Thursday, 31 December 2009

Behind every successful man…

Good afternoon. It's New Year's Eve here, but the absence of snow or even cold means it could be any autumn day, thanks to what we've done to the planet.

It's just struck me that this holiday, my media intake has narrowed to newspapers, a quick look through my bloglist, and books. I've watched one television programme (Dr Who: pretty good), listened to no Radio 4, and no music radio (no point, my hearing hasn't yet recovered). Instead, I've been reading for hours on end, and it feels wonderful.

Today's books is Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife. I'd never heard of it (or her) before - it was just one of those books which caught my eye in a bookshop - the kind of thing that can't happen online. My tastes run from 'classics' (though I hate the term) to modern poetry, through science fiction and all points between, but it's a long time since I tackled a 'Great American Novel' other than Delillo and Auster. American Wife sounds like a saga or one of those muted tales of smalltown emotion (nothing wrong with that), but it's much more: it's an imaginative take on Laura Bush's life (no, come back, it's good). Sittenfeld is clearly intrigued by the reserved yet interesting public persona of the former First Lady, a woman who seemed too intelligent to end up with Bush and his 'policies', and yet was fully on board - or so it seems, for this novel suggests that Mrs President had her doubts.

From this jumping-off point, the author explores - with reference to what's known of Laura's life - the complex events and cultural pressures which led to this ordinary midwesterner ending up with Bush. Sittenfeld's too intelligent to make it a polemic: instead, 'Alice' is a rounded, complicated character who is symptomatic of her background, a woman dragged along by history thanks to her more human, localised choices.

It's not a biography of Laura Bush - too much is imagined and beyond the realms of speculation (I'd be surprised if Laura Bush did have a teenage abortion, though her words are placed in Alice's mouth at key moments) - instead it's an exploration of a culture, of American womanhood, of class, politics, power and place. Most of all, it's about loss: of love, of freedom, of opportunity, of self-expression and of ideals. Yes, it lacks the hard-edged selfishness inherent in Bush-republicanism, but as an imaginative exercise, it's utterly gripping.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Boring mandatory politics post of the week

Brilliant piece by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman on how the soi-disant left has carried out the dearest wishes of the right (hat-tip to Slugger O'Toole on this one). This is the bit he picks out,  something I've been moaning about for ages.
In recent years to be on the ‘left’ has come to signal an intention to be more thorough than the ‘right’ in carrying out the agenda of the right, and better at protecting such undertakings from the backlash inevitably caused by their dire social consequences. It was Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ that laid institutional foundations under Margaret Thatcher’s inchoate ideas about there being no such thing as society, ‘only individuals and families’. It was the French Socialist Party that did most work on the dismantling of the French social state. And in East-Central Europe it is the ‘post-communist’ parties, renamed as ‘social democrats’ (wary as they are of being accused of lingering devotion to their communist past), that are the most enthusiastic and vociferous advocates – and most consistent practitioners – of unlimited freedom for the rich and the leaving of the poor to their own care.

Meanwhile, outside the books…

While I've been nose-deep in books (I stick with George Eliot, who said 'the world outside books is not a happy place'), romance has reared its head.

The house has been filled with couples: my brother and his wife, a sister and her husband, two more sisters with their partners (separate rooms, of course: we're a Catholic family).

Yesterday, sister number 2 (of 4) turned 32. Today, her delightful bloke of four years proposed to her and she accepted, somewhere up the Wrekin. It was a cold day, and no doubt the snow had disoriented him. Either that, or she'd slipped Rohypnol into his thermos.

So congratulations to them both. I imagine my dad's hoping for a long engagement, so soon after coughing up the folding for the last hitching only 6 months ago. No doubt further pressure is being applied to the remaining sisters' partners…

From the paper mines

How's your Christmas going? I've not left the house in days, other than to fetch firewood and feed the animals (that probably sounds more Lark Rise to Candleford than it should - neither of these tasks requires more than two or three minutes outside). I'm boycotting the outside world until it snows. Yet again, the proper weather swirls around, leaving a large empty circle with me in the middle. Rather like life.

I have read three books in the last couple of days though - each very different from the last. First up was Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (that's a link to a free copy). It's a wonderful mix of sensation and whodunnit (or rather who did what and how) from the 1860s. There's lots to talk about in literary criticism terms, but it's also a cracking good read. A man abandons his wife to make his fortune in Australia so that he can reclaim her with honour. His friend's rich uncle marries a beautiful young lady with no past. There are deaths, fires, storms and pre-Raphaelites. Very, very satisfying.

Foster's And She Laughed No More is a fan's eye view of Stoke City's long-deserved promotion to the Premiership, achieved through a gritty determination never to allow excitement mar the purity of Route One football. That's what we like in Stoke: we're suspicious of the flamboyant, the arrogant and the easy. Graft's what you need, 'ard graft.

Finally, I read Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey. It's a departure from his comic-literary pastiche novels, and I'm not sure about it. It's a dystopian future novel (big tick from me) set in a Britain in which degrees of colour-blindness form the basis of an apartheid system, a state with a dark secret (though actually it's one anyone who's read a political thriller or sf novel before will guess pretty much immediately). The novel is a mix of thought-experiment and rather good thriller. Fforde's improved on characterisation, and the usual puns and references are present, though less frenetically than usual. It is a successful novel - I read all 450 pages in an afternoon - but it needed a severe edit. Still, well worth reading.

5th worst place in the world? I think not

My friend Adam has gleefully sent me a link to the Daily Blackshirt's article on Wolverhampton. It's a confused one. That particular newspaper doesn't like The North. It doesn't like The Poor and it doesn't like the Ethnically Other.

Nor, on the other hand, does it like The Young, The Cool, nor The Foreign.

So we have a conundrum. Lonely Planet, it claims, has announced that Wolverhampton is the 5th worst city in the world, behind Detroit, Seoul, Accra and Los Angeles. I say 'it claims', because I can't find any mention of this on the Lonely Planet website, and because the article is rather confused. It's tone implies a profound tension between its desire to bash poor, ethnically-diverse northern Wolverhampton, or to condemn the snobbery of the cosmopolitan Lonely Planet élite (wait until this revolting mag remembers that Lonely Planet is owned by the BBC, the only institution it hates more than black people or trades unionists).

So they've gone for the local outrage angle, and dredged up the deputy mayor to claim (predictably) that Wolverhampton is a tourist mecca.

It isn't. It's a small, poor place which has declined from filthy but lucrative engineering town to unnecessary outpost of Birmingham. It has its good points (a fine university, despite the best efforts of those who 'run' it, some decent architecture, excellent art gallery, good transport links to Stoke, Shropshire and Wales) and its bad points. It's no worse than a large number of other depressed towns, and certainly isn't one of the worst 5 cities in the world. My personal list would include the most polluted ones in China, Pyongyang, Mogadishu and Riyadh. I'm none to keen on Oswestry or Wrecsam either.

The lessons are: don't read the Daily Mail, and don't believe anything in the newspapers during the holiday period. There is no news.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

At last, a festive celebrity death

You may disagree. It's Tim Hart, of Hart and Prior and Steeleye Span. A Christmas death is particularly poignant for this wonderful musician because Steeleye's biggest (though unrepresentative) hit was their recording of the medieval carol Gaudete.

Steeleye were a splinter of Fairport Convention, in the days when British folkies were inventing folk-rock. All the music stands up still. Hart seems to have had a difficult life since his musical career founded - several wives, ill health, the usual for a faded rock star, and he died at only 61.

Ben will really hate this.

Shocking Pink

There's concern in parenting circles (so I read) that gender divisions are being ever more rigidly enforced, particularly by the domination of pink clothing and toys for girls - before the 1950s, it was pink for boys and blue for girls - there's even a campaign called PinkStinks which critiques the indoctrination of girls into a cult of fluffiness and dependence.

Pharyngula has picked up this fascinating example: Toys'r'Us sell telescopes in black/chrome, and pink. Sounds good you might think: if pink is indelibly associated with femininity now, then science instruments which appeal to girls will persuade them that science isn't just for geeks.

But, uh-oh: the pink telescope is less powerful than the macho utilitarian one! What a strange decision to make. 'Girls won't need detail - it's just a toy. Boys will need detailed images because they're junior scientists!

I don't own any pink clothing other than a shirt with pink stripes. That's partly because most of the men I know who do are braying Hooray Henrys, and partly because it doesn't suit my colouring (pasty), but I don't have any gender-related hang-up about the colour. How do you all feel?

Monday, 28 December 2009

Mid-christmas minimalism

One of the most hypnotic pieces ever composed. Electric Counterpoint by Steve Reich. Parts II and III by the same performer are also available on Youtube.

A new addition

Welcome, all of you, The Stilletoed Socialist. She's soft left (which is almost as good as hard left) and really hates the Daily Mail. A gap in my life is filled.

Don't listen Ben, it'll only angry up the blood

This is Queen Matilda, by Michael Head and the Strands. Followed by Shatter and Century Flower by Shelleyan Orphan (despicable hippies though they were, I do love their music far more than I should).

You'll hate this, Cynical Ben

Much to Cynical Ben's disgust, I love 80s chamber pop. The first is a live track by The Pale Fountains, who later became Shack, and Michael Head and the Strands, romantic Liverpudlians all.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

An Irish Christmas

I wonder if Granny O'Grimm has any theories linking the St. Mel's Cathedral burning and the Irish church's sex scandals?

I've had a good couple of days. I visited The Well of Lost Blogs (honours even on the Scrabble, dammit), ate well, received excellent gifts including a cat-shaped pencil sharpener which meows piteously when you insert the pencil into the obvious orifice, record coasters, the concise Larousse and much else beside. I also spent my book tokens today: Nigel Slater's Tender (I'm starting a veg patch in the spring), the new Jasper Fforde (Shades of Grey), and Stephen Foster's …And She Laughed No More, the witty follow-up to She Stood There Laughing, his wry memoir of following Stoke City before the glory days.

Inspired by Ms E-Mentor's adventures in the Victorian Web, I'm reading Braddon's 1861 'sensation novel' Lady Audley's Secret. It's gripping and fascinating. Don't know what the secret is yet though…

Feed up with all this

The latest people to weigh in on the university funding debate are Professor Danny Blanchflower and the Observer's editorial writers.

Blanchflower is the genius economist who consistently made the right calls as the recession unfolded, when he was on the Bank of England's monetary policy committee. He was, of course, ignored. Now, he's suggested that universities should charge rich people £30,000 to attend university, to subsidise the poor, as in the US. The argument is that it's a matter of fairness. After all, many of the rich happily shell out this sort of money to make sure that their kids only meet other rich kids at private schools.

"What is crazy is that people are prepared to pay all that money to send their kids to private school – almost £30,000 a year to go to Eton – but they are not prepared to pay the money to go to university," Blanchflower said. "Universities are strapped for cash and need more money. So you make the rich pay the market price and use that money to fund the poor."

"The poor have been subsidising the rich. And now the rich are shouting because they are losing their subsidy – because they are paying £3,000 to go to Oxford and they should be paying £30,000." Under the system he was proposing, top universities might charge tens of thousands of pounds but others would ask for much less. Students would have to consider the cost against the potential rate of return.
At Dartmouth, Blanchflower claimed fees helped to "focus the mind", with students turning up to lectures, not dropping out and more likely to choose subjects that made them most employable. 

Beguiling idea… but:

Rich kids and poor kids don't tend to go to the same universities. Bar a few who are cherry-picked by the Russell Group of élite universities, poor kids go to local universities, and to the former polytechnics. They tend to be connected to their local communities by obligation (family responsibility, for instance) and less desperate to rise out of, rather than with, their class. If Oxford starts charging £30,000, it will happily fill up with the rich and won't lift a finger to attract the poor. It's over 50% privately-educated students now, despite only 6% of the school population attending such schools. That's a massive public subsidy to the rich, but Blanchflower's solution alone won't help.

I would suggest distributing these massive fees centrally to fund all universities, rather than let the Russell Group cheat while starving places like mine.


tax people properly so they don't have this kind of cash lying around. Obviously I'd spend it on state schooling etc. so that they don't feel the need to avoid state service.

Blanchflower's model is thinly disguised dog-eat-dog capitalism. He suggests that students will choose only 'employable' degrees: so what happens to theoretical mathematics, Anglo-Saxon, pure physics and the like? We'll end up with a nation of lawyers and Business Studies graduates without an original thought in their heads. Choice will only be available to the rich: 'unfashionable' universities won't be able to charge high fees. They'll lose the best staff and the best students and the two-tier system will be entrenched for ever.

The Observer likes Blanchflower's idea, without even mentioning any drawbacks. But at least it's conscious of the pressures now facing universities under Mandelson's malign tutelage:

The government's arbitrary demand for 50% of the population to attend university was a virtuous aspiration as India, America and China churn out ever more graduates, yet the expansion was never properly funded and the result increasingly seems to be overcrowded lectures, distant professors, high dropout rates and inflated degree results.
Mandelson offered the solution of two-year or part-time courses, but that looks less than convincing. The mass production of McDegrees will only devalue their place in the jobs market and lead to a surge in postgraduate applications. What is more, the broader merit of a university education – the formation of friendships, the exploration of ideas, the rounding of character – would be weakened. Of course, such aspirations were never going to survive the move of higher education to the department for business.

Celebrity Death list

Slim pickings this holiday: there are usually a few notable exits during Christmas. For the first time, I'm hoping Thatcher doesn't die, as the Thatcher Party CD isn't quite ready yet. I was hoping Bruce Forsyth would be summoned Higher. Or preferably Lower (sorry, non-UK people, it's a light entertainment joke).

One death did sadden me - David Taylor, one of those unobtrusive, principled, hardworking MPs of whom you've never heard because he didn't fiddle his expenses or reach ministerial office (in his case, because he was a socialist in the Labour Party).

Friday, 25 December 2009


Spare a thought for my dad today: the cathedral in which he was baptised, St. Mel's in Co. Longford, Ireland, was gutted by fire. It was famous for its classical interior, completion of which was delayed for decades by the death and emigration of many Longfordians during the Great Hunger.

Perhaps it is symbolic: another two of the Dublin bishops fingered by the recent report quit today - only one guilty party is left clinging on to his crook (plus all the priests of course).

Confession time: Mel Gibson's mother is from Longford, and named him after the saint, friend or nephew of Patrick. I'm hoping the antisemitism came from his father.

Currently listening to…

Leila Josefowicz's recording of John Adams's Violin Concerto. If you're not a classical fan, know this: there's a massive difference between performances. Josefowicz is famously brash, enthusiastic and brilliant, despite once being written off as being yet another hot young violinist being marketed on looks rather than talent.

There's a legendary BBC live recording of this - but copies are now around £50 because it's been deleted. You can hear an American recording here, thanks to NPR, the US's version of Radios 3 and 4.

Merry Christmas, one and all

Having a good day? I'm not sure whether it's still Christmas Day in New Zealand, but Emma texted to say she'd just done a 15,000 ft. skydive. I'm having a more relaxed day - I've gone back to bed after a fine breakfast and a frenzy of present opening. Rather sadly, I've even read a student's draft essay…

Presents: my New Zealand sister sent me some good lefty polemical journalism (Pilger et al.), and I also received Mary Berry's Baking Bible and a collection of World War 2 propaganda cartoons from my brother and his wife ('he has a wife, you know'). Waiting for me was a parcel from America containing the XKCD book too - wonderful nerd humour. Socks, photo frames, a new dressing gown and other goodies feature heavily too, as do the Morph bookends from my sister Maura. Wonderfully, mother has arranged a subscription to the London Review of Books too. It's more than just book reviews - politics, culture and the strangest lonely hearts column in the world. Maybe I'll send in an entry.

As to presents given: mother like the idea of her two rare variety apple trees (to be delivered when the ground's a bit softer). Dad appreciated a 30 yr old sherry and a fine dessert wine, and I believe the others were pleased with what I gave them. Except for one sister, who now has three copies of the same Wii game… I'll get her something else. She did like the 'Racing Grannies' wind-up toys though. Not sure my grandmothers will!

Oh yes, almost forgot - there's meant to be some kind of spiritual/religious element to this orgy of consumerism. I attended Midnight Mass last night. No, I haven't returned to the fold, but I do appreciate avoiding the arguments which would inevitably follow if I refused. There was some good music, and the priest managed not to say anything reactionary about Palestine. This year.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Oh Mandy, you came and you took without giving…

Unfortunately, the Guardian's editorial agrees with my gloomy prognostications about education funding. If anyone can think of an institution more vulnerable, do let me know. All this on top of a massive fine and managerial stupidity…

The decision to protect research funding, maintaining a pledge which Gordon Brown gave in 2004, means the impact of the cuts will be concentrated on capital spending and on teaching. In plain English, it is teachers and students who will suffer most.

Now that the tap is being turned off again, the threat of a return to the pre-1997 regime is grave, and will become more so as the likely long restraint of spending continues. The most immediate victims of Labour's stop-go policies, however, are young people. There will be fewer students in 2010 than in 2009 and they will each command fewer resources than their predecessors. Universities' overdependence on foreign students' fees means that UK undergraduates will bear the brunt. 

Universities face a grim choice. They must either turn students away or look after their needs less well – perhaps both. That means larger classes and less tuition in a system already fraying at the edges.

Universities with little research funding will be particularly squeezed. Courses and colleges are in danger. All these pressures mean participation will be narrowed, and that fairer access – another Labour success story – is put at further risk, while social mobility is suddenly a luxury for another day. The university cuts graphically illustrate the wider truth that waste savings only go so far. Real cuts hurt. These ones are real all right. And there are more to come.

A strange meeting of cultures

David Sylvian was the singer in New Romantic 80s pop band Japan. RS Thomas was Wales's premier poet from the 1940s until the early 90s (Dylan Thomas having bought one too many rounds in the 1940s). He was famous for: being a clergyman who mourned the absence of God and for his vehement support for Welsh cultural and political nationalism, particularly blaming Anglophone Wales for selling the pass.

How are they connected?

Sylvian, who's taken the Scott Walker route from pop fizz to auteur obscurity, has recorded an album inspired by Thomas, named Manafon after Thomas's first parish, a quiet little place just inside the border in North Wales. Weirdest cultural encounter ever?

Oddly though, Sylvian describes Thomas as 'the British poet', which would infuriate RS - one of the grumpiest people I've ever met. Sylvian's interest seems to centre on his perceived similarity to the former pop star, as a man who went his own way and pursued his interests without concern for 'mainstream' culture. Whether it's any good, I shall have to discover. I don't suppose anyone's bought it for me as a Christmas gift! Here's a taster - RS is the craggy-looking chap at the end.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Life just got better

Christmas present to me:

Thank you for your correspondence concerning presenting a twenty-minute paper at the above conference. I am pleased to confirm that your paper has been accepted 

It's my Anne of Green Gables paper, for the British Association of Canadian Studies. Now I've just got to write it! That job at UPEI inches ever closer!

PS. Thanks to the students who've e-mailed me today, demanding a meeting about upcoming essays, without even a 'hello'! It's good to know you're thinking about work, but weirdly, I'm leaving the office for a few days. I'm on holiday! See you January 4th and not before. Happy Christmas to you too.

Mandelson - it gets worse

As predicted:

The elite research-led universities will be more protected from the cuts as they will not affect next year's research budget, which they claim the bulk of, and Mandelson is also calling for the concentration of research funding in the best rated institutions – largely the Russell Group universities.

So basically, if you're poor, didn't go to a private school or one which encouraged you to apply to élite universities, or want to go to your hometown institution because you have a job, or children, or no money, screw you. You'll never do cutting-edge research or even experience much personal attention, never sit in a warm and well-equipped classroom, and never benefit from the guidance of teachers immersed in research of their own, because they won't have the funding to do any.

Sorry about that. Hey ho. On a lighter note, Ewar's been in. Despite not being able to collect the parcel of books Cynical Ben left with me for him, he still handed over a box of After Eight mints, which may well not last until Christmas tomorrow.

I'm off now - Christmas shopping. I've 5 siblings and numerous others to buy presents for, and I'm not even close to finishing. I'll blog a little over the holidays, but not very often. Happy Christmas to you all!

A little good news for Americans

My last post wasn't very Christmassy, was it? Perhaps it's because the world's clearly utterly screwed - Copenhagen was a shameful, embarassing display of reactionary realpolitik, made worse by Obama's refusal to live up to his rhetoric. If you want an even more depressing reading of the summit, try Mark Lynas's eye-witness account: he's a serious thinker who knows his stuff, and he blames China.

However, he was limited by the strictures of his Senate and Congress, bodies packed with corporate shills more interested in the opinions of their paymasters than their constituents or scientists - it's no coincidence that the most vehement enemy of climate science is James Inhofe, recipient of more funding by oil, gas and coal corporations than any other Senator.

The same problem is facing Obama's attempt to pass even a weak version of a National Health Service: insurance companies, making billions from insuring only healthy rich people, have spun these plans as Stalinism, complete with 'death panels' and compulsory abortions for all. Yet, finally, a start has been made, a weak bill has got past the Senate, and that American hero, Senator Bernie Sanders (socialist! Go Vermont!) has sneaked in more cash for free clinics, mental health care and all the other Cinderella services usually ignored in the rush for profit. We salute you.

A Christmas Gift from Peter Mandelson

Lord Mandelson is Secretary of State for the Department of Business and Universities. There's a whole list of reason's why he's an objectionable individual, starting with his status as a peer: he can't be turfed out of the legislature and he's not answerable to the House of Commons.

I also hugely object to the existence of a department which yokes together Business and Universities. Yes, obviously there are shared interests, but there are also (and must always be) conflicts. The role of universities is at least in part to challenge the hegemony, which at the moment is capitalism (despite the total collapse of the banking system - bankers discovered socialism as soon as government handouts were on offer). We shouldn't be content with churning out oven-ready work drones, prepared to do whatever it takes to make money for a bunch of shareholders. In the long term, businesses shouldn't want these yes-men and women either: innovation comes from critical and independent thinking. Sticking 'and universities' on the end of the department's name implies a strategy which sees education as solely training for work, subject to the demands of the market. It's wrong, wrong wrong.

So what's Pete done to us today? He's announced funding cuts amounting to £533 million, including fines for universities which over-recruited this year. What an odd decision: he likes markets, unless universities respond to market demand by recruiting more students. My Hegemon over-recruited, rather stupidly, so we can add another few millions to the several millions we're already being fined for misleading the government over student completions.

I'm not for breakneck expansion of university places. In institutions like mine, where jobs are being slashed, we're already increasing class sizes and losing face-to-face contact with students - this is, without any doubt, worse education. However, I do think that in a massive recession, with jobs being lost, encouraging people to reorient themselves through study is a massive public good. This government has claimed a return to Keynesian economics (spending public money to keep the economy alive during recessions): why not fund more university places as part of this, rather than give it to banks who don't pass it on, but use it to reinflate their reserves? What would these students have done instead? Claimed unemployment benefit, lost skills and motivation, and potentially condemned themselves to a much longer period of unemployment, contributing to the economic slump.

Petey's big plan to square the circle is to massively expand the provision of 2-year degrees. We run a few of these, called foundation degrees. What's missing is the third-year, which should be the culmination of the traditional degree: independent thinking and study, a dissertation, more specialisation. The alternative is three-year courses taught in two years - which obviously means missing out the time required to read, think and discuss ideas. What you'll do on these courses is repeat what the lecturer said, mechanically.

Mandy's plan is to turn places like mine into American Community Colleges - fine institutions in their own right, but a long way from the university ideal. Goodbye, any courses which analyze society or have intrinsic appeal: English literature, philosophy, politics, cultural studies, media studies, blue-sky scientific research, women's studies, most languages, history… all the interesting ones which might generate some critique of what we're up to as a society. Hello nursing, business (great job so far, guys) and legal studies.

Underlying this is, of course, class. Labour's élite are a social élite. They're largely very rich people, often privately educated, and almost all graduates of Oxford, Cambridge or sometimes one of the other élite universities (Gordon Brown was an early entrant to Edinburgh University). I'm completely convinced that - consciously or unconsciously - they have no regard for the legitimate aspirations of the working classes. To them, the poor are call-centre fodder, ASBO-bearers, salesmen and women: an undifferentiated mass who actually shouldn't aspire to a life of the mind, who shouldn't attract the same educational provisions as the traditional middle and upper class university entrants. The political class looks after itself, regardless of party. It sees the poor and can't help thinking that such people must have willed themselves into low status, that they somehow deserve to remain as they are. Its own offspring are encouraged into medicine, the law and other professions, are driven into the prestigious universities, while the proud parents ascribe this success solely to individual effort rather than to the possession of a huge set of advantages derived from wealth and social status.

Once you start from that perspective, you just know that these funding cuts are going to hit institutions which devote themselves to the education of the working classes, the poor and those with chequered educational backgrounds. No Cambridge student will find themselves condemned to tutorials of two students to a tutor. Oxford colleges won't have to forego that desktop hadron collider or the finest wine cellars in Christendom. Their teachers won't find themselves landed with more teaching and less research time.

Here, on the other hand, we will suffer. Already understaffed and undergoing more redundancies, we'll face another round of sackings, course cuts, bigger lectures, larger seminars (already so huge that individual students almost never get to speak), less research time (I haven't done any serious research in two years), poorer libraries, costs passed on to students in sneakier ways, and nastier halls of residence (but you're guaranteed that senior management won't get any less well-fed). Sure, we'll put a brave face on it. We'll pretend that replacing face-to-face discussion with online activity is modern, progressive, go-ahead pedagogy - but we'll all know the truth.

Ritzer was right. Élite-educated politicians are prepared to drop the pretence of humanist education - for the poor. We'll train the poor to do the drudgery, while even the soi-disant representatives of the working classes pull up the drawbridge and entrench their class privileges for ever.

Here's a little project for you. Try to find out how many children of politicians, company directors and other élite people went to a) state schools and b) former polytechnics and non-Russell Group universities. I'd bet a large amount that the answer is 'almost none'.

Ritzer said, amongst many other things, that universities are becoming machines for the consumption of education - whereas the model I hold dear is one in which students educate themselves through lectures, debate, reading and argument. The consumption model is clearly implied in the fast-track system: education becomes a list of facts and a certificate, rather than an intellectual and emotional experience.

You can't unwrap a proper education, shove it into your gob and swallow it. A proper education is upsetting, challenging, difficult sometimes, exciting and passionate. It changes you (hopefully for the better). It's not like a burger, or a spanner, something 'you' 'use'. It's a process in which you discover yourself and your world, and it never ends.

Thanks Peter. You turncoat. You traitor. You sinister functionary for moneyed scum. I know you're just the unconscious mouthpiece of deeper forces, but you seem to relish every attack on humanist values and collective will.

Bye-bye, education. Hello, training.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Festive gifts

Thanks to all the friends who've showered me in gifts. Laura gave me a Marmite teapot, but unfortunately, it was cracked - I'll get a replacement soon. It's very cool.

(Overseas readers: Marmite is a wonderful delicacy. Import some today). Don't listen to the naysayers who'll inevitably pop up in the comments section. They probably read the Daily Mail.

Thanks to Polly also. I have a bit of a confession on that score. She gave me a Build Your Own Gingerbread House kit. Slabs of gingerbread, icing mix, stick-on biscuits and all sorts of things. I didn't build it. I sat at my desk, guzzling gingerbread like Homer in The Land of Chocolate. It was a low point, and I'm sorry.

Where's Willy?

There are huge gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare. We don't know where he was for much of his life, what he thought about the issues of the day, what his marriage was like, and much else besides.

Naturally, this means that there's a massive industry of Shakespeare scholarship and speculation, some rather more fanciful than others. Now, suddenly, the question of whether he was a Catholic has popped up yet again. There's a little evidence of possible Catholicism in the family, but no proof.

Just now, Radio 4 news breathlessly relayed the news that the signature of 'William, clerk of Stratford' (Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordienses) has been found dated to his 'lost years', three times in the register of the English College in Rome, the priests' training college which churned out padres to sneak back into Britain and cater for the rebels in secret.

All very interesting, but hardly news: Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel made this claim (in German) in 2006, and her book was translated in 2007. Why has this turned up now? Is the English College on a fundraising drive? I suspect so… Who knows whether this is true? Working out the bona fides of Shakespeare specialists is tricky, and Shakespeare provides a handy black hole into which people pour their obsessions.

More to the point: it's not definitely Shakespeare, and it doesn't add to our understanding of the plays. The Catholicism or not of Billy has been widely examined and the plays have been read in the light of this by many commentators. This story is more about the Shakespeare industry than it's about Shakespeare.

Eh? About half-past three!

I've discovered the up-side of losing my hearing. It's music. More specifically, it's not being able to hear most of the appalling gloop being pumped out in every bar, shop, lift and public space I enter. It's particularly bad at Christmas - 90% of secular Christmas music is unlistenable. Most of the religious stuff is bad too, and all of it, well, ideologically unsound, as Dan said after singing all 12 verses of The First Nowell at a carol concert the other day.

Me, I'm fine. I'm catching only one in every six words spoken. That goes down to one in ten sung words, and nothing in the high and very low end. It's just a drone. This is, obviously, a crushing blow normally, especially as I have many, many thousands of CDs and vinyl records in my home, but I'll live with it over the Christmas period. No Cliff Richard. No Little Drummer Boy. No Paul McCartney, no Frank, Bing or whoever. Peace, perfect peace.

Deafness is also making everybody's conversations sound fascinating. Catching one word in a sentence makes me feel like I'm missing out on all sorts of interesting things, when in fact they're talking about marking and other exciting and really wild things.

A few more picture (not of the Map Twats, thankfully).

OK, these are the last ones I'll post. The rest can be seen here. Click on them for larger versions.

Is this the last Wimpy franchise in the world?

More Map Twat day out pictures

More pictures here

Map Twat Christmas Walk

We went walking on Cannock Chase yesterday - Dan, Neal and I. I'm missing swimming (none until my ears work again) and it showed - I was falling behind those rangy gits.

The weather was perfect. It was very cold, really clear and crisp, and the sun shone. The light was perfect and the ground was icy. As we traversed the hills and valleys, we spotted a woodpecker, deer (mostly deer arses, actually) and the wonders of nature. We ate fine cheese and Dan's homemade olive tapenade (!), then back to cosmopolitan Stafford for dinner with Dan's partner, which was very convivial.

It wasn't an official Map Twat expedition: Dan went mapless! More pictures here.

Action Neal

Have you met Neal, originator of the Melanie Philips Newspaper Rack©?

This is him in action on Cannock Chase yesterday. What a figure of a man. He's into swinging.

Cadet Winton 2009

This is probably of interest only to the fencers amongst you, but I've posted some pictures of my West Midlands team in action. They aren't very good, to be honest: the lighting was awful and I'm not yet quite skilled enough with my (rather good) camera to get good sporting shots.

West Midlands came 4th, and my Women's Epée team won their event 9-0, which obviously was brilliant. Here's the full team (minus one fencer who went home early, ill) and the Women's Epée team with their medals.

So what was the Pringles tube for?

I asked, and you provided many and varied responses. None of them were correct.

Neal utilised the tube to make me………………………… The Melanie Philips Newspaper Rack© (quotes below are from the hilarious interview linked to by her name). In case you don't know her, she's the shrillest, least informed, most opinionated, most often wrong, most reactionary and most unpleasant journalist in the country - more so even than Jan Moir, because Philips is more intelligent. She has turned her talent towards evil. For instance, she believes that climate change just isn't happening and is a big communist plot (qualifications - zero), putting her in the company of this charming fellow and this one, and she calls London Londonistan which apparently isn't racist, whereas having even the slightest scintilla of doubt about anything Israel does is anti-semitic and you may as well wear an SS uniform and burn Jews every weekend because you are a Holocaust denier. Obama, to her, is 'in the Islamists' camp' and became a Christian as an electoral tactic… And she thinks the MMR vaccine causes autism, which is a sure sign of an uninformed fruitcake.

Multiculturalism, she writes, "has become the driving force of British life, ruthlessly policed by a state-financed army of local and national bureaucrats enforcing a doctrine of state-mandated virtue to promote racial, ethnic and cultural difference and stamp out majority values". British nationhood is being disembowelled by "mass immigration, multiculturalism and the onslaught mounted by secular nihilists against the country's Judeo-Christian values."
The key to her analysis is her belief in a general collapse of values or, in her words, "the creation of a debauched and disorderly culture of instant gratification, with disintegrating families, feral children and violence, squalor and vulgarity on the streets". This is combined, she believes, with a profound anti-semitism among people who do not realise that "the fight against Israel is not fundamentally about land. It is about hatred of the Jews".
"The capture of all society's institutions, such as schools, universities, churches, the media, the legal profession, the police and voluntary groups. This intellectual elite was persuaded to sing from the same subversive hymn sheet so that the moral beliefs of the majority would be replaced by those on the margins of society, the perfect ambience in which the Muslim grievance culture could be fanned into the flames of extremism."

She writes, of course, for the Daily Mail.

The newspaper rack is perfectly designed, as you can see, to shut her up by cramming her mouth with The Guardian, which is her nemesis. The speech bubble is wipe-clean, enabling me to replace her old lunacies with fresh ones.

Melanie Philips: proof that you can be intelligent and stupid, or cynical ranter for money? Whatever the case, she makes me angrier than anyone else on the planet. This includes Michael Portillo. He was the son of Spanish Republican refugees who betrayed them by becoming one of the most rightwing Conservative government ministers in recent history. He made me shout extremely rude words at the television this morning. It was a repeat of one of his post-politics travel shows, in which he extolled the beauty and efficiency of the Spanish hyper-fast railway network.

Why did this make me angry, you may ask. After all, you love trains and foreigners, Vole. (Yes, Melanie, I do.) Well children, it made me angry because Portillo was one of the Conservative minister who privatised Britain's railway network. They broke it up into stupid little parcels and sold the scraps at a knockdown price to their flaky, dodgy, asset-stripping financier friends, who turned a tired but functional service into a shiny, awful, unreliable service which is Europe's most expensive. So for him to spend licence-payers' money grinning smugly from the seat of a fast, luxurious train we'll never have because he stole the network from us is UTTERLY UNCONSCIONABLE. The total, total bastard. How DARE he?

And yet, Melanie Philips is worse. Portillo's a well-fed smug turncoat. Philips is actually, deliberately evil because she refuses to think past her prejudices, despite having the intelligence to do so.

Is it cold in Wolverhampton?

It was -7 C when I left on Saturday morning. This was the scene nearby, the night before:

Home again, home again

Hello readers. How've you spent the weekend?

Emma, from her ever so slightly smug texts, has been surfing, rafting, lolling in a hammock and generally doing things unavailable to Wulfrunians in winter. She's in New Zealand, visiting her sister. She promises to update her blog from Down There.

I was in a posh boarding school in Somerset (within sight of Glastonbury Tor, hippies), managing the West Midlands team for the Cadet Winton fencing tournament. It was very, very cold (hurrah for Icebreaker woolly gear) and quite stressful, but we did well. Last year we were 9th: this year we came 4th, so thank you to all the fencers, particularly the women's epée team, who were undefeated the whole weekend. They all behaved, too…

In my absence, Neal and Dan entertained Cynical Ben and his long-suffering wife Jo, at my flat. Actually, while I slept in preparation for getting up at 5.00 a.m., they entertained Mark to drunken pizza the night before. I didn't hear a thing. Ben's Christmas present to me was a huge box of the most depressing literature you'll ever see, plus a Jeeves and Wooster compendium, a Gary Rhodes cookbook, a cheese-making book, and Stephen Fry's guide to classical music, inscribed with the words 'This book is shit, love Ben'. And guess what: he's right!

Ben has this to say about me over on his blog:

In a year when I gave up on the Guardian where can I turn when I want a left-leaning stance on world events? The answer is provided by the Vole who I agree with almost everything in general terms and almost nothing in the particular. His prolific blogging takes in the personal, the private, the political and the pant-wetting indie. I read his blog every time I am online and there is always something worth reading. He is a word machine. He also has an especial good humour and is wonderfully patient with my often incredibly rude and argumentative comments
The last comment is the accurate one. His visit to my flat was his first. I wasn't there. Ben's considered judgement was apparently 'it's not as bad as I expected', which is a beautifully weighted insult. However, he'll no doubt have a completely different opinion by next week. He always does, on every subject. Other than Muriel Spark, that is. He loves Muriel Spark.

Ewar: I have a beautifully wrapped parcel of books for you, courtesy of old Cynical. Call in for them next term.

Dan presented me with a Roy Hattersley book on the period in which I specialise, and a compilation CD, which starts with LFO and presumably gets weirder. Our own Christmas album will be available for your delectation very soon. Be afraid, be very, very afraid.

Friday, 18 December 2009


Neal's homemade present to me involves an (empty) tube from a popular brand of fake crisps. My mind boggles. Any ideas?

Man hands on misery to man…

Two things have happened today which encapsulate the extremes of the human condition.

The first is the theft of the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' ironwork sign spanning the entrance to Auschwitz. Some things are sacred: a camp preserved as a memorial to man's endless capability for cruelty to man is surely on of them (not that it's had much of a restraining effect). What might the motivation be? Plain theft? Surely not, unless the thieves are totally free of all morality and sense of proportion. Memorabilia collection? There is a market for Nazi items, and this must rank high on the list of desirable pieces, but even amongst those freaks, some sense of place must prevail.

The only motivation I can think of is that it's a fascist statement - to desecrate a place where millions died, and which represent the places where more millions died (Jews, communists, trade unionists, Roma, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses and others identified as somehow not fitting into the pure society) is a shocking rejection of morality, history and, ultimately, humanity. The action makes light of what went on behind those gates.

Meanwhile, from the bottom of a mine in Minnesota amongst other places, dark matter appears to have been found. It's a testimony to our (sometimes grudging) commitment to purest research - something now under attack in my education system and country. Dark matter is the substance which makes up 75% of the universe. It's never been detected before, only theorised as filling the spaces in gravitational theories of the universe: from dark matter comes matter, which includes us. Additionally, dark matter may even hold the key to time itself. At this point my brain dribbles out of my lugholes, looking for the nearest pub.

Jazz satire

I'm not a huge jazz fan, but this song (posted over on Banquet of Consequences) has a catchy beat and a good line of snark. Mind you, fits me when I'm blogging…

En garde!

Hello children. How many of you are snowed in? Not me, dammit. It's cold but sunny I'm in the office, slowly doing administration for the fencing team I'm managing this weekend. I'm really not looking forward to my 5 a.m. start and long coach journey.

Still it should be a great weekend. It's the Cadet Winton, the junior version of the Winton Cup, an annual inter-regions event. Most of the fencers know each other from the individual circuit, so they get the chance to fight as a team (a strange experience for a largely individualistic sport), to support and be supported by their comrades, and often to make new friends.

For me, I'll be happy as long as we fence well, nobody gets hurt and nobody gets left behind/drunk/whatever.

It's held in a posh boarding school, which is a strange experience, having gone to a very non-posh boarding school for a period of my (chequered) school life. At least I won't be expecting warm, comfortable beds or decent food…

Thursday, 17 December 2009

My Christmas message to you all

We all got a little bit heated last week, while discussing the role of bankers and politicians in destroying our economy.

I'd like to silence you (how I'd like to silence you) with a closing quotation from Thomas More's Utopia, from 1516. It's a complicated text: satirical, political, self-contradictory in places and morally complex.

But as this is a blog, I can ignore all that nuance stuff and just give you this, which I hope you agree applies to our current condition.

Hythlodaeus (who appears to represent one aspect of More's personality):
It appears to me that wherever you have private property and all men measure all things by cash values, there it is scarcely possible for a commonwealth to have justice or prosperity - unless you think justice exists where all the best things flow into the hands of the worst citizens or prosperity prevails where all is divided among very few.

When I consider and turn over in my mind the state of all commonwealths flourishing anywhere today, so help me God, I can see nothing else than a kind of conspiracy of the rich, who are aiming at their own interests under the name and title of the commonwealth. 


What with being ill and busy over the last few days, I haven't posted anything from my Dinner-Dance in aid of the North Staffordshire Special Adventure Playground. It's North Staffordshire's premier Special Adventure Playground, in fact. And only.

The glittering showbiz event was held in the director's banqueting chamber of Stoke City FC, so you can imagine that I was rather keen to go. Pictures of bygone heroes festooned the place. I could almost hear the ghostly rattle of broken bones, stricken crossbars and crowd violence (very much a thing of the past).

Feeling rough, I didn't dance much, but did escort The Well of Lost Blogs, and shared a table with her and the other staff, delightful company all. Unfortunately, I lost out in the auction for a signed Stoke City ball, a French villa holiday and a bottle of House of Commons whisky signed by Tony Blair* (I planned to trace the signature onto a full confession of his war crimes).

The distinguished gentleman is Stanley Matthews, one of Stoke and England's greatest players. A few more pictures are here.

*In an effort to avoid the taxman and hide his enormous income, Blair has set up 12 companies to funnel his cash through. The full, incredibly boring, details, are here. So much for upholding the public good even once out of office etc. etc.

Bye Donal. Don't go alone

Finally, a senior clergyman has resigned over the many, many, Irish sexual abuse cases. A recent report identified several named Bishops as involved in the cover-ups - moving abusive priests on to fresh new territory, refusing to investigate accusations and the like. Donal Murray, Bishop of Limerick was merely one of this cabal who decided that the strength of the Church outweighs the needs of raped children, their families and the community.

More need to go. Schools need to be handed over to the State (they're still run 'for' the State by religious institutions in Ireland, and the Pope needs to 'fess up. In his previous job, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith (it probably sounds cooler in Latin), he had responsibility for all this stuff. He knew, and said nothing.

Ireland used to be the hope of the Catholic Church. While other nations slipped away into atheism or (worse) Protestantism, or developed strands of Liberation Theology (the idea that Catholic priests should identify with the poor and the oppressed rather than bolster the ruling classes), Ireland's Catholics stayed obedient, reactionary and devoted. They handed their children over to the Church and received in return a ruling class that never lifted a finger without checking with Rome first. One image serves well: all of the government and senior oppostion, with the brave exception of Noel Browne (an all-round hero), waited outside the funeral service for the President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde (owner of a splendid moustache), because the Catholic church forebade its members from attending Protestant services.

Catholicism's on my mind today. I certainly don't have any nostalgia for my days as an altar boy or choir boy, but it leaves its effects, positive and negative, even on we liberated atheists. I'm definitely a Catholic Atheist! In London the other day, Adam and I visited the National Gallery's The Sacred Made Real exhibition, a collection of paintings and statues from the 17th-century Spanish Counter-reformation. All the statues are hyper-real: John the Baptist's head is painted, and moving around the glass case reveals a neck complete with windpipe and bloody flesh. The Christs are all heavily scourged and wounded, the tears dripping from Mary's eyes are made of crystal.

It's the iconography of a church which feared and distrusted its congregation. Not for them the tales of liberation and joy available in the New Testament. Instead, the emphasis is on suffering and sacrifice: Jesus crucified and the gory martyrdoms of various saints, all dwelt upon with a dark kind of pleasure. The people, clearly, were urged to identify with the misery and pain of these events, rather than to consider the positive aspects of the religion. It's a very personal, inward-looking kind of belief, designed to encourage the faithful to resist the wider social and moral attractions of rival denominations. As art, the images are disturbingly beautiful. As theology, they're terrifying. This is what lies at the heart of the Irish scandal.

Lunchtime bulletin

Hello. Anyone still out there, or are you all doing your Christmas shopping?

I'm still deaf (thanks for the solidarity, Demented) and feeling grumpy, but the sun's shining so I'm slowly unfurling.

I went off to my department's Christmas dinner last night, at Don Salvo's. Good food, odd service, and good conversation. Well, I'm assuming it was good conversation. People's mouths were moving anyway.

Anyway, I'm here in the office, seeing the occasional student, doing some marking and moaning to colleagues. Maybe you should move along to Cynical Ben, where he's listing his albums of the decade, rather provocatively. At least he's included P J Harvey's White Chalk, certainly amongst my favourite two or three LPs of the decade. It's a stunning work - bleak, uncompromising but essential. It reminds me of Kate Roberts's novels and short stories: tales of a life made strong through hardship, effort, resilience and determination. Lives stripped down to their bare essentials yet never lacking dignity. The music echoes this - minimal instrumentation and effects. The album certainly isn't one to play over breakfast, but it swiftly becomes addictive.

This is 'The Devil'.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

It's going to snow, which I love very much indeed.

Oh. Except where I am. Boo hiss.

The good, the bad and the petty

MPs expenses are endlessly fascinating. Some are holier than thou, most are entirely reasonable, and some defy common sense or good manners. The small claims are often the most revealing

Take John Baron, MP for Billericay. He claimed £10 from the taxpayer… to cover the gardener's Christmas tip! Scrooge!

He is, unsurprisingly, a Tory, and one who particularly hates the NHS and Travellers (by which I suspect he means Roma).

Peter Bottomley (another Tory) clearly fancies himself. He charged us £5.51 for 'art insurance' and has taken out £25,000 of 'kidnap insurance', despite having no obvious personality which might provoke a snatch.

Leading Green campaigner David Cameron MP (who put a useless wind turbine on his London home as a publicity stunt) burns large amounts of oil to heat his Oxfordshire mansion. We pay his bills: I think we're entitled to insist that this multimillionaire installs solar and ground source heat pumps. Despite having £30m+ in the bank, we pay the interest on his mortgage, even though he could have bought his houses in cash. Most of the Tories seem to burn oil - perhaps just to annoy liberals.

Harry Cohen's shower gel costs £34 (something stinks). Derek Conway (very corrupt) had his toilet handle greased (better not to ask). Greedy Gerald Kaufman didn't see why he should pay for Sky Sports in his second home, and charged us. The fees office told him to sod off. He also demanded over £1000 for a posh chair.

Michael Meacher, multi-property-owning former environment minister couldn't pay his bills on time a few months ago. This didn't stop him harassing the fees office for the £1.49 they owned him! Loads of MPs seem to have problems paying council tax and the like on time. Anne Moffat tried (and failed) to claim for air bed insurance! Dan Norris bothered to claim £0.80 for a phone call! Meanwhile, Lembit Öpik called electricians to fix the lights in his London flat. From 418 miles away in his Welsh constituency!

George Osborne thinks he'll be Chancellor of the Exchequer next year, in charge of the country's finances. It's therefore not great news that he'd run out of expenses allowances. Hi colleague Andrew Selous charged £0.55 for a mug of Horlicks! Paddy Tipping (not a name, more of a sport) tried to make us pay for his dog-minding (rejected).

Actually, most of this is rather sweet, if petty.


What a rotten day it's been. I'm tired, grouchy and deaf. I should have been sparkling before an invited audience of sixth-formers gathered for a conference, or at least acting as Zoot Horn's lovely assistant, but instead I sat in a walk-in health centre (yet again, three cheers for the NHS) and then spent the day frantically trying to organise things for the fencing competition I'm taking a team to at the weekend. If I'd been OK, I'd have been discussing James Joyce, Heaney, Betjeman, Langston Hughes, St. Vincent Millay and Armitage - all my favourites. I feel genuinely bad about not pulling my weight.

Do I go home and mark essays, or go to the English department Christmas dinner, even though I can't hear anything?

Meanwhile, Mark, Neal and others are having fun at this wonderful event, populated by all my favourite people:

Slash and burn

In the interest of lightening the tone, I was talking to someone about the misery of shaving (female readers, feel free to fill the comments section with childbirth-based objections) and thought I'd share this anecdote with you.

Knowing that I've always wanted to try the old-fashioned cut-throat blade wet shave experience, one of my friends organised a Luxury Shave Experience for my birthday, as part of a day trip to London.

Off we toddled to a boutique in fashionable Chelsea. My face was wrapped in hot towels, and I settled back into the bosom of a very glamorous young lady, fully expecting the experience of a lifetime. The towels came off and the facial massage started. I was so relaxed that I was almost asleep. Then the razor made its presence felt. Now, gentlemen, you'll all understand that the angle at which the blade meets the face is important. Would you have guessed: perpendicular? Nor me. But there it was: edge on to my skin, and the motion started - the motion of a psychotic windscreen wiper. Back and forth it went, harder and harder.

The pain was, naturally, immense. However, I thought 'perhaps I'm just a wimp. Maybe it's meant to be like that', and didn't utter a squeak. I noticed my companion, through the mirror, leave the room, but thought that she was going for a coffee.

Perhaps ten minutes later, perhaps an hour later, the pain had spread to most areas of my face. Seemingly at random, my torturer patted my face dry and announced that she'd finished. The promised 'aftercare, beauty tips' and various extras were not, clearly, going to materialise, but as a polite chap, I thanked her and left.

Outside, my benefactor was sitting under a tree in the sun. On approaching her, I noticed that she was crying (not unknown in my presence). I coughed to announce my presence and she turned, took one look at my face, and increased the flow of tears (again, not unknown in my experience). However, her tears were occasioned, it turns out, by the mask of blood I was wearing. She had fled the room when the old red stuff had started to flow, and it hadn't stopped for quite some time. Finding a car's side-mirror, I realised that my face was a patchwork of gaping wounds and clumps of beard (I'd not shaven for a week in advance of this spa heaven): the beautician, horrified by the damage she'd done but not caring to alert me, had bailed out halfway, throwing me onto the street without mentioning either the damage or the incomplete job!

And so we wandered the streets of London for the day, passers-by staring openly at my harvest-sun face, blood spattering my clothes, heat pulsing from my head. Later that evening, we attended the recording of a Radio 4 show, in company with a great many aged and respectable retired citizens… none of whom cared to sit next to us, whatever they thought we were.

I've had a major operation and several injuries. I'm deaf, right now. Nothing beats the enduring pain of that day. Still, we've all got some good anecdotes out of it, and I can see the funny side. Now. I've even been for another shave, and it was wonderful. Shame the place has recently gone bankrupt.

Ant'n'Dec: why?

Maybe I'm feeling a bit grumpy because I'm ill and temporarily deaf (Demented, if this is a tiny portion of what you're stuck with, my respect for you has risen even higher), but some things have really ground my gears recently.

Chief amongst them are Ant'n'Dec. Now, if you're not a UK-based reader, you may be asking yourself who or what AntnDec are.

They are Death. By this, I'm making an analogy with Western films, rather than the very dignified Death of Pratchett's Discworld, or the good sport of Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. In Westerns, just before the final showdown, a little man with a tape measure runs up to the hero and the villains, measuring them up for coffin size. It's a moment of comic relief. The man is always a little cracked and fussy, and he momentarily relieves some of the tension associated with a violent, possibly unjust death.

AntnDec are similarly ubiquitous. They were poor child actors in a Geordie children's home drama called Byker Grove. Then they became poor quality pop stars as PJ and Duncan, on the basis of their cuteness and strong regional accents (a children's Robson and Jerome, perhaps). After that, it was off to the BBC to present The Ant and Dec Show, then to Channel 4 to do Ant and Dec Unzipped… Before long, they were presenting CD:UK and SM:TV, hugely popular ITV Saturday morning kids' shows. They've since spread like a rash, presenting Ant and Dec's Saturday Takeaway (during which, as executive producers, they shared responsibility for 'taking away' a large amount of money from viewers who rang into closed premium competition lines), Pop Idol, I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Britain's Got Talent (it hasn't) and Ant and Dec's Gameshow Marathon.

They are, in essence, the face of a doomed and desperate TV channel. They have no skills, only accents. They pop up, grin inanely, utter something along the lines of 'why-ay' (a Newcastle greeting) and attempt to draw your consciousness away from the emptiness you are contemplating. They are that man, measuring you up for your coffin. It won't help.

There's a lot more. I was awake all last night, occupying my mind with this stuff, but it's all slipped away.

In my absence

In my absence, many things have appeared in my brain which would have occasioned a cyberrant.

Amongst them, of course, was Tony Blair's announcement that he'd have found some other excuse to invade Iraq if he'd definitively known that there weren't any WMDs (which he must have known anyway).

It's not, of course, a surprise that he'd have done this. There are two aspects of the interview which are classic Blair.

1. The 'I did what I thought was right according to my conscience' routine. It's evasive and unacceptable. I could punch my mum and claim that I was being true to myself. It's no defence. Ken Macdonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, rightly called it a 'narcissist's defence', and he's right - the only validation, for Blair, is Blair. That's a total rejection of objective standards, law and democracy.

2. There's an inquiry into the Iraq war on (a bit of a whitewash, but at least it's on). Did Blair say these things to the inquiry? No, he bloody didn't. He did what he did right through his premiership: sat on a sofa in a TV studio, answering questions from unqualified light-entertainment presenters. He never hid his contempt for Parliament, and he never went on the serious news shows, like Today, Newsnight or Channel 4 News. Instead, he oiled his way onto shows like Richard and Judy. This time it was Fern Britton, most famous for hosting This Morning, Ready Steady Cook, Soapstar Superstar, Magic Moments, and Mr. and Mrs., alongside a host of other hard-hitting political shows.


Forgot the most exciting bit. I met The Krankies. They seemed cranky. And they read The Telegraph. Ugh.

Heeee's back! Sort of.

Hello again. I've so much to share with you, but it will all have to wait.

In the last few days I've:
put on a dinner suit and bow tie
visited the hallowed turf of Stoke City
seen more van Goghs, Holbeins and assorted other famous paintings
confirmed that Adam's girlfriend actually exists
lost all hearing in one ear.

Thanks to that last, I'm off to a health centre rather than help with the 6th form conference I should be teaching on.

Meanwhile, I just want to check on two people. Winter and Stupid Fat Hobbit: give me a sign of life.

More later, if I'm not having my ears amputated.