Monday, 30 April 2012

Citizens, not shoppers

The forces of darkness, aka Paul Uppal MP and the local Masons small businessmen, have decided that they want to sweep the city's streets clean of, well, everybody except shoppers. They have no vision of society beyond the transactional exchange of money between low-paid drones and tax-evading national chains. Walk down The Dark Place's main streets and it's nothing but Lichtensteiner mobile phone providers, Swiss-domiciled chemists and a bland, narrow 'range' of establishments substituting baubles for community. Of all the shops in the city's main space, one is independent: a butcher's. And they wonder why the place is depressed.

Trapped in this consumerist paradigm - and no wonder, given the Secretive Millionaire MP made his money speculating in commercial property - Uppal and his friends want to turn the city centre into a BID: Business Improvement District. They're a kind of urban cancer: they promise local councils that they'll turn any area into a clean and shiny place, the kind you see on corporate brochures. You know, white couples in pastel clothes strolling from Starbucks to John Lewis. Perhaps even a black or same-sex couple in the background to prove that capitalism can cope with 'diversity'. The clue's in the name: they don't want to improve the city - just their profits.

Of course BIDs are sinister, Orwellian organisations. They take public space, get the law changed and turn it into private space. The high street ceases being somewhere I could sit and read the paper, where goth kids can sit and peaceably sneer at me, where the mad and bad can expound their terrible religious views. It becomes a conveyor belt from the neon hell of chain store to chain store. No deviation permitted. You'll be there on sufferance, rather than as a citizen. Security guards can and will remove you for sitting, not shopping, for announcing your political views or simply looking wrong.

I can't express how strongly I oppose this. I want my high street to be a place where weird, spontaneous things happen. I want it to be various: not just a parade of shiny plastic. It's where we should party and protest or just stop to chat - think of all those Italian squares where the cool and the crazy, the old and the young interact. Cities are brilliant places, because large numbers of people are thrown together in an accident of geography. Out of this comes weird, exciting - and sometimes unpleasant - encounters, activities, art and other activities. If Uppal and his greedy friends get their way, we'll be reduced to one thing and one thing only: buying, then leaving. That's partly why this place is so unpleasant. During the day, you shop. At night, the only reason to be there is to drink so much that a technicolor yawn seems like the only way to brighten the place up.

The Dark Place is zoned. Nasty kebab shops and sex shops down a couple of streets, municipal buildings tucked away, shops - and empty shops - dominating the centre. Let's be more imaginative. Let's place public buildings in the shopping arcades: libraries, council offices, free leisure activities, so that the crowd isn't made up solely of open-mawed consumers. Encourage the goths, the chavs and whichever other social groups are out there.

I am seriously thinking about starting a proper organisation to challenge the BIDs. I've already got a name: RABID Wolves (Residents Against Business Improvement Districts). Neat, eh? Who's with me?

Have ya ever BEEN to Longford?

Compelling reasons for Ireland to vote yes to eternal debt-slavery.

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money

Not the most apposite aphorism for a blogger, you might think, but Samuel Johnson crossed my mind when I was thinking about my students this morning. And not just because he - like me - was a scruffy troglodyte ('shaking, twitching, pockmarked… distinctly careless about his dress' as Boswell put it).

Despite the small group who have told me that they 'don't like reading' - despite signing up for degrees in English Literature - the majority have been fine, admirable and charming people.

Each year, I mourn the graduation of another group whose like will never be seen again, only for another cohort to stake its claim on my admiration. This year, and last year, saw the departure of some very, very bright students who in a sane and rational world, would be pursuing postgraduate studies at our finest institutions. Instead, they're working in local pubs or as classroom assistants. Nothing wrong with that of course, but a total waste of talent. Our government forgets that to abandon decent education funding is to scandalously cast aside the next generation's critics, thinkers and creators.

What's the relevance of Johnson? Well, he was thrown out of university after a single year because he couldn't pay his bills and was forced to churn out hack work for people he didn't respect: we're now used to students withdrawing for financial reasons, and next year it'll be even worse. But more inspiringly, he was convinced that learning must and could be available for all, whether they worked as rowers or clergymen:
…a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge. 

My students already give all that they have. They're mired in debt with little prospect of every repaying it (a cynic might say that perpetual debt is the necessary condition for obedient wage-slavery). Many give up good jobs or take on bad ones. Relationships suffer and families take the strain, yet they carry on. Last year, I talked to the husband of one of my graduates. He inspected kebab shops for a living, and told me some horrible stories - yet he'd read everything his wife studied, because he didn't want a cultural gap opening up between them.

I hate the end of the year. As the economic and intellectual climate worsens, I see lovely, thoughtful, clever people returned to the dole queue from whence they came.
Better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied
said Mill. Perhaps that's where I can rest my hopes. My graduates aren't pigs or fools and hopefully they're intellectually, politically and culturally dissatisfied, enough to write songs and stories, lead riots and revolutions. I send them off into the dark and cold while keeping my fat arse parked on a comfortable seat. I'm the armchair revolutionary - they'll be on the front line. In Johnson's terms, I'm his old teacher, Richard Savage - less learned than they'll be but smugly safe, one of those who has 'slumbered away their time on the down of plenty'.

This is the worst year yet - I have more hugely talented students graduating who should be doing MAs and PhDs than ever before, and none of them can afford it. Still, at least the executive team and administrators all have iPads. And that's what matters.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Occupy Occupy

I'm a big fan of political art, and of workers' rights, so you can probably imagine my enthusiasm for this Occupy/May Day poster.

The Americans seem so much better at underground political art than the British. Perhaps it's because socialist/class politics is so much more mainstream in the UK than the US. We're dominated by a tradition of prosaic and didactic art, and there's no real tradition of underground political art, though some places have good fly-posters. For the real thing, you've got to look to France. The US has a tradition - at least in some streets - of music posters being more artistic than informative, something I wish existed here. This poster is clearly derived from that tradition. Although I really like some of these British political posters (great exhibition), they don't appeal to the imagination, preferring to tug on familiar heart strings or to scare the voter.

This image isn't perfect: it's pretty opaque if you don't know what Occupy is, you won't learn anything. But I love the feminism, the steampunk juxtaposition of the dress and the skateboard, and the vaguely Nouveau background and the elegant Gill Sans font (or is it Johnston Sans?). It says that solidarity is cool. It's not just male miners and metal-bashers. It's not composite motions and the same dreary speeches. It's whimsical, but it's also hopeful. Over here, we've had decades of defeat as the left and the workers have been attacked as selfish dinosaurs.

What do we want in political art? More whimsy! When do we want it? Time is relative!

It's by Eric Drooker: more here.

Marking time

Things get a little messy when the dissertations and essays come in…

Scificmanc! The Revenge!

I thought I should record for posterity (joke, I'm not that pompous) my impressions from the Putting the Science into Fiction conference I attended at Manchester University on Wednesday. Apart from discovering that quite a few of my blog-readers/Twitter followers believed me to be female, something I'm about to comprehensively disprove by the Power of Nerdism.

Firstly, I was stunned by the size and quality of the crowd. Apart from several of my favourite authors (Scottish Trotskyist-libertarian Ken MacLeod, Geoff Ryman, Alastair Reynolds and Paul McAuley), there were so many astonishing  scientists, casually mentioning the satellite telescopes they had in space right now. Of the authors I didn't know, I'm definitely going to buy some books by Justina Robson and Craig Pay, a very cheerful man considering he writes what the Guardian called 'harrowing' fiction.

The day was broken into three sections. The first covered the process of collaboration between authors and scientist for a book, When It Changed. It was a fascinating insight into the joys - but also the difficulties - of working together. Amongst the technical points, the Research Assessment Framework's inability to cope with creative work, which hardly encourages scientists to engage, and the prevalence of Non-Disclosure Agreements, which spread fear amongst those inclined to collaborate.

The second section covered science in film and TV. Although the panellists were interesting and often amusing, I thought this discussion was the weakest of the lot. We all felt that science deserved more and better coverage, but there was a distinct element of Bi-Mon-Sci-Fi-Con as assorted contributors bemoaned the inaccuracy of TV science. I couldn't help feeling that the non-scientific viewer is a happier creature: free to suspend disbelief and use her imagination without feeling that fiction has to be utterly authentic. When the discussion turned to complaining that rockets don't go 'whoosh' in space, I thought we'd fallen down the rabbit-hole.

What was largely absent was a cultural studies element: while all the contributors were learned, wise, witty and likeable, there was little recognition - apart from the authors - that science is itself a fictional narrative, albeit it one with a closer grasp of reality than most. Postmodern literary criticism leaped on quantum physics' uncertainty principle with gusto to insist that all narratives are perspectives rather than truths, yet participants were rather reluctant to accept that science itself is paradigmatic: it processes perception according to cultural values.

The most successful strand was that involving the creative writers. Most of them were former scientists or at least holders of science degrees, and believed that science in literature should be at least extrapolated from what we currently believe to be possible. I'm largely in agreement, but do worry that this cuts us off from a huge imaginative landscape. Star Trek's failure to obey relativity was mentioned - time appears to run at the same pace on board the Enterprise as it does on Earth, whereas Einstein proved that the crew should return to what seems to them like Earth's future - but I tend to feel that this misses the point. To me, science fiction explores the consequences of scientific, political and cultural change: it extrapolates from our current fears. That's why I like Ken MacLeod's work: he wants to know how the future economy works, how technological change will alter working lives and therefore proletarian politics. If we're going to restrict SF to 'real' science, it's going to be bloody boring. Essentially, the only plot remaining is: 'stay on earth - wreck the environment - kill off the poor - everybody dies'. (I had a lively chat on Twitter about my gloomy attitude: I'm still right). Compellingly gloomy of course, but not everyone's cup of tea. Although I mostly read 'hard' SF (scientifically plausible), I fear an SF culture in which anyone who takes an imaginative leap gets a visit from the Plausibility Police.

The discussion turned to The Big Bang Theory (shockingly, Doctor Who was only mentioned at the very end of the day, in passing). The panellists thought that it's brilliant because everything Sheldon says in his rants is scientifically accurate. Big win for science, they felt. Imagine if it was made in Britain, they asked. What rubbish it would be. Look, they said: millions or ordinary Americans watching scientists in the slot formerly occupied by Two and a Half Men or some other lowest-common denominator tripe.

Oh dear. This is utter bollocks. While the scientists are loving Sheldon's defence of string theory, the rest of the world is drinking in a show which encourages us to view scientists as loveably dysfunctional nerds with borderline mental health problems and an inability to relate to ordinary people's emotions. This is not progressive or in any way a win for science. BBT is lowest-common denominator TV, with a few in-jokes for the nerd crowd thrown in because they're the ones on the bulletin boards. (If it was made in Britain, it would be emotionally darker and we'd see a lot more grant applications on screen. Rather than reach for the most obvious - and telegraphed zinger - I suspect a British version would be slower, possibly darker and less reliant on lazy stereotypes. Unless it was on E4. I always feel disappointed by BBT: it could be so much better. I share several shirts with Sheldon Cooper. Perhaps even some personality traits. But it feels like a massive missed opportunity).

The problem with this passionate debate is that it missed something important. If scientists and critics spend their lives complaining about inaccuracy in the science that is on screen, we forget the urgent and political duty to complain about the exclusion of the science that isn't on screen. In particular, American popular culture absolutely refuses to deal with climate change, reproduction or stem cell research (except for last night's South Park, which had Christopher Reeve becoming a super villain by noisily sucking the blood from aborted foetuses).

Hollywood doesn't lead, it follows. While we're congratulating ourselves every time Sheldon says something funny about Hubble, American TV is either ignoring or ridiculing climate science. Feel like a win, does it?

One of the most interesting literary points raised wasn't followed up. MacLeod mentioned Andrew Crumey's Sputnik Caledonia, which he categorised (rightly, I think) as literary fiction employing SF tropes metaphorically. 'Literary fiction metaphorizes; science fiction literalizes', he said. I didn't get a chance to pick up on this, and nobody else chose to. I think it's a fascinating statement to make, especially for an SF author. Actually, I should stop saying 'SF: MacLeod's work is often 'speculative fiction', because it extends current concerns into the  future without necessarily concerning itself with gadgets. I think he's half right. Bad science fiction is horribly literal. All that post-apocalyptic gun-nut fantasy nonsense like The Survivalist or the drearier space-operas (Heinlein: you're a fascist dick). But good science fiction/speculative fiction is literary fiction, because it draws on the complexity and richness of human culture to imagine alternative pasts, presents and futures.

Similarly there's a divide between bad literary fiction, which often hijacks genre fiction like SF without any respect for its conventions or concerns, and good literary fiction, which also participates in the roiling debates about how and why we've got to this cultural point. A literary fiction which crudely metaphorizes science, music or anything else is failed fiction. Done well, on the other hand, literary fiction such as Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go raises serious questions and doubts about our cultural dispositions - just like good SF.

The final section was the least interesting: a debate about whether to form a Science Club to purvey advice to TV and film producers, as they have in the US. Some participants thought there might be some money in it, others saw it as a pressure group for the Professor Frinks ('in series 4, episode 3, 12 minutes in, the aero-gel used to cushion the atomic blast was pink, whereas in reality it's grey. Worst. Episode. Ever. Explain please') of this world. So I went to the pub with Ben and then for Korean.

Overall, a fascinating day, and I'm very pleased I went. If it happens again? More cultural perspectives, more politics, less nitpicking and more female authors: I'd recommend Gwyneth Jones (as always). Met lots of lovely people and got wet. Just like most of my visits to Manchester.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Management speak explained

I just went to a 90 minute meeting, the inaugural discussion of the Workstream 4: Staff Motivation, Engagement and Communications. It was actually much more lively and interesting than anyone might imagine, and I left thinking that at long last, the Executive sections might see its employees as colleagues rather than whinging minions.

One of the things we discussed was the difference between marketing and communications - not always apparent here: the university Twitter and Facebook feeds certainly don't engage in conversations, and we're often informed of decisions rather than consulted about them. We all agreed that this was A Bad Thing.

Then I return to the office to find a memo. It runs (paraphrased) as follows.
1. There's going to be a consultation about the university's electronic platforms.
2. You'll be using the new version of PebblePad.
3. Er… that's it.

See what I mean? Even if I didn't think PebblePad makes Alan Sugar's Amstrad stuff (my parents, late to the new media game, bought one and even they thought it was a plastic turd) look modern and user-friendly, this is exactly the problem. Someone somewhere in the university, probably the people who invented PebblePad and failed to sell it anywhere else, took a decision that affects students and staff without eliciting any opinions from those who use it. My school's blameless management gets to make the announcement. Bad moods all round.

Talking of crap software - did anyone have Barcode Battler? PebblePad's designers must have been fans…

Getting the goatee

After taking some pictures of the very stylishly goateed poet Fred D'Aguiar, I took one today of my colleague Steve, who isn't dissimilar.

Reading matter…

A big pile of books in today:
Tanith Carey's Never Kiss A Man In A Canoe: Words of Wisdom from the Golden Age of Agony Aunts.
Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (old, but good. I must have loaned my copy to some thieving hound)
Philip Roth, The Professor of Desire
Dillard, Star Trek: First Contact (your opinion on this is a matter of supreme indifference to me)
Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England. I was reading round the subject of women's magazines last week, and this caught my eye.

Unfortunately, I have this lot to read - and then more due in - before I can touch any of these. Dissertations… shudder.

Mr or Ms Vole?

One of the interesting exchanges at the Science into Fiction conference I attended yesterday came during the lunch break. Craig, a cheery man who writes what the Guardian calls 'harrowing' fiction, asked another chap if he knew who Plashing Vole was. I gingerly raised me hand, to which he replied that he'd always assumed PV was female.

I'm intrigued by this, and asked Twitter followers what their assumptions were. Most said male, a few said female. I realise I've never stated my sex online, but I assumed that if anyone gave it a moment's thought, they'd think I'm male. One respondent said my style is 'very male', which raises a number of fascinating questions about discourse and gender.

In terms of content, I think I fit largely into the male category, though it's a dubious claim to make. Sex and gender, we know from modern theory, is an unstable concept reinforced by performance. But I talk about football, the minutiae of indie music and politics a lot - not exclusively male, but certainly publicly more male than they should be. On the other hand, teaching is a subject and profession with many women in it (though less rarely in senior positions) and I talk about them a lot. I would reckon that I fit some stereotypical categories: the mildly autistic collector, for one.

Stylistically, I think my writing is masculine: I'm obsessive, forceful and often rude. Obviously there are plenty of women who fit these categories (hello mum) but you're more likely to find these qualities in writing by men. Certainly from my days as a literary theorist, feminist critics asserted that men write authoritarian, 'closed' 'phallic' texts, while women write 'open' or flowing, ambiguous work - informed by their respective genital and sexual characteristics. Lakoff claimed forty years ago that women's speech is marked by qualifiers, ambiguity, hesitations, redundancy and tentativeness - marking a desire for communal validation, whereas men supposedly assert things without concern for the speech community's opinions. Very baldly: some claim that men use speech as a carrier of meaning while women use it as a social glue. Interesting claim, but dependent on a lot of philosophical/ideological assumptions.

It's easy in some languages: Japanese has separate vocabularies for male and female language for some things. There's also some physiological evidence for differential communication skills between women (better) and men, from brain scans, and that women are more fluent on paper. Women apparently use language more formally or correctly, while men adopt slang more quickly - though I suspect new media and educational/social changes might erode this difference. It's also believed by some that men and women exist in differential cultures and linguistic groups, which makes sense to some extent: we often read different things, talk about different subjects and mix with different groups - though it leads too easily to the Men are from Mars bullshit. This isn't exclusive of course: most of us work and play in the same spaces, with each other. There's also an argument that linguistic difference represents the unequal distribution of power between men and women, which seems fairly convincing to me.

I quite like the idea that my sex isn't immediately obvious online. It lends a kind of freedom and lets me escape from gendered assumptions. To all the arguments noted above, I'd insist that linguistic and sexual identity is a continuum rather than a pair of opposed poles. We're all located somewhere on the scale. I hope that my interests are open and interesting to people all along the scale, but I'd have thought that my mode of expression was further to the male side. So: apart from those of you who know me, what sex did you think I am?

Update: some comments from Twitter:
@PlashingVole until I discovered your identity, I thought you were female, too! Pink background (gender construction) of the avatar [ a statue of a man reading]
I thought you were "he" because I read the profile bit where it says "he". 
 I know you and thought you were female. 
never for a second thought you were a woman - something very male about your writing style 
I did. I think it might have been discussions of child care. I know, says more about me...
I confess that I too thought you were female! Something in the (very eloquent, BTW) way you write, perhaps? 
Update: @infinitewarrior tells me about a site that claims to analyse your prose and give you a 'gender' reading. I'm a bit dubious: my writing is hugely derivative of the people I read, my academic context and the newspapers I follow, and when you look at the analysis, the decisions as to what constitutes a 'masculine' or 'feminine' word is heavily culturally dependent. But it's interesting.

My result:
Female Score: 1160Male Score: 1288The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

Wednesday, 25 April 2012


For once, I'm not sitting in front of my laptop in my office. I'm sitting in front of my laptop in a Mancunian lecture theatre, eager for this Putting the Science in Fiction conference to start (hashtag #scificmanc). It is, quite frankly, my idea of heaven. Scientists from all fields, film and TV authors and theorists, literary critics and several of my favourite SF/speculative fiction authors. Amongst them, Paul J. McAuley, who amongst others wrote Fairyland, Ken MacLeod, former scientist and author of Scottish Trotskyist science fiction (what's not to like?) and Alastair Reynolds, whose Revelation Space trilogy I really enjoyed. I really need to get MacLeod on to my curriculum. I'm toying with adding some of his work, plus Shopping and Fucking and Jerusalem to my literature and class module. What do you reckon?

Who would I have invited in addition? Jeff Noon, obviously (local, brilliant) and Gwyneth Jones, who for my money is still the best speculative fiction author out there - try Kairos for a bit of creative destabilisation.

Good job there's nothing else going on in the world… apart from Rupert Murdoch at the Leveson Inquiry. Which I won't surreptitiously be following at all. Oh no.

What I won't be doing is any marking whatsoever.

Wow. I'm the least geeky person in the room. Apart from the surprisingly numerous female contingent

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Are we just meat in the room?

Here at Hegemon Towers, we're discussing whether to make lecture/seminar attendance compulsory. You might be surprised that it isn't already an obligation, and indeed it is at some universities. It's even been known to track students' electronically with the equivalent of a clocking-in system.

The presumption of non-compulsory attendance is this: students want to be here (especially when they're paying £9000 per year). That should be enough. Furthermore, some students might decide to study independently, at least on some modules. We all know that our intake isn't like Oxbridge: many of them have children, or heavy workloads to enable them to pay their way through university, so we don't assume that they'll be in 100% of the classes.

When I was an undergraduate, the welcoming speech told us that we were all adults and wouldn't be tracked. If we decided to work independently - or not at all - good luck to us. Some non-attenders would do very well, while others would crash and burn. As long as we turned up to the tutorials, lecture attendance was up to us.

I don't think it works so well here: we largely cater for people who have many calls on their time, who lack resources and sometimes the willpower to study independently. We need them in class as much as possible. Also, many of our students aren't here entirely voluntarily: they feel like they've automatically advanced a class like school, carried on the tide. It would be nice to assume that everybody's motivated by the love of the subject, but it's not realistic. Some of the most enthusiastic students tell me they feel marginalised by the main body of students.

However, compulsory attendance carries other risks too. I've recently been to a few lectures on a cross-disciplinary module. The purpose - to provide a wider humanist education by exposing students to ideas outside their chosen field - is excellent. The result was rather depressing. The class was packed with students resentful that they'd had to take this utterly wonderful module. It seemed irrelevant to them. They didn't do the work. They chatted and texted all through the class. They didn't take notes. They wandered in and out as the mood took them.

It's something we've all faced in institutions like mine. Rows of uninterested people who've not even read the text to be discussed, with the occasional enthusiast to whom you don't want to turn every single time. A sullen silence descends and we all go home feeling resentful.

They're room-meat, in a sense: physically present without purpose. I've been room meat too: in the lectures when the teacher would read verbatim from the handout. In research seminars nobody else will go to (I've been the researcher in this case too). In endless 'consultations' designed to simulate democracy.

I would like to say to my students: come along if you care. Turn up and talk to me. If not, stay away and do something more exciting with my time and yours.

But it's not that simple. Even with something as wonderful as literary studies, new ideas have to be introduced and explained. They may appear boring or impenetrable at first, and so we have to convince students it's actually fulfilling. The benefits of some activities aren't always apparent straight away. It's hard work for me, and hard work for students - which is sometimes a surprise (I once had a very annoyed email from an elective student complaining that he'd failed a test he assumed he'd 'ace').

I know that engaged students resent the deadweight lounging at the back texting and updating Facebook. I hate the moments when I ask question and receive a resentful stare and nothing more in reply. I also hate classes attended by 20% of those meant to be there. But what to do? (Other than improve my material and delivery, obviously). I've suggested to colleagues that we refuse to mark work submitted by anyone attending less than 80% of the classes. What do you think?

Update: I've had some interesting responses mostly on Twitter about this, and one very thoughtful blog post in response. Which means I should probably up my game if people are going to start reading Plashing Vole.

So I was wondering how I would justify lecture and seminar attendance to a student who might quite reasonably claim to be able to educate themselves independently in the library and online - something which happens more often as education becomes the purchase of a certificate.

It's actually an easy question to answer. Whether it's maths or modernism, lectures and seminars are where information becomes knowledge. I don't mean that I or any lecturer will often add information which can't be found elsewhere. I mean that the process of being encouraged to think about a poem, a formula or an idea from a particular perspective or perspectives is far more important than the grade. And that's just the start: speaking and listening to your teachers and your peers is where the magic really happens. If you just download the lecture notes or read a book, you're on the receiving end of an event that's over, finished and reduced. If you turn up to my seminar, you have to think aloud, and respond to other people doing the same thing. The joy of education is that it's a process, not a product: this is brilliantly clear to me as I sit in the middle of a debate about the intercourse between science and literature. A downloaded PP slide is a dead, broken thing. A bloody good argument or a chorus of agreement in a lecture is alive and thrilling. If you skip that, you've really missed the point.

A grumpy old critic speaks

When I'm not listening to Bikini Kill and Graham Coxon demo tapes (he starts off with high-fi, the Royal Philarmonic string section and a full choir, then mixes it until he gets the desired lo-fi effect), I'm listening to a lot of choral music. Quite a bit of it is religious music, which is of course massively hypocritical of me given that I'm an atheist. I should also ask for my enthusiasm for ecclesiastical architecture to be taken into account.

In my defence, most of this religious music is in Latin. If I tried really hard, I could understand it, but I choose not to, so it's effectively a lovely meaningless sound drifting through my head. But it does bother me that I'm consuming music which is inspired by, and attempts to communicate, religious feeling and belief.

Oh well, I'm not going to avoid it in future. I just bought a CD of Wolfgang Rihm's choral music, and the excellent liner notes quote from Theodor Adorno, who has a similar problem with the genre:
choral sound, if it is not thoroughly worked out with full compositional force, already carries within it something illusory; that it produces the fatal semblance of a supposedly intact, secure world inside another which is completely different. This tendency originates in the very material of the choir, which all too easily allows the individual to believe he is subsumed in a mutual understanding and harmony between human beings of a kind that do not exist in the structure of present-day society; the conviviality of the chore engenders an artificial warmth. 
It's a very tempting argument, and one with which I have some sympathy. He's saying, essentially, that the loveliness of choral music allows the singer or listener to indulge in a fantasy of a perfect, harmonious world (that we've appropriated the term from music is significant). It's true: I listen to Tallis, Lauridsen and others when I want to wallow in a warm bath of sheer beauty. Adorno's right, too, in suspecting that this is evasive and lazy: modernist music that hurts your ears is music's way of representing the horrors of the twentieth century: Freud, WW1, the Holocaust, nuclear war. At the same time, we should also remember that this was true of Tallis and others in their own times: life was indeed nasty, brutish and short, even for composers (hence Tallis's very adroit turn from Catholic Latin music to English when Henry VIII started sharpening his axe). All the churches and monarchs for whom these composers wrote were committing genocide, torturing opponents and crushing their oppositions. It wasn't a secret - far from it.

I think we need to be a little more forgiving than Adorno. I don't think there's much wrong with occasionally turning away from the horrors and seeking a little peace. I am suspicious of modern composers who promote unrippled harmony, however. To know of the things we've done to each other and the planet and still churn out untroubled beauty is simply cowardice and dishonesty. Luckily, there are plenty of honest, unpretty composers out there. I'd like to post Rihm's Astralis, a work full of doubt but can't find it online. Here's one of his motets. And some prettier work.

Tallis's Spem in Alium. Perfect for lying on the sofa in the dark. And for recharging your religious batteries if you're that way inclined. Probably.

Finally, an extract of Garbarek's Officium. I don't like the saxophone. I don't like jazz. But Garbarek improvising round the monastic sung offices with a saxophone somehow works.

Bad News For The Secretive Millionaire

My MP, Paul Uppal, represents a largely inner-city, poor area, though there's a fringe of rich suburbia on the western edge. He never mentions the fact that he's a multi-millionaire, nor that the cash comes from property speculation: he prefers the term 'business'.

He's wise to do so: YouGov and Cambridge University conducted some very interesting research, in which imaginary candidates were presented to voters. Each time a candidate's salary was increased, support dropped. When the biography was altered to show the candidate made his money in 'finance', his ratings dropped hugely. When he made millions from finance, he plummeted like a stone.
The final third of the sample saw an even more wealthy John – this time earning a cool million a year – and with even more negative results.  George now led on every question, and on overall preference by 24 points: just 24% of the sample chose the millionaire John as their preferred candidate, 48% chose George.
Just 15% of the sample said that they would like the millionaire financier as their candidate, compared to 45% who chose exactly the same candidate, with the same interests and backgrounds, but just earning less money.  That said, it’s not that extra money hurts financiers any more – it’s just they start from a lower base.  The difference between our businessman on average income and one earning a million was a drop of 57 percentage points in his lead over the competing candidate; the difference between a financier on average income  and one on a million was 60 percentage points.
So money hurts – and a lot of money hurts a lot.  It would be perfectly plausible for voters to have rewarded candidates for being financially successful – on the basis that someone who had succeeded for themselves might be exactly the sort of person you would want advocating for you. But there is no evidence of that at all.  
(Sorry about the formatting: Blogger really is rubbish)

I'm really hoping that this angle is pushed at the next election. Uppal's never contributed to the community. He's never employed people. He's never invented or made anything. All he's done is generate money for himself - and I strongly suspect he's taken the cash as capital gains (low tax rate) rather than as salary (higher tax rate). As a millionaire, this would mean he paid less tax as a proportion of his income than me, nurses, teachers and cleaners. w

Monday, 23 April 2012

Non-taxable takeaways

According to this week's Private Eye and the FT, George Osborne personally lobbied the Indian Government to let Vodafone off paying a £2billion tax bill it dodged by channelling a takeover through an offshore tax haven… just like they've done here (your bill doesn't mention it, but Vodafone's actually a Liechtenstein shell company).

Osborne's claim is that if Vodafone has to pay its taxes, it and other companies won't invest in India. So? If Vodafone won't pay its taxes, it's not contributing, and can sod off. More to the point, if they can't make money and pay taxes, they're essentially saying that their profits are nothing more than subsidies from the Indian taxpayer (like British railway operators).

So the British chancellor is helping an offshore company avoid paying tax in a poor country to which we give £1 billion - aid to which his rightwing MPs and the Daily Mail object. Even worse, while Osborne tells the Indians they shouldn't close down abusive tax evasion, he's just done the same thing to Barclays. It can't be one rule for the rich countries and one for the poor… can it?

How about this? If we start telling Vodafone to pay its taxes, rather than helping them rip off poor countries, we won't have to give them any aid. Everyone's a winner. Meanwhile, how about asking our MPs to inquire why a UK Chancellor is spending his time helping an essentially foreign company rip off a foreign company?

Too radical?

So that just about wraps it Uppal

It's been - he thinks - a good week's media exposure for Paul Uppal MP, known in these parts as The Secretive Millionaire. He had a question at PMQs:
Earlier this week the journalist Mary Ann Sieghart wrote an article in The Independent about the many young south Asian women who feel that traditionally their votes have been hijacked through abuse of the postal vote system. Will my right hon. Friend please look at revisiting the issue of postal votes on demand not only to strengthen our democracy and trust in it, but to ensure that all voters have a vote and, particularly in the case of south Asian young voters, their votes are not stolen?
Now we'll leave aside the impression that his intellectual level is such that he gets his talking points from mediocre newspaper columnists (like the pub bore retailing the latest outrage from the Daily Mail). Instead, let's have a look at the facts.

Does little Paul - not a noted feminist - cite any evidence for his concern about 'many' young South Asian women? No. Has he ever reported any voting fraud abuse to the police? No. Was there any fraud in his constituency? No: despite him telling Parliament that the police and the Electoral Commission were investigating fraud, they both told me that he hadn't complained, and they weren't investigating any cases. The nearest case of electoral fraud was in Walsall… and it was the Tories.

What Paul's really bothered about - alongside most urban MPs on the government benches - is the large number of poor and transient people who when they vote, tend to vote Labour. In particular, Paul's very scared that the students graduating in 2015 might be a little bit annoyed by paying £27,000 fees. They might even think that a millionaire Conservative MP who got his education for free, but voted for fees, deserves to be thrown out on his well-padded bottom. So the Tories have come up with a little wheeze, imported from the United States where making sure poor and black people don't vote is something of an art. They want to make it much harder for those with difficult and busy lives to get themselves on the electoral register. He wants voters to be the rich, settled old people on the west side of the constituency. Sadly for him, they all read the Daily Mail and are a teensy bit annoyed about the Granny Tax and the drop in the plutocrats' tax rate.

Entirely unrelated to this, of course, is Mr Uppal's majority of 691, about the size of a student accommodation block.

OK, Plutocrat Paul also popped up on BBC Breakfast grinding - yet again - his axe about Chuggers: Scourge of Britain's High Street. Again, he thinks it's a vote-winner. As I've said before, they can be a bit annoying, but a polite 'no thank-you' usually suffices. What annoys me about this campaign is that there's a much worse threat to Britain's High Streets. It's Tory economics. The Dark Place's High Street's shops are 30% empty. Those remaining are the mobile phone shops - owned by tax avoiders, Boots - owned by tax avoiders - and the usual cancerous chains. Uppal has nothing to say about any of this… but then he wouldn't because he's a multimillionaire property speculator who couldn't give a shit if there was a branch of Phones4U in your bedroom as long as he made some money from it.

Finally, the Egregious Member had an article on PoliticsHome which made my blood boil. In it, he wept crocodile tears for the poor by pointing out that his family was poor once. Yeah? Wonder where his speculation seed money came from? Perhaps his free education helped? Hi basic argument is that 'the poverty label' holds people back.

I think this is offensive. I'm damn sure there are a few lazy or defeated people who haven't the energy to improve their situations. I'm certain there are lots of people who aren't concerned about material things and have fulfilling lives while remaining poor. But I'm even more convinced that with 2.5 million people unemployed, thanks to a recession caused by Uppal's economics, individual failure of aspiration is not the root cause of poverty in this country. What the Tories are trying to do is individualise what is a structural problem. It's the dark side of the Britain's Got Talent culture: if you succeed, it's because you're special, if you fail, it's totally your fault. Nonsense: BGT stars who get into the charts are the product of a fiendish marketing machine. Those who fail are subject to the whims of the public as well as institutions.

It's just the same in economics. You can look in the mirror and chant 'I'm a winner' a hundred times every morning. You can send out your CV ten times a day, but if you're in the midst of the deepest slump since the 1930s, your chances are of course more limited.

Paul doesn't like labels.
it does people a disservice to make their primary identifier their bank balance (or lack thereof). People are more than how much money they have and people are more than their living conditions.
He would say that, wouldn't he? After all, he got quite angry when I pointed out that he's a millionaire, made from speculation, in stark contrast to his inner-city constituents. Uppal's narrative is that he used his individual genius to achieve business success. Nonsense, of course. Nobody rises alone. Uppal's free education helped. Family connections helped. So, no doubt, did business and political contacts. And what of his business? Has he employed anyone? Has he spread the wealth through a network of local businesses? Has he made anything? Is there anything to which he can point and say 'I made that'? No: his business is property speculation - the very industry at the heart of the recession.

How does Uppal propose to remove the stigma of the 'poverty label'? Simple. He voted for the Welfare Reform Bill, which explicitly makes large swathes of the population poorer by removing tax credits for the working poor (you have to work double the number of hours to qualify than before - despite extra hours not being available with 2.5m unemployed people chasing work). He voted to cut benefits for disabled children.

At the same time, he voted to cut the rate of tax for the rich, including himself. Clearly the poor are incentivised by hunger while he and his friends require further rewards.

Election Day will be May 2015. In the meantime, perhaps you should mention this stuff to him.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Come Friendly (Yarn) Bombs and Fall on Wolverhampton

Someone's made a start on beautifying this ugly, lovely city (as Dylan Thomas called Swansea). I'd like to see them try it in the more 'challenging' areas of the place, mind.

It's called yarn-bombing. Think of it as middle-class graffiti. I'm quite a fan.

Screens beat books?

Nobody reads any more, people keep whinging.

Wrong. As this chart (thanks Adam) demonstrates, people have been reading more and more since electronic media appeared. They might - very recently and solely in affluent societies - be reading on electronic devices, but they're reading.

Partly this is due to the declining price of books, increased literacy and education, and the rise of leisure time as western nations move away from long hours of hard labour. Whether people are reading better books is a different point, and none of our business really. Though I dread to think what happens to a nation of Dan Brown fans. 

I imagine that a non-branded equivalent of the Kindle or iPad would transform the education of those in the developing world too. Without infrastructure and investment, access to a library is difficult, whereas a village solar panel and some cheap e-readers make pretty much every text ever published available. Uncopyrighted texts are free, and we could easily shame publishers - who make no effort to market books in most African countries - into providing cheap or free access.

In fact, if nobody else is doing it, why don't we start funding this project right here, right now?

Laudanum Habit Doth Detract From Lady Caroline Lamb's Complexion (pages 3-12)

Mrs Brightside posts this image, an imagined 18th-century edition of Cosmopolitan:

They're not so far removed from reality: the period saw an explosion in journals and almanacs for women. The Ladies' Mercury appeared in 1693 and promised (in a phrase you may recognise from a more modern medium), to deal with 'Love Etc.' (or indeed this). The Lady's Magazine (link includes images and text) turned up a century later and doesn't look much different to the gentler mags available now: grovelling royalty rubbish and style tips, some romantic fiction to divert a gentlewoman's attention from the Servant Problem and of course the Agony Aunt, in this case Mrs. Grey, 'The Matron'. Of particular interest to those readers contemplating, ahem, 'enhancement', there's an article on 'Wax Bosoms

In many cases, the problem pages seemed to become thinly disguised erotica for the readers - The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine (link is to images) seemed so interested in the subject of whipping one's daughters and servants that contemporary pornography started to satirise it, according to Marcus's Between Women: "Those stories in the Ladies' Magazines/ Are scarcely credible, that is to say/ They may be true, but brought behind the scenes/ The sense of being there they don't convey… It's pleasant while you're whipping!/ "I'll go and give it to the Girls!"'

Also available: The Lady’s Monthly Museum or Polite Repository of Amusement and Instruction, whose 'Old Woman' counselled lots of housework as the answer to pretty much all emotional difficulties. By 1859, advice had hardly changed: the Weekly Magazine informed newly-wed wives that:
Your duty now is to your husband.  No wife should have a soul above buttons nor should she ignore the fact that man’s heart lies very near his stomach, and that cold mutton dampens the flame of wedded love.  

Urbanism, fear of feminism, increased literacy and the consumer society provided the motor for the explosion in women's magazines in the nineteenth-century - the problem page was born in this era, alongside some very explicit discussions -  but the earlier ones are still remarkably similar to the modern templates (check out the Hindustan Times' magazine, Brunch!: 'Women Love Shoes!'). Titillation overlaid with moralising, moral panics and compulsory heterosexuality, all served up with a hefty dose of consumerism. And if you worry about your daughters' magazines, remember this: every generation back to the Ladies' Mercury thought that reading matter was ruining the youth!

If you're searching for good solid advice from Agony Aunts of the past, you need to read Never Kiss a Man in a Canoe - a compendium of hilarious advice. Here's a taster:

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Prepare to be boarded

Having been sent link to some amazing book storage, and then following further links to Bookshelf Porn, I'm feeling a little ashamed of my prosaic home and office storage. Home consists of 13 IKEA Billy bookcases, mostly with the height extensions (I bought all the ones they had in stock), while work consists of double-rows plus extra piles scattered about. Some of them are books I'm working from at the moment. Most are unread volumes I haven't space for at home. The unread bookcases at home are in the bedroom. Very disconcertingly, the first thing I see when I wake up is a particularly unpleasant picture of David Cameron staring at me from the spine of a biography which I suspect is actually a hagiography.

It's just struck me though that with one colleague on extended leave and another taking maternity leave shortly, I can hijack their space with impunity. Mwahhahahahahahahahahaha

In the presence of greatness

Being naturally surly and and hard to impress, you might be surprised to hear that I've developed a bit of a man-crush on Fred D'Aguiar, the poet and novelist who visited the university yesterday.

Despite facing an audience of 15 - virtually all staff members - he gave a long talk and reading which felt like it was only ten minutes. He appeared to have read every poem ever written, he must have a photographic memory for quotation and allusion, and must be one of the most inspiring teachers you could ever wish for.

D'Aguiar was born in London but spend ten years of his early childhood in Guyana, before returning to the UK. He worked as a psychiatric nurse before taking an English degree then a writing course, alongside Wendy Cope and Blake Morrison. Now a professor of English and Africana at Virginia Tech, he's written several novels and volumes of poetry.

Last night's reading drew on his own life, the novels and several poems, interspersed with stories of his upbringing, his education, the artists he admires (I liked his use of Walcot's description of history being 'a library of bones' and the line - by whom? - 'I'm a poet/only here to read the meter' which really depends on American spelling). D'Aguiar's own work is most clearly informed by the Romantic poets, but his range is astonishing. What really fascinated me was that although his discussion was free-wheeling, allusive and lengthy, his poems are often short, feather-light and elusive: they're there for a second and then they're gone, leaving behind only sensations which linger for an age.

The tone of the evening was light-hearted, friendly and loose, except for one moment. Asked about whether he feels, as a Guyanan/British Guyanan/Caribbean-American (labels were discussed at length) obliged to be the voice of a people, Fred launched into a passionate, heart-breaking explanation of the poet's absolute duty to enunciate what others can only feel.  He told us about Erin Peterson, whom he taught the day before she, along with 31 other students and teachers, was shot dead at Virginia Tech, and about the duty he had to speak for and to his community at a time when words came hard.

After the reading, we all went off for a fine curry and an even more relaxed chat with Fred and his equally learned and witty wife, who's a teacher, author and fellow SF fan. Fred signed my copy of The Longest Memory to me as 'poetry teacher, reader and lover', which flatters me in several ways!

(rest of the photos I took here).

People = shit (part 2)

Some more gems shouted at my friends by random strangers:
"what's wrong with your face? You need the back knockin out of you" !!!
eeeeeeengleesh', you nice lady, you teach, yes? 
"look at the legs on it" 
(That one's particularly charming: 'it'). It's not just men either - one couple had a woman shout
'Your girlfriend's fat'' 
What to do about this stuff? Well, there's the Hollaback! movement, which started in the US, and encourages women to resist this stuff. They encourage people to record abuse and where it happens, to shame offenders, inform other women and lobby public authorities.

There's also a PhD project into women's experiences of being harassed, down at London Met. The call for interviewees has closed, but it's worth keeping an eye on Fiona's page as I'm sure she'll present her findings in some way.

Meanwhile, I remembered a previous bit of abuse I received. I was standing at a bus stop when the guy next to me unwrapped his cigarette packet and dropped all the bits on the ground, despite standing right next to a bin, literally brushing it with his coat. I mildly pointed this out, only for him to step right up into my face and start shouting that I was a 'fucking batty boy'. That's right folks, littering is a a distinguishing feature of heterosexuality, and environmentalism a characteristic of homosexuality!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Want one of these:

Los Angeles public hospital book cart, 1928 (via BoingBoing):

Things people say…

As I left work yesterday, a group of drunks sipping Stella Artois ('reassuringly expensive') on the street shouted at me that I was a 'Polish C••t'. Obviously I'm a little bemused by this - I'm not remotely Polish. I can only assume that my stylish attire marked me out as not being from round here - i.e. I wasn't wearing stained tracksuit bottoms accessorised by amateur facial tattoos.

So I merely laughed and moved on. If I got upset whenever anyone shouted at me on the street, I'd be a nervous, agoraphobic wreck. Though the David Mitchell catchphrases are dying down.

However, mentioning it on Twitter got a lot of responses from the females in my social circle - they seem to endure abuse everywhere they go. From men, obviously:
It's worse in Birmingham though. No one has tried to grab me here yet.
 I regularly get called fat in the street 
one of my first experiences of the city was a drunken man following me shouting expletives when I didn't tell him my name 
 I went for a run 2shouts of SWEATY TITS 
Is this normal? What a horrible country this must be. What's been shouted at you? How do you deal with it?

Books Bonanza

I've spectacularly fallen off the read one/buy one wagon: 26 books in the post today.

Most of them came in one box, and consist of a collection of beautiful early 1970s Penguin paperbacks: 15 Graham Greene novels, two Laurie Lees, a Steinbeck, two Salingers and an American Dylan Thomas collection.

I got them in return for a modest donation, from the North Staffordshire Special Adventure Playground, a fine institution which needs your money to keep providing play and social activities for young people with physical and mental disabilities. It's in Stoke - that alone is reason enough to hand over some cash.

The rest are two problematic Philip Roths (reading a student's dissertation prompted me to get my own copies of The Breast and The Dying Animal); Keith Roberts' The Lordly Ones (I've almost completed my collection of everything he wrote); Peter David's One Knight Only (which this review suggests is a dubious 9/11 novel), the sequel to Knight Life, a satirical gem in which King Arthur runs for mayor of New York: this time he's the POTUSA. Finally, a free copy of Jandt's Intercultural Communication: Identities in a Global Community - for consideration as a class text.

Ah well, on with the marking. I was briefly saved by a chat with my associate dean about Marx, religion and immanence, and a social call from two of my rather brilliant final-year students, but now duty calls.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Two Cheers for George Osborne

He's got a bum for a nose, got £3m from a family tax-avoiding trust fund for his 21st birthday, has made me and everybody else poorer, thicker and sicker… and yet I feel compelled to shout it from the rooftops:


He remains the worst chancellor in living memory, a walking talking throwback to the 18th-century, a hypocrite and a liar, but when it comes down to limiting untaxed charitable donations, he's spot on.

Firstly, many of these charities are simply fronts, convenient vehicles for hiding wealth. Remember Northern Rock? Advised by Barclays Capital, Citigroup, JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley, it used some very dubious shells which technically nominated charities as the ultimate beneficiaries, to avoid tax. The charities were never informed and never received any money.

Other charities are simply hobbies for the plutocratic elite. I like donkeys and opera as much as anybody else - maybe more - but I'd rather an elected government decided where cash needs to be directed than the whim of a fat cat who'd rather fund a polo team or Charity X6839, than a primary school.

X6839 explains here how the UK taxpayer (average salary £26,000) can donate to David Cameron's old school (annual fees: £31,000, music and sport extra), get the government to fork out more and even - if you earn over £42,000 - give you some tax back too! Everyone's a winner!

Net payment to Eton: £100,000
Tax reclaimed by Eton (basic rate plus transitional relief): £28,205
Value to Eton (gross donation): £128,205
Higher rate relief to you: £25,000
Your net cost as a higher rate taxpayer: £75,000

(Example from the Eton website linked to above)

Think of it as 'cashback' for toffs. If you think Lord Fink and his friends are relieving poverty or saving the environment, you're a fool.

However, this is all by-the-bye. The fact is that Osborne's limp little crackdown is simply an attempt to make the rich behave a little more like us.

When you give to charity you're giving from your own income, on which you've already paid tax. If you tick the 'gift-aid' box, the government gives a little bit of that tax to the charity.

The rich don't do it like this. They give to charity, then claim some tax back: they get a cheque from us which goes into their pockets - not to the charity.

Osborne's change is to say that they can only do that with a proportion of their incomes: some of them hide 100% of their cash in offshore charities which don't actually do anything charitable, avoiding all taxation. If they give to a real charity, the donor gets money back from the government. If they give to a shell charity, they rip us off and get paid from the money meant to educate, heal and defend us.

You'll be hearing a lot from various good charities and the posh universities about this. Oxford, Cambridge and so spend an awful lot of time beguiling the rich. Well, I don't care. This university is cramped, understaffed and under-resourced. We don't have a fleet of punts to maintain, and no billionaires are queuing up to endow us with funds. I'm quite happy for Oxbridge donors to shell out for research or the college wine cellars - but they should pay their taxes first, just like the rest of us. If they won't give without a tax break, they're giving for the wrong reasons.

So: Two Cheers For George Osborne.

Coming Up

Well, today's lecture was… interesting. I had an audience of precisely one person, which must be what giving an Oxbridge tutorial must be like. Thanks to a projector failure, I couldn't use any clips or images, so instead we had a detailed, thoughtful and very enjoyable discussion. Respect to my student for not running away when given the chance.

Anyway, there are two events here tomorrow which you might like to attend. At 1245 in MC315, Pete Webb of Cambridge University is giving a seminar on Anarcho-Punk and Crass: Examining the Political and Social Milieu of Underground Punk (which follows on nicely from today's session on postmodernism and subcultures), while at 6, internationally-esteemed poet Fred D'Aguiar will be giving a reading and talk.

Here's some Crass, 'Securicor Cares'.

Here's a clip from a documentary about Crass:

Crass were literate, witty, angry, politically-engaged anarchists. But a lot of the songs are pretty much unlistenable. So here are some excerpts from Jeffrey Lewis's nu-folk album of Crass cover songs.

Wearing black on the outside…

If you recognise the quote, you'll know what I'm up to this morning. I'm taking a class on a subcultural tour of the notion of identity, starting with Paul Hodkinson's paper on Goths. Are they a substantial enduring subculture or a transient, fluid, postmodern grouping?

I'm both too young and too old to be a Goth - the original Sisters of Mercy/Cure/post-Siouxsie grouping turned up when I was about 6, whereas the new ones didn't appear until my identity was fixed as 'fat reader'. I've a soft spot for a lot of the music - Rosetta StoneFields of the Nephilim were a guilty pleasure (what's not to like about cheery Cowboy Goths?) but the dedication required to be True Goth is entirely beyond me.

I recently saw the South Park episode in which the Goth kids were infuriated by the Emo wannabes - exactly what I'll be using the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies approach to discuss this morning.

Here's a prime slice of the Nephilim:

Monday, 16 April 2012

Trains and boats and buses (2)

A few more pictures of my Grand Day Out. Rest here, or click these to enlarge.

Last of the big spenders, me.

Angry Birds is very popular round here

Trains, and boats and… buses

I had a day out down the Severn Valley on Saturday, in search of bucolic pleasures. It involved a bus to beautiful Bridgnorth, a vintage diesel train on the Severn Valley Line to Hampton Loade, where I transferred to a current-powered miniature ferry, a stroll through the bluebell woods to Dudmaston Hall, then a trip back to Bridgnorth on board THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE! Finally, having tried every other mode of transport available, I took a trip up the rock on the Funicular Cliff Railway.

Rock, and indeed Roll.

Full set of photos here, or click these to enlarge.

He gets spam…

My good friend The Rise and Rise of Tim Lovejoy gets spam. This time, the quality of writing on The Plashing Vole led the poor saps to believe that HE is the author of The Plashing Vole (he's not the only one confused either). Annotations are my own.

My name is Isabel [I am a bot] and I recently stumbled across [software harvested the address of] your blog I work for [live in a server rented by] a company [of spammers], Blog Services Inc. [who lack the imagination required to come up with a better name that that], that connects bloggers with advertising partners [pretends to connect bloggers with advertisers but actually charges the naive money for allowing them to cover their blogs with porn links]. I currently have clients [don't have clients] that are interested in [have never heard of you] developing a sponsorship with you [i.e. covering your site with porn links, as before]. This helps them with brand awareness [they need the 25 nerds who read your blog] and is a great opportunity for you to make some money [isn't a great opportunity to make money] from your blog [simply in exchange for any remaining integrity and independence].
Check out for more information and testimonials [which are entirely made up]. Please feel free to contact me directly [an automated reply will be immediately despatched from the bot] if you are interested in a partnership [serving Satant] or have any questions at There is no need to submit the form on our site, as contacting me directly will lead to a quicker response [because I am a bot].
If you are interested, contact me at this email address to begin the process.
Isabel Reed Project Manager – Blog Services, Inc. 

For the record, I am not a figment of TRAROTL's already warped imagination. I'm the product of my own warped imagination. And it's better to be the product of a warped imagination than a bot residing on the servers of a spammer.

No adverts on Plashing Vole. Sometimes I say nice things about products. Rest assured it's because I like them and not because some git has paid me $4.