Notes From a Small Planet

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The race is on... or is it?

Hello. Here is the news.

I've always wanted to say that on the BBC.

Now, where was I before we were so rudely interrupted back in January? Ah yes: reflecting on the inauguration of President George W. Bush, an event which brought to an end an amazing sequence of events that made the American electoral system a global laughing stock. Yet now, with a British General Election expected to be called any minute, I'm beginning to wonder whether the Americans have got a better system than we Brits in one respect at least.

Everyone expects the UK election to take place on May 3, and the evidence to support that view increases by the day. Billboard ads are starting to appear urging us to vote this way or that, and the parties are redoubling their customary attacks on one another.

But it might yet turn out to be a false alarm. We can't be sure when we're going to the polls, because the Prime Minister gets to decide when the election takes place.

This state of affairs is hardly Mr Blair's fault; the system was in place long before he was born. Ancient tradition dictates that a UK Parliament lasts for up to five years - but also that, within that limit, the incumbent Prime Minister can call the election whenever he or she likes. It's rather like allowing one of the athletes in a race to fire the starting gun, and inevitably it provides a small but significant advantage to the party currently in power.

On the other hand, the power to choose the election date also imposes a degree of responsibility on the PM. Already, some politicians and pundits are arguing that to hold a spring election would be unfair to those in rural areas of Britain, where chaos currently reigns due to the devastating epidemic of foot and mouth disease that has wrecked the British farming industry. Other voices argue that to delay the voting would send the wrong signals about the state of the nation; that it would add to the perception among some overseas observers that Britain is currently a plague zone, to be avoided at all costs. So Mr Blair will upset someone whatever he does.

The US system of fixed terms of government eliminates all of this. Bill Clinton may have had plenty of other problems as his term of office came to an end, but at least no-one could blame him for the timing of the poll. The American system means that everyone knows where they stand. Businesses know when the political uncertainty can be expected to end, and the incumbent cannot call an opportunistic snap election just because the opinion polls look good.

Butterfly ballots and hole-punching voting machines? No thanks. But perhaps the American way of democracy does have some advantages over the British version.

Say what?

A new pop phenomenon is sweeping Britain.

Hear'Say have been smashing sales records with their debut single 'Pure And Simple', which sold over 550,000 copies in its first week of release. It's the fastest-selling debut single in British history: only Elton John's Princess Diana tribute 'Candle In The Wind 1997' and Band Aid's all-star charity extravaganza 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' have ever sold faster in their first week in British shops. Why, it even appears that Hear'Say may manage to spend a second week at Number One - a rare feat these days!

If you live in Britain, you won't have been able to avoid knowing about the three-girl, two-boy ensemble with the oddly-punctuated name. If you're reading this elsewhere, the sudden rise of Hear'Say will require explanation.

In a sense, they're the spiritual heirs of The Monkees, the Sixties quartet who began life as actors playing a pop group in a TV series and then actually became a hugely successful pop group in real life, selling truckloads of records of the songs heard in the TV show.

Hear'Say also appeared in a TV series before they became a group - but there's a twist. Where 'The Monkees' was a comedy series, Hear'Say's series 'Popstars' was a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the creation of the group. Viewers saw some young hopefuls auditioning and being rejected, and others being accepted and groomed for stardom. The final episode featured the group's first live performance, and the celebrations as they discovered that their single had reached Number One.

It could be argued that Hear'Say bring a new frankness to the marketing of pop. In the past, there's been a stigma about 'manufactured bands' with contrived images, even though some of the hippest bands in history have been just as image-conscious in their own way. The Beatles rose to fame sporting matching suits and haircuts. The Sex Pistols replaced Glen Matlock, who could write songs and play bass, with Sid Vicious, who could do neither but looked cool. With Hear'Say, there is no hypocrisy.

And yet I find it all a bit depressing. There's something saddening about the way that people can be shown how a product is being cynically marketed, have the exploitation explained to them, and still they'll happily rush out to consume the product. Everyone watched the group members being chosen largely for good looks, blandness of personality and eagerness to please the record-industry Svengalis, but no-one minds. Look! Hear'say are on the telly and they're cute! What else could possibly matter? Which one is your favourite?

Anyway, I think they're doing it all too fast - and I don't just mean by releasing Hear'Say dolls at the same time as their first single. One of the group, the wonderfully-named Myleene Klass, has already collapsed from nervous exhaustion - and surely that's not meant to happen until at least midway through a band's first world tour? At this rate, they'll develop drug problems by May and split up 'due to personal and musical differences' by June.

But then, I suppose they could always make another TV series about the split.

Warped factor one!

Many of us on h2g2 are fans of 'Star Trek', not least myself and the Editor of this fine journal. However, most of us are happy to enjoy the show without having permanent reminders of it etched into our bodies.

Not so obsessive Trekkie Kevin Nightingale of Peterborough, England, who has had portraits of James T. Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, Catherine Janeway and Benjamin Sisko - the captains from the four different versions of the show - tattooed on his back. He also has a tattoo of the starship from 'Star Trek - The Next Generation', and hopes to collect further tattoos depicting the starships from the original 'Star Trek' and the spin-off 'Voyager' and 'Deep Space Nine' series.

33-year-old roof tiler Kevin has said:
'My dream now is to go to America and meet the actors and get them to sign under their pictures. I have always loved 'Star Trek' and have been watching it for as long as I can remember. My family think I am mad, but I think it's great.'

Those family members who think Kevin is mad presumably include his sons - Kirk, Jean-Luc and Benjamin Sisko Nightingale.

Beam me up, Scotty...

Weigh out

Finally, a remarkable tale of life imitating h2g2 art.

One of my favourite places on h2g2 has always been The Church Of The True Brownie, that delightful place where true believers congregate to contemplate the truly important things in life, such as chocolate cake.

Now I hear of a trend in the American Bible Belt for Christian dieting. Books with titles such as 'More Of Jesus, Less Of Me' have sold rapidly to bulky believers who want to find the Lord and lose the lard.

However, the greatest success of all has been Gwen Shamblin's 'Weigh Down Diet', which has sold more than a million copies. Shamblin's approach to weight loss is, to say the least, somewhat unorthodox. She believes that obesity is the result of spiritual emptiness. She also claims that exercise is dangerous, and that eating vegetables causes illness.

And she encourages her readers to eat brownies.

Archbishop Marv the Grate, the spiritual leader of the Church of the True Brownie, was delighted when the 'Post' told him about Ms Shamblin's ministry.

He said:
'I believe she is a de facto member of the Church. She just needs to be introduced to the Church of the True Brownie!'

And so the gospel of chocolate-flavoured enlightenment has spread, on earth as in cyberspace.



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