Monday, 31 October 2011

Indie hallowe'en special

Here's a very appropriate track from an excellent album I bought recently, Veronica Falls by Veronica Falls (a band, not a person). It's called 'Found Love In A Graveyard', and I dedicate it to all the teenage Goths out there. Try not to smile, kids!

Should we end violence in the media?

Media effects is the topic of this afternoon's class with the first-years. Thankfully, I have a fine exposition of the case for violent entertainment, from one of my favourite films. Go from about 28 seconds in:

Violence in the Media



Left turn…

I came across this cartoon today. It's by Syd Hoff, a talented artist who also published communist satire in the American Daily Worker, under the name A. Redfield.

Lots of his cartoons are shockingly apposite for now: he often depicted fat, rich upper class people failing to understand the plight of the poor during a savage recession, or even claiming to be 'all in this together'. But this one caught my eye because - and I know this is a bit radical for a blogger - it's something I know about.

The humour in this is pretty much limited to the narrow circle of Communist Party literary theorists. It's certainly referencing Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier and other similar texts, but it also marks a decisive (and rather unfortunate) shift in Communist Party cultural policy (the CP, unlike most parties, genuinely thought that culture was important. The point here is that around 1927-1932, disappointed with the failure of the middle-classes and 'professional' representatives of organised labour, such as the Labour Party and trades unions in the UK, the CP decided on a policy of confrontation, known in the USSR as Proletkult.

Culturally, this meant becoming hostile to the sympathetic work of middle and upper-class authors, such as Orwell and others. In particular, the term 'proletarian' becomes a term of abuse. At first, 'proletarian' referred to any sympathetic fiction about working-class lives, but with the Class Against Class phase, any material by non-communist non-workers was automatically tainted by the aroma of class tourism: quality and intention became far less important than political allegiance. Two novels I wrote my PhD about, Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and We Live are praised in the Communist press in the 1930s for not being proletarian - i.e. not patronising work by non-worker, but the authentic voice of a real miner - though how accurate that was is a matter of considerable debate. Well, I debated it, anyway.

So much for democracy…

This is astonishing: the Royal Family is rich. I mean stinking rich. So rich that King Croesus would be jealous. It's the deal made with the royals in 1660: the British said that they could come back and have all the palaces/jewels/courtesans/counties they wanted, as long as they kept out of politics. A deal, incidentally, that the royals have frequently broken.  

Ministers have been forced to seek permission from Prince Charles to pass at least a dozen government bills, according to a Guardian investigation into a secretive constitutional loophole that gives him the right to veto legislation that might impact his private interests.
Since 2005, ministers from six departments have sought the Prince of Wales' consent to draft bills on everything from road safety to gambling and the London Olympics, in an arrangement described by constitutional lawyers as a royal "nuclear deterrent" over public policy. Unlike royal assent to bills, which is exercised by the Queen as a matter of constitutional law, the prince's power applies when a new bill might affect his own interests, in particular the Duchy of Cornwall, a private £700m property empire that last year provided him with an £18m income.

But it's emerged today that Prince Charles has been given the right to veto or amend legislation which might affect his £700m private business, and he's exercised that right. This, British readers, is what makes you subjects rather than citizens. We elect people to act in our collective interests, and they act in the interests of their friends and the aristocracy. We get poorer, sicker and thicker, they get richer and richer.

Nice girl seeks strict grammarian

Another day, another lonely East European looking for love (or bank account details):
Nice to meet you,
Am miss Rebeca ,interested in you,
and wish to have you as my friend,
for a friend is all about Respect,Admiration and love passion also
friendship is consist of sharing of ideas and planing together,
i intend to send you my picture for you,if you reply me.
thanks from Rebecaa. (
Sadly, I'm no Higgins. If I want to help illiterates with their grammar, punctuation and syntax, I turn to the pile of marking always hovering at my elbow.

Though I do enjoy a bit of carpentry, so 'planing together' is quite an appealing proposition, and I am wearing a plaid lumberjack shirt today, so I'm hot to trot. I assume that this is what Rebecaa looks like when at work on her building sites. But Rebecaa: for god's sake, WEAR SOME EYE PROTECTION! Honestly, the Health and Safety Executive would be horrified.

Rebecaa's so keen to meet me that she's emailed me twice, using different email addresses (the other one is You can't blame the girl for being persistent! 

Friday, 28 October 2011

Ireland: well that's all right then.

The line-up for the Irish election was looking distinctly shaky: a former terrorist/freedom fighter (take your pick) whose erstwhile friends didn't recognise Ireland as a state, a couple of hacks, a Tennessee-dwelling hard-right Catholic-rights former Eurovision, an Apprentice (or something) competitor involved in handling political donations from a criminal, a man who was in and out of the race depending on what the papers found in his love-life, and Michael D Higgins.

For a while, it looked like the classic failure-of-the-state election, in which the TV bullshitter would win because confidence in the governing class had been hollowed out by 80 years of cronyism, corruption and incompetence.

But huzzah for Ireland (and take note UK, with your silly hereditary nonsense): the people have elected Michael D Higgins.

Socialist? Yes.
Academic? Oh yes.
Poet? You bet.
Cultured? Rather!
Founder of the Irish-language TV station.
Anti-war? Not half.
Friend of the oppressed.
Invested public money in museums and Irish film.
Ended political censorship.

Now that, my friends, is my idea of a political leader.

A huff and a puff…

I'm reading Anna Minton's Ground Control in preparation for a lecture on urban space next week (plus lots of psychogeography and French philosophy, like Perec and Lefebvre - it'll be fun). One of her discussions is about the housing market.

It goes like this. The Tories wouldn't let councils invest money in building new council housing. The private sector was meant to provide. But they didn't because markets don't work. The developers limited supply rather than meeting it, because that increased house prices, making more money for them. The millions of people who are homeless or trapped in bedsits suffer, but who cares.

So the situation is this: New Labour and the current Tories knew very well that there are enough planning permits out there to house everybody. But they know that the developers don't want to use them. So they've… weakened the planning laws even more so that the few bits of the environment protected currently will be opened up for development. The greedy, stupid bastards.

So. I have an idea. Firstly, make planning permission time-limited, like local currencies that expire after a period, to stimulate demand. That way, housing speculators and supermarkets (who buy land to prevent rivals building shops - leaving two massive plots derelict for a decade and counting here in the Land of Pork Scratchings) either build, or lose their permits. Secondly: tax the unused land progressively higher until it's built on. Thirdly: if building isn't under way by the time the permit expires, take the land into public ownership. Compulsory Purchase Orders refer to 'public benefit', so that's really easy.

Of course, I know one MP who'd be horrified by the prospect, one Paul Uppal MP. But then (though he doesn't like to talk about it), he's a multimillionaire property speculator. (By the way, it's two weeks since I asked him what he meant by Liam Fox's 'sterling work in Sri Lanka'. No reply yet!).

Readers: can you see any flaw here?

Tory media in cynical liars shock!

Earlier this week, the Daily Telegraph took a thermal imaging camera down to the Occupy London camp outside St. Paul's Cathedral and turned it on the tents. Next day, screaming headlines in all the rightwing papers claiming that the protesters were 'part-time' and therefore lazy untrustworthy scum.

"It is like a phantom camp – a big charade," said Matthew Richardson, a Corporation of London councillor, who is calling for action to be taken.
"It just shows that most of the people don't have the courage of their convictions and are here just to make trouble and leaving your tent here overnight is a good way to do that."

Then all the TV stations took it up.

Apparently nobody on the newspaper was scientifically literate enough to work out that modern tents tend to be thermally efficient. The occupants' body heat is reflected back into the tent to keep them warm. The protesters have made this point rather wittily: by hiring the very same camera and demonstrating what happens when hot bodies climb into a tent:

Specifics aside, this is a perfect example of churnalism. A partisan report isn't subjected to any scrutiny by editors because it suits the ideological perspective of the newspaper. Political allies pick it up, as do other media outlets because it's a 'new angle' and creates conflict, which is what drives all news stories. The need for speed means that no fact-checking or scrutiny is conducted at any point - and so an untruth becomes prime-time news and nobody learns anything. That's churnalism!

Friday Conundrum: a real one!

Morning comrades.

Here's a poser for you. I'm going on strike at the end of the month, along with millions of public servants whose pensions are being slashed to pay for the bank bailout. As is normal, our pay is docked for that day - about which I won't complain.

However, a few days later, I've been asked to 'volunteer' on a Saturday for a project with which I wholeheartedly agree. I'm torn: the 'Saturday University taster' is a great idea, and I'm friends with the originator, so I don't want to be churlish. On the other hand: if they don't pay us when we don't work, shouldn't they pay us when we do turn up? There's very little goodwill left in this place - I don't want to erode what remains, but nor do I want to let my employers think that they can make money by exploiting our kindness.

So: do I volunteer or stay away?

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Ridding us of this meddlesome priest

As you might have noticed, I'm a keen atheist, albeit a Catholic atheist. So I've been watching the resignation of Canon Giles Fraser from St. Paul's Cathedral with interest and no little amusement.

He's gone because he wouldn't accept that the Cathedral should connive with the Corporation of London (i.e. the money) and the Mayor of London (the bankers' pet gnome) to get rid of the Occupy movement on the plaza in front of the Cathedral. Other clerics have been muttering about losing £20,000 per day, which is rather different from Jesus expelling the money-changers from the Temple.

Fraser's right: no church should be in the business of evicting idealists protesting against the obvious and demonstrably damaging rapaciousness of money power. But I can't thinking that it's a bit late for any cleric, especially one representing the Church of England, to suddenly object to doing deals with money and power.

Have you every been to a major church or cathedral? They're often festooned with military banners commemorating the glorious battles fought by local regiments against the unsuspecting natives of lands unfortunate enough to be attractive to the British Empire, from Ireland to Australia. The flags of Empire abound, as do memorials to the stinking rich and powerful. The Church of England, as an Established Church, did its deal with the élite centuries ago. It's too late to discover a radical streak now.

Not that the original church, the Catholics, have anything of which to be proud either. In the 20th Century they crushed the Liberation Theology movement, which posited that Catholic priests might want to help the oppressed in Latin American dictatorships: simply the latest in a series of disgusting moves which maintained power at the cost of morality. Many commentators are clear that Christianity lost all legitimacy when it was taken up as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Getting into bed with a slave economy meant suppressing any instincts against slavery and imperialism, for instance, hence the Church's early advice to slaves to be obedient rather than demand equality.

So two cheers for the canon, but he's utterly compromised. Religion's just another arm of the dominant hegemony. Don't expect radicalism from that quarter.

Biting the hand that tortures

I may - in passing - have mentioned my objections to The Hegemon running training courses for the police forces of the UAE: those outstanding boys in white who specialise in brutally repressing political demonstrators, led by a man who filmed himself torturing and murdering a business partner when a deal went sour. And who was acquitted by his cousin because 'he was drugged by his staff'.

What these countries are buying isn't education: it's legitimacy. When Amnesty or whoever point to massive human rights abuses, they can point to our logo (and the honorary doctorate in law we gave to this Minister of the Interior) as proof that they're on the level. Presumably we're happy to take the cash and keep quiet. Who knows, perhaps the classes are fearlessly critical of what the UAE's security forces did to their fellow citizens this year - including our academic colleague Nasser bin Ghaith… or perhaps they aren't.

I'm not the only one either: the Times Higher Education isn't impressed either. Lo and behold, the parlous state of the UAE's HE institutions is - yet again - the result of monarchical nepotism:
The blame, within the academic community at least, was usually levelled at the Ministry for Higher Education, or the competence of the sheikh in question - who was a cousin of the ruler.… as with Gaddafi, there seems to be a fascination in many of the Gulf monarchies - most of which are similarly autocratic, and have been similarly flush - with spending vast sums on overseas education projects, even if the domestic sector is left to languish.
Our American cousins sup with a longer-handled spoon, at least in relation to Arab money, thanks to the influence of the Israel lobby - they're perfectly happy to take cash from the evil Koch brothers and other assorted loons:
the Harvard University staff and student body rejected a chair in Islamic studies from Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan on the grounds of anti-Semitism and well-documented human rights abuses in the UAE, including the use of child slaves as camel jockeys. Similarly, in 2007 the University of Connecticut pulled out of a relationship with Dubai for much the same reasons.
God I'd love the chance to actually put forward a view in my place, but democracy has never been on the agenda, here or there:
In such circumstances, junior members of staff or PhD students may feel uncomfortable pursuing sensitive topics relating to these countries. Imagine, for example, writing a negative critique of a regime that has paid for your salary, your scholarship or the building you sit in. In many UK universities, this is not only a possible scenario but now rather likely. What it may lead to (and in some cases it already has led to) is a field that carefully skirts around the key "red line" subjects such as political reform, corruption, human rights and revolution.
The large, youthful, English-speaking and internet-savvy populations of these countries are unlikely to tolerate the current set-up for much longer, and the Western democracies - including their universities - need to make sure they are not out of step with the region's reality. 

Some light relief

This morning, I have mostly been listening to Tame Impala, All About Eve and Veronica Falls. I know nothing about the latter, except that they sing fine tunes. This one's called 'Misery'. But it's not miserable. Next up is a Pete Seeger and Friends CD of the 1959 Newport Folk Festival. Peace out!

What those banking ads really mean

Bank ads. I hate them. All those smiling young people in polyester uniforms saying 'we'll open for 15 minutes extra every 29th February  because we really care and think it'll make you forget that YOU lent US YOUR MONEY and we gave it to spivs, liars, conmen, crooks and speculators who lost almost all of it and spent the rest snorting the finest crack cocaine from the genitals of supermodels on the deck of a yacht that we paid for via an offshore account so that the governments who bailed us out didn't get A PENNY in tax. So now you're all broke and we're not. And you actually elected a government which has given MORE of your money to us by abolishing schools, universities and hospitals. CRAWL BEFORE OUR MIGHT, PEASANTS'.

But we're not that stupid. All those ads pretending that banking is about being nice to old ladies on the high street can't hide the fact that these people are reptilian scum from another planet.

Someone else makes this point slightly more calmly:

Oh, he lives in a house, a very big house in the country…

I woke up this morning to hear a discussion between the editor of Country Life ('The Home of Premium Property', which tells you all you need to know) and an 'urban birder', about the British attitude towards the countryside. According to Mr. Hedges (nominative determinism in action?), 'everyone' wants to live in the countryside, because it's a paradise. He made this point repeatedly.

It's the word 'everyone' that really annoyed me. It assumed that 'everyone' is middle or upper class, white, and  I don't know if you're familiar with Country Life. My father used to buy it occasionally (generations of Irish land dispossession, often at the hands of the Country Life readership, promotes land avarice). It's a form of pornography for the middle classes. The first 100 pages are estate agent adverts featuring obscenely large houses in the £1m+ range. The next 100 are for antique auctions. Then there's the 'posh totty' equivalent of Page Three: a titled and eligible young lady, usually holding a horse's bridle, posed outside her parents' Regency mansion. The rest of the magazine is devoted to stories about hunting, choosing a helicopter for the school run, and favoured methods for beating your servants.

Back in the real world, Mr. Hedges' claims are deeply dubious. Firstly, 'everyone' fled the countryside back in the 18th-19th centuries. Certainly many were dispossessed by his subscribers' ancestors, but millions were eager to head off to the colonies or to the cities. Rather than being tied to exploitative rural rents, subject to the rapacity of the rackrent aristocracy, they sought work and solidarity in the factories: still exploited, but better than hacking frozen turnips out of the soil in December. Life was cheaper and arguably better in the cities. They weren't all scrumping apples and making corn dollies. People starved to death in the countryside in their millions.

Secondly, the Country Life version of the countryside - shooting, country fairs, Young Farmers' Balls - is a completely artificial fantasy generated by the aristocracy and sold to the Russian oligarchs and criminal bankers who are the only people with the cash to actually live this lifestyle. They can dress up in Barbour, customise their Range Rovers, buy a title with a coat of arms and a pair of Holland and Hollands, and pretend they're from ancient stock.

The real countryside has no squires, hunting pinks and tugged forelocks. The countryside is largely a green desert, drenched in pesticides and owned by massive offshore tax-evading corporations who fund their destruction of the environment by (sometimes fraudulently) playing the EU Common Agricultural Policy subsidy system. There are no apple-cheeked milkmaids and wise old farmers: most of the actual farming is done by contractors moving from estate to estate. Despite TV and other media portraying the countryside as a jungle of flora and fauna, the so-called guardians of rurality have presided over the most massive program of extinction this planet has ever seen. Farmers and landowners generally despise wildlife: if it's not subsidised, they'll shoot it, hence the current plan to slaughter every badger in the country. Our rivers are poisoned and our animals are dying: and we're paying for this.

There's no peasantry either. Every 'Cottage' or 'Barn' round my mother's house is occupied by a doctor, a lawyer or a dentist. The actual farm workers live in council houses in the city, because property prices have driven them out. It's a theme park for faux-nostalgia, sold by peddlers of property porn such as Move to the Country, Location, Location, Location and Country Life, whose readership is strongly concentrated in Chelsea and other urban ghettos of privilege. I lived in Shropshire for years, and get out into the countryside as often as I can. One of the things that makes me most angry is the exclusion of all but the super-rich from the county from their playground, and from much of Britain's rural space, bar the most marginal land. I'm from there. I'd like to go back there: but I cannot stand this mimsy pretence that the countryside is a green theme park.

Is it getting better? Of course not. One of the nasty little things this government has just done is abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board. It was set up to protect farm workers, because the isolated nature of their work made it easy to underpay and overwork them: collective action is almost impossible on a farm. But the Tory Scum have decided that rural workers can sink like the rest. How very petty.

Bring back the spirit of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, of Gerrard Winstanley and Woody Guthrie. This Land Is Our Land!

I'll end with a few lines of Oliver Goldsmith's bitter, sad poem about rural devastation, 'The Deserted Village': note that the bittern and the lapwing are virtually extinct.

Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn;
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant's hand is seen,
And Desolation saddens all thy green:
One only master grasps the whole domain,
And half a tillage stints thy smiling plain.
No more thy glassy brook reflects the day,
But, choked with sedges, works its weedy way;
Along thy glades, a solitary guest,
The hollow-sounding bittern guards its nest;
Amidst thy desert walks the lapwing flies,
And tires their echoes with unvaried cries:
Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o'ertops the mouldering wall
And, trembling, shrinking from the spoiler's hand,
Far, far away thy children leave the land.

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made:
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroy'd, can never be supplied.

But times are alter'd; Trade's unfeeling train
Usurp the land, and dispossess the swain;
Along the lawn, where scatter'd hamlets rose,
Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose;
And every want to luxury allied,
And every pang that folly pays to pride.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Sorry about that, peasants

This fascinating map tells us about who's wrecked the environment, and who's going to suffer.
As you might expect, green is for the people (us, basically) who've caused utter devastation, and blue is for those who are going to sicken, starve and die. Predictably, countries who've contributed least to climate change are going to sink beneath the waves, while those who've poisoned the globe are going to be fine.

That's capitalism, folks! Bye Bye Bangladesh. Who needs the Solomon Islands anyway (except for Solomon Islanders, and I'm sure they can swim)?. In your face, India! That's the point of being rich. Western companies are already buying African farmland from corrupt governments. When the seas rise, we'll always be able to afford the higher land. Makes you proud, doesn't it?

More analysis here.

Politics: it's all about the rhetoric

No doubt you've all read 1984 and know all about Newspeak, the political discourse in which words' meanings are utterly arbitrary and subject to abrupt change.

Down here in the literary mines, we've known about this for decades, thanks to semiotics. In politics too, Gramsci's concept of hegemony goes some way to explain why genuine oppression doesn't lead to revolution: we're led to believe that values which benefit an élite are in fact natural and permanent.

That said, even I can be shocked by the cynicism politicians will display sometimes. Two examples presented themselves over the last 24 hours.

Exhibit 1: the Prime Minister asked a personal friend and Conservative Party donor, Mr. Beecroft, to write a report about Britain's employment laws. This despite Beecroft being a venture capitalist, which means he's an asset stripper and financial engineer rather than a man who's contributed in any meaningful way to this country's wellbeing. But I digress. Mr Beecroft has come up with the surprising and entirely expected answer: that this country's economic woes aren't caused by financial speculation and tax evasion at all. They're caused by British workers being too hard to sack - despite the past 4 PM's successively weakening our employment protection and boasting about it to their rich friends.

What's even more galling is the lazy, cynical, lying defence of this report mounted on the airwaves yesterday. I listened to some lying sack of shit on the PM show claiming that the effect of weakening employment protection would be to 'make it easier for employers to plan retirement parties for their workers'. This is the equivalent of the CBI dressing up as clowns and rubbing shit pies in peoples' faces: insulting, patronising and contemptuous.

Beecroft's report isn't much better. Try this bit: he accepts that abolishing the rules means that

British workers should be banned from claiming unfair dismissal… employers could fire staff because they "did not like them". "While this is sad, I believe it is a price worth paying for all the benefits that would result from the change."

The other glorious bit of Newspeak was this announcement: the Tory Minister for Public Safety in Canada has… abolished the national register of firearms! Mmmm, that will improve public safety, won't it?

Almost forgot: massive respect for Michael Gove and other Tories for claiming that half of their MPs voting against the Prime Minister on Europe, despite huge pressure, shows that they are 'united as never before'. Hats off to them for that spin!

Turn on, tune in, run away

If you're not going to see The Nightingales at Gulliver's in Manchester tonight, tune in to Marc Riley's BBC 6Music show: they're doing a live session. Hopefully they won't be paralytically drunk this time: it made for exciting live radio but didn't showcase their musical talents.

Here's 'The Crunch':

En garde!

The Guardian has a piece today on how the Olympics might finally put my sport, fencing, on the map. If only…

Taken on its own merits, it's a brilliant support. A successful fencer needs to be fit, lithe and intelligent: it's not about instincts, it's about out-thinking your opponent before either of you move. It's dramatic, fast, and could be televisual, although the sheer speed means that 'blink and you miss it' is literally true.

Unfortunately, fencing in the UK is entirely associated with private schools, the armed forces, and the reactionary fringe: to its shame, the Amateur Fencing Association helped Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists by staging fund-raising competitions - Mosley represented England and Britain in international events.

There is, without doubt, a snobbery associated with the sport. The leading fencers and administrators are all rich, posh and amateurish - despite importing some excellent professional administrators, I don't see any wish amongst the upper ranks to make the sport normal, or popular. Those in charge like being big fish in a small pool. Out in the real world, clubs like Camden, Brixton and Truro are bringing in kids from state schools and ethnic minorities - good for them and good for the sport - but our public image is exclusive and insular. In other countries, fencing is a popular, normal sport: most French towns have a salle, and competitions are shown on local TV.

Insularity breeds failure: our élite fencers occasionally pull off great results, but I watched them utterly crash and burn at the European Championships recently, and whatever they say, there's almost no chance of a medal at the Olympics. It's partly resistance to modern training, partly the way sports pyschology breeds arrogance at the cost of competence, and partly because there's been no serious attempt to create a depth of quality.

But never mind my whinging: it's a brilliant sport and change is just around the corner. There are clubs everywhere - find one here - and give it a go. And if you've got political qualms: Karl Marx was a fencer too.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Things I've learned this afternoon.

1. There is a thriving postgraduate research culture in my English department: 3 PhD students, all doing utterly fascinating things - Romanticism and Translation, Shakespeare in adaptation, and modern mythology.

2. Helen Maria Williams, the Scots-Welsh author and translator who lived in Revolutionary France, was called a 'Scribbling Trollop' by a British journalist. I presume this was a forerunner of the Daily Mail.  Apparently translation from contemporary languages was drudgery, and therefore assigned to women. The men translated the Classics. If I were a female literature/writing blogger, I'd be appropriating 'Scribbling Trollop' as a pseudonym right now. Thanks to Paul for his fascinating and enlightening presentation of his PhD research.

3. Elvis wasn't the first King to die on the toilet. George II tied today in 1760, 'in his privy closet'.

Digital literacy: urgently needed

One of the key buzz words built into our work here 'digital literacy', and we're constantly told that our students are 'digital natives', hence the need for us all to move everything we do onto Facebook/Twitter/Ning etc.

It's not true. 45% of our students are mature, i.e. not necessarily 'digital natives', and it's patronising to assume that young = techy, older = primitive. It's not true in a more interesting sense either: the underlying implication of our 'digital literacy' strategy is that putting everything online will make what we do automatically more exciting. What a depressing thought: that the packaging is what appeals to students, not the concepts. They aren't magpies, they're people. They don't just pick out the shiny bits of a course.

What digital literacy means for our students, who are more sophisticated than many realise, is relevance. They can spot tokenistic tech-babble from miles away. What they want is appropriate use of technology. Otherwise, the university looks like someone's dad (perhaps mine) asking in PC shops whether the laptop he's poking will 'do the Google' (which sounds like a 1950s dance craze). It's more than being able to operate a couple of bits of old-fashioned proprietary software.

What digital literacy should mean is the ability to confidently negotiate the tsunami of information, entertainment and distortion breaking over our heads. Information has never been more accessible. Nor has it ever been so overwhelming. We see this in the classroom, where we have to teach students how to discern between authoritative sources and mad blokes  ranting from their bedrooms. It's not just content either: real digital literacy is also about appropriate use of media. Where does it come from? Whose interests is it serving? Is it owned, and should it be? What should be done with it? E.g. is searching for a word on Google Books, then referencing the book as though you've read it rather than extracting a useful phrase educationally helpful?

After all, in my incarnation as an English literature teacher, we show students how to negotiate books. They learn about unreliable narrators, about rhetorical strategies, about realism as a technique, and all the other tricks of the trade. They know not to take a single word at face value, to interrogate the structures and features of a text, whether it's a novel or an autobiography. You can't be a literature student without doing this. So why are we happy to let people loose in society without training them to question the origins and practices of their other media experiences? You wouldn't believe the number of people who don't know how scripted and staged Top Gear is, for instance.

I know that information overload is the main challenge: I'd have a Nobel by now if I started writing every day rather than try to keep up with the news, blogs by peers and friends, pressure groups I support, random Twitter links ad infinitum. But it's not just me: major news corporations make mistakes because they're under pressure to get there first rather than write the best story - see the Daily Mail's accidental publication of the Knox Appeal Rejected story (complete with fake quotes and eye-witness accounts of scenes which never happened). It's not just about evil newspapers with barely concealed reactionary agendas (though that is of course what the Daily Mail exists for): it's about the speed and volume of information journalists have to process, evaluate and repeat: accuracy and perspective are the first victims, and the result is what Nick Davies calls 'churnalism'.

We run the risk of never knowing what can be trusted and what can't. Of course, we tell our students repeatedly that there is no truth: everything is mediated, framed, edited according to a conscious or unconscious ideological perspective. This is core to media studies as it is in literary studies. If digital literacy means anything, it's arming people with discernment, or what Clay Shirky calls 'filtering'. This applies to newspapers, PR, what Facebook do with your information and how Google processes your viewing habits. You can't be an engaged and critical citizen if you can't deconstruct the tidal wave of information heading in your direction.

If you're not digitally literate, you're laying yourself open to disinformation, manipulation and exploitation. That's why America's Knight Commission is linking information literacy with democracy. It's why Howard Rheingold teaches his students about bullshit detection. So it's a shame that media studies is roundly mocked and has suffered from the biggest fall in university applications in the UK for next year. It's almost as though a cynical élite (including elements of the media) doesn't want you to think about what it's up to!

John Peel RIP

Another year, another year without John Peel on the radio. Those flat Scouse tones enunciating huge enthusiasm for the widest range of music you could imagine. No snobbery, just pure interest in what's out there. Between Peel, the Evening Session and Mark and Lard's evening show, my musical tastes went from nothing to almost everything in a year or two. Shame that Radio 1 is now a bilge pipe for the worst manufactured junk: it's just an extension of major label PR departments rather than a critical and informed outlet.

John Peel's Festive 50 lists of his and his listeners' favourite tracks look - with the exception of the nosebleed techno he came to love - like my shelves of records. I even got a request played on his show once (a Gorky's Zygotic Mynci song), and he took the time to note that I shared a surname with his producer, leading to a little gentle banter. Happy Days…

If you want to celebrate John Peel's influence, you could do worse than go to a Nightingales gig (on tour now, at the 100 Club in London tonight): my friends were Peel's favourite band, alongside The Fall and The Wedding Present. The difference is that The Fall are an angry parody of a band and the Weddoes are now a sad cabaret act, whereas the Gales are writing some of their best ever music.

Here are some of the tracks from the 2004 Festive 50 list, the year he died.

Sluts of Trust: 'Leave You Wanting More'. Stroppy, shout, angular: everything he loved (and wasn't).

Ballboy and Laura: 'I Lost You But I Found Country Music' (wryness from the band which also sang 'All The Records On The Radio Are Shite'):

For his electronic side, XBooty's remix of Laurie Anderson's 'O Superman':

And from the comedy section, Allo Darlin's 'Henry Rollins Don't Dance': Peel died before this came out, but he'd have liked it.

Uppal the greasy pole

Paul Uppal MP knows which side his bread's buttered. Half of the Conservative Party MPs voted for a referendum on EU membership last night, against party policy. But not Paul: he's never stated a view either way in public (when the wind changes so often, clever cynics never leave hostages to fortune), and last night he voted with his party leadership.

Was this a principled vote? Of course not. Those Tory rebels have ruled themselves out of government jobs. Odds on Uppal getting his feet under a ministerial table have just risen. Be afraid, citizens, be very afraid.

I don't want a referendum on EU membership. It would just be an opportunity for racist newspapers to play on the racist fears of a reactionary minority which won't take a reasoned view of the benefits and drawbacks of membership.

Personally, I'd vote for a United States of Europe in a heartbeat, as long as it's a United Socialist States, rather than a machine for imposing the economically, environmentally and socially destructive neoliberal policies which have beggared us all. The current EU is unwieldy, undemocratic and often corrupt - but having lived in the UK for rather a long time, I'm well aware that on things like working condition, the EU has always been better for us than our own governments.

On a more tactical basis, I'm quite pleased by this huge Tory revolt. I'm hoping that, like the US Republicans and Tea Partiers, the party structure is promoting extremist voices. It might look like there's a upsurge of extremism, whereas Americans in general are moving away from this nuttiness. This leads to the hollowing out of the party's support and what seems like a radical insurgency actually becomes the last hurrah of the nutters. The Tories can eat themselves up over Europe and normal citizens will treat them like the weirdos they are.

'Going Forward' as a university

Morning comrades, I'm in a presentation by our new VC, whom I like on a personal level. He's got the charm of a Northern club comic - I'm waiting for a mother-in-law joke - and it's clear that despite titling his presentation 'going forward' (urge to kill: rising), he's got a clear, coherent and committed (feel my alliteration) sense of what we should be doing.

He is, I think, on the side of the angels. He's already described the government's HE plan as 'untried, untested and unwanted', said that every week brings a new state directive which doesn't need reading because it will be supplanted by another one next week, and suggested that the idea is to generate a set of private institutions and protect the posh universities by screwing places like ours. He's very slick with the MBA-speak ('business-facing', 'wealth creators') but he accepts that these are suspect terms. We're going to be 'the opportunity university', whatever that means, but he's also keen to stress research.

Now we're on to student surveys and employability: we're dropping. There's an easy answer to some of this: students are annoyed that a new curriculum and structure was dumped on them without any notice or justification. The Executive's considered response is that unhappy students have been manipulated by subversive teachers. That's quite Orwellian: they'll take credit for happy students and call shenanigans if the scores aren't what they wanted.

The presentation is odd: the powerpoint is packed with verb-free buzz phrases, but his speech is very pro-education (not a given either here or in the sector, sadly). The best bit is 'I believe that students are not consumers', for which I could give him a big hug.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Down goes students' average ages, down goes the learning

Statistics relating to university applications in the age of £9000 fees have been released. It's a complex figure, but it's clear that the groups who are under-represented in many subjects are the victims: women and mature students (down at least 25%). Applications are down 9% overall, with women's applications down more than men's: perhaps women are more debt-averse, given that they still earn less than men in comparable jobs.

This is a tragedy. Mature students represent those who - following the smug exhortations of politicians - take risks and change their whole lives in pursuit of betterment. It's also a pain for me: all teachers know that the mature students are wonderful to have in class. They don't waste time being shy, they've been round the block a couple of times and know a little more about life, and they ALWAYS do the reading, because they don't take being at university for granted. They've given a lot up to be here, and they put a lot in. They also expect more from us, which is great - most of the times when I've really been pushed in class, it's been mature students. Much as I enjoy teaching the kids, there's something special about mature students, and The Hegemon has been at the forefront of opening higher education to returning students. No more, from the look of it.

Sadly, applications for media-related subjects are down 40%. If you're a Mail reader, you're probably pleased about 'Mickey Mouse' degrees losing out. If so, I refer you to the News International scandals, your frequent moral panics about sex/violence/horror, your fear of The Internet and what your kids are up to on it, and suggest that in a world  of media immersion, perhaps it's a good idea to teach people how it works and what the actual effects are. You think?

Last few photos from Downs Banks

By the time we turned for home, the light was low through the trees: rest here, click these to enlarge.

The 50mm prime lens gives this child's-drawing sun effect. Very pleasing.

Sun through ferns

Evening sunlight through beech leaves

Windfall apples illuminated by evening sun

A single shaft of sunlight highlights an autumn fern

Autumn in Staffordshire

Some more photos from this weekends walk. Click them to enlarge, and see them all here.

I like this one because you can see the swan's head underwater

The starkness of autumnal fields

The last apple-eater to feel this foolish was Adam

Autumn is upon us

Thanks to Dan's magnificent map skills, the Map Twats went on gentle stroll this weekend - along the canal from Stone to Barlaston in Staffordshire, then up to Downs Banks and across country back to Stone. Thanks to our disgraceful treatment of the planet, there were spring flowers as well as autumnal colours.

The whole set is here: click these samples to enlarge.

The old John Joule's canal side brewery, Stone

The Iron Maiden What a great pun. Bruce Dickinson's new addition to the fleet

Details from a derelict narrowboat

Hip to be square…

Friday, 21 October 2011

One at a time.

You know my taste in wet, deservedly-obscure jangly indie bands, but you may not know that my favourite pieces of music of all time are J. S. Bach's Cello Suites, apparently written solely for private practice at the request of a pupil. Each Suite is based on the same tune, using the same forms of (originally dance) rhythms and styles: there's the Prelude, then an Allemande, a Courante, a Sarabande, Minuets, Gigues and Gavottes.

Benjamin, otherwise a very discerning chap and prize-winning author, was firmly resistant to my urging - it took a world-famous author, a professor of music and a PhD student (who fully deserves a scholarship for her part) with a baroque cello to persuade him of the Suites' worth. Giving him makes him a better human being.

My work with him done, I turn to you: listen to this, over and over again until you realise that this is definition of genius. Here's an extract from No. 4, my favourite. It's played by Rostropovich, second only to Yo-Yo Ma's version.

The Allemande from Suite No. 6:

And the ultimate, the sublime Prelude and Sarabande to Suite No. 1, this time played by Yo-Yo Ma and Mischa Maisky

Lord Chesterfield and me

Someone has stolen Neal's book

I don't have a lot in common with Lord Chesterfield, though I am an admirer of his Letters to his Son.

One thing I do share with Lord C. is his understanding that the best place to read is not the library, nor the sofa, but the lavatory. Much of my best work has been done there. After all, why waste time? Lord C. read all of Horace's work on the porcelain: I tend to take along whatever I have in hand (no pun intended). If I'm deep in the book, I don't want to break the spell.

The genesis is years of living in shared houses: it's the only place you can get any peace and quiet. If you're at your desk writing a PhD thesis, nobody thought twice about barging in to watch TV/moan about their current partner/borrow some pants. Locked in the magic, symbolic space of the bog however, and you're safe for a while. No inane conversation, no distractions. This guy thinks that reading on the toilet is an escape from the pressures of family life, or a Freudian desire to distract oneself from the shame of having bodily functions at all, but I'm not sure I trust a man who a) created a 'destination bathroom' and b) placed books in there to suit the decor (although books 'do furnish a room', as Anthony Powell titled one of his many novels).

Could anything be more smug than this?
 The bathroom of two publishing insiders who wish to remain anonymous could be called “Shrine It Up,” since all 46 of its books were written by people the couple know 
I once kept all my Calvin and Hobbes books in there, until we realised that queues were forming, especially when he held parties. Nobody could leave it at one page - they'd read the whole volume. Most antisocial. Not that I'm innocent - I once attended a friend's party to discover that she kept a stack of feminist SF by the throne: hours of entertainment. And, apparently, very good for the books: I once read a piece claiming that the glues used to hold cheap paperbacks together need moisture to prevent the books falling apart.

However, reading in the loo has a proud heritage, as this article reveals: Henry Miller, amongst others. He read Ulysses there, which - if you know the novel - seems entirely appropriate, containing as it does the first known novelistic defecation. Of course, before the advent of toilet paper (one of the most environmentally destructive products of our age), reading material had a further purpose… one to which the Daily Mail is uniquely suited, as it comes pre-smeared in excrement. I put that bit in deliberately because I read recently that the Daily Mail and General Trust employs a web consultant whose job is to present the editor with a digest of what people say about his paper. I assume that this is the worst job in the world, similar to being the bloke who told Hitler (whom the Mail supported) that the war was lost.

So, the Friday conundrum: what's the perfect bogtime reading? (Nothing shit…) I propose a new measure by which books should be judged: the Bog Standard. If it's no good, it gets flushed. If it detains you longer than bodily functions strictly require, it's a winner.

Soundtrack to my life

There's a new Half Man Half Biscuit album out. Cue rejoicing by the massed ranks of sarcastic balding men of a certain age, too old to mosh, too young to admit that they own a wide range of sensible walking gear.

This one is 'Descent of the Stiperstones': a beautiful range of hills (highest in Shropshire, fact fans) I've walked many times. It leads, as do so many Half Man Half Biscuit tracks, into an wry, well-observed disquisition on the absurdity of modern life.

If you need visuals, here are some old pictures I took on a very wintery walk up the Stiperstones, involving lunching on top of a dead sheep. Again.

Calvin and Hobbes explain the crisis of modern capitalism

I've loved Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes ever since I first saw them. Who couldn't love the twin-barrelled satire and sentiment personified by a kid and his cynical tiger, both astonished by the stupidity of modern life? I even spent some of my Philosophy prize at university on some C+H books, pointing to the characters' names and attitudes in my defence.

My friend Adam just reminded me of this strip, in which the roots of our present predicament are presciently exposed. Click on it to enlarge or follow the link.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Of all the bars in all the world…

A little genre fiction, dedicated to my colleagues.

As soon as she pushed open the swing doors and drew breath, she knew it was the wrong kind of place. The smell tipped her off. This wasn't the usual stench of seedy bars on the wrong side of town. Sure, she was on the wrong side of town, but stale beer, blood and sweat were kind of welcome. No, the top note in this dive was something else, something familiarly depressing. It communicated desperation, failure and cynicism.

Looking around, she saw the telltale signs: shabby, mismatched clothes in natural fibres, patched at the stereotypical places and pierced with badges testifying to youthful optimism and fervour: here a Cuba Solidarity pin, there a 'humorous' Derrida badge. Expressions were hunted, eyes peering suspiciously at her through thick glasses as they smelled both youth and affinity. Possessions hurriedly rammed into plastic bags or scuffed leather. Glasses were clutched with a preciousness that conveyed the central place of weak ale in their sad, shadowed lives. Shreds of tobacco littered the rough tables as the denizens rolled up with the skill and dedication of Cuban peons.

She knew that taking one more step meant becoming one of them. Meeting their eyes meant melding minds. And yet… resistance was futile. Fate, and her intellectual rapacity had brought her to this place. She took her place amongst them, ordering a cheap wine and rolling a thin cigarette before diving into a circle listening intently to the familiar tale of administrative woe, malfeasance by their shifting population of charges, and the ceaseless hunt for the Lost Text: a tale shared compulsively whenever these denizens of the underworld met over alcohol.

That fragrance, the one that had haunted her for so many years, was dry wipe marker and these lost souls were… academics.

Support Your Local Communist

Meanwhile, over in Greece, we have the fascinating sight of the Parliament building being protected from anarchist rioters by… the Greek Communist Party (KKE). In a scenario worthy of Ken McLeod's Scottish Trotskyist science fiction, the tired old arguments usually held in tiny meeting halls and smelly pubs are being fought out on the street.

The basic argument is between the KKE's call for a massive, peaceful demonstration of working-class resistance, and the anarchists' attempt to smash the state on the spot. Most communists believe in government as the peoples' tool (though some assume that the state will 'wither away' as industry-blocs learn to cooperate): anarchists believe that states are automatically oppressive, and that humanity is naturally inclined to altruism and cooperation. Isn't that sweet? Unfortunately, the anarchists seem to reach for this paradise through smashing the place up, which their 19th-century leaders always admitted was a weak point in the plan.

Which leads us to one supposedly revolutionary group - one which fought heroically first against the Nazis and then against the British/US-supported regime - defending the institutions of a morally, politically and financially bankrupt state against those who should be their allies but can't help making all revolutionaries look like spoiled children. Still, at least it's clear that the capitalists don't even get a look-in: their ideology is utterly discredited.

We got democracy from the Greeks - let's hope we learn the next phase from them too.

(Post title echoes that magnificent Western, Support Your Local Gunfighter).

Free Justin Bieber!

OK, you might not throng the streets in a mass protest calling for Justin Bieber's release. For me, his crimes against music call for eternity in an oubliette. But he's a great example of the iniquity of copyright law.

Amongst the many asinine and cynical applications of copyright (extending profiteering many lifetimes to benefit corporations rather than authors and artists; retarding the spread of academic ideas and wider culture…), the US is debating a plan to outlaw the performance of copyrighted work on electronic media. As the vast majority of electronic media are legally resident in the US, we'll all be caught.

So: no Justin Bieber, who caught the eye of music industry lizards by posting video of himself singing along to R'n'B tracks. No drunk phone video of you singing 'Happy Birthday' to your friend in the pub. No posting wedding reception footage of drunks bawling 'Too-Rye-Ay' en masse. The sentence is 5 years. Other offences include using copyrighted material in the background, or even accidentally including music, ring tones and jingles when you post footage taken in public.

Here are some criminals who will soon be in the cooler:

Most pleasingly, this poster calls himself 'PunkforChrist': we'll see how he, Josh, Danny, Ben, Bridget and Joe enjoy being Punks for Killer and his friends in Sing Sing.

There are no videos of me singing, and there never will be. I was in my school choir: three successful years of miming without ever being caught! It got me out of a lot of very boring classes and very painful rugby games, at the minor cost of faking both religious fervour and musical talent: the Catholic Milli Vanilli! The perfect crime!

More seriously: copyright laws are utterly outdated. I want artists to make a living from their music. Nobody would disagree with that. But major corporations are using copyright to squeeze out innovation. Your kids singing along to Lady Gaga using a hairbrush as a microphone won't snatch the food out of her mouth. It's a fundamental misunderstanding of our relationship to art: we don't steal it, we use it, alter it, admire it.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

If you allow one hippy track into your house, it should be this one

I've loved this song, by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, since I heard Picture Center's cover of it. How did I get to Picture Center? Well, they're a Field Mice, Northern Picture Library and Trembling Blue Stars spin-off. Who are the Field Mice…? Agh. Sarah Records. St. Etienne's first single was a Field Mice cover.

And if you're in the mood for the bleakest melancholy, some Trembling Blue Stars.

Welcome back, the Passive Tense

Liam Fox, disgraced former Defence Secretary made a statement in the House of Commons today. It was an extraordinary performance, notable mostly for its gushing sentimentality, cynicism, and a bitter attack on the press for holding the powerful to account (which was the subject of today's The Only Way Is Ethics class).

But amidst the bluster was a perfect example of what I like to call the Politicians' Passive:
The ministerial code had been found to be breached and for this I am sorry. I accept that it is not only the substance but perception that matters and that is why I chose to resign. I accept the consequences for me without bitterness or rancour.
It's a masterpiece: not 'I've done something wrong' but 'the code had been found to be breached': that's four verbs in eight words! He's not sorry for what he's done, he's sorry for this mysterious finding that the code had been breached (by whom?). The implication, of course, is that he did nothing wrong. That impression is reinforced by 'not only the substance but the perception that matters': he resigned, he says, because people 'perceived' that he'd sinned, not because he actually had.

So to sum up: giving privileged access to special interest groups (a gruesome crew of arms dealers and pro-Israel lobbyists) without oversight isn't wrong. But being caught is.

Educational Ambrosia

My friend Benjamin is doing Manchester University's famed MA in Creative Writing - led by Colm Tóibín and staffed by a range of top quality authors who are too good to make a living by selling books.

This was yesterday's class:
…how music can affect our writing. Tóibín brought in the head of music with a stack of different recordings of Bach's Cello Suites (which, incidentally, you're right about and I was wrong about) to explain the variations between them. Oh, and a PhD student, with a baroque cello, to play some of them live. Heaven. 
I am utterly jealous. How I wish all students could have this kind of experience. How diminishingly likely it is that - underfunded and understaffed and unresourced as we are - that our students will get chances like this.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

They are the Resurrection

OK, so the Stone Roses have reformed, despite the vicious, vehement ways in which they phrased their previous refusals to do so. I've already posted my objections to this kind of cabaret act, but there's another good reason for the Roses not to do so: have you ever heard Ian Brown sing live?

Here's what they sound like on record:

And here's what they sounded like live: you'll want to rip off your ears. This is why Alexis Petridis said this of Ian Brown's voice:
The line that Ian Brown cannot sing has been repeated so often that it feels very tired, but the degree to which he cannot sing still has the capacity to shake you awake. Here, his voice is a muffled, gloomy honk, like a despondent goose wearing a balaclava.

Which is why we should be left with the memories and the albums.

Cruelty to trees must stop. Full stop

I've pulled down yet another forest: today's mail includes 2 copies of Fflur Dafydd's The White Trail, the latest retelling of a Mabinogion story, this one being the classic 'How Culhwch Won Olwen'. I must be a complete moron to accidentally order two copies. Also: Chuck Palahniuk's new one, Damned, whose heroine is a teenager raising hell in, well, hell. Terry Pratchett's new one, Snuff is here, as is Emma Donoghue's Victorian pastiche The Sealed Letter and 500 Essential Graphic Novels so I can pretend to be well-informed on the bus (where I recently heard tell of the Marvel Zombies…).

On the positive side of the balance sheet, I've just received the issue of The Sword, and they've used quite a lot of my photos of the European Fencing Championships and the UK School Games, right next to the professional photographers'  shots, which is giving me a warm glow.

Don't forget the songs that made you cry/and the songs that saved your life?

Nostalgia… it ain't what it used to be. So why am I quoting a Smiths track ('Rubber Ring')? Well, it seems to be my generation's turn to revive their youths. Twitter is alive today with rumours of a Stone Roses reunion, while the release of remastered Smiths box sets has produced a wave of sentiment.

It's a bit cheeky of me to say so, having bought the Smiths CD set (I've got everything on vinyl already) despite them splitting up when I was 12, but I'd advise against returning to your salad days, because they weren't. This is especially true of the Smiths, the lyrical, elegiac sound ('I will not go, back to the old house', as Morrissey sings on 'Back to the Old House') of alienation and exclusion. (And let's not forget their attack on releases and promotion: 'Paint a Vulgar Picture').

Reunions are especially to be avoided. Jaded, faded money hounds temporarily burying the hatchet to make enough for a third house by recycling lyrics that now mean nothing to them. Part of the joy of pop music is the blink-and-you'll-miss-it quality. Bands have their moments, if they're lucky. A select few split up, broke and hungry, only to be rediscovered by later generations (Slowdive, Slint, hopefully Gorky's, West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band). The last thing we want is for our idols to reform: that's when we realise that they're only human, fat mortgage-payers with thinning hair.

Harken to me, nostalgics. I've been to two horrific gigs in recent years. The first was two people from Dodgy, purveyors of a few pleasant summery singles in the mid-90s. Stripped of youthful enthusiasm, I was confronted by a posh bloke bellowing over the groaning of the synthesiser which - to him - qualified him as a member of the junglist massive. The second was Spiritualized, doing an acoustic gig. Never have the Emperor's New Clothes been so obvious. Without the usual hypnotically massive brass section drowning him out, Jason Pierce's lyrics were exposed as a tedious repetition of 'my girlfriend's left me, there's no god and I've run out of smack'. This was lost on the audience, however. They weren't interested in musical talent: they wanted a note-perfect reproduction of their collective lost youth, and woe betide anyone whose clothes rustled or breathing disturbed the act of worship. Actually, there's another gig I could cite: The Wedding Present. It was both perfect and utterly depressing at the same time. Perfect, in that all my favourite tracks were played beautifully. Depressing, in that only all my favourite 15 year old tracks were played with mechanical precision. Not a single new song, not a twitch of improvisation. There's a band which understands the deadening reactionary nature of its audience, and has decided to take the money and run.

This is the point: we're treating these bands as time machines on an impossible journey. We're expecting them to be preserved in aspic at a time of our choosing. How disheartening must it be for the presiding musical genius to realise that all the mob wants is her radio-friendly hits, rather than what she thinks is the product of her late genius. We're not treating these musicians as autonomous, living breathing people with ongoing lives of their own: we're treating them as meat-iPods, as though they should churn out the hits whenever it's convenient for us.

That's why I like my bands to split and stay split. Alternatively, there's the Scott Walker route: use the cash from his early boy-band hits to churn out an album of gut-wrenchingly unlistenable avant-jazz terror every five years.  Of course I'd like to see all those bands who split before I got a chance see them first time round: Stereolab, the Boo Radleys, Slowdive, and many many more. I could get tickets for Pavement and Pixies right now, but I won't, because watching them flog their dead horses as though they were the same people in the same context is a sterile, masturbatory pursuit. It'll make you deaf. Go and find a new band.

The most disgusting pervert on the internet

I just got a notification from Flickr about another user 'favoriting' (I know, it's not a verb, and it's missing a 'u') a picture I took. Oh goody. Perhaps one of my beautiful landscapes? Or one of my fencing action shots?

Er, no.

This is Jeremy Hunt, a man so unpleasant that even a Radio 4 presenter made the obvious slip, live on air. He's a Conservative Party minister. I took his photo - in the dark, at a distance, hence the poor quality - at the UK School Games. Oddly enough, his boring speech didn't mention his government's abolition of the event.

Delving into the users' profile, it seems that he or she seems to have some deeply perverse obsession with rightwing British politicians. Haza610: unless you moderate your desires (perhaps bestiality is a step up the moral ladder for you), you're blocked.

This morning's email haul hasn't been all bad: I've won $5,000,000,00 dollars (is that a trillion?) without even trying, thanks to Mr Collins Moore, and a young lady from the Cote d'Ivoire, Lilian Yao, wants to give me 10% of her £3,500,000 fortune if I just let it 'rest in my bank account', like Father Ted. See you, losers!

Monday, 17 October 2011

Loathe Story

I've just given a lecture and run a seminar on genre, for media students. I quite enjoyed explaining why Jimmy McNulty doesn't bake and Miss Marple would never describe a suspect as a 'motherfucker', and why viewers would be made deeply uncomfortable were they to do so.

We got on to the structural and generic conventions which separate and unite American and British sit-coms. They picked up without prompting the more frequent comedy of shame, sarcasm and embarrassment in UK humour, as opposed to the general (obviously there are exceptions) niceness and zing-based American version.

So in their honour, here's a bit of Steptoe and Son, the comedy based entirely on Oedipal loathing, bitterness and isolation. It's a work of genius, though its attitudes are depressingly unprogressive in many ways. In this episode, Harold tries to kill his father with a cleaver. Somehow I can't see mainstream US comedy making anything similar.

Uncle Eric's Big Society Pickle

Talk of the government's plan to reduce the nation's calorie intake by 5bn per day (while putting junk food manufacturers in charge of health policy) reminded me of Eric Pickles, the Sontaran on secondment to the Tory government, a man who could cut down those 5bn calories simply by skipping lunch.

Eric Pickles

Sontaran interloper

Which reminded me of my birthday present from Neil:  a fine jar of Eric's Big Society Pickle (with added orphan's tears). Delicious.

These people are dead inside

I popped home to see my family yesterday. I was all ready to sympathise with them on the death of our cat, Sherpa, which has died at 23 years old.

Until I noticed this on the fridge (the Pope John Paul II fridge magnet is an added bonus).

That's right. My family and their friends were running a sweepstake predicting the cat's death. Given that my mother won, is a doctor and was the only person in the house when it happened,  I'm calling shenanigans.

The Death of the Author. Live.

The Death of the Author is a 1967 essay by Roland Barthes which posits that the author's intentions and context shouldn't be taken into account when reading a text: meaning is repeatedly created in the space between the words on the page (expressed in a language which predates and survives the author) and the reader's interpretation(s) rather than fixed. An author might try to constrain interpretation, but it's hard to do: the reader might be 200 years later, in a completely different context. Not that authors don't try: read Susan Suleiman's excellent Authoritarian Fictions for some examples.

However, the Death of the Author means something slightly different today. I've just ordered Terry Pratchett's new novel, Snuff. The title alone is redolent of death - snuffed out, snuff movies - and the work is a fantasy take on the murder-in-the-library country house crime genre. As a fan and admirer of Pratchett's increasingly leftwing satire, I'm sure it will be a winner.

But - I'm increasingly aware of a personal and public interest in Pratchett that impinges directly on the Death of the Author. Pratchett announced some time ago that he's contracted Alzheimer's disease. He's made documentaries about its progress, spoken movingly about the need for euthanasia, and donated large amounts of money to research. What concerns me is that there's a morbid interest in the books that isn't literary. I'm starting to feel that we aren't reading the books, we're reading the author, searching the text for indication of Pratchett's mental decline - perhaps a narrowed vocabulary, maybe a looser plot. It's like rubber-necking a car crash.

The problem is that I can't ignore it. If I didn't know about Pratchett's condition, I'd read the book and judge it by comparison with his previous work, with other authors, with my own mental conception of a successful novel. Now, I'm forced to read the novel in the prism of Alzheimer's, and I resent that. I'm not a purist Death of the Author critic: I'm interested in the context of a work's generation, but I'm finding it hard not to read Pratchett through the novel, as though it's an index of its author rather than a discrete work of art, which I'm sure he'd hate too.

We can hardly blame the media for milking all the pathos it can out of the situation - one could hardly expect vampires to swear off a drop of the red stuff - but I don't like it one little bit. When's the decline coming? How much editing is needed before publication? Will the publishers wring him dry or do the decent thing when the time comes? The clock's ticking. It's Celebrity Literary Deathwatch - and we're all hooked. Ugh.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Liam Fox RIP

In tribute to the Minister, who laid down his friends for his job only for it to backfire, and his bungling sidekick Adam Werritty, here's AC/DC's 'Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap'.

Pick up the phone, I'm always home/huh, huh, huh, huh, huh
Call me anytime/huh, huh, huh
Just ring: three-six-two-four-three-six, hey
I lead a life of crime

Dirty deeds done dirt cheap
Dirty deeds done dirt cheap
Dirty deeds done dirt cheap
Dirty deeds and they're done dirt cheap
Dirty deeds and they're done dirt cheap

You got problems in your life of love/huh, huh, huh, huh
You got a broken heart/huh, huh, huh
He's double-dealin' with your best friend/huh, huh, huh, huh, huh
That's when the teardrops start FELLA, well-uh/huh, huh, huh
Pick up the phone, I'm here alone/huh, huh, huh, huh, huh
Or make a social call/huh, huh, huh, huh
Come right in, forget about him
We'll have ourselves a ball, eh

It's time you made a stand/huh, huh, huh, huh
For a fee, I'm happy to be
Your back door man, hey

Concrete shoes
Done dirt cheap
Ooo, neckties
High voltage
Done dirt cheap, eah

Dirty deeds, do anything you want me to, done dirt cheap
Dirty deeds, dirty deeds, dirty deeds, done dirt cheap