Wednesday, 31 October 2012

And When Did You Last See Your… Tutor?

I don't know if you're familiar with this painting, WF Yeames' 'And When Did You Last See Your Father?'. It's a Victorian bit of Royalist propaganda: the lad is being asked to inform on his Cavalier father by the Puritan Roundheads.

It's been parodied many times, but one particular version caught my eye this week. I'm reading the complete volume of Posy Simmonds' Weber Family cartoons, a long-running strip from the Guardian in the late 70s and 1980s. George Weber is a nervous and underachieving sociology lecturer in a polytechnic, and the paterfamilias of a large, largely happy but disparate family. He and his wife are 60s idealists struggling to retain their pride and principles in the face of 1980s horrors: greed, consumerism, selfishness, racism, conservatism (actually, the previous four words cover the Tory Party quite well on their own). They are, essentially, comic versions of me: liberal, tired and depressed by the revolting state of the world. Without being cutting edge or violently offensive, these beautifully-drawn and written strips have captivated me this week. 

In particular, here's Simmonds' parody of the painting above, entitled 'And When Did You Last See Your Tutor?' (click to enlarge). 

Given that here at The Hegemon we're having a massive crackdown on attendance by proving to the students that coming to class and talking to us will actually improve their lives, it really struck a chord. BUT - only if you don't examine it too closely. The red-faced chap is the appalling lecherous tutor who's worried that our heroine will tell them that she saw her tutor quite recently. This morning, in fact. In bed. 

That kind of thing doesn't happen here. But if you ignore the plot, it's an amusing bit of academic humour. 

Intruding on private grief…

My usual two hours of shouting abuse at the radio edition of the Daily Mail (a.k.a the Today programme) reached a peak this morning when the producers decided that Disney's purchase of Lucasfilms and decision to flog a horse so dead that its carcass forms the major ingredient of tinned dog food by promising an endless succession of lazy Star Wars sequels merited more coverage than the Coalition's determination to replace our planet-destroying arsenal of nuclear weapons with even bigger nuclear weapons. You know, the nuclear weapons that kept us out of all wars since 1945. As long as you don't count Northern Ireland. Or Suez. Or the decolonisation wars. Or the Malvinas/Falklands conflict. And the Gulf War. And Gulf War 2. Oh, and Afghanistan. Plus the bombing of Libya.

But that's beside the point. I could understand if the Disney takeover merited a mention in the business news headlines, but there's no way that a faded commodity deserves the attention it's getting. I would propose that Disney is the Empire, except that George Lucas's cynical outfit hardly fits the role of heroic upstarts, unless you think doing violence to people's childhood memories in exchange for billions of dollars is a subversive act.

I should admit from the start however that I have not a scintilla of emotional attachment to Star Wars. Unlike most of my friends, I'd never heard of it until I went to university. I guess school chums must have had the toys but I don't recall any discussion of them. My first proper exposure to Star Wars was accompanying friends to a cinema in Rhyl (quite painful enough) in the depths of a freezing winter to sit in a smell cinema and endure the first of the 'prequel' movies. I was bored beyond tears and found the graphics reminiscent of Civilization II, the computer game which filled my supposed study time. Even without being familiar with the original movies, I could tell that this was jaded hack work and as we emerged from the foetid swamp of late adolescent bodies, my friends had the look of veterans who'd seen their comrades die in the trenches for nothing. Their childhoods had been sullied, their faith in Hollywood destroyed. Mine not so much - my parents virtually never took us to the cinema. We queued for ET until my dad got bored, so I only saw that in chunks if I happened to catch it on TV. Cinema was somewhere I went on other people's birthday treats. Particularly horrific are my memories of Howard the Duck - awful, but notable for the first topless scene I'd ever witnessed, albeit a topless duck - and whatever that Michael Jackson film was called. Moon-something?

I should confess too that I'm a (critical) Star Trek fan, particularly of the original series. It's essentially a liberal (though not reliably so) retelling of the exploration of the American West with a side-salad of Cold War politics: early episodes of the show explicitly supported the Vietnam War, while later ones became anti-imperialist. Until we got to the execrably Next Generation, Liberal Interventionism In Space with a slathering of New Age bullshit in the shape of Ship's Counsellors and all that bullshit. It's not enough to Explore: you've got to Emote. Christ. For me, the original Star Trek used familiar plots to explore current political and social concerns in interesting ways. I'd also like to draw the jury's attention to my enjoyment of Space: 1999, a surprisingly gritty European SF drama, to the camp pleasures of Buck Rogers, and above all to the original Battlestar Galactica, which depending on who you're listening to, is either Wagon Train in space, or Virgil's Aeneid in space, which is both ambitious and impressive. I haven't seen the 'rebooted' Battlestar, but I gather that it has 'boldly gone' into the realms of political commentary - especially about the Iraq war - which is exactly what good science fiction does.

Since that awful day in Rhyl, I've caught most of the major scenes of the original films, though I've not seen a single cel of the other prequels, nor would I ever want to. Star Wars: A New Hope dramatised exactly Walter Benjamin's theory of the reproducibility of art in the mechanical age, and Jean Baudrillard's concept of multiple-order simulation. The 'original' Star Wars re-enacted the American myths of the war of independence as a way to recoup that nation's fantasy that it is the eternal underdog battling for truth, justice and freedom ('the American Way'). The Vietnam War, the Cold War and the Watergate saga, plus the United States' enthusiastic support for every fascist state in South America, Africa and Asia were making a few Americans wonder about whether they'd lost their way after 200 years.  In fact, some of them felt a bit like this:

So Star Wars isn't, for me, a joyful celebration of America's natural rebellion: it's a deeply conservative appropriation of liberal values for the purpose of making an Empire feel better about itself. The real rebels - and perhaps you could read Star Wars in its context like this - are the North Vietnamese.

So Disney's plans to treat Star Wars as yet another commodity to be ground at is both unsurprising and not particularly interesting. In Baudrillardian terms, each film is a more faded photocopy of the original, each one trying more desperately to capture the essence and passion of the original, and each one fated to be less and less artistically successful. No doubt rabid fans will turn up in droves, and the publicists will hail each film as a 'reboot', but the concept has long since moved from the category of art to commodity, if there is indeed any separation between them in a capitalist economy (thinking of you, Damien Hirst). I doubt the new films will even have the political significance of the first Star Wars films.

You Star Wars fans can regain your dignity quite easily. Just refuse to acknowledge the existence of the  new films. Behave as though George Lucas is dead to you. He's a greedy old man who cares only for the green. He is, in fact, Han Solo without the redemption, or even Jabba the Hut. He's encased your culture in carbonite (is this right?) and he's sold the corpse to the Emperor - and he's not sorry.

Cherish your childhood memories and seek out pastures new.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Curses! Thwarted

Well, the creepy caretaker has got away with it this time, and we pesky kids can go f… ourselves: the Serious Fraud Office had decided not to pursue the COnservative Party for the stolen money it received from Asil Nadir in 1988 and hung on to during his twenty years as an international fugitive and his recent conviction of multiple accounts of fraud.

My instinct is that leaving aside the morality of taking and keeping stolen money, the Tories could well be in breach of the Proceeds of Crime Act, for accepting, keeping and not reporting the possession of potentially stolen money, and that a party which is in or aspires to be in charge of public justice should be held to the highest principles.

So why have the police decided to let Grant Shapps and his friends keep the cash? Is it because they is innocent. Not quite…
the SFO has concluded that the cost to the taxpayer would be too high.
So there you have it. If you steal 6 bottles of water during the London riots, you'll get six months in jail. If you profit from theft to the tune of £400,000, you get a get-out-of-jail free card. I don't quite see why this crime is so difficult to prove. The administrators' report and letter to the Conservative Party made it clear that the money is stolen. The Tories still have it.
The stubs of six cheques totalling £365,000 made out to the Conservative Industrial Fund, had been discovered during SFO raids on Nadir's Mayfair address in 1993. The payments had not been authorised by Polly Peck's board, according to administrators.
Therefore they're guilty. There's no mystery at the heart of it. More importantly: a crime is a crime. Justice shouldn't be a matter of profit and loss - though we all know it is.

The Tories have told me to get lost: their defence is that the cash was accepted 'in good faith', which isn't a defence in law of any sort. Asil Nadir's bankruptcy trustee has written asking for it back - no reply. The police aren't going to help, and I doubt any moral pressure will either, but let's give it a go. Ask your local Conservative Party representative why it's OK to hold on to money stolen from the employees of a bankrupt company.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Conrad's Heart of Darkness

I come not to bury Conrad Black… nor to praise him.

Did you see this interview on Newsnight last week? My favourite bit was Conrad expressing a wish to smash Jeremy Paxman's face in. He also turned up to be interviewed on Sky by Adam Boulton: amidst the arrogance, he rather wonderfully paused to ask for Boulton's name - a slight which will have hurt that pompous presenter more than physical violence ever could.

If you're unsure who he is, Conrad, Lord Black of Crossharbour is a viciously rightwing Canadian newspaper magnate who quit the wide open prairies to own the Daily Telegraph and various other British and American newspapers, motivated by twin greeds for power and money. Citizen Kane-eh, if you like.

Being obsessive about free markets, it was somewhat of a surprise to find that when he sold his newspaper empire, he took 'non-compete' fees: essentially bribes not to start competitors to the publications he'd sold. Hardly free-market economics. He was convicted of several counts of fraud and dishonesty, some of which have been overturned on technicalities.

I rather like Conrad. He's rude, blustering, arrogant, entirely devoid of reflective qualities. He's nakedly greedy and incapable of considering anything objectively - and is therefore top quality copy. More importantly, I think he needs to be taken less seriously. He's been used, for the last few years, as a mini-Murdoch: a Capitalist Bogeyman with which to scare the kids. Don't be like Conrad, they'd say, with his silly fancy dress costumes and his Marie Antoinette wife and corporate jets. He's bad, mkay?

It's a distraction. Conrad's a pantomime baddy, the jester of corporate capitalism. He's the disciplinary model: if you're not behaving like him, you're OK, seems to be the message.

This is wrong. Conrad ripped off some other greedy scumbags and got caught. Paraded through the courts and interviews, we're all meant to boo and hiss, then return to our lives safe in the knowledge that the Bad Guys always get caught in the end.

Total bollocks, of course. The real bad guys don't nick the occasional private jet, or filch a few million here or there. The real bad guys don't need to break the law, because laws are made and unmade for them. They deal in multiples of billions and they don't wear fancy dress, at least not in public. They dress down and stay out of the papers. They trash entire countries and even global economies. They're bailed out by you and me, paid for by cuts in disabled children's welfare funds (true) and hospital closures. You'll never know their names and they'll never take responsibility.

So laugh at Conrad if you like, but while you do, the real heist is happening elsewhere.


Not an obscure Latin epithet, but a placename, imaginatively translating into English as 'wide water'. It's a bird reserve amidst beautiful woodland between Gnosall (Staffordshire) and Newport (Shropshire). Famous for its variety of exotic and rare birds - ospreys, kingfishers, bitterns and more - we saw some ducks.

But it was a beautiful autumn day: cold and clear, silent and colourful. Thanks to Dan, we stayed off the roads almost all afternoon, traipsing along abandoned roman roads, old train tracks and muddy fox runs… followed by a slap-up meal in a canalside pub.

Here are a selection of photos which you can click to enlarge. The rest are here.

Landscape photographer in landscape

Bridge to nowhere

Moon through hawthorn branches

Hallowe'en ravens!

Friday, 26 October 2012

A Fair Go For Billionaires

Sadly, my self-pitying millionaire MP Paul Uppal isn't a fictional character. He believes that to get the economy going, millionaires need to pay less tax, while poor people should pay more. It's all about incentives to work.

An actual fictional character - Alan Billison - puts the case beautifully (thanks to Matthew for this one):

The same company is responsible for this ad, which pays homage to the Life of Brian rather nicely:

Where's Paul Uppal?

Regular readers may dimly remember that I used to devote a sizeable amount of my time to regaling you with the latest, most desperate exploits of my almost heroically dim, cynical, lazy and arrogant MP, Mr Paul Uppal, a man so far up the bottom of David Cameron that you can see his eyes gleaming behind the Prime Minister's tonsils when he laughs.

So, you may be wondering, what's happened? Where is the trenchant commentary on Mr P's shameless self-promotion and hypocrisy?

Well, to tell you the truth, there's nothing to say. Our Paul - never the most active sloth on the branch - has decided that the best way to avoid a calamitous defeat in the election is simply to say and do nothing. It won't help, of course, but it might turn a Pompeii-style eruption of democratic fury into a Mount St. Helen's.

Let's have a quick look at his latest activity over at Don't bother with Twitter: he hasn't made an appearance for 119 days - presumably his last technologically-competent teenage aide has too much homework on to pretend to be Our Parliamentary Hero.

On October the 6th, he poked his head above the parapet, went over the top of the trench and faced down the masses as he bravely supported guide dogs. A big hand, ladies and gentlemen, for his political bravery in grasping this controversial nettle. It almost makes me forget that he voted to cut disability benefits even for children.

October 5th saw him taking another lonely, principled stand in favour of CAFOD feeding the hungry over the seas. No doubt African hunger is the fault (all together now) of 'the last Labour government'. Sadly Paul hasn't yet found time to comment on, or even donate to, the food banks now feeding the poor and hungry in his own constituency. Come on Paul, it might help you keep your seat: food for votes! Though local people queuing for cans of beans might not look too kindly on your claim that the Tories are bringing back the good times (at least, I assume you're arguing this… in your mirror).

28th September saw you drink coffee against cancer - another lonely struggle, and a few days before that, you publicly opposed dangerous dogs. Once more proving that you're a man of principle and not the kind of guy who turns up to the opening of an envelope providing there's nothing inside that might possibly upset your rich constituents.

What have you been doing since October 5th? Well, rumour has it that Cameron decided that rather than dislodge you from his intestines, he'd give you the job of carrying David Willetts' bags as PPS to the Universities Minister. Perhaps this is a good time to tell us what classification of degree you got? I've asked you before, and you declined to answer. Was it a 3rd, Paul? Or - surely not - an Ordinary or a Fail?

Strangely, your own website fails to mention your new job. One would have thought that a man as arrogant as you would be shouting it from the rooftops. But on second thoughts, perhaps not. Certainly if I'd voted to impose fees of £9000 on students (now revealed to be costing the government and taxpayers more than the £6000 scheme), and I had 20,000 students in my constituency (majority: 691), I'd be keeping my mouth very tightly shut indeed. Still, your secret's safe with me, eh?

So come on Paul, have you done anything in the last few months?

Well readers, you won't be disappointed: while Paul likes to pose for photos with cancer charities, he found the energy to sign a letter to the Health Secretary in July opposing plain packaging for cigarettes, the latest plan to make smoking less attractive. To summarise his argument, lots of jobs depend on people giving themselves fatal cancer - and not just MacMillan nurses' jobs either. Even more importantly, some major tax-avoiding global corporations need you to buy their fags. So come on, do your duty! Start smoking! Finally, Joe Camel's right to get your kids smoking is a matter of freedom of speech (this from the man who during the 2010 election campaign regularly deleted comments from his short-lived blog). What's the deaths of millions of people compared with Marlboro's right to coloured packaging?

Looking forward to his election slogan: 'Tough On Cancer; Relaxed About The Causes Of Cancer'.

You're all just jealous of my jetpack

I had a good rant the other day about science fiction and generic boundaries. I'm not going to reopen that debate - but it reminded me of two lovely Tom Gauld cartoons from the Guardian. I tried to buy the first one, but someone else had snapped it up. I did get hold of the second one though: it hangs in my office, next to the 'Horrid Children in Literature' strip.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Superman and me

You might think I have little in common with Superman. And you'd be right. I used to have a skinny-fit Superman t-shirt (worn with a degree of irony, I should add), but I rapidly stopped being skinny and unlike Comic-Book Guy, I surmised that this wasn't a good look.

Now, however, Superman and I are colleagues. He's quit his job on the Daily Planet and become a blogger, after becoming frustrated by the limitations of print media. In particular, according to this report, the authors see Clark Kent as a man alienated from his profession by the relentless cheapening of newspaper journalism. Ironically (that word again), this occurs in the pages of a comic book. Actually, it's not ironic at all: comics have been addressing the big issues, including the erosion of the public sphere, for years.

It's a sad moment: newspapers made comic strips, and now comic strips have cast off newspapers, even though we're only talking about fiction. The point about Clark Kent being a journalist was that he was fighting for Truth and Justice in his suit and day job just as much as his alter ego was in external underpants and cape. He, Lois and Jimmy were heroes of a relatable sort, fulfilling the professional demands of their vocation. But when we think of journalism now, we don't associate it with the investigative derring-do of the Guardian or the Sunday Times Insight team (RIP): we see a bunch of sleazy blokes hacking into phones in pursuit of seedy sex scandals. We imagine Daily Mail drones putting together another set of prurient, skin-crawling euphemisms which make it OK to leer over an underage girl or a celebrity doing something outrageous like not wearing mascara. Clark's an old-fashioned guy in the best sense: he sees newspapers as part of the public sphere, holding power to account - something American and British newspapers have singularly failed to do in recent years.

I hope Clark Kent's wrong. But he's not the first fictional journalist to move into the blogosphere: Doonesbury's Rick  Redfern is finding it hard going: the Huffington Post and such sites are notoriously exploitative and still don't have the credibility associated with a newspaper (click to enlarge)

Mind you, if you think it's hard for the dispossessed journalist, what about the effect on us? I certainly wouldn't want any of you to depend either on partisan news channels or even my efforts in the field for enlightenment. (Click to enlarge). 

Blogging is important: I've pursued the egregious Grant Shapps and my local excuse for an MP, Paul Uppal, because I don't have institutional responsibilities - I'm not spending anyone's money and I don't have a deadline, but it's no substitute for a press card, an editor and a budget. Despite the heroic work of Eoin Clarke et al., we don't have the mass reach, access or credibility a decent newspaper still possesses. 

Matt Groening's advice to students and teachers.

Thirty years after everybody else, I've got round to reading the pre-Simpsons work of Matt Groening, Hell. It's a wonderful strip about an alienated, lonely and slightly eccentric rabbit, who bears some physical resemblance to the Simpson family.

The opening page of The Big Book of Hell features this advice, which I think will form the centrepiece of my next 'how to do your dissertation' talk - and could usefully be distributed to colleagues too!

He also provides a handy guide to university lecturers:

The question is, which one am I?

Deconstructing Excel

What a day. I turned up bright and early ready to write a two-hour lecture on Jonson's Volpone for students who have never heard of him. It was going to be fun, especially since the recent publication of Donaldson's definitive biography, and the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson. Sadly, I can't afford the latter, at £650, but apparently it's very good.

What did I actually do today? I spent four hours putting together a spreadsheet of each student's personal details, dissertation title, whether they'd submitted a proposal, whether it had passed, who was going to supervise it and second-mark it, what kind of project it is etc etc ad bloody infinitum. Now I just have to mail the students with all this information. My dears, the tedium!

The only light relief was a chat with a Literature dissertation student who came in to discuss her Milton/Lewis/Pullman proposal. She'd prepared, she'd read the right kind of critical literature and knew what she was talking about - my job was to persuade her of all these things: I often find that the most nervous or self-critical students are the high-achieving ones. Some of the others don't care and some can't spot weaknesses in their approaches. I once had a mature student come to my 'writing skills' consultations every day for his entire three years. I knew from week 1 that he was going to get a First class degree (once he learned to miss out the adjectives from every sentence: he previously worked in advertising), but he just couldn't appreciate his own skills and insights as genuine. He thought we were just being nice to him!

Anyway, the only other thing that caught my eye today was Iain Duncan Smith's adoption of Chinese population regulations. He's saying that in future, child benefit will be restricted to a maximum of two kiddies per family. Now, I'm of the opinion that there are rather too many people on the planet (especially meat-munching, SUV-driving Westerners, Tories in particular), but this is a particularly unpleasant way to go about things. Essentially, he's saying that rich people can carry on breeding to their hearts' content - but poor people's children should go hungry because their parents have been feckless.

It doesn't even work in self-interested terms. If poor people's children go hungry, unclothed and unsocialised, they become alienated: crime, drugs, unrewarding and underpaid work are their destinies - all of which cost the taxpayer a damn sight more than giving their parents some child benefit and making sure they get a good, stable upbringing.

There's a word for what Iain Duncan Smith plans. Actually, there are two: 'social engineering' (something Tories condemn when socialists point out that private education or Oxbridge selection might need attention) and 'eugenics'. It's that stark. He wants fewer poor people and more fat rich toffs. As Warren Buffett says, there's a class war on. Rich people started it, and they're winning. Ben Jonson, who had a sharp eye for greedy hypocritical chancers, would have made short work of Grant Shapps, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and the rest of the ghastly Tory crew.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Back from the teaching abyss…

So, how did it go? I hear you cry. Or are you just crying?

Well, the Shakespeare class was mixed. Attendance was 75%, which is a bit disappointing. 9 of the 15 had copies of King Lear, which is a tad infuriating given it's week 4 of their second year at university and the seminar is published weeks in advance. Some of the rest tried to use e-editions on their mobile phones. And a couple just spent the class texting and not speaking to any of their colleagues.

Folks: I like electronic editions of things. You can search through them, for instance. But free electronic editions are usually rubbish for high-level textual criticism. My students couldn't tell me whether they had a Folio, Quarto or mixed edition. They had no explanatory notes or glossary. It was a useful way in to a discussion of editorial practices and publishing history, but I don't think it will persuade them to spend £0.01 + postage on a decent second-hand paper edition.

Also: you just can't work on a text for two hours if it's on your mobile phone screen. iPad - fine. Phone - damaging and decontextualised.

That said, those who were prepared had a really good go. They didn't know much about the play's history or context (despite my colleague's excellent lectures), but they grasped the alternative interpretations very impressively, demonstrated considerable abstract thought and critical reading abilities, and we ended up running out of time - always a good thing.

My second class was on the nature of truth and objectivity with regard to media production and consumption. It was a tough crowd, understandably: nobody wants to argue the toss about Kant when they've only a year or so of Media Studies or Religious Studies under their belts. But we got there - applying the concepts to climate change discussions, Milly Dowler and famine reportage, plus the Living Marxism libel trial helped a lot, and they realised what Newsnight fails to acknowledge: that if you invite Peter Lilley MP on to discuss climate change, you should point out that he's a director of an oil company. After that, we got from Kant to structuralism and post-structuralism. They coped very well with structuralist semiotics but found post-structuralism and the idea of language shaping us a bit of a stretch - which is great.

Anyhoo - time to prepare tomorrow's class before going fencing. I feel the need for something simple, and sticking a foil into somebody's chest will do nicely.

Non-answer of the week

You may remember I asked the Conservative Party why it felt justified in retaining the £400,000+ donated by Polly Peck companies, given the chairman was an international fugitive who has just been jailed for stealing £29m and making these donations without permission of the shareholders and/or Directors - also a criminal offence.

Their reply was a brush-off. So I tried again.

This is today's reply:

Dear Dr Vole, On behalf of the Party Chairman, The Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP, I am writing to thank you for your further email. As I have previously stated the Conservative Party has no record of having received donations from Asil Nadir. Donations were received from Polly Peck companies more than 22 years ago; these were accepted in good faith from what was then considered to be a leading British company. Thank you again for writing. Yours Sincerely, Oliver

It's a non-answer, in that it repeats their position ('it's mine, my precious') without addressing my major point: that the auditors say the cash was stolen, and the Proceeds of Crime Act also make possession of this cash a potential crime.

My final reply before I take the whole affair to the police:

Dear Oliver,
Polly Peck collapsed 22 years ago when the Chairman fled the country while on bail. Did this not indicate that the donations from his companies were not entirely legitimate? Touche Ross wrote to you several years ago to inform you that the money was illegitimately donated: does this not require you to return the money? Or the suffering of the employees and shareholders who lost everything when the companies collapsed? Finally, I would point out that the Proceedings of Crime Act explicitly rules out a defence of 'good faith': possession of stolen money and failure to report potentially illegitimate transactions are criminal offences. I fear that it's time I put this matter in the hands of the police. 

The weekly Wednesday wobble

Morning all. And what a grey, dreary morning it is here. Perhaps it seems even greyer because I looked through my sister's wedding photos last night. She got married on an escarpment overlooking Wellington, New Zealand - mountains, the sea etc. And the tables at the reception were named for various typefaces, which is exactly the kind of thing I appreciate. I'd like to think that the more annoying guests were placed on the Comic Sans table, out of earshot.

Today's plan is both simple and exhausting: 3 hours on King Lear with the second year students, then straight into 2 hours on deontological ethics and subjective/objective phenomena (utter Kant) with a different set of second years, then I'll haul what remains of my sorry carcass off to fencing. I know that 5 hours of continuous teaching sounds like a doddle to anyone who has a physically demanding job, but it's mentally draining - out in front of the class there's no opportunity for mentally recharging. Switching between two subjects (I teach in two departments) without a break even for a cup of tea is a challenge too.

You have to constantly review how things are going, be alive to every nuance of what the students are saying, feeling and thinking, and never stop paying attention to them. When it goes well, it's the best feeling in the world - but it's still exhausting. I wouldn't want to do anything else. When it's not going well, it's utterly demoralising - such as when they haven't bothered reading a text, or don't feel like talking about it. I've occasionally walked out of a class in exasperation, but it's not a solution.

Anyway, the Lear class should go well - they've had lectures on it already and they should be prepared. As with last week's class, we'll talk about the Nahum Tate 'happy ending' version of the play, the history of performance, the plays' differing moral universes and see how it goes. Attendance has so far been high and they've all been talkative.

The ethics class is trickier: the students are from a wide range of subjects, the concepts are both new and difficult, and most of them appear not to have any interest in the core applications. While they engage quite well with the philosophical concepts, the application of ethical thinking to media production and consumption still seems beyond their mental landscape. News media are at the core of today's session, but I'm hampered by the fact that they literally do not watch TV news, read newspapers or listen to news radio. Last week they hadn't heard of Jimmy Savile, for instance. I know this makes me sound like a whinging old duffer, but it really does bother me: they're mostly media students and they all have the vote.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Be afraid…

Actually, I'm not sure you should be scared: this is rather cute:

It's Dorit Hockman's photograph of black mastiff bat embryos and it's going to adorn my Christmas cards this year. The photo came 20th in the Nikon Microphotography competition: you can be astonished by the other 19 on the Guardian's website. The bats remind me of the weeping angels in Doctor Who, or something out of Terry Pratchett. 

Now, who wants to donate towards some more lenses for me so I can enter next year?

Blink and miss me

Morning everyone. As you may have noticed, my blogging schedule has slipped from the old - probably excessive - four a day to a mere couple a day. It's a combination of mental exhaustion and business. And perhaps I just don't have as many Reckons on subjects as I did when I was young. What a dreadful prospect: perhaps one day I'll wake up indifferent to everything from bad books to local Tories. On that day, I shall walk into the river with stones in my cardigan pockets like Virginia. If I can be bothered.

Today is hectic: chairing my union branch meeting, seeing students individually, writing lectures, giving lectures, hopefully managing to fit in a dutiful swim so that one day my arms reach the desk… As usual when it's like this, I fill the room with choral music. Being a Philistine of the first order, I use it functionally as an aesthetic and emotional sedative. If it's in Latin, so much the better: I can ignore the religious content and context. I can get by in Latin but only if I concentrate, which I don't intend to do.

Currently listening to Gabriel Jackson's new collection, Beyond the Stars - not quite as good as I expected it to be. Some pretty bits, some powerful bits, but fairly standard, all told. His O Sacrum Convivium setting is rather special though:

Monday, 22 October 2012

Really bad books No. 37: Alex Scarrow

As you may know, I have a bit of a thing for decent SF, including post-prosperity/climate change fiction, which is currently flooding (arf!) teen and adult publishing like there's no tomorrow (double arf!). Many of them are quite good because they follow the tradition of John Wyndham or JG Ballard. In Wyndham's work, the actual disaster is a bit of a McGuffin designed to demonstrate that decent chaps and chapesses can thrive once the trivialities of urban consumerist society are discarded as so much flummery. In Ballard's vision, the self-deceptions of technological capitalism are the only things which keep us whistling in the dark. Expose us to our true natures by making us confront what we've done to the world and each other and lethargy or existential dread takes over.

Either way, good bracing stuff.

However, reading this stuff inevitably leads to the occasional duff novel. One such is Alex Scarrow's Last Light, a post-oil disaster novel which ticks all the boxes on my personal Rubbish Book Characteristics list. Which is a shame as its basic point - that oil underpins the entire world infrastructure - is fair enough.

In no particular order, and not exhaustively, here are my personal objections to this terrible novel. The only worse ones I've read recently are How Green Was My Valley (which at least manages to be insidious rather than obvious) and Death Comes To Pemberley, PD James' Austenian necrophilia. She deserves to be horsewhipped for it.

1. Unhealthy need to enunciate gun specifications.
2. Massively obvious plot telegraphed very early.
3. Hero moves from intellectual feminised whiner to Buff Macho Killer by discovering his True Priorities (his wife and family).
4. Hero's wife is allowed to be active to some extent but must Rediscover Her Love For Her Husband to achieve redemption.
5. Heroic daughter must shoot dying man in the head to achieve Agency.
6. 9/11 (or rather 11/9) employed as insultingly lazy conspiracy theorist mill-grist.
7. All dialogue must include 'said' + adverb ('she said sadly').
8. Conspiratorial elites are at the heart of our social problems.
9. Massive chunks of expository dialogue of the most clunking sort ('So, you're a Muslim weirdo: what's it all about, eh?' 'Well, white infidel…')
10. Characters introduced and discarded for momentary effect - such as Alison and Dan, both murdered off-page so that Leona feels a bit sad for a line or two.
11. Casual unthinking racism.
12. Not a sentence that betrays the slightest indication that it's been revised to do anything more than get you to the next sentence without losing track of the 'plot'.
13. Total inability to leave imaginative space for the reader to do some of the creative work.
14. Apparent belief that Manchester City (or any other) matches are on live TV on weekdays at lunchtime.

I could go on. But there's a sequel I just have to read, so I'll reserve some ire for that too. Unless it turns out to be a staggering work of heartbreaking genius. But Last Light makes me reach for my Shakespeare: 'it is a tale told by an idiot, all sound and fury, signifying nothing'.

Another Bullingdon image released

I'm finding it difficult to distinguish between this advert for carrots or cooking oil and David Cameron's government. Someone help me out?

Ambitions for the day

Today will be successful if I stay awake in this afternoon's lecture. Not so tough, you may think, but I nodded off once or twice last week while my esteemed friend and colleague gave a fascinating case study of India's media history. In my defence, I was exhausted, it was stiflingly hot and the chair was comfortable. I thought I'd got away with it until Steve said something and my students tweeted it. Judging by the seminar though, I'd absorbed more than them…

Today should be easier: I'm actually giving the lecture. I'll forgive the kids if they sleep, perchance to dream but I should probably try to stay conscious. It's a lecture on genre and narratology, which is one of my favourite subjects, but it's for media/cultural studies students rather than literature students, so I'm wrestling with Police! Camera! Action! and Homes Under The Hammer. For light relief, I'm giving them this bit of Charlie Brooker in between Propp, Barthes and Genette.

What other excitement do I have planned? Well, I have some RAM to instal (thanks Crucial - cheap and very quick delivery) and a book has arrived: Tom Phillips experimental A Humument, which takes a bad Victorian novel and produces a new, weird one by blocking out most of the original text with art.

Here's a sample of the original book next to the same, treated page.

Mallock's A Human Document, weirdly, is now only known at all because of what Phillips did to it - original copies are worth hundreds of pounds.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Dreampop Friday

Right, I've spent the day in meetings. One of them was filmed for some bizarre reason. It will feature hot live bureaucrat-on-bureaucrat action. The scene with the PowerPoint remote control is quite frankly NSFW.

Anyway, I'm traumatised from my close-up - I AM big: it's the meetings that got small, as Norma (almost) said.  I need saccharine pop to cheer me up. Here's a selection of tracks I'm listening to at the moment:

Frankie Rose: 'Know Me':

Nobody's life is complete without some Slowdive (especially you, The XX)

I'm quite hooked on Nancy Elizabeth at the moment:

And if you want to know where they all got it from: This Mortal Coil's 'Song to the Siren':

and 'Kangaroo'.

Have a great weekend!

Eat your heart out, JG Ballard…

Here's a time-lapse video of the space shuttle Endeavour making the two-day trip 12 miles from an airport in LA to its final resting place in the California Science Center.

It's poignant, and deeply sad, though I can't help feeling that the music and the photography does most of the work for us. JG Ballard's evocations of an exhausted near-future world in which a few connoisseurs and obsessives go mad in the tumbleweed-strewn abandoned launching pads they see as symbols of existential anomie were fundamental to my teenage years. Surrounded by political cynicism, crumbling infrastructures and above all a planet which we are consciously driving towards ruin, I felt I'd missed out on the Age of Optimism.

I grew up: I learned that the Space Race was a costly, military-driven diversion into extra-terrestrial willy-waving, sucking in billions of dollars while the poor starved in every superpower country. I learned that the Shuttle was a beautiful white elephant, its lack of ambition summarised in its unadventurous name ('shuttle': may as well call it a taxi). I mourned the loss of Star Trek's innocence as it moved into The Next Generation, harbinger of Liberal Interventionism as its crew rampaged through the galaxy enforcing neocolonialism reassured by the presence of a bloody Ship's Counsellor with her big puppy eyes. Alien and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Red Dwarf presented an alternative, less idealistic version of space, as a hostile, proletarian hell in which boredom is only occasionally relieved by existential terror.

I began to understand that the exploration of space is a myth designed to distract us from our problems here and now. We're never going to other solar systems: perhaps our machines will, but the distances are too vast and the purposes too far. I still read an awful lot of SF, but in a sadder and wiser fashion, and perhaps I read sadder, wiser SF too. I don't believe in space 'races', or 'conquering' space, or any other militarist or technocratic metaphors.

And yet, I'll miss the shuttle. Useless, expensive, unreliable, unsafe but beautiful in a way that the superior Russian rockets aren't. Retiring something called Endeavour really is symbolic, even for us cynics. I would like to have been there, to have walked every step of the way. It was clearly a semi-religious experience, judging by the crowds who lined the route to see this battered, behemoth negotiate suburban streets, passing homes and strip joints and parks, stop-lights and no-parking signs, utterly out of place down here on earth. We all respect the bloodied, unbowed veteran as it's reduced from heroism to attraction: Endeavour is just such an artefact, Moby Dick turned into a heap of blubber and bone.

The end of Endeavour is the end of our space-childhood. Despite being a miserable compromise, its beauty and promise persuaded us – for a while – that we were nobler, better than we really are. But now it's time to put such childish things away and become adults; start to clear up the trash, to engage with the boring but necessary tasks required to pull ourselves out of the mire; to stop acting like the universe owes us a living. Endeavour, Enterprise and Discovery are where they belong - children's toys put aside until some younger, fresher generation finds the energy and leisure to play with them again.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Grant Shapps: master criminal?

I have - as is my wont - spent a happy hour or so perusing the provisions of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. It is, as you'd expect, riveting. A real page-turner. Or mouse-clicker.

Why would I do this? Because I'm intrigued by the determination of the Conservative Party's determination to hold on to the money given to it by various Polly Peck subsidiaries without the consent of their shareholders and directors. Asil Nadir, the ultimate owner of these companies, fled to Northern Cyprus after they collapsed, taking £29m with him.

Given that this was the biggest scandal of the City in the 1980s, one would have thought that the Conservative Party would have been ashamed to be associated with this crook, and given the money back to help the failed companies' creditors. But they don't think like us.

More recently, Mr Nadir (and what a wonderful name for a man who was essentially competing with Robert Maxwell for Worst Shyster In London) came back and was found guilty of a number of offences. He's now in prison. So will the Tories give the money back now? Don't be ridiculous: as Oliver from Tory HQ said to me,
We have seen no evidence that money donated to the Conservative Party from the Polly Peck group was stolen.
The Polly Peck administrators wrote to the Party years ago asking for the cash back on the basis that it was stolen. Nadir's gone to prison for stealing cash and breaching his legal duties as a company director. One would have thought that was proof enough.

Based on my amateur scroll through the Proceeds of Crime Act, I'm not convinced that Oliver's claim is an adequate defence.  Let's look at some key clauses:

Money laundering2An offence under either of the following provisions of this Act—(a)section 327 (concealing etc criminal property);(b)section 328 (assisting another to retain criminal property).

To my untrained eye, the Polly Peck donations are criminal property if the donations weren't authorised by the shareholders and/or the directors. So the Tory Party has concealed criminal property and by refusing to give the cash back, retained criminal property.

But the Tories didn't steal any of this money, did they? Well, I seem to remember people going to prison after the London riots for holding on to property stolen by other people and then gifted to them. And lo! there's an applicable clause:

A person benefits from conduct if he obtains property or a pecuniary advantage as a result of or in connection with the conduct [of the criminal]
A gift is also tainted if it was made by the defendant at any time and was of property—(a)which was obtained by the defendant as a result of or in connection with his general criminal conduct, or(b)which (in whole or part and whether directly or indirectly) represented in the defendant’s hands property obtained by him as a result of or in connection with his general criminal conduct.

Boosting Party coffers certainly looks like 'pecuniary advantage' to me. So does a gift acquired through breaching directors' legal duties. And if that's not clear, how about this?

Acquisition, use and possession(1)A person commits an offence if he—(a)acquires criminal property;(b)uses criminal property;(c)has possession of criminal property.
And there's more!
242“Property obtained through unlawful conduct”(1)A person obtains property through unlawful conduct (whether his own conduct or another’s) if he obtains property by or in return for the conduct.(2)In deciding whether any property was obtained through unlawful conduct—(a)it is immaterial whether or not any money, goods or services were provided in order to put the person in question in a position to carry out the conduct,(b)it is not necessary to show that the conduct was of a particular kind if it is shown that the property was obtained through conduct of one of a number of kinds, each of which would have been unlawful conduct.

It doesn't really matter whether the Conservative Party thinks the money isn't stolen: it's committing a crime if the cash is stolen. 2 a and b seem to mean that a political donation from fraudulently acquired funds is covered: it doesn't matter whether or not Nadir or the Tories (who was close friends with senior Conservatives) expected to get anything from the gift. More to the point, ignorance is no defence. The Polly Peck story was sensational, and the Tories could only have missed it if none of its members opened a newspaper or watched the TV in 1988. Which seems unlikely:

A person commits an offence if he enters into or becomes concerned in an arrangement which he knows or suspects facilitates (by whatever means) the acquisition, retention, use or control of criminal property by or on behalf of another person.
Given the overwhelming publicity, Conservative Party Chairs and Treasurers must now and must then have suspected that these donations were 'criminal property'. As I read it, that makes all Conservative Party employees (and members?) involved in donations who knew about the donation guilty of not reporting each other for continuing to retain, use and control criminal property. 

But it was all a long time ago, wasn't it? Not according to the law:
It is immaterial—(a)whether conduct occurred before or after the passing of this Act, and(b)whether property or a pecuniary advantage constituting a benefit from conduct was obtained before or after the passing of this Act.
A gift may be a tainted gift whether it was made before or after the passing of this Act.

I'd say the Tories have benefitted rather a lot before and after the passing of the Act from a donation of around £440,000.

Now, would any legal eagles like to offer an opinion on my amateur interpretation before I make a complaint to the police?

Cynicism has a name. And it's Chelsea

No, not the football club. The human being, Chelsea Clinton. The little girl hounded and mocked by a disgusting rightwing press who has now become the poster girl for Liberal Interventionist Colonialism.

I've just watched an interview she gave to Newsnight about her charity work in Nigeria. 'What's wrong with that, you misanthropist bastard?' I hear you cry. 'She's very good, devoting her life to helping others.'

Here's what's wrong with that, in no particular order.

1. This isn't charity. It's self-help. It's an extended gap year designed to instil a degree of humility in rich, privileged Westerners.

2. This isn't charity. It's PR. It's an attempt to generate a dossier of 'caring' pictures to be used in an election campaign somewhere down the line. It's a shortcut, a simulation of struggle and of altruism. If aid work has a hyperreal component, Chelsea is it. Alongside any football player's charity work.

3. This isn't charity. It's zipless politics of the worst sort. Look caring without expressing the slightest opinion about anything. I guarantee that Chelsea Clinton will run for office in the United States of America before too long. She's never had a proper job and depends at least in part on her husband's income as an investment banker - one of the people making life worse for everybody, and she needs to build a public service profile. But if she got involved in poverty reduction, reproductive rights, social justice or anything like it, she'd be open to attack from the right as some kind of communist.

4. This isn't charity: it's image management. The Clinton Health Access organisation opposes maternal and child death. It's something nobody could oppose - and is therefore an easy way to appear virtuous. Being based in Nigeria seems - on the face of it - to be a nice safe bolt hole from political questions: the US hasn't invaded recently. Unfortunately, Nigeria is wracked by religious warfare and has been turned into one of the prime victims of Western oil interests. Despite being one of the world's largest oil exporters, Nigerians are desperately poor, governed by corrupt thieves, policed by Shell Oil's private armies and live in a dystopian wasteland of environmental degradation caused by reckless drilling. It's all our fault, and Chelsea Clinton's work with the Nigerian government is a cynical piece of PR by them and by her. They give her some charity work, pose for some photos and continue diverting money away from systematic healthcare and infrastructure into their own pockets.

5. This isn't charity: this is colonialism. We - and I very much mean you and I, not just Western states - have wrecked Nigeria, and we make ourselves feel better by donating a few quid to 'charity' rather than doing the right thing: paying for our oil, cleaning up the mess, apologising for and helping correct the consequences of imperialism. Charity is destructive: it makes us believe that Africans depend on us, that they're incapable of identifying and solving their problems, that they need us, that their problems aren't our fault.

Chelsea Clinton and her ilk are the human faces of celebrity politics. She is a diversion from fundamental issues. I'm sure she and her supporters think they're doing good, and they are on an individual level, but it's a distraction from structural problems. She'll get a good career in politics without having to do anything more strenuous than speak in air-conditioned boardrooms and appear on TV, while the roots and systems which generate global inequality and suffering go unexamined. This is worse than being ineffectual: like Mother Teresa, the activities of the Chelsea Clintons of this world actually perpetuate and justify continued injustice.

But she looks great on TV.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Dear Vole, feck off, love from Grant Shapps

I sent the Chair of the Conservative Party a letter asking why they won't return money donated by Asil Nadir, recently jailed for stealing £29m from his Polly Peck empire. I included a quotation from the Touche Ross report which made the point that the donations were made from companies without the permission or knowledge of the directors or shareholders. 

They have, obviously, told me to piss off, with a particularly weaselly slant: apparently they've never had a donation from Asil Nadir:

Dear Mr Vole, I am writing on behalf of the Party Chairman, The Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP, to thank you for your recent email. In response to your point I would say that the Conservative Party has no record of having received donations from Asil Nadir. Donations were received from Polly Peck companies more than 22 years ago; these were accepted in good faith from what was then considered to be a leading British company. We have seen no evidence that money donated to the Conservative Party from the Polly Peck group was stolen. But we have consistently said, as Norman Fowler, then Party Chairman, did in 1993, ‘obviously if it is proved that that money was stolen it will be returned’. Thank you, once again, for taking the time and trouble to get in touch.  
Yours sincerely, Oliver  
Oliver Wells 
Office of the Party Chairmen Conservative Campaign Headquarters

Here's the Touche Ross quotation again:

Touche Ross, the administrators of Polly Peck, wrote a letter – widely reported four years ago – to the party's central office claiming that £365,000 came from money defrauded from the Polly Peck empire."It is the contention of the administrator that Mr Nadir is liable to repay the sums concerned as a result of his fraud and/or breach of fiduciary duty and/or malfeasance as a director," the letter concluded. "I would urge you to return the donations to Polly Peck so that the creditors can at least obtain some small measure of compensation from this unfortunate affair." 
So let's do this again, this time with feeling:

Dear Oliver,thanks very much for your letter. It seems - as you state - to be the case that Mr Nadir did not directly donate to the Conservative Party. However, as the extract from the administrators' report shows, he is responsible for the Polly Peck and subsidiary company donations, and that the donations were secured as a result of fraudulent activity and Nadir's breaches of company law and his fiduciary duties. As such, the liquidators  requested that you repay the money. 
1. Why have you not done so? 
2. Mr Nadir was a fugitive from justice for thirty years, and the Conservative Party must have been well aware of numerous police inquiries. Why did you not feel that you should investigate the origins of these donations? 
3. Mr Nadir was convicted of a number of crimes. Are you aware that it is a criminal offence under the Proceeds of Crime Act and its forerunners to refrain from reporting potentially fraudulent transaction and receipt of the profits of crime? Given the public nature of Mr Nadir's flight, the collapse of his companies and his eventual conviction, can you confirm to me that you have indeed reported the receipt of these monies to the police? I am not convinced, from reading the Act, that 'good faith' is a defence in law - particularly since Mr Nadir publicly fled the country while facing charges, and since he has subsequently been convicted.  
4. Does Mr Nadir's criminal conviction on multiple counts of fraud, theft and breaches of law not constitute proof that these funds were stolen? Do you have information which was not available to Touche Ross when they wrote to you all those years ago?
Love and hugs, Vole

Clearly Mr Nadir and his money are on the 'second chance' list alongside Hunt, Mitchell, Coulson and Brooks. 

PS. I wrote to my MP, Paul Uppal, about this. No reply… of course. 

I love it when a plan comes together…

I'm feeling optimistic about the world today, which is not normally how people feel after spending the morning in the company of King Lear.

My Shakespeare class is for second-year students (sorry, 'level 5) and takes the form of a two-hour seminar. I knew things would go well when they worked out how to efficiently arrange the desks in a square within minutes. (One of my pet hates is that every room is set out as a school class, with all the students facing the front where the power and authority is meant to be).

We started off by comparing the various editions of the play we had: from 'school' versions, the Norton Anthology edition, the Oxford, the Arden, the RSC and various others - it was a great introduction to the art of textual and editorial studies, which led nicely into a discussion of the play's last lines: spoken by Edgar in my Arden edition, but by Albany in the Oxford version - leading to very different interpretations. (If you like this kind of thing, Claudia Johnson's new book on Austen starts with her trying to decide where a comma should go in a new Austen edition, followed by a virtuoso exposition of the ramifications of making such a decision).

After that, I showed the Nahum Tate's The History of King Lear, his rewrite with a happy ending – Edgar and Cordelia are lovers; she and Lear live happily every after, unlike Shakespeare's text – and we discussed the motivation for this and what it did to interpretation. Tate's version was actually performed far more often than Shakespeare's (which Tate calls 'an unpolished jewel'), and the other tragedies were also fitted with happy resolutions by the Victorians and others, shocked as they were by the arbitrary cruelty of justice not being done.

We discussed the cosmos's indifference to the characters' fates, and whether Lear is ultimately a nihilistic play or one concerned with social justice - all led by the students, who were informed and eager to talk. Certainly one of the most enjoyable sessions I've been in for quite a while.

Also on today: media/cultural studies students are handing in their project proposals. Some are nervous, some want a chat, some want to throw it at me and disappear without a word. We've tried really hard this year to get them to take the proposal seriously and start researching. From looking at the pile, I'd say about 40% have opened a book before writing the proposal. Which is an improvement.

Here's a tip, kids. A dissertation called 'Blogging: is it different in China and the West?' might be considered a little broad and rather vague…

So that's how the BBC plays it…

You may recall that I complained to the BBC about Newsnight guests not declaring their oil exploration interests while discussing climate science. I got pretty annoyed that the complaints unit made me go through the same 28 questions to give them the transmission date even though a) I'd already done so and couldn't have completed the web questionnaire without doing so and b) it's on Newsnight's website.

Judging by the tone of today's email, this was clearly a delaying tactic:
Thank you for taking time to contact us again. We are sorry that you were not satisfied with our earlier response to your complaint and appreciate that you felt strongly enough to contact us again about the matter.
How to read this other than an admission that viewers are intended to undertake trial-by-website to weed out those too tired or dispirited to follow things through? Their 'earlier response' was simply an e-mail (from an address which can't take replies) asking for the transmission date - not a 'response' at all. I can't point this out to them because I can't reply to this email either. To do so, I'd have to fill in the 28 question website again. Kafka would certainly feel at home at Capita/BBC

So what's being done about my complaint? Well, this latest email is to tell me that they won't be able to respond within the standard time-frame.

*Bangs head on desk*.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Fair trade… for some

Like many of us, I'm a hypocrite, especially when it comes to Fair Trade. I'm a hypocrite because I buy Fair Trade products without looking too closely at the question of whether such a thing is possible but also because I buy Fair Trade products from people who aren't being treated fairly at all.

Take my workplace. We've just started selling Starbucks coffee, which is apparently 'Fair Trade'. I wonder, of course, whether that means the growers have hard-nosed negotiators and lawyers just like the multibillion dollar corporation. I further wonder whether anything can be fairly traded when Starbucks has paid no tax at all in the UK since 2009, and only £3m in 14 years, despite doing £3bn of business here.

The secret, of course, is what I call the Branson-Vodafone Manoeuvre. You establish a brass-plate office with a secretary in a tax haven. You put the intellectual property there (i.e. the brand name). Then your subsidiaries in the countries where you really do business pay to licence the brand name. Your tax haven charges them an amount of cash not unadjacent to what the subsidiary would have made in profit. Or you generate fictitious debts between a network of offshore companies so it looks like you always owe more than you take in.

Accounts filed with Companies House, which must be a truthful reflection of the business, according to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), showed a 10th consecutive annual loss.
A year later, after filing a £26m loss in the UK, Starbucks' chief executive, Howard Schultz, told investors the business here was so successful he planned to apply the lessons to the company's biggest market in the US.
Chief financial officer, Troy Alstead, called the UK business "profitable" in 2009 after accounts revealed a record £52m loss. Last year, John Culver, the president of Starbucks international division, said: "We are very pleased with the performance in the UK." Accounts reported a £33m loss.

Bingo: instant losses, no tax paid, company continues to depend on the services (education, infrastructure, policing, healthcare etc) that taxes pay for.

But there's something revolting closer to home. I feel profoundly uncomfortable buying Fair Trade coffee from (mostly) women who are being paid minimum or low wages, and employed on Zero Hours contracts: a system which means they can't get other jobs because their hours are unpredictable and entirely flexible at the whims of the employer. They get dumped for the long summer months and in other places (Pizza Hut, acccording to one employee I know), they can be made to sit around - unpaid - at work in case enough customers come in to require them: time they could spend in another job, extending their education or whatever. My catering and cleaning colleagues are often invisible. They're not unionised because they're kept in fear that they may not be rehired (and perhaps some unions don't make enough effort). They deserve our respect too.

Fair Trade is a noble idea, to some extent. But I worry that it makes us believe that everything on the Home Front is lovely, that only smiling natives in Kenya or India need this special protection (and let's not forget: Fair Trade shouldn't be some lovely extra for which we pay a premium if we're rich: it should be the default position). The worst jobs in this country are done by an army of insecure, badly-paid, disposable people whose names we rarely learn. Let's Trade Fair with them.

Book fear

How can you excuse the man who buys bookcases of expensive wood, and piling into them the works of unknown, worthless authors, goes yawning amongst his thousands of volumes? He knows their titles, their bindings, but nothing else. It is in the homes of the idlest men that you find the biggest libraries — range upon range of books, ceiling high. For nowadays a library is one of the essential fittings of a home, like a bathroom. You could forgive this if it were all due to a zeal for learning. But these libraries of the works of piety and genius are collected for mere show, to ornament the walls of the house.

This is Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and for a while trophy special adviser to Nero, which led inevitably to his being forced to commit suicide. Hmm… I feel I'm slipping into this category as I buy more books than I can read. They do, as someone once said, furnish a room. I have 13 of IKEA's cheapest, nastiest bookcases - I needed quantity, not quality, and my flat and office are now full to bursting, a testament to my appetite for junk food literature and magpie collection. Is there a purpose now? How many hours of reading time are left to me over the course of what I would hesitate to call 'a life'? Tempus fugit, you know. 

Books in today:
Alex Scarrow's Last Light and Afterlight; Warren Ellis's Supergod (clearly in an apocalyptic mood the day I ordered those); Chris Wooding's pirates-in-space sequel The Black Lung Captain, Niall Griffiths' Kelly + Victor because I couldn't find my original copy, and Lloyd Robson's bizarre and challenging bbboing! & associated weirdness. It's exactly that. And he typeset it himself, so maximum respect. 

Still, at least I'm not one of the several second-year students who have asked me whether they have to read the whole book. *Repeatedly bangs head on desk*