavily detailed set remains constant over the course of the evening, and yet the production team manage to introduce a remarkable level of flexibility, shifting mood and changing scenes between night and day, different furniture configurations and entrances, all in a seamless dream-like fashion. Sam Mendes shows here that he is still imposingly confident on a theatre stage, a man who knows exactly what he wants the audience to see and experience down to the smallest detail.

The cast is impressive, both in size and quality. A lovable noise of Irish characters, dancing, singing and sharing in bucolic family moments. It could easily have come off as a lazy parade of stereotypes, but it all gives way to a script far more deft and ambitious in scope than another writer might have delivered. Everything is presented in a larger context of history, tradition, familial tragedies, ancient feuds. At times it feels like there's so much baggage weighing these people down, that no wonder there are so many of them on stage, they simply can't leave.

Through the various weaving narratives and character arcs, a sense of profound loss unites their stories. The missing husband and brother, the doddering firebrand Republican who never stopped idealising a missing brother from childhood, the sleepy great aunt who intermittently emerges from senility to reminisce of lost romances, and lost history. By the end of the evening it will be clear why the name Ferryman has been chosen; an entire cast of characters appearing stagnant in a state of emotional limbo, waiting for something to snap so that they can finally move on.

As with Butterworth's other plays, this exceeds the sum of its narrative parts. More than just the family drama or period piece politics, this is a story that plays with your sense of nostalgia, evokes an all too relatable sense of hopeless longing, and builds a relentless intensity right until its denouement.

A play like this runs every risk of being dismissed as just another hype production, a fad of the moment, but that would do a disservice to what is ultimately another very fine addition to Butterworth's body of work. There is brilliance here, an excellent piece of theatre that I can wholly recommend anyone to take the time to enjoy. It's run at the Gielgud has just been extended, and if the tickets keep flying out the doors there's every reason to believe it will extend yet again. Make sure you catch it before it ends.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Genre Trip-hop
Label Parlophone
Producers Gorillaz, The Twilite Tone, Remi Kabaka Jr, Fraser T Smith

gorillaz damon albarn humanz new album phase 4 2017 garbage terrible bad

Gorillaz, once the party-album mainstay of radio charts the world over, have gone a full seven years since releasing their last real album, Plastic Beach (unless you count The Fall, which we don't). After much speculation, the lengthy hiatus has come to an end, and the result is Humanz.

The last time we saw them, this brainchild of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett were at something of a crossroad. Plastic Beach, arguably the best Gorillaz album, marked a shift away from their more crowd-pleasing, radio-friendly roots towards something with a bit more political and intellectual direction behind it. This shift was reflected in the notably greater variety and experimentation in the music, something which was applauded by critics, but alienated some longterm fans. With Humanz now upon us, my first question was what direction they have taken in the time since.

The first thing you notice with this album? This is a long album, some 26 tracks. Back when I was a lad, 20-track albums were common, but in recent years the trend has very much been for quality over quantity, with 10 or so songs seeming to be a popular consensus. So the quantity of music that has been produced here is quite notable in itself.

So it is surprising, considering the great variety and experimentation of Plastic Beach, that their considerably longer follow up somehow ends up feeling more one-note and unadventurous. This is very much a move back in the hip-hop direction for Gorillaz. The problem is that the band was never really pure hip-hop, it was the mix of hip-hop sensibilities with catchy pop hooks and clever genre blending that made their early work so memorable, and there is a distinct lack of this trademark creativity in Humanz.

Now of course, there's nothing wrong with making a more traditional hip-hop album, but these are just bland songs. You could easily eliminate a good 10-15 of these tracks without anybody noticing, such is the derivative nature of so much of this work. Instead, the highlights come on the few occasions when Gorillaz does try to move into more unconventional, experimental genres.

Andromeda is the clear stand-out of the album, sounding a bit like a darker, more apathetic refrain of Melancholy Hill, with some really great funk vocals thrown in. It's the only track that really compares to some of their older material. We Got the Power is probably the next best, standing out for its energy and driving beat, but even that track ultimately ends up going nowhere in its short 2 minute running time.

That's not to say that these songs are bad. Strobelite is a nice retro throwback, while Busted and Blue is a sweet, if strangely out of place acoustic track. Hallelujah Money is the marmite equivalent of music, "interesting" to some, "weird ass" to others, and generally off-putting for its overt political nature. The best that can really be said about the music is that there are plenty of interesting moments, most of which end up going nowhere, and get bogged down by the relentless tedium of the rest of the album. One gets the impression that Albarn came up with a handful of decent hooks, couldn't think of how to finish them, and just threw in some generic hip-hop beat to fill in the gaps.

One also gets the impression that Albarn is trying a bit too hard to come up with an album concept for our times and political situation. These songs are the most overtly political Gorillaz have ever done, with references to the corruption of wealth, and "building walls". Allegedly the record label made them remove many explicit Trump references before release. Don't get me wrong, I sympathise with the message, but this is just so heavy handed. So apocalyptic and dreary. And that's probably why the music sounds so dreary and bland, it's part of the concept. This is ultimately an album of dystopia and pessimism, and the music seems so focused on pushing that aesthetic that it lacks any real heart or inspiration.

So this is perhaps an example of a musician putting the message before the music. The best artists find ways to marry the artform to the message in ways that complement one another, but Gorillaz have not managed to do that here. Most of these tracks are so indistinguishable and bland, and the fact that there are so many of them means the album just drags and drags. This album would be twice as good if you just cut it down to 10 songs long, but even then, the simple fact is that there is little here anyone will remember in a year's time.

Gorillaz's workmanlike new album Humanz sets dutifully about creating a party-album for the end of the world, but lacks the band's trademark sparkle or creativity. The result is a largely forgettable collection of musical musings that are never quite as profound as the intend to be, never quite as cohesive as they would like to be. I've been waiting patiently for new Gorillaz, but this feels like an album that did not need to be made.

Must Listen :
We Got the Power

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Created by Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang
Network Netflix
Starring Aziz Ansari
Genre Comedy-drama
Running Time Varies

master of none season 2 two netflix aziz ansari amazing

It is not often that I feel moved to write about TV shows here. A beginning of year preview, an end of year round-up, but actual reviews? The Ephemeric probably only has about a handful of them. Part of the reason for this is that a TV show is an ongoing thing, and reviewing something that hasn't ended and is still subject to change is inherently riddled with problems. For this same reason, it's even more unusual for me to review a second season of a TV show; in fact I'm pretty sure I have never done so. Well today I am going to make an exception, because the second season of Master of None really needs to be discussed.

This is, of course, the second season of the Netflix Original, written by and starring Aziz Ansari. I have to preface any review of this show by saying that I have never been a particularly big fan of Ansari. Never found his stand-up all that funny, always found his characters one-note and annoying. The only thing I have ever really appreciated him in was Parks and Recreation, and even there he was mostly playing the standard Ansari character: a shrill and metrosexual parody of the 2010s male. Master of None has changed my view.

The show's first season was a perfectly solid season of TV. Ansari and his co-writer Alan Yang set out to work Ansari's observational wit into a narrative format, and the result was hard not to like. The episodes were a little inconsistent to be fair, and far too often felt like a forced and ill-fitting vehicle for the material. Nevertheless they managed to portray what life is like in the 2010s for young adults, probably better than any other show had done before. Each episode initiated a conversation on contemporary topics like social media, modern dating, and of course the show's recurring theme of foodie culture. It is a commentary on the modern phenomenon of optimisation culture, the fixation we have on going to the top restaurants on Yelp, the hottest vacation spots on TripAdvisor, the trendiest outfits on Pinterest, etc and then sharing our adventures with those around us. It was far from perfect, but very much a show of its time. As much as I enjoyed season 1, the second season easily surpasses its predecessor in just about every way, and so much so that honestly I am a little bit blown away.

The first thing that comes to mind upon watching the second season is that this writing team has become considerably more proficient at crafting a story. This was already in evidence towards the end of season 1, but this year they absolutely nail it right from the first moment. Gone are the days when episodes would seem to exist solely to provide a platform for the jokes, the episodes here are all entirely meaningful, relevant, and successfully complemented by Ansari's sense of humour.

What's more remarkable is just how adventurous they have become with the format of the show. The first episode is filmed entirely in black and white, in Italian with subtitles. Another episode barely even features Ansari, but instead is split between three independent settings with random people in the city of New York. Another episode takes a break from the main narrative to explore 10 years worth of Thanksgivings between Ansari's character and his best friend. Throughout the season, the writers show great audacity to play with the structure and tone of episodes in ways that would never be done on regular television. While a more traditional plotline certainly runs through the season, each episode ultimately feels like its own thing, and are all the more memorable for it. Simply put, this is the boldest television I've seen in a very long time; a continual series of moments and ideas that will stick with you long after the episode ends.

Ansari himself has even matured as an actor. A more toned down Ansari is more relatable and likeable, without losing any of his signature quirks and charisma. Surprisingly, they even manage to reinvent Ansari as a credible romantic lead, with a romantic subplot that in all honesty is one of the most engaging I can remember in a TV series. A great deal of credit for this needs to go to Ansari's co-star Alessandra Mastronardi, who is an absolutely captivating presence whenever she is on-screen, a beguiling star turn from an actress I suspect we will be seeing a lot more of from this point hence.

But an extremely underrated component of what makes this show so good is its high quality of production. There is some remarkable filmmaking on show in these episodes, gorgeous visuals and cinematography, and highly inventive direction. One episode features a series of moments from Ansari's adventures on Tinder, spliced together into a single evening. Another stunning moment features a four minute long-take of Ansari's Uber ride home following a particularly emotional revelation, to devastating effect. The soundtrack and general use of music is among the best I've ever seen in a TV show, while the casting has been brilliant, right down to the smallest role (my girlfriend informs me that the Italian actors used are fairly prominent stars in Europe - an indication of just how meticulous they have been). Even the somewhat awkward presence of Ansari's real parents instead of actual actors can't put a blemish on the show; so finely balanced is the tone of the writing that these moments come across as charming rather than cringe-worthy.

This is prestige television at its finest. Master of None is a dramatic improvement on its first season, establishing itself as probably the best comedy on TV in many years, and arguably the best show of any genre on TV at the moment. Ansari is establishing himself as one of the finest writers in the industry today, and a man of impeccable sensibilities. This is a crowning achievement, and a star-making turn for those involved.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Almost exactly one year ago after the Brexit vote, The Ephemeric wrote that David Cameron's self-destruction was a folly of historic proportions, a humiliating own-goal that would ensure Cameron went down as one of the great punchlines of British politics. Well it hasn't quite taken Theresa May a year to outdo her predecessor. David Cameron can breathe a sigh of relief, because this latest blunder will take some beating.

theresa may defeat disaster joke humiliation own-goal brexit jeremy corbyn uk general election 2017

What just happened?
When Theresa May called a snap general election two months ago, it was a little bit of a flip-flop on her part seeing as she had said unequivocally on numerous occasions that she would not call an election, reasonably making the case that now was not the time for political games. Still, with the Conservative party some 25 points ahead in the polls at the time, May evidently had decided that she could live with being branded a political opportunist, so long as it helped cement her authority in Westminster.

Indeed such a polling margin was practically unprecedented in British politics. People were expecting the Tories to expand their somewhat meagre 5 seat majority by as many as 100 seats, taking their MP total in excess of 400. There was no question of whether the Tories would win the election, but whether they would expand their majority by a lot, or a little. So when that exit poll dropped on Thursday, showing that the Tories would not in fact expand their majority at all, but lose seats, and lose their majority, it sent a nuclear shockwave through British politics.

This was an election that did not need to be called at all. No one wanted another election. The Tories already had an outright majority, their first in 20 years no less. Theresa May threw all that away in just a few months as leader of the party. It's an astonishing tale of hubris and comeuppance, and one which will certainly see Theresa May go down as one of the shortest serving, and most ridiculed, Prime Ministers in UK history.

So how did this happen? How did the Tories throw away such a commanding lead in such a short time? And what lessons can they take away from this crushing defeat?

Were the polls wrong?
First let's talk about that unassailable polling lead. Even though the polls showed a 25 point lead, it was never actually as solid as that sounds. To begin with, you have to assume that just a few months into the job, Theresa May was still experiencing a bit of a honeymoon period in the opinion polls, a very widely studied effect. Then there was the unusually high number of undecided voters on the polls, almost 1 in 3 on some polls. That is astoundingly high. A lead of 20% means much less when at least 30% haven't even decided who to vote for yet, you can't possibly make an accurate prediction from that. Honestly, that no one in the Conservative party picked up on such basic polling issues suggests either an incredible lack of expertise, or an incredible lack of communication between staff.

But the biggest single reason for the polling upset is this: the pollsters themselves didn't trust their numbers. Polls were showing a close race between the Tories and Labour for weeks, but pollsters didn't believe that young people would actually show up to the extent they were finding, so they fudged the numbers.

They were wrong, young people showed up, and in record numbers. Londoners showed up in record numbers. Angry Remain voters showed up in record numbers, and they got their revenge on the Conservative party that has spent the past year ridiculing and ignoring their opinions.

Was this a Brexit election?
As a Remain voter, it would be opportunistic and easy for me to come out at this moment and say that this was a second referendum on Brexit, so instead I'll let Theresa May herself say it. The leader of the Conservative party called this a "Brexit election", said that Brexit was "on the ballot". So you know what, I'll take her at her word on that, and boy have the voters spoken clearly. They reject Theresa May's vision of extreme Brexit.

The numbers show this quite clearly. Conservative vote share collapsing in Remain-voting areas, losing 10% share in super conservative Chelsea, and losing Kensington (!) to Labour. To my American friends, the Tories losing Kensington is like Trump losing Alabama. Theresa May's party has been routed in former Conservative strongholds that voted Remain. Add to this the decimation of the UKIP voter share, and the gain of seats by pro-EU parties like the Liberal Democrats, and it really is undeniable; this was indeed a Brexit election, and the voters have told May in no uncertain terms they don't like what they're seeing.

This is not just the view of the left-wing. Former Tory MP George Osborne says this election threw hard Brexit "in the rubbish bin". Several prominent party members have now come out as recognising hard Brexit as leading the Conservative party to "political ruin". The Tories had inexplicably forgotten just how barely the Brexit vote was won (and not even the hard Brexit they've been pursuing mind you, but a generic insert-your-own-fantasy-Brexit) and ignored any voice of dissent. That has cost them dearly now.

Other factors?
But in fairness, Brexit alone was not the only reason for defeat. There was the disastrous Tory manifesto, including such crowd pleasers as dementia tax and taking away free school lunches from children. There was the way that Theresa May refused to attend political debates, and seemingly hid herself away from the public in the final weeks of the campaign. It's that hubris again, thinking you can just avoid the voters and have their support, thinking you can propose horribly abusive policies and expect the average voter to either be unaware or ignorant of what you're doing, and it's just weak leadership to avoid responsibility as May has repeatedly done. This was a disastrously run campaign from start to finish.

And then there was the Trump effect. Theresa May has had a Donald Trump problem for a long time, but the final straw came in the wake of the recent terrorist attack on London when Donald Trump launched his appalling attack on the city and its Mayor. Theresa May said nothing. She would not stand up for her own people when attacked, even in the wake of this horrific act of violence. This is an utter disgrace, and even now she continues to push for a State visit for the President.

The sad fact is that Theresa May's blind Brexit obsession makes her pretty much dependent on Trump as a trade partner, so she'll tolerate whatever he does, no matter how distasteful, no matter how much it betrays her own people. It's an embarrassing and subservient relationship, one which begs the question: if your economic policy is dependent on you abandoning your ideals and principles, and sucking up to a hostile authoritarian, maybe it's not a policy worth pursuing.

All of this together paints a clear picture. An unpopular Prime Minister so blindly and foolhardily set on her destructive Brexit that she ignores her own people, that she refuses to debate or show even a modicum of respect to the Democratic process, that she refuses to stand up for her country or its ideals, that she betrays the dignity of her own people for the sake of bottom-feeding off a hostile foreign leader.

So what lessons can the Tories take from this?

  • For the love of God, stop calling elections that you don't need, it clearly never ends well;
  • Don't force on us a Brexit with probably not even 52% support as if it had 90% support;
  • If you want the job, show up for the damn interview;
  • We aren't fucking idiots, you won't win our support with lame catchphrases and evasive answers.
Sadly I'm not convinced that Theresa May has learned anything from this disaster. In public at least she has continued down the path of denial, insisting that all is well, and that the entire country is united behind her "strong and stable" patchwork of a Government, and excited about the opportunities of Brexit, despite how we actually voted. Her controversial deal with the devil, an alliance with the extremist, racist, homophobic, possibly terrorist DUP in order to cling on to power, will surely not win her any new converts. So mark my words, her party is rightly furious, and the moderates and Scottish conservatives are horrified by association with the DUP. Theresa May will not last into 2018.

In the meantime, the people of Britain have turned out in record numbers and exercised their democratic right with clear voice. They have reminded all politicians that we are not ignorant fools, that we can not be taken for granted, and that we demand responsible, considered actions from our leaders. It's time for the Prime Minister to start listening.

Monday, 5 June 2017

We are now one week away from the election that nobody asked for, but that has somehow been thrust upon us. The British public can be forgiven if voter fatigue is beginning to set in, but don't give up now, this election still matters. The difference between the various parties could not be more pronounced, and those are differences that will effect every person in this country on a very direct level. This year, The Ephemeric is unreservedly endorsing the Liberal Democrats, and here's why.

liberal democrats ephemeric endorsement tim farron corbyn theresa may uk general election 2017

Two years ago Britain was in prime position, a powerhouse bridging the gap between the world's largest economic centres of America, Asia and Europe. The nation was as prosperous as it had been in years, with living conditions on the mend after years of financial squeeze, and British soft power was arguably greater than that of any other nation.

Today Britain is in a far more precarious position, having voted to leave its largest trading partner, necessitating an uneasy economic dependence on formerly hostile Governments like Russia and Turkey, not to mention a more insular America. Currency valuation has plummeted, growth has slowed, wage growth has stagnated. An increasingly divided Britain has presented the very real concern over the future of our union, and public services have suffered as a result.

And what are the various political parties proposing to fix this mess? Theresa May's Conservative Party appears to be living in a fantasy-land where the country is coming together and enjoying the prosperous afterglow of Brexit. Her campaign promises have been an astonishing mix of dementia tax, taking away free school lunches from our children, and other awful ideas, all of which does little to distract from her wilfully blind obsession that we keep driving over the Brexit cliff, regardless of the consequences.

Corbyn's Labour has not been much better on Brexit, but to their credit they are at least recognising the need for public debate and consideration of the hard facts of any final deal. So if Theresa May's Brexit policy is akin to riding a dirt bike blindfolded while holding a chainsaw, at least Corbyn is removing the blindfold. However a vote for Corbyn also means tolerating the largest tax burden since World War II, and for some inexplicable reason a re-nationalisation of several industries, for no apparent reason. Let's not sugarcoat it, both of these main parties' policy proposals are pretty insane. From an economic perspective, the Conservative Party is marginally less insane, but they make up for it with their manic cult of Brexit, arguably more damaging than anything Corbyn is suggesting.

Then there are the party leaders themselves. Corbyn has made controversial statements in the past that could be seen as sympathising with the IRA, and has been dogged by disturbing links to anti-semitism. Meanwhile Theresa May's illiberal tendencies are leading us straight into one of the worst inequality crises of a generation. Her ignorant crackdown on digital freedom amounts to a Government takeover of the internet. Her gleeful embrace of the UKIP xenophobes, her cloying sucking up to the authoritarian dictators of the world (presumably to help support her Brexit addiction) places us on the wrong side of history. Her constant silence whenever Donald Trump attacks our country and its values is nothing short of a national disgrace. There is being diplomatic, and then there is being weak, a good leader knows where to draw the line.

Quite frankly, serious questions have to be asked of Theresa May's competence. The Tories began this campaign with a 25% lead, which has since dwindled to 5%. Much of this has to be attributed to what can only be described as one of the worst campaigns in political history, which has included a dependence on lame catchphrases (#strong&stable, #winningeverywhere, "red white and blue Brexit", ad nauseum). Two years ago everyone mocked Ed Miliband for repeating the same slogan over and over during an interview. That's basically been the entirety of May's campaign. This all culminated in a final week where Theresa May has apparently been in hiding, refusing to join politicians' debates, and cancelling interviews and public appearances. If she can't handle a fluffy morning talk show, how is she going to handle Putin and Brexit negotiations?

But having said all of that, the rationale of this endorsement is simple. For all their ideological differences, there is one big thing the two main parties have in common: they are both promising to close England off from the rest of the world, reversing the ideals of free market liberalism and globalism that have allowed Britain to prosper. That should utterly disqualify them in the eyes of any economically literate individual, and means I simply can not in good conscience endorse either one.

Ultimately there is only one national party looking even remotely like grownups during this election, the Liberal Democrats. They're the only party insisting on a fair Brexit deal, or even no Brexit if a reasonable result can not be attained. Since when is "looking before you leap" a controversial position? They're the only party offering the British public a say on the final Brexit deal that will determine the course of our country. The last referendum on a generic Brexit only just squeaked by, so by what bizarre stretch of logic are we to think that anything near a majority supports Theresa May's extreme and hard Brexit? Theresa May is abusing a slim majority support for a generic concept as a rubber stamp for whatever specific and extreme proposal she wants, and there is nothing at all democratic about that.

The Liberal Democrats are the only party proposing moderate spending cuts, as well as moderate revenue increases (a 1p tax rise), and the only ones who recognise the need to empower the middle class, without stifling the creativity of free enterprise. In a political climate where it has become unpopular to embrace time-tested evidence-based policy, the Liberal Democrats are the only party standing up for common sense economics and social progressivism. In a world where polarisation to the radical extremes of ideology has become mainstream, the Liberal Democrats are champions of a new breed of "radical centrism", the idea that evidence and reason should dictate policy rather than partisan politics, and that compromise with those who disagree with you is a sign of strength, not weakness.

No one will pretend that any party is perfect, but hard times like these call for calm, rational leadership. It calls for leadership that does what works, rather than what will help win the next election. Most importantly, we need leaders who will uphold the ideals of our free nation in the face of external and internal threat. Right now the Liberal Democrats are the only party stepping up to the plate. They may not win the election, but we fully encourage everyone to make a point and vote for the sensible and well thought-out policy that we deserve.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

So much noteworthy new music, so little time. Looking for a new jam? I hear you buddy. The summer is now upon us, and as such we will be doing the Spring Music Round-Up, a rough and ready summary of some of the most interesting new releases of the recent past.

Specifically we will be looking at the new albums from Amy Macdonald, The xx, and Father John Misty. Let's dive right in.

"Under Stars - Amy Macdonald" Album Review
Genre Pop-rock

amy macdonald under stars new album 2017Emerging onto the scene back in 2007, Amy Macdonald represented the most unusual of things, a young girl who wanted to become a pop-star by merit of her exceptional musical talent, rather than by sex-appeal and generic production. And a talent she was. That debut album, This is the Life, went on to receive critical acclaim.

Her subsequent albums have been a little more mixed, often veering closer to what might be described as a mainstream sound at the cost of her honest folk charm. Her latest, Under Stars returns some of the soul of her debut, without ever really fulfilling her promise as a songwriter.

Under Stars does something quite strange, and ultimately confusing. There are eleven tracks on this album, and then the album includes almost all of them a second time, in acoustic form. Having two versions of every song makes it a little tricky to appropriately appraise the album as a whole, especially when almost without fail the acoustic versions are superior to the originals. One gets the impression that Macdonald is torn between appeasing those who liked her more stripped-down debut, and those who want something a bit more commercial and poppy, so she releases a version of each song for both sets of fans.

There are two obvious stand out tracks on the album. First, particularly in its acoustic form, is Down by the Water, a gorgeously crafted tune which compares favourably with her bigger hits from past albums. But the most pleasant surprise of all has to be Macdonald's cover of the Bruce Springsteen classic I'm on Fire, a cover which achieves that rare feat of matching and possibly even surpassing the original. The rest of the album may be something of a mixed bag, but these two tracks alone make it worth the purchase.

"I See You - The xx" Album Review
Genre Dream-Pop

the xx i see you new album 2017 awardsThe xx are not a band that needs much introduction, the London-based group have gone from humble indie beginnings to achieve widespread recognition and awards.

Their sound is distinctively understated, insular, often nearly pure acoustic. It works well for them, but after two albums there had been some suggestion that the music starting to get a bit derivative of itself, not to mention all the imitations that have sprung up since their debut. So much so that several members of the band had opted to take a break and explore their own solo careers, most notably Jamie xx whose debut solo album In Colour was a huge success in its own right. If the intention was to take a hiatus and come back fully inspired, it worked.

This latest album, I See You, takes much from In Colour, and makes a notable evolution of The xx's sound into something a bit more complex in its composition. You'll still find your typical xx tracks here, populated by sparse piano keys and lingering vocal, but they are joined by far more detailed soundscapes, drum and bass backing, and even the odd hiphop riff. It's a bold evolution for the band, but it pays off. I See You might just be their best work yet.

Lead single On Hold is the best example of where The xx are at right now. It retains the simplicity that made The xx so affecting, while adding new musical complexities, backing vocals and an altogether more pop-influenced sound. Meanwhile longtime fans can check out Performance for classic xx minimalism, while other highlights include the crowd-pleasing I Dare You and the powerful tour-de-force of A Violent Noise.

This is an album worth listening to, with great tracks, great variety, and consistency throughout. Top notch work and another reminder of why this band is so highly regarded.

"Pure Comedy - Father John Misty" Album Review
Genre Art-Rock

father john misty review pure comedy new album 2017Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, has been riding the wave of fashion following his breakthrough success, 2015's I Love You, Honeybear. The years since have seen the former Fleet Foxes band member become one of music's trendiest icons, and a household name.

Tillman's newest album Pure Comedy sticks close to the formula; world-weary songs of angst and disdain masquerading under the sunny folk stylings made popular by artists like Fleet Foxes and Mumford and Sons.

The songwriting here is the strongest of Tillman's career, with more memorable melodies, stronger hooks and generally a great amount of sonic variety. Tillman plays with samples and multi-instrumental compositions, with songs that journey from quasi-acoustic rambles into full-on orchestral epics. Indeed there's plenty here to savour musically, from title track Pure Comedy to Total Entertainment Forever, but the clear highlight is the wistful 10 minute odyssey So I'm Growing Old on Magic Mountain, a possible early contender for song of the year.

But that's not to say he's softened his edge at all. Tillman brings the same lyrical venom and contemporary philosophising that he is known for, frequently playing with his musical reference points, splicing clips from old adverts and TV shows. The lyrics are awash with pop culture and literary references that draw parallels with the great depression and wars of the 20th Century. These are songs that mourn the perceived chaos of modern consumerism and political trends.

If Honeybear was Tillman's breakthrough, the brilliant Pure Comedy should propel him to the next level. This is very much an album for the world today.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Developed by Bioware
Published by Electronic Arts
Genre Action RPG
Platform Xbox One, PS4, PC

mass effect andromeda xbox ps4 pc shepard ryder

Even before I begin, I know this is going to be a very difficult game to review. Partly that's because I am such a big fan of the original trilogy of games (Mass Effects 1 through 3) and its other associated media. So with the announcement that Mass Effect: Andromeda would see the series move to an entirely new setting, in a new galaxy and set hundreds of years later, I was immediately skeptical.

Mass Effect as a series has always been built on the core gameplay pillars of third person shooting, and character roleplaying. And sure, if Andromeda can successfully replicate these elements, the game will certainly still feel like Mass Effect. But the main draw to many fans has always been the incredibly deep world-building, the sharp writing, and the attention to detail that goes towards making a logically consistent setting that despite its fantastical nature is believable, and all the more immersive for it. It would require a very good reason to throw all of that away and start afresh, not to mention keep it consistent with the backstory of the original.

We will discuss all of this and more during the review, and don't worry, while there may be spoilers in this review I will very clearly point them out before we come to them.

So the first big question mark for me, why Andromeda and why 600 years later?

From a gameplay perspective this makes sense. They wanted to create a "frontier" setting, with an exciting new world full of discovery, in contrast to the more developed and settled Milky Way.

It's a sound concept, the problem is it makes very little sense from a story perspective. Without digging too much into the weeds, the original trilogy establishes the Milky Way galaxy as a largely unexplored place, with finite resources and largely conventional FTL technology. There was little reason to make the impractical journey to a new galaxy. So to begin this game with dialogue describing the Milky Way in such contradictory terms did little to convince me that the writers of Andromeda were suitably familiar with the world over which they are taking creative control. These may seem like small things to quibble about, but unfortunately inconsistency in the writing and backstory was to become a recurring theme during my playthrough of Andromeda.

The bigger problem from a game design perspective is that it takes the risk of abandoning the settings and characters that fans have grown to love, and for what appears to have been very little gain. It doesn't help that the writers have gone to great lengths to change very little. Everyone still lives on a giant spacestation, much like the one in the Milky Way, Krogans live on a desert world much like their one in the Milky Way, outlaws have their own base of operations, much like the Milky Way... you get the picture. On the surface it's hard to see exactly what the point was in this change, if they're just going to give us basically the exact same setting but with names changed.

Unfortunately the real reason for this change is obvious. The Ending to Mass Effect 3 was universally reviled, so nonsensical, so impossible to write their way out of... It's pretty clear that the writers have switched galaxy just to avoid having to deal with the original trilogy's car-crash of an ending. It's lazy, craven, just plain shoddy, but it is what it is, and that means the game starts off on an unfortunately sour note.

Fortunately, once you get past the poorly conceived premise, it's really not such a bad set up for a game. That "frontier" aesthetic and "exploring strange new worlds" is a great concept for a sci-fi story, even if its justification into the larger Mass Effect world is somewhat half-assed. In fact Bioware have come up with a number of very clever ideas for how to make the most of this new setting, starting with the player's ship, Tempest, and its crew.

A player's ship and its crew have always been central to the Mass Effect experience. Andromeda takes this one step further. Players control the Tempest, a much smaller ship than we're used to, with a much smaller crew. The benefit of this is that every single crewmember is a fully fleshed out person, with their own detailed background, conversation tree and story arc. This turns out to be a brilliant move, making life aboard the Tempest far more immersive than ever before, and character interaction far more rewarding.

A good idea, ruined by Mass Effect Andromeda's fundamental flaw: the writing is just not very good, sadly confirming any initial misgivings I had. The Mass Effect series has always prided itself on sharp, high quality writing. Andromeda sees the reins handed over to a new team of writers, headed up (bafflingly) by the people responsible for Mass Effect 3's much maligned ending. Unfortunately this new team is nowhere near as talented as the old one.

It's not a complete disaster, but it's decidedly mixed. Certain scenes are so horrendously written that it is hard to believe a professional got paid to write them, whereas others are passable. One character in particular, Liam is so badly written that it's honestly hard to understand what's going on. Literally, I'll watch a cutscene and then think "what the hell just happened?". One scene features Liam and another crew member stripping naked and swearing at each other... for reasons that aren't really explained. Others involve Liam pulling characters and stories that have never been referenced before out of nowhere and taking actions that make absolutely zero sense. It's almost like the writers decided they wanted to have a particular scene, and then awkwardly forced the dialogue around it. It shows.

Thankfully, the writing generally gets better as the game progresses. Early on, the writers seem a bit desperate to win over the old fans, with characters that immediately fall into lazy cliche and try too hard to replicate the success of the older games. It feels very much like fanfiction in this regard, like these writers tried to imitate what they thought people liked about old Mass Effect, without really understanding what it is that made it special. Fortunately, once the awkward introductions are out of the way and the characters have a bit more freedom to breathe, things improve, and Andromeda finally begins to find its own voice. Things got off to a rocky start, but by the time I reached the end of the story I found myself surprisingly attached to these characters, and sufficiently won over that I found myself looking forward to their future adventures together.

First off, the actual third person action gameplay is excellent. It's a considerable improvement on previous games in the series, with the addition of the jump-pack a delightful twist. Shooting has never felt better, and the customisation of guns and armor is simply deeper than it ever has been. The only shame here is the cover system, which is particularly finicky at the moment.

But far more consequential to the Mass Effect series is the addition of open world exploration. Andromeda is essentially divided into a series of hub-world, each of them absolutely huge and chock full of various quests, characters, and settlements.

This is a wonderful direction for the series, particularly with the new conceptual emphasis on frontier exploration. Mass Effect hasn't felt this open since the first game, but while those open worlds were largely empty, soulless affairs, these ones are much more fully realised, with a more handcrafted feel and a heck of a lot more content. Best of all, the worlds change and react to an extent based on your actions and the quests you complete, which adds a certain sense of accomplishment. It's a great feeling walking around the first stable colony you manage to establish, seeing all the settlers getting on with their lives in peace, and knowing that your actions created this from a desolate wasteland. It's a considerably more dynamic setting than any we've seen in previous Mass Effects.

Unfortunately the novelty wears off, and once you get a bit further into the game it becomes clear how much of this is simply smoke and mirrors. The first colony you establish is very elaborately done. You get to choose what type of colony it will be, you meet the mayor, a fully fleshed out character in his own right, and the moment is honoured through a lengthy cutscene and follow up quests. The obvious effect is for players to finish this first quest and think that the same amount of detail and complexity will be put into every colony you found. That would be wrong, this only happens on the first colony. For all others you push a button and then abruptly you're in an already completely formed colony, most of which have few if any detailed NPCs or quests, none of which have any actual impact on the story or the world at large.

Another example is the very first mission of the game. The level is linear in design, however if you stray from the main path you come across a number of completely optional discoveries and side-quests. Much to my delight, all these little adventures were recorded and acknowledged in the game, through conversation after the mission, as well as in the game's codex system. All these little decisions and choices felt consequential, and the fact that I had witnessed these moments added to the story. This all had me very excited that Andromeda's world was going to be this hugely dynamic place, full of optional mysteries to discover, reacting in real time to your playstyle and decisions. Sadly this too turned out to be smoke and mirrors. This only happened with the first mission, and never again.

In fact the entire opening chapter of the game feels significantly more detailed and nuanced than anything that comes after it. It feels almost like a half finished game, like they implemented all these complexities and features, and then ran out of time or budget. It's a feeling you will come to know well, as this pretty much sums up most of the gameplay in Andromeda.

You see it again with the new crafting system, which again is very complex, and yet ultimately quite pointless. At no point during the game was the ability to custom design a weapon or piece of equipment anything more than a novelty. Then there's the multiplayer, which somehow feels like a stripped down version of the multiplayer in Mass Effect 3.

All these things will no doubt be expanded upon, but throughout it all one can't shake the feeling that this game was simply half finished at release. Which segues perfectly into the the next topic.

Bugs/Lack of Polish
Sloppy writing that clearly hasn't been reviewed carefully, half finished game modes. What comes next? Bugs. And when I say bugs, I don't mean a stuttery framerate, a graphical glitch, or even a nice simple crash. No I mean real bugs.

Mass Effect Andromeda is without any doubt the most bug-ridden AAA game I have ever played. It's hard to overstate this, but it is a catastrophic buggy mess that would make a Bethesda game look polished. I mean this game has it all.

The inventory menu is so appallingly designed, it's barely functional when it works, and it doesn't work very often. You have "new item" notifications that don't go away, quests that get stuck in the log after completion, frequent freezes, and perhaps most embarrassingly, non-existent menus. Apparently there was supposed to be a menu for items related to the player's land vehicle, the Nomad, which was cut before launch. But that won't stop the game constantly trying to take you to that non-existent menu, and won't stop the annoying notifications from alerting you to new items that can never be cleared because the menu DOESN'T EXIST.

But that's just a drop in the bucket, I've seen quest objectives fail to trigger, cutscenes getting stuck, cutscene animation outpacing the dialogue, cutting itself off mid-speech, characters talking over themselves somehow. I've seen AI bug out and run into the corner, enemies die and float in midair, characters duplicating in cutscenes, invisible guns, people in two places at once... and I could go on.

The bugs are frequent and they range from mildly amusing to gamebreaking, at the very least requiring a reload. It's astonishingly bad, especially for a console game which runs on homogenous hardware. Some of these bugs are so frequent and so obvious that they can't possibly have done any serious bug-testing on this before launch.

My personal favourite bug was how when the player character listens to recordings of himself, the character on screen inexplicably speaks the lines.

On a whim I decided to jot down a list of funny bugs that I encountered over the course of a few hours, which you can see here. This is just a few hours! Astonishing.

But it's not just the incredible bugs, it's a general lack of polish across all areas of the game. Animations are generally terrible, often even worse than the animations in older Mass Effect games, which lest we forget were running on generation old hardware.

Seriously just look at this scene, the perfect storm of awful writing and animation. You might look at this and think, well this just looks like a typical silly videogame, but that's the point. Mass Effect was always well above this standard, and yet everything here is just so amateur looking.

What's truly bizarre is that some scenes are actually very well animated, and well written. It's the jarring difference in quality from one moment to the next that is hard to understand. Again, it keeps coming back to the fact that this game clearly was not finished at release.

So Mass Effect Andromeda is a buggy, unfinished product. And yet, for several weeks I simply could not stop playing it. For all its flaws, once the game's story starts to hit is rhythm, all that classic Mass Effect magic kicks in, and you'll be excited to explore that new planet, or plan a movie night with your crewmates.

Ultimately what this game shows us is that the Mass Effect universe is still as utterly compelling as always. While it would be hard for me to recommend a game this shoddy to newcomers, there's still more than enough here to keep old fans happy, and enough promise to suggest that the next adventure will be worth sticking around for.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Welcome to another end of year retrospective on a great season of Premier League football. Here at The Ephemeric we like to use this moment to take stock of the season gone by and bestow a few carefully considered accolades. Except for last season, we don't talk about last season ever.

chelsea champions 2017
Regular service resumed as far as the Premier League is concerned. Chelsea can hardly have been many pundits' tips for the title given their performance last season, but certainly no one would consider the success of such a prominent football club to be a shock by any means. As it happens, after a rocky start to the season Chelsea ended up coasting to victory with relative ease, leading the pack for most of the year and clinching the title with games to spare. Much of the credit needs to go to new manager Antonio Conte, whose tactical overhaul inspired an astonishing turnaround, and paved the way to a title in his debut season. This marks Chelsea's sixth top flight title, and the second in three years as the blues look to cement their status as the Premier League's premier club.

As The Ephemeric predicted at the start of the season, Pep Guardiola ended up disappointing expectations at Manchester City, with a third place finish. Trophiless and only just squeaking into automatic Champions League qualification, even Pep himself has admitted that another big club would likely have sacked him after this season. Winning things is apparently not so easy when the side you've inherited is not already the best in the world. Elsewhere, Manchester United had an equally disappointing season, only managing to claw their way into the Champions League through Europa League success.

However, the biggest shock of all has to be Arsenal who will miss out on Champions League football for the first time in an impressive 19 years. Arsene Wenger has found himself under immense pressure over the past year, and this disastrous season will only increase calls for his sacking. There is little doubt, it's dark times to be an Arsenal fan. Leicester City, meanwhile, surprised absolutely no one by reverting to type as a midtable side, ensuring that last season's glory will remain cemented in footballing lore as one of the biggest outliers of sporting history.

But looking on the positive side, there were a number of remarkable success stories in this season's Premier League. AFC Bournemouth secured their highest ever finish in English football, while the appointment of Tony Pulis saw West Brom transformed into a vastly improved side, and a thorn of many of the league's top clubs. Probably the greatest credit of all needs to go to Tottenham who have continued their positive evolution under Mauricio Pochettino, and ended up being the closest challenger to the title behind Chelsea. Under his stewardship, Tottenham have transformed into genuine contenders, and must surely be considered among the favourites to win in the coming years.

At the other end of the table it's right back down to the Championship for the newly promoted duo Middlesbrough and Hull. They are joined by rock-bottom Sunderland, a side that has consistently threatened to make the drop in recent years and have at long last run out of luck.

Now without further ado it is time to move on to the Ephemeric end of season awards, followed by our carefully selected Premier League team of the year.

The Ephemeric Premier League Awards 2017:

Winners: Chelsea - A fairly comfortable victory at the end. Conte has rebuilt this Chelsea side, and the players have responded with a new lease on life. Now the real challenge begins, building a squad that can compete on multiple fronts.

Relegated: Hull, Middlesbrough, Sunderland - A disappointing season for these three, though none of their relegations would have shocked any pundits' pre-season predictions.

Player of the Year: N'Golo Kante (Chelsea) - In the eyes of many, Kante has been a title decider. The key part of Leicester's miraculous win last year, and now repeating the feat for Chelseas. He won't be selling shirts like Messi or Ronaldo any time soon, but football may have found its successor to Makelele at last. They'll have to start calling it "the Kante role".

U-21 Player of the Year: Dele Alli (Tottenham) - In a year full of positives for Tottenham, the brightest light has continued to be the development of Dele Alli, surely England's best prospect in a generation, and well on his way to becoming a world-renowned star. Europe's big guns will come calling soon enough.

Best Goalkeeper: David de Gea (Manchester United) - The best part of the Man U team this season has been de Gea, and it will be interesting to see how they cope if indeed he does head to Madrid in the summer.

Manager of the Year: Antonio Conte (Chelsea) - What more needs to be said? Conte saw something in his Chelsea side that no one else did, and pulled off one of the greatest tactical transformations of the past two decades.

Top Scorer: Harry Kane (Tottenham) (29) - Kane is quickly becoming a mainstay of the top scorer's list, having competed for this honour a number of years in a row now, despite his tender years. Real Madrid are supposedly calling for his services, the question is where does Kane see his future?

Most Assists: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) (18) - Another Chelsea youngster sold for a relatively small amount, only for his value to multiply exponentially in the years hence. De Bruyne may have been signed for an exorbitant fee from Wolfsburg, but has flown somewhat under the radar this season. His record speaks for itself as he led the assists table for much of the year.

Overachievers: West Brom - A genuine improvement under Tony Pulis. For whatever else anyone can say about the manager, he knows how to get the best out of a less than stellar side.

Underachievers: Manchester City - This award could easily have gone to Arsenal, but for the money City spend, for the hype that surrounded Pep's arrival, and the expectation that they would be right in the tick of the title hunt, it's really hard to give this to anyone else. A third place finish flatters their season, where really they never felt anywhere near where they were expected to be.

Best signing of the season: N'Golo Kante (Chelsea) - As above.

Worst signing of the season: Granit Xhaka (Arsenal) - Despite Arsenal's reputation for frugality, they are developing something of a track record for mega-money £40+ million signings, and Granit Xhaka is the latest such signing. Despite becoming one of the most expensive transfers in the league's history, few people are probably even aware that he had even played. An anonymous first season in English football.

The Ephemeric Premier League Team of the Season 2017:

english epl bpl premier league best team xi of the season 2017
Goalkeeper: David de Gea (Manchester United) - A top season, David de Gea was largely responsible for the Manchester United resurgence, beating off some tough opposition for this place. Now linked with a move to Real Madrid.

Right Back: Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea) - Mr. Dependable, Azpilicueta joined an elite group of players to have played every minute of a season's Premier League. Naturally a fullback, this season he has more typically been used as the right side of the central back three in Conte's formation, occasionally filling out at Wingback. He has excelled in every role.

Centrebacks: David Luiz (Chelsea) & Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham) - The consensus choice for this role. Luiz is a player reborn since he return to the Premier League, and has formed the heart of the Champions' impressive new-look backline. Toby Alderweireld was indispensable for a Tottenham side that ultimately conceded fewer goals than any other this season.

Left Back: Danny Rose (Tottenham) - The second inclusion from Tottenham's excellent defence this season. Rose has been a massive boost to his side, both on the offence and tracking back to cover.

Right Mid: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) – As above, the man has flown quietly under the radar for a lot of people, but has been central to how his team play. Leading the assists table, De Bruyne has become the creative heart of a very talented and expensive Manchester City side.

Centre Mids: N'Golo Kante (Chelsea) & Dele Alli (Tottenham) - An easy decision to make. Kante has been most pundits' choice for player of the year and rightly so, while Alli has the look of football's next big football star in the making about him. This duo in the centre of midfield would scare any opposition.

Left Mid: Eden Hazard (Chelsea) – A close contender behind Kante for player of the year, and in any other season would surely have won it. Hazard has truly been back at his best, at times carrying this team to victory, and dazzling fans with technical brilliance that would make any player proud. Surely the Premier League's most talented footballer, and on current form, right up there with the best in the world.

Forwards:  Diego Costa (Chelsea) & Harry Kane (Tottenham) – Kane is a no-brainer as the league's top scorer this season. Costa might be a bit more controversial just owing to the public perception of the player, but the truth is there are few players in the league in any position who contribute so much to the team. He scores and creates goals, he drops deep and defends, links up the midfield, and quite frankly he plays some surprisingly brilliant football. Over the first half of the season he was arguably the league's best player, and even though his form dipped in the new year, it had very much recovered in time for the title run-in.

So there we have it, another season of Premier League football gone by. We'll see you again next season!

Friday, 12 May 2017

It's time to take this seriously. I can say with little doubt and no shred of hyperbole that what is going on in Washington DC right now is among the most important political events that will happen in our lifetimes. A scandal the likes of which we have not seen since Watergate, a crisis of democracy and American sovereignty we have never seen. It's rare that you can say this, but last week we witnessed an event of truly historic magnitude.

donald trump james comey criminal watergate tuesday saturday massacre coverup cover up conspiracy republican
The Trump administration has been coming under fire in recent weeks in relation to a number of scandals, from domestic emoluments, to Betsy Devos' pay-to-play, a crackdown on the freedom of press, and of course the headline act, possible collusion with Russia to violate federal law. His first 100 days in office have been wracked by allegations of corruption and criticisms over a lack of transparency. But last Tuesday night we saw something entirely new, something unprecedented in modern democracy.

On Tuesday night, Donald Trump fired the FBI Director James Comey, the very man who was currently leading an investigation against Trump's administration regarding possible illegal ties to the Russian Government. Now Trump will handpick Comey's replacement. The man currently under investigation... will choose the person who leads the investigation against him.

It's a difficult story to blog about, as things are moving at a ridiculously fast pace, with new revelations appearing by the hour. Since I began this post, Comey's deputy, now acting Director of the FBI, has announced that future investigation progress will no longer be shared with the White House. Mere hours later, Trump tweeted threatening messages at Comey, hinting that he has been taping his meetings in the White House, and that these would be made public if Comey doesn't stay silent.

Things are fast spiralling out of control, and it's arguable that this is already a bigger crisis than Watergate. But let's rewind a little bit, what's all this Russia stuff about?

Russia hacks the 2016 Election
Russian hackers are known to have made a concerted effort to influence the 2016 US election, a process which involved a campaign of online misinformation and propaganda, hacking of voter rolls and electoral systems, and most crucially, the hacking of Democratic Party officials and theft of information from those systems.

The US intelligence community, including the FBI and CIA, have very clearly and publicly confirmed these facts to be true, and further have stated in no uncertain terms that the election interference appears to have been conducted with the intention of helping the campaign of Donald Trump. Trump, for his part, appeared on numerous occasions to have been encouraging the Russians to hack his opponent during the election, but that's only the beginning of his campaign's worrying Russian connections.

Very briefly, Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort was forced to resign and is now the subject of criminal investigation for his connections to Russian and Ukrainian politicians. Mike Flynn was appointed as National Security Advisor by Trump, but forced to resign after it transpired that he had held multiple meetings with Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak, commonly referred to as the "Russian Spymaster" for his connections to espionage. Flynn received payments and made frequent trips to Russia, and then lied about all of it. He is currently under criminal investigation. Jeff Sessions, Trump's Attorney General, also held multiple meetings with the Russian Spymaster. His connections were deemed serious enough that he was forced to recuse himself from getting involved in the Russia investigation as head of the Department of Justice.

From Carter Page, to Roger Stone, Jared Kushner, and even Trump's son Eric, the list of Trump connections to Russia seems endless, and every day it seems more and more come to light. And that's even before we get to the dossier revealed by high ranking British intelligence officials, which indicates that Russia has incriminating personal and financial information on Trump, and was deemed by intelligence agencies to be "credible".

So why did Trump fire Comey?
Considering the scale of Trump's apparent Russia connections, it clearly looks bad for the President to have fired the man leading those investigations. The fact that the recommendation was apparently made by Jeff Sessions, the man who was supposed to have recused himself from getting involved with Russia, makes it all the more shocking.

The move has drawn immediate comparisons with the Saturday Night Massacre, the day when Richard Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor in order to cover up his criminal actions. Needless to say, it didn't end well for Nixon.

But is there any actual indication that Trump has done anything wrong?

Sure enough, the President has the power to fire the Director of the FBI, but typically only in the event of serious wrongdoing. FBI Directors are given 10 year terms specifically for this reason, to insulate them from politics and the whim of the President. It has historically taken actual illegality or major ethics breaches to justify such a dismissal. In 1993 when Bill Clinton dismissed Director William Sessions (no relation to the current Attorney General), Sessions had been the subject of a major investigation, the conclusion of which stated that he had committed significant wrongdoing. No such conclusions have been reached for Comey.

So what is Trump's justification for this extraordinary expansion of executive power? If you can believe it, Trump's justification is that Comey was too harsh on Hillary Clinton during her sham of an email investigation during the election. That's right, Trump fired Comey for taking the (admittedly unwise) actions that in all likelihood gave Donald Trump the Presidency.

Now let's be clear, I have major reservations about the way Comey handled that investigation. His actions were inappropriate and unusual. However they are clearly not sufficient to justify the second ever FBI Director dismissal, he committed no illegal act, or breach of ethics. This has even drawn criticism from Trump's own party, with Republican Senator John McCain expressing his belief that the sacking was not justified.

But more to the point, only a complete idiot would believe this pretext for a second. First of all, Trump and Jeff Sessions were wildly effusive in their praise over Comey's handling of the investigation during the election, for obvious reasons. Secondly these actions took place a year ago, so why are they only firing him now, six months into Trump's Presidency?

Comey was fired on the very day the Russia investigation issued its first batch of grand jury subpoenas against current and former associates of the Trump administration, one day after the investigation requested access to financial records of business dealings between Trump and Russia, and less than a week after Comey requested additional funds and personnel for his investigation from the Department of Justice.

Donald Trump wants us to believe that he fired James Comey for taking actions that helped Trump win the election, actions that both he and Sessions had supported previously, actions that took place a year ago, but rather than fire him at the time, they coincidentally waited until the very week that Comey's investigation against Trump was beginning to pick up steam. As a pretext it is almost laughable for how non-sensical and brazenly untrue it is. Only an astoundingly naive or wilfully ignorant individual could possibly be fooled by it.

And then there was the dismissal itself. Carried out while Comey was on the opposite side of the country so that he couldn't protect evidence, conveyed to the FBI by Trump's personal bodyguard, like some mafioso, so as to not tip off anyone with the Bureau. The dismissal letter itself. The letter is written with the pretext that this dismissal has absolutely nothing to do with Russia, and then Trump inexplicably adds the absolutely incredible paragraph "While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgement of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau".

Why is this paragraph in the letter? If the dismissal has nothing to do with Russia, why bring it up? Why say this at all? Presumably Comey knows what he and Trump have discussed previously, so why does Trump need to remind him? There is literally no reason for Trump to include this paragraph in the letter, unless the intention is that other people read it and conclude that Trump is not under investigation over Russia. It is an utterly insane paragraph that reads less like a boss firing an employee and more like a five year old forging a letter to the headmaster from his parents. It makes absolutely no sense regardless of whether or not you believe Trump's ridiculous pretext. Again drawing criticism from his own party, Republican Congressman Justin Amash even went so far as to call it just plain "bizarre".

It is now undeniable: The President is trying to seize control of the police
The timing of this dismissal, along with the embarrassingly flimsy pretext, would seem to suggest a cover up.

Leaks from within the Trump administration appear to support this, reporting that Trump had become enraged over the continuing investigation into Russian connections, that he wanted Comey fired, and that about a week ago he had explicitly ordered the Department of Justice to come up with an excuse to fire him. Further leaks from the FBI state explicitly that they believe Comey was fired because he refused to give Trump his personal loyalty and because he refused to preview his testimony for Trump behind closed doors.

If it wasn't obvious enough that this firing was motivated by Comey's Russia investigation, consider that this appears to follow a concerted trend. This is the third person that Trump has fired who was involved in investigations into Russia, the others being Sally Yates and Preet Bharara. Correlation does not equal causation, but whatever the reason if you were investigating Trump's Russia connections, chances are you got fired by him, and that demands explanation.

Consider also the pattern of behaviour which includes sending threatening messages to those testifying on the Russia investigation, including Comey and Sally Yates on the day she was set to testify. Many have described these actions as textbook witness intimidation.

It's not a matter of ideology or affiliation, there is no one in Washington who seriously believes any of the rationale coming out of the White House. These are lies, so evident in their dishonesty that it's simply laughable. In the days that follow Comey's dismissal, Trump's people don't even seem to be pretending that it's true. Both Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Trump appear to have confirmed that the sacking was related to Russia, which would mean that at the very least Jeff Sessions violated his recusal, and Trump has committed obstruction of justice.

And yet, the official line coming out of the White House is that it is "time to move on" from the Russia investigation, in spite of what appears to be an obvious cover up. Most dangerous of all, the bulk of the Republican Party appears willing to acquiesce.

The complicity of the Republican Party
There has been a lockstep propaganda surge from all across the Trump administration and Republican Party. First there was the hard-to-believe claim from the White House that they had no idea that this action would cause an outcry. This was followed by a bizarre press conference from Sean Spicer, carried out while hiding in the bushes and demanding journalists turn off all lights and cameras. But perhaps most bizarre has been the performance of Huckabee Sanders, a petulantly hostile and wholly unprofessional press conference in which she unleashed vitriolic and petty insults on Comey, a career lawman.

The Republican information minister Kellyanne Conway went on TV trying to convince everyone that the fact that Trump wrote in his own letter than he was not under investigation was definitive proof that he was innocent, and that the fact that Trump didn't mention Russia in his letter (even though he did!) was definitive proof that the firing had nothing to do with Russia. Simply childish in its absurdity and obvious deceit. Then barely a few hours later Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell repeated Conway's lines almost word for word. Word for word. It points to an obvious co-ordinated effort by all party members.

This response has been palpably absurd, and I'll say again, childish in how obviously deceitful the whole thing looks.

Through all of this, the Republican Party is refusing to authorise an independent special investigation, incredibly claiming that one isn't needed, since there is already an ongoing investigation in the Republican controlled House, the Republican controlled Senate, and the soon-to-be Trump controlled FBI. The Republicans seriously want us to believe that they are going to investigate themselves thoroughly and impartially with no oversight, and then when they inevitably conclude there to be no evidence of wrongdoing among their own ranks, they expect everyone to accept this as a perfectly valid and objective assessment.

This is the big difference between how the Trump scandal unfolds and Watergate. Nixon tried all the same tricks as Trump, but in that instance Nixon's fellow Republicans broke ranks and took a stand against their own party for the sake of country. So far this has not happened with the Republican Party of 2017. Several Republicans have expressed concerns, but as of yet none have displayed a willingness to put country before party. This is clearly hugely concerning from an administration of justice point of view, but more to the point if actual crimes are being committed, then it indicates the legal complicity of much of the Republican Party. This could get messy.

What does all this mean?
This is arguably an even greater scandal than Watergate. Watergate was a crime of petty political theft, abuse of power, and associated cover up. It was a test of American democracy, but no more than that. Trump's Russia scandal and its associated crises are no less than an existential threat.

A hostile foreign power has already managed to directly influence our elections. They appear to have compromised our very Government with the current administration absolutely lousy with apparent agents and security risks. The administration has spent the last 6 months attacking the free media and the independent judiciary, and now appears to be attempting to seize control of the police force. All the while, the Republican Party appears perfectly content to let these events continue.

This is no longer a functioning democracy. When a President wields absolute power and subverts the very rule of law, that's not what happens in America. That's what happens in a tinpot dictatorship or banana republic. If the President is seriously allowed to just fire the police when they pry into his personal business, it eliminates any sense of legitimacy or confidence in the authorities and the rules which protect the citizenry from abuses of power.

If Trump manages to get away with this obvious cover up, if the police ceases to remain independent, if media freedoms continue to be eroded, then America can no longer claim to be a free democracy, it becomes a sham like Putin's Russia or Erdogan's Turkey.

So what now?
Now we wait. As I said, things have progressed at a lightning pace in the days since this political bombshell.

On Friday, the FBI raided the Annapolis offices of a Republican Party consulting firm. Later that day, the new acting Director of the FBI indicated that the White House is no longer to be trusted, and won't be given progress updates on the investigation. Leaks from FBI sources are coming to light at an alarming rate. And there you have Huckabee Sanders, acting like a bad SNL parody, feigning disbelief that anyone is still even talking about Russia. Anyone remember Comical Ali?

Even more concerning have been Trump's actions since Tuesday, tweeting threats at private citizens, indicating that he employs a Nixonian policy of recording all White House meetings, and shifting wildly in his explanation behind Comey's sacking. It just gets more and more absurd.

But perhaps the most shocking event took place on Wednesday, mere hours after firing James Comey. Trump met with Russian foreign dignitaries in the White House, behind closed doors providing exclusive access to Russian controlled state media, and absolutely no access to American media. We've reached a point where the Russian Government has moved into the White House and shut out the free press. This whole sorry ordeal was perfectly summed up by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who when questioned about the Comey sacking, disdainfully and mockingly replied "Really? You're kidding! You're kidding!". The Russian Government is literally laughing at us from within the White House.

But there is still hope. As it stands, the FBI is still under the stewardship of Comey's deputy Andrew McCabe, by all accounts an independent and unimpeachable lawman. If he can step up the Russia investigation before Trump manages to install his own puppet, we may yet see justice. Then there are all the other good men and women within the FBI who will no doubt make every effort to resist political influence over the investigation. The FBI has always been a beacon of integrity for America, so don't count them out yet.

Elsewhere we should be watching Rod Rosenstein, the deputy Attorney General and by all accounts a thoroughly honest and independent public servant. With Sessions recused from all things Russia, Rosenstein is in charge of managing that process, and if necessary appointing an independent prosecutor. Rosenstein allegedly threatened to quit in the aftermath of the Comey firing, it's possible the only reason he has not is to ensure the neutrality of the investigation. He may yet blow this whole thing wide open.

Lastly there is the Republican Party. There are plenty of honest, good public servants in that party, and the pressure is now on for them to decide if they want to do what is right, or just follow the party line. If Trump's approval continues to decline following this outcry, expect to start seeing them jump ship. And if not, there's always the possibility for a Democratic wave in 2018.

This is probably the single greatest test to our national identity that we have ever faced. A great deal depends on whether the Republicans in power ultimately decide to put party first, or country, and even more so on whether Americans finally decide to start caring about politics and vote in 2018. What unfolds over the coming months and years will determine whether the most powerful nation on Earth remains free and democratic, or lurches into autocracy and corruption. This matters, and it's something to which we should all be paying close attention

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