Friday, 30 September 2011

The Moon Under Water

This is the name given by George Orwell to his imagined perfect pub. Ironically, the local Wetherspoon's pub has appropriated the name, though none of the qualities Orwell listed. As the sun's shining and I'm about to head off to a drinking emporium, I thought I'd share his thoughts with you:

Orwell's after a pub on a quiet side street, frequented by a large cast of regulars all keen on conversation. He wants the 'solid, comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century': not fake beams, but not minimalism either. Fires burn in each of the different rooms - though Orwell rather quaintly insists on a ladies' room and a saloon. No music plays, 'neither a radio nor a piano' (I'd quite like a well-played joanna in the pub, or a crowd gathered round The Archers, though my favourite places tend not to have TVs). 

Orwell's barmaids are matronly types who call you 'dear', though he draws the line at 'ducky', much the same as I hate being called 'buddy' or 'mate' by strangers in shops. Food is simple, hearty and cheap. 
The special pleasure of this lunch is that you can have draught stout with it. I doubt whether as many as 10 per cent of London pubs serve draught stout, but the Moon Under Water is one of them. It is a soft, creamy sort of stout, and it goes better in a pewter pot.
That's one thing that's improved: we're living in a golden age of real ale, though sadly for Orwell, china mugs and glasses with handles are rarely available. 

Orwell insists on a garden, secluded and tree-shadowed.
And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it, even though its name were something as prosaic as the Red Lion or the Railway Arms.
Easy. Tonight's choice is the Newhampton Arms, a classic Black Country Victorian beer palace, complete with bowling green, fine ales and apple trees.  

The bookseller's lament

I don't often go to the bookshop in The Dark Place. They keep calling me 'buddy' without any reasonable grounds or permission (I'm not a decking retriever), try to sell me discounted books which bear no resemblance to the ones I've purchased, and gawp blankly when I ask for anything which isn't on '3 for 2'.

If there was a decent bookshop here, I'd go there, or mourn its loss. Few things are more pleasurable than browsing books or vinyl. Here's a list of bookseller's complaints from a big American chain: click on it to enlarge.

BTW: if you can be separated from your money in a good cause (preventing teenage homophobia) by purchasing a calendar featuring naked male librarian beefcake, you should probably go here

Etiquette for postgraduates

I took a long time to finish my Ph.D. I won't rehearse the litany of excuses reasons here, but suffice it to say that I endured the 'how's your thesis?' question for far too long. After that it was 'when are you going to finish your thesis?', and finally it was 'are you actually doing a Ph.D at all?'. It wasn't just my supervisors either: friends, family, passers-by. 

I regret not buying a t-shirt I saw in Cambridge, which read 'DO NOT ASK ME ABOUT MY THESIS'. Here's PHDComics' explanation of the social minefield of postgraduate research:

Remembering St. Jerome

It's not often my thoughts turn charitably to religious figures, but today's the Feast of St. Jerome. He was a 4-5th century priest, ascetic and enthusiastic troublemaker - reading between the lines, he enjoyed little more than diving into Church politics with his claws out.

But that's not why we're celebrating him. He's the patron saint of translators, of whom there aren't enough. We anglophones are far too resistant to learning other languages and to reading work written in other tongues: about 3% of books sold are translations (and I bet most of them are Murukami).

Translation's always going to be second-best to reading a text in its original language, but we owe it to ourselves and to other cultures to make the attempt, or we end up as insular, arrogant and xenophobic.

So here are a few of my favourite books translated into English:
Kate Roberts, Feet in Chains (from Welsh)
Eugene Ionesco, The Bald Soprano (French, by Donald Allen)
Ismail Kadare, The Successor (Albanian)
Thomas of Britain, The Romance of Tristan and Ysolt (French, by Roger Loomis)
Dafydd ap Gwilym, Poems (Welsh, by Evelyn Lewes)
George Perec, Species of Spaces (French, by John Sturrock)
Guiseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard (Italian)
Tove Jansson, Comet in Moominland (Swedish, by Elizabeth Portch)
Torquato Tasso,  The Liberation of Jerusalem (Italian)
Anon, Laxdaela Saga (Icelandic/Old Norse, by Muriel Press)
Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (German, by Samuel Moore, ed. David McLellan)
Robert Henryson, The Testament of Criseid (Middle English, by Seamus Heaney)
Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (French, by Gayatri Spivak into crit-speak, not English)
Anon, The Mabinogion (Welsh, by Sioned Davies)
Fflur Dafydd, Twenty Thousand Saints (Welsh, Fflur Dafydd)
Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (Italian, Guido Waldman)
Various/Anon, The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology (Anglo-Saxon, edited by Kevin Crossley-Holland)
Roland Barthes, Mythologies (French)
Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author (Italian)
Anton Chekhov, The Kiss and Other Stories (Russian, by Ronald Wilks)
Wiliam Owen Roberts, Pestilence (Welsh)
Mikhail Bulgakov, Master and Margarita (Russian, by M. Glenny)

Apologies to those translators whose names I haven't noted - you really are cultural heroes and deserve your moment in the sun. Without you, we'd be even more isolated and moronic than we already are.

Looking at this list, it's apparent how narrow my cultural landscape is: I've read a lot of Latin, and more Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanic and Irish work than this suggests (shamefully, very little from Africa), but these really are my favourites (today).

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Close encounters of the pedantic kind

I really admire Leslie McGrath:

Throughout Smith's tenure as head of the Boys' and Girls' Division from 1912 to 1952 (during which time it was also known as the 'Boys and Girls Division', as the use of apostrophes in the Division's name varied over the years)'. 
Leslie McGrath, 'Reading With Blitheness: Anne of Green Gables in Toronto Public Library's Children's Collections', in Anne’s World: A New Century of Anne of Green Gables edited by Irene Gammel and Benjamin Lefebvre (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2010) pp. 100-116: 102.
It's not exactly pedantry, because she doesn't claim that one version is 'right' and another 'wrong', but she does find the space to make the point, despite not making anything of it. That is one eagle-eyed woman. 

Is there a difference? Yes. Boys' and Girls' is possessive: the boys and girls possess the Division. Boys and Girls implies that said children are available from the division. Sale or return. No deposit required.

I'm sorry, am I boring you?

Chap-hop face-off

Is this delightful steampunk irony or dubious racist appropriation? Either way, it's an interesting subcultural moment and quite toe-tapping:

As is traditional in the hip-hop community, 'beef' has appeared:

But as it's the 20th anniversary of Nevermind:

Pictures of books

I'm taking some pictures for the English department's website - these are some preliminary shots (whole set here). Your suggestions for future shoots gratefully received.

Today's book delivery was Stephen Greenblatt's new account of the start of the Renaissance, The Swerve, and a second-hand copy of Gibson's Pattern Recognition. He certainly made a better guess at the near future than Timecop, which I blankly sat through the other evening.

Welcome to the worst place on earth

Another day, another survey… This one claims that the UK is the worst country in Europe in which to live. As The Dark Place was once listed in Lonely Planet as the 5th Worst City On The Planet, I think it's safe to say that I must dwell in the world's veritable armpit.

Or do I? It's not secret that I've never warmed to this city as I have to others, but I find it hard to recognise either this place or the UK as so utterly awful. According to this dubious survey, Britain has the worst quality of life of 10 European 'developed' countries because:
2nd lowest sunshine
shortest holidays
below average spending on education
fourth highest retirement age
third lowest spend on healthcare
petrol, alcohol and cigarettes cost more than the European average
life expectancy is a year or so shorter than Southern Europe.

Some of this is clearly negative: who wouldn't want longer holidays and shorter working lives? And yet this is hardly something that's been inflicted on us: the British people have repeatedly voted for governments which go round boasting to investors that we have the 'most flexible' employment laws in Europe, by which they mean the lowest wages, weakest employee protection and worst pensions. Tony Blair used to sing this from the rooftops. I can only conclude that the British are selfless masochists.

Likewise, you've got the lowest healthcare and education spending because you've decided that you'd rather have useless schools and grubby hospitals than pay more taxes. Last time I looked, Scandinavian countries decided otherwise, and built earthly paradises.

However: it's too crude a measure. It's often not how much you spend, but how you spend it. The USA spends massive amounts more on healthcare per head than the UK, yet 25% of the population doesn't get even basic healthcare. 62% of American bankruptcies are caused by medical bills. The NHS, by contrast, might be a bit scuffed around the edges, but we're all equal in its eyes (until the government's new plan is passed, and then we're all Americans).

Petrol, alcohol and cigarettes cost more? Good. If cheap fuel, booze and fags constitute 'quality of life' to these people, then they need beating around the head. If the opportunity to fill your children's lungs with smog, while drinking and smoking yourself into a wracking, cancerous death is your idea of having a good time, forgive me if I don't take much account of your opinions.

Why are these things expensive? Because as a country we've decided to tax them more heavily. Perhaps to stop you doing it so much (and again, Scandinavia is way ahead of the UK on this one), and partly because you selfish bastards won't vote for higher income tax, so we put it on your filthy habits. This seems like a good thing to me. I'd extend the principle. I'd tax adults who buy skateboards, BMXs and baseball caps, for a start.

Finally, 'the 2nd lowest sunshine in Europe'. For me, this is the clincher. It's one of the reasons I love Britain so much. My Irish heritage has given me the pastiest of skin tones. 5 minutes in the sun and I have the complexion of an embarrassed ladybird, but generations of cutting peat in the rain has made me waterproof. Very few things are more pleasurable than tramping up a Welsh mountain on a biting winter's day, or forging through a dark-green field in Shropshire. Not for me the searing, baking heat of the Spanish plains or an Italian beach. Oh, for a Scotch mist or a steady downpour on a deserted beach. I'd rather take midges than mosquitoes. What could be more quintessentially British than old people munching sandwiches in their car, mournfully staring out on a wind-battered beach as the rain beats on the window. Where's the drama, the existential depth in roasting on a continental plage, knowing that tomorrow, and the next day, and all the days after that will be exactly the same.

I like the rain. I like watching it beat on my windows. I like the crackle of drizzle on Gore-Tex. I love choosing hiking socks and flasks and waterproofs and rain covers and thermal gloves in British outdoor shops devoid of hearty, tanned giants planning their next assault on Mont Blanc. I like the way walkers say hello to each other, as though manners are reinstated once you leave the city limits. Cling-filmed sandwiches and pasties consumed on a dead sheep (twice!) in the rain, before steaming gently in the corner of a remote pub is Britain at its best to me.

Finally, in defence of Britain: the pork scratching. Need I say more?

How's the view from down here? Bloody lovely.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

A real-life photographic assignment

We've been asked, as an English department, to provide a couple of photos 'summing up what we do'. So I'm going to have a wander round The Dark Place tomorrow with a bag of books and my D7000 looking for good ideas.

Do you have any suggestions? I'll be doing some of book piles - what should go in there? What books go with particular situations? This is where ideally I'd need an assistant. Someone to be photographed reading Tamara Drewe at a rural bus stop, or the opening chapter of The Box of Delights on a train. Perhaps a seedy academic leafing through Lolita in a playground. The Go-Between in a fairground. Lucky Jim in the staff room.

Quick: suggestions please!

Support Your Striking Footballers

Fraternal Greetings to Comrade Tevez of the Manchester City union chapel, who has withdrawn his labour in an act of dignified resistance to oppression and exploitation the like of which should inspire us all.

Your proletarian counterparts offer you solidarity in your hour of need, Comrade. Resist the forces of Mancini-ist Running-Dog Managerialism!
For me, if a player earns a lot of money playing for Manchester City in the Champions League and he behaves like this – he cannot play again. Never. He has wanted to leave for the last two years. For two years I have helped him, and now he has refused to play. Never again."
Power to the Workers by Foot or by Brain! No longer shall the oppression of the Sporting Proletariat be tolerated! Why should your humiliation be endured a moment longer?

For too long your efforts have been repaid with a paltry £250,000 per week - and now this lackey of the international Boss Class sends you out to the field for 35 minutes to emphasise your Subjugation.

A wave of sympathetic strikes and secondary pickets is no doubt sweeping the nation as your fellows take a stand with you. All Out in Aldershot! Strikes at Stoke City! Pickets at the Posh! Braziers in Barnsley, Sit-Ins in Sunderland.

Never fear, Brother Carlos. The working class feels your pain. Workers of the World: Unite!

Prince of Universities

All Hail Princeton - for deciding on a policy of open access to the work its staff generate. No more handing copyright over to journals (who don't pay their contributors and reviewers): they've more or less decided that research paid for by the public (through taxation or directly through fees) should be freely available for the public good.
Universities pay millions of dollars a year for academic journal subscriptions. People without subscriptions, which can cost up to $25,000 a year for some journals or hundreds of dollars for a single issue, are often prevented from reading taxpayer funded research. Individual articles are also commonly locked behind pay walls.
I think this is the way forward. Obviously access to my wisdom has only been limited by the narrow outlets for Welsh writing in English scholarship: pent-up demand would be released like a tsunami once copyright and access issues are resolved. More seriously, most academic work in this country is paid for by the public, who are then denied access to it. One objection might be that corporations would also get free access to expensive work paid for by other people: that does make sense to me, though I'm sure there are ways round this, using one of the Creative Commons non-commercial use licences.

I'll be advocating this approach at the Dark Place.

Peer esteem

One of my colleagues circulated this photograph with the caption 'Vole's annual appraisal'. I'm thinking of adopting it as my main picture. What do you think?

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Lost to history

I assumed - as most people do - that nothing is really lost. Especially given the infinite space of the internet and the human race's infinite capacity for retaining any old rubbish.

Yet I'm finding that my own memory banks are exceeding those of the Cloud. For instance: there are no clips anywhere of Dogfood Dan and the Carmarthen Cowboy, despite this execrable and deeply sexist sitcom running for 8 years. It's not been released commercially either.

What else is lost down the memory hole? Most of my 7" vinyl collection, and so much of the analogue world.

Thankfully, one of my favourite spiteful singles has been uploaded: The Period Pains' 'We Hate the Spice Girls'.

Novak's 'Silver Seas' is unavailable, but their rather wonderful 'Rapunzel' thankfully has been preserved for posterity. I have these on vinyl, but when I'm hit by the inevitable bus, they'll end up in the bin, along with the little extra design features and quirky inclusions which you don't get from a digital download - the aspects which locate a text in a culture.

I do worry about analogue artefacts: digital stuff is subject to the vagaries of fashion and bandwidth, but pre-digital stuff might get forgotten about just because it's not easy to disseminate. It saddens me that the efforts of so many bright young things will be forgotten because they're not easily accessible to laptop junkies. Perhaps I'll start a little series of vinyl appreciation posts. I'm this close to slipping back into my obsession with collecting every release from my favourite fragile record labels: early Fierce Panda, Drive-In Records, Secretly Canadian, Sarah, Postcard, Matador, Spin-Art, early Sub-Pop and Domino (mmm, Flying Saucer Attack), Che, Bad Jazz. Ah, happy days. If you want to lose a day, open this page and head off to youtube to play the tracks that are available. And then feel old and alien in your own skin,

Women's Lib Reaches Saudi Arabia?

I suppose it's good news: women will be allowed to vote in local council elections by 2015. Maybe. It's been promised before. And it's hardly worth applying match to bra for, quite frankly.

I see Saudi women as one of those unfortunate social groups whose rights have to be set aside to keep the rest of us in the style to which we have become accustomed. You know, like the Palestinians, or those little Bangladeshi children who make such a good job of stitching together my undercrackers. Such nimble fingers.

After all, if we told our Saudi friends that women were people too, they might not sell us all that lovely oil. So it's much better to keep quiet. So what if they aren't allowed to leave the house without a male relative, drive cars, travel, work or marry without male permission, or object to marital rape? Collateral damage.

No, it's much better to bomb neighbouring countries in the name of human rights.  Before Paul Uppal MP was a twinkle in the Tory Party's eye, I asked my Labour MP why he voted for the Iraq war because it would 'bring democracy and human rights', while declining to invade Saudi Arabia on the same grounds. To my eternal regret, he refused to explain beyond saying that the situation was 'totally different'. Really?

In Defence of Higher Education

A group of academics - supported by hundreds more - has formulated a detailed, lengthy alternative to the social vandalism masquerading as the government's White Paper on Higher Education. You can read it here, but as it's quite long, I'll give you the statement of values most of us academics espouse:

1. Higher education serves public benefits as well as private ones. These require financial support if these benefits are to continue to be provided.
2. Public universities are necessary to build and maintain confidence in public debate.
3. Public universities have a social mission, contributing to the amelioration of social  inequality, which is the corollary of the promotion of social mobility.
4. Public higher education is part of a generational contract in which an older  generation invests in the wellbeing of future generations that will support them in  turn.
5. Public institutions providing similar programmes of study should be funded at a  similar level.
6. Education cannot be treated as a simple consumer good; consumer sovereignty is  an inappropriate means of placing students at the heart of the system.
7. Training in skills is not the same as a university education. While the first is  valuable in its own terms, a university education provides more than technical  training. This should be clearly recognised in the title of a university.
8. The university is a community made up of diverse disciplines as well as different  activities of teaching, research and external collaboration. These activities are  maintained by academics, managers, administrators and a range of support staff, all of whom contribute to what is distinctive about the university as a community.
9. Universities are not only global institutions. They also serve their local and  regional communities and their different traditions and contexts are important.

In short:
education is more than buying a certificate of competence
universities inculcate citizenship
universities challenge status quo thinking
universities are expensive. When taxpayers contribute, it's because they understand that everyone benefits from an individual's education, not just that graduate.

Which is why our political masters want to close us down. The Tories, who at least are nakedly honest, want a low-wage economy for the uneducated masses and a magic circle of dreaming spires, country homes and opera for the élite, like China. Meanwhile over at the Labour Party, its thinker du jour Maurice Glasman wants to close 50% of the country's universities. Neither side wants citizens: they want obedient consumers. We offer the chance for people to become spiky, troublesome, questioning members of society, whether that leads to new ways to read Shakespeare or new methods of repairing kidneys. Where else will this be done?

If you'll excuse a little personal interjection, I'll think about me for a moment. I have three degrees, plus a teaching qualification. Has it made me rich? Certainly not: I lived in a single room from 1993 until 2009. I've taught at a university since 2000 and still don't have a permanent job, which means that I can't raise a mortgage. My pension contributions started when I was 33. In Tory terms, my extended education has been an economic failure and I shouldn't have wasted my time and that of my teachers. I could have gone into investment banking after school: I'm quite cunning and selfish, and would no doubt have crashed my first Ferrari by the age of 20.

But I'd like to think that I've contributed to the greater good of society in a small way. I've taught thousands of students now. If they've listened, they've become independent-minded - hopefully bloody-minded - critical thinkers who'll question the accepted practices of whatever they go on to do. They'll have developed intellectual attributes which make them acute, sensitive thinkers, to the benefit of society. My 3 degrees and years of financial distress have contributed to generating eager, enthusiastic iconoclasts. As those people encounter the post-university world, hopefully they'll retain some of that energy and make their own small contributions to society, whether or not they become financially 'successful'. I'll be (rightly) forgotten, but I'll have done my bit.

What can we do? In the absence of any meaningful resistance to this tide of Philistinism, I intend to spend the rest of the day under my desk reading comics.

Monday, 26 September 2011

We must all tighten our belts

This is the Labour Party's Shadow Chancellor (even more ironically, his name is Ed Balls). Insert your own witticism here:


No sooner do I post about the illusory link between cars and freedom than I open a book parcel from America. It's wrapped in the State Journal-Register of Springfield, Illinois (birthplace of Abraham Lincoln).

And look at this car dealership ad:

Perfect. Freedom, vehicles AND 'American values' all wrapped up in one parcel for the purpose of selling antisocial death dealers.

This just in…

OK, this is old but I only recently got the email circulating. Perhaps I shouldn't mock, given that I'm part of the Olympics set-up, but it's funny…

Wow: I'm not weird, I'm the future!

No, it's true. I've just read a news article which claims that the youth are rejecting driving licences: 
In Britain, the percentage of 17- to 20-year-olds with driving licences fell from 48% in the early 1990s to 35% last year.
"Car manufacturers are worried that younger people in particular don't aspire to own cars like we used to in the 70s, 80s, or even the 90s. Designers commonly say that teenagers today aspire to own the latest smartphone more than a car. 
Underpinning all these innovations and ideas is what Liske sees as a major behavioural shift among the generation of "digital natives". "They don't care about owning things. Possession is a burden, and a car is a big investment for most people – not just the vehicle, but the permits, the parking space." 
Admittedly, I don't fit that demographic, but I'm with them. The ownership thing is interesting too: I insist on owning physical books and music, but I don't own a house (i.e. can't get a mortgage), and understand the appeal of avoiding financial burdens if the payoff is limited, and there's a lot to be said for a simple life, though 'irresponsibility' could equally be applied to a youth spent avoiding ownership. 

I didn't learn to drive when I was 17 because I was immured (one of my favourite words) in a boarding school. In any case, despite living in the country, my parents had no interest in teaching us to drive, so I got used to walking a mile or two to the bus stop, and organised what passed as a social life by sleeping on friends' floors in town for days on end. Summer conversations with my family tended to follow this pattern: 'Where are you going?' 'Out'. 'When will you be back?' 'At some point'. Some days later, the conversation would be resumed: 'Where have you been?' 'Out'. 

My university in a small town was accessible by train and a car - let alone tax and insurance - was out of the question financially, so that took me into my twenties. Graduation saw me return home for a period of unemployment and then the 10 p.m. - 4 a.m. data entry shift (which is why I'm now an academic). I got there on my bike, riding 15 miles each way, and have never been fitter. Or sweatier. After that, it was off to The Dark Place, where I often had cash-flow issues and lived within a few minutes of the university - exactly fitting the general trend:
 "It's partly the cost of ownership, the cost of insurance," he says. "Other factors that are more speculative are that there are more people in higher education, which typically takes place in urban centres where the car isn't part of the mix. Then people stay on in these urban centres."

Along the way, I also developed an environmental sensibility, though whether it began sincerely or as an excuse to brandish in front of mocking drivers, I'm not sure. But it's real now, and it's shared by many of my friends: some have licences, some don't, but almost none of them own cars. If I had children I'd probably feel the need to drive, and I sometimes feel guilty when someone else has to drive me, but mostly I'm quietly pleased that I've arranged my life to avoid cars: feet, trains and buses get me virtually everywhere I need to go. Of course, this is partly reliant on living on a small island in a mature post-industrial phase, and it's unlikely to be sustainable as Tory governments attack mass transit from every angle. It's true, too, that many of the places I'd like to visit are beyond the reach of public transport, but I'll cope. 

There is a sense, which I share, that cars have been a massive dead end. Apart from the insane economics of borrowing money to buy a polluting chunk of metal which then needs massive taxes, fuel, maintenance and insurance, only to be used for a few minutes per day, I very rarely feel the emotional pull promised by car ads: freedom and individualism. Margaret Thatcher said that a man in his twenties riding the bus should feel himself a failure: it's never seemed that way to me, though my students have repeatedly mocked me for not having a licence because to them it seems to promise autonomy, personal expression and adulthood. To me, the car represents the destruction of quality of life: look at our cities, turned into stinking, noisy hellholes by privileging individualist movement and speed over humane scales and velocity. Some people appear to think that's a good thing, like the AA spokesman quoted:
"People driving less is good for the environment, but not good for the economy, and we've got to find a way to make the economy keep going."

I don't accept that: I think we'll find ways to spend money without giving it all to insurers and petrol refiners: perhaps slow, quiet, safe cities might tempt people to visit more galleries, shop more or go out more. I like buses and trains, despite the occasional screaming child or the time I had to avail myself of the emergency exit at a junction because I was about to vomit: a rather drunk chap who'd very recently soiled himself in every way possible decided to talk to me, right in my face. Despite being a fairly reserved rodent, I'm happy to talk to people, and don't feel the need to fart fumes in children's faces to prove that I've 'made it'. I worry about those who do: the men and women who choose 4x4's and sports cars to cocoon themselves from humanity, not those who require a vehicle to get by in a stupid economic and social structure which demands that we all rush from place to place. I realised long ago that car ownership isn't freedom, it's another way to become enmeshed. I like what I hear about Scandinavia, where wealth and status isn't announced by the vehicle in front of your house: functional cars are kept for their useful lives, rather than used in a fruitless and never-ending war with your neighbours.

But never mind all these nice trends. I'd reduce driving in far less subtle ways. I'd ban 4x4s and other ridiculous vehicles from common ownership: builders and farmers can have rugged 4x4s, nobody else. Then I'd start removing things from cars. Start with iPod connections and stereos. Then padded seats and seat belts. Then windows. Ban ABS and disc brakes. Before long, if you're desperate to drive, you'll be allowed to stand on a motorised plank. Your dedication will impress me. 

Despite that, I'm still impressed by car designs. I'd have a Citroen DS and a Morris Minor convertible on my driveway - as industrial art. But I would say that: I'm Vole, not Toad:

Friday, 23 September 2011

This leaves a nasty taste in my ears…

I like June Tabor's folk albums. I like Oysterband. I like Joy Division. I like covers of Joy Division/New Order tracks. I actually go out of my way to collect them.

But I don't like this Tabor/Oysterband version of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' one little bit. I'd be embarrassed if someone walked in on me listening to it. It's just removing all the dynamics and getting the words in the right order with very little empathy.

To make up for it, here's June Tabor's heartbreakingly beautiful cover of Richard Thompson's 'Waltzing's For Dreamers' and a couple of really good versions of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' by Susannah and the Magical Orchestra, and a rather more tongue-in-cheek but no less beautiful rendition by Nouvelle Vague. Sadly, the very best Joy Division cover every, Rheinallt H Rowlands' 'Gwawr Newydd yn Cilio' (New Dawn Fades) isn't on the net.

In the absence of Rheinallt, you can have Frente's tender cover of New Order's 'Bizarre Love Triangle' instead. The original is beautifully lush electronica, and there's also an early Boo Radleys version that turns it into a full-on shoegaze noise machine - on vinyl only, sadly.

How embarrassing: it takes an American to remind us of the Public Good

Every time I see Eric Pickles or Michael Gove going on about reducing the oppressive state, I'm going to play this:

(but remember the Golden Rule of the Internet: never read the comments - especially on the Youtube site).

West-ward Ho!

Good old Lord West has done it again. The former Admiral, who spent his ministerial career as a Labour Security Minister making outrageous gaffes which mostly sounded like a stupid man being honest, has ruined Labour's new defence policy.

Let's be honest. We all know what Labour's new defence policy is. It's the old one ('nukes are great! Do what the Americans tell us!) without any reference to Iraq and Afghanistan. No doubt it uses the phrase 'going forward'. The defence debate rules have been set in stone since 1945. Labour governments have to prove to the shrieking rightwing newspapers and Tory party that they're itching to press the red button at the slightest provocation, to avoid accusations of being 'soft on defence'.

Lord West, having been a military man and a politician, has drunk deep of the Kool-Aid. He is, he says, terrified of the UK becoming 'like bloody Denmark or Belgium', rather than the 'first-rate' military power he thinks this country is.

How many ways can a man be wrong? Firstly, the only 'first-rate' military power is the US, which spends $700bn on guns etc. That's 42% of the entire world's military spending: the unspoken anchor to America's economy is the Marxist/Keynesian subsidy to private industry: government weapons spending, allied to massive recruitment to give the uneducated and/or desperate American citizen a government job in the absence of any decent civilian employment policies: as a military state, the US is remarkably similar to ancient Rome. China's next, with 7%, and the UK, shamefully, comes third, with $60bn, or 3.6% of the world's share. Which seems like rather a lot for a country which specialises in bombing Afghan civilians armed with AK-47s. If West thinks the UK is a 'first-rate' military power, he's insane.

Secondly, and rather more importantly, what the hell is wrong with being like bloody Denmark or Belgium? As far as I can see, they're ideal role models. They both had empires - like Britain - from which they extricated themselves rather more peacefully than the UK. They had their time in the sun, then decided that they should spend their money on being friends with other countries rather than dropping their national trousers to wave nuclear weapons in the faces of their perceived enemies. Belgium is 37th and Denmark 38th in the league table of war machines (though Denmark's contribution to Afghanistan is rather a blot), spending 1.2% and 1.4% of their income on bangs and bullets. Presumably they spend the rest on diplomacy, schools, health and chocolate (Belgium) or herrings (Denmark). They're not 'second-tier' military powers - they're third-tier, and I think that's admirable.

Would you choose this 'first-rate' military power?

Or one of these 'second-tier' ones? (Denmark)

Bruges, in Belgium

I'm not suggesting that either Belgium or Denmark are perfect - they've got powerful racist political parties, ethnic tensions and conservative tendencies. But they tend not to have rioting  youths, savage attacks on the poor and the sick, a happier and economically more egalitarian society in which greed and selfishness aren't universally admired, and they don't feel that they should act as the world's policemen.

I know which model I'd prefer: a neutral, rich, friendly country with few or no enemies. A country which doesn't swagger round the global playground demanding respect based on renting (yes) nuclear missiles from the bigger bully on the block.

The cleanest Games ever?

Did you watch Newsnight's rather stunning exposé of the boxing world's alleged deal with Azerbaijan? $9m investment in a failing Boxing World Series venture in return for two Olympic gold medals.

At one level, it's obvious that this stuff is happening. Since the development of pay-TV and media rights, popular sports have become financial mammoths, and where you get money, you get corruption: the IOC is notoriously corrupt on a systemic and personal level (as well as traditionally being run by people with a background in fascist politics - I mean you, Samaranch). And then there's FIFA, football's governing body. The rise of instantaneous and anonymous betting is the other driver. You can't just pay a team to let a goal in these days, but you can persuade individual players to commit fouls in the 32nd minute and so on.

What struck me was the statement from AIBA's infamous lawyers, Carter-Ruck, which stated that fixing boxing matches was an 'impossibility'.

Oh yeah? 5 referees scoring the match by pressing a button when they see a valid punch? It's a subjective system which is wide open to corruption.

I'm not completely speaking out of my bottom. I've refereed in my sport up to World Cup level, and I've sat in bland holding areas with Olympic and World Championship referees while they shoot the breeze. They've named names (not ones I recognise, because I'm small fry) and pointed out actual fights I've watched and explained who, how and why the scores were awarded in spite of the evidence of my eyes. Like boxing, it's subjective: a fencing referee according to the rules awards points by interpreting the action. A fencer can challenge the referee's knowledge of the rules, but never his/her interpretation of what's happened.

In two of the weapons, the fencer has to have right of way: s/he has to attack first, or defend himself from attack before retaliating. When both fencers' scoring lights come up, the referee has to decide who took and retained right of way: when the blades are moving at 180mph, that's a tough decision, and an easy situation in which to call the action incorrectly, by accident or by design. 30 years ago, there wasn't even an electronic scoring system: it was all down to the referee to decide even whether someone had been hit.

There are also institutional reasons why fencing would be easy to fix: many of the top referees are Eastern European, and less than affluent, and there are no doubt plenty of greedy or weak referees from anywhere. $20,000 to call a single point the wrong way - not even fixing the whole match - might be a strong temptation. Has it happened? Well, referee scuttlebutt around the Beijing Olympics claimed that referees were being flown in from another country and not told until the last moment which fight they were presiding over, to minimise the opportunities for corruption. We've also added video appeals: a fencer gets 3 opportunities to appeal, and another referee makes the call. I'm pretty certain that the chances for match-fixing are minimal compared with the past, but doubtless there are ways round every system.

'An impossibility'? Not a chance.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Spammers: lazy and culturally incurious

My latest missives from the Land of Spam:
From: "Dwyer, Bobby (US)"

But they don't even bother making the incoming and outgoing address match:

I am Mrs Helen Moore, a devoted Christian. I have chosen you for an inheritance. Please contact me for more details. Private contact email  thank you.

Not even a salutation. Even St. Paul, who was a particularly unpleasant Christian, greeted his epistolary friends as 'Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ' (usually before telling them to keep their filthy hands off themselves and others).

Presumably Helen here thinks that her marital status is relevant: after all, St. Paul did say 'better to marry than to burn'. I'd be more likely to respond positively if she knew the difference between 'devoted' and 'devout', but we'll let that pass, because the real question is why her Christianity is relevant. I'm fully aware of the Big Man's love of charity and egalitarian values, but thought that most Christian sects to cough loudly and insert footnotes in those clauses relating to poverty, sharing and altruism. The big movement now is the Prosperity Church network: millionaire pastors telling you that if you're rich, God's bestowing his favour on you. If you're poor, it's a sign that you're hell-bound.

Anyway, I'm deeply gratified that I've been randomly chosen for an inheritance. It reminds of the days when I started getting post addressed to me, around 17 years old. All those lovely glossy gold Reader's Digest Prize Draws which claimed I'd DEFINITELY been selected for a GUARANTEED EXCLUSIVE PRIZE. It was around then that I learned about small print, but not before I'd made several sneaky and rather expensive calls to the EXCLUSIVE PRIZE REGISTRATION LINE. At least email spam is free.

Anyway, I think I'll leave MrsHelenMoore to enjoy her inheritance alone. But if you're lonely, you could always dive into the ecopoetry of another Helen Moore.

May Gaia,
our Great Mother,
speak through me...
may I be a channel,
a conduit for Nature's words!

I'd rather gnaw off my own nipples, but you go ahead.

UARS: a tribute

UARS could be a massive pain in the well, arse. OK, now I've got over the schoolboy sniggering, I'll explain that UARS is the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite. Its job done, rather than have it crash into the space station and all those spy satellites, NASA has allowed the satellite to take a closer look at the atmosphere. A much closer look: those chunks which don't burn up on re-entry are going to crash to earth on Friday night/Saturday morning.

Where? That's where it gets tricky. They can't narrow it down any closer than 'not North America' (which is very sporting of them - always look after No. 1).

There's a long tradition of rock using space for inspiration, going back to the 1950s rockabilly fascination with the possibility of visitors from space. So here are some tracks from my collection in honour of NASA's death from above: Orange Juice's 'Satellite City', Aimee Mann's 'Satellite', Echo and the Bunnymen's song of the same name, Hope Sandoval's and the Warm Inventions' contribution,  and finally some brilliant, dog-rough rock and roll by The Rebelaires ('Satellite Rock') and Ray Sawyer ('Rockin' Satellite').

Internet updates

I get slightly odd visitors and I'd like to introduce some of them to you. Here's a selection of recent searches that lead people to the Oasis of Vole:
Search Words
vole cum pun tuburi

Which translates as 'how do I something tubes?'.

What do the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain want to know about?
cork hat
Which leads them to my advice to aspiring tabloid journalists. Obviously.

A LOT of Brazilians and Colombians want to see pastiche pictures of Jesus toting a rifle and a naked kid with photoshopped wings. And who can blame them? One erudite reader wanted to know about obscure Victorian New Woman journalism novels. Someone in Vietnam wants to know what 'plashing' is (it's less exciting than you might think, to be honest). 

Some traitor at the University of Teesside wants to buy the Viz Princess Diana Memorial Plate, a page also viewed by someone in Stone Mountain, Georgia, searching for the Life of Christ in Cats artwork: surely that kind of sacrilege gets your house burned down in the South? Flushing, New York, is a hotbed of Dr. Who or Eric Pickles fans. I'm hoping for the former. 

One reader in Brooklyn - like me - has had enough of Narnia, capital letters and punctuation:
i hate cs lewis
As for the inhabitants of Hettingen, North Dakota: you people sicken me. The only way to cauterise the oozing moral wounds revealed by your search terms is to take off and nuke you from orbit. 

It's true, I'm not cool

Yes, in a stunning blow to my carefully-crafted aura of cool, I'm going to confess… to being sad that R.E.M. have split up. Despite most of the recent albums (with the exception of Collapse Into Now) being low-par to put it kindly, I'll miss them. At least they knew how it worked:
"We always tried to publicly acknowledge that we were just a part of something much bigger that was happening [in the 80s], and maybe not even the best part … The fact that we've carried on doesn't make us a great band. It just means we're persistent and stubborn." 

My first encounter with R.E.M. was Automatic for the People. Exiled in a boarding school, I'd barricaded myself into a small room with a 1940s cabinet radiogram for company. Great for listening to the Peel show and Radcliffe and Lard at night, not so great for collecting music. Which was OK, because I didn't have access to money anyway. However, my friend Andy had a cassette tape of Automatic, which we played on his Walkman over and over again. Trapped in a dank, isolated, Philistine Hereford holding camp, the world evoked by Stipe's lyrics and their melange of rock and country held the promise of better, weirder times ahead. Of all the many gifts I've been given over the years, Andy presenting me with that battered, stretched tape stills ranks as one of the most significant sacrifices I've encountered: four months later it, and The Best of Vaughan Williams constituted my entire music collection when I turned up at university.

After that, my tastes widened and deepened, but I didn't forsake R.E.M. I'd heard bits of Out of Time and even 'Orange Crush' from Green in indie clubs and friends' houses by now, but I wanted more, and reached back to their older, weirder albums - the ones I now venerate as high points of indie musical culture: Murmur would be the highlight of any band's career: as a debt album it's little short of astonishing, so musically, culturally and lyrically assured it is. Through R.E.M. I discovered the Other America, the one that felt itchy and doomed by the political posturing and paranoia of Reagan's 80s. The buried singing implied that there were deeper forces at work than the bright, shiny ad-breaks, yet when the band moved on to a 'pop' sound, they dignified the genre - like New Order and St. Etienne - by using it as a subversive vehicle for meta-commentary. Rather unfashionably, I loved their post-Automatic work: Monster is a shiny, dumb, fun rock album, while New Adventures in Hi-Fi reminds me of Pulp's later This Is Hardcore: the sound of a band disenchanted with what they thought they wanted from pop. It's a claustrophobic, often hypnotic album which reaches back to their early work but adds a kind of weary experience learned from the fame treadmill.

Yes, they could be pompous occasionally, and the later albums were clearly the sound of ageing men trying to keep up with a mainstream culture which has (rightfully) little regard for heritage, but it's also true that the relentless commodification of music and popular culture meant that there was no room for bands who saw their work as art, or as meaningful contributions to public culture.

Bands have their period in the sun: it's usually random. Their sound, look or lyrics happen to coincide with a label's outlook, with a mood in the media, with radio stations' priorities for a brief period, with a public sensibility and they're arbitrarily popular. Just as arbitrarily, their moments cease. For some bands, that's OK: they have a limited stock of quality songs. Others have the strength to accept fame and fashion as welcome but not assured: they carry on honing their art to a diminishing group of fans who aren't so susceptible to fashion. I guess R.E.M. fell between the stools. When global stardom called they utilised it while it lasted, but their reserves of inspiration eventually ran dry.

Here are some of my favourites. As soon as I hit 'publish post' I'll curse myself for not including many others, so don't take this as a definitive list. Apologies for some of the sound quality: major record labels are too good at removing copyrighted recordings.

I love this song for the backing vocals.

I'd love to post 'I Believe', solely for the cracking accordion drone backing, but there's no decent version online.

There are no decent versions of anything from New Adventures online, so I'll finish with a loud, dumb rock song from Monster:

And on a final note: R.E.M. were always perceived as one half of the U2-R.E.M. sensitive postmodern rock juggernaut pairing. Looking back, it's clear which one's a bloated, selfish, tax-evading, musically bankrupt bunch of pompous chancers, and it's not the boys from Athens, Georgia.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

I teach, therefore I blog?

There's been a raging debate recently on the value of academics blogging (what do you mean, you didn't hear a thing? Maitzen and Cassuto have been going at it like Hamface and Cultman in Face/Off . Blood everywhere, man. 

It all started with this live chat, in which Cassuto said that he didn't mind blogs existing, but he didn't feel the need to read any. After a bit of the old ultraviolence, the survivors got back to their keyboards and - obviously - blogged about it. Sarah (the SheepU) has put together her thoughts, and they're pretty compelling. To her, academics blogging about their research are circumventing the social disconnection of the traditional publication methods. In the established model, you write a paper and submit it to a journal. It gets reviewed by an anonymous expert, sent back a couple of times, before being published (hopefully), a mere couple of years after you write it. In some subject areas, you pay large amounts of cash to get it published, and in all areas, you pay massive amounts to buy the journal. The general public (hell, most academics) never contemplate buying the outlet or reading your article. But being read isn't important: being published is (as I know to my cost). Get a list of publications on your CV and you stand a chance of getting a job in HE: your skills as a teacher are below your juggling skills when it comes to essential requirements in many institutions. 

But I digress. Sarah sees blogging as a partial answer. She means the 'edited' blog: online space devoted to the exchange of new ideas and methods. It's about gatekeeping: if you're writing on Stanford's Arcade blogsite, you're credible and influential: your peers can trust you even though your posts aren't peer-reviewed or footnoted (I pine for a footnote facility on Blogger), but it's not the same here at Vole Towers. But Sarah also sees a place for the personal blog, of which Vole is one - I rarely go into the esoteric details of my literary interests, partly because I don't get enough research done, but partly because I think my readers wouldn't be that excited by it. To Sarah, the personal blog gives prospective academic partners and employers an 'in the round' view of the author. 
I believe my work is an extension of myself. It comes from me, from my attitudes, values and personal experiences. When you hire me for a job you are hiring me, the person and I believe the personal blog provides an introduction to that person. Someone could be a publishing regularly in in high impact journals but it's not easy to tell what they are like to work with. By putting my blog out there I am offering my readers an introduction to not only my work but the things that inspire it and the things which make me, as a researcher, as person, as a potential employee tick.
Um. As a great man once said, 'Up to a point, Lord Copper'. I was talking about this to my students today. Not one said they were completely factually truthful on the web. We use pseudonyms. Flattering photographs. We try to be cool, authoritative or even - and not speaking personally - sexy. We refer to the awesome half-pipe we pulled, and not that embarrassing flatulence problem. We edit ourselves: the web has provided us with multiple spaces for identity. On the web we can be whoever we want - or we could be, were our friends and even distant acquaintances not posting pictures of us in a drunk and dishevelled condition. to, of course, that there is a 'true', permanent or stable self off- or online.  

Sarah is talking about the mature, responsible world of academia, and she's right: most of us respect each other enough to challenge and share ideas rather than merrily engage in flame wars and trolling. But I don't mind admitting that I'm not entirely convinced of the world's disinterested regard for us bloggers. I've been outed a couple of times now, but I don't list Vole on my CV - I still think that the authorities see us as unfocussed whingers to some extent, and looking at many of my posts, they're not entirely wrong. For Sarah, her thoughtful, intellectual blog has led to peer-regard and further dissemination of her work. Perhaps that will happen for me, though the very restricted field I work in perhaps militates against it. On the other hand, there are tentative moves that way in my field, such as the CREW blog, which acts as a clearing house for Swansea's Centre for Research into the English-language Literature of Wales). 

I certainly agree with Sarah that the sclerotic and corrupt world of academic publishing could be shaken up by speedy, egalitarian blog-style publication, but we're not there yet. I haven't yet collaborated with colleagues in other institutions through new media, but I'm certainly open to offers. One thing which springs to mind is minority language use of new media: what's the Welsh for Twitter? ('adar yn cant' is 'birdsong', and 'to chatter' is 'sgwrsio', but that's the closest I can get. 

Ask not for whom the bell tolls

We're having a big staff meeting about the state of our school and plans for further recruitment under the cosh of the Tory/Lib Dem attack on education. Cakes and bottles of wine are tantalising us. I just hope it's not a surprise goodbye party for people made redundant in the next hour. My colleague next to me thinks it's a test: anyone who chooses wine over orange juice is marked for defenestration. I'm more optimistic: given 5 bottles of wine between 60+ people, anyone who gets a glass displays the commitment, drive, determination and sharp elbows which marks them out as natural survivors. I got mine!

Actually, it's not apocalyptic. Some things look bright and others are less promising.

I'm doing my bit. I'm renaming my Media, Communications and Ethics module. From now on it's called The Only Way Is Ethics.

(I should confess that when I tested this on the students, atoms clashing on the surface of the sun could have drowned out the laughter).

*Note to readers less 'down with the kids' than me: there's a popular 'scripted-reality' show following the lives of some shrieking know-nothing narcissists called The Only Way Is Essex.

They work for you?

Private Eye has being pursuing the head of the tax service, Dave Hartnett for quite some time. They allege that he personally - and illegitimately - oversaw cosy deals which allowed Vodafone to pay us £1.25bn instead of £6bn, and Goldman Sachs get away with £10m in interest they owed us (a criminal offence). This of course, looks like unequal access to justice: major corporations get to decide what if anything they hand over, whereas the rest of us cough up like good little citizens.

Hartnett gave evidence to Parliament recently. Did he confess his errors? Not quite.
Revenue officials did not follow correct procedures in two high-profile cases that could have left taxpayers millions of pounds out of pocket… an official neglected for a time to inform the board, leading to a delay which could have resulted in less tax being collected
By 'official', we should understand 'David Hartnett', not that he was about to admit it: he did secretive, personal deals with these companies, in breach of the law. Most startling was this nugget:

Hartnett refused to explain exactly what went wrong, how much tax may have been lost or confirm which companies may have escaped their full tax commitments. "…Mr Hartnett has refused even to indicate whether interest was paid by Vodafone on the tax due, despite confirming that it is an offence not to pay interest on tax owing… At present MPs can be briefed in confidence by the intelligence services, yet cannot find out any details of improper private tax deals done by the taxman. Even Treasury ministers are left in the dark."

So our elected representatives can compel spies to spill the beans, but the tax service doesn't even have to tell the Treasury what deals it cuts, let alone MPs or - god forbid - the citizenry. Banana, anyone?

Back to the 90s

After graduation, I ended up drinking with a select group of ex-students, culminating in visiting a '90s theme bar': a horrifying concept to someone who was actually there, man. The corporate bar's version of the 90s was everything I hated first time round: flaming Sambucca and the very worst confected pop bands of all time. I doubt that even 5ive's mothers play their singles.

Last night was a form of anecdote. I cooked a cider-soaked pork joint (take that, the 1/24th Jewish blood in me), roasted some parsnips and had friends round, and we settled on great American lo-fi for the evening: Folk Implosion, Sebadoh, Slint and some riot grrl -  Babes in Toyland - from the days when indie music wasn't merely a celebrity vehicle.

Anyway, enough proto-Riot Grrl: I've a Shakespeare class to teach, and lots of other things on today, so I won't harass you too much.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

On this day:

Happy Birthday Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), muckraking author of early-twentieth century novels exposing the rotten core of American business and politics. He was also a socialist for a period, standing for Congress and the California governorship in that cause, and founded the Helicon Home utopian colony (rather unsuccessfully).

Personal favourites: The Jungle, exposing the squalid, sordid condition of Chicago's meat-packing industries. If you're a fan of Harry Turtledove's slightly odd alternative American history, he was the President of the US from 1920-28.

If your literary tastes stretch from socialist muckraking to jolly-hockey-sticks girls' boarding school japes (and I know at least one comrade to whom this applies), then you'll be sad to learn that September 20th is also the anniversary of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's death in 1969: author of 60 Chalet School novels. The school itself, under pressure of political events, moved from Austria to Guernsey, thence to two places on the English-Welsh border, then finally to Switzerland. Interesting how many tax havens featured… They're fascinating tales of how rebellious girls have their spirits broken as they learn to conform to the rules of a snobbish, elitist but apparently kind-hearted meritocracy.

Interestingly, there's an unofficial - and rather misanthropist - sequel, The Chalet Girls Grow Up which sounds far more interesting:
A book that updates the stories of The Chalet School Girls into a world of sex, drugs and illegitimate babies bringing characters into the present day with references to Vietnam, Soweto, Greenham Common and the Falklands War.
Poor Elinor must be spinning in her grave.

Update: lo and behold, here's hard-boiled crime writer Val McDermid talking about the Chalet School novels as her inspiration on Radio 4 (brief review here)

Opening up the Labour Party

The latest Labour leadership wheeze is to open important party decisions to non-party members, including the election of party leaders. It's a plot to stop the unions having a strong influence on the results.

I have two problems with this:
1. Affiliated trades unions (of which mine isn't one, thankfully) not only founded the Labour Party, they continue to fund it. Why shouldn't they, as the representatives of a large section of the working population, receive representation in proportion to donation?

(Don't write in: I know the answer. The hysterical, hypocritical baying mob of the collected ranks of the rightwing press. Those newspapers which are all owned by tax-evading, offshore-domiciled Tory donors. I don't think anyone at the top of the Party has ever asked him or herself whether they actually believe anything: they just ask what the Daily Mail will say about it).

2. I just don't think that anyone who wants to have a go deserves to get a vote. Political parties aren't drop-in centres for anyone with a point of view. They're formal organisations to which like-minded people subscribe. I'm a member of the Labour Party, despite being a socialist. I share a high degree of ideological perspectives with my fellow members and I pay to propagate these ideas. The idea that people who are too lazy, indifferent or hostile to my party should be encouraged to affect our internal decisions is offensive.

It implies that the Labour Party hierarchy believes that its own members are too weird to be trusted, too weird to represent the population at large. It also implies that it doesn't believe the general population has the backbone and commitment to join a party.

I have another idea: formulate a decent, coherent set of political positions of which you can be proud. Then go out there and proselytise for them, rather than tremblingly triangulate your every utterance with reference to the worst newspapers on the planet. Let's not cravenly chip away at our core beliefs in deference to a public which has been misled and abused by the right: let's get out there and actually try to persuade them that we're right about things. Is that too revolutionary? It might be difficult, but it's better than surrendering.

The Party conference used to end with a rendition of the Red Flag: let's return to the days of having some backbone. The third verse I quote is particularly relevant to Miliband, Balls and Co.
Then raise the scarlet standard high.Within its shade we'll live and die,Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,We'll keep the red flag flying here.
It waved above our infant might,When all ahead seemed dark as night;It witnessed many a deed and vow,We must not change its colour now. 
It suits today the weak and base,Whose minds are fixed on pelf and placeTo cringe before the rich man's frown,And haul the sacred emblem down.