Tuesday, 30 August 2011

So long, for now…

Well, I'm off to the UK School Games. Call in for top quality sport if you're in Sheffield. I doubt I'll have web access or the time to blog, so you'll have to live without acerbic social commentary for a few days. Read a book or a newspaper! You won't hear much from me for a couple of days afterwards either: it's graduation so I'll be dressed up as a pair of 1980s Laura Ashley curtains wishing former students well (or good riddance).

Here's the speech I'll be making at graduation:

Your quotes of the day

I'm reading Alison Lurie's wonderful comedy Imaginary Friends, based on Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance. In the 50s, he infiltrated a flying-saucer cult which specified a particular date for alien visitation: he posited that rather than give up their ideas when the aliens didn't visit, they'd incorporate the disappointment into their world-view and remain strongly united and convinced.

In Lurie's novel, the sociologists end up in a terrible tangle: implicated in various dubious ethical behaviour, directing the group's activities to some extent, and pursuing private motivations.

Being an academic, some sections touch on my own life…
The whole thing got to be like a relentless parody of higher education. There was the same intense seriousness about a body of accumulating data which was, to say the least, unverifiable; the same assumption that here was a small group of enlightened, thinking persons who understood the universe correctly… aren't most articles in professional journals a form of automatic writing? It is another self who speaks there, solemn and oracular, in a cryptic jargon the real man would never use.
When I passed my Ph.D orals I said to myself with relief that never, never again would I have to prepare for or take another examination. Still, for some time after that, I dreamt… that I was being examined in public, usually on some preposterous subject. 

Separated at birth?

One of these gentlemen is an inarticulate and laughable fictional character who 'speaks a fictional version of English' and lives in a fantasy television land. Every week, the plot would feature his prized possession unravelling

The other one is a much-loved children's TV puppet.

Getting High With Meades

I binged on Jonathan Meades films this weekend, in advance of seeing him at the Manchester Lit Fest in a few weeks. How television needs this level of creativity and intelligence now.

Here's a piece on heights: it starts at a very odd pub near The Dark Place.

And as it's summer, here's his piece on caravans:

On holiday? Then come to sunny Sheffield

It's the UK School Games this week: 10 sports in multiple venues spread across the mighty city of Sheffield. I'm going as a child protection/welfare bloke for fencing for the fourth time. And I can honestly say that not a single fencer has died on my watch.

Anyway, if you fancy some top quality sport in Olympic-style surroundings, tickets are still available here. I'll be at the English Institute of Sport - again: I was there for the European Championships only a few weeks ago. So come and say hello. I'll be wearing lilac… damn it.

You'd better hurry: the government has cancelled the UKSG (which was designed as part of the Olympic's 'legacy' plan) in favour of a smaller, crapper event. It seems to be motivated by spite: nothing Labour did is to be allowed to survive, however good. If Labour had taken the same attitude, we'd never have had a Millennium Dome, restrictive union laws, several small but vicious wars, bust banks… Ah. Now I see the problem.

I'm getting my coat, I've pulled

Apparently word of Plashing Vole's charm and good looks has spread beyond these shores.
My Name is lilina I am girl. I will be happy if you can reply me because i have
something to discuss with you and also send my pictures to you
Thanks yours, lilian1987@yahoo.com)
from lilina
Lilina is clearly a sophisticated woman, despite the dyslexia implied by two different spelling of her name. She has two email addresses for a start: this was received from
Which does it for me: all those l's put me in mind of the internal rhythms of Welsh cynghanedd, or Gerard Manley Hopkins' 'sprung rhythm'.
And who could resist a girl who works for Libero? As Berlusconi's devoted cheerleader, there's a newspaper which knows how to party! I wonder if she's related to Kellen. Or - looking through the IP addresses,  J. Visser of Viper, Maaskade 1, in the Netherlands. He has an email address too: 

I assume that the 'something to discuss' is English lessons. Shall I reply?

Friday, 26 August 2011

Friday, Friday, getting' down on Friday

(and if you don't get that reference, you're a square, as we used to say).

Well, my appearance on the Guardian Higher Education Network online chat on surviving your first academic job was fun. Everyone else was very intellectual and have wonderful careers ahead of them. Me, I'll just make snarky comments online until someone escorts me off the premises.

Anyway, never mind work, it's the weekend. What's happening? Well, Stoke City is going to beat West Brom (away!), Ireland have a rugby match to win, and it's Emma's birthday. And I have an MA thesis to read for a friend.

I'll leave you with some highlights from that criminally overlooked comic masterpiece Garth Marenghi's Darkplace ('I was compact and muscular. Like corned beef').

I clearly have a stalker

I should confess. I've been on both ends of this conversation.

Something elevating for you philistines

Having acquired a new hifi recently (no, not in the extreme shopping event which hit our cities), I've been playing everything which highlights fine stereo and crystal clear reproduction, which basically means a lot of 4AD and classical.

Here's a version of Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium, a 40-part monster from the reformation period. I've actually become such a snob that I took off the King's choir version to replace it with the Chapelle du Roi recording. I like religious music when it's in Latin. Despite having a (bad) Latin A-level, I don't understand a word, so can ignore the pernicious meanings and simply revel in the stunning noises being made.

However, here's a rather wonderful version: shame there's no indication who it is, though it's very close to the Chapelle recording.

Anyway, shouldn't you be over here, asking me about your first academic job?

On the agenda

Afternoon all! And where have I been all morning, you may be asking. Lounging about in my pants luxuriating in the mythical 3-month summer holiday? No, though I can arrange a photo-reconstruction if that's what floats your boat.

I've been on the office floor, limbering up for this afternoon's Guardian Higher Education Network online chat about 'surviving your first academic job', though as I haven't been sacked yet, it's not clear whether I will actually survive it.

You can join in here from 1 p.m today: the other guests are frighteningly sorted professionally. I just hope their personal lives are a desolate wasteland of misery accompanied by a soundtrack of hysterical sobbing.

I'm ready: armed with quips, tips and a copy of Microcosmographia Academia, F. M. Cornford's 1908 guide to the young academic.

The Principle of Sound Learning is that the noise of vulgar fame should never trouble the cloistered calm of academic existence. Hence learning is sound when no one has ever heard of it; and 'sound scholar' is a term of praise applied to one another by learned men who have no reputation outside the University, and a rather queer one inside it. If you should write a book (you had better not), be sure that it is unreadable; otherwise you will be called 'brilliant' and forfeit all respect. 
University printing presses exist, and are subsidised by the Government [how times change], for the purpose of producing books which no one can read; and they are true to their calling. 

Thursday, 25 August 2011

What happens on campus, stays on campus

Life in a university is exciting. It's stimulating… intellectually. There are also isolated cases of romance - or lust - blooming: last year several of us had to interrupt a young student couple who thought that meeting rooms were ideal trysting venues.

But life here is much more sedate than popular culture would have you believe:

Pulp novels are fascinating. They cover Westerns, SF, race, war, and obviously sex. The covers alone are often stunning. But they also tell you so much about the culture in which they appeared. Take this last one, Girls' Dormitory. Who's the audience? You'd assume it's heterosexual males, but Katherine Forrest's study Lesbian Pulp Fiction and Duke University's Sallie Bingham Center collection both suggest that this pseudo-moralising (see the bottom left of the cover) allowed gay women to develop a sexual identity completely closed to them in real life. This is presumably why gay publishing imprints have revived some of the 'classics': used to reading 'against' or 'between the lines', their readers easily ignored the moralising, and it's easy to see how these emotionally heightened, sometimes ridiculous texts were enfolded into camp culture as an ironic reclamation of lesbian and gay identity.

I don't know what proportion of pulp novels are set in universities, but it makes sense for the sex-related ones: residential institutions where men and women, and same-sex relationships can develop away from the prying eyes of disapproving adults must have been at a premium in more conservative societies (prisons are another popular choice). The moralising banner allows the reader (probably not students or teachers) to believe that such places - from which they are excluded -  are hotbeds of vice: an unattainable fantasy for the 97% of the population which would never attend college in those days.

This seems to have been an all-American fantasy though: campus fiction in the UK is usually comedy based on nerd-characteristics, the pursuit of power and the mad scientist. Academics are seen as socially inept and divorced from reality, students as privileged, arrogant, spoilt, naive or silly. Perhaps this is due to Britain's postwar history: America's students moved thousands of miles, didn't seem to work too hard, had big cars for romantic trips to the lookout, had white teeth and good weather under vast skies. Britain's students had rationing, rain, mackintoshes, bad teeth, couldn't get more than a few hundred miles away, and lived in cold, cramped conditions. Try making a fantasy out of that!

Pulp fiction still exists to some extent: for some reason railway stations specialise in soft-porn novels, though I'd hate to sit next to someone reading one, but the social and cultural contexts have changed to such a degree - particularly the end of censorship and the rise of the web - that it's harder to sustain this kind of sensationalist, titillating market. Certainly universities have had their erotic potential drained: there's no mystery when almost 50% of young people are students, and many of them live at home, or attend their local university. 

While this leering stuff isn't much to be missed, the narrowing of students' horizons certainly is: there's little scope for reinvention, escape and encountering new social groups and interests if you commute to and from your family home every day, and meet your schoolmates in lectures. 

And with that, I'm popping a piece of 'Bacon Bits Chocolate' (oh yes) into my mouth before heading off home to pursue the life of a sexy academic: reading today's book purchases (Edgeworth's Patronage from 1814 and Neil Postman's polemic Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Showbusiness).

Vole's top film tip

See The Guard. OK, it's a white-black cop buddy film. But the white cop's a slightly corrupt racist and the black cop's an FBI man sent to the west of Ireland. If you're Irish, you'll laugh all the way through, except for the sad bits. If you're not, you'll laugh 80% of the time. Brendan Gleeson stars, so you can't go wrong.

And you'll discover that IRA operatives have to file reports.

Meanwhile, here's a lunch to put a smile on your face, and a notice strung up near my flat. I admire the tradition of publicly humiliating your opponents. I just wish the signs were spelled better.

The tax deal that never was…

All the media are repeating the government line that today's deal with Switzerland will result in billions of evaded taxes finally coming in to the government's coffers.

Huzzah for Cameron and his offshore-trust beneficiary Chancellor.

And if you swallow this, then you're a fool.

The agreement allows individuals with Swiss bank accounts to either declare their holdings to the Inland Revenue, or make a one-off payment to the Swiss government, followed by a withholding tax each year. The cash will be transferred to the UK Treasury. What we don't know, of course, is whether the level will be high enough to deter - or encourage - this behaviour. The account holders will still remain anonymous, and so out of reach, despite the fact that what they're doing is a criminal offence

But never mind this: individual rich tax cheats will always be with us and the new rules explicitly prevent the British from going on fishing expeditions for these criminals: imagine if we decided that only a small number of rioters could be pursued each year, and that the penalties would be administrative rather than judicial. Each year, millions of British people fill in tax returns. If they're late, you get fined. If they're wrong, you can go to prison. But now, you can hold your cash in Switzerland. If you get caught, you'll pay a bit of cash, but there's no prospect of gaol for ripping of those of us who work hard and pay our taxes.

One gaping hole is the complete absence of corporate, shell and trust holdings (of the kind George Osborne will benefit from): companies are going to see this as explicit approval from our government, and will hide as much of their profits from us as possible, despite the fact that it's the British legal, institutional, educational and physical infrastructure that makes them so profitable. This is theft, and the UK government has legalised it.

They aren't the major problem. The real problem is that this minor deal is a plot between the Swiss and the British to wreck plans for a Europe-wide tax agreement. 
Now why would the UK want to ruin a plan to stop companies and individuals hiding their ill-gotten gains in offshore tax havens? Because, as Shaxson's horrifying book Treasure Islands reveals, the UK (and Ireland) are essentially revolving doors between honest countries and the various tax havens scattered around the globe. Tax havens that are, for the most part, former British colonies. The City of London is a big bucket into which pours offshore money for laundering into legitimate investment, and money heading for tax havens away from the prying eyes of the tax authorities.

If the EU had signed a transparency deal, the Caymans, Turks and Caicos, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man would all have been covered, as well as Switzerland: the hundreds of billions hidden away would have been recovered, and some of these parasites would have gone to prison. This deal isn't about Switzerland. It's about the Tories helping their friends in all the other tax havens to carry on stealing. This is what Richard Murphy, accountant and founder of the Tax Justice Network, has to say:
In that case let’s not put too fine a point on this: this is the Treasury and our political leaders going out of their way to support criminality by making sure that a measure – the European Union Savings Tax Directive - that would blow tax evasion in British dependencies apart cannot now be implemented. And all, no doubt, at the behest of the City of London.

Which is odd, because I thought governments were meant to collect taxes, then spend them on behalf of its citizens.

Media Studies embarrasses the government again.

For most of the past few years, our politicians have gone round the world telling less democratic regimes to open up the web to release the creativity and political yearnings of their citizens.

Meanwhile, Western technology companies sold these repressive regimes all the tools needed to monitor and throttle online activity. Cisco, RIM, Google: they don't have political principles, they have shareholders.

Our leaders' enthusiasm for web freedom turned out to be - like democracy - something you only drop on your enemies. Wikileaks and the recent riots have seen them turn to exactly the same techniques employed by the Chinese, Egyptians and the Libyans. For instance, the Home Secretary has suggested turning off Twitter and similar services, and is meeting the tech companies to discuss how to censor the web during disturbances. No sense of irony, these people.

But here's an inconvenient truth: the medium is not, in this case, the message. The Guardian's analysis of riot-related Twitter feeds reveals that it wasn't being used to plan or co-ordinate looting and destruction. It was used to comment, and to organise a clean-up. 

A preliminary study of a database of riot-related tweets, compiled by the Guardian, appears to show Twitter was mainly used to react to riots and looting.
Timing trends drawn from the data question the assumption that Twitter played a widespread role in inciting the violence in advance, an accusation also levelled at the rival social networks Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger.
The day after the riots subsided, the prime minister told parliament the government was looking at banning people from using sites such as Twitter and Facebook if they were thought to be plotting criminal activity. Cameron said the government would do "whatever it takes" to restore order, adding that a review was under way to establish whether it would be right to attempt to prevent rioters from using social networks.

This kind of analysis, in fact, is one of the things that Media Studies does.

The government's reaction proves that it isn't interested in specifics, details or truth. It, like all reactionary bodies, simply reacts to something it doesn't understand by stamping on it. Institutions are very slow to grasp the potential and actual benefits of new tech: they're too quick to see how their own authority might be eroded by the sheer speed and privacy of services like Twitter.

I'm not a Twittevangelist. I'm not on Facebook or LinkedIn or Foursquare… I had my doubts about how useful it might be, and I'm still not convinced that footballers tweeting 'stop the violence', me suggesting satirical names for Jeffrey Archer's cat, or people announcing that they quite liked TOWIE adds much to the sum of human achievement. But the organisational and information-seeking opportunities inherent in a service which lets you tap into the collective wisdom of early adopters shouldn't be denied.

But for the government, there's are some simple rules which they can apply to new media, to welfare provision, to rioting teens. They also work for me in all aspects of my life.
1. Your initial instincts shouldn't dictate subsequent decisions.
2. Everything is more complicated than you think it is.
3. Take some time to think through the consequences.
4. Don't just consult people with whom you already agree.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Why I didn't like Nicholas Blake's The Smiler With The Knife, despite wanting to

OK, some elements, such as the spy who was also a member of the England cricket team were a little far-fetched, but I swallowed it. I also - for the sake of giving it a go - the idea that Britain's (or as Blake has it, England's) secret state was overseen by well-meaning anti-fascist liberals.

No, what annoyed me was this scene, which is echoed in every Bond film/novel since

'Ah, so you are spying on me. I shall kill you. But not for another half hour because I'm a bit busy. You may as well read my secret plans to take over the country and invite the Nazis in. And I'll tell you the secret plan under the secret plan. Because you're going to die. In half an hour. Wait here. I'll just check you for hat-pins. But you can keep your lighter'.
Our heroine then sets light to her room, smashes the door down, hides behind the next door until the villains dash in, gets out, locks them in the burning wing of the mansion, and escapes, not forgetting to pick up her fur coat and commandeer a Rolls Royce. The villains survive too.


The oracle speaks!

The Guardian Higher Education Network is having an online chat on the subject of 'Surviving Your First Academic Job' on Friday, 1 onwards. All the experts are away for the summer, so I'm on the panel, trying not to be facetious. Join us!

Time to get off the cultural pot

I posted a piece today on cultural forms which leave me completely cold. Which now strikes me as being rather negative. So for balance, here are the things which do excite me. Some are 'highbrow', some are 'lowbrow'. Some are products of the capitalist system I so detest.

While you read, here's a song that's going round my head a lot at the moment, This Mortal Coil's Song to the Siren and their cover of Roy Harper's Another Day. I'd have hated them as a teen: tastes do change.

1. Church music and architecture. Even though I've not the tiniest shred of spiritual belief, resent the disinformation and cultural power of religion, they do (did?) have good taste in composers and architects. 

2. Teen dramas and comedy. My So-Called Life. Buffy. The Inbetweeners. Degrassi Junior High.

3. Mid-afternoon TV. Did anyone watch Ed on Channel 4: slushy, self-congratulatory, often smug, always great? Cagney and Lacey is brilliant. Jeeves and Wooster.

4. Science fiction. Once, all SF. Now, I can't stand fantasy with the possible exception of LeGuin, Gwyneth Jones and Tepper, though the generic boundaries are unclear. I do adore 'hard SF' though: the stuff that deals with the cultural and political effects of technology. Books and music.

5. Minimalist and atonal classical music. But there is also a softer side: Vaughan Williams, Stanford, Bax and co. are tuneful, somewhat old-fashioned and altogether wonderful. And of course Bach's Cello Suites are the creates pieces every written. 

6. Campus novels, which is very self-regarding. Also literary parodies, which are smug. I also collect an awful lot of children's literature. Given I haven't any children, it implies that I'm emotionally arrested. 

7. Conservative, expensively tailored clothes. Yes, I know I look like a slob exclusively dressed by Oxfam, but I've even got one tailor-made suit, and some shoes which are well above my pay-grade. I'd love a 1940s wardrobe.

8. Old films. Screwball comedies, SF, westerns, noir, WW2 propaganda films (Casablanca is my all time favourite, but I'll watch anything with a Hepburn (preferably Katherine), Bacall, Leigh, Bogart or Stewart in it.

9. British films. Brief Encounter. The Titfield Thunderbolt. Passport to Pimlico. The Mouse That Roared. The Man In the White Suit. The School For Scoundrels. Carry-On. Holiday On The Buses. The Doctor In The… series.

9. Quiz shows. Mastermind, University Challenge, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?.

10. Comics. But not cool ones. Unfashionable ones. Green Lantern. Atom Man. Etc.

11. Cricket, fencing, Stoke City, rugby league. GAA. Cycling. 

12. Whiny underpowered indie music. Tiny record labels. Side-projects. Limited editions on coloured vinyl. Memorising the messages engraved in the run-off groove of Smiths singles. 

13. Pork scratchings. Western civilisation's lowest point. Did I mention I have some scratchings-based chocolate?

14. Dumb pop songs. Symposium's Farewell to Twilight. Van Halen's Jump. Terrorvision's Oblivion. Tiffany's I Think We're Alone Now. Camper van Beethoven's Take The Skinheads Bowling. L7's Pretend We're Dead. Devo's Mongoloid. Jane Wiedlin's Rush Hour (she was also in Star Trek IV and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. All of Shatner and Nimoy's musical output. Songs from the Simpsons.

15. Star Trek. Not Star Wars. Falken's Maze. Mall Rats.

What a sad life.

If you see John Redwood, punch him in his lying face

(Obviously metaphorically because otherwise I'd be inciting you to commit a criminal offence. Which I'm not).

So why does Tory Scum MP (representative for Outer Space) deserve a sound thrashing?
Because he just told Radio 4 that the recession is the fault of 'governments and regulators' for making banks hold higher reserves, thereby preventing them from lending more to get the economy going.

Now let's just review the last twenty years (don't worry, I'll be brief).

1. Tory government - including a Mr John Redwood -  and their Labour successors accept financiers' arguments that government regulation is holding them back. They abolish most of the regulations put in place after the crashes of the 1920s-1930s.

2. Banks and finance companies invent a wave of literally incomprehensible financial instruments to fuel uncontrolled speculative greed. Bank speculation dwarfs reserves by massive multiples: the assumption is that nothing bad will happen, so potential losses don't have to be covered.

3. Bad things happen. Banks don't have money to cover their losses. We taxpayers have to spend all our money on saving them. Public services are cut. Job losses are massive. Wages slump. Pensions are cut. Manufacturing nosedives.

4. A tiny bit of regulation is put in place making banks hold a little bit more cash in case of deals going wrong, amidst much whinging from business. Tory government cuts taxes on corporations and cancels new school buildings.

5. John Redwood blames us for the recession.

Now doesn't that demand a sound horsewhipping?

What leaves you cold?

I guess we've all got our cultural blind spots - activities or genres that you just don't get. It might be that you've grown up in a context which didn't expose you to particular activities, or or some more mysterious process.

I was thinking about this because I've just read The Smiler With The Knife. It's a political crime thriller from 1939. The author is Nicholas Blake, who is actually C. Day-Lewis, the wonderful Anglo-Irish poet (father of the actor). So I thought it would be great: good author, my period, my interests (it's about smashing a fascist coup), good title (it's a Chaucer quote): the signs were good.

Unfortunately, it just didn't do anything for me. There were some neat turns of phrase here and there, but the characterisation was poor, the dialogue awful, the plot twists nonsensical - and the politics confused. Perhaps it's just a bad book by the terms of the genre, but I have to say that detective thrillers in general leave me cold, as do crime, 'action' and romance novels. It's not that I'm agin genre literature: I read a lot of science fiction, and devour John Le Carré. So why is it that particular cultural forms are closed to me? I'm not marooned in my past: my tastes have changed over the years, but some things are beyond me, and not just from snobbery.

A short list:
Ballet - despite loving much classical music and understanding where ballet comes from.
Musicals and light opera (with the honourable exception of South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut.
Contemporary interpretive dance.
Horse racing.
Reality TV.
Beach holidays.
Dance music/techno whatever it's called now.
The Romantic composers.
Horror novels and films. Too susceptible. I hate them. I'll never get rid of various scenes from Candyman.

BUT: I'm not saying that any or all of these things are stupid or rubbish. That would be arrogant and blinkered. And it's certainly true that the categories I like also contain a lot of what I'd consider junk. Instead, these are things that just don't do it for me. Take the electronica world, for instance. I'm addicted to the minimalists: Glass, Reich, Adams, Andriessen, Donaghy and more, so you'd think I would go for LFO and their spod allies, but I don't. Not one bit. It's not their failing: it's mine.

How about you? And how will you convince me to reassess my views on any of these?

Who'd be a nurse?

My good friend @drleehw pointed me in the direction of this Student Fee Repayment calculator. It's as horrific as it sounds: even given a fair economic wind - which we currently don't have - you'll only every pay back your debt if you start on a massive salary and get huge pay rises all the way through.

And that's not all: the better paid you are, the less you'll have to pay back. So all those low-paying jobs which require degrees (primary teacher, nurse, social worker) or which require further years of qualifications (librarian, researcher etc.) will now be totally unthinkable. Why would anyone not qualified for sainthood deliberately take a fulfilling but frugal post if it means handing more money to the government than a lawyer or hedge fund trader, and without the prospect of ever paying it all back?

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

How sweet…

It's all flowers and chocolates in my office today. Not because grateful graduates are showering me with gifts (damn their eyes) though.

A belated birthday gift from Christine consists of two astonishingly tasty chocolate bars:

Yes, that's Cheese, Walnuts and Grapes in one, and pork scratchings with hazelnut and cinnamon in the other. And they genuinely are delicious.

The flowers are in the Kate Greenaway-illustrated The Language of Flowers. It looks a bit twee, even fey, but there's a serious purpose. Up to the end of the Victorian period, flowers had meanings. We still use roses to mean love, lilies are linked to the 1916 Rising in Ireland, and various blooms are associated with death, but we've basically moved past flower symbolism. But if you're reading literature from the period, you need to know what's being quietly communicated when the heroine arranges a vase of fig marigold on her husband's desk (idleness), or our hero presents his beloved with Flower-of-an-hour (delicate beauty: i.e. she's going to expire of consumption by chapter 4, so let's get down to business).

Here's poor Ophelia in Hamlet, using the native tradition:
There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray,love, remember: and there is pansies. That's for thoughts. 
There's fennel for you, and columbines: there's rue for you; and here's some for me: we may call itherb-grace o' Sundays: O you must wear your rue with a difference. There's a daisy: I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died: they say he made a good end,--
Fennel - praiseworthiness or strength; Columbine - depending on the colour, folly, resolution or anxiety; Rue - disdain; daisy - shared sentiments, innocence or thought; Violets mean faithfulness, watchfulness, modesty or rural happiness, depending on the colour.

The tradition derived in part from Turkish seduction techniques (acquired via the Grand Tour?), and from the Roman, then Northern European tradition of still-life paintings, in which the virtues, mortality and similar concepts were conveyed through flowers and other objects.
There's also another tradition which I'm not sure Greenaway's book will cover. Lord Edward Fitzgerald, according to Tillyard's excellent biography - had a formal garden which to the initiated, indicated his radical, republican sympathies: to the ignorant, it was just a collection of flowers. Political gardening was clearly an interesting activity. Anyone recommend a good book on it?

I hereby declare Laurestina to be the Official Plant of the Blogosphere. Why? Because in Victorian times, it meant 'I die if neglected'!

I also received Brooke Gladstone's comic-book radical history of the media, The Influencing Machine, which looks interesting at the very least. Here's a short animated section.

Guess Who?

If you're a Google+ user, you'll have discovered that Google is 'encouraging' users to operate under their real names - and deciding arbitrarily whether or not its clients are telling the truth. Which might make problems for poor old Moon Unit.

It raises the question of anonymity on the web once more, and the deeper one of identity. As to the former: yes, 'real' names may promote civility and responsibility. Though if your name is John Smith, you can probably say whatever you want with no chance of identification offline.  I use my real name in certain online situations: on the forum relating to my sport, for example. That's because it's a discussion chamber and I wanted to be held accountable for whatever I say. In a small sport, we all know each other. Whenever I go to a competition, or referee, or act as child protection officer, those around me need to know that I'm honest and mean what I say, rather than wind things up out of devilment.

So why don't I use my real name on Vole? Partly because it's not safe: I do have an insecure job and managers who might well take agin' me. That said, Vole and my real name have been officially linked in the Times Higher Ed and the Guardian Higher Education Network, so the cat's out of the bag really.

The deeper motivation is the obverse of the names=responsibility argument. What's to say that my real name (imposed on me by parents, reflecting their cultural values) is any more representative of a 'real' me than Plashing Vole? If you know your Evelyn Waugh, you could trace the origin of my monicker and take a stab at what I'm implying. Identity isn't stable and discrete: it's messy, complicated and constantly in flux. Plashing Vole is a version of me; my offline identity is another me. Mostly, they're contiguous, but they're certainly not the same. My foul language and poor personal hygiene, for instance, aren't carried over into Vole: the freedom to comment on anything I like - without footnotes and structure -  are restricted to the blog.

Another point is that Vole is here to stay: it's not a sock puppet used to abuse people in passing. To a (very) small group of people, it has a history to which I am answerable. I hope you can trust PV in the same way that people can trust the carbon-based author. It's an identity: it's no more fraudulent than any other form of identification. It's inconsistent - but then so am the 'I' who decides what goes under my given name and what is ascribed to Plashing Vole. Google deciding that one is 'real' and trustworthy while the other is automatically unreal and untrustworthy is an ontological abuse.

There's also the matter of audience. Lots of you are personal friends in meatspace. You'll know better than most that Vole is a 'hyperreal', edited avatar of the person you know from day to day. That keeps me honest to some extent: I won't invent things out of principle, and because you'll catch me out, unless I tag something as fiction stylistically or explicitly. But there are groups of friends who know me from different places: university, work, fencing, solely through Vole and so on: none of you should expect complete consistency because identity is a matter of context to a great extent. When I go fencing, nobody knows or cares about Vole or about my professional life: to them I'm a fencer/ref/coach/child protection guy. My academic friends know nothing about what I do in Polish sports halls (oh, the horror of it all), and that's great: we pick and choose what to show each other, and what we take from each other.

Being forced to completely identify ourselves in all contexts may shut down some internets nastiness, but it would also shut down the playground of identities. Imagine being, for instance, a feminist in Tehran, or a socialist civil servant in Washington: appearing under your real name on Google would soon lead to very nasty consequences offline, whereas the ability to operate under a pseudonym gives them both the opportunity to indulge in fantasies, debate ideas, develop personal and political links in a safe place. Google wants to reduce identity to a single fixed point: what a blinkered, conservative, reactionary concept.

(BTW: I know there's an awful lot of philosophical writing I could invoke here, but I'm hungry and my mind's gone blank).

'Ello 'ello 'ello, what do we 'ave 'ere then?

Meet Sir Hugh Orde, former chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Now he's head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which sounds like a public body but is actually a rich private company with privileged access to government and policing.

Now that's bad enough. But naughty Hugh has been wandering the TV studios dressed like this:

Perhaps someone should have a quiet word. Impersonating a police officer - by, for instance, getting the Met to run up a fake uniform reminiscent of their own senior brass, then sticking an ACPO badge on it - is a criminal offence:

Section 90 Police Act 1996 (Archbold 22-62) creates several offences relating to the impersonation of police officers or the possession of articles of police uniform, namely:
  • impersonating a police officer (including a special constable);
  • making a statement or doing any act calculated falsely to suggest membership of a police force;
  • wearing a police uniform calculated to deceive;
  • possessing an article of police uniform.
Hugh is touring the studios in a deceitful uniform in pursuit of the Met Commissioner's job. That looks like an offence:
Where the impersonation involves a threat to the safety of any person, or to property, or is done with a view to financial gain, then a prosecution should follow.

Watch this space

Morning all. The media news of the week is that I'm doing a Guardian Higher Education live chat on Surviving Your First Academic Job. I'll post the link when I know it, and you can all submit your burning questions.

I'm still in my first academic job, I suppose. Not for want of trying to get a second one, I hasten to add. I started teaching as soon as I began my PhD, and did something in every semester: English, Media, Sociology, Politics, History, American Studies, Theoretical Mathematics). When there wasn't much around, I did a tour of duty as a supply teacher in The Dark Place's fine secondary schools. Apart from a day spent umpiring cricket, it was a tale of unrelieved misery and shame. But that's for another day.

Now I'm in the 5th year of a series of 'temporary' contracts, 0.5 in each of two departments. How did I start teaching Media and Cultural Studies despite being a Welsh literature expert I hear you ask? Well, the former head of Media noticed me reading a newspaper. He asked me if I read one every day and when I replied in the affirmative, he offered me a job.

Yes, it's that easy. So that's something else I have to thank the Guardian for! No Guardian, no hourly-paid lecturing, no 0.5 contract, no MA lecture on blogging, no Vole! So you can thank/blame the Guardian too.

Monday, 22 August 2011

My door is always open…

We - like most academics - have 'office hours': periods when we're guaranteed to be available on a drop-in basis. Not that most students take most notice of them: I've had calls late in the evening, and people dropping in at 8 p.m. wondering why colleagues aren't there.

The timing of office hours is always a matter of cunning strategy. I personally favour early morning on Monday and late Friday afternoons: Mondays have the added advantage of catching the bank holidays (always something to bear in mind when teaching duties are handed out too). I heard of one person here - well before my time - whose really weird crack-of-dawn 35-minute 'hours' turned out to be planned around the commuter flight to Berlin, where he was moonlighting in a second job!

I assume that in their imaginations, we're the Borg, waiting in our regeneration chambers when not actually lecturing. After all, we couldn't possibly have lives, could we? (Actually, I don't, and I generally do sit in my darkened office for extended periods, in some kind of stasis).

(TA = teaching assistant: postgrads who do all the real work in American universities)

What happens during office hours? Usually, nobody comes. Then the day before an essay is due, a queue will form. They will say things like 'could you go over it again'. I'll say 'what?' and they'll reply 'the last 6 weeks' lectures'. Some will express shock that you think they should read books rather than just cut-and-paste my Powerpoint into Word. 

The other group of punters are those who turn up with a draft essay 4 weeks early. You read it in awe, then spend an hour explaining to them that yes, they've got everything right and they're well ahead of everybody else. These people are guaranteed to return every week to have their hands held because they lack the confidence and encouragement to realise how good they really are. The really arrogant and self-confident ones are the ones who fail. When I was teaching Study Skills, the only guy who came every week for a tutorial was a mature student who'd worked in PR over in Oman for 20 years. Once you'd cut out the advertising adjectives from every sentence, you were left with genuinely impressive insights into everything he touched. Only he never believed it and came back week after week for three years… Luckily, as well as being touchingly modest, he was also hugely interesting, so seeing him was something to look forward to every Thursday. 

Message for Ed

Ed, if you're reading: mail me. I can't find your address and I think I've something that might interest you.

That is all.

In Praise of Sinclair

If I typed out every bit of Lights Out For The Territory for which I've folded down a page-corner (yes, spare me your horrified gasps, most of my books are working copies), I'd be here forever and have no space for anything else. If you haven't, read the book now.

But here are some snippets.

On the rise of the finance scum who've ruined us (despite writing in 1995), he quotes Richard Allen:
His suede heads of the early Seventies, boot boys travestied in mohair, progressed to the Stock Exchange. They were the first jackals of the Me Generation: "An anti-social, anti-everything conglomerate affecting status as their protective cover whilst engaging in nefarious pursuits more savage, more brutal than other cultists…"… the Savile Row knuckleheads of the free-market: Lord Joseph's scum progeny
On Jeffrey Archer's novels:
An object, a brick of paper, good to handle, nice to have around. Inoffensive - except to whinging aesthetes… the power of the novels lay in the fact that they didn't have to be read. The much-edited story was so user-friendly it spoke to you. It talked back. The plot was so familiar that simply bending back the covers was enough, the thick black lines of text (virtually braille) did the rest. 
The role of the poet as cartographer:
… the skin of London should be divided up by poets and seers as much as by gangsters. Pets didn't need brothers. Didn't need a conformity of suits and attitudes. Didn't need dogs. They would service the ground they stole from, haunt a particular territory, tune themselves to notice everything, every irregularity in the brickwork, every dip in the temperature… Maps are a futile compromise between information and knowledge. They require a powerful dose of fiction to bring them to life.
Writers, wishing to 'rescue' dead ground, will have to wrest it from the grip of developers, clerks, clerics, eco freaks, and ward bosses. We are all welcome to divide London according to our anthologies: JG Ballard at Shepperton (the reservoirs, airport perimeter roads, empty film studios); Michael Moorcock at Notting Hill (visited by Jack Trevor Story); Angela Carter - south of the river, Battersea to Brixton, where she hands over to the poet Allen Fisher; Eric Mottram at Herne Hill, communing with the ghost of Ruskin; Robin Cook's youthful self in Chelsea… [etc for several more paragraphs].
What he's getting at is that 'official' truths and 'facts' are reductive at best, misleading, deliberately so at worst. That a place is not a collection of things but a history, often hidden, distorted or denied. That the imagination is where a place really comes to exist. See also Alan Moore's From Hell.

Gastronomes, avert your eyes.

This is lunch at The Hegemon. It's been lunch every day since mid-June. It costs 99p, is refrigerated to the point of hurting my teeth, and is served in plastic.

Despite this, nobody has as yet described me as a shadow of my former self.

If you think I'm prolific…

You might think I write too much on Vole (no, really).
But amongst the pile of books which turned up in the post today was Volume 12 of George Orwell's complete works. 608 pages. And that's just his output for 20 months covering 1940-1941. Reviews, letters, diaries, essays… every word better than everything I'll ever write, too.

What else turned up?
Alex Wheatle's witty tale of black London adolescence, Brixton Rock (love the echo of the title). It looks great - and a good corrective to the nonsense currently being spouted about African-Caribbean youths by our political masters.

Cornelia Funke's new children's fantasy, Reckless. I should read it in German but I don't have the patience.

Joe Dunthorne's new dark comedy of rural Welsh adolescence, Wild Abandon. I watched the film of his first novel, Submarine, the other day. It's really good: definitely picks up on the tone and narrative voice of the novel, with beautiful photography and performances.

I also picked up a few books with my tokens on Friday: Supergods, Grant Morrison's personal investigation into the cultural hold of superheroes; Jane Rogers' dystopian The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Z for Zachariah for our times?); Simon Morden's Degrees of Freedom (unhealthy academic geek saves the world - ideal reading for me) and Jonathan Coe's tricksy and entrancing The House of Sleep.

And one day I'll get round to reading some of them.

The conversation is like the beating / taken in a dream

What better way to shake off the morning cobwebs with a bit of driving guitar and alienated lyrics? Yes folks, it's Smog, with a couple of tracks from 2000s Dongs of Sevotion. I have a new hifi system, and keep playing all the music with depth and width to show off the gorgeous speakers.

Friday, 19 August 2011

It's heartbreaking because it's true

Over at the Guardian, Stefan Collini paints a very bleak picture of higher education's future, and explains the disgusting and third-rate thinking behind the government's plans.

Particularly relevant to us here at The Hegemon is this bit:
It's true that if they go to the handful of "top" universities that will do well out of the new system they may not notice much change, except that a higher proportion of their fellow students will come from comfortable backgrounds. But if they go to the majority of universities, especially to those which in the past two decades have been the main vehicles for the great educational enfranchisement of people from social groups that did not previously go to university, then they will see signs of reduced resources all around them. In some cases their "student experience" may quite closely resemble their current social experience – boarded-up departments, dilapidated buildings, low morale, a resentful sense that the cards are stacked in favour of the few rather than the many.

For all our faults, we specialise in taking those students posher universities somehow excel at excluding: the poor, the provincial, the mature students, those from ethnic minorities and those who've struggled at - or been failed by - school and work. Our government seems to believe that the 'best' will rise to the top by a form of magic. We believe otherwise.

Actually, there is a magic formula for getting to the top in this country: it's private school + Oxbridge + inherited £millions + contacts + being white and male. You can spot these people everywhere, and the one thing that unites them is their conviction that they got where they are through hard work and individual genius, and that anyone who doesn't do likewise is therefore a failure. Can you genuinely imagine Cameron, Osborne, Johnson, or any of the myriad TV presenters, celebrity comedians/lawyers/journalists reaching the tops of their professions if they'd started off at Grim Comp, Stoke?

'Civilised man has not arrived here yet': JB Priestley on Stoke

Stoke's mayor, and anyone who's recently bought property in the city, probably shouldn't read the following…

Priestley's 1934 English Journey detests the industrial spoliation of the West Midlands, but poor old Stoke isn't spared either. In addition to its 'grim' physical state, he devotes a couple of pages to the pompousness and shallowness of its civic leaders, who prefer 'third-rate politicians' to 'artists of any kind', occasioned by the city's total refusal to recognise or mark Arnold Bennett's wonderful novels and short stories, many of them set in his home city.

To Priestley, the artificial merger of the six towns into Stoke-on-Trent is a Baudrillardian fantasy:
…it has no existence as a city… There is no city… there appeared, on paper, the mythical city of Stoke-on-Trent. But when you go there, you still see the six towns, looking like six separate towns. Unless you are wiser than I am, you will never be quite sure which of the six you are in at any given time, but at least you will be ready to swear that you are nowhere near a city that contains three hundred thousand people.
It's actually easy to work out where you are. If your racist mugger is wearing a Port Vale shirt, you're in Tunstall. If he's wearing a Stoke shirt, you're in one of the other towns.
What distinguishes this district, to my eye and mind, is its universal littleness… I seem to be paying a visit to Lilliput… the very people are small; sturdy enough, of course, and ready to give a good account of themselves; but nearly all stunted in height… It is a marvel to me that the cups and saucers turn out the right adult size.
Some things are large in Stoke. Primarily, and sadly, dole queues. Smoking-related death rates.
This is no region to idle in… not a place designed to comfort and compensate… I do not know what Nature originally made of it, because nearly all signs of her handiwork have been obliterated. But man, who has been very thorough here, has not made of it anything that remotely resembles and inland resort. For a man of the Potteries, it must be either work or misery… as a district to do anything but work in, it has nothing to recommend it.
And yet: as scathing as Priestley sounds, there's an affection in his account of the place - for its cussedness, its grim refusal to pander to bourgeois notions of niceness, physically or socially. I think he detects a certain pride in this bare bones existence.
…it is extremely ugly… I have seen few regions from which Nature has been banished more ruthlessly, and banished only in favour of a sort of troglodyte mankind. Civilised man, except in his capacity as a working potter, has not arrived here yet… Their excellent services of buses… simply take you from one absence of civic dignity to another… these differences are minute when compared with the awful gap between the whole lot of them and any civilised urban region. 
… the general impression is of an exceptionally mean, dingy provinciality, of Victorian industrialism in its dirtiest and most cynical aspect. 

Priestley's horror isn't solely aesthetic: the thing that really annoys him is the fact that these downtrodden folk are producing such beautiful ceramics amidst utter deprivation, while the pottery owners live deep in the countryside, 'from which the Potteries are only seen as a distant haze'.
In short, the Potteries are not worthy of the Potter… if you are not working there, if the depression in America or the triumphant competition of the cut-price countries has thrown you out, then God help you, for nothing that you will see or hear or smell in these six towns will raise your spirits. 
Finally, Priestley visits a factory making ceramic electrical insulators. He's hugely impressed by what seems like magic to him, and by the artistry of the ordinary and underpaid potters - but he has a parting shot:
Some morning there would be one gigantic blue flash and the whole industrial Midlands would look like a smoking dustbin - or even more like a smoking dustbin than they do now.
But he's forgiven thanks to his hilarious and sporting account of his total failure to master the basic techniques of throwing pots, and for this:
I smoked a pipe with one of their Trade Union officials, a good solid chap ('Oh, we often read you round here', he declared, 'and sometimes we'd like to give you one on the nose').
Stoke's no prettier now, and its people have the same vices and virtues Priestley noted.
He also does what I compulsively do:
When I dine out, I often turn the plates over and see who has made them.
If you see anyone do that, they're definitely Potters.

Call them all wilderness…

I've just received a first edition of J. B. Priestley's English Journey, his 1934 equivalent of Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier. In a sense, they're similar - both authors are sympathetic but critical, alive to the misery caused by industrial capitalism, but also to the joys of urban working-class culture.

Priestley isn't interested in the pretty bits of the country - that's for H. V. Morton - and he visits a lot of the places with which I'm familiar. On the Midlands:
Industry has ravaged it; drunken storm troops have passed this way; there are signs of atrocities everywhere; the earth has been left gaping and bleeding; and what were once bright fields have been rummaged and raped into these dreadful patches of waste ground.
The places I saw had names, but these names were merely so much alliteration: Wolverhampton, Wednesbury, Wednesfield, Willenhall and Walsall. You could call them all wilderness, and have done with it. 
As for West Bromwich - here's something for David Cameron to read:
a picture of grimy desolation… If you put it, brick for brick, into a novel, people would not accept it, would condemn you as a caricaturist and talk about Dickens. The whole neighbourhood is mean and squalid… I could not blame them if they [some urchins] threw stones and stones and smashed every pane of glass for miles. Nobody can blame them if they grow up to smash everything that can be smashed. There ought to be no more of those lunches and dinners, at which political and financial and industrial gentlemen congratulate themselves, until something is done about Rusty Lane and West Bromwich. While they still exist in their present foul shape, it is idle to congratulate ourselves about anything. They make the whole pomp of government here a miserable farce. 
The delegates [parliamentarians] have seen one England, Mayfair in the season. Let them see another England next time, West Bromwich out of season. Out of all seasons except the winter of our discontent. 

London: 'the place is a kind of miasma to me'

Here's a Parkinson interview with Gywn Thomas, a personal hero of mine, and one of the subjects of my PhD. It's weird finding that such an utterly forgotten author (though a play based on The Dark Philosophers is on at Edinburgh) was famous in the world of light entertainment, mainly through his appearances on discussion show The Brains Trust.

My work on him focussed on his 1930s/40s work - bitter, darkly humorous novels. But GT's appeal is obvious: hugely intelligent, open, astonishingly fluid linguistically. This is perhaps part of the postcolonial conditions: surrounded by Welsh but unable to speak it himself (he often expressed his distrust of the Welsh-language movement), he latched onto the subversive and poetic possibilities of English in a way very few English authors do ('words are indeed weapons', he says in this interview, and they explore the idea in the second part). See also those other Welshmen Dylan Thomas and Iain Sinclair. 

This verbal facility is what attracted audiences, though it's also a function of English distrust of the Welsh as facile, and divided between surface charm and a darker interior. Actually, I don't know if this kind of feeling still exists, but it's all over 20th-century literature. Not that anti-Welsh hatred has disappeared: the Daily Mail called the language an "appalling and moribund monkey language" and goes on to suggest that

Not many people in full possession of their faculties would find it appealing or necessary to try to turn themselves into a ‘real Welshman’.

which sounds like the worst kind of racism to me, and the article is a revolting mishmash of half-truths and specious generalisations. 

I have to admit that as GT became more of a media personality, the weird energy of his books decreased: from savage outsider's satire, they became rather too cosy performances of the comic Welshman. Read All Things Betray Thee, Sorrow For Thy Sons and The Dark Philosophers

Time to stick it to the poor

Obviously, this government has been punishing the poor since it took office, but the riots have given them another opportunity to claim that the country's problems are rooted in feral teen behaviour, not the recklessness, greed and criminality of our political and financial élites. 

Take this article by James Clappison MP, a Tory who is to charm, wit and intelligence what Goering was to culture. In the course of a long, bigoted rant, he joins in the clamour for benefit recipients who rioted to lose their state aid - which means of course that we have two classes of criminals: those who don't claim benefits and therefore will only be punished once, through the justice system, and those who do, and will therefore be punished twice, the second time by an arbitrary and unanswerable authority. 
Many members of the public have channelled this sense of disapproval into the E-Petition asking that Parliament should debate taking benefits away from rioters. We need a full debate on this – one important consideration is that rioters serving prison sentences do not generally receive benefits anyway. However, I have been surprised by the response of those who have sought to rule this out without any debate, as if the receipt of benefits was a human right or withdrawal of benefit was an impossible and unthinkable step. Receipt of some of the benefits in question is not and should not be unconditional. There are circumstances in which benefits can currently be withdrawn; the benefits sanctions regime has been tightened progressively over the years, and the current Welfare Reform Bill proposes sanctions of up to three years loss of benefits for failing to satisfy work search requirements, as well as strengthening the sanctions regime for those found to be committing benefit fraud.  Should rioters also lose benefits? I approach this question with a belief that loss of benefits for a significant period might be a deterrent to some rioters, irrespective of whatever other punishments the courts may rightly impose. If we want to minimise the risk of further riots, we want to ram home the message to potential rioters that the consequences of rioting could be disastrous for them in many different ways in their own lives. I suspect that law-abiding recipients of benefits - the vast majority - would be amongst those who would welcome such a message being sent out.
Who is this guy, who thinks that the very poorest should be 'made to pay'? Well, he's an MP, so of course his basic salary is £65,000. Public school and Oxford, obviously. Lawyer, of course. 
But what does he really think about those who greedily go on a looting rampage? Well, this article suggests that it's not looting that's the problem: it's how you do it. After all, what else do you call fraudulent Parliamentary expenses claims? 

Poor little Jimmy claimed £100,000 for housing expenses on two properties, despite only one of the two being in his name. 

Fair enough, you might think. Most MPs need somewhere near Parliament and somewhere in their constituencies. But Jim:
used taxpayers' money to buy petunias, geraniums and busy lizzies… he also made regular claims for maintenance, groceries, utilities bills and his television licence. He typically claimed £300 per month for food, £100-125 per month for a cleaner, and £31 per month for his cable television bill [obviously the BBC and Freeview aren't good enough for him]. He has also claimed a total of £3,166 for regular work on his garden since 2004.Detailed receipts submitted to the Commons fees office show that last year, he claimed £316 for gardening services, including the planting of a wide variety of flowers. Over two months, his gardener invoiced him for a box of geraniums, five boxes of petunias, one bottle brush shrub, one and a half boxes of busy lizzies, three trailing geraniums and five trailing petunias.
Oh. Rather petty of him. But I'm not going to begrudge a poor man some flowers. He must be strapped for cash, despite that £65,000 salary.

Hold on a minute though:
Mr Clappison owns a farm and 75 acres
For which I suspect he claims a lot of European subsidies while whinging about Europe. But that's not all:
As well as his homes, he rents out 22 houses in North Humberside, five of which are registered jointly with his wife. 
Hm. Not quite the hand-to-mouth existence endured by those he's keen to make homeless then. But at least he's prepared to put his money where his mouth is: with no benefits, they won't be able to rent one of his compact and bijou cottages. 

He even has room for a hobby:
He also owns the ground of Patrington village cricket club.
Isn't that sweet? What a fine example to us all: an expenses cheat whose fortune is based on inheritance and property speculation lecturing the poor about honesty and the work ethic. Vote Tory!

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Highlights from my Freshers' Week

1. My room-mate takes down the gold lamé curtains to make them into a shirt.
2. A Mancunian housemate offers to 'take on' all the Welsh people in the SU. In North Wales.
3. I return to find my room hosting an evangelical prayer meeting. One of my housemates has converted - after three days of riotous abandon - and is now a virgin. Again.
4. The Yorkshire lad upstairs pours aftershave on his DMs, lights them and walks around in them (I think it was Fresher's week, it may have been later). He leaves the room whenever 'feminine hygiene' adverts appear on the TV
5. I buy two ten-inch records, Tindersticks' Sweet Kathleen and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci's Patio. The rest of my life (and my debts) flow from this.
6. University accommodation woman tells us that we 'don't deserve' our house because we came on Clearing.
7. The brilliant folk band turns out to be a Christian Union honeytrap. Curses!

The rest is a haze of fervid activity. It was a surreal - and wonderful - year.

Cameron's New York smackdown

The New York Times isn't impressed with David Cameron's adoption of Mubarak techniques for dealing with urban disorder:

Mr. Cameron, and his Liberal Democrat coalition partners, should know better. They risk long-term damage to Britain’s already fraying social compact.Making poor people poorer will not make them less likely to steal. Making them, or their families, homeless will not promote respect for the law. Trying to shut down the Internet in neighborhoods would be an appalling violation of civil liberties and a threat to public safety, denying vital real-time information to frightened residents.Britain’s urban wastelands need constructive attention from the Cameron government, not just punishment. His government’s wrongheaded austerity policies have meant fewer public sector jobs and social services. Even police strength is scheduled to be cut. The poor are generally more dependent on government than the affluent, so they have been hit the hardest.What Britain’s sputtering economy really needs is short-term stimulus, not more budget cutting. Unfortunately, there is no sign that Mr. Cameron has figured that out. But, at a minimum, burdens need to be more fairly shared between rich and poor — not as a reward to anyone, but because it is right.
Fair play is one traditional British value we have always admired. And one we fear is increasingly at risk. 

When you're too rightwing and populist for Americans to stomach, you've really lost it. His desperate cheerleading for swingeing penalties (6 months for stealing a bottle of water) is driven by two things: fear, and a pathological preference for Daily Mail-friendly electoral calculation over thoughtful administration.

A-levels: just for girls?

As you can see from this site, only fruity teenage girls pass A-levels. Or is it just that the entire news media only print pictures of fruity teenage girls opening their results because the implied reader is a lecherous heterosexual male encouraged to view all human beings - but especially teenage girls - as sexual commodities.

If the Daily Telegraph and the Mail could get away with naked teenage girls on the front page (white and upper-class, naturally), they would, but until then, results day is a fixed highlight of their year.

But sadly, it does contribute to ideas of attractiveness and to excluding non-fruity-teenage-girls from the Platonic Academy. Even worse, Badminton College (very expensive exclusive girls' school) even sends newspapers speculative shots of their fruitiest girls to tempt the photographers down on results day. I believe the word for that is 'pimping'.