Never Tell Me The Odds: Wars In The Stars And Elsewhere

Dear Farid,

I hope this finds you as well as it can. I have given you the name Farid because it is ranked at the top of the list of Syrian names at the highly rigorous peer reviewed source of e-babynames.com. I imagine the odds of this really being your name are miniscule, probably less than 0.1%.

I have just now bought what Unicef tells me will be Hats And Gloves For you and Three Other Syrian Children. This cost £12, which makes an average of £1.50 per hat or pair of gloves. I hope this doesn’t mean they’re like the shitty ones I got from Primark last week that got holes in on the first day of use and then torn to bits by the dog. In reality I know this is not how charities work. It is a neatly packaged product that allows them to make donors feel like they are doing something concrete, as well as potentially scamming their way out of buying a friend a proper christmas present, both of which were driving factors in my decision. In reality, Unicef spends 2% of its donations on administration, 24% on fundraising and lord knows how much flying about the world chucking woolen goods at people. These are the practical realities of any large scale operation, but you can’t tell that to people like me in the west. We’ll just piss it all away on the Donkey Sanctuary instead.

Because I am a UK taxpayer, my government will top up my donation by 25%. Tomorrow night, however, they are planning to pass legislation to drop bombs on your country. Yeah, it is kind of the mother of all mixed messages, I know. There is some talk that there will be a rebellion amongst enough MPs to overturn the government’s plans. I don’t know what the odds of that are. 10%? The government is confident that bombs will only hit the bad guys. They acknowledge there is a chance that they won’t, but they don’t say what that chance is. This is probably academic to you anyway, as Russian, French and American bombs are already pouring over the streets you used to play in. Ours will be a drop in the ocean.

I like to think you are safely out of Syria, and planning to come to the UK. I like to think you have relatives here, and are using all the minutes you get on the camp’s computer to find out things about our culture and history. Here’s some key pointers from me:

  • Greggs do a £1 pizza slice at lunch that isn’t as terrible as it looks.
  • The Queen owns all swans, but they’re vicious bastards anyway so stay away from them.
  • Steven Fry is a sort of secular Arch-Wizard who you treat like your uncle.
  • The weather is inadequate at all times.
  • John Lewis is a man who makes people cry at Christmas so they’ll buy his things.
  • Bond movies were good, then bad, then ok, then terrible, and are now good again.

I like to think that this hat will mark a new era of health, safety and happiness in you and your family’s life. That you’ll be handed strange-coloured ones from the bottom of the box, and you and your mates will be the Orange Hat Gang. This will bind you together and start a lifelong friendship, and when you reach the UK, you will start an acappella group together at Uni and win Britain’s Got Talent and tour the world. Your message of peace and tight-knit four part harmonies will inspire people to rebuild the cities we have destroyed, and in Palmyra Airport they’ll build four statues to you that tourists drunk off Duty Free will climb up and take wobbly selfies on.

What are the odds of this? Equal to me winning the lottery ten times, only to have each ticket vapourised by a lightning bolt? Equal to me becoming Champion of All Sports 2016? Equal to finding a single drop in the ocean?  More importantly, what are the odds I want these things to happen because I genuinely care for someone I’ve never met, versus the odds that I want my donation to be meaningful, and to have something to write about in my blog? 50/50?

I don’t know the truth, I only know the numbers, and not even many of those. I know that if you choose to cross the mediterranean there is at least a 1.6% chance you won’t survive it. I know that out of all the Syrian refugees odds of you legally gaining asylum in the UK are less than 0.5%. I know there is no place where the chance of violence following you is 0%. I know that in light of the over £600 million Unicef is looking to raise, this is a drop in the ocean.

There’s another key piece of Western culture, Star Wars Episode IV,  where the characters are sailing through a sea of jagged rocks in space. The camp tin-man, who’s a bit smug about facts, says “Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately three thousand, seven hundred twenty to one.” To which the captain replies “never tell me the odds”.

Never let them tell you the odds, Farid. You are not a drop in the ocean. You are not a lottery ticket in a lightning storm. You will make it. With or without a hat.

UNICEF website.

Dear Bear Grylls

I usually have loads of time for anyone with an animal in their name: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Big Bird, Rhino from Gladiators. And when you did a cracking episode of Man vs Wild where you explored the arctic with Will Ferrell, it seemed my nomenclatural theory was confirmed.  So when my main news provider (Facebook), told me you’d put up a Manifesto for the children of today, I thought “hey, this guy’s probably smart, all that outdoors time punching salmon out of waterfalls must give him a clear and active mind, let’s see what he’s got to say”.

What followed started off so strong, then let me down big time. Here’s a play by play of your Six Commandments to our Troubled Yoof.

“1) Get fit”

Brilliant. A little under-interpolated, perhaps, but this is pointing in the right direction. Get out there, you cheeky chubby sprogs! Go do some zumba, or lacrosse, or a goddamn cheese race if it makes you happy. Just don’t eat the cheese / lacrosse sticks / other dancers afterwards.

“2) Outdoor classes for all”

Ok, keeping it concise, but I see where you’re going. This could mean “let’s offer outdoor classes for all” ie somewhere between a cajolement to schools and leisure centers to step up their provision and a Leninist “Peace, Land and Bread” promise to the masses, with an added fourth clause of “and also Mountain Biking and Stuff”, and anything on that scale is fab. On the other hand, it could be “let’s force outdoor classes upon them all”, but that’s probably knee-jerk lefty paranoia brought on from reading something in the Telegraph, so I’ll pull a Nicholas Parsons and give you the benefit of the doubt.

3)Ban computer games”

REALLY BEAR?

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I don’t even really know where to begin with this. It astonishes me the level of vitriol some of your generation like to bring to bear (lolz!) on video games, given your general lack of experience of actually playing them. I’m going to double Nicholas Parsons you and not lump you in with the Fox News Cohort that ramble incoherently about games breeding a generation of zombie mass murderers while ripping off their designs, and assume you’re attacking games based on their alleged contribution to a sedentary lifestyle. In which case, isn’t it a bit convenient that you’ve omitted TV? What does this edict boil down to, “Avoid couch potatoing, except on Friday nights at 9pm, where you can watch me set an impeccable example of healthy living by drinking pee?”.

I could tell you about lives transformed by video games (that’s what we’ve called them since 1998, when “computer games” went the way of conical 16-bit tits on Lara Croft”) , I could tell you about games that deliver stunning visual art that you can live inside, games that ask difficult questions about violence and ethics and the freakin’ nature of Time and Space. I could even point to games that get people being active and delivering a bespoke weight loss plan. But that probably wouldn’t sway you from the emblazoned image in your head of the fat crusty teen male coated in Cheesy Wotsit dust and shame, hammering away at some repetitive gorefest as an outlet for his anger at rejection by human society. Which is fine, honestly, have all the ill-informed opinions you like.

But here’s the thing, Bear. No matter what you think of something, it doesn’t give you the authority to go around asking people to “Ban” it. That’s not how a free society works. I have lots of aspects of leisure activities I’m a bit on the fence about, such as the concussions induced during rugby games, or the number of abandoned dogs left behind by the greyhound racing industry, but I’d look like a pseudo-totalitarian dork if I went around demanding their legal prohibition, especially since I’ve not got any hands-on experience of either sport. Is that really the sort of world you want anyway, Bear? Recidivist partygoers sneaking out in the night to get a gram of coke and a bashed-up copy of Asassin’s Creed 3 cut with some dodgy Candy Crush Saga? Boardwalk Empire-style feuds over turf, leading to warehouses full of FIFA 2016 getting shot up by the Rosettis in broad daylight? Central American regimes getting toppled to try and stem the flow of Pokemon White across the border?

“4) Climb mountains”

But not on Skyrim, cos then SWAT TEAMS WILL DROP THROUGH YOUR ROOF AND TAZE YOUR SEDITIOUS BALLS.

5) Take risks”

BUT NOT TOO MENY. LIEK, IF UR MAKIN A SHOW WER UR ABANDONED IN THE WILD, MAKE SURE UV GOT A FULLY STOCKED BASE CAMP LODGE  2 GO BAK 2 EACH NITE.

“6)Community Service

Oh wow. My lefty paranoia, was, if anything, underdoing it. That’s what those pesky whippersnappers need isn’t it Bear Führer? Not a job with a fair living wage, not the right to an affordable higher education, not one or any of the things that might remove them from the trap of poverty that has been linked to obesity. LORD no. A dash of conscription, that’ll get the podgy little liberals sorted right out.

I hope a bag of bees gets dumped on you, you smug dogmatising bumblefuck.

Yours Sincerely

Jackal Dean.

Dear James Blunt,

Even though I’m kind of a big deal (2 second cameo on Songs of Praise, literally tens of Youtube views, and not one, not two, but three BBC Radio Bristol interviews), you probably don’t know who I am. We actually have quite a lot in common. I too, have a monosyllabic name and blue eyes. I went to a private school, and also got baffling looks from careers advisors when I expressed interest in something other than keeping track of people’s money, suing people for their money, shooting brown people for oil money or teaching kids how to do the above.  We both make art for a living, although in reality our lines of work couldn’t be much more different, not least because I am clearly the fellow who is a big deal and selling 20 million records is just for total lameoids who’ve lost focus on the key cultural mission of doing gigs down the road for 20 quid and some chips.

My first interaction with your music resulted in the thought process of “I don’t like this music, I will not listen to this music”. Later, a snobbish comment about you that I made to a woman fan of yours probably cost me some sex, which taught me a lesson on the subject of being judgy about people’s musical tastes. Then, a few months ago, I discovered your phenomenal responses to abuse on Twitter, and figured someone who could experience such outlandish success and still engage with their detractors using such wit and self-awareness could not be so bad, whether or not his love is brilliant and / or pure.

So when you came out with this rant on the Guardian site defending your achievements, I was taken aback. I didn’t think you’d stoop to giving a serious reply to Chris Bryant’s dig, given your propensity to not take such “Haters” seriously.  Granted, its rich for New Labourites like him to chuck around claims about the state of “the arts” while simultaneously bragging about how they’ll do nothing about it. It’s also uncalled for for him to, as we say in the hip hop community “put you on blast” and name drop you in an unrelated argument as some kind of villain responsible for inequity in the art world, especially as selling off stuff for millions without any integrity is kind of New Labour’s top hobby of recent decades.

A few things though:

“Every step of the way, my background has been AGAINST me succeeding in the music business. And when I have managed to break through, I was STILL scoffed at for being too posh for the industry.”

Really James? That industry run in part by private – schooled SImon Cowell? That industry that expects people to work for years on low or no pay (as you no doubt did) to secure a living? I work mainly in indie theatre, which I suppose is pop music’s Waitrosey Cousin, but I think if I walked into a meeting of either of our industries and said that my poshness held me back I would justifiably get smacked with a Vermicelli nest.

We didn’t choose our backgrounds. We don’t have to let them constantly define us. But it would be folly to pretend they don’t confer advantages on us. You go on to say:

“the only head-start my school gave me in the music business, where the VAST majority of people are NOT from boarding school, is to tell me that I should aim high”

Really James? Oh, and also violin and piano lessons, which the majority of state schools struggle or fail to provide. And security from violence and drugs. And good food. And good enough grades to get a free degree paid for by the military. Even if said aim-high talk were the only head-start you were given, you may be startled by how little that encouragement alone is given in outside the higher echelons of our education system, which often writes off whole swathes of students deemed not worth the effort. James, whether you or I like to admit it or not, privilege exists. It colours every sector of our society, and sets the rules of the game before you even play it. It doesn’t disqualify your hard work and achievements, but it presents innumerable obstacles to those who work just as hard but do not share in its advantages. We are not the cause of privilege, but we are symptoms of the pernicious malaise it casts on the civilized world.

“I got signed in America, where they don’t give a stuff about, or even understand what you mean by me and “my ilk”, you prejudiced wazzock, and I worked my arse off. What you teach is the politics of jealousy. Rather than celebrating success and figuring out how we can all exploit it further as the Americans do, you instead talk about how we can hobble that success and “level the playing field””

REALLY JAMES? The land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, that’s your model for excellence? Do they REALLY celebrate and exploit the successes of Lockheed Martin, Shell and, yes, even Warner Bros, the conglomerate who own your record label, or do they allow them to hoard wealth towards a tiny section of society while the rest slump back into pre-war poverty and mass alienation? If this “politics of jealousy” were really in control of our stuffy little Stars And Stripes-less isle, would the 5 richest families have as much wealth as the poorest 15 million people? Is seeking a system where the less well off can get employed really going to “hobble” your success, or is that the daft and paranoid accusation of a man terrified that the American Dream may dissolve upon waking in Britain, and in fact, in America? Your “shit songs” and “plummy accent” were never a problem, but using the millions of fans you have as a platform to speak to to peddle the Reaganite guff that inequality of opportunity doesn’t exist, totally is.

Go bum a Bald Eagle, you right-wing twonk.

Yours sincerely,

Jake fucking Spleen