Friday, 29 July 2011

Monster Monster Monster

Before I depart for a darkened room, I'll leave you with a snippet of Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony. And no, I haven't accidentally reversed his names, he decided that 'William' wouldn't do.

As if being called Havergal wasn't enough, he was a working-class lad from Stoke. He wasn't a famous composer in his lifetime - most of his 32 symphonies were composed in his 80s and 90s, and as an unashamed Romantic, he was deeply unfashionable.

His real claim to fame is the Gothic - triumphantly performed at the Proms this year, only the 7th performance since he completed it in 1927. It's nowhere near his best piece, but it's famous for the massive orchestra and choir needed. It takes two hours, and requires a hugely augmented symphony orchestra, four extra brass orchestras, four soloists, a children's choir and four adult choirs.

I've a huge soft spot for Brian. He had no advantages, managed to wreck his life every time things looked like they were going well, but he triumphed: he had a vision and pursued it. Even the Gothic, which is a curiosity really, is strangely wondrous, especially the violin solo and the wordless choirs. Sprawling, dysfunctional, dark and brooding, it's the perfect soundtrack to Gormenghast.

I'd move to New York for this

What a place. What a man. Mind you, the interior is a tidier version of my friend Mark's house.

I haven't yet found the Book Barge, which apparently is based in Staffordshire, but I will. I've been to the Cheese Boat, and it's a concept which should be encouraged. If you live near the boat and order a book, they'll deliver it by dinghy or bike.

I miss proper bookshops. There's one near the park in The Dark Place. It's like the final resting place of unwanted books, good and bad. 1950s home-brewing guides, feet of Monica Dickens and Jeffrey Farnol, battered Penguin Specials and all sorts of tat. I used to go there a lot, but when they realised that I was slowly buying their stock of Left Book Club editions, they tripled the price, which I thought was mean, especially as their previous prices was still expressed in £.s.d., suggesting that demand was minimal.

Where else do I like? Reader's World in Birmingham. Cramped, chaotic, dusty, cheap. It used to have added 'atmosphere' provided by the used porn room at the back, but that's largely gone. Furtive men would scurry past me as I browsed the pulp SF or old university textbooks, not meeting anyone's eyes.

There's a great shop in Littleborough, outside Manchester. It's George Kelsall's. They're very friendly and informed, and have a massive stock of books in a rambling building. Last time I was there, they let me have the run - unsupervised - of areas they don't normally let the public into. Sun streamed through onto aged wood, a clock ticked and time slid past.

And of course Webberley's in Stoke. Amidst the ruination brought about by Thatcherite economics, neglect, cynical architects and corruption, Webberley's stands proud and independent: a massive, hugely-stocked general books and art materials shop towering over Waterstone's. I've bought critical theory books there more cheaply than at certain online behemoths. It's been there since 1913 - long may it last. They also sell online.

More amazing and weird bookshops here (with thanks to Ewar).

What I'm reading…

In yet more proof that fiction is an essential guide to human behaviour, I'm processing the News of the World story by reading Howard Brenton's and David Hare's 1985 'Fleet Street Comedy', Pravda. Here's the Frank Rich quotation from the New York Times review which is on the back cover:
Pravda is an epic comedy: part The Front Page, part Arturo Ui - in which a press baron resembling Rupert Murdoch… does battle with over 30 characters as he conquers Fleet Street journalism and, by implication, liberal England's soul.
Mr Le Roux, the Murdoch avatar, turns broadsheets into tabloids and poisons the public sphere by deliberately dumbing-down the debate, while truth is replaced with whatever suits the business aims of his company. It's got leaks, dishonesty, fraud, arrogance, betrayal and incompetence.

Here's an extract on the nature of press-politician relationships:

The press and politicians. A delicate relationship. Too close, and danger ensues. Too far apart, and democracy itself cannot function. There must be an essential exchange of information. Creative leaks, a discreet lunch, interchange in the lobby, the art of the unattributable telephone call, late at night – ‘A source close to the Prime Minister’, meaning ‘the Prime Minister’. Yes. This mutual relationship is a good thing, and if it can be made concrete, formalised by an actual commercial arrangement...If I, for instance, were to offer you my private skill and influence, and in return you were to guarantee me access to your newspapers, if the channels of free expression were to be...(He pauses)...channelled in my direction, if ‘Man Of Steel’ were to be a regular feature, a column, written by myself, by me then democracy would be safeguarded. And we would have a very satisfactory deal.
Pravda; Act I Scene III 

Sound familiar?

A good day's work

Yesterday felt like several days rolled into one, by my lazy standards.
I wrote and sent a solid proposal for a conference.
Then I applied power tools to a narrowboat (yes, you've got Paddy back on the canals like it's 1830).
Then I drank carrot whisky with astrophysicists.

All in all, not a bad day. Now run along, Vole's got a little headache.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Damn his eyes…

My pal UnluckyDip has started a photo blog of pun-based shop names. I've been planning that for ages. I'll have to send him my crop: I encourage you to do the same. I particularly love Sherlock Homes in Stoke, and Con Hair in Manchester.

Not all doom and gloom

My colleague Ms. E-Mentor has won a National Teaching Fellowship for her work on electronic learning and teaching! While many - especially in management - see e-learning as a cheap and easy way to dispense with expensive rooms/staff/discussion, she's seen the intellectual advantages to mixed-media learning, inspired by
Morris’s famous statement, “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few” (‘The Lesser Arts’, 1877)

The Unruly Professor?

There's a debate going on about the value of humanities teachers claiming to be radically disruptive to the intellectual, philosophical and social status quo.
Although there were external dangers, argued Robert Post, dean of Yale Law School, the humanities also faced a number of "internal threats". Many scholars in the field claimed that their work was "inherently disruptive" and possessed "the charismatic authority of art rather than mere disciplinary competence". This, suggested Professor Post, was a huge error.

I'm suspicious. Most of us, I would think, believe that guiding students to and through thought-provoking literature in thought-provoking ways, might help them to treat and see the world differently when they leave. Get a critical mass of these enlightened thinkers and hegemony is threatened, goes the thinking.

Of course, it's a fantasy. There are totemic self-promoting radicals: Zizek, Chomsky, Bloom (on the conservative-radical wing) and others. But I think they perform another function, one which would enrage them. They're signifiers of academic freedom, the lipstick on the pig. To their supporters, they evince radical truths. To their detractors, they're publicly-funded subversives. To both groups, they're convenient icons of what's right and wrong about academia.

The rest of us are quietly liberal or actually conservative. While telling the students how wonderful Judith Butler and Foucault are, we connive in the process of churning out obedient work drones. Look at university finance/banking departments: they promoted the perfectibility of investment through ever more complex financial instruments, leading to global ruin. Not much radical thinking going on there. Or if there was, it didn't reach the bankers, politicians and regulators. And that's the wider truth: while we pretend that being vaguely subversive in class makes a difference, the status quo marginalises us even further. We're licensed clowns, and a degree is a three-year gap period for the kids in which they can pretend that gender, sexuality, race, class, identity, literature, social structures are radically mutable. Then they put on a suit and make money for The Man.

I wish we were 'inherently disruptive', that my work was Art, with the licence that implies. But it's not, and we need to stop kidding ourselves. We're not revolutionary leaders engaged on a grand project to reshape society.

Furthermore, academic freedom was essentially a bargain with the public about "the rights of scholars to make judgements in the name of the scholarly standards of their discipline". Those who undermined disciplinary professionalism were likely to regret the consequences, he suggested.

Professor Post's point is that we abuse our compact with the taxpayer if we promote grand ideals over disciplinary competence, and that their patience will wane: he assumes, of course, that the taxpayer is a cowed, conservative individual. How I wish he were wrong.

We need mavericks in academia: we just need to stop thinking that we're important in the outside world.

A vision of my future

…and Mark's present: he has 15,000+ books and his ceilings collapsed quite some time ago.

This is actually an art installation for VIA advertising agency which has moved into a former public library in Portland (presumably Oregon). This is, of course, the kind of thing that these disgusting people might think 'ironic'. I prefer to assume that the artist is using the books as a kind of threat: that they represent erudition and conscience, eternally promising to break through the psychic defences ad execs raise against the possibility that morality might invade their daily lives. The artwork is in the basement - unlikely to be seen too often I suppose, but symbolically representing the unconscious which always threatens to irrupt into the consciousness.

It's pleasing to imagine that the shades of the building's former upright purpose might crowd round its new and unwelcome inhabitants.

This Charming Man…

No, not Morrissey, but expenses-cheat Jonathan Djanogly MP (Tory, obviously), who employed private detectives to spy on his own constituents - including using deception to gain information! 
Mr Djanogly paid detectives £5,000 to monitor his constituents covertly, The Daily Telegraph revealed…Mr Djanogly, the Conservative MP for Huntingdon, employed the firm Morris Chase International to investigate his constituents after The Daily Telegraph published an article about his expenses.  
The private detectives’ report was sent to his office at the law firm SJ Berwin, where the MP worked until 2009. In the report, the detectives admit using subterfuge to gain information.
Astonishing. Not content with the authority, power and respect afforded (still) to Members of Parliament, they're so paranoid, suspicious and vicious that some of them imagine that it's acceptable to actually run intel on ordinary citizens. It's been downhill for Huntingdon for centuries: Oliver Cromwell was from the town (MP for 1628-29, later MP for Cambridge); succeeded rather later by John Major, and now this execrable lowlife.

Mr Djanogly is now a Minister in the Justice Department

I wonder if Mr Uppal is doing the same thing to me. I can just imagine their reports:
Day 1. Target went to work. Typed sarcastically. Bought books. Shouted at Newsnight.
Day 2. Target went to work. Typed sarcastically. Bought books. Shouted at Newsnight.
Day 3. Target went to work. Typed sarcastically. Bought books. Went swimming. Investigator receiving counselling for trauma. Shouted at Newsnight.
Day 4. Target went to work. Typed sarcastically. Bought books. Shouted at Newsnight.

Ad infinitum.

Another blow for celebrity culture

One of the things I most hate about modern culture is its assumption that because a person is good at one thing (acting, miming, being amusingly drunk), they're automatically multitalented, and intelligent. Thus we move from talent to 'celebrity', in which the doings and sayings of anyone famous become somehow important. 

But sometimes this comes back to bite us on the collective bottom. Lee Ryan's famous comment on September 11th ('Who gives a fuck about New York when elephants are being killed?') now has a rival: Morrissey.

The controversial former The Smiths star was on stage at a show in Warsaw, Poland on Sunday night (24th July 2011) when he gave his thoughts on the two terror attacks in Oslo, which claimed the lives of at least 76 people.
According to Britain's Daily Mirror, before starting his track 'Meat Is Murder', the outspoken vegetarian told the crowd, "We all live in a murderous world, as the events in Norway have shown... Though that is nothing compared to what happens in McDonald's and Kentucky Fried S**t every day."

Morrissey saddens me. Once so talented, now a shadow of his former self. Away from the music, he seems to have assumed that because the media listens to him, he must be some kind of intellectual. His comments on immigration to Britain never cease to appal me: the son of Irish immigrants attacking other immigrants. Ugh. On this one, it's so entirely obvious how wrong he is that I'm not going to wear out my keyboard explaining it to you.

Obviously it's a bit cheeky of a provincial blogger to suggest that other people have delighted us long enough (as Austen put it) with their opinions, but at least I'm not parlaying some other form of achievement into a bully pulpit. 

Although… one of the delights of new media, especially Twitter, is the unmediated potential. I assume that every public statement made by someone famous is entirely scripted by a PR adviser. But because everybody has a mobile, and every celebrity will have an iPhone, they're more likely to wrest control of the easier media from their advisers, though the smarter PR agents will be on top of this. Angry, drunk, coked-up or merely dim celebrities will be tweeting their every 'thought' before the PA can stop them. And this can only be a good thing, because it rips away the glitz and reveals the flawed, often monstrous human. The end of celebrity culture can only be hastened.  Huzzah!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Day They Signed the Death Warrant For The NHS

It's not my headline. It's not the Guardian's. It's not in the Morning Star or the Socialist Worker

It's in the Daily Telegraph. And it goes on to say this, amongst other things.

This means that in these areas, the NHS will no longer exist. Sure, the logo will still be there, but the NHS will no longer be national, any more than British Telecom is.
There is no doubt that this signals the first wave of privatising the NHS. Yet MPs of all persuasions continue to be deluded.   

The White Paper is a docile, fluffy, patient-focused document, with much talk of choice and empowerment. This is in stark contrast to the Bill, which almost exclusively focuses on opening up the NHS to private providers. The Bill is written in dense legal terminology, making any detailed analysis time-consuming and difficult.
But anyone who does study it will find little more than a road map for destroying the NHS, turning it into a cash cow for the corporate sector. The focus is on transforming public sector provision into an entirely market-led system, throwing open every service to private providers.
Previous pieces of legislation that existed to ensure the NHS remained in public ownership are weakened or removed entirely in the Bill. Even the role of Secretary of State is altered so that he is no longer responsible for the NHS. There are 15 clauses (ss125-131, 168-175) that will allow private companies to buy and asset-strip NHS facilities. Clause s12 specifically enables the privatisation of high-security psychiatric services.
Does that sound as if the NHS, or the interests of patients, are being protected?

If the Daily Telegraph - the Tories' most loyal friend, and not known for its sympathy towards the public services - think that the NHS is being killed, then it's a) right and b) deeply worrying. 

The author even suggests that MPs are too lazy to read the Bill, and that the Prime Minister and Health Secretary are deliberately lying to us:

The health secretary and the Prime Minister assure us the NHS will not be privatised when the legislation they are pushing through explicitly suggests otherwise.
The Bill enters the report stage and third reading on September 6 and 7. At the end of this, MPs will be voting on the future of your NHS. Is it safe in their hands?

I think a reprieve may be too late. 

This is what an angry man with a brain can do

Yes! Someone's posted Will Self's virtuoso onslaught on the mush of platitudes which pass as politics and regeneration. So here it is.

(I'm a little bit guilty: I've volunteered for the Olympics. I feel compromised, slathered in disgusting branding and now doing my bit to efface East London's grimy, messy, lovely culture.  Ah well, a man alone can't solve the world's riddles).

Bright tomorrow…

Only one book in the post today, the new edition of Rousseau's Reveries of the Solitary Walker, translated by Russell Goulbourne (translators are important).

I'm a walker, though not often a solitary one: my friends are all walkers too. Rousseau's piece is a classic in the walker-philosopher tradition: I'd add the promeneur movement and their friends, like Perec. In English, there's a group around the psychogeographer Iain Sinclair: men (always) who attempt to recuperate unofficial history, culture and city growth through the slow, subjective accumulation of observation via walking.

There's a tentative split visible: Rousseau's walking is an aid to self-analysis. He's interested in impressions, epistemology (the study of knowledge) and self-development. In a sense, the Reveries are in at the start of the self-help movement, one I deeply distrust as narcissistic and apolitical, though there's a perfectly good argument that Romanticism, by challenging rationalism and objectivity, is radical on another plane. The promeneurs seem to straddle the divide: by keenly observing the currents and zephyrs of a city's everyday (quotidien), they privilege personal insight and refuse objective analysis, but at the same time, their attention is  focused outwardly, rather than using the walk to look inwards. The psychogeographers are much more political, sometimes with a capital 'P': what they see is the imposition of values and priorities from the top, ignoring Raymond Williams's assertion that 'Culture is Ordinary'.

Interestingly, pop music is interested in the possibilities of walking too. Here are a couple of relevant tracks (and what a rich term for a song that is):

And some top quality Northern Soul:

Propaganda and popular culture

I'm reading the latest Louie Knight noir-parody, The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still. It's good, but I can't help feeling it's jumped the shark a little. There are some good political bits though, and it's set in places with which I'm familiar - Wales and Shrewsbury.

Some sections are exactly the kind of thing I say. Like this speech, delivered on the approach to Shrewsbury railway station, which sits between the castle (on the left) and the prison (to the right):
If you steal small things, you get a room on the right with a view of the river and the railway station. If you steal big things - like counties - you get a room on the left also with a view of the river and the railway station. The room is bigger, and the food is better. You have about as equal a chance of having your throat slit while you sleep… they are just descended from the better armed robbers. It's like a great Welshman once said: 'Who made ten thousand people owners of the soil and the rest of us trespassers in the land of our birth?'.
(It was, of course, David Lloyd George).

To go with it, here's a bit of Swedish indie-poppers The Radio Dept.: the little speech at the start is charming, naive and true.

All hail…

…Will Self.

I have never seen anyone destroy an opponent's arguments with such silky skill as last night's attack by the author on the plastic 'legacy' of the Olympics. Last night's Newsnight featured a lovely piece by psychogeographer Iain Sinclair on the top-down 'iconic' regeneration of East London, followed by Self ripping apart Tessa Jowell's claim that a shopping centre and an 'academy' for shopping centre employees are suitable legacies for the borough.

Unfortunately, it's not on Youtube, It's now on Youtube: see it here. but you can see the Self section here (for now), and the whole show here (OB 20.35, Iain Sinclair piece 32.35, Will Self v Jowell 37.37). It's like watching a tiger toy with a mouse. He rips apart the linguistic blancmange used by all management types and employs actual intellect to take the long view - something our triangulating politicians can no longer handle. Compelling TV.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Gone, and forgotten.

If you haven't been inducted into the cult of Jake Thackray, it's about time. Veering between tender, loving, rude and sarcastic, his unique brand of Yorkshire folk/chanson is hugely enjoyable (and he's a great guitarist). You do have to listen to the lyrics though.

Slipping behind in the relevance stakes

I got two books today, proper wonk-volumes. One was Medhi Hasan's biography of the Milibands ('Oxford-politics-fratricide') and the other Off Message: The Complete Antidote to Political Humbug, Bob Marshall Andrew's autobiography. He was the splendidly independent, witty and ferocious Labour MP of whom Party HQ despaired. I was hugely impressed by a video clip in which he bawled at a racist voter 'Don't vote for me!'.

I'm slipping behind in the relevance stakes because the Booker Prize long list is up, and I haven't read an single one of them, for the first time ever.

Dorothy Parker said…

This is Dorothy Parker's telegram to her editor:
I can sympathise. I find it very difficult to get any serious writing done - paralysed by fear of ignorance, of not being able to find anything original to say, of putting ammunition into the hands of my peers - despite publication being the only way to thrive in academia.

It was the same for my PhD. Eventually desperation and shame provided the motivation to complete the thesis. Before that, I had long periods of reading massive amounts and never putting pen to paper. I stopped answering supervisors' emails. Then phone calls. Then letters. I'd go to the university if I had to teach, and sneaked in and out. All the time of course, questions about how the thesis was going were met with enthusiastic explanations of where it was going. Talking a good thesis is easy. Writing one isn't.

Blogging's different: it's just my stream of consciousness spewing out. As Ben says, if I wrote research at the rate I blogged, I'd have several books out by now. True: but academic texts require more than a neat turn of phrase and some hyperlinks.

And now I'm stuck again. I have two conference papers which need turning into articles, a chapter which needs rewriting for a journal and an abstract to write. Any advice?

Off with their heads

When monarchists get desperate, they start claiming that having a royal family brings in tourist millions. It is, of course, nonsense: the most profitable royal palace in the world is Versailles, which is distinctly unoccupied thanks to some unpleasantness in 1789 (and on several dates subsequently).

So it's bloody cheeky of our moronic Chancellor to suddenly blame Britain's latest awful economic figures on the extra bank holiday imposed on us for the most recent royal wedding. Apart from anything else, I'd have thought that economies don't stop on those days - the service sector (flags, ice-creams, barbecues and beers, day-tripper petrol sales etc) takes over for a day. Certainly the papers were full of claims of an economic boost.

So Gideon's claim is both nonsensical and a sign of panic. In reality, the economy is tanking because he's fixated on ideological imperatives: 'free-market' signifiers underpinned by state support for his friends in the banking sector. What we actually need is massive state intervention - such as gargantuan green tech and infrastructure improvements - which will modernise the economy and improve our quality of life, while employing millions. But because the Tories don't believe in the state doing anything other than bailing out their investment banking mates (rather than bailing us out), it won't happen.

As to the monarchists: I'd have far more respect for them if they restricted their arguments to the symbolic/spiritual/intangibles. Once they rely on the value-for-money idea, they're admitting the distinct possibility that if the situation changes (and I think it has), then their idols could be unceremoniously retired on the advice of an accountant. So essentially, they don't really believe in monarchism at all - just carnival barking.

I'm a Republican, so ironically, I actually do believe in the importance of symbolism and sentiment - more than these economic monarchists. Having a monarch tells the citizens that the most important aspects of a society are forever closed to them. I'm an Irish citizen: I could move there and run for President (on a books/science/atheism/internment for speculators and bankers ticket) if I wanted. But not here.

The usual boring argument against an elected head of state is that you'd get some awful tosser like Richard Branson or Alan Sugar elected. I doubt it: Ireland's Presidents have tended to be rather better than its Taoisighs (Prime Ministers). In any case, the point of democracy is that you'd get someone the majority wanted. If you can't accept that, you're not a democrat. A country which elected Branson or Sugar would be a disgusting nation - but at least you'd be able to tell from one glance, rather than putting lipstick on the pig by having a hereditary set of inbred imports with good manners.

So just in case we do get Democracy in the UK, here's my ticket:
a large number of you would require remedial re-education in austere camps. Sorry, but you've done some awful things. ITV. Reading the News of the World. Crying over Diana. Not just buying Louise Bagshawe's books, but electing her to Parliament. Deciding cars are more important than people who actually live in cities. Permitting the ongoing existence of the Daily Mail. Hating 'Europe' and living in a World War 2 fantasy. Moaning about immigrants (I always assume that if you don't like 'asylum seekers', then you actively enjoy the idea of people being tortured. 
Anyone who isn't a farmer but owns an SUV would be chained to the central reservation of Spaghetti Junction for a year or two. 
Paying school fees? Then you'll be taxed at 90% and rehoused in Tower Hamlets. To remind you of what you aspired to, you'll be caned on the bottom on the hour by a street thug chanting 'it never did me any harm'.  
Anyone who voted for university cuts and school building improvement abolition to be served/treated/taught only by uneducated illiterates. 
Voted Tory? Lobotomy. In the private medical sector, operations to be performed by the lowest bidder. 
Connived in closing libraries? A year in a cell with a Jeffrey Archer audiobook playing on a loop, 24 hours a day. 
Hunting fan? You'll love your new accommodation. In the lion enclosure. 
What can we do for Michael Gove and David Willetts? I'd like to imprison them in the Sun's newsroom, and force them to write and read out the astrology column over and over again, sustained only on the worst kebabs known to humanity. Because that's the society they're imposing on the rest of us, while reserving the delightful existence of their class for themselves. Once a month they'll be put in stocks and forced to recite dissertations on Tourism and Leisure Management in front of a jeering crowd. 
Jeremy Clarkson will only be permitted to travel by skateboard, or perhaps a pedal car. Citizens will be permitted to punch him in the face every time he essays one of those long pauses which always herald an offensive comment.
Tax evaders (corporate and individual) will be dyed blue. If they interact with anything paid for out of the public purse, they can be charged on the spot by any and all passing taxpayers. So: roads. Clean air. Pavements.  People who've been to school (even private schools, which are all subsidised by being charities!). Subsidised opera. Historic buildings. Healthcare. Fire engines. Police. Defence. 

I could go on… Add your own policies in the comments box.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Be a teacher…?

One of my favourite MA students called in today. She's doing a piece on teacher recruitment, and drew my attention to this series of Armstrong and Miller spoof adverts.

Now, I have a problem with A+M. They're funny gag-writers with good performance skills, but there's something disturbing about some very posh men writing rightwing, quite reactionary gags about young people and public servants. The famous WW2 RAF Men-speaking 21st-century youth slang  sketch is a case in point: beautifully written, uncannily good ear for language and delivery, but the underlying message is that today's kids lack honesty, decency, bravery, backbone and altruism. I doubt this is true. Without a war and conscription, we're unlikely to find out, though the grace and compassion displayed by Norwegian youths under fire this week rather demolishes Armstrong and Miller's thesis.

The same goes for these fake teaching ads. I'm a teacher, though at a university rather than schools. I did spend a couple of years doing supply teaching in terrifying secondary schools while doing my PhD, and I gained a health respect for most teachers. I did an English degree, so a PGCE was always a possibility, the classic fallback for most of my class.

I'd have been an idiot to go into teaching for want of anything better to do. They work harder than I do, and the demands on their time, patience and humour are immense. How are we ever going to value education properly if privately-educated toffs poke fun at those who dedicate themselves to teaching with little expectation of thanks, respect or riches?

Not that Armstrong and Miller are entirely wrong. I'm in education because a) I'm unemployable elsewhere, b) I have a short attention span, and most importantly c) I want to brainwash the young in pursuit of revolution. Obviously.

There's life in Uppal yet

Oh look, our multimillionaire property developer MP, Paul Uppal, is pretending to like buses on the occasion of the Dark Place's new bus station (mindful of Thatcher's dictum that a 25-year old man on a bus should count himself a failure, Paul makes sure he's not actually snapped on one):

It must be a difficult one for him: his constant refrains are that the economy can only be revived through property development, and that state spending must be slashed. But the bus station is property development paid for by the state - a fact he utterly fails to mention, despite voting against state spending at every opportunity.

Luckily, Paul's a modern capitalist. By this, I mean he's like the banks: they're all about the free market until they need billions from the taxpayers to bail them out of recessions they caused.

I should point out that the retail space provided in the new facility is empty. Why someone thought that the answer to a town with 28% of its shops empty was… new shops, is beyond me.

Soundtrack for Uppal's journey? 'Road to Nowhere'? 'Highway to Hell'?

Guess the celebrity

I don't normally delve into celebrity culture, but this one I couldn't resist:
The high court has extended a gagging order obtained by a leading actor to prevent reporting of his "sexual relationship" with a former escort girl.
I have no idea who the individuals are, nor do I care. But at least popular culture provides a ready-made reconstruction of the Hollywood/prostitution interface (and this scene makes it very clear that business and prostitution are equivalent capitalist activities).

Book news

I'm thinking about instituting a 2 out, 1 in policy, in which I'm allowed to buy one book for every two I actually read. Not sure I've got the moral backbone to actually deny myself though. Although I am quite good on staying off hard drugs, booze and destructive activities, so buying books isn't the worst thing in the world.

In today are:
Luke Haines's second memoir, Post Everything. In case you've not heard of him, he was the monstrous and misanthropic lead singer of critically-loved and commercially negligible 90s band The Auteurs. Bad Vibes was a malevolent, wounded and hilarious account of his rise and fall during the Britpop era.

The Alastair Campbell Diaries Volume 3: Power and Responsibility. I love post-hoc rationalisation, and this is the mummy and daddy of all of them, given the huge number of immoral, amoral or just plain wrongheaded decisions requiring post-hoc rationalisation. Obviously even the full-stops aren't to be trusted, but it's compelling reading.

Iain Sinclair's new polemic, Ghost Milk on the cultural death of our cities under the weight of 'iconic' projects, 'regeneration' and capitalist homogenisation, played out on the margins of London. For some reason I didn't have a copy of his seminal Lights Out for the Territory either. If you like reading material that makes your head spin with a mix of horror, intellectual envy and admiration, he's the writer for you.

Finally - for academic purposes only, you understand, Mitzi Szereto's Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts. I genuinely am interested in popular cultural appropriations of Austen (hence my love of Clueless), so this should be fascinating.

By the way: did I lend one of you my copy of Gender Trouble by Judith Butler? I can easily get another one, but I'd have to heavily annotate it again, and it's never the same. If you've got it, bring it back!

Daily Mail in hating BBC shocker!

Here's a fine piece from the Daily Mail, by Sir W. Arbuthnot Lane, 'the eminent physician'.

In a Ministry of Health talk broadcast from 2LO… Professor Major Greenwood is reported to have made some disparaging and sneering remarks about advice given to the public on health matters by voluntary societies.
On behalf of the New Health Society, by far the most active organisation for health education in the country, I protest most strongly against a lecturer under official auspices using a privileged occasion for such a purpose.
The offence is rendered all the worse from the fact that we are debarred from making any report from 2LO. In spite of repeated efforts to secure this opportunity for assisting in giving valuable information to the public…we have been prevented from availing ourselves of it by the very Ministry which thus permits a thinly veiled attack to be made upon us.
The public will know how to judge such detraction of a society which is now successfully reaching every part of the country with its health propaganda'.

Rancid anti-BBC agenda? Check
Racist crank pressure group? Check
Insane health claims? You bet.

OK, the language may have alerted you to the twist. This article is from page 8 of the Daily Mail on February 4th, 1928. The New Health Society was 'social Darwinist' (i.e. it opposed all forms of public health, welfare, state aid etc. because such things interfere with the 'survival of the fittest' (which they massively misunderstood). It also campaigned on 'men's dress reform', i.e. looser clothes for health purposes and
saw the bowels as central to health and considered constipation the root cause of many ills of civilisation.

2LO was the call-sign for a radio station founded in the early 1920s and taken over by the BBC by the time Arbuthnot wrote his letter.

But for all intents and purposes, this article - and the rest of the edition - could be printed in the Daily Mail today, with very little alteration. It's a mix of rancid reaction, racism, celebrity gossip ('V.C. Officer Sues Hospital for Negligently Allowing Wife To Throw Herself Out of Window'), sensationalised crime ('3-Finger Jack Super-Forger Sentenced') and snobbery ('The Hostess's Secret, by the Hon. Mrs. Fitzroy Stewart').

Most pleasingly, Mr. Horatio Bottomley - from the comfort of his prison cell - is 'bringing a libel action against the News of the World.

Quite a lot of the rest of the pages are thinly-disguised advertisements for Daily Mail insurance schemes (the going rate for dead motor-cyclists is £250). Mr. Ghandi isn't much liked down at the Mail:

Footballers don't seem to have changed much either: Albert Collins, of Millwall Football Club,  denies adultery with Bertha Lukehurst.

In other hot news, the revolting congregation of St. Cuthbert's in Darwen, Lancashire, are pleased that the Morning Prayer will be available at 10.45, but still object to the (presumably disgracefully neo-Catholic) sung mass still being offered. Also in Darwen (I've been there: it's not a bustling metropolis), comes news that the local Liberal MP is resigning, for very honest reasons: it is 'quite impossible to follow politics and business'! Tell that to Nick Clegg!

Demand for Daily Mail 'No Soviet Petrol Used Here' is apparently rising: funny that its columnists still fulminate against dependence on Russian gas imports!

Of course, no issue of the Daily Mail is complete without a good deal of woman-hating. And here we are: 'inconstant' and 'unstable' Woman as enemy of trade and Empire, and woman student as threat to standards:

I'd love to link to all this, but I've only got it on paper. After going to a wedding on Saturday, I stayed with my friend John. He ripped up a nasty lino floor-covering in his new house, and found acres of this disgusting rag underneath.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Sound familiar

In a trenchant defence of the public moral and intellectual value of libraries (and not just as book warehouses), Alan Bennett writes this:
a young man, standing in front of a bookcase feeling baffled. He – and occasionally she – is overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that has been written and the ground to be covered.’ 
‘All these books. I’ll never catch up,’ wails the young Joe Orton in the film script of Prick Up Your Ears, and in The Old Country another young man reacts more dramatically, by hurling half the books to the floor. In Me, I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf someone else gives vent to their frustration with literature by drawing breasts on a photograph of Virginia Woolf and kitting out E.M. Forster with a big cigar. Orton himself notoriously defaced library books before starting to write books himself. This resentment, which was, I suppose, somewhere mine, had to do with feeling shut out. A library, I used to feel, was like a cocktail party with everybody standing with their back to me; I could not find a way in. 
Welcome to my world. Even worse, I've bought the bloody things.  It feels faintly embarrassing to be defending libraries against Conservative attacks. After all, the stately homes from whence (see that, Ben?) the current crop have oiled, all have private libraries of their own. Eton has, no doubt, a fine library, and the libraries of the Oxford colleges inhabited by these lordly types are so fine as to be tourist attractions.

Perhaps that's the problem. Their home libraries aren't resources, they're decoration. Their college libraries are literally exclusive. The oiks can buy tickets to ooh and aah at the leather bindings and stern busts, but they're not invited to open the books. This lot resent the idea that they (and their imaginary public) should pay taxes for people to read Catherine Cookson and Horrid Histories and Sven Hassel etc.

To them, knowledge and enjoyment are private goods to be bought and paid for. To me, libraries are where you gain your freedom. My parents are highly educated, literate types. But if I read only the books they bought, I'd have a fantastic working knowledge of church architecture, Catholic doctrine, dermatological complaints, paediatric medicine and hymn lyrics. Admittedly, I've soaked up a lot of this stuff. But it was libraries which let me explore space and time, find out about the radical histories of Britain, Ireland, Spain, discover science and rebellion and poetry and Tom Paine and Mervyn Peake and Willa Cather. Much of this was smuggled into the house, caused violent arguments and got returned unread by and angry parent.

And if annoying your parents isn't a good enough reason to defend libraries, nothing is.

Last word to Bennett:
I have been discussing libraries as places and in the current struggle to preserve public libraries not enough stress has been laid on the library as a place not just a facility. To a child living in high flats, say, where space is at a premium and peace and quiet not always easy to find, a library is a haven. But, saying that, a library needs to be handy and local; it shouldn’t require an expedition. Municipal authorities of all parties point to splendid new and scheduled central libraries as if this discharges them of their obligations. It doesn’t. For a child a library needs to be round the corner. And if we lose local libraries it is children who will suffer. Of the libraries I have mentioned the most important for me was that first one, the dark and unprepossessing Armley Junior Library. I had just learned to read. I needed books. Add computers to that requirement maybe but a child from a poor family is today in exactly the same boat.  
It’s hard not to think that like other Tory policies privatising the libraries has been lying dormant for 15 years, just waiting for a convenient crisis to smuggle it through. Libraries are, after all, as another think tank clown opined a few weeks ago, ‘a valuable retail outlet’.

Here's an idea…

Lots of senior politicians, celebrities and so on have written articles for the Murdoch press and the other squalid rags infesting Britain. Usually, they're written by the paper's journalists (you knew this, didn't you?) or sometimes by the 'author's' advisors/PR handler/dog.

Like this one, 'by' David Cameron and Boris Johnson, but betraying not a scintilla of their vocabularies and style, and an awful lot of the Sun's trademark lies and stupidity.

So: now that the Murdoch press has been revealed to be a criminal enterprise (with other publications to follow), how about we ask them to donate their fees to a suitable charity? Perhaps Milly Dowler's parents could suggest one.

It just takes enough people to search for the articles, then for everyone to write to/email/Tweet/phone the 'authors' until they're ashamed of taking money from criminals. Although there is one fly in the ointment: 'shame' is quite an alien concept for many of these chaps and chapesses.

Celine Dion: making herself look EVEN MORE ridiculous

I didn't know about Ridiculous Pictures of Celine Dion, but I'm sure it did good work as an antidote to the airbrushed propaganda pumped out by celebrities and their tame media outlets. I don't think you should be adoring or humiliating famous people, but if you're encouraged to do the former to excess, then it's entirely understandable that people might like to do the latter.

Most celebrities seem to be able to take it in their strides. I presume that the millions, the private jets, the entourage of yes-men and the adoration of quite a lot of people all go some way to softening the blows of the minority who wish only to jeer and mock.

Most, but not all. Ms. Dion has - despite the complete absence of legal basis - got her troupe of lawyer gorillas to descend on Ridiculous Pictures of Celine Dion and close it down. What have we learned from this affair? According to her, that celebrities shouldn't be teased, only adored. According to me, we've learned that Celine Dion Is Ridiculous, however she looks.

Here's a picture of Celine Dion looking ridiculous, in solidarity.

Dan's dogs have this haircut. 

I've seen this look before. Oh yes: on Doctor Who

Er… is this thing on?

Sometimes - especially in the summer months - you find newspaper columnists writing about how difficult it is to come up with something about which to write (or 'something to write about', given that most of them never listen to what they type).

Being a blogger, I don't have that pressure. Nobody's paying me to write. Well, actually a university is paying me to write research papers, but the less said about that, the better. But Plashing Vole is simply me ranting into the void. It did start as a tool for teaching some MA students about social media, and in that respect, it failed miserably. They'd never heard of blogging, didn't want to know about it, and certainly weren't going to try it, which torpedoed the second half of that particular day. No doubt it would all be very different now.

So I'm in the happy position of not having to blog if I don't want to. Or am I? After all, I have a readership of sorts. Some of you I know personally. Some have washed up here after being misdirected by friends. Others have followed links from social or even official media. Most of you are passing through, having clicked a link on a search engine. You wanted cars/sex/music/LOLZ and you got me, for which I can only apologise.

You're a disparate bunch, which makes you a tricky audience. I can't - like a radio or TV station - offer something for everyone and assume that you'll tune in to the bits you like. I have to balance the kinds of thing I offer in the hope that some of you will come back for more, driven by my magnetic personality and unique take, even if you're not interested in the source material. I'd quite like this to be one of those beautiful, cool, intellectual and literate sites like Tales from the Reading Room, or this one, or any of these. But I can't. Mainly because I'm a dumbs with the concentration skills of a brain-damaged gnat, partly because I just don't know enough and keep reading fun books rather than Improving Tomes, and partly because most of you guys would close-tab at high speed. (And I buy far more books than I read).

What else do I blog about? Politics, you say. OK, I do occasionally venture into that field, perhaps a little too enthusiastically at times. Winding up Paul Uppal MP (his newsletter is full of pictures of him posing as a volunteer, but doesn't find space to mention his cheerful votes to cut benefits, punish the poor, privatise higher education, enrich the banks, bomb more brown people, privatise the NHS and abolish libraries) is a public service, but I might just be losing some of you when I put up the 13th politics post of the day. What can I say? I'm a boring and obsessive man.

Then there's fencing: I'm a minority voice in a minority sport. You should all try it - it's fantastic, exhilarating and exhausting. But I understand that it's not to all tastes. Which brings me to my taste in music and other culture. It feels downright rude to bring to your attention all the wonderful artefacts that are better than the ones you're already familiar with. The Field Mice. Beefheart. Tiffany.

Finally, I put up photographs. Flowers, fencers, hills, silly signs, urban decay.

So: of what would you like more, and less?

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Atlantis - lost once more

The last space shuttle has landed, and none will ever blast off again. You know that I'm a shuttle sceptic: better, safer, more practical vehicles have been and will be launch, and it's noticeable that the Russians, who have a cheaper, safer system, built and abandoned a shuttle.

But: the shuttle was beautiful, and brave. Here are all the missions it undertook, including those which cost lives.

Song for Rebekah

Is there no end to parodic uses of the 'Friday' song? I hope not. Here's the phone-hacking version.

and of course the inevitable Downfall versions:

I'm sorry for beggaring you all with my insatiable demands

Over in the US, the Republicans are doing the same as the Tories: claiming that people like me are ruining the country, and not the bankers and media moguls at all. Doonesbury has a very apt cartoon today:

Meanwhile, congratulations to my friends The Nightingales: newly signed to a very cool record label I can't yet reveal.

In honour of Zoverstock

I'm fully expecting an 8th copy of 10,000 Maniacs' MTV Unplugged CD in the post today, despite their assurances after the first 3 that the computer error had been fixed.

But I thought I should let you into the secret of why I like the band. Easy. Jangly guitars. Good catchy tunes. Good female voice. Thoughtful, interesting lyrics. Little pretension or faked 'attitude'. (I give Cynical Ben half an hour to respond with the foulest abuse he can muster).

Here are a couple of the tracks from the MTV Unplugged CD.

Their cover of Patti Smith's wonderful 'Because the Night':

Shhh… Pray silence for Paul Uppal's views on phone hacking

OK, don't expect much: it's simply more toadying to our compromised Prime Minister.
There are very few places in the world where the leader of the Executive would subject himself to two hours of questioning. One thing that shames our democracy, though, is that there are elements in the House that seem to want to make political capital out of the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone.

Quite frankly, a PM who employs someone at the heart of illegality, who instructs his advisors not to let him hear any evidence, and who consorts with amoral power to the extent that he does, should expect 'politicised' criticism. He's proved himself unworthy of authority and it's Labour's job to make this point.

As has Uppal: to reduce the affair to the murdered girl's phone is a cynical attempt to claim a moral high ground which he does not deserve, especially as he hasn't uttered a single word of criticism previously, either of the newspapers or the political-media nexus.

For Cameron to take the other part in this duet:
I simply wanted to make the point to my hon. Friend that he is right. At the heart of all this, as we have all these debates and discussions, we must bear in mind the victims of phone hacking, chief among whom are the family of Milly Dowler.

is the most revolting, cynical humbug. They should both be ashamed.

In other news, I've received Paul Uppal's Summer Newsletter. As you'd expect, it's lots of pictures of the MP posing with volunteer groups, and highlights of his parliamentary activity. Needless to say, none of his self-serving tax-cutting, aid-the-starving-property-developers questions find space. What a shame.

Update: The Rise and Rise of Tim Lovejoy spotted a detail I missed:

Once again I'm left reading something from Paul Uppal and thinking "Dude? Really?" before getting pissed off with him. Happily, I'm not the only one, as Margaret Curran, the Labour MP for Glasgow East wasn't too impressed either:
'May I ask the Prime Minister, in all sincerity, to dissociate himself from the comment of Paul Uppal?
Naturally, Dave duly dodged that question.

He did more than that: he implied that Uppal was right. 
I do not question the hon. Lady’s motives, but the point about this place is that people can watch what has been said, and they can form their own judgments.
Which just makes it harder to work out which of the two Tories is more despicable.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Vignettes of democracy

Two tit-bits from the world of politics: 

Cameron spoke to the Conservative backbench 1922 committee for about 20 minutes tonight but not one asked him about hacking scandal, PA reports.
A Conservative source said Cameron was adamant he would not apologise for trying to get the media onside in the run-up to the general election.
Right. So the only Tory Party body dedicated to holding the leader to account didn't bother raising the only news issue of the month, despite Cameron's former press secretary being arrested, and evidence that his aides deliberately kept him in the dark to avoid incriminating him. Mother of Parliaments everyone!

Meanwhile, Cameron has clearly decided that presentation is far more important than the principle that politicians shouldn't be pushed around by the press. Getting the Murdochs onside for political advantage is far more important. What an example to us all. How confident do I feel about his leadership? Er, not very.

Meanwhile, I'm reading the Moomins cartoon strip, volume 6. Here's how I'm feeling:

Watch out Glenn Beck, here I come

OK, I did an hour's round table discussion about the hacking/Murdoch affair on a local radio station, alongside a columnist from the Express and Star (much more measured than the bile that rag normally pumps out), my boss Paul (career radio broadcaster) and Dorothy, expert in popular TV.

I have to say that it was an exhilarating and humiliating experience. I got in most of the points I wanted to make (including some satisfying swipes at the Mail and a good deal of leftwing propaganda), and learned things from the others. I was also reminded that I have a voice like Donald Duck with adenoids.

I've done interviews before, including TV: this was far less stressful - it felt like a conversation with friends rather than being on the spot in front of thousands of people.

Having been in the Times Higher, Guardian and The Sword recently, I'm feeling like a complete media whore. More radio please!

Would you Adam and Eve it?

Thanks to the kindly folk at Zoverstocks, and despite my protests and their assurances, I received my 7th copy of 10,000 Maniacs' MTV Unplugged live CD today.

They told me around copy 3 that it was a computer error which had been fixed. Could I suggest a big sign by the packing desk reading 'NO MORE 10,000 MANIACS MTV UNPLUGGED LIVE CDS TO PLASHING VOLE THANK-YOU'.

This is the weirdest way I've ever been stalked. As the 10,000 Maniacs sing on their MTV Unplugged live CD, 'What's the Matter Here?' and 'Trouble Me'.

What Rupert learned from Capone

China Daily, as I pointed out here, thinks that capitalism is the root cause of the Murdoch newspapers' evil.

They're not far wrong - but it's been going on for longer than Rupert's been in charge. Here's an amusing little paragraph about The Times and Al Capone in 1932. Claud is Claud Cockburn, a great campaigning journalist of the mid-twentieth century.
…he interviewed Al Capone at his headquarters… gently frisked by a couple of 'bulging Sicilians', he was escorted into the mobster's presence. Their tête-à-tête was conducted in a civilised manner, even though Claud immediately spotted the barrel of a gun poking through the transom of a door… 
'Listen, don't get the idea I'm one of those goddamn radicals', Capone snapped… 'Don't get the idea I''m knocking the American system. My rackets are run on strictly American lines. Capitalism, call it what you like, gives to each and every one of us a great opportunity if only we seize it with both hands and make the most of it'. 
Despite these profound insights, the interview was never filed. When asked why… Claud remarked that Capone's remarks were in essence identical with the editorials of The Times itself, and he doubted whether the paper would be very pleased to see itself in agreement with the most infamous racketeer in Chicago. 
From Norman Rose, The Cliveden Set (London: Jonathan Cape: 2000): 158.

Hear no evil…

I promise I'll get back to mundane nonsense soon, but the Murdoch story just keeps on giving.

The big story yesterday was confirmation from the two senior policemen giving evidence that Ed Llewellyn,  the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, explicitly told them not to inform David Cameron what was going on - despite employing the News of the World editor who had to resign because of the phone hacking scandal.

This is a disgrace. This is the Prime Minister of a country deliberately isolating himself from the certain knowledge of criminality as a subterfuge. The Chief of Staff has to resign, and I'm sure that when he does, he'll say he was acting alone to protect the PM. It won't wash. An apparatchik doesn't behave like that unless he's damn sure that it's what the boss wants.

It reminds me of a mafia boss covering his ears while taking the payments from his underlings. It's deniability, but it isn't plausible deniability. It's personal survival taking precedence over political and moral responsibility.

One simple rule for public servants

One of the reasons the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police had to resign was that he'd accepted a free stay at a health spa. A day before I went on strike, the Chancellor of the Exchequer - fresh from attacking us for not working - turned up at Wimbledon. The head of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs has frequently had slap-up feeds in posh restaurants with the companies who he subsequently let off their taxes. A lot of golf is played by businessmen trying to butter up councillors and planning officers - often excluding women of course.

There's a culture amongst politicians, civil servants and other public servants of socialising with their class, regardless of propriety. There is - in Anthony Sampson's terms - a political class which is educated in the same schools and universities, lives in the same areas (of London), goes to the same events and dines in the same restaurants.

So let's end these cosy deals with a simple rule.

If you're paid by the taxpayer, your meetings are held in the office, with a minute-taker.

Is that clear? So Murdoch doesn't sneak into the back door of Downing Street. Party donors don't murmur sweet nothings into the ears of Cabinet Ministers at Glyndebourne. Policemen don't go to dinner with News International hacks and councillors don't shake hands with developers down at the Masonic Lodge. Weapons manufacturers don't - as now - second their staff to the Ministry of Defence. I won't accept lobster from academic textbook publishers.

Instead, if people want to talk to public servants, they come to our cramped, bleak offices and drink bitter coffee, while every word both parties say is recorded. Every citizen is under surveillance all the time, so this seems a small price to pay.

It will take some adjustment, but it's a small requirement for anyone who wants to live off our taxes.

The view from Beijing

The Chinese Communist Party's mouthpiece, China Daily, isn't very impressed with the News of the World, and sees it as symptomatic of capitalist distortion.
Recently, News of the World, a newspaper under News Corporation, was shut down as a result of the phone hacking scandal. Some experts in Beijing and Shanghai believe that this incident directly exposes the inherent money-seeking nature of Western media today, and the false nature of the concepts of “freedom”, “impartiality” and “human rights” that they have long bandied about. As the scandal has continued to develop, it has become a major assault on the model of media supervision and control in the West.

It's hard to disagree with the basic points. Virtually all media academics - of which I'm half a one - would agree that the pursuit of profit has degraded the public sphere and commoditised readers and subjects alike. Furthermore, most leftwing commentators would agree (thanks to Gramsci, Foucault et al.) that 'freedom', 'impartiality' and 'human rights' are discourses used as weapons rather than meaningful terms with a causal connection to what we call democracy. Listening to Norman Lamont on Radio 4 yesterday describe the financial markets as democracy in action was chilling and demonstrative of this idea. Likewise the Murdochs explaining how much access they had to prime ministers.

Of course China is hypercapitalist now and was never communist in the purist sense of sharing resources and power equally amongst the citizens (you'd have to go back to Winstanley for that), so it's a bit cheeky of China Daily to accuse Murdoch of being a greedy tyrant! I certainly wouldn't want a media run along Chinese lines: craven, slavish and demonstrably false, but their analysis of Western media is pretty good.

There's only one solution. Everybody read Vole. I write it for free and say what I want. Though I would like access to the corridors of power.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Murdoch hearings, digested

So, James and Rupert Murdoch are giving evidence to Parliament.

It's not very enlightening. Murdoch Sr. seems to have been reading a lot of Beckett and Pinter: long pauses followed by monosyllabic replies. Sometimes he appears to be blaming his son. James seems to be suffering too: nobody calls him Mr. Murdoch, and his expressions betray hatred of not being the top dog in the room.

Their defence appears to be - rather implausibly - that they didn't know anything, nobody told them anything. They're completely surprised by the implication that there's anything untoward about press moguls have frequent, complete and secret access to Prime Ministers. Democracy, it seems, is an alien concept of which they've heard without being tempted to try.

In some ways, it's an object lesson in PR tactics. The Murdochs have clearly been coached: stay polite, talk for a long time but don't give anything away, reel off dates and figures to avid the impression of waffling. At times it gets farcical, reminding me of another character: 'that would be an ecumenical matter'. (Sorry about the ad, couldn't find one without).

It's not entirely working though. Murdoch Sr comes across as senile. Perhaps this is his tactic, but I suspect it's an inability to deal with a situation which he can't control. I doubt he's ever been compelled to answer questions or follow someone else's line of thought.

OK, it finished with Murdoch getting a custard pie in the face, the egregious Louise Mensch scraping together enough brain cells for a good question or two, and Murdoch dropping the senility act in favour of reading out a prepared statement that sounds ('my son and I') like he's apologising to the neighbours for James breaking a window with a football. And almost as sincere.

What we didn't learn was much about the command structures, who's paying for what, and what responsibility the Murdochs will take. Murdoch seems to feel that he's the victim ('I was betrayed by people trusted by people I trusted'). Humbug!

Should David Cameron resign?

I mentioned this aspect of the hacking story briefly yesterday, but Polly Toynbee takes it up very effectively.
But is there more to come? The Mail on Sunday reported that Cameron intended to hire the BBC's Guto Harri as his press secretary. So close, apparently, was the appointment that the Harri family visited the Camerons one weekend in 2007 at Chipping Norton to discuss it, but the job went to Andy Coulson after Rebekah Brooks "is said to have told Mr Cameron that the post should go to Mr Coulson to strengthen links between the Tories and News International". Is this true? Reviewing the papers on the Andrew Marr programme on Sunday, I pointed out this story and said Harri was well-known in the BBC as a straight-as-a-die, honest man. I was pleased to get a text from Harri just after the show saying "Thanks". Does that mean it is true? I called Harri, who now works for Boris Johnson, to check. Yes, he said he'd heard tell that his name was not acceptable to News International. "I heard it as gossip on the grapevine – but I have no idea whether or not it's true. Yes, I did talk to David Cameron about taking the job – but whilst I lingered they'd clearly approached Andy Coulson." He had a good idea who the source from the Sun was for the story. How Cameron must wish he had given Harri the job. The idea that News International planted their man in the heart of Downing Street is truly shocking.
If this is true, then the Prime Minister has to resign. You can't have the man running the country choosing taxpayer-paid officials according to how acceptable he is to a particular media company.

The Pink Polytechnic

Something to celebrate at last: The Hegemon has been judged by Stonewall as one of the 4 most gay-friendly HE institutions in the country.

It's quite a good result: the student body includes a large number of conservative religious people - of various faiths - who are less than fond of homosexuals. I expect an evangelical backlash forthwith.

Birthday bounty

I'm hooked on the Select Committee's interrogation of various top coppers in pursuit of the hacking story: the Murdochs up next. You can watch it on the BBC, or follow the minute-by-minute coverage on the Guardian. Fairly squirmy so far: Britain's most senior policeman (until yesterday) doesn't seem to think there's anything odd about taking £12,000 of free health-spa luxury. And 25% of the Metropolitan Police's publicity/press department are ex-News International staff. Intriguing if not downright fishy.

However, I want to say thanks to my many friends for their birthday presents and cards: Penguin postcards, Soviet architecture books, book tokens, a photography day, 'Johnners' tapes, Moomins items, camera kit, reading lights: so very much, I'm overwhelmed by your kindness. And the downfall of the Murdochs and the Tories!

I've also bought myself a few things:
Francis Spufford's Red Plenty (a novel of Soviet Utopianism).
David Seed's Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction.
Mark Radcliffe's memoir, Reelin' in the Years.
The 6th and final Moomins Comic Strip volume.
Robert Coover's The Public Burning, a sprawling (post-?)modernist take on 1950s/60s American politics.
Iain McDonald's The Dervish House, another addition to the postcolonial move in science and speculative fiction.

Oh yes, and some interesting CDs (none of them 10,000 Maniacs' MTV Unplugged today): Natalie Merchant's Ophelia (she was the lead singer in 10,000 Maniacs), Welsh Rare Beat Vol. 1, The Horrors' Skying, the remastered box set of R.E.M.'s Lifes Rich Pageant (how I mourn that missed apostrophe) and three folk box sets from the Guardian: Pete Seeger's American Industrial Ballads, Newport Folk Festival 1959 and Joan Baez's Songbird.

Sean Hoare: the archetypal Englishman

Sean Hoare is the former News of the World reporter who died yesterday, probably due to drink and drugs. Wracked by guilt, he was the first reporter to go on the record about the culture of lawbreaking and destruction in the newsrooms of the Sun and its Sunday sister.

I call him the archetypal Englishman because his rise and fall - going by this account by Nick Davies and other comments - encapsulate what has happened to English, and to a lesser extent British, society since Thatcherite free-market capitalism took hold.

Capitalism turns humanity into a commodity to be bought and sold. Sean Hoare was one such commodity, while the celebrities about whom he wrote were even more clearly commodities, goods to be flogged in ruthless pursuit of money.
He came from a working-class background of solid Arsenal supporters, always voted Labour, defined himself specifically as a "clause IV" socialist who still believed in public ownership of the means of production. But, working as a reporter, he suddenly found himself up to his elbows in drugs and delirium.
He was a born reporter. He could always find stories. And, unlike some of his nastier tabloid colleagues, he did not play the bully with his sources. He was naturally a warm, kind man, who could light up a lamp-post with his talk. From Bizarre, he moved to the Sunday People, under Neil Wallis, and then to the News of the World, where Andy Coulson had become deputy editor. And, persistently, he did as he was told and went out on the road with rock stars, befriending them, bingeing with them, pausing only to file his copy.
He made no secret of his massive ingestion of drugs. He told me how he used to start the day with "a rock star's breakfast" – a line of cocaine and a Jack Daniels – usually in the company of a journalist who now occupies a senior position at the Sun. He reckoned he was using three grammes of cocaine a day, spending about £1,000 a week. Plus endless alcohol. Looking back, he could see it had done him enormous damage. But at the time, as he recalled, most of his colleagues were doing it, too. 
Enough people are saying similar things about Hoare to convince me. So why would a good socialist, rooted in decent values, end up hounding and befriending famous people for a gossip page? How have our values become so distorted that this rubbish counts as news? I certainly wouldn't want to go back to the deferential social structures of the pre-War period, but I am old-fashioned enough lefty for the phrase 'false consciousness' to be popping into my mind. Hoare isn't a perpetrator of this stuff: he's a victim. An entire society has grown up in which the private lives of vacuous stars has appropriated the name of 'news'. It's destroyed Hoare's life, but it's also distorted our society.

Like Hoare, we've all become addicted to vicious destructive tittle-tattle. The purveyors of this filth do it because it's a) cheap and b) because they despise us. They think it's what we want, and all we're capable of following. They treat us with contempt and in doing so, their predictions become true. I met a couple, one of whom wrote for the Sun and the other for the Mail. In person, they seemed delightful. Charming, thoughtful, intelligent. They spoke of their jobs with a glorious sense of irony, as though it was all jolly larks. This of course makes them cynical disgusting scum. These papers ruin lives, from celebrities to the grieving parents of Milly Dowler or - as in the Mail a couple of weeks ago - the parents of the girl killed by a falling branch 'because' her teachers were on strike.

Sean Hoare sounds like a kind, caring, considerate and intelligent man who had a lot to give society. Instead, he devoted himself to propping up a morally and politically bankrupt society and publication. That someone so good can do so much that is bad should make us all pause to reflect on how he - and we - have come to such a pass.

And if you think that I can't possibly mean you, think again. If you know the names of people famous for nothing, if you think you know who killed Maddie McCann, if you get a thrill from the tabloid front pages even while you're reaching for the Guardian or the FT, then you're a part of it. Irony is not a defence.

We killed Sean Hoare - and we've poisoned ourselves too.