Friday, 26 December 2008

A Tribute to Harold Pinter

So. Harold Pinter's ……………
He's ………… had his cornflakes .………… at last.
It's all Blair's fucking fault.

(E. J. Thribb, 17.5… second pause).

Monday, 22 December 2008

We are not alone

Yes, someone else has used the phrase "map twats". Admittedly, in a string of code designed to fiddle with speech bubbles, but still…
agent.Speak("Those Chapman brothers? What a pair of \\map=\"twats\"=\"c*nts\"\\")
The only other comprehensible use is on a Spanish language news aggregator which has clearly been spammed:
Teens tasteless shoplife video lapsed rubin black xxx. Big map twats teens hush black with fixed-rate. About black teens books. Gore teens bowmen
Kind of poetic…

Setting about the toffs

A young friend of mine, whom the Daily Telegraph described as a 'teenage guitar wunderkind', attended his first seminar at university recently. Confronted by some arrogant toff who announced that proles debased literature, said chum stood up, pointed and uttered, as his first words in a university setting, 'You… are a fucking c**t'. I've only asterisked the word because it's so revolting, but I can't help admiring his forthrightness and essential accuracy. If only my students got that wound up and passionate. 
Needless to say, he hasn't attended many more seminars. 


Cynical Ben  recommended the Bovril website. He was right, it's wonderful. You do need sound though.

Oh, and while we're here, I foresee terrible things happening in Spring 2020. In particular, a pandemic virus called COVID-19, and a skull-featured Tory spinner breaking all the rules, then lying about it at a press conference, then editing his 'blog' (yes, they'll still be the coolest medium of the decade) to make it look like he predicted said pandemic.

Honestly, I scare myself with this level of precision foresight sometimes.

Thanks Laura

For my 'Carry on Jeeves' teatowel - brilliant.

Map Twats redux

Almost all of us managed to go for a walk near Littleborough (above Watergrove) this Sunday - all except Daniel, who had conjugal duties. Nevertheless, we off-roaded and ate effete food and found skulls. I took lots of photos of said skulls, lichen and twats. 

Amongst the many glorious gifts (a fascinating food book from Dan, goggles and a nose clip from Neal) Jo and Ben gave me a spork. I've always wanted one. Say goodbye to two-handed scoffing misery!

Educashun Educashun Educashun

My university canteen was playing 'Another Brick in the Wall' over the tannoy today. Somebody has a well-developed sense of irony… I doubt it's the students.

'Inspired' by the past

A few weeks ago I visited London to see my old chum Adam (who as a financial software creator, essentially caused the credit crunch), but who finally has found that special other to wield his second lightsabre (a few photos here). 

While there, I dragged him round the V+A's Cold War Modern: Design 1945-1970 exhibition. Lots of it was predictable, but it did evoke a sense of awe, that people saw industrial design and city planning as our friends - science as our saviour from lives of agricultural drudgery. Some visions have worn better than others. The vertical cities designed to protect us from the polluted (irradiated?) Earth are stunningly beautiful but nostalgically futuristic, whereas Dieter Rams' designs have clearly inspired modern industrial products (yes, I mean you, Apple).

Friday, 19 December 2008

Educate, Inform and Entertain

The Daily Star featured Gary Glitter on its front page the other day - something like PAEDO HORROR GLITTER TAKES BUS (really - apparently cab drivers won't take him). Over a few beers, we wondered how Chris Morris would update his famous (infamous?) paedophilia episode. Here's what we came up with:
The Paedo-Files - not sure what the show would be, but it's a good pun.
I'm a Celebrity Paedo Get Me Out Of Here - celebrity paedos appealing for your early release vote.
Celebrity Paedo Big Brother: a 7 year old (some kind of Romanian orphan or one in the 'care' of Haringey Social Services, ie somebody nobody will miss) sits in the centre of the CPBB house, surrounded by CCTV cameras, watching Gary Glitter, Chris Langham and a selection of other internationally-famous pop stars and film directors who've been acquitted or never charged solve puzzles which get them further round the maze leading to said orphan's room. C4 are no doubt filming it now.

Coming soon: Paedo! Which closely-modelled-on-a-celebrity character committed unspeakable acts, with what implements, in which room? Family fun for all the family (not for under 18s).

Kids' stuff?

In a break from the L. M. Montgomery marathon, I read Terry Pratchett's Nation yesterday. People can be snobby about Pratchett, but who else is writing consistently good, funny, socially-engaged books which tackle the big issues. Nation propounds the joys of liberal humanism and atheism in a thoughtful and sensitive way, amongst other things. Pullman does the same thing in a more dramatic fashion, but TP quietly explores them in this book. We'll miss him when his Alzheimer's takes over. Curiously, the author photograph is the only hint of Pratchett's condition. Instead of a full-frontal one, his face is turned away from the camera, making him unknowable. Given that he has a white beard and always wears a black hat and clothes, the effect is one of darkness - very poignant. 

On the theme of children's fantasy, I saw Inkheart yesterday. I'm a fan of the books (they're about the power of reading), and grew to like the film. They give away the central conceit in the first line of the voice-over which is ridiculous, and Brendan Fraser is the worst actor I've ever seen. Keanu Reeves would have put more primal energy into the role. 

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Nobody's business but the Turks'

I also went to the Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art - totally recommended. Despite it's reputation for inbreeding, plotting and internecine warfare, Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul produced some of the world's greatest artwork and preserved an awful lot of the ancient world, because it existed on borders between so many interesting cultures. 

Spin me right round

I've been gone so long that I've missed several rants on Cynical Ben's blog, but I've been having lots of fun. I went to see Tindersticks at the Union Chapel in Islington and it was amazing in so many ways (thanks to for sorting out the ticket so kindly - 10% of the booking fee goes to Oxfam, and thanks too to my sister Hilary and her fiancé Dominic). The venue is an octagonal neo-Gothic Victorian Congregationalist church which doubles up as a gig venue. I saw the BBC footage of an Arcade Fire gig there last year and was impressed, but being there was amazing. It really lends itself to the intensity of cult bands - of which number Tindersticks are definitely counted. They're a 7-piece not afraid of Jim Reeves-style crooning, cellos and feedback. 

The first records I ever bought were 10" vinyl. One was Tindersticks' Sweet Kathleen and the other was Gorky's Zygotic Mynci's Patio LP, purchased from my most favourite but ruinous shop in the world, Recordiau'r Cob in Bangor, North Wales. All I owned before I rolled up at Bangor Uni was a cassette tape of Automatic for the People (a present) and a love of Slayer. Why I chose GZM and Tindersticks I can't remember, but they were great buys - I'm still a sucker for lo-fi, cellos, side-projects and vinyl. 

Those gits at Cob made a fortune from me. They were all in Welsh-language bands like Ectogram and would stuff my pre-order bags with their own stuff and any old shit that nobody else would buy. I wouldn't have minded, except that they handed over all this stuff while keeping up a continuous running commentary on the all-round awfulness of everything I'd actually chosen to buy. For five years. I miss that kind of dedication - there's no record shop in Wolverhampton. 

The other reason I enjoyed Tindersticks was that it reminded me that there's a delightful, slightly self-satisfied but adorable world of bourgeois enjoyment out there. The crowd looked like extras in a St. Etienne video - cool, liberal, relaxed geography teachers. Most 'cool' people belong in a camp. They spend too much money on hairstyles and designer glasses, while solipsistically ignoring the world's woes (most of which they've caused). Tindersticks fans (and Belle and Sebastian fans, despite Cynical Ben's outpouring of faux-proletarian hate) are kind, warm, sophisticated people and there aren't any of them in Wolverhampton. 

Monday, 15 December 2008

I wandered past a nasty pub today. It annoyed me, as it always does, because it's called 'The Moon Under the Water', which is the name Orwell gave his imagined perfect pub in one of his essays (I'm a lazy man and can't be bothered to find the reference for one reader). It isn't the perfect pub, it's a run-down Wetherspoon's. I wouldn't begrudge this theft if the chain made the effort to follow GO's prescription, but it's horrible, although the beer is very good. 

Anyway, outside this pub was a smoking Goth. Or rather, a Goth, smoking. I like Goths, having lived with some gentle, vegetarian Goths in Bangor. This one annoyed me because smoking was clearly a part of his rebellious image. I know Goths have, like all subcultures as Hebdige pointed out, been appropriated and diluted for marketing purposes, but they think they're rebellious. I wanted to point out that in a corporate world, smoking is the ultimate act of non-rebellion. Sure, governments tell us not to smoke, but they're far less important than corporations as far as our daily lives go. Governments should be far more intrusive but they've been captured by corporate interests. Deliberately shortening your life and reducing your physical strength (and financial power) by smoking just make you a slave. I have more respect for kerb-crawlers: at least both sides are getting something out of that transaction. 

Must control murderous urges

My friends Ben and Dan are twitchers - birdwatchers. I like birds, and generally admire whatever they've spotted when we're out walking as the Map Twats. Yet I had a most satisfying dream the other night. Every time they pointed out something rare, I produced a gun and blasted it out of the sky, each time gaining an enormous sense of well-being. I don't hunt, or even like hunting (though I can see the justification for shooting your dinner), so why was it so enjoyable? Perhaps it's the transgression. I'm a quiet and well-behaved cove most of the time, and rarely do anything outrageous, so mayhap the old subconscious is hinting that there's a pressure-cooker of rage that needs release before I go on some sort of festive killing spree.

Still, seeing Tindersticks tomorrow so that should help.

Kids today, eh?

A while back I read some sour comment in the Guardian by a vicar, of all people, whinging about children all being violent delinquents and it pissed me off at the time. This weekend I was refereeing and chaperoning at the Junior Winton Cup, an inter-regions fencing competition. There were 200+ kids from all sorts of places and backgrounds, and nobody was stabbed (except on piste under controlled conditions) or robbed or anything untoward. Nobody got drunk, lost or pregnant (I think) and all the teams mixed well, whatever the rivalries in the hall. Most people are like this, and those who aren't can become so. But I suppose this isn't the stuff of headlines in the bloody Daily Mail

Friday, 12 December 2008

The Kindness of Strangers

A couple of years ago, I joined my first social network, Librarything, which links readers and allows them to browse each others' libraries, comment on them, join discussion groups and share ideas as well as books. It's completely addictive.

Shortly afterwards, I was contacted by a student who needed a particular issue of Poetry Wales, a great magazine now run by a fantastic publisher, Seren Books. I duly scanned in the issue, sent it off, and thought no more about it after 'Brunhilde' thanked me. 

Then today, opening the daily pile of books delivered to my office, I found a card and Clancy's translation of Kate Roberts's short stories, along with the news that she'd taken a first class degree and thought I deserved a present. It was one of those occasions when a total surprise reaffirms my sense that most people are essentially good. I recommend Kate Roberts, by the way - if she'd written in English (here's a Welsh appreciation), she'd be at least as valued as Mansfield, Woolf or Chekhov. 

Thursday, 11 December 2008


For the ultimate news junky, go here: it's a stunning site which presumably draws on RSS feeds to track the biggest stories across the globe (hat-tip to Slugger O'Toole)

When armageddon comes…

This is where I want to move to - though Norway and the Faroe Islands appeal too...

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Culinary experimentation

My continental housemates and neighbours asked me to cook a traditional British Christmas dinner for them yesterday. Although we started with a Polish Borscht with ravioli-like parcels as a donation from some of them, the rest was standard fare. The results were intriguing - everybody liked turkey, some were amazed by sprouts (!), pleased with parsnips, impressed by my cranberry-and-burgundy sauce, and everybody absolutely hated Christmas Pudding, which shocked me to my marrow. 

Then they all trooped off to the West Midlands' worst nightclub, Oceana, while I went to bed, exhausted and old. 

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Day of Remembrance

For lefty types like me, it's a special day. Firstly, Oliver Postgate died today - grandson of George Lansbury the Labour Party Leader, cousin of Angela Lansbury, the creative brain behind Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine, The Clangers and many more. I've never seen Bagpuss and don't give a flying one for childhood TV nostalgia, the last redoubt of rugger-shirt wearing students, but I know enough of Postgate's work to understand that like Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman, they're responsible for the generations of enthusiastic, open-minded, imaginative and thoughtful cultural socialists we have: liberation socialists, we could call them. There might not be many of them, but they're out there.

UPDATE: Zoe Williams makes my points much more eloquently - but then she's a professional journalist. Channel 4 News last night also claimed that Ivor the Engine was set in Wales because Postgate was a huge fan of Dylan Thomas - and there is a (gentler) ring of Llareggub about the cartoon. Also, Professor Yaffle was inspired by meeting Bertrand Russell. Everything I learn about the man makes me sadder that he didn't run the country rather than make cartoons in a cowshed.

Which brings me on to Milton - not forgotten at all, as the Today programme's grumpy slot claimed. I teach Milton in an ex-Poly, and some of my colleagues specialise in his work. I'm not an unalloyed fan of JM - the mouthpiece of a genocidal regime as far as Ireland's concerned - and as Ackroyd's Milton in America suggests, he could so easily have become an Ayatollah figure, but he was also a Republican in body and spirit, and a force for rationality and liberation in so many ways. Here's Philip Pullman reading Milton and here's Terry Eagleton's summary of Milton's greatness (the poetry's pretty good too).

Monday, 8 December 2008

Waugh … huh … what is it good for?

How I love puns. Surprisingly, the answer isn't 'absolutely nothing'. I read Brideshead Revisited again recently and realised how unlike the revolting, Tory, snobbish, arrogant ITV drama the book is. I'm a cradle Catholic, violently socialist malcontent (and if your kids don't pass their A-levels, I'll be brainwas sorry teaching them), yet Brideshead does evoke not just the fading of a class but satirises a class desperately searching for meaning. Remember - the Marchmains have only been Catholic for one generation, and none too successfully. There's little joy in their faith. 

I went to Evensong at Worcester Cathedral a couple of weeks ago, and felt like nothing but a tourist. As Cordelia says (that name is following me about at the moment), to the faithless a church is simply 'an oddly-decorated room'. The question is whether the experience is spiritually worthless. 

Miss Piggy

I'm trying to avoid any porcine-related double-entendres about the Great Irish Pig Scandal, because my sister is immortalised in the world's worst newspaper (actually, I can confidently make that the worlds' worst newspaper - even given the mathematical calculation that there must be several billion inhabited planets out there, surely none is so unfortunate as to have the Daily Mail), gazing hungrily at the empty shelves of an Irish supermarket. The Mail loves these scares - they've of course managed to reduce the complex interaction of organic chemistry to 'cancer causing dioxins' (no hyphens for them) and only just managed to resist tying it to house prices. If the Mail's shallow and offensive approach to science makes you sicker than a hamburger-scoffing Irishman, head over to Bad Science for the antidote.

Still, she seems to be wearing most of an Argentine cattle ranch, so the BSE should make up for the absence of swill dioxins.

Update: The 'Irish' version doesn't even have a website which isn't very impressive, and none of the comment sections are ever written for the Hibernian audience (as Roy Greenslade points out)

Friday, 5 December 2008

Cynical Ben will hate this

My twee, Sarah- and Postcard-loving soul thrills to the delivery today of the Belle and Sebastian BBC sessions. John Peel liked them too, so you can all sod off.

Where have all the great record companies gone? I used to collect Fierce Panda stuff, until they decided to become a super-indie rather than a launch pad for all sorts of weirdoes. Ankst used to be fun but their moment's gone. Bella Union are reliably brilliant, as are 555.

I see that my friends The Nightingales are no. 14 in the Dandelion Radio Festive 50 for last year - and they're getting better and better, mostly because we bought Alan a theremin.

PGCE again

I presented my critical incident report today - conceptualising and reflecting on disruptive students, so at least I was finally talking about something I know about. It went rather well - supportive and useful feedback grounded in practical advice. 

Kamp Krusty lives!

A 'Lapland' Christmas wonderland in Dorset has closed after 2000 complaints, mostly because the place was a cross between a B+Q shed depot and a jumble sale. 

Their site has already died, but here's the rather bitter and disingenuous statement from the organisers. They blame 'organised crowd manipulation and event sabotage' and 'unscrupulous and inaccurate negative bias media broadcasts' (though it seems unlikely that they'd have thanked the press for 'positive bias' if the thing had gone well).

However, the Kamp Krusty, Eddie Grundy or Father Ted-ness really comes out in this comment:
'a "tunnel of light" turned out to be a line of trees with a few strings of fairy lights'
'One child allegedly found [Santa] smoking a cigarette behind the grotto'.
UPDATE: a similar wonderland was meant to open at Essington, a few short miles from here by sleigh - but was closed down when Trading Standards unsportingly pointed out that the car-boot sale venue operation was, well, a bit rubbish. It would have been a wonderfully British day out. Jonathan Meades would have loved it. 

Thursday, 4 December 2008

A very Canadian coup

The Canadians had an election recently, as did the New Zealanders. In both cases, the Conservatives won despite succeeding decent liberal governments. Thankfully, the Liberals in Canada have got together to form a coalition, throw out Stephen Harper's no-good Tories in a confidence vote and save the world. (Poor Anne would hate it - she's a die-hard Tory but only because Matthew Cuthbert was). 

So what have the sneaky low-down Canuck Conservatives done, eh? Just gone running to the Queen like the Aussies in 1975, when the viceroy (sorry, Governor-General) dismissed Gough Whitlam's government even though he had a majority. Harper's asked the Queen to suspend parliament to avoid losing the vote - the coward. His whips should be bribing and threatening and dragging in the sick-bed vote like most mature democracies would.

No way!

Our esteemed leader has informed us that American software to mark essays is nearing completion - so clearly I should feck off and retrain at McDonald's because there's no need for actual learning, experience, ambiguity, creativity in either the teaching or studying process. This guy isn't worried - he clearly thinks it's a brilliant idea. I seem to remember Huxley's Brave New World positing a similar educational system.

The application I've found discussed on the web works on 'semantic similarity' - so that doctor/operate is linked by the computer to an answer which contains 'surgeon/scalpel'. Hmmm

Bush redux

Over at The Huffington Post, those good liberals are enjoying the implosion of the Republican Party. The front-runners for the 2012 nomination are Palin, Jindal and Jeb Bush. The mark of the true mess those bastards are in is encapsulated by this:
How screwed are the Republicans right now? Put it this way: the sanest contender in the above list is named "Bush".

I'm wiing myself

Jab, one of my PGCE colleagues, has tipped me off about Johnny Chung Lee, who has turned a £20 Wiimote (Wii remote control) into a cheap interactive whiteboard, constructed 3D interfaces, and got a Minority Report interface going - all for under £30. 

For shame, professionals

At last, an illuminating and informed exposition of assessment statistics and practices - by one my fellow students - puts the professional educationalists in the shade.

Nixon: we were right

According to today's Guardian, Richard Nixon really was a lying, paranoid, devious bastard,as revealed on the tapes. In particular, he had it in for the press and for academia:
the professors are the enemy, the professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard 100 times.

He's right - or should be. I've had the joy of working with a bunch of ageing radical for the past ten years, though there are always some rotten Tory apples in there. It's time for a purge…

Essential teaching skills

So far, the tasks covered this morning are: putting post-its on the wall and honing my Google skills. 

Still ill…

I'm not, but this morning I can empathise fully with Mozzer's comments. Up at 6 to be totally disappointed by a lack of snow, which means I had to take an early train to a Telford industrial estate for a PGCE day - which I'll be live blogging to stave off murderous urges.
And if you must go to work tomorrow
Well if I were you I really wouldn't bother
For there are brighter sides to life
And I should know, because I've seen them
But not very often…

The Smiths, Still Ill.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Congratulations Alex

One of my favourite books, Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, has won an award from my favourite newspaper, The Guardian (though it now calls itself theguardian because it has an inferiority complex about the web). Ross's book is a guide to modern classical music - it's informed, witty, educational and passionate, and it certainly made me go back to some music I'd overlooked and listen to some I'd previously dismissed. There are blank spots, such as British composers (though he rates Britten) but it's a great read. 

More than that, Ross is one of the few who have genuinely grasped the possibilities of blogging. The book and his site go together, allowing him to post extracts of pieces of music he writes about.


Apparently, @tonybenn who has been Twittering all week isn't really Tony Benn. As if anybody could seriously think that the great man would fall for such inconsequential nonsense. Benn is (as the video clip demonstrates) is a fan of Youtube and web journalism as ways of 'speaking truth to power', but the idea that someone who has sat down with tea, pipe and tape recorder for fifty years would suddenly decide that SMS-length updates is appropriate is laughable. Though he does have his own very outdated website.

To me, Twitter is the triumph of medium over message - the fetishisation of technology. Does anybody remember Alan Johnson's Labour deputy leadership campaign Twittering? Never was a noun so apt. Tony Benn, love him or loathe him, is a thinker - and few things in life are so simple that they can be reduced to a text-message (perhaps 'I love you' or 'You're dumped'). What you get when people like Johnson Twitter is 'Visited primary school. Proves triumph of socialism. Had rice pudding' (I exaggerate slightly). Perhaps a few skilled poets can distil meaning into few words, but most people expose the superficiality of their thoughts… and that's what blogging is for!

Indeterminate Creatures

I've just been to a reading by Alan Apperley from his novel, Indeterminate Creatures, to be published by Tindal Street Press in January 2010. The title derives from an Elizabeth Goudge novel (she was a bourgeois, regional and religious novelist, completely unlike Alan) and the novel traces the simultaneous growth of creativity in a fecund and artistic sense during a young couple's first pregnancy (though it's much more profound than this summary makes it appear - and Hitler's in it too).

The reading was fun. Although an experienced lecturer and performer in other fields, he was clearly nervous and more comfortable talking about the novel than reading it - even though it went down very well in front of a crowd of lecturers, students and fellow novelists. I'd read the book in draft form a couple of times, and it was fascinating to hear how characters and settings were transformed into 'real' people and places simply by reading out loud. 

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Thanksgiving be to God

Last weekend I went to my American friends' house for a Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings. I still don't know why Canadians celebrate a different date… 

We had the driest martinis known to man (3 drops of vermouth in several inches of gin), leading to an outbreak of unconsciousness later, delayed only by glorious turkey, roast sweet potatoes and homemade pies of pecan and pumpkin, while being regaled by tales of NYPD wit. Photos will be forthcoming. 

On Sunday, we went to Evensong at Worcester Cathedral. An atheist Catholic, a fairly lapsed Anglican and a non-observant Jew. There probably is a God: Evensong was off the menu and instead of glorious, resonant music rolling round that great space, a couple of pompous toffs droned unintelligibly for half an hour, using colons like sledgehammers…

Monday, 1 December 2008

Institutional cynicism

Another week, another pile of marking, moderation and all the stuff that comes with teaching. I've also got a PGCE day on Thursday - a whole day of institutional cynicism. The response to one of my sessions plans was that it left space for students to cheat - a professional educator seemed to be suggesting that all students are cheats and that it's my job to design assessments which preclude the possibility. I know some of my students do cheat, but most don't, and I'd rather not be a teacher than spend my time erecting barbed wire. Anyone who takes that view shouldn't be in a classroom at all (but then again, they're educationalists, so they're only inflicted on people like me).

Book 6 of Anne of Green Gables. Despite having 6 children in 9 years, Anne feels that Gilbert doesn't love her any more. I'd think she'd be grateful for the time off…