Friday, 27 February 2009

Tory Tory Tory

I was going to rant about Thatcher today, after watching last night's BBC2 dramatisation of her last days in power. All the old boiling, screaming hatred came back like an old friend, to which was added the impotent fury caused by the fact that even the party that's meant to be on our side was comprehensively captured by her manichaean attitudes towards race, diplomacy, foreigners, the poor, the weak etc. etc. etc.

But I won't. Cynical Ben's already done it beautifully.

There was one distracting thing about this adaptation - I was sometimes so captivated by the quality of the actors and their uncanny accuracy (Ken Clarke!) that I forgot to enjoy the misery suffered by the actual politicians. Lindsey Duncan was brilliant but couldn't bring herself to be quite as evil and unsympathetic as Thatcher really was. I'm not a vindictive man, but if there's any justice, Thatcher will spend her declining years at the back of a queue for bread, unable to complain because she's lost the power of speech. For starters.

Winding down for the weekend

A quiet day today - a swim, peer-reviewing a very interesting article on The Welsh Outlook, then teaching Renaissance literature - I think I'll go with Faustus and see what the little darlings make of it.

Then tomorrow - a long, stretching walk up Carnedd Llywelyn with the Map Twats to blow out the cobwebs.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

My huge piles… of books

Yet again, Santa brings me more books. If Mandelson's evil plans about the Mail slow down the flow then I'll have is head on a spike. Two more 'histories' of Britain (Layamon's Brut from about 1215 and Nennius's Historia Brittonum from c. 833) and l'Abbat's 1734 The Art of Fencing - might pick up some interesting forgotten moves.

All the misery pays off at last

I bought two jerseys yesterday. So f*cking what, you might ask - a pig wrapped in a sheep. Well, they're medium-sized, MEDIUM, I tell you. I only had the one degree last time I squeezed my flabby, pasty carcass into so little fabric. The world turned upside-down…

A healthy glow

Just to prove that greens can be (occasionally half-hearted) sexist pigs too, I give you The Environmentals: models posing outside nuclear power plants - sometimes nude but for a radiation detector…

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

I'm doomed…

Over on Bad Science and on Newsnight, Ben Goldacre is ripping Susan Greenfield and another 'researcher' to shreds for the ludicrous claim, as the Daily Mail puts it, that 'Facebook = Cancer'. She says 'there's no evidence for this but…' - which echoes the infamous Chris Morris paedophilia episode in which Dr Fox makes the same claim about crabs and paedophiles sharing genes (can't embed this one, but it's at 1.15).

The basic idea behind this ludicrous story is that use of Facebook etc. = loneliness = susceptibility to disease. Fair enough. In that case, holding tutorials yesterday made me very susceptible, and my daily routine (read books, teach, read books) means that I'm a high-priority case. I demand screening! Compensation! That bastard Gutenberg and his pushers Waterstones, Bangor University, Wolverhampton University, Amazon, ABE and all the other backstreet book dealers should be strung up for this. My entire life has been predicated on George Eliot's maxim: 'the world outside books is not a happy one' - and now I discover that hiding myself away with one will kill me.

We salute you…

Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger isn't just a hero for saving 155 people when he ditched his 'plane in the Hudson. He's a hero because he's spoken up for the working stiff and blamed the deregulation of transport in the 70s for eroding workers' rights. His pay has decreased 40% and he no longer has a pension thanks to the bankruptcy manoeuvres pulled by the airlines to dump their pension and pay commitments. All hail.

Dear Rupert

A couple of years ago, I was involved in a cybermetrics project which looked at blogging and news. The conclusion was that bloggers didn't really break stories, but followed them up - with some exceptions.

I notice that somebody at has been reading my blog quite exhaustively. I have a few things to say:

1. Do some real journalism.
2. Nothing to see here, move along please.
3. You are evil (not personally - you're a worker vulnerable to the vicissitudes of capitalism). Don't even think of using anything I've written.

I don't have Sky, so if any of you see any of my best lines on screen, let me know.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Into the corridors of power

I have a hotline to government - state government that is. Of Nebraska… Welcome, Nebraskan reader. I hope you've got Dick Cheney safely in an undisclosed location again!

To another reader using a Mac at Swansea University's English Department:did you Google yourself and find yourself on my page? I hope your ears (eyes?) are burning! Actually, I loved Twenty Thousand Saints: profound, funny, beautifully structured and written. How I wish I was as fluent in my first language as you are in your second.

Jack be nimble… with the truth

Jack Straw has vetoed the Information Commissioner's order to release the minutes of the Cabinet meetings which authorised the Iraq War. His reasons are fascinating:
"Cabinet is the pinnacle of the decision-making machinery of government," Straw said. "It is the forum in which debates on the issues of greatest significance and complexity are conducted".
Now Jack's always been a bit of a slippery customer, but this is such a howling lie that it shouldn't be allowed to stand. Read the memoirs of any of the Cabinet ministers since 97 - Mowlam, Short, Mullin loads of others - and you'll realise that there's no Cabinet discussion of any substance. There's even a phrase to describe Blair's style: sofa government, which denotes the unminuted, word-in-your-shell-like way he conducted business. To listen to Jack, you'd think that every Cabinet meeting was a meeting if Titans thrashing out the moral and political ramifications of every decision. It's not true. All the big decisions, including the Iraq war, were planned by Blair and his unelected advisers, then the Cabinet were presented with them for their tame acceptance. Debates went unaired, votes weren't taken. Like the rest of the party but with more spineless desire, the Cabinet accepted this as the price of power. Jack's a liar.

Bloody Blogger - changing my fonts and won't change them back

Weird science

Two wonderful things over on Pharyngula: the fish with a transparent head and barrel shaped eyes that located completely inside said cranium, and a link to a quiz: are your morals Biblically bona-fide? Take it now!

My result:
Your morality is 0% in line with that of the bible.

Damn you heathen! Your book learnin' has done warped your mind. You shall not be invited next time I sacrifice a goat.

Do You Have Biblical Morals?
Take More Quizzes

Even more books

In return for spending two whole days translating some Pierre Klossowski (bonkers French philosopher, novelist and artist), William has given me a copy of Bataille's Literature and Evil. I've only read The Story of the Eye so don't quite know what to expect. Onto the pile it goes…

I also received my 'Collector's Library' three-quarter size facsimile of William Morris's Kelmscott Chaucer. It's got too much gold on the outside for my taste, and the edition is completely monochrome - a huge disappointment - but it's still a beautiful edition, reflecting the height of Victorian guild-socialist thought and design from illustrations to typeface. It will certainly do until I can afford to blow a million or two on the real thing (though one of the 48 pigskin and vellum copies can be seen at Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton) and here are some images from the 425-copies first edition.

Open wide

I went to the dentist today, slightly grumpily because Chris Layne is a great, charming and kind man who is leaving the NHS system - the 5th biggest economy in the world can't organise a dental health service. However, I cheered up: my gnashers are OK (appearances can be deceptive) and Chris's wife Helen didn't recognise me because I've lost so much weight - wonderful. People have largely stopped shouting Peep Show phrases at me too…

Also, my iPod chose 3 Snowpony (they're better than the review linked to suggests) tracks from the first 4 it shuffled today. I'm a sucker for side-projects anyway (this lot are related to Stereolab and a load of other interesting bands, and it took me back to a lost age of non-Britpop indie, in which intelligent women wrote and played songs which didn't fake a commercial version of feminism, but dealt with social and political issues through the medium of ancient synths and Fender Jazz Basses (retro-futurism?) - crunchy, funky stuff.

More on e-learning/teaching

Desperate Demon points out that e-mail is a useful way to interact with staff without embarrassment. I can see the point - people seem to view e-media as a site for personal statements they wouldn't make face-to-face, but I'm not sure this is a good thing. Instead, I think it's a depressing comment on how we all relate to each other in the flesh - we're substituting symbolic exchange for simulation to avoid embarrassment - is this an English thing? We all use language as a way to distance people, so perhaps it's a logical extension to use e-mail in the same way. For others, of course, the solitary nature of typing to a screen feels intimate, leading to more emotional openness.

Natural Blues also feels alienated by the impersonality of the university system. I'm sorry to say that it comes down to money and culture. If you were at Oxford, or a smaller institution, you'd meet your personal tutor at least once a week to discuss your work between just the two of you. I wish we could do the same…

Another feature of the university system is that we're meant to treat you as independent and strong adults, even though the A-level system doesn't prepare you for the level of solitary and/or self-directed study required. We're meant to point out the potential ways to think about texts or issues and you're meant to go off happily to the library - even though it's hard to navigate your way through thousands of books contradicting each other, and do your own washing/cooking, and work because it's so expensive to be at university, and you're making (and dumping) friends, adopting a new identity, you may have children or terribly complicated lives.

You may have come from a totally structured learning environment to university, and it's hard not to think that turning up to class is your sole activity, when in actual fact this should be the smallest part of studying. At posh places, you have very few lectures and 8 week terms - but they know that most of their time will be spent studying. We can't operate like this - most of you aren't rich enough not to need jobs, you aren't from the same kind of environments, more support is needed. However, the conundrum is that support is expensive and takes a lot of time - two things in short supply. I don't know the answer - any suggestions?

However: do be assured that everything you've felt so far is what everybody else is feeling (I certainly did): lost, stupid, unprepared, directionless and often lazy. That said, things like socialising and sport and joining weird religious or political groups or just bullshitting in the bar are all important activities. Take some risks (intellectually and otherwise) - you never know what talents you'll discover.

BTW: I do at least skim through draft essays etc, but only if you send them well before the due date - 3 hours before submission isn't on!

I'm learnin', learnin', learnin', learnin'

Here we are on the PGCE and we're on to reflective learning. Only 4 of us here and it's all rather jolly - lots more exchange of ideas. Shame I'm in Walsall - I never thought I'd pine for Wolverhampton.

Enlightening the masses

I'm doing tutorials for my second-level students today - two have come from 24 so far, and they're very clear on what to do and how to do it. This is the conundrum of teaching - the motivated ones come for help and often only need reassurance, while the people I really worry about either think they don't need help or are too worried to ask for it. 

I can understand the latter - I always stressed in private when I was an undergrad - but I'm not sure how to fix this. I don't want to make tutorials compulsory because this isn't a school and compulsion doesn't help with the wider process of their educational trajectory, and I don't want to single people out. All I can do is stress to them how available I am and that I've been through the same problems they have. Any ideas, you academic readers? 

Update: two more came, one nervous but sorted, another rather lacking in preparation. What really depressed me is the surprise registered when I used their names. It's a large institution with too many packed classes. I'd love to know them all better - it would help them ask for help when struggling, they'd feel more cared-about, but it's hard when there can be 120 or more in a lecture and 20-30 in an hour-long seminar. 

Monday, 23 February 2009

Another day, another book

This time, it's Fflur Dafydd's Twenty Thousand Saints - partly a translation, partly a rewriting of her Welsh-language novel Atyniad. I bought it partly because I bumped into her at a conference or somewhere, while she was doing her PhD on R. S. Thomas (this book, like his Images of Bardsey) is set on Ynys Enlli, the Isle of 20,000 Saints), and partly because Welsh writing is going through another of its frequent golden ages - hip young things ripping up and remaking Cymru Cymraeg and English Wales in ever more fascinating ways, unbound by Celtic Twilightism or dour socialist realism and aided by forward-looking Eisteddfod judges.


The U.S. has a strong, and largely admirable, system of elected officials at all levels of governance, including judges. We moan about our prison and justice systems, but it's not as bad as what just happened in Pennsylvania.

Once elected, Judge Conahan shut down the state juvenile detention system and used county money to fund a multimillion dollar lease for private contractor Mid Atlantic Youth Services. Then he and Judge Ciavarella started taking bribes ($2.6m between them) to send more children to prison from the operators of these private prisons. Amongst the inmates: 15yr-old Hillary Transue (sent to a wilderness camp for mocking her headteacher on a Myspace page); Phillip Swartley (9 months' boot camp for nicking change for sweets) etc. etc. etc.

It's not just the fault of an overly politicised civic structure - somehow it seemed OK to try these children without lawyers (Ohio: 90% of child defendants had no lawyer). It seemed OK to privatise one of the most serious institutions a country can run (we've done it here too - and there's not much profit in rehabilitation, training for guards etc). 

It's our fault - we've lost our moral and political values (especially on the left because we should know better). When we're looking at children and seeing profit in their imprisonment, we've lost our moral compass. The one bright note in this story is that judges are likely to have a harder time in prison than bent coppers. 

Howling Gales

My chums the Nightingales have been beatified by Stewart Lee, no less, in the Sunday Times! Available in a few good record shops, Amazon and iTunes. They'll only spend the money on drink, mind.

The Nightingales: Insult to Injury

John Peel died in October 2004. While Peel favourites the Fall and the Undertones were swiftly beatified by desperate Newsnight Review pundits, his beloved Birmingham post-punks the Nightingales somehow escaped such inappropriate appropriation. But the new album from the “Gales” is their finest for 27 years. 
The twin guitars of Alan Apperley and Matt Wood chime and coruscate; the drummer, Darren Garratt, has perfected a unique kind of flailing accuracy; and Robert Lloyd’s Black Country burr carves wry couplets into the hammer-effect, copper-top tables of the subconscious. Start here and work backwards. 
Klangbad KLANGBAD40


Queue-jumping Smoker appears to have invited his friends to the pool party: a stream of them pushed in today. I'm going to start drowning them soon. Their atrophied lungs presumably aren't up to much more than 10 seconds underwater. At least the rage is keeping my heart rate up.

Today in history

Pepys (1633) and Handel born today. Keats (1821) shuffled off his mortal coil (that's a Hamlet reference, kids). 

I read Paul McAuley's The Quiet War yesterday. It's good, solid space opera, in that it debates all the problems facing us (environmental destruction, the ossification of democracies into oligopolies, genetic engineering) by sticking them into a near-ish future and playing with the possibilities. McAuley is part of the hard-sf genre, also known as 'mundane SF' - scientific realism and a pretty downbeat assessment of our chances.

If you look down on SF, you're missing a genre which deliberately tackles all our social, scientific, philosophical and moral problems head on. Perhaps you're lumping fantasy in with it - and that's bad. 

More great radio

Cynical Ben recently recommended FIP, France's everything-goes music station. I'll reciprocate by suggesting WNYC's Overnight show - again, classical, folk, jazz, anything they like. 

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Happy birthday, grandma!

I'm away for my grandmother's 96th birthday party - she really is immortal, which hopefully means that I'll live long enough to bore your grandchildren too. As it's a family occasion, we're all sitting in separate rooms, reading newspapers (siblings apart - illiterates all). I've just read the Irish Times, and it's a real pleasure. It's still a massive expanse of newspaper, still running pages of close-type small ads, and clearly limited in its global reporting (lots of wire-service pieces), but it's beautifully written. 

It's an odd paper. Formerly the voice of the bitter Ascendancy which took several decades to come to terms with letting the culchies run the country, it's become a sophisticated, largely liberal paper which takes a cool, disinterested (is this the character of Church of Ireland Protestants?), rather despairing long view of the vagaries of Irish politics and governance - a bit like the Guardian but without the slightly desperate attempt to be cool, probably because it's the paper of record with no serious competition. There's something delightfully old-school about a paper in which letters start with 'Madam' (editor Geraldine Kennedy) and end with 'a chara etc.' The paper seems suffused with the barely suppressed notion that, had it been consulted, the country wouldn't be in its current economic, political and moral turmoil - and it's probably right.

None of this applies, of course, to the Saturday supplements. Like the Guardian and all the others, they're obsessed with something called 'lifestyle', which seems to consist of consuming vast quantities of food while wearing expensive but ephemeral clothes. I hoped that, with a recession, this rubbish would fade away, but apparently not: the Guardian featured a man's shirt for £850 yesterday. I know that I'm a penny-pinching git, but this seems excessive. I can see the point of paying £5000 for bespoke suit that will last for an entire lifetime, but that much for something which will seem unwearably outdated in a few months' time just makes me incandescent with impotent rage. 

The Irish Independent is a bigger seller, but that rag is an hysterical, reactionary turd of a publication - much more like the Mail than its sister paper in the UK. I rather like the Examiner too - formerly the Cork Examiner, making a play for national status. Unfortunately, however, the British tabloids and mid-markets are muscling in on the market by adding 'Irish' to the masthead and sharpening their most stridently unpleasant views even further: they seem to believe that the Irish are even more insular and racist than their home readership. Say it ain't so!

I browse through other papers too: Libération, L'humanité and Le Monde sometimes, and struggle through a few in languages I barely recognise - good for the soul and brings a new perspective. 

Friday, 20 February 2009

Books books books books books books books books

Seeing as I'm an English lecturer and notorious for buying more books than I can afford, I should probably talk about them more than I do. You can see the books I'm adding, on the list to the left of my posts.

At the moment, I'm reading a Wodehouse Jeeves book because people say they're relaxing. Not my experience, but mildly diverting. The only other one I've read is the one with Roderick Spode (thinly-disguised Oswald Mosley), from historical interest. What did strike me was the huge range of half-submerged literary references: Wooster knows his poetry but pretends he doesn't by mangling quotations slightly - neatly capturing toffs' anti-intellectualism. Sorry John Cowen - being mildly amusing doesn't make up for collaborating with the Nazis

I'm also on Germaine Greer's 1960s-1980s journalism: very enjoyable and sometimes strikingly profound - even at the heart of the underground press movement she retained a sense that they weren't getting anywhere. What a shame that she now produces instant opinions on absolutely anything rather than sticking to what she knows about. 

Finally, I'm reading Gildas's On the Ruin of Britain (originally De Excidio Britannia): giving my medieval lecture the other week reminded me what fun all that stuff is, and I've bought several more academic books and collections on the period. Gildas is a bit Daily Mail-ish, to be honest, constantly going on about social decay. It was written in the 500s but he whinges about 'the general destruction of all that is good' already - only 100 years after the Romans left and 50 years after the Saxons put their towels on a new stretch of beach. Still, it's bracing stuff, despite the awful prose into which it's been rendered. Dodo Books have clearly skimped on their editorial side - no dates anywhere, but I'm guessing it's a bad Victorian translation. I'm now so boring that the publication details page is the first thing I look at in a book now…

Gentle Readers: feed my habit

Given the t'web is global, and I'm getting readers from all over the world, I thought I'd ask you for help. I'm looking for a book (friends may not be overly-shocked by this announcement). It is Nancy Mitford's Wigs on the Green (1934), republished together with Highland Fling in the mid-1970s. Wigs is a satire about the British Union of Fascists, and she withdrew it when her sister Diana objected (Diana married Oswald Mosley, leader of the BUF). 

Nancy clearly didn't think much of either of them - she wrote to Churchill (a family acquaintance) objecting to the Mosleys' release from prison mid-way through the war. However, the book remained unavailable until this one 1970s reprint - and I can't find a copy anywhere. Tried Amazon, tried ABE etc. etc. If you see a copy, buy it, steal it, scan it - I'm planning a piece on satirical treatments of the BUF - Wodehouse (not entirely innocent himself), lampooned Mosley in a Jeeves novel as leader of the Union Jackshorts - all the more distinctive garments had already been bagged by other groups).

Reading the papers, getting angry

I've been reading about the bankers who are receiving bonuses from their now-state-owned banks because they're 'legally entitled' to it. So I checked the OED definition of 'bonus':

A boon or gift over and above what is normally due as remuneration to the receiver, and which is therefore something wholly ‘to the good’.    a. (a) Money or its equivalent, given as a premium, or as an extra or irregular remuneration, in consideration of offices performed, or to encourage their performance; sometimes merely a euphemism for douceurbribe. Hence bonus-fed adj.

A gratuity paid to workmen, masters of vessels, etc., over and above their stated salary.
There's nothing in there about entitlement - rather the opposite, in fact. So is it the case, as Simon Jenkins (not an habitual critic of the City) suggests, a legal dodge to avoid tax yet again. If so, let them have their bonuses, then send in the taxman to take a large chunk of it away - if bankers expect this cash, and it's in the contract, it's pay - to be taxed at 40%.

The wider issue is that bonuses enforce a culture of individualism, greed, short-termism and recklessness. If your bonus is linked to turning a quick buck, you'll short-sell a respectable company's shares overnight without a qualm as to whether this will wreck its chances of investing in new machinery or staff, rendering it unable to compete and leading to the loss of jobs… good work, you selfish bastards (and yes, I do mean those of my relatives working for 'investment' banks). 

That's good eating

''Extinct' Bird Seen, Eaten'. Disappointingly, this rare Worcester's buttonquail wasn't photographed then eaten by the same person to tease birdlovers everywhere, but pictured by a TV crew before being sold at a food market in the Philippines. They could at least have bought it themselves…

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Chill out

Apparently there's a debate going on in green circles about whether we need to use fridges. That got me thinking - I probably don't. I don't drink milk or other drinks which need refrigerating (though I do like cold beer), I like my cheese warm enough to taste, eggs don't need chilling, and my vegetables are fine on a rack. I don't buy meat very often and eat it on the same day if I do. 

That said, I'm a single gentleman who walks everywhere and has his veg delivered. Had I a family and the need to plan meals days in advance, a fridge or freezer may come in very handy indeed, and the energy I'd save from not owning a fridge is probably minimal compared to what I've saved through not driving etc etc. I think I'll celebrate by using some of my carbon credit to go whale-hunting by plane!

I've a reader in Hawaii

Obama? Is that you? Stick around for some useful advice! Welcome too to those faithful readers in Sweden, Italy, Harvard, Canada, Trumbauersville (no, really).

A grubby little morality tale

Cynical Ben is annoyed that Tessa Jowell has cast aspersions on the Italian justice system by restating her belief that husband David Mills is innocent of taking bribes from one S. Berlusconi for misleading a court. He's right, of course - imagine the fuss if a foreign government minister uttered similar comments about the Old Bailey. 

However - the Italian justice system is a wreck. Mills has two automatic rights to appeal, and there's a short expiry date on these trials - if he can delay or extend his appeals to 2010, the case ends and he gets away. Furthermore, the actual briber has changed the constitution to give himself immunity. There's little outcry because the Prime Minister controls the state TV and owns virtually all the private media (TV, radio, newspapers) left. 

I really want Mills to go down, and take Jowell and Co. with him. They're the epitome of all that's soulless and corrupt about the 'Labour' Party. They don't have any points of contact with the working or middle classes in this country. Mills is a solicitor specialising in tax avoidance. With the Tories, their openly expressed ideological position is that the state is bad and the interests of the individual must take precedence over all other rights. That authorises the kind of obscene greed, selfishness and contempt for others that they routinely manifest. Once you've adopted that position, criminality is simply innovation and entrepreneurship. 

Labour, however, was founded by the people to further the collective interests of the people. We're meant to see the state as the means by which to express and implement the public will. Our party has been captured (without a fight) by a cabal which explicitly rejects this vision. Once we have a cabinet of tax-evaders, directorship-seekers, bank-schmoozers, private-education supporters and above all NAKED CAPITALISTS, we have a party of hypocrites. These people don't have a sense of social justice or collective future. They openly and honestly believe in meritocracy: the concept that people successful in one field (always finance) must automatically have a superior vision of justice, education, morality, health, diplomacy and all the other branches of government. The result is a government advised and often run by unelected individualists who treat the ordinary citizen as a shameless, lazy benefit cheat while allowing the serious criminals to wreck the economy and export jobs. I didn't see many of them arguing for 'light-touch regulation' of the benefits system, but they certainly enforced it with regard to bank regulation - with brilliant results, as I'm sure you'll agree. 

People: New Labour are entryists. They spent the 80s throwing the Trots out of Labour for using the same tactic, but they are simply a gang of wreckers who took the empty shell of a broken party and rebuilt it on shifty money and Thatcherite ideology. 

Think on this: the Inland Revnue (HMRC) don't own their offices. They were sold to Mapeley Steps Limited and rented back (supposedly, and wrongly, to save money). Who are Mapeley Steps? They're an offshore company which doesn't pay any tax. So the body tasked with collecting tax to spend on our behalf saw nothing wrong with selling its own buildings to tax evaders. The government itself sees no problem with ripping itself of, with having no faith in the right and duty of government to fund its activities through fair and just taxation. Who benefits from this? Not the government. Not us. Mapeley Steps benefit. Who does government work for? Not us, but Mapeley Steps and all its colleagues. If even the government doesn't believe in government, what's going to happen to us all? Taxation pays for schools, health, pensions, clean air and decent housing. If they condone tax evasion, all these things will decline. 

They don't have our interests at heart, even now. The question is, for whom do we vote now? I just don't know. I do know that the sorry tale of Jowell, Mills and Co. is simply a tiny little moral tale about a clique that completely lost its way, lost its moral compass and was completely captured by the glitz of the City. I'm sorry to bang on like a 1920s Syndicalist, but this was inevitable. 

PS. For more on Mapeley Steps and several other equally disgraceful scandals, read Private Eye, which is more than just old jokes for buffers, and the Guardian's recent series on tax avoidance.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

We said 'what', you said… 'whatever'.

Emma, to contradict previous commenters, is real - perhaps hyper-real. More of me? There isn't anything other than a node on the cultural nexus, a collection of influences hosted by some rather unwholesome meat, and politics is a large part of what makes me so tediously sententious… sorry. 

I'm an inspiration

Not to students, obviously. But I sent Pharyngula the article that forms the basis of this entry - uncredited (though he's quite capable of reading it himself and probably lots of other people sent it)!

Yet more people have spoken

A student identifying itself as 'Albrecht von Hohenzollern' (you must be from from History or RS) wishes me to discuss Stoke City in more depth. Happy to oblige, though I detect a degree of sarcasm - you won't be laughing when we stay up and Wolves come to the obligatory juddering halt in the play-offs. 

I have £1 on Stoke qualifying for the Champions' League, thanks to Ben. Odds of 6,500-1. Then you won't see me for dust. I'll spend it on a plane towing a big banner over Wolves with some revolting jibe about the yam-yams. 

I also have £5 on Stoke surviving, which is money in the bank especially as we've another game against West Brom coming up. Cyrille Regis played for them the last time they beat us. 

Monday, 16 February 2009

The people have spoken - the bastards

I've had an anonymous vote (from a Blueyonder subscriber in the region of Wolverhampton and Telford) against more discussion of media studies - so an addition to the rules: identify yourself in some way (a link to your own blog is enough) if you want an opinion! As to the substance: half my job is media studies and it's more complex than you might think. 

Surely everybody should know, for instance, what Baudrillard or Bourdieu or Bauman (see, three very serious philosophers and I'm only up to B) have to say about our increasingly mediatized, simulated societies? Or who owns the webosphere? Or how online 'communities' relate (if they are communities)? Or how audiences process and understand Jeremy Kyle? If we don't know about, the bastards who MAKE Jeremy Kyle win without a fight… But seriously, there's a large dollop of philosophy, cultural studies and sociology in media studies, and none of it helps the kids get onto Big Brother (thankfully). 

I received my Bad Science 'I Think You'll Find It's A Bit More Complicated Than That' T-shirt the other day and wore it for my economics lecture/seminar. I think they got what I was saying…
I gave quite an impassioned lecture about the recession and banking crash last week. Mojo Nixon summarises my feelings rather more succinctly. Wish I'd seen this in time to include it…

(Un)Happy Snapper

I recently posted a clip of the police harassing a man for taking photographs of them - even though it's not an offence. Well, it is now. From today, Section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism act outlaws photographing any member of the armed, intelligence (ho ho) or police forces if said photography could be useful to terrorists. (More commentary here, on the effect on freedom of association and political campaigning)

As we all know, the boys in blue will use any justification to avoid public scrutiny. We've all been aggressively filmed at peaceful demonstrations and I've always enjoyed seeing the compliment returned - particularly as the police are certainly not all Dixon of Dock Green. So remember, they work for us (except when they're simply the shock troops of the Thatcherite regime). Take photos. A picture of a copper doesn't aid terrorism and any terrorist worth their salt will know what a policeman looks like and where New Scotland Yard is. It's just another bullying tactic from a government and force divorced from their citizens. Policing by consent will never be achieved by alienating your public (by, for example, closing down one unit which treated peaceful protestors as 'domestic extremists' and secretly opening another one).

Bonjour, ça va?

I appear to have readers in la belle France et le Canada francophone - so bienvenue, mes amis quebeçoises et françaises, and keep rioting (the British are so useless that the best the sacked BMW workers could do today was to throw fruit at their bosses)!

But enough of me…

One thing lacking on this sorry excuse for a blog is a sense of exchange between Plashing Vole and you, dear reader (readers?). In some ways, the absence of a known interlocutor makes it more of a diary, and is in some ways liberating. However, I'd like to know what you think, if indeed you do. Of what would you like more, and of what would you like to see less? I tend to avoid work-related matters because being sacked is bad for my self-esteem, and I'm not really a soul-baring kind of rodent, but I'd be intrigued to hear your suggestions. Who's for more literature and media studies?

Joined-up thinking

Lots of people are losing their jobs. Sensibly, many of them want to achieve new qualifications and have rushed to apply for university places in record numbers. We're always being told to be 'flexible workers', and it seems sensible all round to opt out of the job market while improving your potential when things improve. But no, the government has decided it would rather leave these enterprising, motivated people on the scrapheap. They've already withdrawn funding for anyone studying for a qualification equivalent to one they already hold, and now they're reducing the number of university places available because they arsed up their budget by £200 million. 

OK, a year ago I'd have thought £200 million was a lot of money. Not any more. There seems to be an enormous amount of cash around to save banks (last one I heard was the Gordon was raising £100 billion - so £200 million is absolutely sod all to invest in citizens' futures. I shall do what all bourgeois liberals do in an emergency - write to my MP. I encourage both of you to do the same.

Don't mind me, sometimes I get a little cranky

I like people. Most people. Some people, anyway. What I'm trying to say is that I'm not an undiscriminating misanthrope. There are groups with a permanent place in my Top Ten for Summary Execution - Tories, hippies, SUV-drivers. I'd like a t-shirt to flash reading 'you are an arrogant, selfish, polluting, greedy, egotistical, inadequate, shortsighted bastard (unless you're a farmer or builder)' but fear that they wouldn't be able to read the whole thing as they flash past en route between suburban home and suburban prep school. 

So anyway, apart from them, I like most people. Except for the three teenage girls who casually dropped their fast food wrappings on the floor in front of me as though there's no more natural place for rubbish - inconceivable to them that bins even exist, let alone should be used by the likes of them. 

No, the only person who really got to me today is a complete stranger I see every Monday. I queue up to get into the pool, so I'm already feeling slightly cranky. Waiting my turn, I idly gaze out over the car park where he sits in his highly-polluting car, warming up for his swim by having a cigarette. So he's driven to the pool and smokes as a preliminary. I want to smash his headlights in and then calmly explain that a walk and no cigarette would help him no end, and would leave the congested lanes for people who don't intend to poison themselves (and others), before dying expensively on the NHS. OK, so he's finished his cancer-twig. Then, EVERY WEEK, he strolls to the front of the queue and pushes in so aggressively that nobody says a thing. After that, he races to get changed first, grabs the widest lane and swims down the middle so that nobody else can share it. 

The final straw was after I left the pool today. Trying to cross the ring-road, who should shoot straight through the red light while I was on the road but this utter, utter wanker. At least I'm compensated by the knowledge that a fat smoker, dangerous driver and non-seatbelt wearer is probably going to die younger than me. Does that make me a bad person?

Urge to kill… rising. 

This one's for James

…though parts are relevant to myself and quite a few others… The only link between St. Valentine and romance is in a couple of lines from Chaucer's The Parliament of Foules (1380s) and he probably meant the Valentine of May 5th. What did I do for Valentine's? Rather too much to drink, danced to Go-Betweens and Field Mice, suffered the mockery of my 'friends' and bought way too many books. At least they love me. If they don't I'll rip out their little indexes. 

Friday, 13 February 2009

Geert Wilders - old jokes' home 3

"Welcome to Heathrow Airport. Asylum-seekers, please join the left channel. Attention-seekers to the far-right".

Geert Wilders - old jokes' home 2

"All passports please"
"Thank-you sir. Welcome back, Mr B'Stard"
"Oh, I'm sorry sir, I mistook you for a different tasteless racist toff. Welcome to Britain". 

Geert Wilders - old jokes' home 1

"I'm sorry, Mr Wilders. The Home Secretary has determined that your presence in this country may cause distress and offence, and incite violence… Racist film sir? I wouldn't know anything about that sir. It's my understanding that Her Majesty's Government objects to your haircut". 

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Flowerface - an apology

OK, I take it back and I was just being paranoid. My friends say I'm paranoid - they say it behind my back and they're not really friends, they're aliens hired to make me insecure. They're good at it too. 

Wednesday, 11 February 2009


No-longer-cynical Ben has withdrawn from Facebook - presumably because it was a facile waste of time. His decision is reinforced, according to his account of proceedings, by the blackmail tactics employed by that august institution, which extended to flashing photos of 'friends' with the logo 'X will miss you'. But the simulation fails - Ben's married to one of his 'friends' and the rest of us will still see, know and love him - symbolic exchange rules! Screw Facebook. He's going home.

'ello 'ello 'ello

Last night I watched ITV! Worse than that, I watched In the Line of Fire, a fly-on-the-wall 'documentary' about CO19, the Metropolitan Police's armed squad. It was clearly part of the coppers' post-Menezes PR push, so I was curious to see how they'd deal with that episode. In the end, it was handled with kid gloves - the critical comments weren't presented by the narrator but relegated to clips from news broadcasts and pictures of newspaper hoardings - as though the narrator couldn't bring himself to utter any criticism of the police. The head of CO19 was filmed giving his position without any questions - so there was no chance to challenge him. No mention at all was made of the jury's decision to disbelieve key police claims about the circumstances of the shooting. 

The effect, therefore, was to remove any credibility: this wasn't a documentary, it was a hagiography, shading into propaganda. No doubt the circumstances of gaining access to the squad implicitly required a positive spin, but the whole exercise smacks of a concerted public relations exercise on behalf of the police, and of spineless, lazy TV programming by a media which is becoming increasingly rightwing. I was quite amused to see India 99 appear on the show - it's the police helicopter which has its own show, Sky Cops on the BBC. That's a postmodern moment. Will the In The Line Of Fire incident appear in the next series of the Jamie Theakston-narrated show? Are there any police cars without a TV crew? 

I do think that this mindless deification of the police across all channels for the sake of exciting pictures of 'goodies' v. 'baddies' is dangerous. There's never any questioning of policing methods (why are they all in cars?) Aren't they ever wrong? If anyone remembers the Guildford 4, Birmingham 6, West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, Miners' Strike or any of the peace, poll tax, anti-capitalism, anti-war or anti-racism protests, you'll know that policing is (and always has been) far more nuanced. More than that, these shows promulgate the idea that crime is a matter of 'good' working class people protecting 'us' from 'bad' working class people - devoid of social context. I don't remember any shows following the activities of the Serious Fraud Office or any of the other operations going after white-collar crime - though perhaps that's because such operations are usually failures. It's far easier to pretend that crime is all about drunk black teenagers nicking cars and claiming too much child support rather than bankers defrauding us all of billions of pounds.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Bow down, ye minions, in the presence of greatness

My esteemed boss, Paul Brighton, was on Radio WM's version of Desert Island Discs recently. Revel in his appalling taste in music, which he claims was limited by the show's playlist requirements.

Hazel Blears - has been assimilated

I've met Hazel Blears twice, and was struck both times by the horrifying robotic black voids that are her eyes - not once did she betray a flicker of interest in a) people and b) ideas. George Monbiot discusses her extraordinary life here.

Good horse sense

Paul Flynn is an honest, hard-working, humorous… MP! He points out that horse-riding kills many more people than cannabis and ecstasy combined: ban it now.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Northern Ireland: the politics of the madhouse

OK, they aren't killing each other with guns at the moment, but NI seems to have become Mississippi or somewhere like that. Where else would you have a Minister for the Environment who totally rejects climate change? Perhaps, for Sammy Wilson - a DUP member - the word green has too many negative connotations. Now he's banned a government ad encouraging people to switch off their TVs at night - because he believes that earth is 4000 years old and that interfering with God's plan (presumably for our incineration) is a bad thing.  

(Rumours and) Curses

There are few bright spots in my mundane existence, so it's sod's law that two of them are on the same day - my Polish fencing trip and the Annual Conference of those fun-lovin' academics, the Association for Welsh Writing in English. Put 50 genuinely interesting teachers, researchers and authors in a stately home with one of the best bars anywhere (plus a lot of very special books on sale) and the results are fascinating. I shall genuinely miss it this year. 

Jeni Barnett is a complete loon and a danger to the public - 2

Since Jeni Barnett is so ashamed of her own words that her lawyers have forced Bad Science to take down its excerpt from the show, lots of bloggers are posting it elsewhere. I'll put it up here when I work out how to do audio.

Fun-packed weekends

Instead of going to watch Rochdale FC from an executive box (pitch frozen), we ate a lot of cheese, went to Manchester's finest Japanese restaurant and tried not to get annoyed by fashionable types, then went sledging above Heptonstall after paying our respects (!) at the grave of Sylvia Plath. I bought a lot of books and got heckled by lesbians in Hebden Bridge in the style of Drive-By Abuser. All in all, a great weekend.

Apologies to Jo's parents. Despite my best man's speech at their daughter's wedding opening with a Rohypnol joke, they tried to say hello to me at the Richard Thompson gig, but I didn't hear - I feel really bad. 

Enormous swell of popularity

Dear God, I've acquired 2 followers who aren't bound to me by inescapable extra-web bonds - people, surely you've got better things to do? I'm slightly unnerved though - Flowerface has used a picture of Mitchell and Webb as his/her profile photo. Is this satirical? I'm used to being shouted at on the street for looking like Mitchell. We share a birthday. His thoughts are essentially my thoughts…
But welcome, anyway.

Friday, 6 February 2009

A brief tour

I gave a lecture on all of Medieval literature and history today - 1000 years in 59 minutes. That's under 6 minutes per century!

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Jeni Barnett is an ill-informed loon and a danger to the public

She is, needless to say, a radio presenter on LBC, which apparently qualifies her to bullshit away about medical matters and shout down actually qualified people. Now she's harassing Ben Goldacre over at Bad Science. Not because he's distorted her ill-informed ravings, but because he posted an audio clip of her so that he couldn't be accused of misquoting her insane and dangerous rambling - encouraging people to believe that MMR vaccination is damaging to children (short answer - it isn't and all the science proves it). 

This malicious no-talent whinger isn't challenging Ben on medical or factual grounds - but on copyright: 'fair use' is apparently an unknown concept to her - or perhaps she doesn't want her inane rambling to be subjected to sober assessment. What a coward, and what a desperate, bandwagon jumping pathetic excuse for a public figure. Send her a message!


I'm going here for Challenge Wratislavia - looks fantastic - except that I'll be in a windowless sports hall chasing infuriating - sorry - highly talented young fencers for four days, before going back to the airport. Maybe I'll see some of it from my window… except that looking down on the ground from the air brings back the horror. Heavy things shouldn't be up. They should be resting on solid things.

Hermit wanted

Manchester Museum is looking for an environmental hermit to live in a garret and think green thoughts for 8 weeks (we're all going to perish in an environmental cataclysm of our own making - doesn't take that long): Map Twat Dan needs some money and time to write up his thesis on pigeons - job done!

Snow joke

Today I should have been in scenic Telford on another PGCE training day - learning to make podcasts, but it was cancelled at 7 this morning as I was setting out to catch the train. Guess I'll just have to rely on the simple instructions provided with my 6 year-old Mac and struggle on - not that podcasts are at all useful in my particular teaching context…

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

How journalism works part 324

The poor girl who died in a sledging accident had 15 GCSEs, was bound for Cambridge or Oxford, and was 'beautiful, witty, intelligent and popular'. Obviously winter is a good time for this story - in May the same papers trumpeting this fact will be proclaiming the decline in exam standards. 

More importantly: are they implying that the death of somebody with fewer/poorer GCSEs, ugly, ignorant, humourless and unpopular (me, for instance) is somehow less appalling? That the parents of someone with 10, or 5, passes will console themselves with the thought that at least no great potential was lost? 'Don't cry dear, he was a fat, misanthropic loser, bound to end up on the dole. We should be glad he's gone, really'. 

Can't we just be sad that someone died, whatever they were like and wherever they were going?

Admirable, hopeless injunctions - an ongoing series

Spotted in the background of a Youtube recording of a teacher reading Chaucer:
                                           Get A Life, Get A Library Card.

So true, so doomed. Your contributions welcome.

Twatter - twitter for Map Twats

Cynical Ben is a bit annoyed by Twitter. He's absolutely right. It's been around for quite a while, but it first came to my attention in 2007 when Alan Johnson MP used it for his doomed campaign for the Labour Deputy Leadership - though John Edwards also used it for his (also doomed) presidential campaign, starting in 2007. The idea is that you're closely entwined with the daily lives of distant individuals - which is close to Sartre's idea (in Huis Clos) that hell is other people. Check out these guys' Twitter feeds: 'Spending the day in the department having meetings with Ministerial colleagues and officials'. This isn't empowerment, education or building an informed electorate - it's utterly banal. It is, in fact, perfectly Baudrillardian: the simulation of exchange rather than the symbolic exchange which constitutes true communication. It's too short for meaningful communication and it's unidirectional and linear - it's a fraud. 

OK, some of the better-informed amongst you will whinge, didn't Twitterers beat the media when that plane ditched in the Hudson the other day? So? I'm pretty certain that plenty of journalists noticed a massive plane go for a dip, and I'm not bothered about immediacy anyway. New journalism is about informed analysis. Any moron can text their friends about an event - it takes training and a brain to contextualise and discuss the significance of an event. Sure, Twitter might announce a death or a story first - but that's just data - it's not communication or wisdom (although it is what my university seems to care about).

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

A Mark Thomas on every corner

In which a loudmouth gets the better of the police - who obviously apologise gracefully

More tips for students

Students: if you think your teacher is - to choose a completely random example - boring, have a quiet word, or put it on your module evaluation form. Don't - and I'm obviously making this up - declare it as soon as said hypothetical lecturer has walked past you: sound travels more than ten yards even if there's a corner involved. Anyway, only 25% of you agree.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

I couldn't sleep last night, such was my joy at the expectation of more snow. Enthusiasm wasted - not another flake. Useless Met Office gits. Not that this prevented many students deciding that it was far too dangerous to leave their pits. Those who did, had to soil their souls by analysing the Daily Nazi (Bel Mooney today: 'Why does the Left hate the Family?').

This weekend, I'm tasting life outside the Premiership: a box at Rochdale FC, then a walk in the Pennines on Sunday. Luxury…

Comments on my new vole picture and title welcome. Parataxis is the arrangement of clauses or phrases without syntactical/grammatical linking - seems perfect for my blog's random stream of thought.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Awa' the lad and lassie

Thanks to Dan and Georgie for their hospitality last night: top quality haggis, creamy cranachan and deep, dark fondue and entertainment! No murders, either.
A few days ago, I toyed with buying Compact Editions' The Mill on the Floss: Books in Half the Time solely to annoy those of my colleagues charged with 'encouraging' our students to read weighty Victorian novels - it's an edition so abridged that it's half the length. Essentially, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, the publisher behind the imprint, have become literary rapists. 

I resisted temptation, though I'd love to know what was cut out. More fun, however, is this new genre: classic novels crossed with themes from other genres. I came across this announcement on the Librarything blog - order your copy now!
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies from Chronicle Books, due out in April. According to the description:
"Pride and Prejudice and Zombies -- Pride and Prejudice 
and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen's beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action. 

As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the 
quiet English village of Meryton — and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she's soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. 

What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield 
as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead. Complete with 20 illustrations in the style of C. E. Brock (the original illustrator of Pride and Prejudice), this insanely funny expanded edition will introduce Jane Austen's classic novel to new legions of fans."

Dr John Frink speaks…

Who'd have thought it? Students think attractive lecturers are more academically competent. They also rate literature teachers very badly indeed. Serious research, folks (with a somewhat partisan gloss - comments by a smug political scientist) here.