Saturday, 23 April 2011

The far-famed Kerry mountains

I went for a wander along the river today as well - lots of rare birds hiding in the reeds and bees buzzing about. Click on these to enlarge - I'll post a load of them when I get back to work.

Pedal to the metal

Well, one day in Kerry and I've already seen a stage finish in a major (and mountainous) cycle race - the Ras Mumhan. I can't post all the photos on this connection (I'd be back at work before they'd be uploaded), but here are a few - I'll put the rest online in a week or so:

The stage winner

Uphill sprint finish for the peloton

Celebrating that elusive 132nd place

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Easter intermission

Well, that's enough for one term. I'm off to foreign climes for a week, including a day as a wedding photographer (gulp), so you won't hear much if anything from me. You lucky dogs. I'll be too busy contemplating Jesus, who sacrificed his life for our sins. Of course I will.

Those of you writing dissertations: get on with it. And reference everything. The rest of you - have a good holiday.

This is what Easter's about. Isn't it?

Or this, from the divine XTC:

Feez R Kool!

The Hegemon has remained suspiciously quiet about what fees we're going to charge (you could try its Twitter feed (featuring not major fees decision but an Easter Egg hunt) or Facebook page, but I wouldn't stay in waiting for a reply) - despite having informed the government what the plan is. And obviously we academic staff haven't been consulted.

We'd be mad to charge less than £8000: the cut in the teaching grant and inflation will swallow all that up without investing a single penny in staff, equipment, buildings, books etc. So we may as well go for the full £9000 - virtually every other university has done, and who wants to be the BeJam University. Given that students are going to be paying it back over 40 years, that extra £1000 won't make much difference on top of their almost £20,000 per year, taking living expenses into account.

It's such a con: graduates will be paying full taxes plus the repayment, so they'll be heavily financially stressed for a service that a) won't be any better than under the £3000 regime - and possibly worse, and which is a public good, not a private benefit (except for business, law and golf course management degrees: you people can sod off). The whole thing stinks.

Here's the direction we're headed in (click to enlarge):

Amusingly, the Hegemon's Twitter feed reports a nonsense poll on the institution's main website which finds that 80% of voters think that social networking media ruin social skills. It's certainly true of the Hegemon: it doesn't engage in dialogue, only one-way propaganda. FAIL, as the kids say.

Their current poll is even more moronic:

Do you understand the 'Alternative Vote' system?

Total Votes: 152

Er… what does this tell us? It might easily be the case that ALL the people who think they understand AV actually don't, or that all the people voting 'no' actually do: it's a perception question, not a factual one. But I bet they think it gives evidence about how many people actually understand it or not. 

Books once more

I had a few books in the post this week, nothing to excite you lot. But I did get this beautiful bit of Gregynog typography framed for the office:

It should impress Mark: thousands of his 15,000 books were bought solely for their pulp covers. 

My summer music hits

They told me in the record shop that this lot sound like Galaxie 500. Feldberg very much don't sound like Galaxie 500: much more like St. Etienne. But they're still very good. I nominate these Icelanders as my album of the holiday.

This is what Galaxie 500 sound like: this is their cover of the Velvets' 'Here She Comes Now'.

They're one of my favourite bands ever. They're successor band, Damon and Naomi, also wrote a song called 'The New Historicism', which I think is cool. Add that to Scritti Politti's 'Jacques Derrida' and we've got the beginnings of a critical theory soundtrack!

He is out of the office and will reply to your mail in due course

I quite like it when ancient institutions and corporations try to make themselves look cool and down with the kids by using new media and the like. They always do it badly: Paul Uppal MP has a moribund Twitter account, as does The Hegemon and a range of politicians: you can tell they don't mean it because they don't engage in any dialogue. Instead, they just send things out (Uppal doesn't even manage that) as an extension of their PR. I believe this is known as a FAIL.

However, it saddens even an evil atheist like me to see the Church of England stooping to our level. I saw a poster outside a church today which read 'God Answers Kneemail'. Tragic. And a hostage to fortune: it's tempting to phone the Advertising Standards Agency.

I tried it. This is all I got in reply:

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Immigrants: what have they ever done for us, eh?

Feorag NicBhride (Scots Gaelic for 'Squirrel'!) has quite a lengthy list. It includes basic foods, drinks, the language, law, cutlery, the alphabet, tea, music,  sport, music, politics, religion, the built environment, business, culture…

Sorry, 'English' racists, you're descended from immigrants too, and (brilliantly) there's no way to distinguish between any of the people on these islands: we're pretty much all Celto-Norman-Saxon-with lots of other bits.

This isn't to say that there aren't cultural differences which can be celebrated and enjoyed. But it's a useful reminder that there's no point at which anyone can say there was a 'pure' people or culture no matter what Nick Griffin or the GAA or anybody else says. Quite often the process of hybridisation was violent or involuntary. Get over it.

(Disclosure: I wander the world with an Irish passport).

False Consciousness Begone!

China's anti-government protesters have hit on a genius way of winding up the government, though it has certain ethical drawbacks, as you'll see.

They're online, encouraging people to 'protest' by simply going for an aimless afternoon stroll at popular locations: shopping centres, campuses and so on. No placards, banners, slogans or marching, just an innocuous promenade.

So how do you spot the 'protesters' from the ordinary people doing their shopping or enjoying the breeze? You can't. So the Chinese police can either leave everyone alone and risk subversion spreading, or crack the heads of those they don't like the look of (this is what they decided on). Innocent people get a beating. Then they start to wonder how legitimate the state is, if it indiscriminately beats up ordinary people and subversion spreads anyway.

Genius: it's a hard lesson for the victims but it certainly punctures the belief that the state is essentially benign. In Marxist terms, their 'false consciousness' (traditionally applied to the belief that capitalism benefits the workers as well as the bourgeois) is stripped away.

Do the ends justify the means? In this case, perhaps. It's a clever idea in so many ways. The government loses whether it reacts or not. It's protest as non-protest. It's making my head hurt.

Every penny well-deserved

The 2009-10 University Vice-Chancellors' pay figures are out, and - as we suspected - our Dear Leaderene has received a whopping 3.07%: rather more than our own 0.4%, and a proper recognition of her leadership skills, including, of course, the redundancies which saw 150 (and counting) of her staff forced out of their jobs because she and her executive 'didn't understand' the rules about what counts as a student, and had to repay the government £millions.

For the record, she got £201,824 and £33,176 in pension contributions. She won't be darkening the door of Lidl anytime soon. I wonder what the 2010-11 pay scales will reveal…

At least we're near the top of one league table, eh readers?

My poor wasted ears

I did an online hearing test just now. The results are very depressing: I may have hearing impairment. It's so unfair: I've restricted my music choices to wet indie lo-fi for all these years, for nought. I'm going back to Slayer as of today.

I've known for a few years that my hearing was bad: any background noise and I can't pick up conversation, which makes pubs and clubs quite uncomfortable. Add to that the ear infection I caught while swimming last year and you have bad news.

A few years ago I saw a documentary in which an audiologist tested the ears of young men who obsessively loaded their cars with bigger, louder sound systems. When one was shown evidence that he'd permanently damaged his hearing, his response was 'So you're saying I need bigger speakers?'. I mocked him then. Now I'm thinking he was onto something.

Oh well. Here's something by those long-lost oddities The Deaf School:

Cheeky bastard

David Cameron is threatening to block Gordon Brown's appointment to the IMF because
 it was important that the role went to someone who "gets" the dangers of excessive debt and deficit. 
Er… that's true. Gordon Brown's utterly guilty of encouraging the banks and other speculators to go mad. The idea was that taxes from the City would fill in the gap where proper industries that employed lots of people used to be. More generous benefits and better schools, hospitals and so on would go some way to ameliorating the fact that we had an economy but fewer and fewer jobs other than hairdressers and Starbucks waiters.

In a swipe at Brown, Cameron raised doubts about his suitability for the post, saying he was someone "who didn't think we had a debt problem in the UK when we self evidently do".

But I'm not taking this from Cameron. (It's not true, for a start: lots of countries have far worse deficits and higher debts and get along fine: he's just using the recession as an excuse to cut public services for ideological reasons).

Cameron's the multimillionaire son of a stockbroker who spent his entire time in opposition calling for less regulation of the banks. He actually thought that the minimal rules in place under Labour should be weakened even further because he has this idea that 'creative chaos' will produce an innovative society. Bashing Brown is a deeply cynical attempt to rewrite history, and I'm shocked he's been this blatant. The pair of them thought that a global economy could and should be run on massive multiples of debt - but Cameron was by far the worst of the two.

What we need at the IMF is someone who isn't white and western, who isn't a man, and who isn't a capitalist. The IMF shouldn't be the first-aid kit for a system that's failed: it should be a toolbox for a more sensible and redistributive economy. It was pointed out recently that the entire crash was the result of too much money sloshing around, not too little: the IMF is guilty of punishing those countries who resisted these overbalancing attacks (particularly the South Americans, who've ridden the storm very well) and rewarding those who've got into the worse messes through their own greed.

Boo to Brown and Cameron can just feck off.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Look, chickens roosting

The Hegemon signed a contract with the UAE's Interior Ministry to deliver policing training, a while back. I pointed out to the Vice-Chancellor that the country's state forces and royal family have a habit of torturing and murdering their opponents (on video): she didn't seem particularly bothered about that. I also asked about academic freedom: she wasn't interested in that either (the UAE forbids trades unions, collective action, demonstrations, academic autonomy…).

Now that the UAE has arrested Nasser bin Ghaith, perhaps we'll have a rethink. He's a lecturer at the Sorbonne's Abu Dhabi outlet (I don't think of them as colleges of their parents, more like retail franchises) who apparently suggested that a stronger judiciary would be better for business. The rebel!

So: contact your local UAE embassy to request clarification of the charges against him, and don't let your management get away with this nonsense.

Wow, the reverse ferret in action

Most football journalists have spent the past few years mocking and sneering at Stoke City's 'anti-football' blah blah blah.

It's different today - here's what the Guardian says:
Stoke City did so much more than reach the FA Cup final for the first time in their history with this remarkable result. The manner of their victory also laid down a marker for their meeting with Manchester City at Wembley in a little under four weeks' time. Stoke, on this evidence, will present a major obstacle to Roberto Mancini's hopes of winning his first piece of silverware at Eastlands.
I actually don't think Stoke will win, but it will be close.

Thoughts, schmoughts

Our Dear Leader, who inexplicably bothered acquiring an Oxford degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, has announced that from now on, intelligence and reason are no longer required to be a politician.

"For me, politics shouldn't be some mind-bending exercise. It's about what you feel in your gut – about the values you hold dear and the beliefs you instinctively have. And I just feel it, in my gut, that AV is wrong."

Lovely. I look forward to the return of hanging, book-burning, paedo-lynching and all the other manifestations of nice, decisive gut-following. Clearly having an ideological vision of the ideal state is old hat. We just want knees jerking in unison, not mature reflection in response to changing events and contexts.

Unless… you don't think that he's posturing as a populist simply to pander to the prejudices of the Sun and Daily Mail readership do you? Surely not. That would be desperately cynical.

Anyway, I'm keen to hear what his 'gut' tells him about the Public Sector Borrowing Rate, what the maximum PPM CO2 level should be, where interest rates should be and all the other intricate decisions that need a little more thought than an instant 'reckon'.

He agrees with Nick

This is David Cameron. Unfortunately, he's the Prime Minister. He's campaigning against the Alternative Vote electoral system. He says it will let in extremist parties like the BNP, Britain's Nazis.

This is Nick Griffin. He's the leader of the BNP. He's campaigning against the Alternative Vote system too. He probably thinks it's foreign.

This is Paul Uppal. He's not campaigning on anything because he's got money to count, but if he was, he'd be supporting his leader and the racist BNP because he does what he's told without the teensiest hint of mental activity behind his eyes.

Personally, I tend to think that the Conservatives are wrong about everything. When they're agreeing with the British National Party, they really need to reconsider their ideological positions.

Who's been a naughty boy then?

Today's task is marking resit essays - fresh attempts by those who've fallen short, or tried to cheat. I'm particularly looking forward to marking the one by a chap who came to one class, handed in an essay which didn't mention either of the two philosophers (Kant and Mill) who formed the core of the module, then claimed he'd been there the whole time. I hope today doesn't turn into an extended episode of Plagiarist Patrol ('When a footnote's wrong/And there's a suspicious pong/Who ya gonna call?/Cheat Busters!')


Sunday, 17 April 2011

Going Potty

Well that was one of the most joyful 90 minutes of my life as a Stoke fan, of which there aren't many. We've just beaten Bolton, who usually play attractive football, 5-0 to get into the FA Cup final for the first time ever, and better finishing would have made the score even higher.

Somehow it feels wrong - Stoke fans aren't bred for success. We're used to spending Saturday evenings in post-defeat gloom and Mondays soaking up the abuse of our 'friends' and colleagues. I remember the days when Port Vale (!) had the local bragging rights… I wonder where they are now. Anyway, all this means is that we'll be too tired to win the matches we need to survive the Premiership, and we're merely postponing defeat until the final. No. That's the old mentality. We're going to win everything from now on. Ahem.

Stoke's first goal goes in: many more to come!

Friday, 15 April 2011

Review of the week

Blackberry has a tablet computer out. It doesn't even do e-mail. BoingBoing doesn't like it:
 It's shit
Some people think swearing is infantile and a sign of linguistic inadequacy. Me, sometimes it's useful. I like the concise nature of this one.

The Last Supper - with nachos

I adore Chris Parks' rendering of the Last Supper, using luchador wrestlers and Mexican food. It taps into the skateboarding subculture beautifully, and the Mexican aspects are spot on, evoking that culture's much more emotional approach to Catholicism. I was brought up in Irish and British Catholicism: a lot of silence and shutting-up. Hispanic, especially Mexican Catholicism is much more dramatic, whether it's the festivals or the misery (partly because it's a cover for pre-Christian activities too). I don't think I'd believe in God if religious practice had been more fun, but I might not despise it quite so much:

Manacles from the Bahrainis. How sweet.

I'm off to a couple of weddings over Easter, neither of which is the royal one. Apparently despite (or perhaps because of) my lack of hands dripping with blood, I'm not on the list, which reads like British Aerospace's weaponry customer database. Perhaps the gifts list is organised by BAe too.

Amongst the guests is the King of Bahrain, currently busy violently crushing the democracy movement with the help of the Saudi and Emirati armies. Their rulers will be at the wedding too.

So it looks like a good day for a revolution if you're a Saudi woman, Bahraini proletarian or Emirati guest worker.

Happy Holidays, Mr Uppal

In case you're wondering why I've not found any reason to castigate the Mediocre Millionaire, it's because Paul Uppal MP is enjoying a well-deserved break, like all our dedicated and hard-working Members of Parliament. To be honest, I'd much rather he was doing nothing rather than engaging in his usual activities: bigging himself up, parroting party lines and promoting legislation designed to enrich himself at the expense of the taxpayer.

Just in case you don't know, this is Uppal's punishing working schedule, for which he's paid £65,000 p.a. Of course he might be working hard in his constituency during the recess, as many MPs do… but I doubt it. Perhaps he'll use the recess to finally present to the police all the evidence about electoral fraud that he always goes on about but never produces. Or perhaps he'll visit his friends in the Saudia Arabian regime and encourage them to crack down further on those pesky agitators for women's freedom and democracy.

Parliamentary Holidays

21 December 2010
10 January 2011
Half term
17 February 2011
28 February 2011
5 April 2011
26 April 2011
24 May 2011
7 June 2011
19 July 2011
5 September 2011
15 September 2011
10 October 2011
20 December 2011
10 January 2012

Getting slightly surreal here

I'm trying to mark resit essays this morning, slowly and reluctantly. Outside, it's International Day, when we try to attract rich kids from outside the EU. Right now, an accordionist is playing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling (not a common occurrence at the moment) in one corner, while the knee bells of another folk band are jangling to a different tune. It's all rather jolly. I may have to skive off for a few minutes.

Did I post this bit of found poetry earlier? I've a memory like a sieve…

Hmm. International Day seems to be exactly the kind of half-arsed job this place specialises in: a few tents, hosting people from China, Nepal, Estonia, Germany and some aging expats from Ireland, plus a couple of Indian musicians. This rather random collection outnumbers the students - which is quite predictable on a Friday afternoon at the fag-end of the term, when most of those here are doing exams… A nice idea, but so badly organised. I'm sure those taking exams right now are loving the massed drum-and-triangle band now assaulting my ears.

Out and about

I always wonder about the stories behind women losing their shoes in town centres. I assume drink is involved. But how do they get home?

I also spotted this recently - oatcakes are a North Staffordshire delicacy, like a crepe with more roughage. 

Thursday, 14 April 2011

This is what humans will do to get by


Why DO I hate C. S. Lewis so much?

Partly it's the hammer blows of unsubtle allegory, but it's basically theological. In the final instalment of the Narnia series, The Last Battle, the children are killed in a train crash when they go back to our world. Sorry if I've just ruined the plot for you. It's all done in a dreamy and calm fashion, and then he goes and summarises their violent deaths thus:
 'The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.'
Susan, of course, isn't with them - as an adolescent female, she's become interested in lipsticks and tights and is therefore persona non grata in heaven. But we'll leave aside Lewis's misogyny and skip straight to the anti-humanism. By characterising life on earth as 'school' - the boring version - and as a training period before the important and fun bit, Lewis completely rejects the idea that life on earth has any meaning at all. It's just the waiting room. 

That makes me very angry. I'm with the radical atheists on this one. Life is exciting and meaningful and important precisely because we are little more than a brief blip of consciousness between eternal nothingness. We shouldn't live as though what we do will get us into heaven - it leads to a life of caution, oppression and calculation. Whereas if you're keenly aware that we've got until tomorrow, or next year, or at best a few decades, then everything we do is invested with huge significance. 

Of course, this is rather idealistic. If I really lived like this, there'd be less blogging, less TV, less idly staring out of the window and more grand romances, bungee jumps, political assassinations and coups d'état in my live. As it is, I largely wasted my twenties and my thirties (half-over now) are sliding by in a welter of Green Lantern t-shirts and arguments about Stoke City's back four: interesting yes, but not things I'll look back on as major achievement when faced with the blackness on my deathbed. 

Lewis's disgusting formulation is a classically Christian approach: heaven as a disciplinary measure designed to make you behave. It's deeply conservative too: slaves were always told that they'd get their rewards in heaven if they behaved while on earth - socialists say get your rewards now, because there ain't no heaven. John Stuart Mill called the afterlife 'a more cunning sort of police' (in 'The Utility of Religion') and suggested we all pursue progressive activities while alive, achieving immortality 'in the life of those who are to follow them'. 

To Kafka, the paradox of the human condition was that we thought we'd been expelled from one Paradise and looked forward to entering another (if we were lucky), when in fact 'we are currently there, whether we know it or not' (one of the Zürau Aphorisms). 

Let's give the last words to Pliny:

All men are in the same state from their last day forward as they were before their first day, and neither body nor mind has any more sensation after death than it had before birth. But wishful thinking prolongs itself into the future and falsely invents for itself a life that continues beyond death, sometimes by giving the soul immortality or a change of shape, sometimes by according feeling to those below, worshipping spirits and deifying one who has already ceased to even a man.These imaginings are characteristic of childish gibberish and of mortal men greedy of everlasting life.  (Pliny, Natural History, p. 103) 

Book news

Alongside a massive pile of marking, two new books to add to the Cavern of Untouched Print that is my office (and flat): Tricia Sullivan's teen shopping-and-survival dystopian romp Maul, and Bernard O'Donoghue's Selected Poems, a lovely elegant Faber and Faber presentation.

I bought the O'Donoghue on the strength of Claire Connolly's paper, '"What a Revolution Was Here": Llandudno and Banal Nationalism' at the AWWE conference I was at last weekend - she read and analysed O'Donoghue's 'The Rainmaker', and I was hooked. Here's the first stanza:

In the café at Crewe, you can still feel
The old excitement of trains: a stranger's
Eye-contact, held guiltily too long.
But as the Bangor train-time approaches,
Gradually the glamorous melt away
For Lime Street, Euston or Piccadilly.
You take your seat alone, half-reading the paper.

I know Crewe station all too well, and there's no romanticism knocking around the dusty corners any more. On the contrary, it's the Bangor train where the romance occurs: speeding across the Cheshire plain, Beeston Castle a rude and sudden imposition on the flatness, then on to the first glimpses of the Dee and the Wirral, an abandoned cruise ship rusting on the mud flats, then the sea proper, and the mountains.

Faded holiday resorts flit past (or worse, stay in your sight for hours), signs and conversations start appearing in Welsh, the locations of all the novels and histories I've read start to manifest themselves: Emyr Humphreys' North-East, Conwy, Llandudno, Eryri. At the end of some of those journeys, my old university town, Bangor - symbolising mischief and learning and adulthood.

Sometimes though, it's not the end of the line and the journey becomes one of my ancestral trails - through bleakly historic Ynys Môn, into benighted Holyhead and embarking for Ireland the proper way: a pint of porter, a book and the slow return to a place both home and away.

Shit Harper Did

This is a lovely political website - beautifully designed - pointing out the things done by Stephen Harper, Tory Prime Minister of Canada, who prefers to rule without a parliament, and is the only person on the planet to see George W. Bush as a role model.

Not another f•••••g elf!

Fantasy author George R. R. Martin (I've got one of his books but haven't read it yet) is a bit narked by a) his fans and b) the snobbery of those who look down on fantasy.

"Yes – 90% of fantasy is crap," he tells me. "And so is 90% of science fiction and 90% of mystery fiction and 90% of literary fiction. But I don't think the mere presence of an elf means it can't be a great book.

I have to admit that whereas I read an awful lot of fantasy in my teens, I can hardly bear to read it anymore, unless it's parodic or brilliant: Terry Pratchett does it for me, especially the children's ones like Tiffany Aching because he's clearly an emotional lefty at heart, as does Sheri S. Tepper (eco-feminist with a great turn of phrase). I find myself agreeing with C. S. Lewis (whose work I simply cannot abide other than Surprised By Joy), who during a reading by his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, supposedly burst out with 'Oh no, not another fucking elf!" (in actual fact it was another don, Hugo Dyson). I admire Tolkien's industry and linguistic skills, but the dialogue, plotting and characterisation are all awful.

This is Lewis on his childhood - wonderful (if you exclude his mother's death when he was nine, and growing up in gloomy Belfast):

"I am the product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also of endless books," Lewis wrote in his autobiographical book Surprised by Joy (1955). "There were books in the study, books in the drawing-room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents' interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most empathically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves..."

(If you want to read a fairly sympathetic account of the slightly odd Oxford academics who invented modern fantasy, read Carpenter's The InklingsI've drifted hard towards the hard SF subgenre: proper physics not pointy ears.

The problem is that fantasy is in many ways far more difficult than realist writing. To escape the shadows of Tolkien (someone else I now find almost unreadable) yet create convincing fantastic worlds is really challenging: you've got to suspend people's disbelief while making the existence of various magical creatures and far-fetched scenarios convincing. Space opera, in a sense, is easier: life aboard a cramped spaceship can be nicked from the naval novel tradition to achieve a sense of realism, and SF is always about the concerns of our contemporary society  - DNA, genetic engineering, racial conflict, terrorism, environmental collapse - it's all there. Fantasy presumably taps into our concerns too, but too much of it is distracting: silly names, stupid dialogue, repressed sexuality dealt with badly, showing off. Far too much of it simply takes the established generic paradigms (elves as ethereal, evil to be vanquished blah blah blah) and does nothing interesting with it. Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth was one of the profoundest disappointments of my recent reading history: who'd have thought that a massive novel set in the last period of human existence before the planet became uninhabitable could be both boring and whimsical?

I've posted that XKCD comic before, but he's just right. I'm sure I've read lots of good fantasy, but few pop into my head. Peake's Gormenghast hardly counts as fantasy. Actually, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and American Gods do come to mind. The Jasper Fforde novels are pretty good but fit under parody and literary humour really. Pryce's Aberystwyth Mon Amour series is set in an alternative history Wales (dramatised on Radio Wales and no longer available, damn their eyes), but it's really crime parody. China Miéville's New Gothic Fantasy novels are dark, witty, sometimes horrifying and highly political. Gwyneth Jones is one of the living authors I most respect, but I'm not sure her work is fantasy, really. What else? Scarlett Thomas's The End of Mr Y is wonderful: sex, metamorphoses and literary theory in one witty romp. Jo Walton's Among Others is a profound exploration of our psychological dramas, reading strategies, identity formation and post-industrial Wales - highly recommended. Michael Moorcock is, I'm convinced, going to be one of the cultural highlights of the twentieth century when people look back in a couple of hundred years - like a countercultural, naughty version of Ballard and Wyndham (see also Alan Moore).

Children in general get a much better deal: Pullman of course, Melvin Burgess's Bloodtide series retelling the Icelandic Völsung saga in post-apocalyptic London, John Masefield (The Box of Delights is a chilly, Christmassy masterpiece), Alan Garner (totally wonderful), Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden. I'm going to put a word in for J. K. Rowling here too. Yes, her genius is for pulling together very familiar tropes from pre-existing children's literature (hello Jill Murphy's The Worst Witch, Diana Wynne Jones - who passed away recently - and Mary Stewart's The Little Broomstick amongst others) but she's funnier than she's given credit for and she has a true gift for conveying the complexities of childhood friendships and enmities. The Wind in the Willows is a book I re-read every year, and of course there's Alice. Oh, and The Princess Bride, one of the funniest, most knowing and postmodern novels I've read in years. Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series is gripping (badly served, as many authors are, by poor-quality films). Peter Dickinson's The Changes is strange and terrifying: the TV adaptation is sadly only available in chunks on Youtube, but the novel is even better - it took many years of guesswork and hunting before I tracked it down. Then there's Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh (early eco-children's fantasy) and Mary Poppins: the novels are a long way removed from Disney's sugary confection (which author P. L. Travers hated - she left the showing in tears).

If you fondly remember lots of these children's novels but have a darker sensibility, get yourself Alan Moore and Melanie Gebbie's Lost Girls: a deliberately pornographic graphic novel tracing - in three volumes - Alice, Dorothy (Oz) and Wendy (Peter Pan) as they explore their traumatic pasts and offer each other sexual and psychological solace in a hotel on the eve of World War I.

OK, I seem to have become quite distracted. What am I saying? Oh yes, that sword-and-sorcery novels are absolute unmitigated bilge (I'm looking at you, The Sword of Shannara, though my inner 14-year old is crying), but actually, there's some quite good stuff out there. Damn it. But my point remains. Perhaps when you're 14 and the real world looks pretty gloomy and you're trying to work out what you believe, adventure stories in which good triumphs against evil (or, shockingly, evil triumphs in a few rare cases) is irresistible. It may be a boy thing: I don't think girls (sadly) are encouraged to consider the Big Issues, and definitely not meant to fantasise about martial derring-do. They're (or were) given stuff to make them worry about breasts and boyfriends and fitting-in and learning to behave. I think I was better off with fantasy actually.

Badgers? We don't need no stinking badgers!

The face of agricultural evil

At least, that's the government's position. There's a problem with bovine tuberculosis: our unhealthy cows, bred for maximum milk production rather than their own health, and kept in over-stocked sheds and fields, keep getting TB. 

The farming industry therefore blames badgers, even though they're so rare that they're a protected species: the idea is that these pestilence-ridden beasts sneak up and sneeze in cows' faces at night. 

In reality, it's a recurrence of the industrial farmers' traditional position: any animal on my land which doesn't have a subsidy cheque strung round its neck deserves to die (I'm from a rural area, I've seen it). Badgers, rabbits, birds of prey, hares, foxes - they're all resented for their theft of grass/air. The 'cull' is just an excuse to add variety to the list of animals shot by farmers. 

Is it fair of me to describe this as a plan to have some sport? Yes: this is what James Paice, Tory agriculture minister says:

 "As a countryman my view is that free shooting would, in most cases, be by far the most effective option."
He added: "There may be security issues but I am not talking about people just ranging around the countryside with a rifle. If you put a high seat over a sett you could kill most of them fairly quickly.

So the government's decided to allow anyone with a shotgun licence to go traipsing round the countryside blasting any freeloading badger they can find. Will it work? Well, it'll wipe out an awful lot of these fascinating and scarce creatures. Unfortunately, clearing one area of badgers will just provide room for the survivors to expand their territories. Either we kill all the badgers (something the farming lobby - mostly Tory landowners and corporations - would be happy with), or we kill none. According to the Krebs trial, culling badgers actually helped spread bovine TB, because the surviving badgers wandered even further, contaminating wider areas with TB. 

Under Labour a 10-year trial by independent scientists which saw the experimental culling of 10,000 badgers concluded that the culling "can make no meaningful contribution" to the control of bTB in cattle. It recommended controlling the disease with smarter controls on cattle movements.
A key finding was "perturbation" – that culling breaks up clannish badger communities, sending diseased survivors into neighbouring areas and actually increasing bTB in the neighbouring countryside.

Reduce the bovine population to healthy levels and treat them better, you say? Don't be ridiculous. That's not how modern farming works at all!

(it's a parody of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, in which the line is 'we don't need no stinking badges').

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Nurse! The screens!

Unpleasant privatisation-fixated Tory Health minister Andrew Lansley has added another glorious entry to the list of faux-apologies:

Andrew Lansley has said he is "sorry" for failing to communicate his plans for the NHS to health workers.  "I am sorry if what it is I am attempting to do is not communicated."

Clever. He's apologised for something nobody's accused him of. They voted (99% majority) that they have no confidence in him because of the 'reforms' he's imposing on the NHS, which will simply wreck it.

But he hasn't apologised for his stupid ideas. He's apologised for 'not communicating' them well. Nobody's made that claim. It's a Tory invention which they're pushing hard - the 'pause' in the legislation is so that Clegg, Cameron and Lansley can go on a sales trip, not question whether they've got it right.

The nurses understand what Lansley intends to do, very clearly. But in their professional opinions (and those of the doctors), it's madness.

Waffling about communications is a ruse, but a classic one beloved of politicians. They usually deploy the 'if' clause, as in 'if I've offended anyone by accusing my opponent of bestiality…'. Got to admire their rat-like cunning.

Memento Mori

I forgot to upload some pictures of dead daffodils and twilight down the canal to make you jealous that I live in a Dark Place and you don't. The whole set is here (new photos at the end), and here are some samples you can click on to enlarge.

Overexposed like a fried egg

Underexposed to bring out the detail

I really like this variety of daffodil

Contemplating mortality

Zombie daffs

Looks like a still life.

Made from Girders…

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum

Looks all dystopian. 

God hates the NHS!

In trying to abolish the National Health Service, Cameron, Clegg and Lansley are only trying to keep us from eternal damnation.


Yes, it's true. According to Rick Santorum (you'll like that link), quondam Republican Senate Chair, healthcare leads directly to hell, and government healthcare = dealing crack.

     “Think about how they view you,” he told the crowd of Republicans. “They view you no different than the drug dealer views the little kid in the school yard. They want to get you hooked, they want to get you dependent. They want to get you relying upon them for your wellbeing. And once they’ve satisfied you, giving them that drug, that narcotic, then you’ll be reliant on them and, by the way, you’ll also be less than what God created you to be.”
     The crowd thundered applause. Santorum talked about statistical proof of American exceptionalism — arguing that life expectancy didn’t increase for thousands of years until America was founded, and then it doubled in 200 years — but kept returning to the importance of next year’s election.
     It’s not enough to preach to committed Republicans and conservatives, Santorum said. “You all need to go out and build your own choir, all over this state, so when 2012 rolls around, you are ready to battle for America’s soul. That’s what’s at stake.”

Theologically of course, he's on to something. In the 17th century, Protestants were keen to throw off the collectivist Catholic inheritance which encouraged charity and Good Works as a path to salvation. In its place (and derived from the Renaissance emergence of individuality) was an emphasis on material life as an index of your spiritual health. Taking its cue from these Bible verses (Genesis 1):

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
the Protestants initiated a programme of imperialism and despoliation which has led us to where we are today: massively unequal and environmentally degraded. Plenty of American evangelicals oppose environmentalism on the grounds that a) pollution is part of the End Times or b) God will sort it out, and it's impertinent to interfere and c) earth's here to be bent to our whims, whatever the consequences. Robinson Crusoe is an early and brilliant exposition of this attitude: the island and Man Friday are the planet and its non-Christian inhabitants who exist only for Robinson's use. His spiritual health is measured by the success of his endeavours.

But the healthcare insanity is part of the other legacy of Protestantism: the idea that you should only look after yourself. If you're rich, it's because you've got God's favour. If you're poor, it's because you're spiritually lacking too. So the richer you are, the more likely it is you're going to heaven. Can you see why the Prosperity Churches and Hollywood-loving sects are doing so well? No more guilt, no more charity, just endless selfishness.

So under this theology, citizens getting together to provide healthcare (that's what government does: it's not being imposed by some kind of dictatorship) challenges God because it detracts from the isolated individualism of the 17th century.

What an enlightened philosophy. Unfortunately, health is a bit trickier. No vaccination for one = danger for everyone else, for instance. It's a public good, not something which should be restricted to the Godly Rich. Unless you're poor old Rick, constantly viewing the poor as some kind of conspiratorial Tools of the Devil.