Friday, 30 December 2011

Poor old Manchester

I took a solitary trip to Manchester today, primarily to visit the People's History Museum's political posters exhibition. I'll post some of the pictures I took on my proper camera when I get back to the Hegemon, but for now, here's a sign I snapped on the way to Salford: I don't think much commentary is needed:

The murder in the library

I'm guessing that most of you don't watch New Tricks, the BBC's apparently lame comedy-drama set in a police office staffed by weird old retirees chasing cold cases. It's got Dennis Waterman in it, for a start.

But one of the fun things about popular culture is the way it can very quickly deal with pressing social issues without lecturing people. The most popular example was Melrose Place: unknown to the directors, the art producer was sneaking naughty references into the scenes via the scenery: a watercolour of the Manson murder house, a postal worker's satchel with a fabric ammunition clip sewn underneath ('going postal', get it?), and a duvet cover printed with the chemical formula for the morning-after pill.

This episode of New Tricks is called 'It Smells of Books', which is why I started watching it. The opening scene was of a slightly autistic ex-cop becoming rather upset by the students using their mobile phones, children singing, teens using iPods… all in the library. The show then moves on to investigate the murder of an academic frozen out of an ex-polytechnic university as his department is closed down by a business-school, money-obsessed, jargon-spouting Vice-Chancellor named Jeremy Ventham, suspiciously similar to Jeremy Bentham, inspiration for University College London, famous philosopher and who is still mummified in a public display case. There's lots of plagiarism, suspicion, autistic-academic jealousy, bad essays and all the other aspects of my life. It's very obvious why so many academics write campus novels: all human life is there.

OK, the dead man who spoke up for humanist values turns out to be a book thief (the plot revolves around a stolen book by Henri Duhamel), but the satire is broad and all the better for it: humanism killed by business-oriented ideology. This show's worth 20 demonstrations, and it's a welcome return to the 1970s, when committed lefty television makers inserted political points at every opportunity: even Dr Who!

Very satisfyingly, the humanist academic's murderer turns out to be the evil Vice-Chancellor. Let's hope my new VC (whom I'm told is an avid reader of Plashing Vole) isn't taking notes

Well worth looking up on iPlayer.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Catholicism Rocks!

One of the joys of belonging to an ultramontane Catholic family is the multiple opportunities to attend religious services at times when sensible citizens are wondering whether there's 'time for one more' or gazing lovingly at a kebab. My mother managed to attend 3 Masses this time: a 9 p.m. ersatz midnight Mass, an actual midnight Mass, and a morning one, presumably in case she'd sleepwalked her way into mortal sin overnight.

For the sake of family harmony, I accompanied her to the proper Midnight Mass, secure in the knowledge that a web-equipped mobile device named after a fruit would enhance the experience considerably. Twitter and a variety of news sources provided an enhanced reality which far outweighed the entertainment on offer in meatspace.

Or so I thought… Having previously only attended Mass in remote rural locations, I wasn't prepared for the festive spirit of urban Catholics. I knew something was afoot when a gentleman who'd started his celebrations early shouted 'I want a word with you, Father', during the sermon. To be fair, I've often wanted to say the same thing, particularly when the subjects have been contraception, Israel/Palestine and a variety of other hot-button issues. The heckler was escorted out by a pillar of the community: but that wasn't the only excitement of the evening. The next addition to the liturgy was a pair of young ladies resplendent in 'Sexy Santa' dresses and hairpieces bearing Christmas illuminations. They giggled their way through most of the sermon (clearly drink had been taken, because the jokes were sorely undercooked) before they too were gently encouraged to sling their irreverent hooks. Rather a shame…

Finally, I spotted a chap whose condition was swinging rapidly between stupefied and somnolent. Sure enough, within a few minutes he'd dozed off, snored loudly, before doing a classic sideways pratfall from the pew to the bench. Up got the gentleman ushers once more, visibly weary with their new careers in ecclesiastical security.

Still, it's not always the congregation. Peace, love and harmony were noticeably absent from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem:

Goodwill to all men!

Girls Allowed?

One of my best students of recent years wrote her dissertation on female gamers. Before that, I'd assumed that most gamers were relaxed, liberal and male. Turns out that the male bit was largely right, and the rest entirely wrong. Reading her data, I realised that to use a female (or black, or homosexual) avatar was to invite a constant stream of misogynist, racist or homophobic abuse. Interestingly, it didn't seem to matter what kind of game it was. I thought the more reactionary the game, the worse the gamer, but no: every kind of game harboured thousands of people who believed that two XX chromosomes meant that you were desperate to hear their uninformed opinions on a) your gameplay b) your intelligence c) your assumed appearance and d) your sexual habits. Apart from my readers, it appears that everyone on the internet is vile.

Coincidentally enough, I've just finished reading Cline's Ready Player One, a very good read in which online and offline sexual identities are at variance, partly for the same reasons as people take on new identities now.

Here's a rather good video from some displeased gamers:

Friday, 23 December 2011

What you won't see on ITV

Tim Minchin was asked to write a song about Jesus for the Jonathan Ross show on ITV. It's mildly amusing, and therefore the best thing on any Jonathan Ross show.

Or it would have been if the ITV Director Peter Fincham hadn't had thrown all his toys out of the pram and cut the song from the show. Which means a) he's a coward and b) viewers will be faced with Jonathan Ross grovelling to Tom Cruise, and nobody wants that, surely?

I couldn't deprive you of such a treat.

Let there be light…

This is where I'm sending cash this Christmas. It's simple, cheap, environmentally friendly and transformative. It helps people read more, and that's important. Donate here. Each one costs $2, less than a decent Christmas card.

Warming the cockles

Proving that genocide is the key to a good Christmas, here's something I spotted in Waterstone's a few days ago:

Waterstone's appears to have a thing about the Nazis: according to the Guardian, some branches have been recommending Mein Kampf as a 'festive' read.

Jingle all the way

Hello all. I'm back in the office and the place has all the joie de vivre of the Marie Celeste, though I did bump into two friends in the canteen. They were discussing the awful situation of children seeking adoption: very few get adopted, and the proportion of adult prisoners who've been what's ironically called 'in care' is obscene: estimated at between a quarter and a half of all prisoners. 6% of children in care get 5 A-C GCSEs. A massive social failure which should revolt us all.

On the other hand, I've come up with a solution directly derived from our current cultural and political context. The dominant discourses are 'choice' and 'competition': education, schools (yes, they're a separate category but that's a whole other rant), hospitals, trains… why not adoption? Every single TV show going, from dancing to cooking, has had an unpleasant competition element added, as though it's not enough for people to simply do things well, and 'celebrity' has poisoned everything.

So welcome to The Oliver Factor, in which shiny scrubbed orphans compete in front of prospective parents and a celebrity panel (Louise Mensch, Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan, Gary Glitter, Lord Leveson and David Mitchell). They'll demonstrate their crayon drawing skills, we'll follow their 'journey' as they take Suzuki Method violin lessons, shin up chimneys and learn to cook gourmet gruel under the tutelage of Heston Blumenthal and Nigella ('more licking, Waynetta'). The judges will develop proprietary catchphrases ('You're going home… sorry, you're going back to the home') and we'll follow the heartbreaking story of the doomed-but-hopeful entrants: 'Harold has a big personality and lots of love… but he picks his nose and can't get the polenta quite right for his new parents'. There will be suspicions about some children not actually being orphans but Simon Cowell's Oompa-Loompas. Pastoral care, music and acting masterclasses will be delivered by Madonna and Angelina Jolie.

You think I'm joking, but ITV4 researchers are making calls right now. Apparently Jordan and Melvyn Bragg are already on board.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

We apologise for the interruption

I'm off to my mother's for mince pies and to mime hypocritically to some carols. Then I'm having tomorrow off to visit an old friend from university. This will involve C2H5OH in various suspensions being applied to my GABA receptors until festive cheer emerges.

It's what she would have wanted…

Thatcher's death is (hopefully) nigh, though I've been saying that for years. For some reason, the government wants to give her a state funeral - the last non-royal to get one was Winston Churchill, and I don't think grabbing the Falklands back from the people you stole it from in the first place is quite up there with liberating Europe.

So there's a petition to the government:

Thatcher state funeral to be privatised
Responsible department: Cabinet Office
In keeping with the great lady's legacy, Margaret Thatcher's state funeral should be funded and managed by the private sector to offer the best value and choice for end users and other stakeholders. The undersigned believe that the legacy of the former PM deserves nothing less and that offering this unique opportunity is an ideal way to cut government expense and further prove the merits of liberalised economics Baroness Thatcher spearheaded.

I would suggest that the lowest bidder wins the gig, in keeping with school food provision and other formerly-public services. I volunteer to do it for free. All I'd need is a wheelbarrow and directions to the nearest closed coal pit.

Sign it now.

The Weird Questionnaire

Here's a French cultural parlour game designed to awaken your creative skills. Take the questions from here, post your responses and leave a link in the comments (or tweet me @plashingvole). I'm not sure it tells you that much about me: the problem of being a fully postmodern literature academic is that there's nothing spontaneous or innocent about anything we do: we're fully aware that everything is a second-order simulation, a quotation, a performance. Still, it's a bit of fun.

1 – Write the first sentence of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
It was teatime in the graveyard and an anticipatory flutter ran through the assembled animals.
2 – Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
2.02 p.m.
3 – Look at your watch. What time is it?
1.59 p.m.
4 – How do you explain this — or these — discrepancy(ies) in time?
I have little concept of time.
5 – Do you believe in meteorological predictions?
To an extent.
6 – Do you believe in astrological predictions?
7 – Do you gaze at the sky and stars by night?
All I see in the sky from my flat is the police helicopter and a ghastly orange glow.
8 – What do you think of the sky and stars by night?
Astronomy is a faith-based activity in this city.
9 – What were you looking at before starting this questionnaire?
BoingBoing. I should have been marking.
10 – What do cathedrals, churches, mosques, shrines, synagogues, and other religious monuments inspire in you?
Architectural admiration.
11 – What would you have “seen” had you been blind?
12 – What would you want to see if you were blind?
13 – Are you afraid?
14 – What of?
15 – What is the last weird film you’ve seen?
Jack Frost.
16 – Whom are you afraid of?
Newt Gingrich
17 – Have you ever been lost?
18 – Do you believe in ghosts?
19 – What is a ghost?
An explanation without investigation.
20 – At this very moment, what sound(s) can you hear, apart from the computer?
21 – What is the most terrifying sound you’ve ever heard – for example, “the night was like the cry of a wolf”?
Air-raid sirens while emerging from sleep, before the end of the Cold War.
22 – Have you done something weird today or in the last few days?
Define your terms.
23 – Have you ever been to confession?
24 – You’re at confession, so confess the unspeakable.
I genuinely like this song.
25 –Without cheating: what is a “cabinet of curiosities”?
An early museum exhibition.
26 –Do you believe in redemption?
Depends on whether you're speaking transcendentally or personally. Yes if the latter.
27 – Have you dreamed tonight?
28 – Do you remember your dreams?
29 – What was your last dream?
Mixed up with a Radio 4 discussion of Jamaican patois, I was visiting a school with colleagues.
30 – What does fog make you think of?
The Hound of the Baskervilles.
31 – Do you believe in animals that don’t exist?
Yes: extinct ones.
32 – What do you see on the walls of the room where you are?
My photographs, Stoke City poster, Tom Gauld prints, Communist memorabilia, Angela Davis poster, grammar posters, Tree of Literature posters in Danish, John Peel postcard, Dickens quote, Shakespeare badge, political postcards, Steve Bell and XKCD strips.
33 – If you became a magician, what would be the first thing you’d do?
Re-order my books without physical effort.
34 – What is a madman?
Society's current category for those consigned to mental institutions.
35 – Are you mad?
Angry? Unhinged? Definition unclear. I'd be the last to know, anyway.
36 – Do you believe in the existence of secret societies?
There may be some, but they're self-indulgent. The real plots are open: such as neoliberalism.
37 – What was the last weird book you read?
38 – Would you like to live in a castle?
That depends on which rooms and its condition.
39 – Have you seen something weird today?
40 – What is the weirdest film you’ve ever seen?
41 – Would you like to live in an abandoned train station?
If converted nicely, yes.
42 – Can you see the future?
Only fragments of a second ahead.
43 – Have you considered living abroad?
44 – Where?
The Faroe Islands.
45 – Why?
Like me, they're cold and remote.
46 – What is the weirdest film you’ve ever owned?
47 – Would you liked to have lived in a vicarage?
Not with a vicar. Otherwise, it depends on the architecture.
48 – What is the weirdest book you’ve ever read?
Hard to say. Gravity's Rainbow is disorienting. So's Albert Angelo, and The Erasers.
49 – Which do you like better, globes or hourglasses?
50 – Which do you like better, antique magnifying glasses or bladed weapons?
Bladed weapons: I am a fencer.
51 – What, in all likelihood, lies in the depths of Loch Ness?
Rusty Irn Bru cans.
52 – Do you like taxidermied animals?
53 – Do you like walking in the rain?
54 – What goes on in tunnels?
55 – What do you look at when you look away from this questionnaire?
Academic books about Anne of Green Gables.
56 – What does this famous line inspire in you: “And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.”?
57 – Without cheating: where is that famous line from?
No idea. Though I've looked it up now.
58 – Do you like walking in graveyards or the woods by night?
58 – Write the last line of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
Using one tentacle to pull down the blind, Alan finally turned his attention to the girl.
59 – Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
60 – Look at your watch. What time is it?

That was fun. Wonder if I still have any friends. Go here to see an actual, brilliant writer take the test.

Towards the Promised Land

A parliamentary report confirms what Private Eye, the Guardian and UK Uncut supporters have long known to be true: that voluntary taxpaying isn't confined to Greece and Italy. Over here, the more you owe, the less you pay.

What's really shocking about the latest report is the simplicity of this particular scam. In Shaxson's Treasure Islands, the vast panoply of tax-evasion scams is laid bare: companies acquiring 'debts' to other companies in the same group but based offshore so that all the profits magically become losses, or every banana in the world being virtually shipped to one tiny tax-free island, and myriad other schemes.

But that's too complicated. Vodafone and Goldman Sachs found a much better system.
1. Refuse to pay your tax.
2. Make it very clear that you have more and better lawyers than the government.
3. Wine and dine officers of the Revenue and Customs service ('Don't cheat: eat'). They will soon be your friends. And eventually your employees.
4. Accept the head of HMRC's illegal offer of a tiny settlement with a handshake. (Vodafone owed £6bn and paid £1.25 bn). Don't worry about oversight: Dave Hartnett both shakes hands and is the authorising officer, very conveniently. And when that pesky parliament pokes its nose in, HMRC will insist on 'commercial confidentiality'.

Why break the law when you can own the government, whichever party's nominally in charge?

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Woody Guthrie's New Year Resolutions

Woody Guthrie's one of my favourite musicians of all time: a travelling lefty tunesmith, an inspiration to Bob Dylan, and a slightly shambolic figure.

In his New Year resolutions, he mixes the personal with the political in a very charming fashion. Personal hygiene and working harder take up most of the first 15 resolutions (No. 3: WASH TEETH IF ANY), while beating the Nazis comes in at 27 (HELP WITH WAR - BEAT FASCISM). Other resolutions are more whimsical: 19: DREAM GOOD and 20: KEEP HOPING MACHINE RUNNING.

My resolutions are quite simple: get less fat; be a little more tolerant (where deserved), publish some papers. 

Fragments stored against my ruin…

I passed a happy lunch hour chatting to senior colleagues about books, plays and our previous discussion about the place of intellectuals in public life (join in here). We talked about what we do with books after we've read them. I must confess to never giving away books, even ones I haven't enjoyed and don't plan to re-read. Partly that's because I'm a grasping, selfish hoarder, but it's not the only reason. The main reason is because I'm fully on-board with the claim that there's no stable, true self. That we pretend to ourselves that there's a 'real' me as a psychological defence.

It follows then that I shouldn't be allowed to take decisions on behalf of my future selves. The clothes I wear, the food I eat and the books I read are contingent on my current condition. It's true for you too: look at a photograph of yourself from 5 years ago and explain why you've changed your hair style. Food's a problem too: I can - and do - stuff my face with curry now, and the effects will be felt in a few years' time. It's like putting obesity in a time machine.

But that's all by the way. With books, I know that the ones I enjoy now won't necessarily be the ones I appreciate in a few years' time. Similarly, texts I can't stand now may mean a lot to me when I'm in a different situation: older, hopefully wiser, more experienced. When I was a teen, I hated Dickens. I tried again in my twenties and really appreciated Hard Times. In my thirties, I grew to understand Great Expectations. At the rate of one book a decade, I'll only have to live to 340 to be a genuine fan. Other authors' works have fallen by the wayside: I was such a fan of Tolkien that I joined the fan club in my mid-teens. Now I'm horrified. The same goes for Robert Heinlein. So I try to be a bit clever: like a squirrel storing nuts for winter, I think about reading material for future decades.

So the books I buy aren't for contemporary-me. They're presents for future-me. He may not have any money for books. He may not want these ones, or he may really appreciate them. I just hope he hasn't gone blind… He's me, with evolved tastes, hopefully derived from all these gifts. In a sense, I'm imprisoning him in my current tastes: surrounded by my things, he'll have to conform - and therefore be understood by himself and others as a continuance of past-me, which is current-me (for further elucidation, consult Back to the Future). Future-Vole is in many ways a much more intellectual and interesting person than Current-Vole. He reads 'classics' and learned works covering a wide range of subjects. Future-me is an erudite polymath: he's the idealised version of me. Now-Vole is a lazy man who consumes books for instant gratification. When the post comes, the fun books are read immediately. The 'improving' books are carefully stored in piles for Future-Vole. Carefully-visible piles, that is. I benefit from his eventual erudition by gaining respect from friends and colleagues when they poke through my shelves. I never let on that they're not for Now-Me, or even Near-Future me. 

I have friends who seem to live solely on the literary equivalent of foie gras, or wheatgrass smoothies, whereas I snack constantly on the paper equivalent of kebabs and pork scratchings. I know it'll make me bloated and static, but that's for Future-Me to worry about. Do you ever suffer from book insecurity? Anyone who comes to my flat inspects my 322 feet of books, and probably comes away thinking I'm a lazy middlebrow dumbass. The poetry shelves are tucked away in the bedroom, the critical theory is mostly at work, and what's on view is a mish-mash of SF, politics and random stuff. Then I remember that literary fiction is just one more (dying) genre, and that the Canon is dead. But it's not too convincing.

Here's a good bit from The Tempest:

There thou mayst brain him,
Having first seized his books; or with a log
Batter his skull; or paunch him with a stake;
Or cut his weasand with thy knife. Remember
First to possess his books, for without them
He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command. They all do hate him
As rootedly as I. Burn but his books.
He has brave utensils—for so he calls them—
Which when he has a house, he’ll deck withal.

Atlantis: an excess of fantasy

“It was an excess of fantasy that killed the old United States, the whole Mickey Mouse and Marilyn thing, the most brilliant technologies devoted to trivia like instant cameras and space spectaculars that should have stayed in the pages of Science Fiction . . . some of the last Presidents of the U.S.A. seemed to have been recruited straight from Disneyland.” 

J. G. Ballard, Hello America

If you click here, you can see the last images of the space shuttle Atlantis with the cockpit powered up. It's a fascinating, and elegiac, series. Despite our technological fantasies, Atlantis is an analogue machine: bakelite switches and dials with jury-rigged laptops squeezed in here and there. It's a 1970s vision of the future, from a time when - despite the looming nuclear war - people could assume that The Future was A Good Thing. In retrospect, they were wrong. The shuttle (the name declares its lack of ambition, while promising cheap frequent trips which never materialised) was a horribly contrived bundle of compromises. Manned space exploration is a militarist fantasy and a distraction. We're not going to the stars, so let's fix this planet before wrecking others. 

And yet… to escape the atmosphere at huge personal risk, whatever the motivation, remains noble, even admirable. That those days are over is both sensible and terribly, terribly sad. Trapped on this planet with only Jeremy Clarkson for company… what a terrible fate to befall humanity. 

Monday, 19 December 2011

Santa's been

I've done almost all my Christmas shopping. What a painful and expensive experience. My siblings all have partners (!) and I haven't managed to shake off my 'friends' yet… I've tried to be creative with some, by printing and framing some of my photographs, but it's not suitable for everybody.

However, I've found time to buy myself a few things. Today's post brought a decent recording of Victoria's 1605 Requiem Mass by Tenebrae, Simon Armitage's translation of The Alliterative Morte Arthure; two 'Graphic Guides' for teaching use (Foucault and Derrida), and a very curious novel. It's Mary Kelly's The Spoilt Kill, a CWA 'Golden Dagger' winning murder mystery set in the pottery factories of Stoke-on-Trent. It's been revived as a Virago Modern Classic, but my copy is an American first edition from 1961, which has been circulated through the Boston Public Library system, mostly on the Bookmobile. Perhaps it's the insatiable demand for crime novels, but it's rather sweet to imagine Americans settling down for a good read about Stoke and its surrounding areas.

How she could write a murder novel in a pottery and not call it A Spoilt Kiln is beyond me. In a similar vein, the sadly defunct Stoke City fanzine was A View To A Kiln, which has to be one of the best names ever.

Here's a snippet of the heartbreaking Requiem.

Pure admiration

I've a certain sneaking regard for David Cameron's sheer effrontery. It takes a special kind of person to brazenly come up with things like his 'Christianity Rules OK' speech at the weekend, while not acknowledging a) all the incredibly bloody bits and b) that his own principles clash in almost every regard with those of Jesus. For me, as a Catholic Atheist, Jesus is a cheery lefty: likes a glass of wine, thinks we should all get along. For the Tories, he apparently commands halving benefits to disabled children, being rude to Germans and waving nuclear weapons at people. I guess we're all selective readers…

This is Martin Rowson's reaction to the Cameron speech. It reminds me of the 1980 US Presidential election, in which Reagan won the religious vote, despite never darkening the door of a church if he could avoid it, while his opponent Jimmy Carter was a practising Baptist pastor. Reagan knew - as does Cameron - that seeming religish played better than actually being religious. Cameron knows that the Daily Mail's readers want to imagine a land of church bells and village fetes, and so he conjures up this Betjemanesque image while taking cash from the usual bigots and hypocrites, such as Stephen Green: chairman of HSBC Bank and an ordained minister… Where to start with that one?

Lookalike Monday: Soccer Special 2

One is a fearsome beast who prowls the trackless thickets but doesn't scare anyone really. The other is a fictional monster.

Lookalikes Monday: Football Special

He's the grim-faced, inscrutable leader of a dwindling tribe dedicated to a dead-end goal amidst an inhospitable, ruined wasteland.

No no, not the Easter Island statues. 

Steve Kean, hapless Blackburn Rovers manager

or at Ben's suggestion, Mick McCarthy:

Friday, 16 December 2011

Uppal's Christmas Message

Dear me, what a complacent man the Secretive Millionaire and occasional MP Paul Uppal is.
Looking back on the year I believe that as a country and as a city we have much to be proud of and be thankful for.
Ah yes. What records have we broken?
  • Highest unemployment since 1996, when the Tories were last in government. Perhaps they're not evil after all, just really nostalgic.
  • As a city, we're proudly on top of one league table… most empty shops, with a magnificent 28%.
  • True, a Land Rover factory is coming. But not thanks to Uppal's free market principles: they've descended like vultures on government subsidy. 
  • We had a bit of a riot, but it was only a token effort. 
  • Student fees tripled. 
  • Environment abandoned. 
  • Planning laws ripped up to suit property developers. Wait a minute. That's what he's 'thankful for'. I'd almost forgotten that when he's not slaving away for his constituents (ho ho ho), Mr Uppal is a property developer
  • Isolated and a laughing stock in Europe. 
  • The few workers' protections remaining now threatened.
  • Inflation at 5%. Workers' pay rises between 0 and 2%  = effective pay cut. 
  • FTSE bosses' pay up 49% to £2.3m average
  • Pensions slashed. 
  • Tory newspapers revealed to be industrially criminal: Prime Minister's spokesman arrested for his part.
  • Tory economics cause global Depression (and I don't mean just emotionally).
  • Public services slashed. Deficit actually going up. Poorest, sickest and youngest paying for the cuts. 

If Uppal's pleased with this year, Christ knows what he's planning for 2012. The horsemen of the Apocalypse?

But he does have more to say and it's both pompous and sanctimonious:
We should use this period as we meet with friends and family over the Christmas to reflect and think about those who may not be as fortunate as we are both home and abroad, and what we are able to do to help them.
1. It's 'meet', not 'meet with'.
2. For multimillionaire speculators like him, we're all unfortunate.
3. Maybe I'm wrong, but arming dictators abroad, slashing public services at home, abandoning students and dismissing the concept of education as a public good and halving the benefits paid to disabled children don't really strike me as 'helping'.
4. There's no such thing as 'unfortunate' people who need charity. We are what we are for specific reasons. Some people are poor because capitalism shovels the cash into the pockets of 'socially useless' speculators like Mr Uppal, and because the rest of us are too lazy or selfish to redistribute. Millions of people have malaria because pharmaceutical companies prefer to spend their money researching remedies for rich mens' 'diseases', coming up with Viagra rather than vaccines. The environment is a poisoned mess because we demand cheap food. Etc.

Actually, I'm getting quite angry about this. His smug little homily doesn't mention or even hint at awareness that the country and a large swathe of its citizens are in serious trouble. We're getting poorer. Our jobs are on the line. Our hospitals and schools are being sold off, downgraded and removed from democratic control so that his friends can enrich themselves even further. His banking friends are avoiding their taxes and Cameron's helping them, while abandoning us to the miseries of unregulated capitalism. What do the Tories do? Uppal lobbies for tax breaks for people like him (without ever declaring an interest) and his neighbouring Tory MP pays for stag nights where his friends dress up as the SS and sing songs praising Hitler. They just don't get it.

'Merry Christmas'? Not from where I'm sitting. Fuck you Uppal. Seriously, you complacent turd.

I don't think Mr. Uppal thinks in terms of citizens. There's his family, his friends and his party. The rest of us are simply undifferentiated Bob Cratchits to be sanctimonious about. Unfortunately, this hypocritical humbug, unlike Mr. Scrooge, isn't likely to be converted.

Switch that light out!

I'm the annoying guy who - like my mother when we were kids, damn it - wanders around the building switching off lights and projectors in empty rooms.

So I approve of this message:

Light from Sunday Paper on Vimeo.

The most open of goals

"I'm a serious candidate for president of the United States and my facts are accurate"
said Michele Bachmann.

Oh yeah?
Well what I want them to know is just like, John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa. That's the kind of spirit that I have'.
Er… John Wayne Gacy was from Waterloo, Iowa. Gacy the serial killer, that is.
I will tell you that I had a mother… come up to me. She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter.
Top quality research methodology.
There isn't even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas.
Um… there are plenty. If she put a plastic bag over her head and breathed in and out, she'd soon realise.
…the very founders that wrote those documents [the US Constitution] worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States… I think it is high time that we recognise the contribution of our forebearers… men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country.
OK then.
1. Forebearers isn't a word.
2. The Founding Fathers were mostly slave-owners. 
3. Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in 1865 with the 13th Amendment. The Founding Fathers were long dead.
4. John Quincy Adams 1767-1848 wasn't a Founder. If he didn't rest until Abolition, he must have been spinning in his grave for 17 years. He did detest slavery though, so Bachmann clearly is a serious candidate for the Presidency. Well done, Michele.

Friday conundrum: where are the public intellectuals?

I had lunch with my associate dean yesterday, always a good way to distract myself from the miserable soup and salad combination. We got on to the subject of public intellectuals, and whether there are or could be such things ever again. In the Victorian period, there were people like John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, essayists who were genuinely popular in the sense that a seriously large proportion of the population would have heard of them. I'd include Parnell in Ireland, and Newman across the Isles. Carpenter and the Webbs were probably too obscure, though I think George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells would have counted. Harold Laski and Gwyn Thomas were mid-century examples of this breed.

We moved on to the intellectual culture of the political parties. It's hard to believe now our politicians are ex-PR men and little more than ugly celebrities, but from the 40s to the 60s, UK political parties were stuffed with actual intellectuals, particularly the Labour Party. Harold Wilson was a former Oxford don, and he surrounded himself with similar people: Crosland, Crossman, Gaitskell (another party leader who died young), Taverne were all serious thinkers. Not that this made them pleasant or politically right, of course (largely too rightwing for my tastes), but there was a sense that public culture was and should be directed by philosophy and ideology. Now, intelligence is seen as a weakness: witness Cameron's witless bullying in the House of Commons and the general tactical opportunism of our politics and media's 'gotcha' obsession, or the unappetising sight of John Kerry being attacked during his Presidential campaign for 'looking French' (because he speaks it), let alone the Republican Party's absolute rejection of any candidate who thinks listening to scientists might be a good idea, and the candidates' rush to ingratiate themselves with the descendants of the Know-Nothings and Ham-and-Eggs populists at the expense of judgement, intelligence and moral authority. These people are 'pointy-heads' and Poindexters now.

What's striking about many of these people is how odd, spiky and complicated they were. Virtually none of them would get through the selection process of a major political party in the modern period. They often held contradictory or ambiguous views. They were independently-minded in a way that's entirely unacceptable in the 'managed democracy' of current parties. They led 'complicated' private lives (H. G. Wells reputedly had the biggest generative organ in literature, and was keen to exercise it). These people would have been horrified at the notion of being 'on-message'. They were also polymathic: the politicians weren't simply policy wonks: they knew about science, art, literature, abroad… and there were outlets for it. Scholars, literary critics, artists and others were frequent guests on shows such as The Brains Trust. On that show, intelligent people were asked to spontaneously answer wide-ranging questions from members of the public. It wasn't always clear in advance what the answer would be. In contrast, if you gave me a list of the guests on Question Time and a list of the questions, I could write down what their responses would be, in advance. Every politician comes armed with a list of put-downs and soundbites from which they won't be deflected. The businessman will talk about 'flexible employment' and 'market efficiency'. The union leader will promise a weak radicalism. Melanie Philips will connect environmentalism with antisemitism. They all go through the motions.

Then, intelligent people were expected to know about a range of subjects and became well-known by speaking about them. Now, unintelligent celebrities' opinions on subjects of which they know nothing are lauded for the dullest clanger. Knowing things is now suspicious and patronising - desperately sad if, like me, you mourn the passing of independent working-class auto didacticism, the Plebs League, the Central Labour College, the WEA and the various other institutes dedicated to refuting the association of culture with a narrow bourgeoisie.

Witness this magnificent encounter between Will Self, someone I would class as a public intellectual because a) he's an intellectual and b) he's an excellent and enthusiastic communicator, and one of the weakest Labour politicians we've ever had.

Who else counts as a modern public intellectual? It's hard in the multichannel era: people became well-known earlier because there were 1-2 TV channels, 3-4 radio stations, whereas now we have greater opportunities to watch what we're familiar with rather than share limited media outlets with the whole population.

My suggestions, with thanks to Twitter contributors:
Will Self.
Zizek to a limited extent: he's a cult figure.
Jonathan Meades: one of the few people who takes television seriously as an intellectual medium
Adam Curtis
Germaine Greer
Gore Vidal
Al Gore (perhaps)
Barack Obama
Richard Dawkins
Ben Goldacre
PZ Myers
Marina Warner
Naomi Klein
Paul Mason
Linda Colley
Noam Chomsky
Lisa Jardine
Mary Beard
Helena Kennedy
Shami Chakrabarti
Polly Toynbee
Caryl Churchill
Peter Tatchell
Shirley Williams
Alan Moore
Fintan O'Toole
Stewart Lee
Rowan Williams

I notice this is an overwhelmingly white/heterosexual/anglocentric list, which certainly displays my ignorance and my cultural position (lazy fat white straight Irish lefty humanities academic), but also the structural bias of our public cultures. Other people are marginalised. I'd love to add Angela Davis to this list, for instance: the militant, intelligent voice of the 60s, but as a teacher, now marginalised. Similarly Elaine Showalter: huge in the field, unknown outside. Perhaps Vidal shouldn't be on the list either: the sarcastic court jester of Kennedy's Camelot is far too spiky and unpredictable to attract much media attention because he doesn't fit into a simple oppositional talking-heads frame. In fact lots of these people fill the newspapers I read and appear frequently on the radio stations I listen to, but make little or no impact on the wider public. There are lots more people I'd add because they're intellectuals, but can't because the public space isn't available to them: virtually none of those I've listed would be identified in a police line-up by the great British public, whereas Vernon Kay, Jordan and Stephen Fry are instantly recognisable.

On the other hand: my overly-nostalgic list of former public intellectuals is also deeply heterogenous. The intellectuals virtually all attended the same universities, were all male and what we'd call Establishment, even the radical ones. In an age when universities were open to 1-2% of the population, who populated the airwaves, newspapers and political sphere, only the arts were available to truly dangerous voice: witness poor Turing's fate.

Where are the new public intellectuals going to come from? They're on the net. They're on Twitter. The question is whether it's still possible to move from the narrowcast structure of these media to serious public attention: getting quoted on Radio 1, papped on the streets, declining a judge's chair on X-Factor and being slagged off in the Mail and hacked by the Sun.

However, maybe I'm displaying my reactionary qualities by even asking the question. Aren't we in the era of the aggregate Cloud, where the intellectual is content to contribute to a Wikipedia page without attribution or credit? Who needs leaders? We've got Sub-commandante Marcos, Anonymous and LULZSEC.

Add your suggestions to the list. Or challenge my assumptions. I've marking to do.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

SOPA Opera

Imagine this scenario. You go to a library and borrow a book, and let your friends read it before you give it back. But you and your friends should have bought it, rather than free-load. The book is taken from you, the library is closed. Nobody reads any more, or is inspired to write their own work.

Over in that America, a bunch of ageing multimillionaires, under the influence of corporate lobbyists, is about to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act, which will do exactly that, online.

Under its proposals, copyright holders could apply to the courts to block any website carrying copyrighted material, and prevent online payments to any such host. There are justifications for such a move: I'd like musicians, actors and other creative people to be paid for their work. But from the bits of research I've seen, active illegal downloaders are also likely to buy more films and music than non-downloaders. Musicians know this: that's why every website has a few Youtube clips.  People try a few tracks, then buy some. Or they watch a few minutes of a pirate movie and then go to the cinema to see it on a big screen.

However, this law will extend American authority over pretty much the entire online world. Many of the world's websites are hosted in the US, and virtually all of them are visible in the United States. Regardless of where a server is, this allows the US courts to apply American copyright laws throughout the world. Any US service (Google, PayPal, ISPs) would be compelled to block access to these sites by Americans. This is a huge infringement on free speech. Imagine a site like 4Chan or BoingBoing: one person posts a clip, a court order is secured, and access to their entire, multi-authored magazine-style site is forbidden.

Furthermore, copyright is not always clear: witness recent examples of major Hollywood TV companies suing Youtube for copyright infringement while other departments of the same companies are uploading leaked clips for promotional purposes. Fair use is another problem: if I quote one of the excellent (or not so excellent) novels I've recently read in the course of a critique, will Plashing Vole be closed down? One of my students has uploaded videos of her performing popular songs: will she be prosecuted for disseminating proprietary material, or is it her performance, rather than the song, which is the work of art? Could she block Vole through the American courts if I embed footage of her criminal records (boom) on my site? Is a LolCat image an infringement of the copyright held by the original photographer, or is the image + hilarious text a new piece of art?

Practically, the law is an ass. Several million clips are uploaded to Youtube per day. All the lawyers in the world couldn't review each one to identify which ones are copyrighted and which aren't. Would SOPA prevent piracy? Absolutely not: serious pirate sites would get around American blocks within minutes. Domain name blocking would be circumvented in seconds by tweeting the numerical website address or simply changing names, while hosters could easily switch to offshore DNS providers.

What happens in the case of an individual posting material which is out of copyright in her home country, but in copyright in the United States?

No wonder one American legislator described this as 'the end of the internet as we know it': a newspaper explained this further:
 "Imagine the resources required to parse through the millions of Google and Facebook offerings every day looking for pirates who, if found, can just toss up another site in no time."

Another problem is culpability. Under the proposals, the staff of a host are liable: whether you're a secretary or a CEO. You might have no idea that copyrighted material is hosted on your service, but if you play any part in running the company, you're guilty. If only bankers operated under these conditions!

How would ISPs prevent you from accessing banned sites? Easy: they'd have to inspect every single user's internet traffic: an immense use of power, bandwidth and a massive invasion of privacy. Why not simply get copyright holders to require hosts to remove copyrighted material? If a writer doesn't like me quoting from her book, Blogger can mail me advising me of the complaint. I can accept or argue fair use, and we can agree or go to court. Under SOPA, an American court can make my host block access to my site without any discussion. If my host doesn't constantly monitor my postings and visitors, it is guilty of allowing copyright evasion, which seems monstrous.

What kind of company does the US legislature wish to keep? During the Arab Spring, the White House openly encouraged American companies to provide protestors with work-arounds to counter blocking software (ironically, mostly designed and sold by British, Israeli and American companies) used by oppressive regimes. Such work-arounds, like proxy services, are exactly the kind of thing which will be blocked by SOPA. Other governments might use the same arguments to block American sites which promote freedom of speech, women's suffrage, sexual equality and the like. What happens when Wikileaks publishes copyrighted material showing - as an imaginary example - how a company proposes to spy on people on behalf of the US Government? The site will be blocked. Search engines won't be able to link to it. Donations will be blocked (this has already happened, without court action). It's not only repressive: it's insecure. Universal's attempt to use copyright to prevent discussion of its disgraceful behaviour will become standard practice.

Of course, this law won't simply apply to clips and music. An American would be prevented from viewing forum posts which may infringe copyright, interfering with the right to receive information:
Second, the bills allow the government to obtain blocking orders without an adversary proceeding, which means that the right of U.S. citizens to receive information from abroad would be denied, without any real test of the merits of the infringement claim. To be clear, this process is unconstitutional even though the originators of the speech are outside of the United States (though, in some cases, the originators could be U.S. residents, e.g., folks posting comments on a foreign site’s forums), because the First Amendment protects our right to receive information as well as send it. Tribe points to a chilling parallel in a Supreme Court case which held that the Post Office could not keep a list of U.S. citizens receiving “communist political propaganda” (which, of course, intimidated those citizens from doing so) even though the “propagandists” were located abroad.
Imagine an America condemned to an eternity of Fox News.

A long time ago, John Milton wrote Areopagitica. In it, he opposed the pre-licensing of newspaper articles by governments as an attack on free speech. Instead, he wrote, one should publish and be damned: allow publication, then argue about it in court later. That way speech is free while piracy is punished. He didn't envisage a world of Paris Hilton sex tapes, TOWIE or Lolcats - but he'd defend your right to wallow in them, and the American Society of News Editors agrees.

Almost 400 years later, I can't see any flaws in this argument.

The other end of the telescope

Working on the minutiae of academic administration as I am today, I feel the need for a little perspective. I was reminded of the Reggio film Koyaanisqatsi by a clip shown at the V&A Postmodernism exhibition. I know the film because it has a Philip Glass soundtrack, and I'm a huge fan of his and other's minimalist composition. The film has no plot, and no characters. It's a series of images spooling into one another as the world it depicts gets more complex and more machinelike. Its central motif is relentless, ceaseless movement, in which humans come to seem like parasites on the machine.

Glass's music works perfectly: minimalism works by investing the tiniest changes in essentially repetitive phrases with emotional significance. In the case of Koyaanisqatsi, the emotion is almost expunged: a listener/viewer could, with some effort, understand the images and music as celebrating industrial society (and anti-environmentalists from left and right would do so). A more defensible view would be to link the mechanical action of the natural world (wind blowing, petals unfurling) with the operation of lights and motor vehicles as being energetic but ultimately destructive and pointless in the cosmic sense. We're not consciously controlling our lives and environments: we're subject to the needs of our (selfish) genes. There's a system, but we're not running it.

Here's a clip (and The Simpsons' take on it):

Keeping the bastards honest

I have a cunning plan…

Students have had massive debts imposed on them, justified by the claim that only those earning £21,000 p.a. (£5000 below the median wage) will pay back their loans. Thus, they'll work hard and enter high-paying jobs. I've ranted about the evils of this system before, so I won't go into it again. Let's just accept this argument at face value.

MPs' salaries were introduced in the early twentieth-century to make it possible for poor people to represent us. They're paid £65,000 per year, and receive generous housing and expenses allowances. Many of them retain other jobs too, amazingly: in law, directorships and so on. Afterwards, large numbers of them trade on their parliamentary and governmental experience by taking well-paid jobs in the City, in lobbying and so on. This of course leads to corruption and self-enrichment.

So how about abolishing parliamentary salaries entirely? Instead, offer MPs loans, just like the students. If an MP chooses not to join company boards or sell her inside knowledge to lobbyists, they don't pay the loans back. But if they use their public service as a springboard to riches, power and influence, they naturally owe their newfound wealth to us, and have to pay back their loans.

What do you think?

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Hero Returns

Like Mad Max, I've spent too long on the roads. Or more specifically, on the Car Parks and Transport Management Plan Committee. As a non-driver, my contribution is roughly equal to the Pope publishing a version of the Kama Sutra, though I did speak up for those of us who'd like to see walking and cycling encouraged.

The meeting largely consisted of bickering about the terms of reference, which appealed to my barrack-room lawyer side, and there are certainly important issues to cover. Is access to car-parking space an equality and safety issue? Or should be be discouraging car usage? And so on… though sometimes I wonder what I've done to deserve this. My suggestion that each staff member be given a free pair of Heeleys didn't go down well.

A Vole's work is never done

Excuse of the day for a student not coming in to chat about her dissertation:
'I'm really busy going down to London producing my album'. 
What can I say, other than to wish her luck? You can hear some of her cover songs here.

But away from the world of rock and roll, it's not quite so exciting. I have union duties this afternoon. When I signed up, it was on the strict understanding that I'd be in charge of a) constructing petrol bombs b) thinking up chants for demonstrations and c) strong-arming management by leading mass walkouts at the drop of a hat. That's what you get when large parts of your learning comes from reactionary 1950s British comedies like I'm All Right Jack and The Man in the White Suit. I also understood that kick-backs would be involved along the way.

Sadly, no. I'm off to a meeting about Car Park Policy.

Festive Wednesday Conundrum

I'm struggling with Christmas presents. I've 5 siblings and - against the odds - they've all acquired partners. Then there are all my friends and extended family: it's testing my wallet and imagination.

So as a bit of light relief, a question for you. In the old days, naughty children would receive a lump of coal. Given that it's been an appalling year for culture and technology, what would you give to your enemies this year? One of my friends received a tin for dishwasher tablets! I was given a six-pack of Fosters' Lager last year. By a close relative.

My choices:
The Green Lantern film - what a shame a great character was served so badly.
The RIM Playbook. A tablet computer that won't even do email without a BlackBerry attached: genius.
Anonymous: shameless, pointless disinformation with a deeply conservative agenda.
Nick Clegg.
Channel 4.
The Metallica/Lou Reed album
Any novel by Louise Bagshawe (now Mensch) and Celia Ahern.

Add your own in the comments box.

Proper live blogging

What an enjoyable way to spend a morning. A colleague doing PhD research on integrating IT into teaching (we call it 'blended learning', presumably because we mush it up to spoon feed the students) got me in, switched on a dictaphone and set me off. It was honestly like blogging in meatspace, and I duly rambled/ranted for 45 minutes without pause. Even better, I was rewarded at the end with a bottle of home-brewed Santa's Winter Warmer. In a bottle, that is, not a foaming pint at 10.45 a.m.

My thoughts on our IT-learning strategy aren't confidential… or original. I'm a fan, just a critical one. I blog, tweet and run discussion fora in the course of my teaching (in fact, I should be marking one right now).

However, I'm wary of the uncritical rush to incorporate IT into every corner of our activity. Some staff and students feel that pedagogical requirements come a very poor second to institutional pressures. Economic and spatial restrictions mean that some in higher management - many of whom are literally ignorant of IT's potential - see 'blended learning' as a way to reduce face-to-face contact, cut down on staff and economise on the use of teaching rooms: we're a large university in a very small space. So naturally, they think that a) all our students are online constantly, b) they'll be impressed if we do everything online and c) we'll save loads of money.

Wrong. Those teachers who use IT as a complement to in-person encounters are the experts. It works. A forum gives students the time and space to research ideas and discuss them with other people in their own space and time: my Shakespeare fora are creative, supportive and intellectually rigorous. But we know, and the students can tell, when IT learning is being used to cut corners. In the midst of the government's swingeing, Philistine attacks on education as a public good, it's important to say, over and over again, that education is not the linear transmission of data, a trap into which many IT-education boosters fall. True education is personal, messy, intellectually and emotionally demanding. It's a herd activity. Unintegrated IT is reductive and isolating. It assumes that education = facts, when in fact the free-flowing seminar should be at the heart of education. I can't tell from a forum post how a student is feeling about an idea or a text. I can't alter my approach or go off on a tangent if my students are posting at midnight, 4 a.m. or when I'm having breakfast. They can't tell me to slow down or speed up, nor can they direct the experience to so great an extent.

One anecdote springs to mind. When I did The Hegemon's postgraduate certificate in education (yes, students, I'm actually qualified!), the session leader proudly announced that in America, English essays were marked by machines, and that this would soon spread to the UK. To him, this was logical and convenient. Lots of students + few staff = a problem solved by software. My horror, to him, was the mark of the Luddite.  I think it's a monstrous idea. On a very basic level, students will be paying £9000 next year. Will they be pleased to know that their fees don't pay for an actual teacher looking at their work? I don't think so. A computer can't detect the subtleties of a student's creativity. It can't work out where the intellectual sticking points are, or remember that X wrote it while caring for a couple of children or that Y has a totally different viewpoint on the subject. It can't spot the qualitative difference between a good pastiche and a stumbling attempt at originality.

We have an official policy that 25% of all learning should be conducted electronically. I didn't know that learning could be quantified, but that's not the only problem. Why 25%? I don't know. It seems to be a magic figure dreamed up without regard for pedagogical research or the requirements of the people actually doing the teaching. There's a suspicion that we're in the hands of the neophiliacs: if it's new, it must be brilliant. This is why we had a Second Life presence - rapidly abandoned. That's why the institution has Facebook and Twitter pages which ignores the fundamental characteristic of those media: interaction. I think it's deeply patronising and reactionary to assume that our students will be impressed by IT as a primary medium: they're bright and know that some activities should be electronic, and others should be face-to-face.

What we need to successfully integrate IT into learning is research and a critical engagement with their wonderful possibilities. Without this, we become cheerleaders for 'efficiency', which means isolation, convenience, distancing ourselves from our students, and reductiveness.

Rant over.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Lest we forget…

This was one of the funniest things I've seen all year. By glorious coincidence, the Liberal Democrats were roundly punished for their perfidy in the local election in the same week that Osama bin Laden was killed.

The Lib Dems stood on an election platform of abolishing the £3000 tuition fee, and promoting our European identity. In government, they've allowed the Tories to triple fees to £9000 and sat idly by as Britain withdraws from any serious engagement with Europe just as it becomes clear even to the dullest brain that individual nation states are powerless in the face of the bond markets and ratings agencies (yes, the people said Enron, Lehman Brothers et al were fine, and proceeded to punish governments for bailing out the banks they said were in tip-top shape).

So all in all, not exactly a triumph for Nick Clegg.

They seek it here, they seek it there!

Is the Higgs Boson finally going to be revealed today? I hope so, because without it, modern physics doesn't work. If you don't know what it is, try this page, which uses cartoons and a very simple explanation specifically designed to make it comprehensible to a forgotten Tory Science minister, William Waldegrave (apparently pronounced War Grave).*

But the Higgs Boson is so redolent of other cultures. Boson, of course, reminds me of Bosie, Oscar Wilde's lover and eventual nemesis, more formally known as Lord Alfred Douglas. There are also at least two lost or forgotten Higgs other than the God Particle. Where, for example, is John Higgs, Jack Woolley's sinister chauffeur and handyman at Grey Gables?  He's disappeared so completely that even the Archers website fails to mention him. Up to no good, I'll be bound.

The other Higgs I'd like to mention is the narrator of Samuel Butler's Erewhon, his Victorian Utopian satire which I urge you to read, alongside William Morris's News From Nowhere. There may be an Archers connection too: the Erewhonians' Goddess is Ydgrun the Incomprehensible - an anagram of Grundy, the similarly incomprehensible Archers peasant family.

One of the very interesting features of the novel is Butler's speculation that machines might evolve consciousness: derided at the time as a weak joke, he insisted that it was a Darwinian possibility (so far unfulfilled: Siri might be able to tell me what a Higgs Boson is, but it's no Marvin). Banks don't come out of Butler's novel looking particularly good either. Higgs himself gets caught up in a romantic entanglement with a native girl…

Hanging on the telephone…

I feel like my head's going to explode. I share an office with four people. We all have our own phone lines (0800 666 VOLE in my case). It's not a large office. I can traverse it in 5 steps. So if the person you wish to speak to isn't free, or there, you'll know within 10-15 seconds.

So WHY in the name of all that's holy, would you keep phoning back for a full 10 minutes? Over and over and over again, as though you think that persistence will bring some kind of reward. Only fear that I might utter bloodcurdling threats prevented me from breaking etiquette and answering my colleague's phone myself.

In any case, the little genius popped in to follow up her phone call. 'Is X in?', she asks me. Yes, he is. He's wearing an invisibility cloak, which is why you can't see him.

Bah. I need some phone music.

Cameron's European Future

Thanks to yet more bureaucratic tyranny by our European overlords, intent on restricting the ancient freedoms of the Anglo-Saxon financial sector, David Cameron will now be represented at all meetings of the European Union thusly:

Monday, 12 December 2011

"A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow"

Congratulations to the owners of the Billy Wright pub, opening tonight. I'm informed it's named after the truly great footballer, not the psychopathic Ulster loyalist terrorist, though he too was born in this Midlands English town.

You may detect a certain antipathy towards this drinking establishment. You'd be right. I live opposite it. It is next door to two more vertical drinking establishments and round the corner from several more. Each night, my flat overlooks vomiting, fighting, breakups, tiffs and all the other manifestations of alcohol allergy. Despite being a moderate drinker myself, being woken up at 4.30 a.m. by drunk and aggressive 'lads' as I believe they're technically known, is enough to make me take the pledge and join the Pioneers.

This particular licensed premise looks very unpromising. It's named after a footballer and the beautiful game seems to be the decorative theme. It has a hard-wearing carpet and very few seats, and a very limited range of tasteless beverages, which suggests to me that it's appealing to the heavy-drinking footy-supporting contingency: the intention is to poor as much booze down their necks as economically and physically possible, with little regard for taste, decency or the local community.

So I shall have to either continue sleeping with earplugs… or join the drinkers.