Friday, 28 May 2010

Hands off our schools

I'm not a parent, as far as I know (joke, mother), but y'know, kids are the future and all that. 

So I'm a bit worried by the government's plan to privatise 'free' schools from local democratic control. Michael Gove's big idea is to let all schools run themselves or pay companies to do it for them. Parents unhappy with their kids' school can set up a new one, to be run by private companies (even though this means there'll be wasted capacity). 

I like local authority control because: a) I can vote against a party which is screwing it up, and hopefully turf them out b) a school backed by a big council can get better deals on services than a single school c) I don't want schools to become profit-centres for businesses d) 'free' schools are a way for a small group of loudmouths to get rid of the poor, dark, disabled and annoying kids.
e) local authorities will make decisions which are right (hopefully) for the community, not to privilege a small bunch who shout loudly. Also, it's part of this 'big society' thing, which is a huge red herring for the middle classes. The Tories/Lib Dems aren't offering us control over the really important stuff - interest rates, regulating the financial sector, defence policy, environmental regulation, transport etc. They simply want to be left to get on with the stuff that really benefits their elite group, while middle class, Daily Mail-reading parents think they're 'empowered' by negotiating with the lawyers and accountant from the hard-nosed companies (Capita? Securicor? Serco? the usual suspects, anyway) who will run these schools. 

It's privatisation+deceit.

I'm also not impressed by government dictating state school policy with a 66% privately-educated cabinet, most of them multimillionaires (Cameron, Clegg, Osborne to name just some) and most of whose kids are at private schools. Porridge for us, caviar for them. 

If your kid's school is crap, get involved and improve it. Don't buy yourself out of it, with your own money or with ours. Read this.

I'm getting into swinging

NO, you perverts.

I refer to this wonderful hack (which you can download): it turns ordinary songs into swing numbers by stretching the first half of each beat and contracting the second.

I really, really love this swing version of 'Enter Sandman' - other examples are available on the site:

Enter Sandman- the Swing Version by plamere

Don't Stop Believin'  (Swing Version) by plamere

Top Tips for Thieves

No, not plagiarists, but advice on how to steal rare maps from books.

There was a man who always came in chewing. He spent an age with books containing maps or prints. Always left buying nothing. We thought he was doing research, completing his MA here in store. He turned out to be chewing string. When this was suitably wet he’d lay it along the inside spine next to a desirable map. The dampness would seep into the paper and after ten minutes or so he was able to slide out the print without making any sort of tearing sound. Up his sleeve it went. Sold on to the antique market the same day.

It's from Peter Finch's blog: he's a fine poet, critic and journalist from Wales who is consistently interesting.

"Maybe nobody minds about things as much as me."

Update, August 2010: Hello to my repeat visitor from Grosse Pointe, Michigan (great film, by the way). Glad you can't stay away. Do they have Peep Show in the US? Leave a comment, tell us why you keep coming back!

Friends, colleagues and drunken strangers on trains and in the street have repeatedly remarked upon my resemblance to Mr. David Mitchell, the ubiquitous comedian with whom I share a birthday, a tailor, and every single opinion.

My friends will also be familiar with my antipathy towards hairstyling. Haircuts = fine. Hairstyles = needless complication (though I am being educated in this matter).

In this fine video, Mitchell lays off the cultural implication of hairstyles, but summarises my feelings about going to the barber with considerable wit.

I've never accepted the offer of a wash in the salon. I wash my hair before going. It seems polite.

Selected Peep Show quotations which remind me of me:

Peep Show is a comedy about an uptight loser and a lazy selfish loser. It's photographed from 'behind the eyes' of the characters, and the dialogue in brackets is their internal monologue.

Jez: You're a posh spaz.
Mark: Oh really? Well I'd love to know in what way I am a posh spaz.
Jez: In the way that you do posh, spazzy things like... tidying up and... ironing your socks.
Mark: I do not iron my socks!
Jez: Socks, shirts, whatever!

TV: I'm basically looking to meet someone like myself.
Mark: (Pfftt. That's exactly the opposite of what I'm looking for.)

Mark: [Before having toast for breakfast] (Brown for first course, white for pudding. Brown is savoury, white's the treat. Of course I'm the one who's laughing because I actually love brown toast.

Mark: (Well that was a fucking disaster. I want compensation. I want reparations. I want the Rhineland. It's going to be 1919 all over again, fuck the inevitable backlash.)

Mark: This is the sort of thing people do when they're having a good time.
Mark: Dancing? Y-yes... dancing... I love... dancing... (It makes me look like a coma victim being stood up and zapped with a cattle prod.)

Mark: (Sure, an orgy sounds great, but you're basically just multiplying the number of people you're not going to be able to look in the eye afterwards.)

Mark: I'm dangerously close to getting what I want. Feels a bit weird.

Jez: You're still living in your Hitchhiker's Guide world where you'll go around in your bathrobe and have a nice cup of tea.

Mark: (Look at me; I've got a girlfriend. A proper girlfriend reading a best-seller about child-abuse. I go out and have croissant. I'm just a normal functioning member of the human race and there's no way anyone can prove otherwise.)

Mark: Nothing means anything to you, does it? Friendship, loyalty - they're just fusty old words like sixpence and codpiece to you, aren't they?

Mark: She’s good for me, Jez, She’s dragging me into the twenty-first century with its meaningless logos and ironic veneration of tyrants. It’s all good, my friend.

[about Jez and Sophie being nice to Mark after he walked in on them almost having sex]
Mark: (Why are they being so nice? Maybe they've had a big chat about me and they're suddenly realised I was right about North Korea, I was right about the European Constitution, and by God I think I'm right about the congestion charge!)

Mark: (Look at them all - the Christians. It's not fair. I could be that happy if I believed in a lot of rubbish.)

Mark: Why does everything have to be fun to be worthwhile? Crick and Watson have discovered the double helix. Did they do it on a skateboard? No? Well fuck off then, I'm not interested.

Mark: The absolute worst thing anyone could say about you is that you were a selfish, moral blank, whose lazy cynicism and sneering, ironic take on the world encapsulates everything wrong with a generation. But you my friend are not evil.

Do look at the mantelpiece while you're stoking the fire, OR, how to be a top quality scamster

I overslept very badly indeed today, which meant I didn't go swimming.

However, it meant I could listen to Woman's Hour on Radio 4, which alternately encapsulates the best of British culture, and the worst.

After this morning's show, I'm not sure whether to be depressed or elated. It featured a long and involved discussion of mantelpiece culture . Yes, your eyes do not deceive you (even the show's producers must be ashamed: they don't mention this piece in the synopsis). A woman named Clare Jenkins explained that her eyes were drawn to her mantelpiece during the adverts on TV, and she began to wonder about the various ways in which mantelpieces are used. Then she discovered a whole academic groups of mantelpiece researchers.

From this programme (and I'm sorry to sound like a Daily Mail columnist here) I discovered absolutely nothing that two minutes' thought would have unearthed. Mantelpieces developed as fireplaces grew from holes in the wall to something neater. Some people use their mantelpieces to show off expensive things, other people display sentimental items, and some people just put any old stuff on there (a vet's appointment card was cited as evidence).

Jesus. Put Jenkins down for a Nobel.

So I'm in two minds. Do I welcome the Tory education cuts because there's clearly fat there, or should I celebrate. After all, if there's room (and interest from Radio 4) for Mantelpiece Studies, then my own research interest (1930s Welsh Writing in English) is safe and healthy.

Now, the little bit of liberal in me that I haven't managed to kill off is saying 'everything humans do is intrinsically interesting and important, and you shouldn't attack fellow toilers in the paper mines', but most of my brain is shouting 'she gets paid for this? And gets national media interest? This is the worst kind of mimsy upper-middle-class bourgeois, pointless, inconsequential, reactionary nonsense', and a tiny voice is saying 'nice work Clare. Good scam. No heavy lifting, regular pay cheque. Sweet'.

Your thoughts, ladies and gentlemen. Shall we all enrol in Mantelpiece Studies 101?

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Colleagues: an apology

I get the feeling I'm stretching the bounds of consideration towards my colleagues, particularly those involved in carrying and sorting the post. Today's haul included three very big, heavy boxes from a certain none-too-principled online book behemoth, and a parcel from an independent bookshop. I shall moderate my purchases before hernias develop.

What came in today?
Finally, Nicola Barker's Burley Cross Postbox Theft because she wrote Darkmans and can therefore do no wrong - ask Cynical Ben if you don't believe me;
Adam Roberts' New Model Army, set in a war-torn near future UK: he's a writer bursting with great ideas and he has a lovely turn of narrative, as he should, being a professor of Eng Lit and Creative Writing. The premise reminds me of J. G. Ballard's Vietnam-in-the-UK short story, 'The Killing Ground', discussed here and Moorcock's A Cure for Cancer;
Alan Warner's The Stars in the Bright Sky, sequel to his warm, funny, lovely The Sopranos (not the gangsters but a bunch of Scottish schoolgirls);
China Miéville's The Kraken - I enjoy his work but I'm never entirely convinced that there's much more going on in The New Weird than entertainment and a gothic imagination;
Scarlett Thomas's The End of Mr Y, because I heard her read at All Tomorrow's Parties a year ago and was impressed;
Mike Berners-Lee's How Bad Are Bananas: the carbon footprint of everything, because I'm wracked (that's how you spell it, kids) with guilt. If there's a chapter on books, I'm ignoring it;
a signed copy Jonathan Coe's The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, because I've read his other books and they're acute, funny and wise;
Robert Wilson's Julian Comstock: a Story of 22nd-Century America because I'm a sucker for dystopian future novels (even though the present is dystopian enough for anyone: Gwyneth Jones Bold as Love series is the best of all and - huzzah -  she's back online, but Wilson's book looks fascinating. There's definitely a post-nationalist or new nationalist wave breaking)
and finally,
Dan Rhodes's Gold because I heard that it's funny and Welsh-related.

Obviously, I've got looming multiple research deadlines, so these books will merely be extra bricks in the wall I'm going to build in the office to shield me from colleagues' scorn.


Watch the bastards wreck the planet in real time.

By the way, for the benefit of my Conservative readers, this is what happens in advanced capitalist states, especially ones which suffer constant lobbying by big business for 'small government' and 'deregulation':

3.43pm (9.43am CDT): 
The head of the troubled US Minerals Management Service, Elizabeth Birnbaum, has been sacked.
The agency was heavily criticised over the leak. An official report found that it allowed staff at oil and gas firms to fill in inspection reports in pencil, with regulators later going over the answers in ink. 
If you think it's different over here, try asking the Ministry of Defence how many of its officials are on secondment from weapons manufacturers, and how many civil servants and military officials retire to the boards of weapons manufacturers. Ask the Treasury and Business department how many of its staff are on secondment from major corporations, particularly the accountancy firms, or go on to work there.

It's corrupt. These companies hardly need to lobby because the door's wide open for them to write the rules on financial regulation, or defence procurement. They run these departments, threatening ministers with dire warnings about job losses in marginal consituencies, or 'market destabilisation' if the elected government doesn't do exactly what business wants (and that's worked out brilliantly, hasn't it?). 
The mantra used to be 'what's good for business is good for Britain', repeated while their shareholders moved the head office offshore to avoid tax, outsourced workforces elsewhere, fought employee safety and environmental regulation and generally worked for a jungle of exploitation. If you haven't noticed, 'bonuses are back' while public services are cut to the bone. So much for 'good for Britain'. 

Irony round-up

This just in:

Sarah Palin, who coined the term "Drill, Baby, Drill", felt emboldened to accuse Obama this week of being in thrall to the oil industry.

Meanwhile, some Top Tips for students (I know I've said this before, but you're clearly not listening):

1. If you're going to plagiarise and you're functionally illiterate, try to mess up the stuff you're stealing. We can, somehow and with the aid of microscopes and computers, spot the difference between high-level professorial prose and your verbiage.

2. If you take the other route, and plagiarise from any old internet site, consider some quality control. School-level sites just don't cut it. Ask yourself this: if a site is called '', is it likely to contain university level material which will convince a lecturer? If you think the answer is yes, then feel free to use your exhaust pipe as a bong.

3. If you've spent hours stitching stolen material together from a bewildering array of websites, why not consider using those hours for reading books and thinking about what to write? After all, you've proved that you can concentrate and put the work in. Now all you need to do is add a dash of honesty, get out of bed and go to the library. It's the shiny place with all the books and people loudly using their mobile phones.

Vincit Omnia

Vince Cable is the expert economist Liberal Democrat who wasn't made Chancellor when they went into coalition with the Tories. The job went instead to Gideon George Osborne, who hasn't a single qualification in the field and who has never worked outside politics.

Vince is bored by his job in the Business Department, and uncomfortable in alliance with the Tory Scum.

Thankfully, he's lashed out today at overpaid Vice-Chancellors of universities. Yes, the pay gap between company directors and workers is at record levels (85 times average shopfloor earnings now) but he can't do much about that.

Obviously, I wouldn't dream of offering an opinion on whether or not there's an inverse relationship between the competence, intellectual vision and management skills of my dear leader and her wages. I'll just point out that, with inflation taken into account, I've taken a pay cut and she very much hasn't. As to the bonus scheme for upper management… but no, this is a family blog.

I'll just leave you with Vince's words:

The business secretary, Vince Cable, has launched a scathing attack on university vice-chancellors over their generous pay packages, accusing them of being out of step with reality and having little sense of the "self-sacrifice" needed in the current climate.
The Liberal Democat said he had been "taken aback" to discover thatsalaries had risen last year by more than 10% and the government was sending a "very strong signal" that high awards were unacceptable at a time of a funding crisis in the sector. 
"There is some gap between reality and expectations in some of those institutions and although it is not our job to control pay – it is an independent mechanism – we want to signal to them that there has got to be some restraint."
Contrasting the attitude of the university heads with that of managers in the private sector, where some were taking pay cuts to help keep their firms afloat, he said: "I just get absolutely no sense in the university sector that there is the same degree of realism and of self-sacrifice which is going to have to happen if we are going to preserve the quality of university education. There is clearly salary escalation at the top level that bears no relation to the underlying economics of the country."

Fake pink feathery gits

Cynical Ben has posted a short story. It's very, very good. If you like cruelty to flamingos, which I do. I can't get enough of it.

Read it here.

Careful now, moshers!

Afternoon all. Slow start to the day - we went out to celebrate Dan's PhD and birthday yesterday, in the bright lights of Birmingham, before returning to my place for pointless, involved arguments about inconsequential stuff - all in all, the perfect evening. We gave him big canvas-printed photographs - one of a gull I took in Oslo because that's what his PhD was sort-of about, and another of him holding a map and gazing into the distance. I call it 'To the Dole Queue!'.

Meanwhile, Boing Boing has chanced upon a paper in the prestigious British Medical Journal on the dangers of headbanging. It struck a chord - as a youthful metal fan in the early nineties, I knew that if your neck wasn't stiff and sore the next morning, you'd had a bad night down at The Rigger (so unreconstructed even now that one of their pub quiz prizes is 'porn'), The Sutherland Arms (now demolished) or whichever scummy rock pub you'd patronised. I really, really miss my mass of very long hair - you just can't mosh without it, but incipient thinning persuaded me that Francis Rossi's is not a look to emulate.

An average head banging song has a tempo of about 146 beats per minute, which is predicted to cause mild head injury when the range of motion is greater than 75°. At higher tempos and greater ranges of motion there is a risk of neck injury.
Conclusion: To minimise the risk of head and neck injury, head bangers should decrease their range of head and neck motion, head bang to slower tempo songs by replacing heavy metal with adult oriented rock, only head bang to every second beat, or use personal protective equipment.

Here's an instructive video on how not to headbang. Careful now.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Why I don't eat fish

Have you seen The Handfish?
Yes, it uses it's fins as hands instead of swimming. It looks pissed off, and it's evolving to come for us. Though as nobody's seen one since 1999, it's either extinct (well done us, again) or waiting to jump out!

Actually, I don't eat fish because it tastes horrible. Being forced to eat it every Friday in my good Catholic family didn't help either. I like prawns, mussels and scallops though.

Helping RS with his 'Afforestation'*

A couple of really interesting books have come in over the last couple of days - the Welsh bildungsromans I hadn't read on Rachel Trezise's list. I've received Catrin Dafydd's Random Deaths and Custard, which looks like fun, Aneurin Gareth Thomas's Luggage from Elsewhere, and Joe Dunthorne's Submarine. They're all set in urban south Wales (or South Wales - there's a heated argument about that): on the edge of Welsh but not fully included or totally excluded. Being Welsh hovers around the edges as a possibility, a mirage, or a position which makes all the ordinary teen horrors ever so slightly different (the narrator of Submarine, for instance, hides his part-Englishness, having been bullied for being Welsh when he lived in England: difference = weakness in the playground).

I read Submarine in one go the other night, even though I was exhausted from 12 hours of marking. The beautiful dustjacket helped, as did the narrator. It's the teenage boy to whom all the events happen, so there's a lovely gap between what he thinks he knows and what we know is actually going on, between his cleverness and how clever he thinks he is. The usual stuff happens: sex, parental marital problems, bullying (he's a guilt-ridden perp, not a victim) and meditation. It's comic, sad and knowing - well worth reading.

*How am I helping? Well, 'Afforestation' is an RS Thomas poem about the commercial forests imposed on historic Welsh locations in the 1950s and 1960s by the British Forestry Commission - historic villages and working farms were wiped out, covered in sterile, alien trees which supported neither animals nor workers, in pursuit of money in a way that wouldn't have happened in England. Every Welsh book is a blow FOR FREEDOM! Etc.

And now for something very different indeed

Yesterday's music was Maslanka's harmonious Woodwind Quintets. Let's go to the other end of the scale with a massive dollop of Luciano Berio. If you asked someone relatively bright what modern classical sounded like, they'd mutter about screaming and no tunes.

They'd be thinking, I suspect, of Berio, Stockhausen (genius, but barking mad) and perhaps early Turnage. I therefore recommend Berio's Sinfonia and Eindrücke, both of which fulfil these criteria, though the latter is slightly easier on the ear.

The point is that this music is like death metal: it's meant to reproduce the experience of a world without rationality, a world in which one lot of people can put 6 million other people in gas chambers without losing a night's sleep. The harmonies, tunes and neat structures of old classical music, like the poetry and art of the time, just don't tell the truth of the human condition. We had the most advanced technology and skills in every sphere of achievement, and we used them to kill each other on a monumental scale: this is what's meant by modernism. So artists, poets, novelists, sculptors and composers (gradually) stopped writing pretty music for summer afternoons.

Sinfonia isn't directly about the horrors, but it is explicitly about the strange new world we found ourselves in: the text sung is fragments of Claude Levi-Strauss's The Raw and the Cooked, a founding text of modern anthropology - and literary criticism - which first proposed structural analysis (of myths, in this case).

Or at least, the good ones did. The second-raters still took commissions for pretty music from cowards. I still listen to plenty of it (Bax, for instance) because there's lots of beauty in the world and I can't spend my entire life contemplating the holocaust (unlike death metal enthusiasts). But there's certainly a need for ugliness and challenge in music. Here's the first movement of Sinfonia and some 'nice' Berio - his Folksong arrangements.

A very expensive student

I had to be out of the office this morning while my colleagues talked to a student. So I went to a well-known discount store to buy undercrackers (boxers, if you're interested). Half an hour later I leave with said undercrackers, a new waterproof and a new hiking rucksack. I was several pounds lighter too.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Feeling Horny?

I hope so, because the next LP on my musical odyssey is David Maslanka's Quintets for Wind 1-3, played by the Bergen Woodwind Quintet.

I don't know much about Maslanka and don't have anything else by him. I bought this CD in Beatties (a now-declining department store) when it got rid of all the books and records, on the grounds that it was a CD by a composer of whom I'd never heard.

He seems to specialise in wind and percussion music, and I'm rather charmed and delighted by this CD. It's neither old-fashioned nor avant-garde, and seems to be playable by non-professionals without too much damage, though the Bergens sound magnificent. Here's Quintet 3.

Hope you don't depend on your student loans…

The Labour government commissioned a report into the Student Loans Company's disastrous failure to, well, provide student loans to students last year. It found that

…only 46% of the applications last autumn were fully processed by the start of the term, compared with 63% in 2008. As the crucial date approached, calls from students soared, with 4m made in September.
Despite having a target of no more than 14% of calls left unanswered, some 87% went unanswered that month. Between February 2009 and this January, only a fifth of calls were answered in 60 seconds, with 56% left unanswered.
On average, it took more than 12 weeks for an application to be processed in 2009/10, compared with more than nine weeks in 2008/09, when local authorities were in charge.

Now, the chair and chief executive have 'resigned', which usually means that they've been sacked without losing benefits and will probably receive compensation.

Still, it's a good result, and not suspicious at all. It would be deeply cynical to think that their departure was delayed to make the new Tory government look good. Meanwhile, start saving up, because

 a damning report by the National Audit Office found that the system was at "substantial" risk of being hit by delays again this year, when it is expected to deal with twice as many applications,

For all you hoopy froods

I am not a hoopy frood. In the HHGTTG galaxy, I am more Dentarthurdent (if you aren't familiar with the world of Douglas Adams, imagine Arthur as the proto-Mark Corrigan) than Ford Prefect. They both own good dressing gowns and exist in a state of befuddlement with the world's degradation. Only Mark has eaten a girl's dog though, and Arthur's essentially kind.

Today is Douglas Adams appreciation day, known as Towel Day. This is because 'a towel is the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have', and if you know where your towel is, friendly types will lend you anything else you may have mislaid.

I will be donning dressing gown and towel today, because I'm a huge fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide radio series, BBC series and books. They're more than a collection of Adams's one-liners about tea, cricket and technology - there's real heart in there, and serious (though sentimental) liberal-left values. Arthur is a man out of time, baffled by the shallowness of the Porsche-driving advertising executives who stand in for friends. A cup of tea, a girlfriend and peace and quiet is all he needs, yet the universe keeps intervening - blowing up Earth, for instance. The series is essentially a howl of pain as Adams observes the gentle liberalness  which he saw as encapsulating Englishness ripped apart by capitalism and the Tories.

Adams' other books are also bursting with emotion, ideas and funny jokes - Bach and Coleridge are key cameos in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

Douglas also cared hugely about species loss, what we've done to the planet, and Apple Macs. He died at the age of 51 in 2001. He's also responsible for my PhD-writing motto:
"I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by".

Ladies, Pay Attention

I believe this covers all the bases. Disney sums up your options:

Drum roll for Daniel

Another of the Map Twats has acquired a PhD.

Yes, Mr. Daniel 'Deep-Pan' Pedley  is now Dr. Dan, having breezed through his viva, fielding questions on anything from theories of space to the love lives of pigeons. Or something.

I'm teasing a little. His very learned PhD was on the way humans and urban animals relate to each other, on the urban environment as habitat and it sounds fascinating.

Feast your eyes, ladies and gents: here's a man who knows where he's going.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Puppini Sisters

Christine told me about the Sisters. Mmm… camp.

Kate Bush, Smiths and Beyoncé fans should probably leave the room at this point.

Victory is mine

At last, I'm a winner.
10/10 on the Guardian's literary quiz (about poverty), without looking anything up!
A bright spot in an otherwise depressing day - although lunch with Darek, Steve and Christine is always fun. I tend to listen to their learned discourse in awed silence.

Talking of being a winner: Heathrow 3rd runway and Stansted 2nd runway cancelled! There wasn't much choice - all the parties except Labour were opposed, and no doubt they'll try to expand capacity elsewhere rather than allowing greener transport to replace flying, but for now, savour the clean(ish) air.

Paul Uppal, I don't get bored

Another week goes by, and still my new MP ignores my polite request for basic information about him. It's going to be a long five years.

Meanwhile, even clever people can be very, very, stupid, as Sathnam Sangera proves. He's the good writer from Wolverhampton who called for Uppal's election on the basis that a non-white MP in Enoch Powell's old constituency would be a powerful signal that the country has changed.

I’m Labour, but I want the Conservative candidate Paul Uppal to win
I’m a tribal Labour voter 
But there are two facts that make me want Uppal to succeed. First, he’s an Asian bloke. And, second, Wolverhampton South West was formerly Enoch Powell’s constituency

Er… no. It's a sign that The Dark Place South West has changed - from a racist white working-class constituency to a very mixed constituency. Let's not forget that the constituency voted Labour from 1997 to 2010, so it's hardly a hotbed of fascism. There aren't even any BNP councillors here, despite this shallow, outrageous accusation:

Indeed, I don’t think it would be too much of an exaggeration to say that in the decades that have followed Powell’s speech, white Wulfrunians have basically tended to vote Conservative because it was the party most likely to send the darkies back, and the darkies have basically voted Labour because it was the party most likely to let them stay.

More seriously, Sanghera's fallen for that very dated trap, representation politics. Having some Asians on EastEnders isn't progress if they're always depicted as owning corner shops, arranging marriages and agonising about religion. Having an Asian MP is no good if he's actively hostile to all attempts to improve race relations, the lives of ethnic minorities in this country, and the disgraceful institutional racism of public and private bodies in this country (for instance, unemployment is massively higher, and educational achievement hugely lower, for black and Asian people).

What does Uppal say?
 … the McCarthyistic mouth foaming utterances of the race relations industry, which through accusation alone can slay political careers and stifle well intentioned and principled debate. I say this because I have seen with my very own eyes the modus operandi of this circus, employing individuals to perpetuate this climate of political correctness. In reality this industry/business does dreadful damage to Britain’s race relations. It seems more concerned with securing it’s own funding streams and non jobs for it’s membership of zealots. The cost of this is all is so much more than financial, as we lose decent people and gag those who point to the emperor’s new clothes.
Come on Paul, I'm still waiting.

Walsalls have ears

Some detective work has revealed the extent of state spying on citizens. The Labour government shared one thing with the USSR, and unfortunately, it wasn't socialism. Instead, it adopted the surveillance society which is weird, as it demonstrates their core Tory values. Toryism holds that people are essentially evil and need restraining, which authorises repression (there are some libertarian Tories, who are evil in other ways).

Labour allowed basically any public body to covertly observe citizens - surveillance has been carried out to catch people faking their addresses to get their kids into 'better' schools, people using the wrong recycling bill, even, in Liverpool, spying on anti-crime wardens.

In Bromley the council even spied on a charity shop to see if people were "fly-tipping" their donations at the door.

Quis custodiet, and all that? 4.5% of operations resulted in prosecutions, which gives you an idea of the trivialities pursued using long lenses, listening devices and flowers with cameras in the middle (I may have made the last bit up).

Walsall, a nondescript place near The Dark Place, comes third, with 215 applications to spy on people in the last couple of years.

There should be a simple rule: if it's not a criminal offence, it doesn't justify spies. If it is a criminal offence, the police should carry out surveillance. They're not perfect, but they at least know the rules in most cases.

Return from the nerdsphere

I seem to have spent the past few days judging people.

On Friday it was a War Studies exam (no, I don't teach War Studies), which at least allowed me to try a few one-liners. 'It'll all be over for Christmas' was one. 'You can only leave early if you put underpants on your head, pencils up your nose and say "Wibble" was another, and finally, when the allotted time was up, 'For you, the War Studies is over'.

They laughed, more from the tension and embarrassment than genuine humour, I suspect.

Then I spent the weekend setting up, refereeing, then taking down the British U10s foil competition. The endless, searing heat was utterly horrible. How the kids managed to fight at high tempo is beyond me. Anyway, it was, as always, stressful fun. Trying to call decisions correctly while international standard referees, stroppy coaches and (worst of all) pushy parents mutter or shout with every point is really quite hard.

Luckily, the proletariat of the fencing world is much nicer - the good parents, the volunteer referees, the computer operators and the armourers form a delightful, gossipy, mutinous subculture which meets every two or three weeks in the darker corners of anonymous sports halls to talk heavy metal, operating systems, duct tape qualities, the virtues of the bayonet over the twin-socket, spool resistance and other affairs of major importance. I love it.

Free the Negev One

Mordechai Vanunu is an Israeli engineer who worked on Israel's illegal nuclear weapons programme. His conscience moved him to reveal the existence of the nuclear arsenal to the world, and he served 18 years, 11 in solitary confinement, after being lured from Britain to Italy and then kidnapped by the Israeli Secret Service, possibly acting on information received from the British intelligence service and disgraced mega-thief Robert Maxwell, who owned the Daily Mirror at the time.

After his release, the country which bills itself as the Middle East's only democracy restricted his freedom of movement, banned him from leaving the country and barred him from any contact with foreigners. Vanunu has now been returned to prison for this latter 'offence'. One of these foreigners was… his girlfriend.

He is now an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience. Please write to your Israeli Embassy requesting his release. Don't give them too many personal details or you'll find an assassin using your passport.

Update: What were the Israelis going to do with their nuclear weapon? (Apart from threaten their neighbours, of course). Why, sell it to Apartheid South Africa. What a charming bunch of people. 

In the end, Israel 'only' helped with nuclear technology for SA to build its own nukes (which it later renounced when the ANC took power) in return for uranium for its own weapons of mass destruction. Here's Gary Younge's view:

 Israel was South Africa's principal and most dependable arms dealer. As we learn elsewhere in the Guardian today, it even offered to sell the South African regime nuclear weapons.
"Throughout the 70s and 80s Israel had a deep, intimate and lucrative relationship with South Africa," explains Sasha Polakow-Suransky, author of The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship With Apartheid South Africa. "Israel's arms supplies helped to prolong the apartheid regime's rule and to survive international sanctions."

Of course, there's no point complaining. Yes, the US has a law against funding countries with illegal WMDs, but realpolitik always, always, trumps morality and the law. Israel can do whatever it wants, to whomsoever it wants - witness the extremely muted UK, Irish and French response to the discovery that Israel used the passports of citizens for assassinations. Imagine the reaction if Iran did that…

Friday, 21 May 2010

Plashing Vole reaches the White House

Typically, the state of US (and British) media is so degenerate that they'd rather talk about me than discuss Obama's successful re-regulation of the banksters.

I was merely passing through, on my way to share a fat cigar with Bill. I had no intention of stealing the President's limelight.

Spirit of Steel

Those of you condemned to life in The Dark Place and its surrounding environs can refresh your flagging intellects with a trip to The Light House, to see my colleague Fran's exhibition, Spirit of Steel, an exhibition of images of the Twin Towers site since the atrocity.

I would post an image, but bloody Blogger's gone all recalcitrant. They're very good. You have until June 4th.

I'm free of the place for a couple of days: off to referee the British Under-10s Fencing Championships. There'll be tears before bedtime…

It Came From A Laboratory!

So, Craig Venter has created artificial DNA, inserted it into a bacterium shell, and it's reproducing, so it's basically alive.

Pharyngula gives a comprehensive and comprehensible account of the science, and he thinks it's a breakthrough, safe, and ethical. So it's fine by me.

The possibilities are endless. Like the long-fabled nanotech, we can design bacteria to produce efficient and non-polluting fuel, produce nutrients and fertilisers, and ones to clean up our disgusting pollution. These things won't be easy and there'll be safety challenges along the way, but there really is no down side, as long as everyone behaves responsibly.

Oh, and to those whingers talking about 'playing God', why not? There isn't really a god, so the situation's vacant.

For Daniel

He's in Liverpool today, at a job interview. So in his honour, here's one of the finest moments from that seminal work of the 1980s, Boys from the Blackstuff, a searing attack on the way the Conservatives abandoned Liverpool and the working class in general. Those days are coming back…

Welsh fiction's moment in the sun

The Guardian has a short feature on Welsh books (in English or translated into English) for cool kids - urban and hip rather than concerned with the loss of land, language and work. I've read most of them and have the rest on order, and will be teaching Freshers (originally Ffreshars) next year.

It's worth a read - non-metropolitan work doesn't often get a look in, thanks to the economics and cultural position of the publishing industry, but new perspectives are always interesting, whether you enjoy the books themselves or not.

Of Trezise's list, I'd recommend anything Niall Griffiths writes. He's interested in the Liverpool-North Wales diaspora and the consequences of community and cultural decay, which goes both ways, and is influenced by Irvine Welsh but I think he's got more depth. So Long, Hector Bebb is a brilliant, technicolor punch in the face (it's partly about boxing) of the dreary Chapel-obsessed moral novels and One Moonlight Night/Un Nos Ala Leuad follows Caradoc Evans in excavating the twisted horror underlying the Nonconformist rural Wales of postcard fame. I'd say that anything Gwyn Thomas (the novelist who described his work as 'Chekhov with chips', not the poet) wrote is stunning, and the same goes for Chris Meredith (men marooned in post-industrial Wales) and Wiliam Owen Roberts, whose experimental novel Y Pla or Pestilence unites medieval Wales and Vietnam to amazing effect. Y Pla has been translated into English and several other languages but his other novels haven't, which is a shame as he's such a brilliant exponent of what might be called postmodern writing.

I notice that these are mostly by men - accidentally. Wales is bursting with talented female writers - Catherine Merriman, Fflur Dafydd (a personal favourite), Menna Elfyn, Kate Roberts (who I think is one of the top ten writers of the twentieth century), Dorothy Edwards, Eiluned Lewis - and I've not even got on to the poetry.

Finally, if you want a laugh (with some suspense), try Malcolm Pryce's Aberystwyth series of noir parodies set in a twisted alternate Wales. Glorious.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

"Aging, scared newspapermen throw themselves at the latest mobile technology trend in a humiliatingly futile attempt to remain relevant."

I think The Onion's writers are getting bored by the tedious BS generated by anyone with a social network to hype:

While millions of young, tech-savvy professionals already use services like Facebook and Twitter to keep in constant touch with friends, a new social networking platform called Foursquare has recently taken the oh, fucking hell, can't some other desperate news outlet cover this crap instead?
"Foursquare is a little bit of everything—a friend-finder, a local city guide, an interactive mobile game," said company cofounder Dennis Crowley, as if reading from the same tired script used by every one of these Web 2.0 or whatever-the-fuck-they're-called startups. "But more than that, Foursquare is an [endless string of meaningless buzzwords we just couldn't bring ourselves to transcribe]." 
And on it goes, gloriously world-weary.

Update: it turns out that Foursquare is real and that some Dutch people used it to set up a site called PleaseRobMe ('showing you a list of all those empty homes out there', based on the idea that social media sites are full of people announcing their whereabouts!

Is picking up a prostitute (electronically) educational?

I read an entertaining piece of journalism today which declares that video-gaming is educational, because it involves problem-solving, patience and learning moves. No doubt you've read of research claiming that kids, old people and pretty much anyone can 'train' their brains by playing games, and thus stave off senility or whatever.

I'm not particularly convinced - the 'skills' required by many games aren't particularly transferable. I'm not certain that learning how to score drugs, dally with prostitutes or (as a very good dissertation I read a few days ago boasted) smash enemies' heads against the kerb until they're dead really count as educational. For one thing, the physics of cranium-crunching and the economics of the sex-trade aren't included in the experience: these are worlds of naked, individualistic capitalism.

But then, I'm not really in much position to preach. I know someone who never completed The Hobbit on a ZX Spectrum, and I'm not much better. The last game I played obsessively was Civilization II in about 1996. I loved it, but got bored because it was so ideologically loaded. To win, you had to be a ragingly violent capitalist ready to nuke your neighbours without cause, whereas I always tried to build a socialist, peace-loving society, and got nuked by said neighbours: clearly the game's designers are Hobbesians, and it disturbed me. Civ 3 and Alpha Centauri just looked rubbish and didn't play as well.

I've tried to play Scrabble, but my copy is a cheating American version. It continually gets all seven letters down while refusing to provide a meaning for the made-up words, and gives me 7 vowels. It got so frustrating that I ended up demanding the suggestions every go and sitting back watching the computer play itself, which damaged my play against actual humans because my mental flexibility had been sapped.

I do occasionally go online to play the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy game, which is ridiculously difficult: try it, and then wonder where the summer (and your sanity) went.

So, tell me: what games do you play, which games do you recommend I play (and are available on Mac) and what have you learned from them? I see that Civ 5 is coming this year, and will hopefully be Mac-friendly!

Efficiency increase in Pakistan

Workers in Pakistan today reported a massive surge in productivity while school and university assignments became noticeably better informed, following court orders banning Facebook, Youtube, Flickr and Wikipedia due to 'sacrilegious content'.

OK, I'm being flippant. The Pakistani courts have banned these sites in response to a nasty-minded campaign calling on people to post cartoons of Muhammad, many of which are spiteful and racist. It seems rather confused - you have to search for these things to be offended by them, so the devout could just not log on, rather than using the courts. Most Pakistani's won't be affected anyway - web access is restricted to a tiny proportion of the population.

I also don't quite understand the ban on drawings of the Prophet - it certainly wasn't always banned in every branch of Islam, and Muhammad isn't God: he was a man.

Why can't we all just get along?

A battle won

British Airways cabin crew have won their appeal against an ban on their strike action. They're fighting degraded working conditions and victimisation, and British Airways' only weapons are technicalities (in this case, how exactly the union communicates ballot results to its members), which the Appeal Court have rejected. BA will probably go to the Supreme Court, but in the meantime, the struggle continues.

Victory to the workers! And I'll have a glass of wine and a blanket please.

Meanwhile, the Tories and Lib Dems have shown their true colours by announcing that they'll privatise the Royal Mail. Because, obviously, when you need a fair, universal service, you give it to profit-making organisation which will reduce wages, staffing levels and service coverage. Brilliant. Rural folk can now look forward to not receiving mail, as a punishment for living in sparsely populated areas. Service in poor areas will decline, junk mail will increase, deliveries will get later and prices will rocket. Shameful.

Yankee Classics

Album of the Day is Benjamin Lees' Symphony No. 4: Memorial Candles, part of Naxos Records' brilliant project of selling cheap CDs of every American composer (though Lees was born in China of Russian parentage) who hummed a line. It's a patchy affair: some of the composers are lost geniuses (genii?), others are fairly humdrum. Yet there's something brilliantly democratic about giving everyone a chance to be heard, at £6 per CD.

Lees is still alive, in his 80s, and his music is firmly in the classical tradition, rather than part of the experimental (i.e. largely tune-free) movements of the twentieth century. This isn't to say that he's old-fashioned or derivative - he draws on the more interesting of the late Classical and Romantic composers like Prokofiev and Bartok, whose music is brilliant and challenging, and does interesting things with rhythm and sound, influenced by his maverick teacher, George Antheil.

Symphony No 4: Memorial Candles was commissioned to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Holocaust, specifically its Jewish victims, and features a solo female voice and violinist. It's utterly terrifying, saddening and finally resigned. As it should be.

Here's the melancholy 3rd movement. Ignore the sunshine.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Thanks for the trees, Swedes!

I've received more books. I bought loads at the weekend (more J. G. Farrell, a cultural history of the depression, an 1899 beautiful copy of the Icelandic Laxdaela Saga and biographies of A. J. Cook and James Maxton), and now another spruce appears covered in words. Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, which I'm ashamed to say I haven't read before, Corder's Lionboy, a graphic novel (i.e. a comic) called To Teach by William Ayers (bought because he's a real 60s radical and the right tried to use him to bash Obama), and four more Penguin Great Thinkers books, with the beautiful designs: Ruskin's On Art and Life, de Montaigne's On Solitude, Locke's Of the Abuse of Words and Hazlitt's The Pleasure of Hating (you can tell I've been marking). They're lovely slim volumes of great ideas which I heartily recommend - some of these links are to the full texts).

I'll find time to read them when I'm made redundant.

On your bike

This looks like paradise to me. The sped-up footage gives it the charm of a Harold Lloyd film (imagine it in black and white). Look out for The Man On Two Bikes. What a hero.

Cambridge might be a little like this, if it actually catered for cycling seriously rather than merely tolerated a lot of cyclists.

Gavin Watson, photographer

He's a brilliant photographer, author of Skins, his brilliant collection of skinhead photos. He's appearing at The Hegemon today, in MC001 from 2-4 to talk about his work and sign copies of his book. I'm invigilating, damn it, but come if you can.

A change of pace

For the past few weeks, I've mostly been listening to Riot Grrl and 80s/90s indie pop (Pale Saints and Heavenly mostly), but the next album on my alphabetical trawl through my hard drive is a compilation of Benedictine monks singing Gregorian chants.

Now, I'm ambiguous about religious music as it is: it can be utterly sublime, but it's written for the glorification of an imaginary being which has legitimised all sorts of appalling behaviour (and some good things, to be fair). I'm also ambiguous about Benedictine monks: I spent some of my school life in the tender care of this lot (as well as the Christian Brothers, the Sisters of Mercy - who were heavily armed and not inclined to mercy, I can tell you) and they were, by and large, drunks, mental and physical bullies and very much not what you'd call holy. I just can't imagine the ones I knew producing this kind of contemplative music. I also supposedly sang this stuff in the school choir - nobody worked out that I simply mouthed the words for 2 years because choir practice was better than the homework sessions which were the alternative.

So this is a beautiful album, one which, I suppose, can be treated by atheists as simply music - being in Latin helps most people, but I can follow enough to get annoyed - but it holds all sorts of other associations for me.

Hold my calls, Moneypenny

Very exciting day today. I've been for a swim, I've got lots of marking to do, there's a union negotiating committee meeting to attend, then I'm invigilating an exam.

This is exactly the kind of glamour which attracted me to a life in teaching. The intellectual cut and thrust, the bronzed bodies and white teeth, sipping cocktails in the staff room, impeccably rigged out in designer clothes, before driving off in a rakish cabriolet to a conference in St. Tropez.


Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Why I miss the early 90s, part 349

I'll display my unashamedly nostalgic side now. I was caught up in the Britpop craze, having started to buy music while at university from 93-96. Some of those bands were rubbish (Powder, anyone?) and some great (Elastica, Blur's Modern Life is Rubbish distils an era, though it heralded Britpop rather than fully partook in it).

But. Britpop killed off the jungle of non-corporate music - such as shoegaze -  or at least drove it to the margins, where it became fragmented and overly precious. Chasing hit singles, appearing in style mags and being spotted at celeb events became signs of success, rather than producing great work or remaining artistically honest. It was also a deeply laddish culture - females (Lush, Pale Saints, Juliana Hatfield, Liz Phair, Riot Grrl) were marginalised, however good their music, with odd exceptions such as the wonderful P J Harvey.

So today I've been listening to Belly, fronted by Tanya Donelly, formerly of the even more wonderful Breeders and Throwing Muses (I'll come to them in due course). Belly melded jangly guitars, an ethereal voice and a muscular rock rhythm section to produce something captivating. Indie night classics!