Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Intermission music

While I'm away, a selection of big band tunes, starting with Big Ben's Banjo Band (we played one of their songs at Cynical Ben and Jo's wedding).

Florence Desmond was a leading purveyor of double-entendre filth. Here she is fairly demurely with George Formby.

No more dreaming spires

There's an interesting piece on university architecture here, which certainly speaks to me: my building could be Wernham Hogg's HQ, a council office or any other building.

It certainly wasn't designed by architects, but by a computer with no regard for education or art, which definitely impacts on the way we conceptualise the educational experience. For example, square rooms with the desks set out facing a notional teacher's place enforces a model of education which implies the one-way transmission of fact and of power, but students and some staff like it because it's familiar and reduces education from a complex and unsettling transaction to a simple and neat affair.

What are the inspiring buildings you'd like to model a university on? Interestingly, The Hegemon's New Technology Centre was a case study in the report: it's a fairly successful building, with some flaws, but the assessment is, well, rather dependent on what the university claims for itself. To put it very, very mildly.

The research project on university design is here.

Go ape!

There's a saying amongst primatologists: give a screwdriver to a gorilla, he'll pick his nose with it. Give one to a chimp, he'll probably throw it back at you. Give a screwdriver to an orang-utan and he'll dismantle his enclosure and escape.
From the print edition of today's Guardian.

Thanks LOCOG!

The joys of automated aggregated news feeds eh? My previous post, having a little moan (out of character, I know) about the 2012 Olympics being 'proud' of only allowing people to use Visa cards, has been distributed to anyone subscribing to the official Olympic feed. I could have fun with this.

Not this week though - I'm off to the UK School Games, which covers 10 sports and aims to give the competitors the same experience as the Olympics - coaching, an athlete village, mock drug tests, Olympic standard venues, refereeing etc. etc. Though if the food's like last year's, I pity professional athletes.

I'll be the git in a lilac (!) hoody and polyester, unfortunately. There probably won't be web access, so I'll leave you alone until next Monday, which is also graduation day for my students. Must bring handkerchief.

Update: apparently graduation's on the Tuesday. I'll be sleeping on Monday.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Playing Olympic Games

More promotional bumf from the Olympics today. Including this
In recognition of Visa’s long standing support of the Olympic Games, we are proud to accept only Visa cards (credit, debit and prepaid) for online ticket applications. 

I actually have a Visa debit card, but this kind of coercive bullshit (and 'proud' makes me cringe: the Georgians and Victorians called it 'cant' - why not admit that they offered you loads more money?) annoys me. When the time comes to buy tickets, I'm going to send them a jiffy bag of copper coins.

That's enough from me for a few days. Monday's a bank holiday so I won't be blogging. ON Tuesday I may be in for a couple of hours, then I'm off to magnificent Newcastle on Tyne/Gateshead for the 2010 UK School Games - not sure if there'll be any web access at all. Try to manage without me while I wear tracksuits for 5 whole days…

On your bike

Spotted this photo on BoingBoing:

And a few more shots of The Dark Place

More here.

Welcome to a Dark Place

I moan about this place a lot, and I must admit that in ten years, I haven't become attached to this city in the way I have to other places. Here's why…

I went for a short walk before going home last night, to take pictures of a nearby building which is being demolished. As it's stripped, rather attractive features appeared, like the stunning concrete fire escape. Then I wandered round town in the rain, trying to capture the beauty and the ugliness of the town. City. It's been a city since 2000. Not very convincingly, but there you go.

I've added the rest of the pictures to this existing set of Dark Place shots. Click on these samples for larger versions.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

How we used to eat

Poor George Borrow is stuck in a meagre hotel in Pentraeth, Ynys Môn, in 1862. They don't get 'proper' meat very often, and so he's stuck with Box Harry:
Those whose employers were in a small way of business, or allowed them insufficient salaries, frequently used to 'box Harry', that is, have a beef-steak, or mutton-chop, or perhaps bacon and eggs, as I am going to have, along with tea and ale instead of the regular dinner of a commercial gentleman, namely, fish, hot joint and fowl, pint of sherry, tart, ale and cheese, and bottle of old port, at the end of all'. (Wild Wales, 203)
And that's what travelling salesmen got to eat. I'm going home to do something miserable with a leek. So much for progress…

I probably won't be online tomorrow - my Northern Irish and French chums Gareth and Stéphanie are paying a visit. Gareth, as a good loyalist, will no doubt exercise his right to march through my living room while I protest powerlessly from the bathroom.

Now I have your full attention

I seem to have had a lot of hits recently from the BBC, and from Associated Newspapers, publishers of the evil Daily Mail. Associated with what, you may ask? Well, with racism, a long history of fascism and antisemitism, a deep seam of misogyny not disguised by hiring self-hating women as columnists.

However, I view their presence on Plashing Vole as a sign of contrition, perhaps even conscience. So now's my chance to encourage them to return to the straight and narrow path towards redemption.

So, BBC employees. This is easy. More Spiral and Dr. Who please. More like The Wire. Fewer programmes badly aping bad ITV shows. No more celebrities, just competent professionals. No more shows promoting kindergarten capitalism, e.g. your entire daytime schedule, packed with Homes Under the Hammer, Escape to the Country, Bargain Hunt, Flog It (basic premise: your family's heritage should be turned into a few quid), To Buy Or Not To Buy etc. etc. They're shallow, boring, greedy and the formats are exhausted. Yes please to more satirical humour, but I think Armstrong and Miller's brand of comedy is mined out now - as their greed for advert money suggests they know. And it's time to put Bruce Forsyth and Jeremy Paxman out to pasture - they're wounded lions. Ben Fogle, it's time to admit, isn't qualified for anything. He's blond and has a polite accent. That's not the same as having something to say. He's the slightly creepy and over-familiar care assistant in a rural old folks' home. Under the well-scrubbed face is pure evil and one day you'll all realise this.

Oh, and what happened to the idea that soaps were a mildly heightened version of real lives? Yours seem to be packed with murderous crackheads and other assorted monsters. Get a grip.

BBC3 is pretty repulsive, but it's not for people like me so I can't really preach about it though I will say that shows based on putting 'celebrities' in 'real world' situations are patronising and lazy. The ads for whatshisname Nelson's Well Good Show made me really angry, so they must be working quite well for his demographic.

BBC4 - stunning.

Before I leave TV behind, could I make one plea? Cancel Top Gear. I know it makes you an awful lot of money, but Clarkson's personal friends are in government now, so you don't need him to put the reactionary view any more. He's a boor and a bore. You can do better. Say thank you and goodbye to him and his friends. It was fun, but now it isn't.

Radio 1 - boring mainstream playlisted junk.
Radio 2 - no idea. Friends say it's good but I'm just not ready for that.
Radio 3 - just plain brilliant. Make the daytime shows more like the evening ones, e.g. more new music. It could be a tad more like FIP, but it's already one of the world's greatest shows.
Radio 4 - again, ace at night, dull during the day. Pedestrian is the word I'm looking for, perhaps. Especially the comedy. Once, all the comedy on TV was remakes of Radio 4 shows, but recently there's nothing worth repeating. Old Harry's Game, for example, was funny for at least two episodes, but once you've got used to the idea of a sitcom based in hell, you're left with some very laboured puns. Obviously The News Quiz and The Now Show are still good, but they're a little too conscious of themselves as 'heritage radio'. Now if you put Marcus Brigstocke, Frankie Boyle and some unknown kids together, you might get something interesting. The dramas are very hit and miss, the book readings are getting a little predictable, but the news shows are varied and brilliant. I wish John Humphries was a) better informed b) brighter and c) prepared to leave gaps between his questions for the interviewee to answer though. Evan Davis doesn't seem to know about much outside economics either. Leave The Archers and Woman's Hour alone. They're ace.

Basically: more new shows. Adaptations of recent books and plays. Comedy by people who didn't meet at Oxbridge. Something people would complain about.

6Music - good, sometimes brilliant. I don't know anything about the other channels, but saving 6Music while sacrificing the Asian Network did feel a little bit racist.

Institutionally, you really need to grow a pair. I mean really, the Tories and Murdochs and Daily Mails of this world spend apparently all of their waking hours screaming about how evil, socialist (don't see it myself) and dangerous you are, and you never fight back. Your overpaid governing-class executives roll over on their backs and accept every intellectually vapid attack while seemingly happy to be reduced to a stump of a once proud body.

Repeat this to yourselves: 'Just because they're rich and loud doesn't mean they're right'.

Now, moving on to the Daily Mail:
Die. Just give up. Kill yourselves. You have nothing to contribute except lies and misery.

The world would be a better place without your shrill distortion. You can't divide the world into things which cause cancer and things which cure it.

  • Women aren't evil if they want to have jobs/sex/opinions/a range of body shapes. 
  • Being black doesn't make you an illegal immigrant/rapist/terrorist/ threat to property prices. 
  • The working classes do hate you, but you started it (as far back as the Zinoviev letter). 
  • Celebrities aren't classifiable either as deities or devils, depending on what your star columnist thinks of their weight that week. 
  • Real scientists don't tend to use the word 'miracle' and they know that climate change is a bad thing. Bad scientists seem to have a hotline to your front page.

Seriously, the world's actually quite a nice place with potential to be even better. You could contribute to this process by quietly turning off the presses and dedicating yourselves to a better life.

Just a few thoughts. There'll be more later.

They don't like it up 'em

Thanks to what I think is a flaw in their intranet, I've had a little insight into Shell Oil's monitoring of the web - they're clearly a little worried about what we think of their disgusting behaviour.

It showed up in my visitor logs - a hit from Shell Email Portal. Clicking on the link gave me a login page with the username and password helpfully already filled in. Unfortunately, I can't simply copy and paste the password for future use, but I'm sure a more highly skilled cracker could manage it.

In the meantime, have a look for yourself:

Or reacquaint yourself with Shell's ugly side over at Shell Guilty.

Still bitter about this

Thanks to Em for passing this on. At least the French didn't waste their undeserved place at the World Cup, eh?

Folk off.

Hello all. Very late start to the day - sometimes staying in bed is just irresistible. Lasst night saw the Map Twats gather in a trendy pub in Birmingham to gossip and watch Topkapi, a Peter Ustinov crime caper which wasn't very good really. We abandoned it halfway through in favour of catching up with each other. To mark the occasion, Ben and Jo presented me with a badge reading 'love me I'm a liberal' which pleased me very much because I'm a hard-leftist with the occasional disgraceful liberal outburst, and because one of my favourite songs in the world is Phil Ochs' satirical 'Love Me, I'm a Liberal', in which he pokes fun at the class which liked to see itself as cool and relaxed until actual serious issues have to be tackled.

Here's Jello Biafra's updated version for the 1980s:

I'm having an all-Joni Mitchell day. I know that will horrify some of you, but I don't care.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Frivolous folk

I'm listening to Half Man Half Biscuit today - scabrously witty commentators on the rubbish side to contemporary life. Quite a bloke cult thing, judging by the bald patches the last time I saw them.

They're on in The Dark Place on September 15th. Anyone fancy it?

Oh Ben

Despite having a job, a wife and a novel to write, Cynical Ben has launched his second blog in a week (I notice Plashing Vole isn't on their blogroll) after Roy Keane's Lucky Scarf, as well as reviving Culture Cheese and Pineapple as some kind of rococo cursing locus. The boy's incorrigible.

Huzzah for the BBC!

At long last. Douglas Adams wrote the wonderful The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio/tv series/novels, but also a couple of existential science/philosophy detective novels featuring Dirk Gently which have been crying out for a television version for decades. This is why I pay my licence fee.
BBC4 will also dramatise Adams's 1987 novel about anti-hero Dirk Gently next year. Adams was writing a third Dirk Gently book, The Salmon of Doubt, at the time of his death in 2001.
(Though I don't see him as an anti-hero at all).

Eh? I no parley da lingo?

Why are the British so utterly resistant to learning other languages? For a nation which spent several hundred years invading other countries, it seems a little backwards, to say the least. Obviously there are patches of linguistic variety - all Welsh kids learn Welsh and the number using it as a first language is slowly increasing, after centuries of the language being outlawed - but on the whole, Brits seem to assume that foreigners think in English really and use their own languages simply to annoy tourists. I knew a man who did business in Sweden frequently, and took it as a personal affront that he needed to hire a Swedish speaker.

I wasn't particularly good at French at school, but picked up enough for an A-level, and improved loads afterwards by living with French people (I can curse in fluent Lyonnaise now) and gradually picked up passable German and reading standard Welsh and each one has widened my world, so I'm heartbroken that British children are no longer equipped to cope in other countries. Since schools were allowed to drop languages, universities have followed (including, shamefully, The Hegemon, where English is the second language to slick management bullshit). The result is a nation which knows less, cares less and understands less about the rest of the world. Languages shape philosophies and worldviews (weltanschauang in German): they aren't just neutral vehicles for the same kinds of thoughts.

For instance: all the interesting new approaches in literary theory in the last 50 years have come from France and Germany. Monoglot anglophones English-speaking academics are disadvantaged and insular: reader-response, poststructuralism, or Foucault's approach took years to catch on in anglophone countries because virtually no-one had the skills to read them in the original. Translations take years to appear and are never satisfactory, as anyone who's tried to explain Derridean difference/différance in English will tell you.

Part of the problem is the way languages were taught. Until I acquired a countercultural hippy French teacher, lessons were about the most superficial things: how to order a drink or find the way to the beach. Nobody told us about French food culture, history, film or any of the other things that makes that country so singular. Anyone who made an effort to get the accent right was beaten up for being gay, and so, endlessly, on. German was out of the question - nothing but Nazis. No mention would be made of Brecht, Schiller, Marx, Mozart, Tristan and Isolde plus all those scientists. In short: nobody told us that other countries had rich, fascinating, different cultures which we might actually like to experience, perhaps immerse ourselves in or even move to. Instead, it was all about consumption, holidays and war. No wonder languages are dead in this country. The other problem was grammar. Nobody explained this concept to us in relation to English, so encountering it in other languages was a hell of a mountain to climb.

Some links for you:
France 24: the equivalent of BBC World. Also available in English.
Deutsche Welle - German global broadcasting. English version.
FIP - one of the greatest radio stations in the world, in French.
BBC Newyddion yn Cymraeg - the news, in Welsh.
TG4 - the Irish language TV station. Notorious, you may be interested to know, for only employing classically beautiful women. Now there's a language policy! South Park in Irish is particularly good.
WWiTV: collecting the world's TV stations online. Go mad! Try some!

Oh what a beautiful morning

Morning all. Big day today: Cynical Ben is paying the West Midlands the compliment of a visit, so I'm taking the afternoon off. I need to spend those hours choosing an outfit which won't attract his razor-sharp wit.

I went for a pint with Em and Mark last night. The Dark Place is never the most salubrious of venues, but all the social tribes were out this time, from the local football fans (2-1 victory over mighty Southend - they must be so proud) to the 16-year olds celebrating their GCSE results with cheap cider and the shortest of skirts.

In the wider world, James Bond has been found dead in a sports bag, and the Tory Scum budget, far from being 'progressive' as its Baronet designer called it, will actually make the poor poorer, according to some very serious research by a neutral body. So much for the Liberal Democrats taming the worst excesses of Tory evil.

The IFS said the poorest 10% of families would lose over 5% of their income as a result of the budget compared with a loss of less than 1% for non-pensioner households without children in the richest 10% of households. It added that the budget contrasted with the "progressive" plans for 2010-14 inherited from Labour, under which the richest 10% of households bore the brunt of the cuts.

Certainly the over-60s I meet as they speed past me in the swimming pool aren't happy. One of Labour's health initiatives was to institute free swimming for the young and the old, and the take-up was huge. Now it's been withdrawn, they'll either stop swimming and burden the NHS with fitness-related illnesses, costing it more than the swimming concession, or spend more of their meagre pensions on exercise. It's a bad move politically as well: the old are morel likely to vote, and more likely to vote Tory (presumably because dementia clouds the judgement and because the Tories have always been careful to bribe the old). If they get angry, they'll sway the next election.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Occasional Sarlacc

One for the Star Wars fans: the weather refracted through the Star Wars universe.

For The Dark Place, we get:
It's like Endor out there. Temperate, but grey and cloudy.
Stick around and you may get your own animated series.

But there is good news

Vedanta, amoral global mining corporation, has been prevented from destroying an Indian tribe's sacred mountain and forest, after a global campaign supported by some very serious organisations, such as the Church of England.

It doesn't matter that I don't think anything's sacred - it matters to this tribe in Orissa, and as you know, the views of such people are usually disregarded. This time, the Indian Environment Ministry has done brilliantly.

Muscular Christianity?

What with the hysteria over an Islamic cultural centre in New York and the constant video on rolling news of Islamic clerics encouraging jihad, we should stop for a moment and consider that other faiths aren't entirely free from heavily-armed clerics: plenty of rabbis have committed acts of terrorism or encouraged them - Meir Kahane springs to mind.

More important, in terms of numbers, are the Christians who've taken up arms, mostly against each other. In medieval times, a Bishop was expected to accompany his King onto the battlefield, and the struggles against 'heresy' often saw the clergy wielding the red-hot pokers and sharp implements. The English Civil War certainly saw a large number of preachers and pastors emerging from - or merging with - the Army of the Commonwealth. Militant Jesuits kept the True Faith alive in Protestant Britain and Ireland before liberation. Elsewhere, we've seen armed liberation priests in South America (stamped on by the Church but very successful politically).

So perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at the news that a Catholic priest, James Chesney, was the IRA's Director of Operations in South Derry in the early 70s - a story which was covered up by the police, the UK government and the Catholic Church until today. The Catholic Church didn't support Irish freedom but became a fan of independent Ireland when the new state handed over control of all schools and most hospitals, with brilliant results, as you know.

Chesney, however, seems to have joined the IRA, as many young men did, in 1972 as a result of the apartheid style treatment of the Catholic community and in particular the slaughter of Bloody Sunday. Where he went wrong was to entirely lose his moral compass, as many did in those dark and morally confused times. Rather than leading his people in a self-defence against an oppressive state and their sectarian terrorist allies, he planned unforgivable atrocities, particularly the Claudy bombing, in which a child was killed amongst nine fatalities - none of them military or police officers.

We're a long way from the image of a spiritual leader invoking the doctrine of 'just war' or the ideologically committed warrior-priest. Instead, a man sworn to peace and understanding became a cold-blooded murderer, immersing himself in the technicalities of explosives and timers. He was no Republican hero, nor defender of the people. Just a killer.

What happened to him? The Church, under pressure from a UK government which didn't want to arrest him, moved him across the border, where he died at the age of 46 in 1980. I'd love to have heard his last confession…


This woman is supposedly a serious politician in the US (via Doonesbury):
"He personally told Muslims he is a Muslim. Read his lips."
-- RNC committeewoman Kim Lehman tweeting about Obama

"[In his Cairo speech] it didn't appear to me he said Christianity was part of his religion."
-- Lehman, explaining her tweet

"I'm a Christian."
-- Obama, in the speech she refers to.
Oh dear. That country does seem to be becoming a very intolerant, shrill and reactionary place. What happened to debating the issues?  

Maybe it's just me…

This advert made me hugely angry last night. IT's the casual abuse of the language of rights. This would be OK if everyone already possessed the rights to life, free speech, freedom of assembly, privacy and all the other rights listed in the UN Declaration - but they don't. So for a bloody deodorant manufacturer to steal the language to sell some chemical paste is just hugely insulting - it turns fundamental arguments about the human condition into a joke.

The Rights of Underarm Skin

The great university rip-off?

There's a piece in the Guardian today which claims that many university graduates are now doing jobs which a decade ago, wouldn't have required a degree, and that those not from Oxbridge and headed towards the financial sector won't earn more than a non-graduate, while being burdened by debts. The argument is that while it's fine to shovel everyone into university to produce a highly skilled workforce, the jobs requiring these skills haven't turned up. So you get graduates doing non-graduate jobs, and the kids who didn't go to university don't get anything at all.

Ewart Keep, an economist at Cardiff, takes the example of a young man who studied history or social science at a former poly and comes out with a middling degree: "Statistically, he's unlikely to earn any more than if he'd simply left school at 18." Keep, together with his colleague Ken Mayhew, argues that the reason the Great Degree Scramble has not paid off in better jobs is because Labour did not try to provide them. That would have required nurturing new businesses and raising conditions for the most awful jobs – the sort of thing Blair and his party emphatically did not do.

Your thoughts? Has your degree proved useful or necessary? If you haven't graduated, what job do you think you'll get? Is it a matter of which degree and institution? How much do you owe?

Certainly judging by the appalling standard of the teams on University Challenge last night, more young folk should be toiling in the fields rather than sipping sherry in tutorials!

Frying tonight

I mentioned yesterday that Mr Salmon (hence the dreadful pun in the title), head of BBC North, intends to direct operations from that Northern bastion, London.

So I've dropped the Director-General of the BBC a line, applying for Mr. Salmon's job. I like the North, I live here (cue the arguments about whether the Dark Place is North) and I could do with a salary of about half a million pounds. Think of all the whippets and flat caps I could buy with that!

Dear Mr. Thompson,
I've read in numerous papers that the Head of BBC North, Mr Salmon, does not intend to move to Salford with his section of the BBC.
In any normal institution, this would constitute a resignation, given that one would expect the generals to lead from the front, so I'd like to apply for his job. 
I'm actually from the North (Stoke, currently working in The Dark Place) and am familiar and in love with the diverse cultures of the region. Off the top of my head, the features of Northern English culture I'd highlight would be the still powerful working-class movements, the range of cuisine from Grimsby's fish to Stoke's oatcakes, the vibrant musical scenes of the CBSO, the LPO, the Hallé, Huddersfield's Contemporary Music Festival, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield's popular music scenes, Newcastle's club cultures, the art movements bursting out of all these cities. Like London, the North is racially and culturally diverse, but perhaps in formations different from the capital - all these things need exploration by the state broadcaster.
It's time that the BBC stopped seeing the North through tourists' eyes. The move to Salford is a hugely positive step, but it need to be done convincingly and honestly: treating it as some kind of Siberian gulag or outpost to be visited by Southern executives via internal flights or first-class train for half a day won't impress anyone. Northern licence-payers demand authenticity, not the occasional pat on the head. BBC Wales has done an amazing job over recent years - time BBC North got the chance to become a cultural powerhouse.
So how about it? Fresh insights, new accents. No more whippets and flat caps, just commitment, depth and knowledge. 
Yours, Vole.
What to you reckon to my chances? 

Monday, 23 August 2010

Paul Uppal - the unanswered questions

My local MP managed, as you know, to put secretary's pen to paper in response to my letter, after a mere 3 and a half months, and still managed to avoid the substantive questions (i.e. how is democracy served by limiting school policy to an electorate of 2: the head teacher and the Secretary of State for Education?).

But never mind that; clearly he's not going to engage in actual debate. What I'm waiting for now is his reply to another letter I sent him a few weeks ago. Poor Paul told the House of Commons (and again) that he's a 'victim' of electoral fraud. I asked him if he's reported his evidence or suspicions to the police, because if he hasn't, it looks like a naughty bit of irresponsible political posturing. After all, there's only been one case in the West Midlands in the last 5 years, and that was two Tory councillors in Walsall.

Time to put up or shut up, Paul.

The book nook

I finished David Nicholls' One Day the, er, other day. I raved about it on here last week, with 80 pages left to go. My feelings have changed somewhat. I don't want to ruin the book for you, because I really think you should read it, but the last pages certainly made me rethink my enthusiasm.

There's a traumatic event near the end, which is OK - arbitrary, but OK. But. But, but but. It means that the most sympathetic and convincing narrative voice is silenced, and the actions of the remaining characters are simply their (fairly predictable) responses - the book fizzles out with the loss and becomes an exercise in tying up loose ends. Emma's involvement is ended on a beautiful, economic sentence in the present tense - why not end it there and let the audience worry about the consequences? That's what readers like - that lovely sense, at the end of a great book, of wondering, feeling, hoping and caring about characters.

At the same time, a parallel narrative starts to appear, presenting an alternative past in which the protagonists got together as soon as they met, rather than becoming friends while leading diverse lives. I thought that this worked very well - but why start doing it in the last 8o pages? Why not do it from the start, in a much more sustained fashion. Bunging this in at the end just awakened me to the possibility that a much more interesting book had been smothered for no apparent reason.

So anyway - still a lovely book, but flawed. I only thought of it just now because I opened more parcels:
Kate Atkinson's Started Early, Took My Dog. For some reason, I was convinced I'd already received this, but no. I love Atkinson's work - great narrative voices. Totally underrated.

Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures, because someone nicked my copy of this theory classic. As my so-called educationalist superiors are busy using Geertz to abandon the concept of humanist education, I thought I'd remind myself of what he actually had to say. It's his birthday today - born 1926.

Finally, The Autumn 2010 issue of New Welsh Review, the essential Welsh cultural and literary periodical.

How the ruling classes work

The Head of BBC North is Mr Peter Salmon.

Thousands of BBC employees are relocating to Salford to decentralise the overly-metropolitan organisation. A thoroughly good thing, I think. It should save money too.

Peter was appointed Director, BBC North, at the end of 2008 and is a member of the BBC's Executive Board.
He leads key departments including Children's, Sport and BBC Radio 5 Live moving to one of the world's most advanced broadcasting centres at MediaCityUK in Salford Quays.
The BBC's second largest production centre, BBC North aims to build stronger relationships with audiences across the UK.

The Head of BBC North is staying exactly where he is.

Where's that then?


Well, you can't get a decent soya latte anywhere north of Watford, can you?

Flower power

I wandered round my mother's garden at the weekend and took some pictures. They're all here, or click on these for bigger versions.

Fallen Hydrangea petals 

I've played with the colours of this one

I'm thorny, thorny thorny thorny

Mark but this bee…

Purple-headed monster

Running out of puns now

Can you guess what it is yet?


Remember your first training bra, or braces on your teeth? Perhaps stabilisers on your bike?

I mention these only because The Dark Place is thronged with festival-goers, dressed for serious mountaineering mixed with flashes of frivolity - wellington boots with primary coloured dots, tiny shorts, aviator sunglasses and silly hats. They're all wandering round trying to look like they're on a 'Nam R+R furlough.

It's all rather sweet. Where they've been isn't 'Nam. It's not even Glastonbury or another proper festival. They've been to the 'V' Festival (V standing for Virgin - referring to the organisers and probably to the punters). It's notorious for never featuring a band whose music hasn't been used to sell banking, small cars or nappies - the safest, most tedious, bland event you could imagine. Nothing spontaneous or interesting will ever happen there.

Unless, of course, you're 16 and mummy and daddy have allowed you to go to your first every festival, safe in the knowledge that nobody will suffer anything worse than a mild hangover. The shocking thing is, however, that these crowds of kids wearing their 'Private School Leavers' hooded tops weren't naive and impressionable teens, but university students and even older people. They'd got the style and gear for the real thing, and were clearly highly skilled at adopting the poses and attitudes of hardened hedonists, but still sought the corporate blanket of branding and nothing beyond the utterly depressing familiar.

Still, I'm sure they had fun and it'll all sound much more extreme when they recount their adventures to their mates.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Good news for oil producers

Apparently, the incredible, poisoned condition of the Niger delta isn't Shell Oil's fault, despite the fact that everything's covered in oil.
A three-year investigation by the United Nations will almost entirely exonerate Royal Dutch Shell for 40 years of oil pollution in the Niger delta, causing outrage among communities who have long campaigned to force the multinational to clean up its spills and pay compensation.
Just goes to show that lefty conspiracy theorists like myself and our poor, black, oppressed allies in Africa should think more carefully before jumping to conclusions and blaming the old military-industrial-Western-capitalist nexus for all the world's ills. I'm sorry, Shell. Despite the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his friends when they got in your way, we all owe you a massive apology for our decades of cynicism and distrust - the Ogoni are obviously Luddite whingers who couldn't move with the times. Next time a tiger encourages me to fill my tank, I'll bloody do it, with gratitude and a smile because we got you all wrong.

Oh wait.
The $10m (£6.5m) investigation by the UN environment programme (UNEP), paid for by Shell and commissioned by the Nigerian government 
who both have massive oil interests in the region will say that only 10% of oil pollution in Ogoniland has been caused by equipment failures and company negligence, and concludes that the rest has come from local people illegally stealing oil and sabotaging company pipelines.
Er… phrases like 'you gotta dance with them what brung ya' and 'he who pays the piper calls the tune' spring to mind. As well as musings about why the locals in one of the world's biggest oilfields can't afford petrol and are dying younger.
With 606 oil fields, the Niger delta supplies 40% of the crude oil imported by the US. Life expectancy in its rural communities, half of which have no access to clean water, has fallen to little more than 40 over the past two generations.
But that's just me. Put it out of your mind, Vole. We're living in the Age of Business. That's why the new government's abandoned the Human Rights Annual Report and told British embassies to concentrate on business business BUSINESS. Let's just trust Dave'n'Nick on this one.

Separated at birth?

Twinkly Irish sport broadcaster Des Lynam

Grumpy American satirist Mark Twain

Goatish Liberal genius David Lloyd George. How ashamed he would be of Clegg and Co.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Sssseen today

Can't upload all the pictures I took out and about today, but here's a sample - a lovely grass snake about 6-8 inches long. Click on the picture for a bigger version.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Before I go

There's a very, very good piece on democracy, egalitarianism and the role of universities in today's Guardian, summarising all the things I bang on about so inchoately:

Universities still control access to nearly all the major professions, from law, engineering and medicine to journalism, finance and teaching. The earnings gap between the university-educated and those with vocational qualifications remains consistently large in favour of the former. But the more fundamental fact remains that real democracy and a truly integrated society require citizens who have had the chance to develop skills such as independent inquiry and critical thinking, neither of which need mean devaluing other skills. Despite their own increasing corporatisation, universities still provide an environment that expands our capacity to think and engage creatively with other people's ideas. Of course, informed, sceptical and independent-minded citizens don't make ideal subjects for an increasingly plutocratic governing class.
Higher education, a shared resource, which ought to be available to all who seek it, has become yet another social responsibility outsourced towards private sector profit. In the process, it will spiral out of the financial reach of the vast majority of young people, again turning universities into the hereditary domain of the financially advantaged. 
I don't think university should be a right - there are plenty of people who turn up, do no work, cheat, and expect high grades because they're paying. But I do think that everybody has a right to give it a go, and to the highest quality of education. This is exactly what doesn't happen at the moment. Favoured institutions get all the money. Then they get the most innovative researchers and all the prestige. They provide smaller classes, more books and more personal attention to their students, who are largely drawn from private schools and the articulate middle classes. Places like mine struggle on with incompetent management aping the attitudes of the corporate world in place of a coherent commitment to education, while fewer and fewer staff teach bigger and bigger classes more and more often, leading to impersonal teaching and less research. Then we wonder why it's difficult to recruit and retain able students, while less able ones drop out because they need more help.
A mature democracy thrives by widening access to higher education. Corralling young people into vocational factory farms does not equal progress. We must fight hard to retain common ownership of education and have a real discussion about the role we want it to play in our lives and society.
After all that whinging, cheer yourselves up with Jimmy Reid's rectorial lecture to Glasgow University students in 1972. No, seriously. It's so good that this recently-deceased communist trades unionist's speech was reprinted on the front page of the New York Times - how often does that happen? It's powerful, tender, thoughtful, passionate and communicates big ideas in human terms - the epitome of the perfect lecture.

Enter Sandman (hopefully)

I'm off. I've a huge headache and work just isn't happening, so I'm going to bed. I'll leave you with a delightful piece of music. It works beautifully because of the attention to detail (even the crowd's applause is replaced with that of a polite dinner jazz evening), and because I love the original Metallica track.

For comparison, the righteous original:

We're modern. We've got a website.Telnet us!

A few weeks ago, I reproduced this witty Venn diagram from XKCD.com, about the clash between spiffy university website designs, and what people actually wanted to find.

Talk about prophetic. The Hegemon's brand new, very expensive site has been awarded the worst possible score on 3 of the 5 criteria (though there are a couple of really moronic comments from potential students in there).
The universities of YorkWorcester and [The Hegemon] all say that plans to overhaul their sites are in the offing.

That's balls of the highest order: it's only just been overhauled. 3rd from bottom in yet another league table… Another victory for the consultants!


You may - or may not - have noticed the considerable fall in blog output quality this week. The truth is, I have a stinking cold and feel rotten. I'm too cold and too hot all at the same time. I'm not sleeping, and every noise pierces me like a delinquent with a knife. It doesn't help that I live next to two nightclubs, by an alleyway which is a favourite venue for muggings, drunken brawls and couples screaming the foulest abuse at each other. Love, eh?

To cope with all this, I've turned, as always, to books. In particular, I've turned to junk food in literary form. Not stupid books, but lightweight, easy ones. Perhaps not the equivalent of a cheeseburger, but certainly a takeaway curry from a middle-ranking establishment. Middlebrow. That's the word I'm looking for. Fun. Entertainment.

For work, I'm re-reading George Borrow's Wild Wales. Published in 1862, it's an easy-going piece of travel writing in which George - an English racist Christian fundamentalist - constantly demonstrates that his Welsh is better than that of actual Welsh people. He moans about the Pope, hates the Irish, and tells a freed slave that slavery was actually the perfect solution to the degeneracy of the African race. All in all, interesting but not very comfortable reading. I'm also reading Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark, a cultural history of the 1930s. I picked it up because that's my period, but I immediately got hooked on it - such width, such careful, close reading of interesting texts - the kind of book which makes me want to go back to doing actual serious academic work myself.

But I digress. I am reading these books, but I'm cramming lighter stuff in like the fat kid at MacDonald's closing time. On Wednesday I read Norman Spinrad's Song From the Stars. God it was good. Spinrad's a proper child of the 60s, but he's managed to retain the joy and light from that era without becoming a spoiled hippy scumbag. Most of his novels are science-fiction fantasy which treat the open-minded and positive aspects of the 60s as a serious possibility for human society. Karma, for instance, features heavily, which is not something I ever thought I'd type in a positive context. Heavily dosed with (actually quite coy) sex and discussions of social potential if we could find it in ourselves just to be a little bit nicer to each other, it's great reading as long as you can dredge up some empathetic optimism, which is what I find rather difficult. He also has the wit not to be too starry-eyed about what we're really like too.

Then yesterday I read Phill (yes, that's how he spells it) Jupitus's Good Morning Nantwich, partly a memoir, partly a polemic about the state of British radio broadcasting. (In classic local journalism style, I notice that the book's major point of interest to the Crewe Chronicle is 'Nantwich Named in Title of Phill Jupitus' New Book'. I'm sorry to disappoint denizens of the (not very) metropolitan district of Crewe and Nantwich, but your town was chosen for it's alliteration, not because it plays a central role in the story of a man from Essex who became a DJ. This bathetic truth is sadly reported in the story, which incidentally is a prime example of lazy journalism: the guy hasn't read the book and if you're reduced to looking for mentions of your town to fill your paper, it's time to nuke the place from orbit and start again.
Due for release in August, Jupitus says he chose the name Nantwich because he liked the sound of it and that it could have been named after any other town.
The memoir bits are often touching but once you've understood that he's a fat man with a lot of records and not as much confidence as you'd think, that bit's done. The really good bits are when he goes off on one, because it turns out that he's actually a very, very good writer. At one point, he reproduces - over many pages - his notes on a (sadly unnamed) morning show to which he forces himself to listen. Every excruciating comment, tone of voice, clumsy link and patronising moment is reproduced beautifully. My favourite section, however, is his description of the 5 seconds before he pressed the button to become BBC 6Music's first host. It's a beautifully modulated stream of consciousness which ratchets up the tension (terror, really) of those few seconds over many pages. Technically, it's a virtuoso piece of writing, really making the reader share the agony, communicating the way a few seconds can easily become enough time for every thought you never wanted to have.

Then last night and today, I read David Nicholls' One Day. I've read 250 pages, with probably another hundred or so to go. His Starter for Ten was a nice piece of comic whimsy which became a decent film - a bildungsroman based around University Challenge and the travails of the 1980s student searching for love and a settled, comfortable identity. One Day doesn't stray too far from the template, but it's brilliantly done. The basic plot is very neat: two students almost have sex on graduation day and become friends, meeting over the years as their lives unfold in different directions. They have fun, they fall out, they sometimes almost get it on, life becomes complicated in ways they never foresaw… it's almost chick-lit (except I hate that term) but there's a deep emotional empathy at work, and a clear-eyed view of the way in which we're worn down by each other, life, work and the gap between idealism and reality. It's poignant and sad in many places, but it's also very funny, too, often in ways which sneak up on you rather than provoke belly laughter. It's the perfect book to read in dim light, rain on the window, mug of flu remedy next to you. Unfortunately, I'm at work, typing this nonsense for you lot. Ho hum.

No room at the inn

Sorry, enlightenment seekers: The Hegemon is full up, thanks to the sterling work of Zoot Horn on the switchboard. It really is a very strange year for university entrants.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Get some perspective

Watch this. Start at 1.49, sound on and stick with it until the end. It's begging for a Sigur Ros backing track, though the sounds themselves are beautiful enough.

Another hero passes

Edwin Morgan, snatched away prematurely at only 90. 

If you don't recognise the name, he was the leading Scottish poet of his generation. Which sounds a little churlish: he was one of the best poets of the last century,  though his focus on Scotland meant that a lot of people dismissed him as a 'regional' poet. 

Hear him read some of his work here (the excellent Poetry Archive site).

Here are 'Strawberries', 'The Loch Ness Monster's Song' and the Idlewild song 'In Remote Part/Scottish Fiction', which features Morgan reading 'Scottish Fiction', the poem he wrote for them.
There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you
let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills
let the storm wash the plates

The Loch Ness Monster's Song
Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.
Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhafl fl fl –
gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw gm.
Hovoplodok – doplodovok – plovodokot-doplodokosh?
Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok!
Zgra kra gka fok!
Grof grawff gahf?
Gombl mbl bl –
blm plm,
blm plm,
blm plm,
Scottish Fiction
It isn't in the mirror
It isn't on the page
It's a red-hearted vibration
Pushing through the walls
Of dark imagination
Finding no equation
There's a Red Road rage
But it's not road rage
It's asylum seekers engulfed by a grudge
Scottish friction
Scottish fiction
It isn't in the castle
It isn't in the mist
It's a calling of the waters
As they break to show
The new Black Death
With reactors aglow
Do you think your security
Can keep you in purity
You will not shake us off above or below
Scottish friction
Scottish fiction

OK, He's Good, But… This Good?

I like science fiction, if it's done well.

But I've never felt this way about Ray Bradbury or any author in any genre. (Very, very not safe for work, unless you work somewhere rather cool).

Her name's Rachel Bloom. She's a comedian.

Roy Keane's Lucky Scarf

OK, Cynical Ben has yet another website, possibly his 14th. It's called Roy Keane's Lucky Scarf and there seem to be other people involved, though as the Rosetta Hampshire Affair shows, you can never be sure. It might be him playing games again.

Anyway, have a look. You're invited to submit your own works (fiction, poetry, anything) on the subject of Roy Keane and the philosophy associated with his singular way of life. It pains me to admit that it's very good.

Would you like cultural imperialism with that?

All hail Lynne Rosenthal, who was thrown out of Starbucks for refusing to play along with all their silly invented language ('venti' indeed) - designed to push you into further sales while disguising the greed inherent in the ridiculously big portions - when ordering a bagel.

Now, you might think that anyone going into Starbucks is a willing participant in a charade of faux-Italian corporate bullshit and therefore can't really complain when they're asked to go along with it. And I'd tend to agree with you: if you start the game, you can't complain about the rules halfway through.

But really. Calling the police? The Hegemon has a franchise of a rival evil corporate poor-quality coffee monster, but the staff are cool. That's because they aren't 'baristas' (hurl) but the same women who work in the rather downmarket canteen on the other side of the building, disguised by a badge and baseball cap (despite the absence of a baseball pitch). They're quite unbothered by my requests for a 'small coffee' and would hopefully laugh in the face of anyone demanding a grande venti soya mochalattecino.

Let's go back to the days of a Marmite Sandwich and a Weak Lemon Drink for lunch.

Thanks to Em for the tip.

A Prophet in his own country…

If you're Irish, I suggest you swallow your coffee before reading on. You can never get all the stains off your screen.

OK, ready?
Apparently, An Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen is the 5th best head of government in the world, in an article called 'Go To The Head Of The Class'.

Biffo, as rendered by Conor Casby, who sneaked these painting onto the wall of the National Gallery of Ireland

If you're not Irish, perhaps I should explain. Ireland's recession makes Britain's look like a walk in the park. Ireland enticed lots of multinational companies in by offering beggar-thy-neighbour tax rates. When they got an even better offer, they shut up shop, leaving no tax and high unemployment.

Meanwhile, low European interest rates designed to make those canny Germans spend their savings persuaded millions of Irish people to invest in property to a degree which would horrify even a North London dinner party. From high to low, every greedy bastard was paying millions of Euro for very ordinary houses in very ordinary places. This in a country which has no housing shortage - the population's still only half what it was before the 1840s famine. They bought holiday homes and investment properties.

And that's just ordinary greedy bastards. In the realms of serious money, bankers were lending obscene amounts to their property developer friends, who got planning permissions from their corrupt politician friends, who appointed them to the banks' boards of directors, who lent more money to the speculators and bought obscure financial instruments without oversight because they were the bankers and the politicians and the speculators and the regulators. Like Iceland, the banks were exposed so many multiples of their assets, and the assets of their entire country, that a tiny upset would ruin the entire nation. Which is exactly what happened. And in response, Cowen's governments took over the entire liabilities of all of these despicable banks, without question. None of their directors are in prison despite evidence of influence buying and sharp practice, and none of them are going to suffer.

Ireland was treated like a village in which the local council and shopkeepers and  lawyers all looked after each other and assumed that the only way was eternally up. The politicians kept taking bribes (former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was taking suitcases of cash - claiming not to have a bank account - even while he was Minister of Finance and before him, Charlie Haughey owned a fleet of helicopters and an island on a salary of £I3500).

The priests, of course, were busy abusing children and couldn't spare the time to muse on the morality of national greed and an entire class of corrupt rulers.

So why am I moaning about this now? To recap, a famous American news magazine has decided that Brian Cowen is the 5th best leader in the world. Let's have a look at Biffo's (Big Ignorant Fecker From Offaly) record shall we?

Unemployment - 13%
Benefits - cut massively
Salaries - cut
Emigration - massively up
Public investment - abolished
Bond markets - only Greece is less trusted
Taxes - up massively (for people, not for business).

So to summarise, everyone in Ireland, under the enlightened leadership of Brian Cowen is:

Where was Biffo while the financial system was going absolutely fucking mental? Er, he was Minister for Finance (2004-2008). Then he got a promotion!

Why does Newsweek like him? Because he's abandoned social democracy and instituted the kind of social Darwinist dog-eat-dog minimal government system which even Somalia would think a bit selfish.

Stig in the Dumps

Sorry, but how often will I be able to use that pun?

Stig, in this case, is the 'anonymous' racing driver employed by popular silly car programme Top Gear to drive fast cars around a track. Apparently, this is enough to justify an autobiography, but the BBC has used lawyers to ban him from making his identity known.

This is more interesting than it might sound: 'The Stig' is being treated not as a name, but as piece of intellectual property which can't be attached to the individual using it. So the man whose major claim to fame is playing 'Stig', can't tell anyone, even though it's true and probably the most prominent thing he's ever done (do you remember Ben Collins' career in Formula 3 and NASCAR?). He must be undergoing a strange existential crisis…

Media Studies: there's still hope

Despite the carping of morons who think that a sophisticated understanding of the economics, institutional and legislative frameworks, ideological and cultural contexts of the media in which we're all immersed is 'soft' and unworthy of study, media and communications studies is becoming more important.

But there's still a sense out in the job market that it's not a 'proper' degree. If you've studied media and allied subjects, check out this live online Q and A on potential careers today! There are jobs out there, and not all of them involve pulling pints.

More nostalgic educational tales

My favourite school was the comprehensive one in Stoke. It had its fair share of weirdos - like the kid later caught on CCTV…nicking CCTV cameras from a lorry.

The teachers were on the odd side too. There was the very camp art teacher who asked me, after the first class, whether I normally wore spectacles. I knew I couldn't draw, but that was a bit much. He tested my eyesight and then suggested that 'art wasn't really for' me and excused me for the rest of my time there. Though I enjoyed textiles - I've still got the kite and shorts I made, and the scars  from sewing the kite to my leg while I was putting the final touches to it. Shame he didn't let me off bloody technical drawing, woodwork and metalwork too.

Another rather wittily told my parents that my exam result 'didn't reflect the standard of [Vole's] work' - turned out I'd come 3rd rather than bottom, after handing in precisely no homework and using class time as an opportunity to hone my punning skills.
Best of all was the metalwork teacher. Always a bit handy with sharp or heavy objects and possessing the breath of Satan's goats, he eventually got a bit desperate. Disappearing from class one day, it turned out that he'd sent a note to Tesco demanding money or he'd put glass in the yogurts. The way I heard it, the court decided he was mad rather than bad, as he'd put his home address on the note, though this may be an urban myth. Still, he taught me to make a passable screwdriver, shiv and other weapons which came in very useful on the school bus (in self-defence, obviously). That scene was bad, man.

New Sounds from North Wales

I'm currently listening to Brigyn's Brigyn 3 - a bunch of kids from North Wales who've released quite a lot in Welsh and are starting to sing in English too. They're pretty good: lots of folk, tinges of decent jazz, judicious use of electronics and a pretty clear line from Scott Walker and Tindersticks too. They're not experimental like SFA, Gorky's or Ectogram, but excellent nonetheless - think a Welsh Kings of Convenience. Not sure why they're called 'Twig' though…

Here's a couple of fairly straightforward acoustic bits.

The floodgates open

It's A-levels results day - and so for us at The Hegemon, it's Clearing day, when we scoop up all those unfortunate enough to have missed their predicted grades. This year, Zoot Horn is slaving over a hot phone - though it may be a quieter year than most as our numbers have been cut despite a massive upsurge of applicants.

The results show another rise in pass rates - up to 97.6, with more achieving higher grades, not that they'll be coming here. The newspapers, as predicted, will spend today and tomorrow printing pictures of posh teenage girls, while the comment pages will be filled with 'it's so dumbed-down, A-levels meant something in my day' pieces by upper-middle class privately educated people.

Frankly, I've no idea whether A-levels are easier or harder. I do know that they aren't very good preparation for university though - because teachers are having to produe statistical marvels, schools are teaching to the test, and so produce students utterly dependent on skeleton essays, model answers and the like: independent thinking and in many cases learning for pleasure are marginalised. The result is that quite a lot of people starting university aren't enthusiastic about the subject or equipped for the (theoretically) independent task of educating themselves. Instead, too many are dependent on lectures and reluctant to take risks, which is a shame. The hardest task for teachers of first-year students (sorry, now Level 4 for some reason) is to communicate a sense of the fun and wonder available for those who wander off the beaten track.

Anyway. Time for a flashback to Clearing Day 1993. I'm at home, staring at my A-levels results. I'm not exactly overjoyed, but not too surprised either. The family isn't too shocked, but that's because my headmaster and I agreed on just one thing: that I was rubbish and wouldn't do very well. I found this out when I was interviewed by a very kind man at Derby University. After a long chat about books lubricated by the gin and tonic my aunt had fed me at lunch beforehand, he said to me 'Well, we'll definitely offer you a place but I'm sure you'll get better grades than your head claims, and go somewhere else, and you're nothing like he says'. Emboldened, I asked what else the august clergyman had written: he'd basically claimed that I was a troublemaker who didn't deserve a place at any university. He was a notorious bully and I made a point of redoubling my efforts to annoy him for the rest of my time there. He's dead now, so I win.

So, it was back to school, where my teachers (a brilliant trio fo eccentrics) wrote to all the places to which I'd applied with an alternative reference. Then it was all down to me. Which is where the plan hit a slight snag, because basically I was a dumb-ass at this point, and a dumb-ass doing the wrong A-levels. English was fine - all I ever wanted to do was read books and talk about them, so that wasn't a problem.

French would be OK too. I'd taken it because at GCSE level, I was predicted a fail, so as a joke, I said 'If I get an A, I'll do it for A-level'. As intended, my teacher and the rest of the class fell about laughing. They weren't laughing when the A duly arrived. A-level French was brilliant - odd books, great films, good food and talk from my 60s survivor teacher. Unfortunately, I have a talent for self-destruction, and misunderstood the exam paper and dropped an entire grade by answering two questions from the same section rather than one from each. Like I say, dumb-ass.

The real problem was Latin. I'd transferred to this school fairly late, and parental interfering meant that I took Latin without any enthusiasm or knowledge. The teacher was a nice man, but didn't actually bother doing any, well, teaching. So I learned literally nothing: revision consisted of me trying to memorise the English translation and the first and last words of each paragraph in Latin in the hope that I could churn it out. Needless to say, it didn't work. Nor did my repeated attempts to tell people that I didn't know any Latin and really needed help.

So along came results day, and the scores were as I'd expected. A in English, no A in French thanks to my own stupidity, and an embarrassing Latin grade, upgraded on appeal to a merely 'awful'. There was a silver lining, however. The school and parents had insisted that I apply to a lot of places I didn't want to attend: Cambridge, Durham, St. Andrews: the first two had already thankfully told me to piss off, and I'd missed the grades for St. Andrews, which was and is a finishing school for the Conservative Party's young fogey golf-playing children.

I had one ace up my sleeve: I'd scraped through an audition for Trinity College Dublin's Drama and Theatre course, but for various complicated reasons that didn't come off either. So Clearing Day saw me sitting by the phone wondering what grades were needed for turf-cutting or postal worker. Then a softly spoken Scotsman called, from Bangor University. We discussed why I'd arsed things up so badly, chatted about books for a few minutes and the call ended with me assured of a place and full of affection for the Kindest Man In The World. Now all I had to do was work out where Bangor was.

Bangor suited me perfectly: the best of friends, a great quality of education, mountains, sea, a thriving students union, the best record shop ever, plenty of trouble to get involved in and everything worked out brilliantly, unless you blame them for my present location…

Clearing might be the making of you - a new path, unplanned and unexpected, leading to wonderful things.