Thursday, 31 March 2011

How many deaths at your hands?

Quite a lot, I suspect - most of us have played computer games at some point, and we as a culture seem to find mass killing entertaining. The last game I played a lot was Civilization II. I tried to avoid war, but quite often found my population annihilated in nuclear holocausts (the game is rigged against peaceful, socialist economics). Perhaps the attraction is the safety-valve principle or it's a throwback to fighting off rival tribes and sabre-toothed tigers (we sure showed them).

A Red Letter Day

Red Letter days were originally the highlighted saints' days in religious calendars, but I'm nicking it for literature. Today seems quite a popular one for Canonical (see what I did there) births and deaths: Descartes, Gogol and Fowles were born on this day, while Donne, Charlotte Brontë and Anne Frank died (or were killed) today. If I could suspend my disbelief for a second, imagine the conversations they'd be having in heaven… Though I suspect Fowles is headed for The Other Place. Donne, I imagine, would be explaining to the prettier angels why he wrote sexual religious poetry and religious sex poetry.

Gogol, of course, wrote Dead Souls, a weird and hugely funny sort-of-novel which uses Dante's Inferno as an intertext to examine the lives of Russian serfs (in part), so imagining his afterlife isn't too offensive.

In reality of course, they live on (or not) through their books. That should be enough. Unfortunately, my memorial will be this blog: lots of lo-fi and some cheap shots at a mediocre MP.

O Tempora, O Mores

It's Mumblecore, and it's back!

Actually, mumblecore refers to American indie films whose 'indieness' is mostly a matter of featuring bearded slackers mumbling into their facial fuzz, as opposed to clean-shaven white-toothed Hollywood stars. 

However, I have a huge soft spot for the equivalent in music, and it seems to be the trend of the year: Bon Iver, Deerhoof, Megafauna and co all seem to be taking The Band's hirsute template and stripping out the showmanship. I've long been a devotee of the bands this lot have followed: Will Oldham (PalacePalace Music, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy), Bill Callahan (aka Smog and (Smog)) and Low (Mormon drug slowcore), so I'm hugely pleased that Callahan and Low have new albums (Apocalypse and C'Mon) out next month, and I can spend spring feeling melancholic. 

I also love this line from Callahan's books, Letters to Emma Bowlcut:
 "I'm not mild-mannered, but you may want to bring a book."

Here's a taster - one of Callahan's most accessible tracks from last year's Eid Ma Clack Shaw, his catchily claustrophobic 'No Dancing' and Low's 'Words'.

And if you like that but think it's all a bit pretty, try some Slint. Mmm… mathrock

Paul Uppal: making my eyeballs bleed with his bitter stupidity

My MP's crusade to make the world a crueller, nastier place continues.

Very depressingly, they've put this multimillionaire property speculator on the Welfare Reform Committee. Given that he clearly doesn't believe that Welfare should exist, we can assume that 'reform' means, to him, 'abolition'.

Firstly, he thinks that paying benefits on a monthly basis is good discipline for the poor: never mind that the kind of expenses incurred by the poorest group in society are often urgent or presented on a weekly basis. Many people are in casual, temporary work and really need smaller, more frequent payments rather than larger monthly ones.

If we are genuinely preparing people for work, budgeting on a monthly basis is what they will have to do when they go to work. Does that not set that stepping stone to entice people to pursue that route and get into work and budget on a monthly basis?
But that's nothing. As usual, he's got a 'misleading' personal insight into the lives of the poor to bring up:

The right hon. Gentleman uses emotive words such as “plundering” and “punitive”. As someone from a fairly modest background and a family that saved, I can tell him candidly that the motive for saving is a habit of living within one’s means and to aspire. That is something that the previous Government could have done with in their own financial budget.

The plan is to make sure that a family (not an individual) with modest savings shouldn't be entitled to any benefits. Now, I don't know where Uppal's investment money came from. He's totally secretive about the whole thing. But somewhere he got the money to invest in commercial property (rather than something which helps society by making things, employing people and so on).

He also thinks that the mentally-ill would benefit from monthly payments. What's his evidence? Academic research? Statistics from the Benefits Agency? No, a radio phone-in, which of course is a medium which always attracts the deepest thinkers:

About a month ago, the right hon. Gentleman might have heard Radio 5 Live cover the issue of budgeting for people who suffer from bipolar disorder. It is a roller-coaster event. Most of the respondents who rang in specified that they do not always want money in their pocket; they sometimes want the discipline to budget. They said that if money was in their pocket all the time, they would feel the need to spend it, and that if money was sometimes withheld from them or somebody was responsible for them, it was actually beneficial in the long run.

Remember this: low-earners don't earn enough to save. They need to eat, pay rent, buy school uniforms, get the bus to work and to the distant supermarkets which have ruined their towns… This isn't an accident, it's an ideological choice. Anglo-Saxon capitalism openly and proudly proclaims that the rich should make huge profits by reducing wage costs: it's a way of redistributing cash from the poor to the rich. It needn't be this way: the Scandinavian countries and the Germans have realised that if you pay your workers well, they'll have the money to buy your products - keeping the economy healthy by having a strong domestic market rather than depending on exports in the bad times.

We've heard before about his family arriving with only £5 and refusing to ask for help, but I rather suspect that this is romanticised as a way to legitimise his thinly disguised belief that the poor deserve to be destitute because they haven't got the personal qualities you need to become a millionaire. In reality, I strongly suspect that family money and support provided the initial investment that turned Paul into a hugely rich parasite. But that would be an inconvenient truth.

Of course, Paul could prove me wrong. That would be great. The comments box is open.

So you want to go to Grad School

(Or in English, post-graduate study).

A while back, I posted this short movie about doing a PhD in English. It's all completely true, but that doesn't mean you should take its advice. Education is being progressively deprofessionalised: further study and an academic career (to use the old joke, it's a career of the kind that happens when your brakes fail on a steep hill) are despised by many people as somehow not in the 'real world'. This is mostly because it's one of the few jobs that involves potentially doing something you enjoy.

PhD candidates split into two camps as far as I can tell: the ultra-confident megabrains who breeze through it, and those who desperately cling on and scrape through. I read an obituary last year of a professor who held PhDs in chemistry, physics and literature. He wrote the physics PhD in 6 weeks, claiming to have been 'thinking about it' while on active duty in World War 2, and for a hobby would write academic papers in Latin. There are a few of those types around in The Hegemon: they churn out learned journal articles every week and appear not to need sleep or beer.

I'm the second type. I was utterly stunned to get a First class degree and prizes in my BA, because I was expecting a 2.2. So someone suggested I do an MA and it sounded like a good idea because a) they kindly offered to pay the fees and b) I didn't want to be a teacher. I struggled through that, and somehow got a PhD scholarship. Suddenly things were much, much harder, and I always felt like I was faking it - especially at conferences, where the Gods of Postgraduate life swanned around like fully-formed geniuses. I fervently hope that they're faking it too.

So I found getting a PhD difficult, but it was still rewarding. You can pursue your own impulses in a way that people rarely can once they're potty-trained. In return for becoming a stereotype (hello, Big Bang Theory), you're licensed to roam. Until, that is, you try to find a job, at which point you discover that hourly-paid drudgery is the universities' secret weapon. You can bet that when the £9000 fees come in, the Oxfords and Cambridges will be dumping a scared postgrad or desperate new PhD in front of the class: the professors don't want to teach undergraduates and in any case, cost too much. Elsewhere, I don't know what you'll get. Imagine doing an MA and a PhD, at your own expense, when you already owe £50,000 for your BA/BSc: only the very rich will be able to do it.

Why do a PhD? Because you need to know about and think about a tiny corner of human endeavour. Don't do it because you want a job, a house or a pension. Do it because there's nothing else that will satisfy you. (Unless you're thinking of a PhD in banking, finance, economics or weapons design. Just don't).

Wednesday, 30 March 2011


Occasionally I feel like a proper teacher - today was one of those days. Although there were the usual ones who didn't say a word or hadn't read the book (Sage's Bad Blood - read the first chapter here), we had a really interesting and enjoyable discussion in which I learned some things and gained perspectives which hadn't occurred to me, and I think I added something to their understanding. We talked for most of the 2 hours allotted without it feeling like any more than an hour to me, which is a really good sign.

Even better, some of them spontaneously started talking about how much they're enjoying next week's text (Niall Griffiths' wonderful Wreckage): one said she was almost late for today's class because she didn't want to stop reading. Whether next week's seminar is good or not, I think that's a sign that I'm getting something right. Mind you, the student who complained about naughty words in Freshers and Beauty hasn't bought a copy yet. I think I can safely say that Wreckage's dialogue makes Trainspotting look like the minutes of a League Against Swearing meeting.

Do men make passes at women in glasses?

In one passage of Sage's Bad Blood, having quoted some very apt Wordsworth, she rails against the way women in the 1950s-1960s are restricted to the irrational/earthly/physical/anti-intellectual realm, whereas men are meant to be the doers and thinkers (this is in part the subject of my PhD).

Intellectual women are categorised, she says

'unfeminine, unfulfilled, sexless by nature or, the next-worst thing, lesbian, and in any case were only compensating for the fact that no one ever fancied them. Give them half a chance and they'd melt down like those dragon career women in the movies, who purred when our hero took off their spectacles and loosened their scraped-back hair.

This struck a chord. I'm no fan of career women because I'm not keen on capitalism, but it always annoyed me when the spectacles were taken off, as though circles of glass and frames could ever hide beauty. More importantly, the symbolism is disgraceful: you shouldn't read, and you shouldn't look. The gaze is for the searching man, not the woman, who should blink and bask in adoration. You shouldn't think - you should just be, which is what Sage is getting at.

I rarely step into the realms of emotion (other than hatred) on Plashing Vole, but I'll say this: intellect does it for me, and spectacles are - somehow - the symbol for it rather than a sign of failing eyesight. (I don't need spectacles, by the way). Glasses represent nerdiness or unworldiness in male characters anyway. See Clark Kent.

Unfortunately, while my brain is playing me lots of scenes of bespectacled women and men, it's not giving me any credits. Suggest a few movies in which it happens and I'll post some clips if they're available.

Depressingly, if you type 'intellectual woman' into Google and hit images, you immediately get a woman in glasses, from an article on how to date intellectual women. Which tells you all you need to know about men. And the internet.

The multifarious charms of Andrew Lansley

He's the Health Secretary who repeatedly says 'evidence (and again)' when he means 'what I want to be true'. Think of him as a more prominent Uppal. Here's a nasty bit of ignorant snobbery from him:

Welcome to marking hell

Morning all. I've been here since 8 again, marking first-year essays (competent, but mostly displaying total a total lack interest in literature: it's not just about plot description, kids) and reading Lorna Sage's Bad Blood for this afternoon's class. It's really very good: an academic's tale of growing up in a deeply dysfunctional family on the Welsh border, with a repeated acting motif. Highly recommended.

Right, back to the marking.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

This image is obscene

This is by Nadia Plesner. She used it as a t-shirt to raise money for the victims of the Darfur massacre.

So Louis Vuitton sued her.

Now she's used the image again, and they're suing her for unlimited damages again, despite the image's status as art ('fair use') and non-profit.

Could it be that they're embarrassed by the juxtaposition of enormous and self-indulgent wealth with real suffering, and want to silence anyone who makes the connection? I think it could…

What can you do? Well, do as I do: boycott Vuitton goods (not, I admit, a difficult struggle) and send the Red Cross some money.

Once read, twice shy?

I read an article the other day on writers who were hugely popular and are now languishing in the also-rans: DH Lawrence and Hardy were cited as forgotten titans. That struck a chord with me: I devoured Lawrence as a teenager (no, not just for the dirty bits: they're couched in such overwrought terms that the effort isn't worth it if you're just after some filth) but found recently that I couldn't get on with the novels - though the short stories and poems really stand up. Ditto Hardy, of whom I'm a fan. Lots of people have said that they can't stand them - but I have a taste for melodrama and rural folk (hence The Archers) and happily get through 800 pages of child suicide ('because we are too menny'). That said, I'm now convinced that Hardy's poetry is much more significant than the novels.

Who else? I can't stand Tolkien anymore (despite Ben's claim, which he printed on a business card, that JRR Tolkien is blocking my cock). I read the lot when I was 14-15, untold kilos of biblically-cadenced sons-of-sons-of Beorn the bloody bear: now the clunky prose, awful dialogue and terrible characterisation stop me about 5 pages in. Except for The Hobbit, which is light-hearted enough to win safe passage. There must be loads of stuff I read as a teen and would now reject. The Thomas Covenant and Amtrak Wars series - why? Ann McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern fantasy series. I've also largely given up on Delillo, Auster and McEwan, having spent 15 years loving their back catalogues and being progressively more disappointed or angry (that's you, McEwan) with their new stuff.

Other books I'm warming too: I used to have a blanket ban on Dickens, but I'll read the darker ones now - nothing that tries to be funny, mind. Ned Cheeryble should be stabbed in the kidneys. I'm trying Milan Kundera again - at 17 I thought that The Unbearable Lightness of Being should be The Unreadable Dullness of Pretension, but I'm slowly coming round.

So what are the books you once loved and now can't stand?

Colleagues: FYI

This is stuck up in my office.

If you scabbed - and we know who you are - then you shouldn't expect any social niceties from me henceforth. I'm very proud that nobody in either of my departments is a picket-line crossing selfish traitor. I've already met one of these worms and declined to pass the time of day.

It's a simple rule. You don't scab, and you don't cross properly constituted picket lines. For instance, I'd have ignored the fuel protesters a few years ago because they were selfish bastards already in receipt of subsidies, demanding higher profits at the expense of the public and the environment. But in most cases, strikes are a collective last resort and should be supported or respected.

By crossing the picket line, these co-workers declared that they were somehow special, better than us, and stronger as individuals. There's a good lesson in Lewis Jones's We Live (1939), in which collective strength is demonstrated by the union members letting go of the coal cart on an incline. The man who refused to join the union is taught the virtues of solidarity as he strains to stop it rolling over him - after a few minutes he's begging for help.

Certain of my colleagues could do with this kind of demonstration - and will get it when they find their former comrades strangely reluctant to stand up for them in a tight spot.

She told you this would happen

Naomi Klein, in The Shock Doctrine, tells us that free-market capitalism uses any serious political or economic event to institute a vicious hard-right monetarist regime: consumer, environmental and worker protection abolished, corporate taxes cut, public services abandoned.

This is exactly what's happening in the UK, as Johann Hari points out.

As a proportion of GDP, Britain’s national debt has been higher than it is now for 200 of the past 250 years. Read that sentence again. Check it on any graph by any historian. Since 1750, there have only been two brief 30-year periods when our debt has been lower than it is now. If we are “bust” today, as George Osborne has claimed, then we have almost always been bust. We were bust when we pioneered the Industrial Revolution. We were bust when we ruled a quarter of the world. We were bust when we beat the Nazis. We were bust when we built the NHS. Or is it George Osborne’s economics that are bust?
Our debt is not high by historical standards, and it is not high by international standards. For example, Japan’s national debt is three times bigger than ours, and they are still borrowing at good rates.
David Cameron claims that, despite these facts, they need to cut our debt by slashing our spending because the bond markets demand it. If they do not obey, then our national credit rating will be downgraded, and we will have to pay much higher interest on our debt. But here’s the flaw in that plan. That’s not what the bond markets say. Not at all. Professor Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist whose predictions have consistently proved right through this crisis, says Cameron is conjuring up “invisible bond vigilantes” who “don’t exist.” Who is the bond market really punishing? It’s the countries that cut too fast, and so kill their economic growth. The last two nations to be down-graded were Ireland and Spain, who followed Cameron’s script to the letter.

The irony is that in this case, it was the utter failure of capitalism which brought about the catastrophe and ushered in the medicine of… free-market capitalism.

I think I'm starting to understand where it went wrong now.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Andrew Lansley Rap

Occasionally I stray into the realm of politics, and even attempt humour and satire. I needn't bother - a young man has written this, which combines rude personal abuse with close analysis of the Health Secretary's ideologically-driven attempt to sell the NHS and allow junk-food and booze manufacturers to direct health initiatives. It's a masterpiece.

A vision of the future from the recent past

Now here's an interesting extract from Don Delillo's Americana:

"He said that all the new universities would consist of only one small room. It would work this way. At the beginning of each semester the entire student body - which would have to number at least five hundred thousand in order to give the computers enough to do - would assemble in a large open space in front of a TV camera. They would be televised and put on videotape. In a separate operation the instructors would also be videotaped, individually. Then two TV sets would be placed in the single room which represented the university. The room would be in a small blockhouse at the edge of a thirty-six lane freeway; this proximity would help facilitate transmission of electronic equipment. Oh, there might be some banners on the wall and maybe a plaque or two, but aside from these the only things in the room would be the TV sets. At nine o'clock in the morning of the first day of classes, a computer would turn on the two television sets, which would be facing each other. The videotape of the students would then watch the videotape of the instructors. Eventually the system could be refined so that there would be only one university in the whole country".

Two observations: this is essentially coming true (with some technological alterations), and the novel is meant to be savage satire. Obviously the honeyed walls of Oxford and Cambridge will contain the privileged rich with the leisure and money to pursue PPE, Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic and so on: the rest of you will be downloading Business for Proletarians.

Uppal's broken record

Your favourite MP, multimillionaire bullshitter Paul Uppal, is at it again - mouthing the latest Tory press releases as though he'd thought of them himself.

As usual, his solution to our economic problems (for which he entirely blames the Labour Party and can't bring himself to mention the word 'banks') is the one which makes him even more money:

We must never shy away from supporting businesses by offering competitive levels of taxation, and we in the House of Commons must send out the message that the country is once again open for business.
Over the last decade, many high-profile companies have left the UK to escape our complicated tax system and our higher than average rate of corporation tax.

What a surprise. In actual fact, corporations pay far less tax than ordinary people: the current rate is 25% and it's dropping. Bear in mind too that many companies hide their money offshore so that they pay far less. Hedge fund traders famously admitted that they paid less tax than their cleaners.

Once more with feeling: paying taxes is your subscription to civilisation. If you operate a company, you need educated workers, clean air, good roads and railways, a health service, drains, street-lighting and so on. If you evade your taxes or lobby to pay less, the rest of us have to cover it. Or we don't, and the corporations moan about decline.

So he's overjoyed that his constituency is now an 'enterprise zone': a tax free area supposed to attract corporate development. It's nonsense of course - why come here when you can open a factory in China and employ slaves?

None of this applies to Uppal of course: his property speculation employs no-one, contributes nothing to his community, and adds nothing to society. Instead, we give him an extra £65,000 for spouting these mindless lies.

 I grew up in the shadow of Merry Hill. I remember the original site, and I saw with my own eyes the power of ambition and aspiration being tangibly enhanced as the buildings rose up in a sea of regeneration
Lower taxation, planning simplification and less bureaucracy will provide an ideal cocktail of measures to kick-start local economies and encourage the growth of that vital sector. 

This is exactly what's wrong with Uppal: he sees commercial property (in which he's made millions, though he doesn't see fit to mention this) as a solution. In actual fact, the Merry Hill shopping complex has turned the nearby town of Dudley from a bustling Victorian/Edwardian town into a dark, dank, bankrupt, deserted, miserable hell on earth. Nothing's been regenerated - instead, a small proportion of the population have acquired minimum wage jobs selling tat to the atomised consumers while decent jobs, education and a degree of civilisation have all disappeared.

What Uppal dreams of is a wild-west of no taxes, no environmental protection, no worker protection, no planning laws: just loud-mouthed businessmen riding roughshod over democracy. It's been done before. Citizens of the Black Country: prepare for Pinochet's Chile, Texas, Somalia, Canada's tar-sands and Saudi Arabia.

I despair. I don't mind listening to people with whom I disagree. I just object to such third-rate people being given a voice. How long until the election?

Monday, 28 March 2011

Sod off, oiks

We're in the deepest recession since the 1930s. School funding has been cut. The national health service is being dismantled. Social services are being outsourced. Libraries are being closed. Environmental protection is being abandoned.

But there's always room for tax cuts: and the rich are having their taxes cut.

That's what you get when you elect a government of multimillionaires. It's not just that they don't give a shit about you (which they don't): they want to smear it in your face.

Will the cut help the economy? No: they'll keep their cash overseas anyway. Angry now.

He shoots, he scores

My good friend Gary has been clearing out his loft and sent me all the early 1970s football magazines with big features on mighty Stoke City. Happy days - we won something in 1972, a mere three years before I was born…

Smith helped us to the 1972 win, and was in the Guinness Book of Records for the most injuries (including 5 broken legs). He never did play for England, but did manage a lot of teams.

Didi was right: the Dutch beat them 2-0 in a violent semi-final.

The great John Ritchie. Stoke's top scorer for many years in a row. His 171 goals have never been rivalled.

In March 1974, after a row with Southampton's Peter Osgood who criticised Ritchie's heading ability, the striker completed his hat-trick against the Saints by dribbling around keeper Eric Martin, stopping the ball on the line and kneeling to head it over!


Final selection of England team photographs from Challenge Wratislavia. More here, or click on these for embiggening.

This is what winning feels like

Nichols and Rubes go for it in the final

Sometimes the stress is too much

The team. We got a silver and a bronze, and other England fencers took medals too.

En garde!

Some more pictures from Challenge Wratislavia (epee only - although I'm a foilist, I took only epeeists). Rest here, click on those below for bigger versions.

Unlike foil, epee allows double hits - which makes it a lot easier. 


Not great fencing in this shot, but I liked the angle

Great shot from Josh Wrigley

Appalling - but Ned Tidmarsh still makes the hit.

We had way too many England-England fights - very tense.

I like this one for the symmetrical blade bends

Harrison Nichols came 2nd overall: his mum enjoys a good shot in the semi-final.

Back. With a vengeance

Hello all. I know you've missed me, but you'll have to bear with me. In the next two days I have to teach two new texts, prepare seminars for other people to deliver, and mark a load of essays, as well as catch up with everything while I've been away and deliver lectures as normal. All while coping with severe exhaustion.

I've also been uploading several hundred of all-action England junior fencer photographs: I was the team manager for Challenge Wratislavia in beautiful Wroclaw, Poland. I've been before, but not as team manager, and it's a very different experience - even though the kids were lovely, there's no chance to relax, whether you're consoling somebody after losing a fight, trying to help winners keep their motivation, fixing kit, patrolling hotel corridors, wondering where the bus is, counting people who won't stand still, checking passports, explaining to the hotel why we need 30+ meals right now, using a Polish phrase book to explain to the organisers that a referee should be pushed down some stairs for being useless and on and on.

However, I did have time to take several hundred pictures, mostly of fencing action. So if you like fast-moving shots of children hitting each other, you'll love this set. Here are a few samples.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Won't somebody tell Uppal to shut up?

A period of silent reflection on Uppal's part would be appreciated by all, I feel. Even sleep-deprived and 1000+ miles away, I'm finding his continued pursuit of public inanity deeply wearing.

So what's my favourite MP been on about this week other than keeping mum about his love of Saudi Arabia's less than cuddly regime? Well, here's an easy question and one that's deeply relevant to his constituents in the, er, English West Midlands:

What recent assessment he has made of the state of the economy in Northern Ireland.

I think this is a 'planted' question, especially as another Tory MP asks exactly the same question. It's a simple one for the (English, Shropshire constituency) Northern Ireland viceroy minister to answer. Or rather, it isn't because it's way too broad. Instead, it's an opportunity for the minister to imply that the Irish rabble are feckless dole scum who need turning out onto the streets while all the Tories bang on about how wonderful Northern Ireland is as part of the UK. Uppal follows up with another underarm ball to allow the minister to claim that NI unemployment is all the fault of the state and the private sector will magic up lots of lovely jobs. Then it will rain chocolate drops and fairies will dance at Ian Paisley's civil partnership with Martin McGuinness.

The really bad news is that Uppal's somehow leading a committee investigation into Welfare Reform. Given that he's openly contemptuous of a) the poor and b) social security, putting a multimillionaire who made his money by inventing wonderful innovative things and providing hundreds of jobs speculating in property in the chair is a clear sign that 'reform' = 'sod off oiks'.

Unsurprisingly, Uppal's contribution in the debate between MPs from all sides and some experts is limited to one long, long question which boils down to the brilliant aperçu that 'work should pay' and one in which he suggested that massively reducing housing benefit might be good for 'the market' (he wasn't elected to represent the market - he was elected to represent 'people'.

I was interested in some of the remarks that you, Dr Nolan, and actually the whole panel, made about how far the Bill can go in providing a carrot and a stick. There has to be a line in the sand on these things. This is quite a subjective question and I appreciate that you might not be able to answer it. Obviously, the current system is not perfect, and there might be flaws in what is proposed, but do you feel that there is a signal in this in terms of the tacit understanding that many people have with the current benefits system? Fundamentally, at its core it is trying to give the ethos that, regardless of whether people are worse off or better off, it is to everybody’s benefit—not only the individual’s, but society’s—that work should pay. I appreciate that I am asking you to respond from your own subjective view of tackling these issues and taking it head on.

Unfortunately, given that the Tories are the party of bankers and corporations, they mean that benefits should be so mean that people will do any job, however humiliating. I think that work should pay to some extent (though I'm not keen on forcing parents to spend less time with their children), but I'd do it by making work pay properly, i.e. a good living wage rather than the miserable wages grudgingly handed out currently. 
You referred specifically to the private housing sector—I thought I heard you right on that. In the current circumstances, an unscrupulous landlord could manipulate the situation. Do you not see some actual positive benefits in trying to provide a brake on the market, which has ballooned over the past few years?

Thankfully, the respondent slapped down our hero by reminding him of the actual human cost of his clever little plan - he doesn't manage to muster a reply.
There is a large amount of evidence to suggest that the changes that we are seeing in housing benefit prior to the introduction of universal credit in the future will leave large numbers of families far worse off than they are now, and run significant risks of increasing homelessness and poverty levels. I am not in a position to assess the precise impact that the policy will have on the market—no one is—but there is that real risk. There has been no pilot of this full-scale roll-out of national policy, and if the market effects are not as intended, there will be significant risks for poverty levels. It is almost inevitable that families will see their real terms incomes drop.
The sheer mediocrity makes my bum ache.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Sub-editing Atomic Fail of the Week

There's so much news that The Atlantic's sub-editors have reached meltdown, letting something like this through in a piece on the history of nuclear power:
Once light water reactors gained government backing and the many advantages that conferred, other designs could not break into the market, even though commercial nuclear power wouldn't explode for years after Rickover's decision.

1983 called: muttered something about plagiarism

I could have written this budget myself, given an 1983 copy of the Daily Telegraph's editorial and letters pages.

Cuts in fuel tax
Cuts in corporation tax
Increase in citizens' taxes
Abolition of 'red tape' (i.e. pesky health, safety and environmental protection)
More pollution
More lost jobs
Richer bankers - poorer everyone else
Growth restricted
Jam tomorrow.

And lo, it came to pass.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

This just about sums it up

I'm away for a few days, and will miss all sorts of exciting things: tomorrow's Budget, at which the Chancellor will impoverish the poor further and reward the rich while making it sound like he's doing exactly the opposite, the strike on Thursday and the massive demonstration on Saturday. I'll check in once a day maybe, but it's uncertain. Having got us into a war in double-quick time even by Tory standards (a war which looks like decisive action but actually is a fraudulent way of looking caring), I wouldn't be surprised to find that we've invaded Belgium by the time I get back.

So I'll leave you with this Leonard Cohen gem, which really does summarise what's going on.

Oh yes, this is why I blog. Because I'm secretly a self-pitying American teenager.

"Everybody Knows"

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded 
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed 
Everybody knows that the war is over 
Everybody knows the good guys lost 
Everybody knows the fight was fixed 
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich 
That's how it goes 
Everybody knows 
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking 
Everybody knows that the captain lied 
Everybody got this broken feeling 
Like their father or their dog just died 

Everybody talking to their pockets 
Everybody wants a box of chocolates 
And a long stem rose 
Everybody knows 

Everybody knows that you love me baby 
Everybody knows that you really do 
Everybody knows that you've been faithful 
Ah give or take a night or two 
Everybody knows you've been discreet 
But there were so many people you just had to meet 
Without your clothes 
And everybody knows 

Everybody knows, everybody knows 
That's how it goes 
Everybody knows 

Everybody knows, everybody knows 
That's how it goes 
Everybody knows 

And everybody knows that it's now or never 
Everybody knows that it's me or you 
And everybody knows that you live forever 
Ah when you've done a line or two 
Everybody knows the deal is rotten 
Old Black Joe's still pickin' cotton 
For your ribbons and bows 
And everybody knows 

And everybody knows that the Plague is coming 
Everybody knows that it's moving fast 
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman 
Are just a shining artifact of the past 
Everybody knows the scene is dead 
But there's gonna be a meter on your bed 
That will disclose 
What everybody knows 

And everybody knows that you're in trouble 
Everybody knows what you've been through 
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary 
To the beach of Malibu 
Everybody knows it's coming apart 
Take one last look at this Sacred Heart 
Before it blows 
And everybody knows 

Everybody knows, everybody knows 
That's how it goes 
Everybody knows 

Oh everybody knows, everybody knows 
That's how it goes 
Everybody knows 

Everybody knows 

Learning from the Ancients

A friend of mine gave me an intriguing book recently, More Essays of Today, edited by F. H. Pritchard and published in 1928. I added it to the pile and only got round to leafing through it a couple of days ago.

Each essay is 3-5 pages long, is often quirky, if not whimsical. And yet - so far they're remarkably relevant: perhaps the title was prophetic. The first essay is J. C. Squire's 'Moving a Library', an amusing little squib reproducing most accurately the mental and physical terrors of the undertaking - something my friends will appreciate, having help me out devotedly when I moved house.

Night after night I have spent carting down two flights of stairs more books htan I ever thought I possessed. Journey after journey, as monotonously regular as the progresses of a train round the Inner Circle: upstairs empty-handed and downstairs creeping with a decrepit crouch, a tall, crazy, dangerously bulging column of books wedged betwen my two hands and the indomitable point of my chin… at times during the process one hates books as the slaves who built the Pyramids must have hated public monuments. A strong and bitter book-sickness floods one's soul. How ignominious to be strapped to this ponderous mass of paper, print, and dead men's sentiments! Would it not be better, finer, braver, to leave the rubbish where it lies and walk out into the world a free, untrammelled, illiterate Superman? Civilization! Pah!

Unlike our current government, whose library closure plan is seemingly designed to produce the illiterate Superman, our hero recovers sufficiently to consider the much-discussed problems of how to arrange one's collection (he likes size/chronology/genre) and the 'despair' invoked by the intrusion of 'Stodge' onto the shelves of 'Pure literature' (ah, how Leavisian - I could devote a whole lecture to that one sentence) before ending on a hopeful quotation from Ruskin: 'I don't suppose I shall do it again for months and months and months'.

Serendipitously, the next essay is Reverend George A. Birmingham's 'Asking Questions', a longer and passionate diatribe on the scourge of the questionnaire. The good vicar doesn't like forms, especially those devoted to easily-available information, and those which are never actually consulted, a test he assays by inflating the size of his schoolroom to monstrous proportions then shrinking it to the size of a sentry box in each successive year.

I have never in my life been tempted to issue a questionnaire. The fact that I am forced to use this word - there being no English equivalent - proves that the thing itself is of foreign origin and that the vice is not native with us. That the word has a secondary meaning among the French, 'torturer', shows what they think of it.
Of course a pretence is made that the returns are required for the compilation of statistics… If we really prevented the compiling of statistics we ought to be given medals… for statistics are not merely useless - they are misleading, far more dangerously misleading even than the speeches of politicians…
Year by year, the number of these papers of questions increases. Year by year more of our time is wasted in writing answers. Year by year the nervous irritation consequent on wrestling with returns gets worse. 
The only remedy I can think of is to kill a few of the people who issue these forms. Perhaps five or six would be enough. The others, fearing the fate of their fellows, would be cowed into quiescence. Morally I think these executions would be as justifiable as the hanging of murderers, for we should be ridding society of pestilent nuisances. [Or if he could reach the head questioner] it would be better to try to cure him. That might be done if he were shut up in an asylum, like those provided for inebriates, and compelled to work for eight hours every day at a typewriter which had no note of interrogation on any of its keys. 

Now why did I say 'serendipitously'? Well, I'm drowning in these things. It's census time in the UK. The outsourced contract has gone to international gun-runner Lockheed Martin, which hasn't pleased many people. Some questions are contentious. After the previous census's successful Jedi Rebellion (enough people wrote in Jedi under 'religion' to skew the figures pleasingly), should we atheists stick to that or write 'no religion' (and perhaps acquire some state-funded atheist schools alongside the Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus and Muslims).

My students are given module evaluation forms and mid-module evaluation forms. While we stir up their curriculum to suit the university's financial problems and managerial obsessions, we ask them to fill in the National Student Survey. I'm being asked to fill in another form detailing my exact work patterns under various headings.

The good Reverend was on to something. Decades before Foucault et al., George hit upon the disciplinary system: the administrative demands of the institution aren't merely a massive job creation scheme (The Hegemon has 1500+ administrators and 700 teachers) but a control system. Knowledge IS power. Making us analyse our every move and report them internalises a repressive system. It tames us, it makes us behave, it might even persuade us of the benevolence of managerial activity.

Should I be hanging my line managers from a lamp-post? Probably not. George points out that his boss, the rural Dean, has a wife and family to support, and probably hates questionnaires too. But like him, I can't help but wonder if the defenestration of those at the top (Michael Gove? Willetts? the Vice-Chancellor?) would lighten the burden somewhat…

Disturbed minds and disturbing facts

Wow. 25% of Americans have mental health problems. 5-10% of Japanese do. Living in an equal society is good for your mental health, while advanced capitalist societies will make you mentally ill. I knew this, vaguely knowing a little about 1970s psychiatry - the mavericks questioned why they should patch people up to cope in such a messed-up society, rather than pushing to develop a culture and economy which doesn't literally drive people mad.

Unequal countries lock far more people up: the USA locks up 0.5% of its population, which is huge, and the UK isn't far back. It isn't more crime, it's harsher punishment: 3 Californians were imprisoned for shoplifting. We also have nastier prisons: nice Scandinavians try to help criminals - Americans, British and Singaporeans brutalise their prisoners, leading to even worse outcomes. We fear each other more and empathise less (or in prime minister John Major's words, 'it's time to condemn a little more and understand a little less', which is one of the dumbest and most cynical things I've heard for decades.

We're on to inherited wealth. A witty aside uses David Cameron et al. to point out that your father's income predicts a son's wealth far better in unequal societies than equal ones: rich people hold on to their cash and make sure their kids get all the advantages. Cameron's father made millions in finance. David inherited millions, went to Eton (£40,000 per year) and got into an élite university, the classic springboard to further wealth and power. If your dad is a milkman, you won't start with an élite education, a big bank account, a deposit for a house, and the social networks which come with wealth. Unless you're in Scandinavia, where they've managed to arrange a society in which humble backgrounds don't automatically lead to a humble life. In Sweden, infant mortality is better for every class than England and Wales - and the percentage hardly wavers across social classes, whereas far more poor infants die than rich ones in England and Wales. Why? Better-educated parents spotting problems? Better-fed mothers and children? Pushier parents? Probably all of these reasons and more.

It's about time we just asked the Norwegians to invade.

Lots of good questions: whether it's possible to persuade ideologically-opposed people, and what the practical steps to a more equal society might be. Unsurprisingly, cracking down on tax avoidance and bonus culture, and asking the rich to pay more tax are top of the list. Also having more workers on boards of directors (as that notoriously poor country, Germany, does). More democracy, more mutuals, more co-operatives, better working and living conditions with less social segregation. Fewer line managers (Oh yes, that strikes a chord…)! Lots of attacks on the government's claims to 'fairness' while public services are being cut.

A few disturbing facts

Japan, Finland, Norway, Sweden: the richest 20% are 3-4 times richer than the poorest 20%. In the UK it's 7.9% and 8.5% for the US. Note that the former countries are richer, happier, calmer, and more equal. The differences would be even more extreme if we took the top and bottom 10%. In the US, average wages have actually decreased since the 1970s, while the rich have become massively richer.

How many members of Congress are millionaires? Almost all of them. 22 of the UK's 28-strong government Cabinet are multimillionaires: that's why you won't be seeing equality any time soon.

The US is off the scale for crime, infant mortality, murder, mental illness, teenage births, imprisonment and addiction (with the UK nearby) - the more equal countries, though relatively poorer, are right down on the scale. It's not average income - it's relative, or how the cash is distributed. The USA is hugely rich - but still locks up huge numbers of people (mostly black) and abandons millions to charitable healthcare and poor education because they're ideologically opposed to governments intervening in peoples' lives.

Here's an interesting one: in more unequal countries, people distrust each other more - only 15-25% of Americans and British trust their compatriots, whereas 65-70% of the Scandinavians trust each other, leading to stronger communities and less social decay. The same is true of the US states: Mississipians, Alabamans and Arkansans distrust each other (they also go to church more, vote Republican more and shoot each other more, which goes to show that liberals and lefties are just nicer people).

Spirit Level live

I'm here live-blogging Professor Richard Wilkinson, here to talk about his and Professor Kate Pickett's brilliant sociological analysis, The Spirit Level.

Conspicuous by their absence amongst the very big crowd are any members of my British Cultural Experience class, despite my formal requirement that they attend this instead of my lecture today. My revenge will be swift, unexpected and merciless. I guess it goes to show that you can hold a horse's head under water, but you still can't make it drink.

Witty start - and with no notes. He's starting by pointing out that his book simply provides the data for the common sense assumption that fatter, short-lived, poorer, unhappier, more criminal, less healthy people are more common in less equal societies, whether or not these are relatively poor or relatively rich countries. He also says we've reached the end of economic growth as a driver of positive outcomes - very interesting given the environmental catastrophe of consumerist growth economics.

The 100 Second History of the World

This is a fascinating piece of grassroots history: the video animates a timeline of all Wikipedia's historical events which are given a geotag. As time advances, recorded history spreads across the globe - or some of it.

A History of the World in 100 Seconds from Gareth Lloyd on Vimeo.

Apart from being beautiful, does it mean anything? Well, sort of. It's not about history. It's about Wikipedia and access to information. To be recorded in this video, an event has to be deemed worthy of inclusion. Who are the gatekeepers? Most of Wikipedia's contributors and editors are decent liberal people with a curious and informed attitude, but I'm willing to bet that they're an elite of European or European-ancestry white people from capitalist Western countries. Note that Africa remains largely dark on the map despite being the place from which we all emerged. Has nothing happened there? Of course it has: but African history is largely understood the history of what white people did there: I know very little about the continent between the formation of the Rift Valley and the foundation of the Royal African Company (with an uptick around Rome v. Carthage and Egypt). Other events are lost, unrecorded, absent from European-language accounts or seen as less important than other categories of activity.

This isn't to say that this video isn't fascinating and a useful piece of historiography: it dramatises cultural relativism in a way a lecture couldn't.

Hypocrisy, thy name is Uppal!

My mediocre MP managed to get his pennorth in the parliamentary debate on bombing Libya. Oddly enough for a man with a formal post in the All-Parliamentary Group on Saudia Arabia (main activity: justifying one of the most savage and ruthless regimes in the world), he's posing as a liberal interventionist when it comes to Libya.

I know that there might be charges of hypocrisy and that people are asking why we are choosing Libya and not Bahrain, why we are not addressing the situation in Yemen and why we are choosing to act in this specific situation, but we can only deal with the situation as it is presented to us.

All this shows is - of course - that politicians are devoid of principle: they can see which way the wind is blowing and adapt their rhetoric accordingly. What Uppal says (amongst the habitual reference to how heroic his family is and suspiciously apposite quotes) is utterly meaningless. The 'situation' in Bahrain is that 70% of the population is shut out from economic and civic society by a ruling class which looks only after itself. Now it's called in Paul's Saudi friends to crush the population. That does make Paul a hypocrite because he's in favour of liberation in Libya now that Gaddafi's no longer wanted, and simultaneously in favour of massive repression in Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries because… well, as far as I can see, because he like rich, repressive regimes. The Saudis buy guns (to use on their neighbours' civilians) and sell oil. We don't want to disturb that little carousel.

Some poor sixth-formers had the misfortune to be accompanied by Uppal on a trip to Auschwitz. I wonder if he managed to refrain from plugging his self-interested views on taxation and from handing out Conservative propaganda. Uppal's feeling about the experience is heartfelt:

On reflection, there were many lessons to learn about that journey but one thing was more pertinent than anything else in my discussions with those sixth formers-they wondered how we had let that tyranny and oppression come to fruition

Yes, that's right. Tyranny and oppression are bad. Unless it's your Saudi paymasters and their friends. How have these things come about? Because unintelligent and selfish Conservative multimillionaires prefer to sell weapons to tyrants who'll do their realpolitik bidding.

Not his finest moment.

Solidarity, Baby!

We're striking on Thursday (not me, I'm away, damn it), and the National Union of Students fully supports us:

NUS President Aaron Porter was quoted in the Guardian on Monday saying  "huge cuts to university budgets ideologically imposed by this government pose a massive threat to jobs and education. NUS has worked closely with UCU throughout our campaigns to oppose government cuts and stands in solidarity with their strike action next week." The NUS has also written to the Employers’ Pension Forum urging them to meet UCU to resolve the dispute over USS.

Well, not quite. The President of our SU is a minion of management and takes a rather different view.

As a union we have to promote the idea of using the time to study. We are encouraging students to who are affected to use the time to catch up on work. Remember that there are two main unions at this university, UCU and Unison.  Unison are not striking.
I had a meeting with X [the man he seems to think is his boss] last week to discuss the University's stance on this. He informed us that the university will not be re-running any missed lectures and have no obligation to do so.  All they will do is make the work available for students.  For me, this is unacceptable as it means students are missing out. Lecturers are not providing an alternative for students and it is because of this that we are unable o support.
the groups decision is that that we do support lecturers but we have to put "students' First", A should have made this clear to you.
As I'm sure you will understand, we find ourselves in a difficult situation here, but we are a Students' Union and our first duty is always to you the student.  Students are affected adversely by the strike abut are not to blame for the situation we are in.  Students expect to be taught and receive the education they have paid for. 

He seems to have forgotten that he's elected to take the bigger picture - not act as a complaints desk or shop assistant. Students will miss a day's formal teaching. If the university and government get their way, they'll miss out on staff being able to pick them out from a crowd, staff who aren't working two jobs, and staff who aren't completely demoralised.

Clearly his election didn't include a literacy test either.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Banks 1, Japan 0

Apparently the Japanese tsunami is going to cost them 'as much as £145bn'. That's a lot of money. How will we ever find enough cash to help them out?

Oh wait. The UK found £20bn to bail out the banks, according to the Bank of England. The US handed over $100bn. The total cost to the UK economy in lost output is £7.4 trillion.

Funny how fast the banks got their (our) cash. Funny how slow it's going to be to help the Japanese. I'm going to phone my bank and ask them to send the money I lent them via the government to Japan.

Congratulations Utah

How sweet. Utah has added another state symbol to the list (why do Americans do this?). This time, it's a gun. Not even a hunting rifle. A Browning (so-called because of it's effect on the victim's undercrackers) semi-automatic pistol. Because when the rest of the US comes for its multiple wives, Utah's got to be ready?

I have readers in Utah. Is happiness a warm gun? Or is this plain crazy? Will kids be taught a list in school? State cute bird (gull), state fluffy animal (bee), state murder weapon?

Reminder: gun murders in the US last year - almost 10,000. 16204 murders in total. So while the NRA's right that 'guns don't kill people, people do', it's pretty clear that they prefer to do it with a gun. Even in Utah (It's the orange one above red Arizona). But now they can do it patriotically.