Friday, 30 March 2012

Gorgeous George

A lot of people are celebrating today, because George Galloway was re-elected to Parliament, trouncing Labour (who previously held the seat) and the Tories. Look, they say, it shows that there's an electorate who'll vote for a proper socialist way to the left of Labour.

They're talking utter shit.

I'm a hardline socialist way to the left of Labour. I'm also - thanks to a lifetime of bad choices - an expert on socialist political and cultural history. I know a charlatan when I see one. George Galloway is not a socialist. He's a man steeped in the history and rhetorical devices of socialism. He can preach with the best of them. But he's not a socialist. He's an opportunist who has been elected yet again through the simple method of playing identity politics. His totally legitimate - and often magnificent - opposition to the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has meshed with his propensity to cuddle up to every dictator who opposed the west - despite most of these dictators previously being western puppets. He's manufactured a victory by telling Muslim voters that their religious identity and ethnic origin is the most important thing about them. This isn't progressive: it's racism. He has nothing to say about them as citizens, as proletarians, as Bradfordians.

In George's world, the Tiananmen Massacre never happened.

Here's his embarrassing speech to Saddam Hussein:

I share many of George's opinions. I understand the socialist world which spawned him. But his political strategy is one of divisiveness and conspiracism. He understands that alienated young people - particular those from ethnic minorities who are disproportionately unemployed and harassed by the police and the media - are ready to grasp simplistic solutions and interpretations of their predicaments. He doesn't encourage them to forge alliances: he fosters sectarianism and encourages a siege-politics in which groups are formed for the purposes of capturing the state for private interests. There's no vision here, simply plunder.

Galloway's Respect party was founded as a vehicle for himself alone, in tandem with the Socialist Workers Party (not socialists, not workers), a groupuscule which never stands for election itself, preferring to influence politics behind the scenes: their argument is that parliamentary democracy is a sham, but their own methods are devious and unaccountable.

Galloway is a demagogue: his love of the tanning salon and unspeakable dictators is reminiscent of Tony Blair. They share a conviction that ideology and boring politics is for the little people - Galloway voted in 7% of the divisions last time he was in parliament. While he's making grandiose speeches about Afghanistan or Palestine, who'll be chasing the CSA or the Benefits Agency for his constituents? Because that's what most MPs spend their time working on.

Demagoguery is not socialism. Stalinism was a cult of personality. So was the Workers' Revolutionary Party, led by Gerry Healy, who turned out to be a rapist who used violence to control his tiny sect. So was New Labour ('trust me, guys' is not a political platform). Galloway's part of a tradition which requires total obedience rather than critical support. When Healy was exposed as a rapist, his followers denied, then excused it. When Respect fell apart the first time, the factions splintered in true Monty Python style. Respect is a vehicle, not a party, and its sole purpose is to allow George Galloway and his clique to harness the most reactionary instincts of the oppressed for the purpose of sustaining Galloway's symbolic presence.

There's a view amongst macho politicians on the left - of whom Galloway is an example - that only big groups matter. With George, it's Islamic communities whom he sees as a natural constituency. Labour took their votes for granted, which led to corruption and injustice, as well as fragmented communities. The war ended that, and shifty Tories and splitters moved in.  I use 'Islamic' very deliberately. In the old days, immigrant communities were treated by proper socialists as fellow-workers whose essential interests were the same as other workers: fair treatment at work, equality, good housing, education, health and welfare. Religious identity wasn't a concern: many immigrants, like many natives, had some belief but weren't necessarily observant. Others were, but it was a private activity. Religion wasn't the defining characteristic of immigrant groups, just as it isn't of white native ones. But gradually, that changed, and it brought about a darker vision of the public sphere.

When identity politics and war became enmeshed, some very dubious decisions were made. Well-meaning politicians, concerned by the plight of immigrant and minority communities, handed representational power to religious leaders and business groups which fostered an identity rooted in religious practice. Pretty soon, everyone believed that 'Muslim' = strictly observant, then 'fundamentalist'. The idea that Muslims could be religious slackers who shared our interests in social justice, or the minimum wage or nuclear disarmament, disappeared. We treated Muslims as religious zealots and many young Muslims embraced it as the only stable identity available. Dubious 'community leaders' encouraged this - leading to the burning of The Islamic Verses, to segregation and to people like George Galloway and David Cameron fuelling mutual suspicion and reductive concepts of identity.

It's like assuming that Ian Paisley's fascist apocalyptic cult and a Catholic priest's child-abusing habits define Christianity in Northern Ireland, and then treating them as legitimate representatives of those communities. (Which is what's happened).

What's lost is the continuum of Islam (and other religions) as a practice, from Wahhabi to Sufism, from essential to cultural, from observant to casual. Galloway's identification with Islam has led him to encourage and applaud some disgusting bigots. Misogynists, homophobes, anti-semites (for the record: Israel is a vicious state guilty of multiple war crimes - but not because it's a Jewish state): they all appear next to Galloway as 'true' representatives of an oppressed faith. Eventually, these things become self-fulfilling prophecies, and we're left living in ghettos of mutual hatred. But George will be on Question Time, and that's what matters.

True socialists know that socialism isn't' embodied in one person. My political hero, Lewis Jones, refused to join a standing ovation for Stalin - in Moscow at the height of the Purges - because he didn't believe in the Great Man theory of politics. Harry Pollitt and Dennis Skinner are socialists: they're boring, hard-working people who believe that the force of their arguments will prevail, not the deployment of fake tan and fine phrases.

This country needs a socialist party - yesterday's Question Time, in which a Labour shadow cabinet minister joined the anti-union lynch-mob without even considering whether the tanker-drivers' strike (over health and safety) might be justified. George Galloway is not the future of socialism. He speaks well, he's sometimes right, and it's fun hearing him humiliate Tories and pathetic New Labour stooges, but George isn't The Great Liberator: he's a fame addict.

Are Tories genetically corrupt?

Despite hating Europe so much, the Tories seem to have a lot in common with their continental cousins. Particularly a propensity for corruption.

Over here we've had:
Jeffrey Archer
Jonathan Aitken
Neil Hamilton
Cash For Questions
Cash For Access
Lord Ashcroft
The Zinoviev Letter
Winston Churchill's oil bribes
Reginald Maudling
Andrew Mitchell
Shirley Porter's gerrymandering
Derek Conway
Liam Fox and Adam Werritty

And of course there's the whole bankrupting-the-taxpayer-and-cutting-public-services-to-bail-out-the-banksgate.

So it looks like British Tories and right-wingers in general (look at UKIP's record: a conveyor belt from the European Parliament to prison) are pretty keen bribe-hoovers. But let's spread the net wider, and ask this question: Does Toryism Lead Inevitably To Corruption?

The Mahon Tribunal revealed that the entire state had been suborned by bribery and corruption through the method of bribing and buying Fianna Fail politicians. The previous Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern was judged to have taken bribes and lied to the enquiry. The party has been in government for most of the Republic's existence and essentially sold itself to business. They too managed to bankrupt the country.

Former president Chirac funded his party through a network of fake public sector jobs for party activists.
Righwing politicians jailed for arms-smuggling, while they accuse each other of secret bank accounts.
Sarkozy's been taking suitcases of (tax-evading) cash from France's richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, the L'Oréal heiress.

The Christian Democrat (i.e. Tory) German President has just had to resign due to a corruption scandal.

The Austrian Tories (ÖVP) are in massive disarray as it turns out they're riddled with corruption, enriching themselves and their friends through bribery related to government contracts.

Their Tories have been taking massive bribes for contract and privatisation deals. The same goes for Croatia's HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union), while over in the Czech Republic, a businessman nicknamed Voldemort ran his own shadow government by buying up the Czech Tories, the Civic Democrats.

What makes Tories so open to sleaze? It's in their DNA. They believe in individual capitalism and enterprise. Sharp practice is simply individual entrepreneurialism. They also believe that financial success is a mark of spiritual and intellectual strength, so anyone with massive amounts of cash is automatically admirable. They believe that what's good for business is good for everyone, and they see government as a drag on achievement which should be subverted or captured for their own interests (hence Mitchell's tax scam and the al-Yamamah deal). Little wonder then that they're so susceptible to the charms of rich men filling their ears with seductive words and their pockets with cash. They're incapable of discrimination. When the world means little more to them than the circulation of cash, they'd be fools not to dip their hands in the river of corruption: it's ideologically natural.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an author in want of a plot, turns to Austen.

I am, for the first time I can remember (and I've been reading for 32 of my 36 years), considering not completing a book. Normally I'm bloody-minded enough to battle my way through a bad book on the grounds that I've spent good money on it. Also, many bad books are culturally significant in some way (I'm thinking of Hornby and Parsons here).

I must confess, however, that P. D. James's Death Comes To Pemberley is on the verge of defeating me. It is quite the worst book I have read since How Green Was My Valley, about which I wrote my PhD thesis (and a forthcoming best-selling exposé, or 'journal article' as we call them in the trade), as a form of catharsis.

I'm a bit of a Jane Austen obsessive. Her interests are not my interests, her world and beliefs are not my beliefs, but the sheer quality of the writing renders that irrelevant. I'm also interested in what subsequent cultures have done with Austen's work - often made it more dull, sometimes highlighted the troubling or radical impulses which are detected, and at the moment, turned to satirical responses. Clueless is one of my favourite films: a whip-smart adaptation of Emma. I own multiple copies of the novels because I'm interested in the different ways cover design and blurbs are used to reposition Austen, such as for the 'chick-lit' market. I also own Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Dawn of the Dreadfuls, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Pride and Promiscuity: the Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts.

All of these are superior to P. D. James's Death Comes To Pemberley, an attempt at a country-house murder sequel to Pride and Prejudice. Why James thought that an Austen murder-mystery was required is in itself a mystery: Jane wrote one of those herself, called Northanger Abbey, in which she expressed very clearly and hilariously her distaste for cheap thrills and sensationalism.

The most obvious fault is the author's determination to shoehorn in her own very reactionary politics. James is - in addition to being a best-selling crime author (I recommend Children of Men), a Conservative peer in the House of Lords. In this novel, she repeatedly goes out of her way to demonstrate that servants love their employers and depend on them for support and sustenance. They're grateful, obedient, unobtrusive, grovelling and wholly without character. They are - in the dread phrase of the nanny-employing classes - 'part of the family', albeit a part of the family that doesn't get to speak or go above stairs.

There's also a very weird passage in which two magistrates (one's kind, one's strict but they both have the interests of justice at heart - like a bad ITV drama) discuss the legal system. James spends several paragraphs explaining why courts of appeal are a bad idea. Despite the whole depressing history of British justice going wrong (for example: the Birmingham Six), James seems to think nobody has ever been wrongly convicted and therefore appeal courts and judges in general should be abolished in favour of a single jury trial before the prison doors clang shut. Why this should be in the novel at all is beyond me: it's far worse than the socialist propaganda novels so roundly mocked by the literary elite.

James also appears to have a cloth ear for dialogue and language. Characters are 'depressed', which strikes me as a very twentieth-century use: the term existed in Austen's day, but not quite in the same sense. Characters repeatedly refer to familiar people by their full titles, such as Sir Selwyn Hardcastle (he's one of the magistrates, and in case you're so dumb that you don't notice, the narrator steps in to make the point that his name suits his 'firm but fair' crusty administration of justice). I don't know whether PD expects her own friends to address her as Baroness Phyllis Dorothy James of Holland Park at all times, but she should surely know that the knight would be referred to as 'Sir Selwyn' by most people. It all gives one the impression that the novel's been written by an American tourist.

However, the worst element of the novel is the constant fecking exposition. Incapable of a prose style other than breathless yet plodding romantic-realism - as though Austen was typing while wearing boxing gloves rather than delicately painting on 'this little bit (two inches wide) of ivory' - James sticks the most embarrassing passages of expositionary dialogue on every other page, interspersed with tedious, patronising narrative commentary which serves only to prove that a) she's no Jane Austen and b) she thinks her readers are thick as pigshit.

You can't turn a page without a character saying something like 'Remind me again where you met. It was in London at your lawyer's office was it not?' 'Why yes, it was, but I'll tell you all over again because there might be readers out there who don't know, and that would be totally bogus dude. I mean, Sir'. This stuff is all over the place. I recommend How To Write Bad Exposition to the Baroness, because her novel is every bit as bad as this example:
John: I've been so upset since Margaret died.
Jane: Margaret? Your wife?
I'm half way through. I'm firmly convinced that P. D. James neither reads nor understands good fiction. There's no structure, no confidence in the subtle power of words, and no sense that she's addressing an intelligent reader capable of inference. Ambiguity and complexity have no place in this novel. A literary and political travesty which displays contempt both for Austen and for us.

If you're going to write a pastiche of a famous, well-loved novel, you need more than presumption. You've got to have a perfect ear for language - James assumes that 19th-century dialogue is achieved simply by removing contractions and making hilarious comments such as 'this is the nineteenth-century, after all' and you've got to have a bit of respect. You might think that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Clueless and Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts would be cheap, cynical cash-ins and James's novel be a serious homage by someone with a real affinity with Austen's world. You'd be wrong. The parodies work beautifully because their authors understand language and dialogue, they know how to structure a work of art, and they actually love and respect Jane Austen. This gives them the confidence to take dreadful liberties with their heroine's work and succeed. They know what they're doing, so they can relax, be jolly, have a romp. By contrast, Death Comes To Pemberley is a smash-and-grab raid. James steals familiar characters and settings and shoehorns in a bad plot, clunking dialogue and inappropriate political homilies without any of the respect shown by the parodists for the same source material. She thinks this is her world - though the various anachronisms make it very clear that it isn't - and is too snobbish to have any fun. Jane Austen she ain't.

Less Death Comes to Pemberley, more Death Comes To Dialogue.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Total artistic failure?

There's an interesting piece in the Guardian today asking photographers for their worst or failed photographs.

Here's Jillian Edelstein's 'worst shot' (it's of Gregory Peck, which doesn't actually seem to matter):

Is this a failure? I think if I took it I'd die a happy man. Technically it's perfect: the lighting is stunning, the angle interesting. Artistically, it says so much about age and about portraiture. Peck's expression and eyes seem to be challenging the viewer: there's only him to look at and he's staring back at you with a smirk that mocks your interest.

Every single one of my photographs are worse than this 'worst shot'.

This is what corruption looks like

Imagine being a multimillionaire and a member of Parliament. How will you carry on making money?

How about investing in a property company? They buy a lease for £65 million. Then they sell it to another company they control, for £65,000 - with no justification for the new value. That way they don't pay any tax at all, rather than 4% stamp duty. Bingo: £2.8m saved, and you carry on collecting the rent from the building's occupants (Company 1 has of course 'lost' £64,935,000 and so won't be paying tax on any profits). And that's not all: the lease was then sold for £225m - a fat profit for our enterprising MP.

To me, that looks like an organised conspiracy to defraud the taxpayer. With nobody external having a say on what the lease is really worth, the owners can name their price and choose their tax burden, robbing us of money to build hospitals, schools and all the other things we need it for.

Who is this thieving bastard?

It's Andrew Mitchell. His job now is Secretary of State for International Development: helping countries whose weak state structures mean they can't, for example, collect the taxes required to fund state services. So while he robs from us, he's happy to collect a fat salary from our taxes for giving them to other countries. The less tax he and his companies pay, the more we have to.

Nice one Andy! What a fine example to set. The Inland Revenue described this as 'aggressive tax avoidance' - and the courts disagreed! To me it looks like a textbook example of the 'socially useless' economy described by the Bank of England's director a couple of years ago. Nobody's been employed, nothing's been made, no value has been added. Instead, financial trickery has impoverished us, and enriched a few greedy men who can afford amoral lawyers.

That's capitalism, folks!

A musical interlude

I've been in meetings all day - which has severely delayed my marking and book reviewing schedule, let alone tweeting and blogging duties. Not all bad though - thanks to the sterling work of my School's executive, I'm now a proper, permanent member of staff. Which is nice, and I've only been working here since 2000. Rumours that Personnel are to take over Forth Bridge-painting duties are unfounded.

The sun's shining, I'm going to go out on my new Moulton later, and I'm feeling more relaxed than I have in a very long time. So here's the soundtrack of the day.

First up, some Frankie Rose. She's been a member of various jangly hipster bands, and now she's made a delightful dream pop album, which I've been alternating this week with the Penderecki/Greenwood horrorfest.

But let's change the mood - to those gloomy japesters Faith No More, with 'Land of Sunshine':

Of course for some people, 'There's Little In The Way Of Sunshine', particularly Half Man Half Biscuit:

And finally, who could resist Leonard Nimoy's classic 'Sunny'? Certainly not Dan, who gave his copy of Nimoy's concrete poetry to a young lady. With astonishing results (i.e. she's still going out with him).

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Wednesday Conundrum: your top 3 books

This question is going out to lots of humanities colleagues in a few days. I'd value your opinion.

What 3 books should all humanities students be asked to read in the summer before they start at university? The idea is that the chosen texts should orient them in the humanities project - to produce intellectual curiosity, independent learning and critical judgement.

Rules: they can't be anything so specialised that only students of one particular discipline would ever manage to finish them.

My suggestions are going to change hourly, I suspect. It's like asking me for my favourite record.

Current thoughts:

Alan Moore, From Hell - because it covers the psychological, political and cultural obsessions of the late Victorian period in a compelling visual and literary narrative.
Ben Goldacre, Bad Science - because everybody needs to become a critical reader of public culture.
Henry Thoreau, Walden - because it's his account of retreating into the woods (though close enough for his mother to deliver food and clean laundry) simply to think about things. Everybody should have this chance, and university is the closest most of us will ever get. It's a text which entirely changed my philosophy.

Use the comments facility. Go mad!

Sing along with Richard Nixon

How sad that political campaigns don't have theme tunes now. I imagine that David Cameron's would be the Eton Boating Song, while Nick Clegg's would be 'So Ronery'…

Here's Richard Nixon's 1972 song. He resigned two years later after it emerged that despite the sunny optimism of the song, he was simultaneously authorising his minions to burgle the Democratic Party's headquarters and committing numerous other breaches of the Constitution.

Lessons from the past

Last time I visited the excellent People's History Museum in Manchester, I bought postcards of great campaign posters from history. These two seem particularly apt for the current government (click to enlarge)

Now, of course, pensioners have been hit again, while the minimum wage has been seriously cut for the young too. The noble lord, on the other hand, has received a massive tax break,

God knows New Labour were a vicious crew of rightwing plutocrats themselves, but let's not forget that the economy was in recovery on election day 2010. It didn't last long once the coalition got in. 

Another Uppal own goal

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about a Very Boring Issue. Paul Uppal MP seems to believe that the BBC and the UK Statistics Agency (headed by Sir Michael Scholar, whom Boris Johnson called 'a Labour stooge') are in some kind of conspiracy against the government.

Uppal's popped up in Parliament once more to push this theme - implying that the UKSA illegally put pressure on the Housing Minister to improve his statistics after the BBC did some digging.

To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office pursuant to the answer of 12 March 2012, Official Report, column 56W, on Homes and Communities Agency: statistics,
(1) if he will place in the Library a copy of the UK Statistics Authority guidance on communicating notifications under section 16 of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 and any guidance on the practice of pre-releasing notifications;
(2) on what date the Board of the UK Statistics Authority took the decision under section 16 of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 to write to the Minister of State for Housing and Local Government and to make a notification; and whether that decision was made at a formal meeting of the Board.

Poor man. The minister's reply not only stresses that the legal processes were followed, but he's forced to admit that the Housing Minister has failed to respond, a breach of his duties!

The information requested falls within the responsibility of the UK Statistics Authority. I have asked the authority to reply.
Letter from Sir Michael Scholar KCB, dated March 2012
As Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, I am replying to your questions asking (i) for a copy of the UK Statistics Authority guidance on communicating notifications under section 16 of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 and any guidance on the practice of pre-releasing notifications
and (ii) on what date the Board of the UK Statistics Authority took the decision under section 16 of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 to write to the Minister of State for Housing and Local Government and to make a notification; and if that decision was made at a formal meeting of the Board
Section 16 of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 sets out the requirements placed on the UK Statistics Authority (referred to as the 'Statistics Board' in the Act) in respect of the process for making notifications under that section. The Statistics Authority complies with these requirements in all cases, The Statistics Authority ensures that all notifications under this section are laid before Parliament as the Act requires. Once the notification has been laid, a copy is placed on the Authority's website. The Authority's notification to the Minister of State for Housing and Local Government in respect of statistics produced by the Homes and Communities Agency and the Tenant Services Authority was sent to the Minister on 6 December 2011, laid before the House on 7 December 2011, and published on the Authority's website on 8 December 2011.
As Chair of the UK Statistics Authority I took the decision, following discussions within the Authority, to make a notification to the Minister of State for Housing and Local Government under section 16 of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 in respect of statistics produced by the Homes and Communities Agency and the Tenant Services Authority. This was reported to the Authority Board at its meeting on 16 December 2011.
Under section 16 of the Act, the Minister, as the appropriate authority, is required to provide the Statistics Authority with a statement as to whether he intends to make a request for such an assessment. No reply has yet been received.

I'm sorry to waste your time with such tedious stuff, but it is instructive. It shows that Uppal has absolutely no interest in good governance or reliable statistics. Instead, politics to him is a war of attrition between his party and the rest of the world. Everyone's against him, whoever they are. He has no intellectual ability to understand that Scholar (who was a thorn in the side of the Labour government too) has a serious job to do, one that benefits the public. To Uppal, anyone who halts the juggernaut of total Tory domination is the enemy. It's genuinely worrying and pitiful that such small-minded, mean-spirited people get elected. Still, in this case, little Uppal's made to look foolish again.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

All sound and fury, signifying nothing

That's Shakespeare that is. Why am I quoting Shakespeare? Because Roger Gales, a twice-divorced Tory MP is claiming that if homosexuals are allowed to marry, Shakespeare and Milton will have to be changed to expunge all the references to 'husbands' and 'wives'. And then families and civilisation as we know it will fall apart.

“If we are to re-construct official and business documentation and to replace “Husband and Wife” with “spouses” and “partners” where will this stop? Will Shakespeare and Milton and The Holy Bible be re-written also? Will only “correctly” expurgated literature be allowed to be used in the classroom?”

Now as it happens, I'm teaching a course called Shakespeare, Milton and the English Renaissance. This means, I suspect, that most of the students have read more Shakespeare than Mr. Gale ever will. And therefore they all know that if you wanted a literary defence of heterosexual nuclear families, Shakespeare would not be the first port of call.

Problem families in Shakespeare:
1. The MacBeths. Though devoted to each other, Mrs MacBeth displays some mental health issues, while Mr. MacBeth has a worrying tendency to murder his friends and colleagues

2. Othello and Desdemona. Although they stayed together until death did them part, this was rather sooner than expected, the result of Mr Othello's propensity for domestic violence.

3. Katherina and Petruchio (The Taming of the Shrew): sparky intelligent woman submits (or does she) to marriage to boring old Petruchio once she's been 'tamed'.

4. Mr and Mrs Hamlet. Someone killed Hamlet Sr. It was his brother, Claudius. Never mind though - Hamlet's mother Gertrude marries him anyway. The kids are a little bit damaged by all this and both end up dead.

5. Widowed Lear is a bit of a tyrant, though pretty lazy with it. Demanding total obedience from his children, he exiles the nice one and lets the others murder and carouse their way round the country. It ends badly.

On the other hand, it's the cross-dressing, campy, sexually-liquid characters who usually have the most fun and carry the moral weight of lots of the plays. Take Rosalind in As You Like It: a duke's daughter, she disguises herself as Ganymede (a common nickname for a rent-boy) and parades round the forest dispensing sound advice, toying with the affections of men and women alike and generally discovering that there's more to life than obeying the stereotypical demands of fixed heterosexuality.

But Mr. Gale wouldn't know that, because Shakespeare's just a name to him, not a body of complex and challenging work. If he'd ever read any Shakespeare, he'd be leading the book-burning.

Which is why Gale's a twit.

The first half of 'all sound and fury, by the way, is '…a tale told by an idiot'.

Carry On Up The Sphincter, with Paul Uppal

You and I might think that a multimillionaire MP who will be receiving a minimum of £40,000 extra this year thanks to the top rate of tax falling to 45p might shut up in case his constituents noticed.

Hogarth, Election: Chairing the Member

But not Paul. The Tories have been in trouble recently. Apart from that tax gift, funded by taxing old age pensions more, it turns out that the Tories have been selling access to the prime minister, at a knockdown rate of £250,000.

David Cameron was too scared to turn up in Parliament to make a statement about this (or perhaps he was hosting another profitable lunch), and delegated the job to some junior minister, ably supported by lickspittles like Uppal who are either incapable of recognising corruption when they see it, or are simply so institutionalised that they only see evil in others.

When reading Uppal's lines (or rather Conservative Central Office's), I'm reminded firstly of Richard Nixon ('when the President does it, it's not illegal) and the famous Kenyan saying, enunciated by the new corrupt politicians who replaced the old corrupt politicians: 'now it is our turn to eat').

We have heard terms used such as “casual corruption” and “shocking”. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that the rot set in when Bernie Ecclestone was able to change policy by paying £1 million? Does he also agree that that is the only example of a policy change having been bought?

Though I guess that shamelessness is Uppal's only route to power. He's already betrayed his constituents and his ethnicity by becoming a Tory, which usually leads to at least a knighthood and possibly a seat in the Lords, but he has no chance of becoming a minister because he's too useless - even ministers' responses to his self-serving question betray a fatal sense of tedium. So the only way he can make a name for himself amongst all the other back-bench fodder is to be even more slavishly loyal.

But let's take Uppal seriously for a moment (I know, but try). Does he really think that corruption started when Blair took £1m from Ecclestone? God knows I'm not going to disagree on that one: Blair was a corrupt Tory who found himself leading the Labour party through a supreme act of ambition, and this episode was a disgrace - though the donation was returned, unlike the £23m given by the six people Cameron dined with one evening.

However, for Uppal to claim this is where it started simply exposes his utter lack of historical knowledge. Parliament has always attracted fantasists, lobbyists, schmoozers and conmen:  and the Tories have always welcomed them with open arms. So have the other parties (Lloyd George openly sold peerages in the 1910s), but to a far lesser extent. Simply cast your eye over the House of Lords: Jeffrey Archer, who served time for perjury. Lord Ashcroft, colonialist tax-avoider and shady businessman… both Tories Uppal aspires to join on the red benches. I'd love to see Uppal's tax returns too.

That's only recent history too. Let's not forget the stranglehold the brewing and arms industries held over the Conservative Party in the 19th Century. Or their opposition to the Great Reform Act, and the granting of MPs to massive cities like Manchester, which previously was entirely unrepresented in Parliament.

All this talk of Ecclestone's disgusting behaviour in 1997 is simply a childish diversion from the fact that the Conservative Party is so blinded by its patrician assumption that it has a divine right to rule that it has no moral compass at all. The whole debate is a revolting demonstration of the Tories' inability to distinguish between the national interest and their own self-interest.

As to Uppal's claim that no Tories have ever sold policy changes… Did Cameron ever dine with someone who didn't qualify for the upper tax band? Did they discuss it? I rather expect so. Why did Osborne sneak in a tax-break for non-domiciled tax avoiders this budget? The budget was drafted over Cameron's dining table to soak the poor and reward the rich. The only mystery is why rich people need to give the Tories anything: they already govern for the plutocracy instinctively.

Does Uppal really think that people pay £250,000 just to spend an hour in the company of David Cameron or Eric Pickles? He's a businessman and he understands the value of money. I find the whole issue of political funding disgusting. It's not just cash either. All the big accounting firms - who make their money inventing new ways for companies to avoid paying taxes -  lend staff to both major parties, for example. How is any party going to develop new ways of thinking if they're dependent on the advice of corrupt and self-serving advisers?

None of the political parties believe in pure democracy any more. They can't afford to. Instead politics is about appeasing the bond markets and newspaper owners, and having a bigger ad budget. Trapped in a discourse which makes them hostages to billionaires, corporate interests and media barons, they dance on the head of the same microscopic pin, for fear of being accused of 'extremism' by the Daily Mail or Standard and Poor.

Anyway, moving on to Uppal's next bit of colon-cuddling: repeating the same tired old attack lines fed to him by the Whips:
The Budget and the coalition Government will ultimately be judged on how well we recover from the economic mess left to us by the last Labour Government, many of whose Ministers occupy senior positions in the shadow Cabinet. 
the Budget continues the work that the Government have done in their first two years and shows that we are building the long-term foundations that the economy needs.
That 'their' makes it painfully clear Uppal knows he's on the outside looking in. But 'long-term foundations'? Deficit up. Borrowing up. Unemployment up. Taxes up for median income owners and pensioners. Emissions up. The only things that are 'down' are: disabled children's benefits, bank lending and rich people's taxes.

But Uppal has a secret: he's a big gainer from this budget, as multimillionaire property speculator.
By reducing the complexity of our tax code and the rates at which businesses are taxed, we are signalling that we are again in a position to build on what Britain does best: creating innovative products that are attractive to consumers on the world stage.
What the hell has he ever contributed to the economy? His business doesn't add a single job, build anything or make anything. Pinehurst Securities simply gambles on the property market. It's probably a bit depressed at the moment - so of course Uppal's grateful for the free handout from the government, which will go straight into the profits column without doing a damn thing for the economy.

You may recognise the 'reducing the complexity of our tax code' bit. George Osborne didn't say in his Budget Speech that he was taxing pensions more highly. He said he was 'simplifying' the system. So we all now know what that means.
We have demonstrated that we are not only rebalancing the economy from public sector growth to private sector growth
Er… what this actually means is 'we've sacked hundreds of thousands of civil servants, and the private sector has employed some of them' (but nowhere near all, so in fact unemployment is going up).

Finally, and most revoltingly:
Many people have said in the Chamber that there are winners and losers from the Budget. They are right. The winners are common sense, long-termism and opportunity. The losers are those who try to make political capital and who always take the short-term view. 
Who are the winners? Paul Uppal MP and his multimillionaire friends. Who are the losers? The poor, the young, the old, the sick. You know, all those whiners who 'try to make political capital' and who 'take the short-term view'. Like when they wonder how they're going to pay for dinner, or the kids' clothes, or for childcare that week. Losers.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Today, I have mostly been listening to…

… the new recording of Krzysztof Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and Polymorphia, which comes with Jonny Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver and 48 Responses to Polymorphia.

OK, it's a bit mean listening to a piece of music in the office which tries to reproduce the Hiroshima nuclear bombing using an orchestra - it's utterly brutal - but it does have a kind of tortured beauty too. What interested me about this CD was the Jonny Greenwood stuff. I've got other recordings of Threnody and am a fan, though I think the elegant later Penderecki, when he discovered religion, is actually rather dull. I'm no Radiohead fan (there, I said it), but Greenwood's been getting some serious props from his homeboys on Radio 3. Any good? Actually, yes. There's still a little fanboy element in his recreation of Penderecki's sound, but he's clearly a very gifted musician with a serious grasp of postmodernism. Popcorn is very indebted to Penderecki, but it's a piece by someone who really understands the liberatory potential of orchestral noise.

The really impressive piece is 48 Responses to Polymorphia. Penderecki's original is stunning piece for string orchestra, using odd techniques and incorporating encephelographs in its structure. In the finale, the composer follows several minutes of utter noise with a C major chord - the one used for beauty in classical music. I don't know if this is Penderecki announcing his return to tonality (a reactionary step) or if he's making some other point (perhaps mocking the pre-modernists for their presumption in asserting the possibility of harmony in a world of concentration camps and nuclear war), but it's a dramatic moment.

Greenwood takes this final chord and uses it as the starting point of his 48 tiny pieces, all variations on a rather pretty chorale, sometimes soothing, sometimes as brutal as Penderecki's original. It's formally a little experimental without being tonally particularly progressive, and it sounds wonderful. Perhaps he's making a point about the shared heritage of classical and electronic music? I have no idea. But I like it.

Some later Penderecki: seductively beautiful, but not intellectually challenging at all - it's all about surrendering to religious awe. But if you've played the clips above, you'll probably want some soothing aural balm.

Better late than never

Yes, I know that many of you like to kickstart your week with a jolt of Vole of a Monday, so apologies for the absence of today's dose of bitter, pedantic ranting. The truth is that despite so many things to blog about (my new bike, Cash For Access, last night's fine moon, Stoke City's wonder-goal), I've been working hard. Marking. Moderating. Conducting tutorials (the 20% turnout was little worse than the standard classes, damn it). Finishing revisions to an actual academic paper what I wrote - four days ahead of the deadline! Eat that, suckers!

The rest of the week is likely to be more of the same. I've a review of a very bad book to write, lots of essays to mark and plenty more teaching to do. Which is why I'm still in the office 11 hours after I got here. Not that it matters: University Challenge is over for another season, so I can't spend the evening hurling abuse at Oxbridge know-nothings and the mouth-breathers who appear to be setting the questions these days.

But for the record, here's my collected Reckon:

new bike = good.
Cash for Access = not a new story, but well done to the Sunday Times getting good video of a billionaire flogging access to the Prime Minister
new moon = very pretty
Stoke City's Wonder Goal = a fine rejoinder to the unthinking abuse of certain readers whenever I mention the team.

I visited my poor old mum over the weekend. Amidst the general revelry, I came across a file of my old student journalism and some sixth-form essays what I wrote. Needless to say, the whole thing was hugely cringeworthy and I'll probably regale you with some choice tidbits at some point, but one essay caught my eye. It was 28 pages of appalling handwriting (this was 1992) on Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I was very much that distinguished, eccentric teacher's favourite (we frequently supped Stella and talked literature down at his semi-derelict house), and I'd gained a very high grade. But what really tickled me was the laconic note he'd scrawled on the bottom: 'Yeeeesssss, but are the orgasms really pertinent?'.

I'll have to read the essay again, as I have no memory of any orgasms either in said essay or indeed the rest of my miserable existence at that vile Catholic boarding school. I strongly suspect that the very word was new to me - the signified itself would have been still rather distantly in the future. I wonder if I've written the word between then and posting this? I rather imagine not.

Home soon, for squirrel pie. Yes, you read that right. I've eaten squirrel before, roasted. It was rather delicious, and rather delicate. I've virtually stopped eating meat at the moment - no particular reason, just haven't felt like it - but couldn't resist a plateful of tasty cute vermin. Though I have to admit that I draw the line at that Virginian delicacy, scrambled squirrel brains. Apparently it's largely off the menu these days because people were contracting a CJD-like disease from the critters' brains. Which may explain Elvis Presley's demise: he was quite a fan, apparently.

Friday, 23 March 2012

The End Is Nigh?

I own an awful lot of dystopian and post-apocalypse fiction. Partly because I read SF indiscriminately when I was a teenager, and partly because - even though the sun is shining outside - humanity has been living under the shadow of self-destruction for pretty much a century. We've developed weapons of mass destruction and used them. We set up political systems which deliberately starve some, work others to death, and leave a minority free to drive SUVs, buy islands and jet about the place in search of cooler sunglasses or higher heels.

We've poisoned the earth, the air and the waters. We're baking ourselves to death because we don't want to share transport with strangers and we want to lie on a patch of sand a bit further than the patches of sand we used to lie on.

We are, in fact, stupid.

Which explains why there's so much disaster literature, and why so much of it is for teenagers. Teens have it easy. Yes, there's the acne, self-loathing, self-harming, exam pressure, rioting, constant surveillance and distrust, paedo-paranoia and below-the-bum trousers, but it's also the last opportunity to actually care about the big issues before you're forced into selfish capitalist consumerism as an alienated individual. The pressures on adults are so huge that it's hard work caring about what we're doing collectively.

That and the fact that disaster lit chimes with each teenager's secret belief that s/he is the culmination of evolutionary perfection. Unappreciated, apres-ils le deluge (or other catastrophe). We like to shock ourselves, and disaster-lit is ideal because we can feel that although we have the answers, we can't actually do anything to stop it: it's too big. Wallow in the horror.

Which is why disaster book sales peak at times of communal stress.

See the original here or click to enlarge.

Solving pollution through visual shame

Can't remember if I've mentioned this idea before. Apologies if I have.

Most of our most disgusting, polluting and selfish behaviour doesn't look that damaging at first glance. It's easy to ignore. This is certainly the case with motor vehicles. The roads are packed with unnecessarily massive vehicles powered by inefficient, oversized engines designed solely to make inadequate men and women feel important. They pump out huge amounts of poisonous fumes and lead directly to illness and early deaths.

But of course the driver thinks that he or she is unaffected. The air conditioning is on, and there's no obvious sign of the fumes. My first solution to this would probably be impractical: route just enough of the exhaust back into the vehicle's cabin so that the driver and passengers are left with impaired breathing and skin that permanently reeks of burning fuel.

As a poor second choice, how's this? Add a harmless coloured and fragranced dye to the exhaust outlet. A 4x4 would pump out thick clouds of black smoke, stinking of toxic substances. Or perhaps dog shit. A mid-efficiency car would produce greyer, slightly less voluminous clouds flavoured with brussels sprouts, chip fat, kippers or something equally unpleasant. Highly efficient cars would produce gentle blue or pink clouds fragranced with pine or apple scent. Emissions-free cars would merely exude an air of smugness. And perhaps recorded applause.

This way, drivers would be forced to see the consequences of their behaviour in an immediate fashion, and we'd all know which people and vehicles to avoid. It would work because most of the beautiful cars are also the most poisonous - Rolls, Ferrari, Range Rover, Porsche, Aston Martin. If we add smoke and stench, the drivers are forced to confront the hypocrisy of cocooning themselves in luxury while making others suffer.

(Another road-safety plan I have is to make anyone with points on their licences display large stickers of small children in crosshairs, like fighter pilot aces had tallies on their planes. One for each point as a public service warning). And Jeremy Clarkson should just have a photo of him on the bonnet so we all know he's around.

Call that a bike?

THIS is a bike!

I went down to Oxford yesterday to pick up this little beauty. While gazing out of the window at the gentle green beauty of the Oxfordshire countryside, I spied four figures on horseback crossing the fields. Looking more closely I realised that they were David Cameron, Rebekah Brooks, George Osborne and Jeremy Clarkson. Hunting pensioners.

It's a good job I was going to Oxford anyway - being an absolute spanner, I'd left the free book I'm reviewing for the LSE Review of Books on a train. The only copy I could find in the country was at Blackwell's, a divine book shop. I couldn't even buy one online, thanks to my bank card being defrauded and blocked within a week of arriving. I really resent having to spend actual money on it, as it's one of the most dishonest and unpleasant books I've ever read - and I've read Martin Amis.

Obviously I couldn't buy just the one book: I came away with Sowell's Intellectuals and Society (the one I'm reviewing - watch this space), a really beautiful second-hand copy of C. Day Lewis's Selected Poems (in the 1951 Penguin Poets edition):

…a classic 1962 orange Penguin copy of Waugh's The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, Josipovici's What Ever Happened To Modernism (looks flawed but pungent), Stefan Collini's feisty What Are Universities For? and a cheap used copy of Trollope's gargantuan The Prime Minister, mostly to hold doors open. Despite his misogyny and dubious politics, I'm on a Trollope kick at the moment. But if you think that Foster Wallace and Rowling needed a stern editor, you should try Trollope. Good for self-defence, I guess.

But the actual purpose of my jaunt was to collect my new/old bike. It's a mid-1960s Moulton F-frame (that video is wonderful). Stiff, heavy steel frame, the first bike to have suspension (front and rear) and a bit of an icon in its day. They're still made, but as the entry level one is about £3000 stretching to £15,000, I'll be content with my old one.

It's a beauty. Paul - who restored it then realised that his young family has more bikes than people and space - added a lighter seat post, racing saddle, a light headset with racing bars and decent modern brakes, a 7-speed internal hub gear, and Schwalbe Kojak tyres (i.e. bald, for speed). It's enamelled in stove-grey, and looks absolutely stunning. It sure doesn't look or ride like a 40-50 year old bike.

Ladies and gentlemen: I give you The Midnight Vole.

Look: no logos!

Minor annoyances that really get to me

Ben Cynical really knows me very well: he's found a blog by someone who could be a soulmate. It's Meaningless T-Shirts, and it's a delight. The author collects photos of clothing with pointless or non-existent references, and subjects them to sarcastic analysis.

I would like to shower him or her with kisses and riches. I've never understood why one would want the label on the outside of one's clothes. I remove labels from my clothes and certainly wouldn't buy any advertising made-up things like the 'San Francisco Track Dept 1969' one I saw a couple of days ago. Suspiciously similar to this one:

If you were an adult in the nonexistent athletics department in 1976, you'd be 54 at a minimum. Nobody will remember your 4th place in the San Francisco speed-walking semi-finals. Give it up.

I mean seriously, what is the point? Does it persuade people that you spend your time in American thrift stores hunting for 'vintage' clothes? Or that you're an athlete or American? Or just kooky. While we're on the subject: baseball caps. If you're playing baseball - fine. If not, don't. And especially don't wear baseball caps relating to actual baseball teams if you don't actually support them. Or even like baseball.

This is why I'm not a postmodernist. I'm just to unhip. These logos and symbols are signifiers, in structuralist terms. They're postmodern because they don't have 'real' signifieds, things to which they refer. They appear to have some relationship to actual places/things/events but it's made up. A proper postmodernist would think this amusing, if a little played out - the baseball cap doesn't really say 'baseball fan' any more: it says that you're into American culture, perhaps hiphop culture in particular. But not me. I just think that if you wear these things, you're a dick. And if you pay extra to have a clothing manufacturer's name on the outside, in big letters, you're a stupid, shallow dick and you've paid to become a brand advert.

This has been a public service message from reality. Do call in.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Horatio Clare

I've just come back from a lecture to Myth and Creative Writing students by Horatio Clare, author of the excellent novel The Prince's Pen, part of Seren Books' series of modern retellings of Mabinogion stories by hip Welsh authors.

Most of them have chosen non-realist, often SF or fantasy-style genres - one of the discussions we had was whether there's any other way to reintroduce myth, and why realism has come to dominate English literature. In Clare's novel, the Lludd and Llyfelys story (royal brothers battle three plagues: (little people, an infertility curse and a resources crisis) is recast as a Britain in which the Welsh are Taliban-style religious absolutists battling an invading force of technologically-superior imperialists - it's clearly an Afghanistan novel, and part of the Welsh tradition of identifying with subaltern groups: I'm thinking of Wiliam Owen Roberts' Y Pla (Pestilence) and Meredith's Griffri - Clare added Minhinnick's new collection The Keys of Babylon to the Welsh internationalist canon.

As a speaker, Clare's one of the best who's been here: fluent, learned, funny, very good at taking his audience seriously. Aperçus flowed fast: 'myths are always true' he said - 'it's truth that's the problem'. This was his major point. As man of faith himself, he sees myth as a way of providing perspective on the world's complexity. I think this is related to the turn away from realism: we don't live in a realist world of cause and effect. Pretending we do is comfortable, but dishonest. Instead, Clare says, 'myth is a dance between fact and truth', and 'our fate is to be made by myths'.

I don't mean to make him sound ponderous. Clare was refreshingly direct about the process of writing. He talked about his heroes, quoted a surprisingly long and funny chunk of Moby Dick to explain why he's spent the past few months as writer-in-residence on container ships, and recommended Auden's writing method ('to write a poem, go for a walk and a pint'). Writing, said Clare, should be hard, but a compulsion, citing in support Beckett's 'fail again, fail better'. If you don't struggle and have self-doubt, he claimed, you're 'a hack'.

The questions from students and colleagues were excellent, and answered very openly. He accepted that women ended up second-best in his novel, though defended by claiming that Islamic women he'd taken as models tended to be officially inferior but actually very influential - not particularly progressive.

Clare was particularly moving when he discussed the recent death of his sister. Explaining that absence in some ways made her more present to him, he told us about visiting the Greek cave which is said to be the entrance to Hades: the space between the myth of Orpheus bringing Eurydice back through the cave into life and the explorer's assertion that the cave is impassable gave him some hope through uncertainty.

All in all, a stimulating and fascinating event. Time for lunch with the author.

What have we done to our children?

You might imagine that I'd be opposed to selective education, particularly selective state education. And you'd be right. It infuriates me that schools can claim to be 'good' if they take rich, motivated, supported kids from stable, privileged backgrounds and manage to produce high exam passes. Good schools take deprived children and improve their lives, their opportunities and their achievements. Interestingly, privately educated children fare less well at university than state school kids: it's the small classes, brilliant resources and encouragement which buy them high A-levels. Left to themselves at university, they revert to the norm and even slip behind because they're not equipped for independent learning.

That's the rational stuff.

Emotionally, hearing a 10-year old of my acquaintance describe himself as 'a failure' because he didn't get into a notoriously ruthless school in the region has to rank as one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever heard.

It's a 'city technology college' paid for by us taxpayers but run by a couple of revolting corporations. It famously weeds out the poor, the difficult and the different, then specialises in finding dubious 'alternative qualifications' for the weaker students to sit so that its league table position looks good. Various methods are used to weed out any student who threatens its position at the top.

I'm sickened by an education system so vicious that a young child can label himself a failure. We've forgotten who and what education is for. To my mind, a good school is one open to all, and which does its best to give each child what he and she needs to thrive, and develops whatever potential they have - whether that shows up on a league table or not.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Art meets the Iron Curtain

I came across this cartoon today. Not sure the punch line does much except to me a bit snobbish about LS Lowry and British art in general, but it's historically accurate.

The Soviet Union had a 'workerist' attitude towards art and culture. The products of bourgeois pre-revolutionary cultures were admired and preserved - architecture, ballet, music, paintings, literature, but contemporary work was judged according to whether it fitted the state's concept of progressive values. So all workers had to be heroic, all employers damnable, all social problems soluble through revolution. What literature would be once the Revolution had liberated everybody was hard to say - boring, I suspect. Certainly the 'proletarian literature' authorised by the Soviet state was bloody awful, though some of the visual art was stunning. Architecture swung between jaw-droppingly science-fiction amazing and soul-crushingly terrible.

In the UK, plenty of bad writers were published because they were workers or pro-Communist, but many worker-authors of high skill were discovered: amongst them Lewis Jones, whose novels Cwmardy and We Live were presented as orthodox Communist propaganda. Actually, my PhD argues that they're actually a very subtle and intelligent critique of Stalinist Communism as well as of capitalism. They're stuffed with odd sex-and-death stuff too - not the kind of thing tolerated by the Culture Commissars.

Anyway, I digress. The cartoon is interesting because it refers to the Cultural Cold War, in which the CIA founded and funded lots of cultural bodies and magazines, such as Encounter, a very popular English-language current affairs/arts magazine. They used front groups and charities to put on touring art shows and concerts, all designed to show socialists inside and out of the Soviet Union that Western artists were free to do whatever weird stuff they wanted - Jackson Pollock was one unwitting tool of this policy. The Soviets had bagged realism, the CIA seemed to think, and so abstract expressionism must necessarily be the property of capitalism. Needless to say, lots of the artists promoted by the CIA weren't very good: just useful.

If you'd like to read more about this weird element of the Cold War, Frances Stonor Saunders' Who Paid The Piper? is an excellent and readable introduction, as is Hugh Wilford's The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America. As they both used musical metaphors, I'll just point out that both the American and Soviet security services thought the Beatles were subversives.

New Economics With The Tories

I've made this poster to explain why the poor get their benefits cut, middle-earners pay more tax (yes, this includes me) and millionaires get a tax cut.

Make your own here.

Amidst the maelstrom

OK, the budget is as depressing as we imagined - massive cuts to public services and attacks on the old, the young and the poor to fund tax cuts for corporations and the rich. Ed Miliband managed a good line - inviting those members of the Cabinet lined up in front of him to raise their hands if they were getting a tax cut. Personally, although my pay has gone down by 10% in real terms over the past two years (thanks to inflation), I'll be paying more tax after this budget, while George Osborne - who is an inherited multimillionaire - will be paying less. Every little helps, eh George?

But away from the misery, I've had a rather good day. An excellent seminar on Paradise Lost and the intellectual context of the Civil War and Commonwealth preceded a visiting speaker's paper on 1930s Communism and the BBC. According to Ben Harker, the BBC employed plenty of leftists and communists, but worked very hard to exclude leftwing ideas and voices from the airwaves. The Communist Party of Great Britain was too slavishly Stalinist to come up with a considered cultural strategy except during the flowering of the Popular Front, and couldn't do much about the BBC's monopoly in any case, whereas their sister parties in Germany, Holland, the USA and elsewhere were able to set up their own radio stations. The Party saw new media as an opportunity, but the BBC as a reactionary weapon wielded by the ruling élite - with good reason.

The most interesting element was Harker's discussion of individual socialists' grasp of form being ideological. People like Archie Harding felt that the established use of a radio as a lecture was backward looking and overly dependent on the conventions of other media. So he used mobile recording studios and the like to go out and record ordinary people talking about their lives. He held studio debates and experimented with form to generate radio-only conventions - much to the horror of his superiors.

Sadly, the Party and the BBC shared some cultural fears. Echoing the Frankfurt School's suspicion of popular culture, they both insisted on the primacy of 'high' culture: the CP later led the battle against American comics and pop music, preferring 'serious' books, classical music and folk, which the presented as 'authentic', despite very little of it actually originating in the fields and factories.

All this and much more in 45 short minutes. Anyway, back to the marking…

Floppy the Monster and Genuine Evil

Gaining Twitter followers is an odd process. Some are friends, others colleagues, people in the same field, and others are simply folk who've enjoyed my endless stream of outraged sarcasm.

But there's a further category of followers - those who completely baffle me. Today I've picked up Floppy the Monster, which appears not to be a Viagra-selling spam machine, but some kind of educational resource:
Education Resources for 4-6 year olds. Floppy the Monster belongs to Emily. They do everything together. After all monsters and young children can be friends. 
Which does sound - hopefully unintentionally - like a grooming exercise. But if it's legitimate, I do wonder what attracted them to my feed. I usually tweet politics, teaching, literary theory and sarcasm. Admittedly I have a childish sense of humour, but that's about it.

It's even more baffling when I look at another recent follower, Giovanni di Stefano. Once John di Stefano, he claims to be an international lawyer, though the Irish courts declined to recognise him. He was personal friends with Slobodan Milosevic and Arkan, the genocidal murderer who made di Stefano an honorary general in his murderous Tigers, and claimed to defend Saddam Hussein, Nicholas van Hoogstraten and an assortment of the most disgusting, often evil men on the planet. What does di Stefano get from following me?

What have we learned from this? That Plashing Vole is a broad church. That - through me - 'monsters and young children can be friends'. Giovanni: meet Emily. Play nicely.

The dew has fallen with a particularly sickening thud

What does 21st March 2012 hold?

On the plus side - a Milton seminar with a bubbly, bright set of students, followed by a visiting speaker (Ben Harker, who works on exactly my period and interests) on Interwar Communists on the BBC. If you didn't know that a) the 1930s was a period in which the literary cutting-edge was pro-Communist and that the sainted Lord Reith turned the BBC into a propaganda arm of the State, then you should come along. MC315, 1245. Reith put the BBC into the government's hands for the 1926 General Strike, and instituted a blacklist which endured well into the 1980s, at least. One BBC office was in fact occupied by an MI5 agent tasked with weeding out leftwing employees - fairly successfully from what I see on our screens. Perhaps if there had been more Communists at the Beeb, we wouldn't have been cursed with a Homes Under The Hammer, Flog It, Cash In The Attic, Escape to the Country and a thousand other 'sell your granny' shows.

Unless, of course, these programmes were a Communist plot to discredit capitalism by showing its proponents up for the garish, greedy, selfish scum that they are. An alternative interpretation might suggest that they were Communist programmes designed to bring about the collapse of capitalism by pushing consumerism to the point of collapse, as Marx predicted would happen. If so, I'd have to acknowledge that the plan was a total success.

Anyway, the rest of the day is going to be deeply grim: it's Budget Day. George Osborne is going to toss the quite poor a few bones, utterly screw the very poor (who won't be affected by tax changes because they're too poor to pay any as it is), squeeze the middle earners, utterly screw people foolish enough to work in the public sector, help out the banks again (because that's really worked well so far), and massively reduce tax for the richest in society.

Let's not forget that George is the heir to a Baronetcy, and received a 21st birthday present of £3m from a tax-avoiding family trust. Need I say more?

What infuriates me about this government is that it's behaving as though it was elected by a landslide in the midst of a social flight towards pure capitalism. Everything they do is straight out of the Chicago Boys 1980s playbook: the destruction of public services, privatisation, monetarism, small state, low taxes for the rich. Did people vote for the privatisation of the NHS, education and roads? The Tories promised 'no top-down reorganisation of the NHS'. The Lib Dems campaigned against student tuition fees. Nobody mentioned privatising the school system. And yet this is what we've got.

Right, now I'm angry, it's time to do some marking.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Your tax dollars at work?

The government's announced that we're all going to get a detailed breakdown of what our taxes are being spent on. Brilliant. Radical openness. Just what government needs to end the days of paternalism and secrecy.

Or is it? I can't help noticing that the government wouldn't release its own 'risk report' into what will happen to the NHS when their reforms go through - despite the House of Commons and House of Lords voting on the bill. Would you jump out of a plane without checking the parachute? It seems fundamentally undemocratic to pass laws while refusing to allow legislators to consider the most important piece of evidence available.

So clearly openness is a weapon to be wielded rather than a general principle. The tax statement stinks, quite frankly, of the kind of thing the Taxpayers' Alliance (a Tory front group, many of whom are actually tax evaders) propose. Firstly, let's not forget that many people in this country aren't taxpayers, at least of the direct taxes covered by this statement. The young, the unemployed, the poor, the old and the sick. By focussing on taxpayers, the government is implying that they are first-class citizens, whereas the non-taxpayers are freeloaders. Secondly, how the statements are constructed will be of prime importance. I have a very strong hunch that social security will be in massive type so that Daily Mail readers will be encouraged to see said poor/young/old/sick/unemployed as disgusting scroungers beggaring us all, whereas the £80bn to be spent on new nuclear missiles (while benefits for disabled children are cut) won't make it onto the sums at all.

It's a strategy using selective openness to move the political debate onto American terms. Over there, 'small government' activists lobby for less education, less environmental and work protection, no minimum wage or healthcare funding, fewer public services, except for more war and more legislation involving women's vaginas and homosexual gentlemen's bottoms. We're being softened up for a campaign against government as a public good - something to which we NHS fans are fairly resistant. It's not that the Tories want less government per se: like their American friends, they like governments which give them tax breaks and buy big guns - they just don't want us to see government as a service to the masses.

I pay a fair amount of tax. After next week's budget, I'll be paying a lot more, to fund Osborne's reduction in the top rate for those on £150,000. I don't resent paying taxes at all. But I do resent paying for nuclear weapons, pollution, more roads etc. when child benefit's being cut, universities privatised and libraries closed. However, that's how democracy works: you bastards voted Lib Dem and Tory, so I have to accept for now that your leaders prefer war to books. When the tax statements come, millions of people will be looking at the bits they don't like and getting angry - sundering society even further.

I know these tax statements sound like a nice idea, but I'm saying right now: they'll be designed to stir up resentment and mean spirits. Don't be fooled.

Picking the right Miliband

When the Labour Party election came along, I voted for Ed Miliband as the least worst option. My friend Ben holds that David Miliband was much more electable and voted for him.

When David came to the university recently, he seemed quite thoughtful, very human and approachable and trustworthy, even though I knew he'd authorised torture and kidnapping, including to Libya. A couple of days later, his apparent saintliness was exposed as a sham by his acceptance of £25,000 from the government of the United Arab Emirates to make a speech on East-West relations to 'business leaders and opinion formers' in the Emirate.

No doubt human rights and democracy went unmentioned: the UAE is not a democracy. The rights to assembly and free speech are not recognised. Torture is frequently practised and the jails are full of people arrested but never charged. The 80% of the population who aren't native lack any kind of rights, and exist in a state of indentured labour - and are never glimpsed from the luxury skyscrapers beloved of British tax evaders. The press is censored, and the UAE has never signed any of the international human rights treaties, such as the International Convention Against Torture.

Sheik Issa bin Zayed, a member of the ruling family, filmed himself torturing and murdering a former business partner: he was acquitted because he claimed his servants had got him drunk. The Ministry of the Interior agreed that justice had been done: it's a mere coincidence that the Minister was bin Zayed's cousin, and it's certainly a coincidence that my university then gave him an honorary degree in recognition of his services to law and order.

But I digress. When David Miliband tweets that he's
Honoured to speak at the @OneVoice Gala Dinner last night. Vital work to build coalition for peace in Middle East. 
we should keep in mind his political background. No doubt he would like a peaceful resolution to the Palestine/Israel situation. But like his mentor Blair - another man who's friends with anyone waving a cheque - his actual role in the region is to dispense platitudes while hobnobbing with a gang of torturers and despots. Israel is an illegal nuclear weapons state which illegally annexed huge areas of land, conducts collective punishments and discriminates against Palestinians in every walk of life. Most Arab states are ruled by tame royals appointed by the British at the end of empire on the basis that they can do what they want as long as the oil keeps flowing.

One Voice looks, on the surface, to be a decent organisation which calls for a two-state solution based on 1967 borders. It's not going to happen because both sides want victory rather than peace, and because Israel is in such a position of strength that it has no reason to negotiate, but well--meaning pressure groups doubtless make everybody feel good to pretend it will.

Like Blair, Miliband can have no credibility as an independent broker: he's tainted by his time in office - leading to the deaths of untold numbers of Arabs at the hands of Western forces and their own governments - and by his readiness to take cash from despots. Underneath the saintly exterior, there's a man more comfortable kow-towing to power than in challenging it.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Occasional spelling tips for students.

I get the manner/manor mistake frequently in student essays. I also got it in an email from Wiggle Cycles today:
and all manor of other material manipulation to build the sexiest frame designs possible. 
They want me to spend £4000 on a bike. A: bikes are good, or bad, not 'sexy' or 'unsexy'. B: Why would I trust them to put together a bike if they can't put together a sentence?

Happily for Wiggle and my students, I have a handy illustration designed to aid differentiation between 'manner' and 'manor'. It's by 14 year-old artist Freya VanEvery of Canada, to whom I owe my thanks.

Privatised roads? Bring Back Rebecca

Some of you young folk may not be aware that this country has had privatised or pay-as-you-go roads before: hence the sprinkling of rather pretty toll-houses around the country. Just like this week, it didn't go down very well with the public (or public finance and transport experts).

My favourite anti-privatisation group was the Rebecca Rioters. Taking their name from a verse in Genesis ('possess the gates of those who hate them'), the poor of South Wales dressed up as women (even before rugby and stag night entertainments were heard of) and demolished turnpike gates and toll houses in the early 1840s, about the same time as the Chartists were agitating for democracy. 

The turnpikes were hated because the peasantry was being onerously taxed for bringing goods to market, especially during a period of low prices and high taxation - forced off the land, the peasantry feared the prison-labour of the Workhouses, designed just like now, to punish unemployment as though the individual was personally, morally responsible for his situation. 

Time to bring them back.

In summary: the NHS

As you may have noticed, brevity is not one of my strong points. In my defence, the world's much more complicated than Tories and associated know-nothings believe, and so I require more space to explain why.

But on the NHS, Charlie Brooker sums up my feelings in one sweeping paragraph:
What is it about Lansley that makes human beings hate him so much? It might have something to do with the suspicion that he's hell-bent on turning the NHS into a commercial free-for-all, which for some reason isn't going down well at a time when terrifying nightly warnings about the worst excesses of capitalism are broadcast in the guise of news bulletins. The theory is that introducing an element of competition will improve the level of quality and range of choice for patients. And it doubtless would, if businesses behaved like selfless nuns, which they don't. Any business that wants to succeed has to cut corners somewhere to turn a profit. It also has to juggle a strange set of priorities, which means if you entrust your health to a corporation, the cost of your kidneys could end up being weighed against the spiralling cost of the CGI budgerigar voiced by Joan Collins they want for their new TV commercial.
'Choice' is a mirage. Nobody wants to dial 999 and be presented with a menu of ambulance companies, police services or hospitals. All we want is to know that the local hospital is excellent, and that our taxes are being spent on incontinence pads, NMRI scanners and nurses' salaries rather than off-shored bonuses. Introduce a profit motive and you'll be sitting opposite your doctor wondering if s/he's on commission for that particular drug, got a free holiday (sorry, 'conference trip') from that hip manufacturer, or is on a tight schedule to see X number of patients to make it all worthwhile. And that's before we worry about the masonic and old-boy networks rife in medicine (disclosure: both my parents were NHS doctors).

The other problem with 'choice' is that it can't be informed. Unless you happen to be an oncologist, you won't have a clue which cancer treatments are best, for example. It's bad enough for doctors: the pharmaceutical firms never publish negative results, always publish papers carefully drawn to accentuate often minor gains, and constantly fiddle with treatments not to innovate, but to renew copyrights: the professionals find it almost impossible to make clear judgements. So how the hell is Joe Fatbloke meant to 'choose' his doctor and medication?

What the Tories want is the American situation, in which pharmaceutical companies spend 13.3% of their turnover on research, and 25% of their cash on advertising: $35 billion, or $61,000 per doctor. Yes, you read that right. Money isn't in medical innovation, it's in sales. Which leads to this (and this is only a mild example):