Thursday, 30 September 2010

Speaking truth unto power

How's this for a fearless piece of investigative journalism? Also features a classic spelling error from the paper that likes to bemoan falling educational standards.

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehn, goodbye

I'm not around tomorrow - off to Sunny Sheffield to referee the u20s Championships. The epée's fine - fewer opportunities for the fencers to shout at you, but I worry about the foil. It's so fast, and the definitions of what constitutes a proper attack or defence shift all the time.

For instance, my coaches are seriously élite, and they taught me to stand still, parry an attack and riposte without moving: the attacker brings their target to you, and if you retreat, you give them another opportunity to attack you while giving yourself more to do before you can hit them back.

This weekend, the referees were looking for a retreat to signify that the defender had actually parried, rather than just stuck his or her arm out (at foil, scoring goes to whomsoever has 'right of way', in epée both fencers score if they hit each other at the same time, so defence isn't so much of an issue). I didn't adapt to the refereeing, and got a hammering. The rules haven't changed, but the interpretation has - which makes refereeing a fraught experience.

Anyway, off I go, with my suit - another new development which worries me: I move up and down a lot while refereeing, and therefore sweat. Ugh.

Books in the post today:
Pearls of Love: How to Write Love Letters and Love Poems. Before you jump to conclusions, I won it over on Awful Library Books, one of my favourite websites (mmm, satire and cataloguing). I intend to use it in my Poetry classes if ever I get one again.
John Lucas (ed.) Writing and Radicalism.
and World Without A Superman. I was never allowed comics as a kid, so you can shut your mocking faces.

Oh, and the London Review of Books to take with me. I'm leaving my computer at work, but may wander round Sheffield with my camera, so if you're a fan of brutalist architecture, there's a treat coming.

A day to lose heroes

Tony Curtis is dead - he was good even in bad films.

Also, Alberto Contador has been suspended after positive drugs tests. Heartbreaking. I thought his victory in this year's Tour de France was a turning point for the sport - a clean race with a titanic struggle between the two very best cyclists on the circuit. But now it looks like another embarrassing fix. These days, in cycling, it's very much a matter of guilty until proven innocent. Sad, but the organisers, the sponsors, trainers, medics and cyclists have brought it upon themselves.

The competitors, actually, should be at the bottom of the list of guilty parties. Under the day-glo kit and muscle, they're the proletariat, slaving for a wage and forced to cheat because not to cheat means losing and failing to feed their families. The system conspires against them to make cheating (and risking early death or ill-health) the logical choice. It's not individuals pulling a fast one on their rivals (though they probably think it is, and scabs do deserve a beating), but an economic structure demanding superhuman effort at the cost of health - just like being a miner or steel-worker. Their bodies are their tools and the products - but the profit goes to the advertisers and organisers, and the blame accrues to the individual.

That's capitalism, folks.

In praise of the dive

I missed my train back from Shrewsbury last night, by thirty seconds.

Faced with the prospect of 70 minutes on a freezing platform, I headed off to the station pub.

If you take trains regularly, and like beer, you'll know what station pubs are like. They're awful. They don't have regular drinkers. No quiz nights, no groups of friends catching up, no row of real ale pumps.

No, station pubs are horrible dens of misery designed to trap, for a brief period, the desperate and alone. They don't need to entice you with warm fires and cheery banter. They've got you already. Where else are you going to go?

Last night's was a prime example, and it gave me a huge rush of nostalgia. The grime, the threadbare banquettes and sticky floors screamed honesty, a 'take it or leave it' atmosphere. There was no attempt to pretend that drinking alone was somehow sophisticated. Your loneliness and desperation was magnified by the two televisions showing different programs at loud volume (Crimewatch and some police fly-on-the-wall 'documentary'), by the surly slowness of the landlord, by the stained glass and bottom of the league pork scratchings (though 2.90 for a pint of mild and said scratchings was a bargain).

The place had all the charm of the station pub in which Arthur Dent eats someone else's crisps in one of the Hitchhiker's Guide sequels. The lights were low. The place was held together with wooden beams - which might have been charming - but they were painted black, and extra planks of plywood had been painted and nailed randomly to the walls to make it look somehow more beamy. Worst of all, the smell was overpoweringly awful. Thanks to the smoking ban, the true stench of desperate humanity (despite their absence) reinforced the owner's contempt. Sweat and urine mixed with the cheapest of industrial bleaches and wet rot. Every gulp of beer involved taking in a mouthful of this foetid atmosphere.

I loved it. Every day, I sit in my fake university tapping away at a computer that promises Californian new media sophistication, before heading back to my warehouse-conversion pseudo-home, perhaps detouring to a fake pub that models itself on a real pub minus the organic social life which distinguishes the real from the fake. Shrewsbury's Albion Vaults is a place where no-one Twitters. It's a horrible reminder of what we're all like, a metaphor for the human condition.

I couldn't wait to leave.

Say one thing, do another

I say chaps, the government's cracking down on tax avoidance!

Really? How?

Well, HMRC are conducting an investigation into dubious offshore banks.

Such as?

HSBC Private Banking Holdings (Suisse) SA, for one.

Oh good - one of those Swiss outfits designed to help rich Brits hide their money. 

That's the one.

Excellent. The directors and executives should be strung up for cheating the taxpayer at a time of national economic crisis. 


Er…? What do you mean?

Well, they're not exactly swinging from lamp-posts.

How about a damn good thrashing then? Public humiliation? Drummed out of public life for their selfishness?

'Fraid not, old chap. HSBC (Suisse)'s top man's rather gone the other way. Stephen Green's now a government minister for trade (he's also been the HSBC chairman and is - ironically given that Jesus chucked the moneychangers out of the temple, an ordained Anglican vicar). Just like that Sir Philip Green chappy, who paid his Monte Carlo-based wife £1.5bn from his company to avoid his £285m contribution to the country (and they're not the only ones).

It's all about the Green, then.

It is. It really is.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Hard cheese!

Thinking about getting battered at a fencing competition this weekend, I realised that most of it was psychological - I don't tease and wind up my opponents the way they wind me up. Favourite methods include turning up in knackered old kit, claiming not to have fenced for a few years, loudly praising your opponent whenever he does actually land a hit, patronisingly giving hits away, and letting them get a few points ahead before lazily flicking your way to a 5-4 victory.

Here's a lesson in how it's meant to be, from the sublime comedy The School For Scoundrels:

and as a bonus, the slightly unhinged remix from a few years ago - John Peel raved about it.

What critics do

One of my favourite writers is Gwyneth Jones, who writes sophisticated, feminist, politically complex literature which some people might call fantasy or speculative fiction or science fiction. She also writes SF and horror for teens, under the name Ann Halam, and has published a volume of critical essays.

She blogs here, and you can find some free e-books of her work here.

This is how she describes her critical work in a fascinatingly weird interview, and it resonates with me.

“I’m an intellectual. I can’t help it, I was born that way. This doesn’t mean, alas, that I’m highly qualified or highly intelligent, it just means when I see something made of words (or images, or ideas) I just have to take it apart, to see how it works, to see how it evolved; how the different parts are joined up. Exactly the same as some geeky kid who has to take the back off his or her toys; ruins watches, tinkers with the software and hardware of any hapless useful appliance. Ever since I’ve been a writer, I’ve been a critic, which is not the same as being a reviewer, because usually I’m not really interested in whether the book should sell or not. I just find the activity of dissecting all kinds of narratives (trashy or literary, I don’t care), completely fascinating. I keep trying to give it up, because it’s trouble. You take somebody’s treasured novel, some revered best-seller, apart, you put it back together not exactly the way it was before, naturally readers and writers are going to get annoyed. . . But somehow criticism keeps sneaking back into my life. I really must quit. 

I'm no great thinker, far from it, but I've always wanted to work out the how and why of a text. I remember graduating, and people saying things like 'I can never enjoy a book again, because now I can see how they work', or 'I can't switch off and enjoy a book'. I can see their points, but I always loved the kind of detective work of tracing how a collection of words becomes a character, how a plot hangs together or falls apart. I'm still capable of reading and discarding a book without a moment's thought, but I do like to re-read, to discover the deep structures and significances I missed before.

Looks like we got ourselves a feeder

The book diet is temporarily broken, thanks to the generosity of Imaginary Friend, who has sent me two Left Book Club volumes (a series I collect):

Oscar Paul's Underground Europe Calling
John Maynard's The Russian Peasant and Other Studies (book one).

If you ever see them, get them for me and I'll bung you some of the folding. They're bright orange in paperback and pinkish red in hardcover, embossed with the LBC logo on the front and (usually) Gollancz on the spine. It was an attempt to provide a political library for the working classes at an ultra-low price. Members formed reading groups down mines and up chimneys (The Dark Place's LBC met in a hay loft) and went on to lead their generation: 9 of the crusading 1945 Labour Cabinet were LBC authors, and most were subscribers.


Good morning. What a fun-packed day it's going to be. OK, the rain is cold and miserable (though proper rain is my favourite weather), but teaching's going to be good: Shakespeare, followed by a three hour session on Ethics and Media.

Both classes are intellectually satisfying: the students are always good and engaged, and there's a lot more discussion than lecturing (don't tell the students, but the Ethics one is a very thinly disguised philosophy class).

I spent last night making (accidentally) enough pasta for several days, heavily laced with sherry and chilli, then slumped in front of the TV, shouting at the news. I'm just getting so bored with the Ed'n'Dave Show. The media have turned a political story (Labour Party elects new leader) into a Freudian or Cain and Abel melodrama. Who's up, who's down? Can David ever recover from the psychological blow? Will he retreat from front-line politics? I hate that phrase, by the way - front lines are where young men and women are blown to pieces, not comfortable jobs surrounded by flunkies.

As far as I'm concerned, if David Miliband thinks he's got something to offer the public but runs away because he lost to his brother, he didn't deserve to stand for election in the first place. Political office shouldn't be about ambition, or not primarily: it should be, in Kennedy's terms, what you can do for your country. DM needs to swallow his pride, realise that (despite his dubious role in the Iraq war) he has a real contribution to make to the party and the country, and get down to work. If he doesn't, he's nothing more than an egotistical dilettante.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

I have a new hero

He's a teacher, and he's proud.

How newspapers do science

This is a lovely satirical piece on how science is reported in newspapers - I'm impressed the Guardian, which is only slightly better than the others, published it. Here's a taste. Do follow the links at the bottom of the article. 

This is a news website article about a scientific paper
In the standfirst I will make a fairly obvious pun about the subject matter before posing an inane question I have no intention of really answering: is this an important scientific finding?
In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of "scare quotes" to ensure that it's clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.
In this paragraph I will briefly (because no paragraph should be more than one line) state which existing scientific ideas this new research "challenges".
If the research is about a potential cure, or a solution to a problem, this paragraph will describe how it will raise hopes for a group of sufferers or victims.
This paragraph elaborates on the claim, adding weasel-words like "the scientists say" to shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings on to absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist.

This is how to do nostalgia

I've never seen Camberwick Green or Life on Mars, but even I can tell that this is a mash-up homage made with love:

How to write a bestseller

An immense body count? Teenage wizards? Heaving bosoms and steamy sex?

Forget it.

What you need is to pen Operation Dark Heart, a dry, academic analysis of 'spycraft and special ops on the frontline in Afghanistan'. Then the CIA will buy up the entire print run - and burn it. Repeat whenever you and your publishers need your bank accounts topping up.

More seriously, this is deeply sinister. Books of this type are regularly pre-censored or approved by the military authorities, as was this book. Then the CIA decided it wanted a say, but they were too late, and dreamed up this solution.

But don't worry - a redacted version is available on Kindle.

Feeling low?

If you've had a hard time, mentally or spiritually, go and read Blossom's account of surviving - rather triumphantly -  a hard childhood, a suicide attempt, depression and a broken marriage.

Monday, 27 September 2010

A new dawn?

You may have noted that the Labour Party has a new leader, Mr. Edward Miliband. He's a bright guy, a little goofy, and desperate to bring on the dictatorship of the proletariat and start swinging the bodies of small businessmen from the lamp-posts.

Well, that's what Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and the Conservative press seem to think - they took to calling this affable career politician 'Red Ed', despite his impeccable New Labour (ugh) credentials, and despite their deep knowledge of Labour history. Foot wasn't red, Atlee wasn't red, there's never been a 'red' leader: all Labour Party bosses have been moderate to the point of chained to the middle ground (except for Blair, who was well to the right). The Communist Party in the 'Class Against Class' period (mid-1930s) used to describe the Labour Party as 'social fascist' because they wanted to direct the working class, rather than be directed by it: the label was slightly unfair then, but suited New Labour perfectly. The nation - despite huge positive achievements instituted by the Labour Party - came to feel excluded from politics, and under constant surveillance. It's time to start consulting a little more.

Ben supported David Miliband, on the reasonable grounds that David's electable in the eyes of the Great British Public. I wasn't keen on any of the candidates, but gave Ed my first preference simply because he sounded a little more thoughtful, and unlike his brother, didn't spend the past three years in the Foreign Office resisting court demands for clarity on his awareness of War on Terror torture. He'd have been OK as leader, but he's still young, and Ed might have a massive heart attack.

Sorry - I watched The Manchurian Candidate last night.

Sound good sense

OK, it's on Huffington Post, which is never a good sign, and it's about America, but Bill Maher has some wise words about the super-rich moaning about their 3% tax rise and public opprobrium.

We could do with some of this over here:

if you are earning more than a million dollars a year and are complaining about a 3.6% tax increase, then you are by definition a greedy asshole.
And let's be clear: that's 3.6% only on income above 250 grand -- your first 250, that's still on the house.
you should be down on your knees thanking God and/or Ronald Reagan that you were lucky enough to be born in a country where a useless schmuck who contributes absolutely nothing to society can somehow manage to find himself in the top marginal tax bracket.
Last week Mayor Bloomberg of New York complained that all his wealthy friends are very upset with mean ol' President Poopy-Pants: He said they all say the same thing: "I knew I was going to have to pay more taxes. But I didn't expect to be vilified." Poor billionaires -- they just can't catch a break.
First off, far from being vilified, we bailed you out -- you mean we were supposed to give you all that money and kiss your ass, too? That's Hollywood you're thinking of. FDR, he knew how to vilify; this guy, not so much. And second, you should have been vilified -- because you're the vill-ains! I'm sure a lot of you are very nice people. And I'm sure a lot of you are jerks. In other words, you're people. But you are the villains. Who do you think outsourced all the jobs, destroyed the unions, and replaced workers with desperate immigrants and teenagers in China. 
Republicans are holding America hostage to the cause of preserving the Bush tax cuts that benefit the wealthiest 1% of people, many of them dead. They say that we need to keep taxes on the rich low because they're the job creators. They're not. They're much more likely to save money through mergers and outsourcing and cheap immigrant labor, and pass the unemployment along to you.
Americans think rich people must be brilliant; no -- just ruthless.
Another of my favorites, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann said, "I don't know where they're going to get all this money, because we're running out of rich people in this country." Actually, we have more billionaires here in the U.S. than all the other countries in the top ten combined, and their wealth grew 27% in the last year. Did yours? Truth is, there are only two things that the United States is not running out of: Rich people and bullshit. Here's the truth: When you raise taxes slightly on the wealthy, it obviously doesn't destroy the economy -- we know this, because we just did it -- remember the '90's? It wasn't that long ago. You were probably listening to grunge music, or dabbling in witchcraft. Clinton moved the top marginal rate from 36 to 39% -- and far from tanking, the economy did so well he had time to get his dick washed.
We don't hate rich people, but have a little humility about how you got it and stop complaining. Maybe the worst whiner of all: Stephen Schwarzman, #69 on Forbes' list of richest Americans, compared Obama's tax hike to "when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939." Wow. If Obama were Hitler, Mr. Schwarzman, I think your tax rate would be the least of your worries.

Touché, unfortunately

How was your weekend, anyway? What exciting things did you get up to?

I went fencing, at the Shropshire Open. It was, to say the least, embarrassing. In the first round of fights, I beat two people who should have beaten me, and lost to three whom I should have beaten. Not good because it put me lower in the seeding, but not disastrous. In the second poule, I lost 3 of my 5 fights by one point, including against some of the eventual finalists, so that was frustrating but unsurprising. Unfortunately, I also lost the other 2 fights, which makes a grand total of 0 victories in the poule, and a desperately low ranking.

So on we went to the direct elimination - 3 periods of fencing, 15 points, and because I'd arsed up the poules so badly, I get a very high seed to fence. At which point, damn it all, I finally start fencing properly - but not quite enough. I lost 15-14, which is awful. Losing 15-0 is preferable because it suggests that your opponent really is out of your league. Losing 15-14 means that you lost it mentally - you're as good as your opponent in every other way, and could/should have won.

I'm quite good at losing - through years of practice - but losing so narrowly really hurts because it's so clearly my failure. There are two types of fencer - those who shout at every hit, and those who suck it up in silence. I'm one of the latter - even if the referee gets it completely wrong (and it happened a few times yesterday), I accept it. Perhaps if I was one of dominant people on the circuit I'd become a shouter, but it's so embarrassingly alpha male (and the female equivalent). On the other hand, perhaps it works, psyching yourself up, intimidating your opponent, pressuring the referee - it may be part of the winning mentality. To me, it just feels arrogant.

Anyway, I refereed for the rest of the day, caught up with friends from the circuit, generally helped out. Next day I looked (and still look) like I've fallen down several flights of stairs - bruises everywhere. Being on my feet all day refereeing the epée competition didn't help either - I ache everywhere, but the refereeing went fine - no complaints from fencers about my decisions, though apparently my hand signals (used to cut through the noise of a busy hall) in the final looked like I was directing traffic.

Cheeringly, my contribution excepted, the standard of fencing was really high for a middle-ranking event - I refereed some really brilliant fights, especially from the teenagers, and also from a couple of OAPs who've re-emerged on the circuit. The organisation was excellent and the food (particularly the basil and hummous sandwiches) really tasty. These things matter!

I came away from the weekend with a new foil (stupidly expensive), a bottle of wine and a crystal glass for my refereeing efforts, and two jars of homemade jam, which I think makes up for the pain and exhaustion.

Uppal news…Uppal news…Uppal news…Uppal news…

Disappointment today, fans of honest Parliamentary representation.

I wrote to the Speaker of the House of Commons (who presides over debates) and to the Parliamentary Commission for Standards, asking them to investigate Mr. Uppal's false statement in Parliament.

The PCS tell me that 'conduct in the Chamber is a matter for the Speaker'. Ian Davis, 'Mr Speaker's Trainbearer' (this is all getting a bit Gilbert and Sullivan) writes that 'Mr Speaker has asked me to point out that it is not the role of the Speaker to verify statements made in the Chamber, as each individual Member of Parliament is responsible for his or her own words'.

This is all very unsatisfactory. The Trainbearer is wrong - I didn't ask the Speaker to verify Mr Uppal's words, I asked him to investigate an occasion on which the heart of democracy in this country was either misled or lied to. But it seems that an MP can tell and untruth to our elected representative without any fear of sanction from anybody.

Of course, in a proper democracy, the fearless press - in this case the Express and Star - would keep an eye on the local MPs, reporting their every action and holding them to account. But as the paper in question is a cynical, badly-funded collection of press releases and racist ranting with a slavish and unquestioning devotion to the outer reaches of Conservative 'thought', I don't think we can expect much from it other than fawning, forelock-tugging adoration for Uppal. Scrutiny is, I fear, out of the question.

Any suggestions about how to pursue this? There's no point writing to the Conservative Party whips - they're interested in power, not honesty.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Morituri te salutant!

Yes, I'm about to offer up my carcass to the abuse of better sportsmen than I - it's the Shropshire Open this weekend. I'm off tonight to help set up the competition. I'll do the foil competition tomorrow until I'm knocked out (about mid-morning), then referee for the rest of the day. I'll referee the epée on Sunday, take the equipment down, then slink back into bed to sulk and nurse my wounds.

It's a traditional thing.

This is how I expect to feel:

Another victory for press regulation

A lesson in media studies: what matters is how you write the rules.

I complained about the local paper, the Express and Swastika, describing Travellers as 'plaguing' the area. I felt that this was discrimination and incitement to racial hatred.

There are problems with this - Irish Travellers are a recognised racial group under the relevant legislation, but not merely Travellers. Fair enough.

What I wasn't expecting was to be told that under Press Complaints Commission rules, Clause 12 (banning discrimination) only applies to individuals. This means that you can't publish an article which reads

Joe Bloggs is mean because he's black/Jewish/Northern/insert stereotype of your choice here

but it's perfectly acceptable to publish an article which reads

All Jews/Blacks/heterosexuals/Northerners are mean.

The only recourse is to challenge the article on grounds of accuracy, as the PCC told me when I proposed this formulation:

The phrase 'all Jews are mean' could be challenged under accuracy but, insofar as Clause 12 goes, it could not be considered a breach.  This is the same for all groups, be they ethnic, religious, gender etc etc.

Got to admire the newspaper industry's skill at setting its own rules. As far as I can see, this means any newspaper can be as racist/discriminatory as they like, as long as they don't single out individuals.

Charity begins at home

You may be familiar with the ONE foundation, which features endless whining from Bono - it looks like a vanity project populated by rock stars and rich capitalists after some decent PR. Like many celebrity outfits (and sports charities), it doesn't actually do anything charitable, it lobbies for clean water, being nice to everyone and similar unobjectionable things.

One thing it's very good at is ending poverty. More specifically, it's put an end to poverty in the New York executive and marketing communities.

Bono's ONE campaign had blitzed the New York media with fancy gift boxes. These contained several items, from designer water bottles to $15 bags of Starbucks coffee, as well as information explaining that poverty-stricken African children live on less than $1.25 a day – "about the cost of the cookie in this box".
in 2008, the most recent year for which tax records are available, ONE took $14,993,873 in donations from philanthropists, of which a thrifty $184,732 was distributed to charity. More than $8m was spent on executive and employee salaries.

An admirable achievement, I'm sure you'll agree.

What to do with spare minutes

Easy: make a formal complaint about Paul Uppal MP to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. I wonder whether he feels the years until the next election (2015) stretching out like a prison sentence.

I would like to draw your attention to the statement made by Mr Paul Uppal MP (reference: Hansard • Citation: HC Deb, 15 September 2010, c896)
Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West) (Con): Without simply reiterating the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and for Chichester (Mr Tyrie), I ask the Minister to take on board my deep concern about postal voting fraud. Although I welcome individual registration, I fear that it will not wholly tackle that problem, to which I have referred before.

15 Sep 2010 : Column 897
In my constituency-I must choose my words carefully, because the case is currently being investigated by the Electoral Commission-200 more votes were cast than electoral ballots were issued. I want to impress on the Minister a point that was raised with me recently by a constituent. He said that Labour Members were going from door to door asking if people wanted them to help them to fill out postal voting forms.

I am concerned that Mr Uppal (who has repeatedly made reference to being the victim of electoral fraud) has knowingly or unconsciously misled the house. 
I contacted the Electoral Commission to ask about investigations relating to Wolverhampton South West in the 2010 General Election. Their reply (September 17th), which I reproduce below, makes it clear that they investigated an 'error' - not electoral fraud -  and the problem was resolved with the acquiescence of all the candidates. 

Dear Mr. Vole,

Thank you for your email to the Electoral Commission.
The Commission is not investigating any allegation of fraud in Wolverhampton South West. We made initial enquiries about an error in the count at the 2010 general election. However the matter was closed with no further action as a result of all parties accepting the result of the count.
I hope this answers your question and please let me know if you require any further information.
Kind Regards
Iredia Oboh 
Public Information Adviser 
The Electoral Commission 
Trevelyan House 
Great Peter Street 
London SW1P 2HW 
Tel: 020 7271 0592 
Fax: 020 7271 0505 

They told me in a subsequent email that they have written to Mr Uppal to remind him of the situation. 
I can only infer that Mr Uppal knew that an inquiry into an error had been opened, and agreed that the matter was closed, yet chose to claim otherwise in the House. I wrote to him on an earlier date to ask whether he has reported his suspicions of electoral fraud to the police, but he has not replied. The local press contains no references to complaints or inquiries.
I am concerned that Mr Uppal has abused his position as a Member to pursue some kind of political vendetta without regard for truth or accuracy, and I would be grateful if you could investigate the matter. 
Update: hello again Tory Central Office - nice of you to drop by.  


The Tories, as we know, are scum, as are their Lib Dem serfs. But what's becoming clear is that, for all their bluster, they're cowardly scum.

There are decisions that need making: whether or not to proceed with a new nuclear weapons system, and how to update the local government taxation system.

These are both decisions they're too scared to take - they can't afford the new nukes (thankfully), but their own voters and the Tory newspapers would rather we all starved than give up the chance to turn the planet into a poisonous hell.

The council tax is based on the value of your home. The valuations were carried out in 1991, since when property values have increased by a huge amount. But - Tory voters are loaded and live in expensive houses, and don't want to pay more tax.

What to do? What to do?

They've come up with a cunning plan. They're going to take all the hard decisions that ruin the lives of the poor right now - the poor don't vote, or vote Labour anyway. However, they're going to put off the nukes/council tax decisions until after the next election - when they'll be out of office. Then they can blame Labour for 'attacking the middle classes' and 'leaving Britain undefended'.

Scum, the lot of them.

Knowledge is Power?

An old university friend of mine is leading a campaign to make information free. Down in murky Brighton, his friend Jason Kitcat (yes, really) is putting clips of council meetings on Youtube.

This seems like an excellent use of new technology to strengthen democracy. After all, anyone can physically attend a council meeting. But no, the authority is claiming 'breach of copyright' and 'political use', which sounds like a desperate attempt to avoid the spotlight - after all, it's OK when a bored local watches you fix and plot, but Youtube exposes you to the scrutiny of the masses, and we can't have that. How can honest footage of discussions be biased?

Can a council 'own' footage of a discussion? Doesn't the council 'belong' to the taxpayers anyway? As far as I can tell, it's public property. Will they, as Jim notes, ban the reporting of council discussions in newspapers?

More drugs, anyone?

This is what happens when Americans want drugs, and the authorities decide that it's all the fault of the suppliers, not those demanding the product - a line of countries wrecked by violent capitalists.

What's the answer? Legalisation would benefit consumers and the countries inbetween, but I'm wary of legalising addictive substances - perhaps decriminalisation would help to treat addiction through the health system, but I doubt it would put an end to criminal distribution and all the violence which comes with it. I do know that the current system has fuelled a 40 year civil war in Colombia, a long one in Peru, and is bringing Mexico to the condition of a failed state - all so Americans can party harder.

Favourite moments in popular culture

I've always admire Gremlins as social satire - the first film as a parody of adolescence, the second as an explicit attack on 1980s social values, particularly yuppie capitalism.

Here are the scenes I'm talking about: the first features my favourite popular culture reference to Susan Sontag of all time.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Pop goes the Vole (sod the Weasel)

Reading something about novelty hits and songs you can't get out of your head, I decided to finally listen to Rihanna's song 'Umbrella', which everyone says is the most annoyingly catchy song ever written:

No. There must be something wrong with me. It's slightly annoying, but it's so identikit r'n'b pop that it's completely unmemorable to me, even with the 'ella ella ella' bit which is meant to be the essential bit.

So I thought I'd listen to Las Ketchup, which was a huge hit a couple of years ago. I've never heard that either. Listen, I don't have music TV and don't listen to Radio 1 or - thankfully - commercial/local radio. I'm too angry as it is.

OK. The floor-sweeping reminds me of Nirvana. Unfortunately, none of the rest of the song does. It's jolly enough, and certainly better than Klaxons or Kula Shaker, but again, it's not stuck in my head.

So, what's next? Ah, The Macarena.

A lot simpler, just as annoying, but somehow more memorable, damn it. I really dislike the men's voices and the women's lyrics. We're getting somewhere though.

Let's try Jive Bunny, from way back when I was young.

This track may be why I own lots of charity shop swing and easy-listening music (especially the Klaus Wunderlich and His Hammond-a-go-go records). It's lazily cynical, but I have to admit to a sneaking admiration for it.

Which brings me to my favourite novelty record of all:

Why? Surely this is feminist satire in its purest form: a woman posing and singing as an anti-feminist doll, inviting manipulation? It's a clear statement of the position of women in the post-feminist period as male lust objects (…wrapped in plastic, it's fantastic… you can brush my hair, undress me anywhere'?.

In fact, it's one of the saddest songs I've ever heard: they're both trapped in a fantasy which isn't of their making. She protests that 'it's fantastic', but she's explicitly under the sway of male whims, to which she submits because to stop the 'party' would be to admit its artificiality - she's so desperate to keep up the illusion that she's ready to 'beg on my knees' and let him 'touch' and 'play'. Does anyone believe her final protestation that she's having 'so much fun' and 'loves' Ken? Not me. She's crying inside, mark my words.

All Ken wants to do is play increasingly sinister sex-games: 'We're just getting started' is distinctly threatening.

I'm A Barbie Girl In The Barbie World 
Life In Plastic, It's Fantastic 
You Can Brush My Hair, Undress Me Everywhere 
Imagination, Life Is Your Creation 

Come On, Barbie, Let's Go Party 

I'm A Barbie Girl In The Barbie World 
Life In Plastic, It's Fantastic 
You Can Brush My Hair, Undress Me Everywhere 
Imagination, Life Is Your Creation 

I'm A Blonde Single Girl In The Fantasy World 
Dress Me Up, Take Your Time, I'm Your Dollie 
You're My Doll, Rock And Roll, Feel The Glamour And Pain 
Kiss Me Here, Touch Me There, Hanky-Panky 

You Can Touch, You Can Play 
You Can Say I'm Always Yours, Oooh Whoa 

I'm A Barbie Girl In The Barbie World 
Life In Plastic, It's Fantastic 
You Can Brush My Hair, Undress Me Everywhere 
Imagination, Life Is Your Creation 

Come On, Barbie, Let's Go Party, Ha Ha Ha, Yeah 
Come On, Barbie, Let's Go Party, Oooh, Oooh 
Come On, Barbie, Let's Go Party, Ha Ha Ha, Yeah 
Come On, Barbie, Let's Go Party, Oooh, Oooh 

Make Me Walk, Make Me Talk, Do Whatever You Please 
I Can Act Like A Star, I Can Beg On My Knees 
Come Jump In, Be My Friend, Let Us Do It Again 
Hit The Town, Fool Around, Let's Go Party 

You Can Touch, You Can Play 
You Can Say I'm Always Yours 
You Can Touch, You Can Play 
You Can Say I'm Always Yours 

Come On, Barbie, Let's Go Party, Ha Ha Ha, Yeah 
Come On, Barbie, Let's Go Party, Oooh, Oooh 
Come On, Barbie, Let's Go Party, Ha Ha Ha, Yeah 
Come On, Barbie, Let's Go Party, Oooh, Oooh 

I'm A Barbie Girl In The Barbie World 
Life In Plastic, It's Fantastic 
You Can Brush My Hair, Undress Me Everywhere 
Imagination, Life Is Your Creation 

I'm A Barbie Girl In The Barbie World 
Life In Plastic, It's Fantastic 
You Can Brush My Hair, Undress Me Everywhere 
Imagination, Life Is Your Creation 

Come On, Barbie, Let's Go Party, Ha Ha Ha, Yeah 
Come On, Barbie, Let's Go Party, Oooh, Oooh 
Come On, Barbie, Let's Go Party, Ha Ha Ha, Yeah 
Come On, Barbie, Let's Go Party, Oooh, Oooh 

- Oh, I'm Having So Much Fun! 
- Well, Barbie, We're Just Getting Started! 
- Oh, I Love You Ken!

And it's infuriatingly catchy. Let's hear your suggestions.


This is the new trailer for the imminent Harry Potter film. I was struc by how similar it is to parts of the Lord of the Rings films, primarily the one in which the band travel through the mines of Moria.

Obviously the plots are similar, given that there aren't that many plots available, as Propp knew (damaged hero ultimately isolated by the burden of destiny, doubt, betrayal, extremely powerful evil adversary, travel, magic, destroying magical objects, white-bearded powerful mentor occasionally tempted to wield authority, temporary defeat), but the cinematography seemed very familiar - minor key orchestral music, running along mountain tops, man in white beard falling backwards, just as when Gandalf falls into the Chasm. There's certainly a filmic grammar for epics, especially magical ones. Does the predictability affect your enjoyment, or perhaps enhance it?


My Mac is fixed - beautifully so by Anthony at Bad Apples Repair, in bohemian Moseley. He had to peel off my lovely Magritte transfer, but I can replace that, and I can live with the dents as a reminder of my own stupidity.

Right, on with preparing for teaching.


Morning. I'll be quiet today - I'm skiving work shortly to go to Sunny Birmingham to get my Mac's screen fixed. Given my recent luck, I'll drop it in front of the train before I get there.

Perhaps it's just touch-screens I break - I've cracked the one on my nasty phone, a piece of (free) junk designed to look just enough like an iPhone to fool the short-sighted, and just different enough to avoid getting sued. Thankfully, my iPod Touch remains intact. For now.

So - off to the Metropolis, then back for teaching at 6 - delightful.

I went fencing in Shrewsbury last night. I was meant to go for dinner with one of my coaches and his family, but ended up sitting on a train between Telford and Oakengates while the local cops chased kids along the track. Quite frankly, I think the steam train shouldn't have stopped for Jenny Agutter and her brothers, and it certainly shouldn't have stopped for these brats. If, as a society, we're going to say that ten-year old children are capable of committing murder and standing trial as adults (like the Bulger murderers), they can bloody well take the consequences of playing on railway lines. Let them play - Darwinism in action.

Alternatively, perhaps children shouldn't be considered capable of moral responsibility for serious crimes?

So anyway, instead of tucking into a fine dinner washed down with the vintage Rioja I'd brought along as my contribution, I stood in a packed and smelly commuter train while assorted little delinquents mooned us. Ah, the romance of the rails.

(My mother was an extra in this film!)

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

A quick plug

All hail Five Leaves Press - the fount of interesting lefty, historical, working-class, minority and Northern books (criticism, fiction, poetry, plays) at very reasonable prices.

I ordered Ken Worpole's Dockers and Detectives (a study of 1930s working-class writing) and John Lucas's The Radical Twenties: Writing, Politics, Culture - and they've included a copy of Kevin Fegan's dramatic poem 'Blast' for free. Gentlemen and scholars!

The terror of the blank page

It's that time of year when I have to get writing lectures on books I've either never read, or haven't read for a long time. I also have to get on with doing some research, which is how I'll get a better job elsewhere.

Unfortunately, my mind freezes at the sight of the blank page - something with which students may be familiar when starting essays.

We aren't alone: this is a quotation from Swann's Way, volume one of his massive Remembrance of Things Past:

And these dreams reminded me that, since I wished, some day, to become a writer, it was high time to decide what sort of books I was going to write. But as soon as I asked myself the question, and tried to discover some subjects to which I could impart a philosophical significance of infinite value, my mind would stop like a clock, I would see before me vacuity, nothing, would feel either that I was wholly devoid of talent, or that, perhaps, a malady of the brain was hindering its development.

Love conquers all?

Repairing to a local hostelry for refreshment last night, we were entranced by the sight of a pair of young lovers nearby. He - bearded, scruffy in a designer kind of way - patiently sat there while she - blonde, fashionable - tenderly pulled out locks of his nasal hair.

Is this normal? Would you let your partner do this to you, in public or in private? Personally, I'm not keen. It's probably quite painful, invasive and rather domineering. And revolting. Did I mention how revolting this tableau was?

The Express and Star reverts to type

How do you feel about this?

Security has been stepped up after blacks who have plagued Wolverhampton for six months set up camp alongside three city centre car showrooms packed with luxury vehicles.

Or perhaps try this:

Security has been stepped up after Jews who have plagued Wolverhampton for six months set up camp alongside three city centre car showrooms packed with luxury vehicles.

Anything seem a bit racist about that? I think so. You wouldn't get away with it, legally. Blaming behaviour on social/cultural/ethnic origin is clearly unacceptable. But apparently this is fine:

Security has been stepped up after travellers who have plagued Wolverhampton for six months set up camp alongside three city centre car showrooms packed with luxury vehicles.

is perfectly acceptable on the front page of a daily local newspaper - unsurprisingly, the comments underneath are deeply racist. Another burst of letter-writing hoves into view…

Wednesday morning and all's well

The trauma of MacBreak is receding - a new (very expensive) arrived in the post this morning, so I just have to hang on until a repairman can come out to install it for me.

On the agenda today - lots of exciting teaching then off to Shrewsbury for fencing. After a very disrupted last year, I'm determined to get there regularly for the amusement of my opponents.

This is exactly what goes on in my club:

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Recession in Soundbites; or Let's Play Bullshit Bingo!

There's an excellent piece in the Irish Times by Fintan O'Toole about the political class's abuse of language, which is well worth reading even if you don't know or care about Irish politics.

Underneath, the comments are rather better than average. Particularly good is 'Pablo', who provides us with an exhaustive list of the lies and bullshit ladled out by the establishment over the last couple of years - you've heard the same words from every politician and banker the world over:

Stop talking the country down Fintan. 
They stopped making land a long time ago Fintan. 
This is not a time to apportion blame Fintan. 
Rent is dead money Fintan. 
We are where we are Fintan. 
Everyone lost the run of themselves Fintan. 
There will be a soft landing Fintan.
Leave it to the experts Fintan. 
No one could have foresaw the collapse Fintan. 
The bank guarantee will be the cheapest bank rescue in the world Fintan. 
No one could have foresaw the costs that Anglo would incur Fintan. 
Ireland is different Fintan. 
We will all share the pain Fintan. 
NAMA is the only (holy) show in town Fintan. 
The banks are well capitalized Fintan. 
We need to recapitalize the banks to get credit flowing again Fintan. 
We need to adequately reward the wonderful entrepreneurship of our best and brightest Fintan. 
The fundamentals of the economy are sound Fintan. 
There is no evidence of any wrongdoing Fintan. 
The banks are fine, it's only a short-term liquidity problem Fintan. 
Regulation is strangling innovation Fintan. 
We need to protect the bondholders or our borrowing costs will go up Fintan. 
Everything we do is in an attempt to protect taxpayers Fintan. 
We can't expect to keep the best talent if we don't pay them these wages Fintan. 
The losses are very annoying but they are manageable Fintan. 
I don't know why people who talk the economy down don't go and commit suicide Fintan.
The economy has turned the corner Fintan. 
People are just playing politics here Fintan. 
We have a job to do (going forward) Fintan. 
Our European colleagues support us fully Fintan. 
We need to don the green jersey and drive it on Fintan. 
The Taoiseach was only a little hoarse and he has my full support Fintan.  

For my novelist friends

Who needs creative writing classes when Stewie Griffin summarises novels in one short wind-up?

'Now I Am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds'

So said Robert Oppenheimer, when he successfully detonated the first nuclear weapon.

I'm a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament because using or threatening to use weapons designed to kill civilians and poison the land for generations to come are immoral.

Have a look at this slideshow - a collection of weapons test photographs. They're awe-inspiring, artistic, often beautiful, but also a reminder that as a civilisation, we're far happier putting our money and expertise into destruction than creation.

Our government is planning to spend £20bn on a new generation of (illegal) nuclear weapons in the midst of a massive economic crash, because apparently the ones we have won't kill enough millions of innocent people. Currently, Britain rents nuclear warheads from the US (so much for the constant refrain of 'independent nuclear deterrent' - not independent and not a deterrent):
Each Trident submarine carries up to 48 nuclear warheads, each of which can be sent to a different target. Each warhead has an explosive power of up to 100 kilotons, the equivalent of 100,000 tons of conventional high explosive. This is 8 times the power of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, killing an estimated 140,000 people.  

Of all the government expenditure to be reviewed, the nuclear weapons programme is explicitly protected.

Even if we could afford it, it shouldn't exist. It's time countries earned respect for treating each other fairly and openly, not because some of them retain the ability to destroy the rest in minutes.

In which Vole catches up with popular culture

In mourning for my wrecked MacBook, I beached myself on the sofa last night, unable to read, knit or craft matchstick models of Notre Dame (my usual nocturnal activities), and found myself watching The Breakfast Club after Water Lilies (which is less immediately interesting because it's proper art) had finished.

I'd never seen it before - it's one of those teen movies apparently beloved of my generation, but having parents who didn't take us to the cinema and believed that television was only worthwhile if it screened an omnibus edition of that week's Angelus, it passed me by.

What did I think? Emotionally manipulative, all the psychological depth of a fortune cookie, incoherent narrative and deeply cynical. By and large, I quite enjoyed it, until the fateful moment when Ally Sheedy's character was made over from a gamine goth to horrible 80s suburban 50s beauty queen - and this was presented as a good thing, the start of a wonderful new life! Ugh - hegemony strikes again.

I mean really, from this:

to this?

Monday, 20 September 2010

Follow that man

I've just found Paul Uppal MP's Twitter feed. It's truly saddening. 1 entry (February 2010). There's a man who's not keen on communication.

Can't believe the snow in Wolverhampton. Will the Wolves match be on tonight?

Incisive stuff from a first-class mind.

Even more sad are the feeds he's following, presumably to tell him what to think: Sky News (which is owned by Murdoch, just like the Tory Party), the Tory Press Office (heaven forbid he thinks of something for himself), Iain Dale (very rightwing Conservative website owner) and his own Tory Party agent, Kerry Buist. Lovely Kerry has 8 followers, despite not posting a single tweet.

I could weep for the man, were I not laughing.

Still, he hasn't been idle: his website's up and running again, with footage of his maiden speech, and important developments. While other MPs have been trying to help their constituents during the biggest recession ever, Paul's nominated a local curry house for an industry award.

Good sense of priorities, that man. Those of you with Twitter: get stuck in.

But that's not all. He went to an Olympics event. This is what happened:

Paul said: “It was great to meet the team behind delivering the London 2012 Games to mark ‘2 Years To Go’.  It’s important that the benefits of the Games are felt across every nation and region, including Wolverhampton South West, but it’s just as important that people grasp the opportunities that are already taking place now.  There are lots of ways for people to get involved and I really want to make sure that communities are aware of what’s out there – across sport, culture, education and business.”
Seb Coe, Chair of the London 2012 Organising Committee said: “I was delighted to meet Paul Uppal at our event.  It is important that MPs across the UK help us get the message out about the opportunities generated by hosting the world’s greatest sporting event on these shores.  At the Organising Committee, just as with the athletes themselves we are now accelerating our planning, and we want the public to start planning their Summer of 2012 – signing up for tickets, or applying to be a volunteer.”  

Very inspiring. Imagine, Seb Coe taking time out to talk to our very own MP. I'm impressed.

But what's this? He talked to Nick Raynsford too - and they had very similar things to say:

Nick said: London 2012 will be a fantastic experience in which Greenwich and Woolwich will feature prominently. There are all sorts of ways people can get involved, not least through the volunteering programme. Anyone who’s interested can find out more by logging on to There are lots of ways for people to get involved and I really want to make sure that communities in Greenwich and Woolwich are aware of what’s out there – across sport, culture, education and business.” 
Seb Coe, Chair of the London 2012 Organising Committee said: “I was delighted to see Nick at our event.  It is important that MPs across the UK help us get the message out about the opportunities generated by hosting the world’s greatest sporting event on these shores. At the Organising Committee we are now accelerating our planning, and we want the public to start planning their Summer of 2012 – signing up for tickets, or applying to be a volunteer.”  

He also met John Hammond MP - guess what they said:

Stephen Hammond said: “It was great to meet the team behind delivering the London 2012 Games to mark ‘2 Years To Go’. It is important that the benefits of the Games are felt across London and in every nation and region, including Wimbledon, but it’s just as important that people grasp the opportunities that are taking place right now. There are lots of ways for people to get involved and I really want to make sure that communities know how to make the most of them – across sport, culture, education and business.”
Seb Coe, Chair of the London 2012 Organising Committee said: “I was delighted to meet Stephen at our event. It is important that all MPs help us get the message out about the opportunities generated by hosting the world’s greatest sporting event on these shores. Just as athletes are getting ready for the Games, at the Organising Committee we are now accelerating our planning and we want the public to start planning their own Summer of 2012 – sign up for ticket information, or apply to be a volunteer.”

What an amazing coincidence. You don't think that the LOCOG press office is fabricating quotes for lazy MPs to cut and paste for their local newspapers do you? That would be terribly cynical!