Thursday, 30 April 2015

Just stuff going round my head

It's been an interesting week, for me at least. Varied, anyway. The election campaign rumbles away in the background and I'm getting nervous that the Tories will somehow scrape back in. All these 'shy Tories' as the pollsters call them, too ashamed to admit that they're selfish racists. Though who knows, maybe they're shy UKIPpers these days…

I'm not sure why everyone's calling it the dullest election campaign in generations. It's not the first coalition government to be tested at the polls but it is the first election in a while since the outcome is virtually certain to be another coalition, formal or informal. Boring? No. Cynical? Absolutely. The parade of faked public meetings is deeply depressing, as is the signposting of speeches through the media. I don't think the media have been particularly good or interesting this time either. Sure, the papers have fallen in line with their favoured parties, but there's been a distinct lack of incisive analysis and critique.

The Telegraph has been particularly disgraceful. Having sold its editorial integrity to HSBC, I suppose it's easier to sell it to the next bidder. In particular, making Tory 'open letters' front page news was spectacularly craven. Even worse, the 'small business' letter turned out to be an embarrassing fiasco. If the Telegraph couldn't even be bothered to count the number of real names, check the solvency and trading status of these companies or even whether the companies were aware their names had been put to the letter (one was signed by a waiter on behalf of his company: he happened to be a Tory candidate too), it doesn't deserve the name 'newspaper'.

TV and radio have also been largely poor. Cameron sabotaged the debates by refusing to appear which is cowardly but a standard response by incumbents. It seemed bad then but I don't know if there's been any long-lasting damage. There's rumbling from his own side about disengagement of course (his 'pumped up' speech reminded me of a slightly drunk squire cheering on his nag at a point-to-point) but this campaign seems to consist of a series of tea-cup storms which last no more than a day.

My own broadcast media choices have been disappointing. The Today show is its usual blustering, hectoring but ignorant self only more so, Newsnight is desperate to appear alternative but ultimately comes across as gimmicky, while the pair of them seem to be wholly dependent on the talking points – and weltanschauang – of Conservative Central Office. Certain presenters are openly rightwing (Humphrys, Evan Davies) and the media pool is culturally disposed towards an elitist status quo, having attended the same (private) schools and universities as those they're meant to be reporting upon, but there's also a deeper structural condition which renders the media an essential part of hegemonic control. The discourse used is instructive: not on the election but indicative of the mindset is what I heard on Moneybox recently: 'Is your cleaner stealing from you?'. Heaven forfend that a cleaner might listen to Radio Four rather than be employed by listeners…

Is it, as an email I just received claims, 'the Digital Election'? It's not clear. Certainly billboards seem a bit passé now we can all circulate them on Twitter or photoshop them then circulate them. And yet… most social media are closed circles. We choose our contacts who tend to be just like us, then reinforce our cohesion by passing around links, photos, jokes and so on. It gives us, I suspect, an inflated sense of our importance. My Twitter feed looks like the vanguard of the socialist revolution but I rather suspect that my contacts are not representative of the proletariat.

What is useful though is the swift debunking and circulation of stories. When the Sun supported the Tories in England and the SNP in Scotland the first time (1992) virtually nobody would have noticed because the mass media wouldn't have paid much attention. Now the pictures can be put together and circulated in seconds to expose the pretensions of a print media which hasn't quite realised the extent of its decline. But the more powerless it is, the more vicious it gets. Compare the Sun's announcement with the vitriol applied to Miliband talking to Russell Brand.

Now I'm fairly allergic to Brand for all the obvious reasons plus several others, but this was a master-stroke by Miliband. Brand's followers outweigh almost all of the tabloids, and Miliband avoided the obvious trap of becoming the magician's assistant as Brand went off on one of his conspiracist rants. Instead, Ed took Brand seriously enough to challenge his arguments where necessary. Like many of his recent appearances on unorthodox or apparently lightweight outlets, Miliband has successfully countered the (allegedly negative) perception of him an an unworldly wonk. Personally I'd like the individual with his finger on the nuclear button to be nerdy rather obsessed with his haircut or GQ ranking, but that's just me…

Cameron's campaign hasn't been disastrous, just deeply tedious: another day, another even more cynical and hackneyed device from the toolkit. National security, perfidious Scots, the Red Menace, the Appeal to the Pocketbook. Tired, tired tired.

In my area it's been a bit of a phoney war. The sitting Tory MP in this marginal has been invisible. Extremely well-funded by various shady outfits, it's unlikely that he's doing nothing at all, but his core vote strategy seems to rely on appearing on Sikh media (a racist strategy that assumes there's a Sikh bloc vote whereas my assumption is that Sikhs vote on a range of issues just like everyone else) and concentrating on the rich white, ageing suburbs where 'his' voters may be tempted to go UKIP. I've been leafleting for the Labour party and have seen almost no evidence of a Tory ground campaign and absolutely no indication of a Liberal presence. UKIP too have been pretty invisible - I guess they're relying on Farage's media omnipresence.

Away from politics (thankfully?) I've had a funny week. On Tuesday I went to London for the relaunch of our School of Art, at the House of Lords. I went down early to spend the afternoon lunching with my aunt, visiting various book shops and strolling round bits of London I don't know well. I enjoyed the complex ironies of the Ministry of Justice being on the site of Jeremy Bentham's house. He'd have approved of their electronic Panopticon but very much not approved of their erosion of human rights.

The event was kind of interesting. It was on the Terrace overlooking the Thames, which was personally thrilling. Only because I'm working on politicians' novels and in Mary Hamilton's 1931  Murder in the House of Commons two MPs find the body of a blackmailing prostitute on that very terrace. Thinking their party leader murdered her, they tip the body over the wall into the river and set about covering it up. You are, it transpires, meant to approve of their actions. The other joy was meeting the editor of the Express and Star, the local newspaper whose columnist variously reproduced my work without acknowledgement and tried to get me sacked. A nice chap, the editor expressed (ironic?) bafflement at my suggestion that the paper – which employed Enoch Powell for years and only employs hard-right commentators – could be perceived as rightwing. We got along very well and even had a photo taken as a memento of our detente.

What else is going on? Difficult, draining union casework, though I contributed to one victory this week: maternity leave for students is no longer considered Leave of Absence. It sounds dull, but there's a limit to LoA in terms of length and number of times you can have it, so mothers were being discriminated against and leaving without completing their degrees. I don't know why it wasn't sorted earlier but I have to say that management really took this seriously and moved very fast once we raised the issue.

Apart from all that, we had the launch of our inaugural Arts Festival yesterday, and I'm doing some interesting reading. I'm currently stuck into Andrea Wulff's The Founding Gardeners which is a fascinating exploration of the way the Founding Fathers expressed their American and Republican values through horticultural symbolism, though I'm a bit shocked by the casual references (so far) to the slaves who did the actual work. I'm reading Daniel G Williams's Wales Unchained: Literature, Politics and Identity in the American Century which follows his Black Skin, Blue Books: African-Americans and Wales 1845-1945: Daniel's really cornered the market in widening perceptions of  Welsh cultural experience. Also for review (in Planet this time) and doing the same thing in a sense, I've just got Jasmine Donahaye's The Greatest Need, her biography of Lily Tobias, 'a Welsh Jew in Palestine'. Jasmine's a force of nature, so I'm looking forward to this.

What I should be doing, of course, is my own research. The politicians' writing project continues and I need to present something next month. I'm working on a conference paper comparing Caradoc Evans's My People to Brinsley McNamara's The Valley of the Squinting Windows and a couple of other things are in progress too. But they'll all have to fit round the Positive Environment Working Group, the Digital Campus 2020 Academic Reference Group, the Faculty Reward Committee, the Media Review Committee and so on… we played with post-it notes today. Which was nice.

Anyway: I'm off to see The Ladykillers tonight: Graham Linehan's stage version, though not this original production:

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