Thursday, 28 February 2013

Blogging, medieval style

I've been presented with a book by a comrade returning in triumph from Japan, carefully chosen with me in mind. It's Essays in Idleness: the Tsurezuregusa of Kenko. Kenko was a 14th century monk with – as he put it – 'nothing better to do' than jot down his thoughts, observations, opinions, anecdotes, accounts of customs and ceremonies. 

But the boy Kenko isn't simply a cultural magpie. He's an artist. These short essays (like Montaigne's without the enormous self-confidence?) are jewels. Some are tiny, no more than a sentence or two. He understands the central notion of Japanese philosophy: that transience (our own and that of things he observes) confers beauty and significance. 
The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread out before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known. 
Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth.
I particularly like Essay 75:
I wonder what feelings inspire a man to complain of "having nothing to do." I am happiest when I have nothing to distract me and I am completely alone.
If a man conforms to society, his mind will be captured by the filth of the outside world, and he is easily led astray; if he mingles in society, he must be careful that his words do not offend others, and what he says will not at all be what he feels in his heart. He will joke with others only to quarrel with them, now resentful, now happy, his feelings in constant turmoil. Calculations of advantage will wantonly intrude, and not a moment will be free from considerations of profit and loss. Intoxication is added to delusion, and in a state of inebriation the man dreams. People are all alike: they spend their days running about frantically, oblivious to their insanity.
Even if a man has not yet discovered the path of enlightenment, as long as he removes himself from his worldly ties, leads a quiet life, and maintains his peace of mind by avoiding entanglements, he may be said to be happy, at least for the time being.
It is written in Maka Shikan, " Break your ties with your daily activities, with personal affairs, with your arts, and with learning."

His essays are beautifully, elegantly simple, even in translation. He has charm, tact and style, and he's not always consistent in his opinions. Oh, and he's convinced that the world is going to hell in a hand-cart.

In short, he is or should be the patron saint of bloggers. 

Papal Bull

I couldn't resist the confluence of two momentous events: the Papal Conclave and the Eastleigh By-election

Cardinal 1: What are we here for?
Cardinal 2: We're electing a replacement for that self-righteous guy who had to resign under the weight of his past misdeeds and threw the whole organisation into disarray just as its corrosive culture of sexual impropriety emerged into the open
Cardinal 1. Oh yes. Poor Mr Huhne. 

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Rhodes: bang to rights

One of my favourite writers can be found over at Days of Enlightenment. He's an Eeyore-ish character: grumpy, depressed and misanthropic. The only person he find more disappointing than the broad mass of humanity is, well, himself. It makes great reading.

Today, he has managed to break through the miasma of self-criticism to spend a few minutes contemplating the output of Peter Rhodes, the world's worst local journalist, in pursuit of a forlorn plea for love thinly disguised (like a decent Renaissance sonnet) as a rejection of the romantic chase:
talentless, self-Googling, weasel-faced, regional hack Peter Rhodes; a woman-hating, over-the-hill-that-never-had-a-gradient, bullying, benign tumor of a man spouting half-baked toytown reactionary opinion so uninspired that it makes you think that maybe Littlejohn isn’t so bad after all. To be fair, I shouldn’t knock Rhodes. He provides a valuable service for which I am eternally grateful. Namely that I often think the person I hate most in the world is myself. Then I remember that pointless prick is still breathing and things don’t seem quite so bad after all. So thanks for that, Pete.
'Day's is usually a gentle sort. He reminds me of Moley in The Wind in the Willows: shy, retiring and a thoroughly good chap. He's worth devoting a few minutes of your time to.

Nuclear holocaust: once more for slow learners

I wake today to this headline:

Labour to join Tories in backing a £25bn deal to renew Trident fleet
and the story starts with this:
Labour will fight the next general election on a pledge to retain Britain's independent nuclear deterrent, senior party sources have said. 
So actually, it starts with a direct untruth: Britain doesn't have an 'independent' 'deterrent'. The nukes are largely built, maintained and in some cases rented from the United States. Americans build them. Americans maintain them. Americans provide the satellite targeting information required to fire them. Can we imagine launching one without American permission and technical help? I don't think so.

So not independent. What about 'deterrent'? Well, it's true that the UK hasn't got into any wars at all since it acquired nukes in the 1950s. Unless you count Northern Ireland. And Malaya. Kenya. Suez. Korea of course. A little covert involvement in Vietnam via the Commonwealth. Libya. The Falklands. Iraq (the first time). Iraq (the second time), Afghanistan, Mali, and of course Mr Cameron has now threatened us with 'generational conflict', which sounds like something from Orwell. Bombs have exploded on buses and on tubes.

So yes, it's true that Luxembourg, Andorra and the Vatican have refrained from raining death from above upon the UK, and that may be attributable to the 'nuclear deterrent' if you want to believe that. But the boffins in Tory and Labour think-tanks appear not to have noticed that the UK's enemies are not cackling dictators intent on wiping out their enemies. North Korea has a magnificent line in rhetorical invective, but its citizens eat grass and it survives on China's sufferance. China doesn't need to nuke anybody: it owns the US economy through its investment in American debt. Iran wants nukes because it feels threatened by Israel's nukes. India and Pakistan have nukes because they hate each other and fear China.

The UK faces no enemies who might be usefully dealt with through the judicious application of nuclear weapons. Its enemies tend to be suicide bombers from British streets. Nuclear annihiliation won't deter someone who welcomes death, and even the Tories' hatred of the North won't stretch to dropping 10 megatons on Bradford. The same applies to enemies from abroad. Are we going to nuke Somalia? Or the bits of Mali and Nigeria which harbour opponents? Can we guarantee that only the bad guys are atomised?

Would the UK drop nuclear weapons on non-nuclear enemies? The Americans did it to Japan and the world has been a sadder, more suspicious place ever since. Britain would be a pariah state for ever if it did so. What's the threshold for such an action? It's the act of a psychopath. Governments spend a lot of time condemning acts and groups as 'terrorism'. What is more purely, completely, terrorist than basing your political authority on the ability to kill absolutely everybody both now and in future generations in pursuit of a temporary disagreement?

The UK military knows this. It increasingly doesn't want £25bn spent on useless weaponry in a period of budget cuts, £25bn which would build a lot of ships and buy a lot of boots. There is no possible war using nuclear weapons that doesn't end in the wholesale destruction of entire countries and peoples. If it's true that the UK is in more danger now than ever (mostly, I submit, because it keeps invading places), it needs conventional weaponry: not Doomsday devices.

So that's the military case dismissed. On to the legal case. It is, and has been since international law was codified, illegal to target civilians. Yes, most countries have done so: Dresden, Coventry, most of Vietnam – but the rather thin defence is that they were 'collateral damage': not the intended target but unfortunate bystanders. It's Israel's standard defence for bombing Palestinian schools and hospitals.

You can't do this with nuclear weapons. A nuke atomises every man, woman, child, sparrow, gnat and flower over a huge area. It poisons the earth and air and water for generations. Any use of nuclear weapons is therefore illegal. The political defence of course is that possession of nukes makes the use of nukes less likely, through the deterrent effect – which is both madness and as I've explained above, ridiculous.

The only genuine defence for the possession of nuclear weapons is Labour Cold War hawk Aneurin Bevan's impassioned plea to the Party not to send him 'naked into the conference chamber'. It's instructive that he framed the possession of nuclear weapons in such terms: there is a distinctly sexual, phallic aspect to nuclear power. Bevin firmly believed that Britain had no credibility in world affairs unless it too possessed the power to kill millions of people and poison vast swathes of the planet. He may, sadly, have been right: under the soothing tones of our politicians, the only thing our political classes respect is savage violence.

This is the law of the playground, of the hostage taker, of the spree killer. Respect me, or I'll blow your head off.

I'm ashamed and disappointed that my party still clings to this doctrine. Underneath the bluster, it's cowardice: fear of the big boys pointing and laughing at the little boy who doesn't have a gun. It's time to grow up. Bevin's nukes were a prosthetic to wear in place of an Empire, part of the embarrassing and unseemly British obsession with remaining 'important'. It doesn't have to be like that. The world is full of decent, honest, principled and highly respected countries who don't, in the last resort, depend for their authority on possessing the ability to turn large areas of the globe into toxic cinders. Japan. Germany. Italy. Australia. New Zealand. Denmark. Sweden. Norway. Spain. Brazil. Chile. Canada. South Africa. Ireland. It's time to accept that possession of nuclear weapons is a tacit admission of political, diplomatic and moral failure: not of significance.

Labour has a chance to puncture the self-delusion of the bullies. It can divert that £25bn towards conventional weaponry if it must, or towards diplomacy. It can demonstrate that even for Security Council chair-holders, respect can be acquired without possessing the means to the Apocalypse. It can become a leading realist, showing the others that the nuclear obsession is a military and political dead end.

Sadly, Labour doesn't want any part of this. Not due to any principle, but simply because it is scared of the Daily Mail, which will echo cynical Tory accusations of being 'soft on defence'. It's not true, of course: Labour has shown an unseemly haste to get into any wars going, however illegal. But short-term tactics will always trump principle in this rotten excuse for a polity. I'm not surprised that the Conservative Party is and always will be keen on nukes: their politics are and always have been honestly and openly based on oppression, dominance and violence, because it believes that people are essentially animals. But Labour: Labour always professed to be more humane.

My politics are based on hope and aspiration towards a better future. Time and again, even my own party demonstrates that it prefers the certainty of small-c conservatism, war, cynicism, distrust and fear.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

We interrupt this programme

Hi everybody. I have flu and feel awful, hence the appalling standard of yesterday's lecture to the final-year students, for which I apologise profusely. I'm at work today but intend to give my lecture and the two-hour seminar following, then it's back to bed.

Normal provision of pungent opinion will return in due course. In the meantime, please enjoy this selection of transmission breaks, emergency broadcasts and intermission music. A lost art form.

Here's a really odd one: a Dalek interlude!

Enjoy your day.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Rhodes Watch: the Mantel issue

My thanks to ally and reader @Bruno_di_Gradi for alerting me to the magisterial contribution of Peter Rhodes (the poor man's Littlejohn) on the Great Hilary Mantel Debate.

The rest of you can now stop pontificating. Peter knows the score. It's simple. Ugly clever women will always be jealous of pretty ones.

Now Peter's a threatening kind of chap, so I couldn't possibly speculate that he hasn't read the London Review of Books transcript of Mantel's thoughtful lecture. But he's certainly wrong: Mantel is kind and sympathetic towards Kate Middleton: her major point is that the media (and that includes Peter) place impossible and contradictory demands on royal women. (I have read it: I subscribe to the LRB because I prefer to experience new ideas rather than depending on What I Reckon, which is why I'll never be a star columnist on a local rag).

And not simply royal women. Let's have a look at Pistol Pete's language shall we? Firstly, he seems to have a problem with women 'of a certain age'. That's right ladies: let's have a cut-off around 35. After that, you should keep your mouths shut and pop on that burqa. As for 'frumpy', well we can't have 'frumpy' women expressing opinions about 'slim, gorgeous chicks'. They're not qualified even if they have produced 'brilliant literature'. Because obviously your genes and prevailing male standards of beauty are the sole criteria for whether or not your opinion is valid. 

But two can play this game:

Gorgeous pouting Peter Rhodes (42-48-42): not being 'frumpy' or 'of a certain age' is allowed to comment, despite never producing any 'brilliant literature'.
Perhaps if Peter woke up looking more like a commentariat hunk (Giles Coren, perhaps, or Owen Jones), he wouldn't be quite so dyspeptic, lazy and bigoted.

Or perhaps not.

Oh, and Pete: that Austen opening that you nicked – she was being ironic. It's in Mrs Bennet's voice and isn't meant to be taken seriously. But you knew that. Didn't you?

Friday, 22 February 2013

Back in the saddle

Hi everybody. Having attended two family funerals this week, I'm looking forward to an extended period in which nobody I know dies. You go carefully out there, you hear!

Before the second funeral, I took an evening off for a concert at Birmingham's Symphony Hall, with the wonderful CBSO. On the bill were Elgar's Falstaff, Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Respighi's The Pines of Rome. The Elgar and Resphigi were pretty enough, though rather drifting. The Prokofiev was nothing short of stunning though. Described in 1913 as 'barbaric', the piece swings from tender to brutal and back again. The soloist was Freddy Kempf: despite sporting a terrible floppy fringe, his rendition was one of the most passionate and convincing performances I've ever seen.

Here's somebody else doing it:

And next day it was off to my aunt's funeral, alongside a huge congregation including pretty much everybody I saw on Monday at my grandmother's requiem mass. As before it was dignified and moving… apart from the sermon, which made even my godless soul feel sorry for God, particularly when the priest described Jesus as 'chillaxing' with his friends. It reminded me of this awful (and, I hope, spoof) video.

And now it's back to work: got a two-hour lecture on modernism and the Bright Young Things to write…

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Cynical, moi?

I may have mentioned my suspicion that Paul Uppal MP's shameless pandering to religious groups over the past couple of years is nothing more than a cynical and racist election strategy. The alternative, of course, is that he actually believes religious people are superior to the rest of us. I'm not sure what's worse.

Anyway, I have this feeling that Paul was picked because the Tory party knew it had a problem appealing to ethnic minority voters, and that the Conservative Party believe (as have other parties) that voters will turn out along party lines. Shamefully, the Labour Party has on occasion behaved the same way. And it's certainly true that in some places, at some times, the electorate appears to voted along racial lines. It is also true that at times of racial tension, elected representatives who have experienced the discrimination and hostility which goes on might reassure under-represented communities that their specific needs will be addressed. Not in this case, however. Despite being Enoch Powell's old stamping ground back in the day, this city is remarkably free of the racial tensions which blight other places. The Labour Party and other groups have done a great job in tackling racial discrimination while insisting that we citizens are united by our political requirements and ideals, whatever our ethnic origins. The Conservative Party, sadly, wants to undo the bonds we've forged across these borders.

Me, I'm not racist. Not even a little bit. I don't think that this city's Sikh community, or any other ethnic group, will look at Paul and say 'hey, he might be a weaselly, craven and self-interested bigot who doesn't like to talk about his millions of pounds acquired through socially-destructive speculation, but he looks like us!'. They will weigh up the man's merits and that of his party, then decide on those lines. Some will vote for him, some will vote against him.

Political parties in the 90s have taken a nasty, disturbing turn towards bloc politics. The Labour Party in the 1990s, led by people who'd never met the working-classes, let alone emerged from them, assumed that poor whites were racist xenophobes, and played on their supposed fears, pushed by Michael Howard's nakedly vicious 'are you thinking what we're thinking?' campaign (we weren't). But away from the headlines, there's a dangerous move away from politics (what do we want government to do? How shall we pay for it?) to identity.

Which leads me to Gary Gibbon's blog. Gary is a rather good Channel 4 journalist who's currently out in India covering the Prime Minister's arms sales trip. Who has caught his eye? Why, it's Paul Uppal MP! Why's he there? His family were refugees from Uganda, not immigrants from India. Well, it's all about the visuals:

The polling suggests he cannot win the 2015 general election without winning support amongst ethnic minority voters. They are a key wedge of support in some marginals and, as I said yesterday, Sikhs have been identified by Team Cameron as particularly susceptible to the idea that the PM is different from crustier Tories of the past.
Seats where Sikh voters could make a difference include Wolverhampton South West, Enoch Powell’s old seat now represented by Tory Paul Uppal with a wafer thin majority. Mr Uppal has been accompanying David Cameron on this trip along with Tory MPs Shailesh Varah and ethnic minority vote-winning Tsar MP Alok Sharma. They all have some very good snaps for their election literature and David Cameron has useful pictures too.
Polling suggests some ethnic minority voters want to see individuals from their own communities before they’ll truly believe the Tory Party has changed.
The BNP asks white people to vote for it because they're white. How is this stunt different? It's deeply cynical – a way of brushing the awkward arguments under the carpet: the EU, education, health, the deficit, welfare cuts, the lot: including the way ethnic minorities suffer the worst cuts and blows from this appalling government. Instead, Uppal's basing his appeal solely on his skin colour.

We don't have enough political representatives from ethnic minorities, or females. I firmly believe parties should be searching for good candidates. But putting them up for election only in places with large ethnic votes is simply a thinly-disguised acceptance of racism. It tacitly admits that white people won't vote for minority candidates and minority communities will vote for someone who looks like them over someone who doesn't. I think British people are much more mature than that, but when the parties behave in this way, it authorises racialised discourse. The BNP must be loving this because it perfectly suits their agenda. And of course it's the curse of Northern Ireland: in an upcoming by-election, the major unionist parties are trying to find a single candidate so that they can get Protestants to vote for a Protestant and win rather than dividing the vote between political parties with differing political beliefs. Never mind the principles, they're saying, be tribal.

Finally, this disgusting strategy won't work. The inhabitants of this benighted city voted in Paul Uppal by a majority of only 691, running against a Labour MP representing the most reviled and exhausted government in decades. The voters have already had a chance to divide along racial lines and they didn't take it. They're better than that, and they won't be fooled by a few pictures of Cameron and Uppal wearing bindis and admiring the Taj Mahal.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Facing the final curtain. Then coming back for Derrida.

Greetings, earthlings.

Hope you didn't miss me too much yesterday. I was at the first funeral of the week, my grandmother's. I won't give you a full review, but there were some lovely bits. Firstly, I liked the fact that even on the coffin plate, her name is given as Nancy rather than the official name she hated. I also liked the 'bless you' tissues my brother handed out, featuring a nun waving hankies. There were nuns present, and they were amused. I stayed away from the nuns. I have done ever since the Sisters of Mercy demonstrated their tender feelings towards me with various bats. But that's another story. I enjoyed hearing my gran's 90+ golf and bridge cronies gossiping behind me. They're all iPad owners and were extolling the joys of Skyping their children and grandchildren over the water ('it's just like being there without actually having to go there). The priest made everyone laugh with genuine, warm anecdotes of my grandmother rather than bland truisms. I enjoyed my mother discovering that my dad's cousins are her cousins too… which explains my extra toes. I enjoyed the tranquillity of the cemetery: lush greenery and a silence broken only by abundant bird-life. There was plenty of misery – how could it be otherwise, with us all assembling again on Thursday to bid farewell to my beloved aunt? – but there were jokes and smiles too. I even found comedy value in carrying her coffin out of the church. As my uncles and cousins are all monstrously overgrown behemoths, the coffin didn't even touch my shoulder: the best I could do was place my hands on the underside to make it look like I was sharing the burden! And despite the deep sadness, it was good to see relatives from several countries gathered to share their memories. 14 grandchildren, 3 great-grandchildren and cousins from all over the place.

And so back to work today: a two hour lecture on poststructuralism, Derrida and deconstruction (starting with the Socratic Dialogues) for the media students, then straight into a lecture and two hour seminar on Ben Masters's Noughties (ambitious, not entirely successful but very interesting campus novel) and its Romantic origins. I am properly exhausted. And not a little depressed that an appreciable number of English literature students aren't even ashamed enough of not reading the book to lie about it. All we ask is that you scrape up the enthusiasm to read literature. Is that too much?

Peter Tatchell was on campus today. Given that this morning's lecture featured me deconstructing the binary oppositions of heterosexuality and homosexuality (to the evident distaste of some conservative/religious students), I'd have quite enjoyed him bursting in to disrupt the proceedings. Instead, I indulged in the rather neatly circular exercise of discussing the manifestation of oppression through discourse then inviting the students to deconstruct my academic discussion of deconstruction. And away we floated on a tide of contradictory abstraction…

Almost forgot. The Hilary Mantel controversy. I subscribe to the London Review of Books and read the essay last week, so I'm more qualified to comment than either David Cameron or Ed Miliband, who are reacting solely to the Daily Mail's distorted trolling, and subscribing entirely to its agenda. I reckon I can also comment because I incorporated the whole affair into this morning's deconstruction lecture, demonstrating the Socratic point that words in print, they're out of the author's control. Mantel appears to be present in the text when in fact she's absent. I knew instantly that it would be picked up in the press and massively distorted. Mantel makes the point that royal princesses etc. instantly become symbolic, and b) instantly become blank slates on which the media inscribe their obsessions (too fat, too thin, too subservient, too pushy, too common, too haughty). Plus, Mantel doesn't seem very inspired by the current one's strength of character, though it's expressed with a considerable degree of sympathy.

This automatically translates as treason, especially when the Mail is on the warpath. Mantel knows this, which is why the lecture/article takes clear aim at the media. What does she have to say about confected media and political commentary?
'a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken'
It's additionally ironic that the newspaper which called Mantel's observation that women joining the royal family are there to breed (how can that not be true?) 'vicious' and 'venomous' is the paper which maintains a Kate 'bump watch'. The Media Blog has taken the time to compare what Mantel said and what the newspapers said she said (unsurprisingly, removing her criticism of their behaviour. 

Mantel's argument is brutally summed up in a South Park episode ('Britney's New Look'), in which Britney Spears is kept alive and working despite blowing most of her head off in a suicide attempt. It's explained to the boys that societies need sacrificial victims to ensure the harvest: the fates of Britney, Diana, Hannah Montana (next in the South Park version) and various other women in the public eye continues a longstanding tradition. Britney has to die. Kate's simply one more in the line. 

Cameron is probably incapable of sustained abstract thought: his intelligence is tactical, that of the magpie. Perhaps he and Miliband have read the original article. Perhaps they understand it. But that's not the point any more. They have to be seen to condemn what the Mail says the article is about. Which is pretty demeaning. I can't imagine Atlee, Douglas-Home or MacMillan condescending to commenting about the Mail's faux-outrage or (as Blair did) issue a statement about Deirdre Barlow's upcoming trial (overseas readers: she's a soap opera character). They had work to do and expected the media to follow the government, not the other way round. I find it distasteful, even cynical, that politicians feel it expedient to spend time following their agenda rather than setting them. It just shows how intellectually limited they are. Perhaps worse: they may be deliberately suppressing their intellects in pursuit of headlines and votes. Nobody ever won an election pointing out complexity…

On the other hand, perhaps we should encourage Mr Cameron to comment on London Review of Books articles more often. Reading them would be good for him, and he'd have less time to spend flogging weapons, cutting disabled children's benefits and generally making this country a worse place for most of us to live in.

One more thing. Why is it always the women who get pilloried for this kind of thing? You won't be surprised to learn that the last time the LRB attracted the tabloids' ire, it was because Mary Beard said that:

"However tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. That is, of course, what many people openly or privately think."

What she means here is that 'this is what some people will think, especially given the way the US has behaved around the world''. But the tabloids magically transformed that into MAD UGLY BRAINIAC CHEERS ISLAMOFASCIST TERRORISM. Sometimes I wonder if the Mail and its friends subscribe to the Johnson line about intellectual women:
A woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.
And they would rather it were not done at all.  

Friday, 15 February 2013

That Friday feeling

Hi everybody. Apologies for the relative radio silence today.

It's been busy. The first thing I had to do today was finish shortening and cleaning up the paper I've co-written on jazz in some contemporary British novels. I've loved writing with someone else: the pressure not to disappoint or let down a friend (especially a much cleverer one) has provided the spur that I, as a congenitally lazy ass, really needed. It's been great looking at the same words and two of us coming up with different ways to understand them too. But today was about editing: we were way over the limit, so we had to cut. I was dreading this bit: how would my partner feel if I presented her with a draft in which all her bits had been radically shortened? I know I'd hate it. But gloriously, I couldn't tell which bits she'd written and which were mine for the most part. She uses more commas and I use more colons, but that was about it. So we cut and honed and hammered until we were there. Then I had to learn an entirely new referencing system (Chicago Notes and Bibliography) and change every single reference. And then wrestle with RefWorks, the referencing software. In the end though, it's done and we've agreed that we'll do it again, for which I'm profoundly grateful. I was expecting a painful session in which a red pen and a literary walk of shame would be my only reward.

After that: I've interviewed a potential MA student and now have two brand new lectures to write for delivery on Tuesday (5 hours of lecturing without a break). One is on the post-Romantic hero in contemporary fiction, and the other is Derrida for Media Studies and Cultural Studies students. Gulp. Monday's out because it's my grandmother's funeral (did I mention that her brother died a few days ago too?) so it looks like the weekend will consist of me scratching my head and breaking off hourly for a glass of freshly squeezed horse glands. I should do more tonight but all the ideas I had yesterday have magically morphed into barely-literate and gnomic scribbles. I'm too tired to transform them into coherent ideas now – instead I'll be back in the office tomorrow.

While doing all this, I've had the office mostly to myself and allowed my Twitter stream to dictate the music I listen to. So a mention of Mogwai got me listening to their early stuff, followed by Labradford, then (as it was Valentine's day), Love, then Majorstuen, a wonderful Norwegian folk group, then some John Taverner. Here's a blast of each:

This is Mogwai's 'New Paths To Helicon'. They pioneered instrumental quiet-loud-quiet post-rock, following in the footsteps of Slint and Labradford. I saw them twice: once in Stoke supporting the Manic Street Preachers in the mid-90s, and last year. I was the only one in the crowd at Stoke there primarily for Mogwai: everybody else stood there with hands over ears mouthing 'what's this shit?' because it hadn't been on Chris Evans's Breakfast Show or whatever. Then last year in a tiny, lovely Birmingham music-hall they made the most beautiful, challenging noise, but behaved like spoiled children having temper tantrums. Nobody forced you to be a band, sell tickets and have fans guys: at least pretend to enjoy it. It's better than working in an office!

Labradford were around in the 90s, but I never managed to see them sadly. Like Mogwai, they lurch from ethereal beauty to pummelling aggression and back within seconds, though the older band's purpose is that little bit more elusive. Here's a fairly late one by them:

Love were also-rans in the 60s: too many chaotic fallings-out, drugs and changes of direction meant that their seminal Forever Changes wasn't the huge success it should have been. Here's the heart-breaking 'Alone Again Or':

Majorstuen just make me happy. I think I heard them on Radio 3 and immediately bought their album. I don't know whether they're the cutting edge of Norwegian roots or retro. I don't particularly care either. But they are yet another reason to move to Norway. My favourite track starts at 17 minutes.

Finally, a sublime Taverner arrangement of the ancient Westron Wynde song used by several English Renaissance composers as the basis of mass settings. Never mind the theology, feel the beauty.

Obviously other things have caught my eye today. In case you're wondering, I'm both outraged and unsurprised by: the Sun's front page; the Tory minister who declared that gay couples are incapable of caring for children; further adulteration of meat.

More Reckons next week, when I'll also be live-tweeting two family funerals.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Vole: Superachiever

As you may know, I'm a keen reader of Boing Boing, the essential repository of all things simultaneously geeky, nerdy, creative, intellectual, left-liberal and cool. Indeed, Boing Boing is a kind of forerunner of Plashing Vole in this regard, though I fear it lacks the mass appeal I've so carefully crafted. 

However, as an arbiter of taste, Boing Boing takes itself seriously, and its founder has kindly published '10 Tips For Building An Addictive, Compelling Website', excerpted from a modest book called The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do And How They Do It So Well. Let's see how Plashing Vole shapes up amongst the Superachievers, shall we?
1. Tap into the Zeitgeist.
I think can modestly claim to have fulfilled that condition admirably. The world has come round to wearing Doctor Martens and corduroy once more. Plashing Vole extols the joys of equal marriage, Welsh-language literary science fiction (here's a story about an armadillo having sex with an hotelier), apostrophe preservation, teasing no-hope small town journalism, posting pictures of birds or my friend Dan scowling at Nature, and bigging-up bands like Ectogram. I bought a history of street-lighting yesterday. Zeitgeist: I am in you. (Alernatively, you might believe that one can never willingly choose to be 'in the Zeitgeist': if you try, you're not there).
2. Be original. If you try to emulate a successful blog, you’ll just be a second-rate version of something already out there, and who needs that? Make the blog that doesn’t exist yet, but that you’d want to read.
As long as 'original' means cracking horse jokes with 36 hours of the story breaking, hounding my local MP for his obvious failings and moaning about my students – as well as the occasional obituary – then it's another big fecking tick for the Volester. God, this social media stuff's easy. 
3. Make the connection.
I've got readers. The stats are astonishing. Readers from several hundred yards away. And not all Googling for unmentionable sexual practices. There's a market out there for What I Reckon About Paul Uppal and the various books I've compulsively bought today. But let's not be hasty. I like knowing you're out there… rather than in here. Keep a respectable distance please. 
4. Get an attitude. Without a point of view, your blog is unfiltered mush. 
Manufactured outrage? One lump or two? I've got loads of the stuff round the back. Nobody disdains the Daily Mail with quite the hauteur, nay, froideur, of Plashing Vole. 
5. Don’t waste people’s time. People are busy. 
No they're not. I've got the site visitor stats to prove it. Anyone who comes here twice either has very low standards or an awful lot of time on their hands. (Or in the cases of Peter Rhodes and Paul Uppal, to prove to themselves that at least someone's paying attention to them). 
6. Mix it up. Posts that are easy to grasp in a couple of seconds--a bit of shopping news, helpful tips or gossip--get lots of hits and move fast. 
That's right, sheeple! You're all consumerist dummies who need your goldfish brains pandered to now and then with some patronising 'and finally' stuff because you can't cope with raw unadulterated screeds of My Genius. Here's a picture of a cat with some bad typography for you link-bait meatbags:

Happy now? Good. Now get back to Mail Online where you belong. 
7. Appeal to the novelty gene. It’s good to blog frequently, but the stuff you blog about has to be unexpected or people will lose interest.
Yeah? You reckon great works of literature, political affairs and pictures of Dan scowling at nature get boring after a while? Perhaps I should perpetrate some novelty crimes to blog about solely to keep this imaginary audience of adulterous blog-whores coming to my yard? Or replace a limb with a 3D printer for sheer futurist-comedy LOLZ. You'd like that, Boing Boing readers, wouldn't you? Yeah, everything's better with a 3D printer for all your role-playing needs. Oh, and endless stuff about Minecraft. Or, for maximum Boing Boing orgasm, a Minecraft 3D Printer
8. Let feedback change you. The community feedback has made me more aware of my insensitivities and the blog has evolved because of it.
Sadly, my commenters all slavishly agree with me, except the ones who don't, and who needs them? It's a mutually reinforcing circle. I read people who agree with me, nick their ideas, they read me, then we're all surprised when it turns out that meatspace where you lot live is actually dominated by horrible horrible people who wear jeggings and vote Tory. (Actually, I love getting comments and quite often find myself re-thinking my perspective). This is a good tip. Now we just need Guido Fawkes to learn from it. 
9. Think of a friend. To get over blog stage fright, when I post something I’ll often have a friend in mind who has the same sense of humor as me.
To my friend with the same sense of 'humor' as me: get help. You sick, sick puppy. And stop sending me those emails. I'll get the sack if IT ever find those pictures. Or the authorities find the grave. 
10. Keep it real. 
Keep it real? I live in a town which thinks cuisine is a pig's hide attacked with an oxy-acetylene torch and that peas should be grey. People vomit on my doorstep. Staples are a black-market commodity where I work. I agonise over fabric softener choices, enjoy ironing and bought slippers last year. I'm losing teeth, hair and keys. I had to email my landlord about a door handle yesterday. The other day, I told the students about talented typographer Eric Gill and beautiful Gill Sans. Then I told them that he had sex with sister. And his children. And his dog. Another student misread 'deserts' for 'desserts' and wrote about Shakespeare and Pudding, while another one thought David Cameron is a Labour PM. 

Keep it real? Are you mad? I'm on here to get away from all that stuff, not inflict it on you poor blighters. 

Thanks Boing Boing. I love you but I don't think we should move in together. We wouldn't last a week. 

Wednesday, 13 February 2013


I'm not the only one, it seems, to be suffering from involuntary textual ejaculation. A while ago Mitchell and Webb dramatised a conversation I actually had with more than one person:

and since then I've found myself using 'x' simply to close text messages rather than to convey romantic passion. Then it spread to emails. No doubt soon I'll end conversations by reciting random letters of the alphabet in case my interlocutor is hurt by the omission of some semiotic of which I'm unaware. Though you won't find me saying '#' to signpost sarcasm.

But it's not just the dreaded X marking an emotional spot. It's the ! that's creeping into every electronic sentence. As you know, I get paid for reading and talking about books. I'm good at spotting what the post-structuralists call 'deferral', and the 'trace' and all the other identifiers of the gap between language and meaning. What's that? You think languages communicates meaning? You're so sweet! Language is out of our control. We grope for meaning and never quite get there.

Which brings me to the ubiquitous !. Why is it so prevalent in electronic media, rather than paper? Perhaps it was always there in informal letters, notes and graffiti, just absent in formal communications. Check your teenage diary. For me, it marks the awareness that as writers we're all aware of the gaping chasm of language. We don't trust it to convey – in particular – tone of voice or register. The exclamation mark is made to bear so much. For instance, I find myself over-using it in emails to students. If I thank them for some information, I won't write 'thanks.' It looks cold and flat. So I write 'thanks!' which seems friendlier and more enthusiastic. Then I wonder whether I or we always worried about this gap. After that I wonder whether the ! is a bit creepily over-friendly, 'too cool for school'. I'm 37. I shouldn't need to add !'s to look like somebody's mate, or in the immortal words of David Brent, 'basically a chilled-out entertainer'.

Or am I over-worrying like a sad old man. After all, some of my very respectable friends think it's socially acceptable to add emoticons and smiley-face symbols to text messages and emails, as though they've outsourced the typing – and possible mental process – to a 12 year old who lives on Sherbert Fountains and Coke. Management haven't got that far yet, but it's coming. Perhaps I'll reduce marking to !s and smileys to distinguish between Genius and Plagiarist.

Anyway, I'm not the only one feeling the semiotic gap: here's one suggestion for a punctuation mark which expresses mild pleasure or surprise without going for the nuclear option of the full-on exclamation mark:
All I can say to that is OMG WTF LOL:))

Crumbs from Wisdom's Table

Two teachable moments over the past couple of days, both related to spelling and presentation. My earthy and erudite colleague GH demonstrated the importance of apostrophes with an illustration from his local animal emporium. Apparently a carrying case for cats etc. is a voyageur. A sign for 'Pets Voyageur' might slightly irk an anglophone, but in French it means more: 'pets voyageur' is quite literally a travelling (drifting?) fart (hence the old musical act Le Petomane, a chap who performed popular songs and La Marseillaise from his bottom).

The second moment came today when I marked a forum on Shakespeare's sonnets. One unfortunate and otherwise commendable student alighted upon these lines from Sonnet 17

Who will believe my verse in time to come
If it were filled with your most high deserts?
Not knowing the difference between 'desert' and 'dessert', she gave an interesting and imaginative reading based on the significance of Pudding in Shakespeare. Of course, we old hands know that pudding appears only in Henry IV Part I ('that roasted Manningtree ox with pudding in his belly') as part of an insult – though 'cakes and ale' make an appearance too. But I really felt for the student: a basic weakness led her far astray, and the scansion didn't help either: the metre and rhyme scheme encourage identical pronunciation between the two possibilities.

Students: do check your spelling.

Meanwhile, I've a lot on: 2 new lectures to write ready for next week, 2 MA dissertations and 2 undergrad ones to read, and a journal article to shorten, proof and submit by Friday. Plus a trip to have a tooth extracted, an MA interview. Oh, and two funerals next week.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Another tree on the shelf

I've fallen off the Book-buying Self Denying Ordinance in a big way this week. More Peter Tate novels have arrived: I'm trying to collect them all. He was a sub-editor on the South Wales Daily Echo then an executive at the Bournemouth Evening Echo, and wrote science fiction short stories and novels in the 1970s, published by respectable houses like Doubleday and in the UK, Faber and Faber. They're beautifully designed. They tend to be projections of 1970s concerns: biological warfare, religious and political fanaticism and the like. Only one is set in Wales, Country Love and Poison Rain, but they all look interesting. If anyone knows Peter, let me know. He'd be about 75 by now, and might still be alive. He doesn't get an entry in the New Companion to the Literature of Wales, which is an oversight.

Also in the post, Niall Griffiths' celebrity culture satire with Christian themes, A Great Big Shining Star. The hardcover isn't even out yet but someone's already sold their 'Free Uncorrected Jonathan Cape Proof - Not For Resale' copy. You can't trust anybody! I'd be tempted to review it pre-release, but I'm in the middle of several other books at the moment (including Kim Stanley Robinson's absorbing but clunky 2312) and have lectures to write too. But I have high hopes for it. I like Griffith's work and when he visited The Hegemon to talk to the students he was very impressive indeed.

The other book which came today is Craig Koslofsky's Evening's Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe. I'd quibble with the 'early modern' bit: it takes up to 1750, but it looks like a fascinating new way of looking at history. We've all been scared of the dark at some point, individually and collectively, and this book uncovers the cultural, political and social significance of something we don't think about very often: light, dark and our efforts to vanquish the former. Of course now, a few of us are trying to vanquish the former. Urban lighting – often excessive thanks to excessive paranoia about crime – has rendered the stars invisible, darkness impossible. Koslofsky looks at stage lights and drama, Christian conceptions of night, witch-hunting, race and blackness, street lighting and discourses of crime, prayer, entertainment, gender and darkness, and the ways we organised our activities around light and dark. I sense a lecture coming on… Talking of which, my The Sorrows of Young Werther seminars went quite well today, I think. However, they still don't know the text well enough to roam around in it. They understand the points I make about it, but don't examine it for themselves. What to do, what to do?

Monday, 11 February 2013

People today, eh?

OK, the last couple of days of the week were spent being dyspeptically abused by a talentless, puffed-up local hack who thinks it's OK to compare equal marriage advocates with the Blackshirts and Fascists who shovelled millions of people into the gas chamber, but can't take equally heightened criticism.

My faith in humanity was somewhat damaged, though the glorious responses of my various readers were mightily heartening. Then I was cast down once more by an encounter which should have been pleasant. I found a wallet on the street, full of money and bank cards. I went through it and found an address, and set off to return it. The door was answered by a lady who immediately took several steps backwards, then announced that she was 'not interested in break-ins' after I'd addressed her by name and asked if the wallet was hers. Several minutes later I managed to persuade her that I wasn't a burglar, that what I was waving in front of her did in fact belong to her, and that I just wanted to return it. She grabbed it from my hands and shut the door. No word of thanks, no interest in where I'd found it. Not even goodbye.

I know people are paranoid these days, and I hadn't shaved for a couple of days, but I shouldn't have walked away from a good deed in a worse mood than before! Then I went to see my mum and ended up helping her sort out her dad's book shelves. Pretty much everything was published by the Catholic Truth Society. Texts ranged from Has The Catholic Church Gone Mad? (Apparently by being nice to the 'third world' and dumping Latin, it has) to Jesus's Little Yellow Book, explicitly published in response to Mao's Little Red Book. A glance through the pictures I was tweeting while I worked would be enough to give a psychiatrist a very disturbing profile. And then I lost a tooth last night.

Oh well. At least the Pope's resigned. The first example of a Ratzinger leaving a sinking ship…

Got some good books in the post today. Beautiful first editions of Peter Tate's Gardens 12345 and The Thinking Seat, which look like rather superior 1970s science fiction, and Alun Llewellyn's 1939 novel Jubilee John which seems to be about a Welshman thrust into Bright Young Thing circles. As an added surprise, it's signed by the author to Charles Kelly, whoever he was.

Beauty in the muck

Despite the ugliness on display in my local paper (today's splash: the Osmonds eat MacDonald's!) and manifested on here at the end of last week, this place can be rather lovely, especially in the snow. I took a stroll at lunchtime, determined to capture some of the city's elusive beauty. The snow was thawing fast, but I got some decent shots and played with my new Tokina 11-16 landscape lens for the first time.

Whole set here (if you know what the various ducks and geese are, help me out). Or click on these ones to enlarge.

Saxon or Roman cross outside St Peter's

Friday, 8 February 2013

Rhodes: the next chapter

The offending article
Peter's still a little miffed:
"This morning I updated the piece to make it clear that I don't think poor suffering Pete is a racist, just an ill-informed reactionary know-nothing. "
No you didn't,. You removed the offensive words and apologised because you got it wrong and were frightened to death  about the consequences, like a little boy caught with his catapult next to a broken window. As you put it in your email to me: "OK, hands up: my satire was too broad in this case and I apologise."
Today, inexplicably, you dig yourself into a deeper hole by posting "comments" suggesting I am lying about my CRE award.
As one who presumes to teach media studies, you really should be more thorough. I am astonished that both you and your emailers are so hopeless at using Google. It really is very simple. You type in "Peter Rhodes" and "Commission for Racial Equality" and there it is.
And if that is beyond you, you can take it from me that I won first prize (Regional and Local Newspaper category) in the 1997 CRE Race in the Media Awards. The award was for a "body of work," a number of features written during the year and it was presented, as I recall, by Meera Syal.
Now, if you are big enough, you will remove the comments from your blog.
Incidentally, wouldn't  this be the ideal time to assure your readers that you have never, ever sought to write anything for the "racist" Express & Star?
1. 'Wrong' is an odd word for subjective opinions.
2. I'm not frightened of any consequences. If Peter wants to sue over satirical comments, he's very welcome. This, let's remind ourselves, is a man who equates supporting equal marriage to shovelling Jews into the gas chambers.
3. I haven't posted comments. Readers have posted comments. I don't censor comments.
4. I spent a good long time searching for Peter's award. It doesn't appear anywhere. I invite you to do the search he recommends. There it… isn't. 
5. A prize! In 1997! Presented by someone famous from an ethnic minority! Well, some of my best friends are black too, as the saying goes. 
6. My history with the Express and Star: 
a) I complained to the Press Complaints Commission about the paper equating Travellers with animals. They got away with it because the code - conveniently written for newspaper editors by newspaper editors - said that you can say what you like about entire ethnic groups: you just can't attach racialised commentary to individuals. That's a hell of a loophole. 
b) The Express and Star approached the university looking for a piece about the American election. It was suggested by the university that I co-write it with my boss. The Express and Star rejected this because it doesn't like me. I certainly didn't approach them. 
7. Is the Express and Star racist? Well, it suggested that Travellers are congenitally criminal, which sounds racist to me. It gave notorious racist Enoch Powell a column for many years. It demonises ethnic minorities and religions. So yes, in my subjective view, it is. 
8. I won't be removing comments. Peter has emailed me again:
You are responsible in law for every item appearing on your website. Shouldn't you know this sort of stuff?
I do know my stuff (and nothing posted by my readers is libellous anyway).

Blogger is hosted in the USA and comments are therefore held to be posted there. Under 47 USC 230, I am only responsible for comments made by employees (I have none), comments which breach criminal codes (which none of mine do) or comments I've edited substantially enough to change the meaning (which I don't do). As I'm sure you're aware, libel is a civil matter. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 stipulates that
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Of course, one might dispute jurisdiction: Vole is readable in the UK so its content is actionable here. In which case I would refer you to Google v. Pamiz, in which a British judge decided that blog comments were the responsibility of their authors rather than the platform (in this case, Pamiz's own blog: he objected to libellous comments made about him and sued Google - and lost). UK law isn't completely clear, however. 

(New reader? Start here).

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Woah… this guy bites

A while back, I criticised Peter Rhodes' column in the local press, which called advocates of equal marriage and supporters of immigration 'Blackshirts' and liberals 'Fascists'. 

The offending article

Apparently that's reasonable commentary while my satirical response is 'defamation' (I can tell you're not legally trained, Pete) and 'character assassination'. This morning I updated the piece to make it clear that I don't think poor suffering Pete is a racist, just an ill-informed reactionary know-nothing. 

A man with a public bully pulpit in the form of a column in two newspapers seems curiously thin-skinned judging by this morning's email:

You are quite sure about this?

Peter Rhodes (former winner of the Commission for Racial Equality "Race in the Media" Awards)
and later today

That's an apology? Still looks like defamation to me. Thank the Lord no-one actually reads it.
But it does occur to me that on the one occasion we met, you did not stand up for your principles and harangue me as a frustrated bigot (incidentally, where on earth did you get the idea that I resented never going to Fleet Street?) but shook my hand and smiled sweetly.
How very easy it must be to indulge in character assassination from the safety of an anonymous website.  But it's a bit cowardly, isn't it? Hardly a proper job for a grown-up.
Did no-one read it? Well, I'm up to 154,000 readers cumulatively, and I get about 180 a day. I can't be that 'anonymous': Peter managed to find my personal e-mail address and worked out that Plashing Vole is someone he met before. And by the way Peter, blogging isn't my job. It's a hobby. Whereas you call people with whom you disagree 'Fascists' and 'Blackshirts' for money. The only differences between you and I are that I have a grasp of history and you distort things for cash. Are you suggesting that only newspaper columnists are allowed to bandy around strong words? If I were you, I'd look up the terms 'fair comment' and 'satire'. And I'd really consider how silly it would look for a newspaper columnist to take legal action against a mere reader before you bandy around legal terminology. 

Why didn't I spit upon Peter and his terrible opinions when we met? Well, for a range of reasons. Firstly, I'd never heard of him then: if I'd known you were a frustrated bigot, I'd have called you him on it. I do distinctly remember, however, mourning the fate of your newspaper, founded as a progressive organ and turned into the mouthpiece of Enoch Powell and his racist, reactionary followers. And I'm generally polite. And because we were in a radio station discussing other matters. I suspect that if Peter met one of the liberals he calls 'Blackshirts' and 'Fascists', he wouldn't be rude to them either. 

Why do I think you're a frustrated Fleet Street hack? Because your 'style' is a third-rate version of the ill-informed poison purveyed by characters like Clarkson, Moir, Littlejohn and all the other Little Englanders who infest the pages on the grubbier end of the national trade. 

All clear now?

And a final update:

Actually, I am legally trained (all real journalists are) and I know a clear case of libel when I see it.  I am a long-established columnist working in a racially- mixed area. I have a commendation for the quality and balance of my work from the Commission for Racial Equality. Yet you blog:"Rhodes and his friends spend their time muttering darkly about 'them'. They promote Section 28 and dream of the days of Empire when black people contentedly cut sugar cane for white people's tea and didn't moan about having their countries invaded by the Bwana."
Under the circumstances, it is hard to imagine a more wicked and damaging allegation. If this came to court, the lawyers would wipe the floor with you.
However, I am a proper journalist with a proper disdain for this country's draconian libel laws and would never dream of suing. You have been man enough to apologise, and I accept that. Sleep soundly.
I meant legally-qualified actually. Still, that'll do. Not sure what he means by 'real journalist'. I'm not claiming to be one by profession and he's simply a columnist: offering opinions, such as that people who support gay marriage are the same as Blackshirts who wanted Jews exterminated. I offer opinions, but they're a) free and b) better-informed. But I'm still not a journalist. 

And yes Peter, I sleep very soundly indeed. Despite being 'wicked'. 

Education for Dummies (i.e. the Minister for Education)

Amongst the many idiocies perpetrated by Michael Gove, that state-funded troll, is his decision to focus on
"the great works of the literary canon"
in the English GCSE. The what now? Other than 'the' and 'of', pretty much every other word in that phrase is objectionable.

What determines whether something is 'great'? Is it fame? That depends on marketing and distribution. Is it age? There's plenty of very old dross about. It's less than 100 years since English Literature itself was considered worth studying: before that only Latin and Greek texts were considered sufficiently 'great'. Are there no 'great' works in other languages? Or is English the only vehicle for literary greatness. Are 'great' works only novels, plays and poems?

What of non-fiction, or comics, or radio dramas or TV? Song lyrics? What, in fact, qualifies as a 'work', and why do we employ such a grinding term.

What's a literary canon? Big-sellers? Who determines what it is? We used to know the answer to this one. Matthew Arnold in 1869 airily defined culture as 'the best that is thought and known in the world'. Thomas Babington MacAulay announced that 'a single shelf of a good European library [is] worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia'. This from a man who lived in India as a colonial administrator but never learned any of the native languages. F. R. Leavis actually produced a list of canonical texts in The Great Tradition. It starts like this:
"The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad."
The list expands, but not by very much. Few non-aristocrats, foreigners, working-class types, northerners, homosexuals or ethnic minority writers. And certainly no non-realists. I happen to like all these writers, but there's a whole world out there. Canon-building is by definition exclusionary and dubious. I teach English literature. I have to choose what my students read - I am a canon-builder. But what are my criteria? I try to represent as many walks of life as possible (something Gove would object to) but I (usually) want to engage the students by giving them texts I think are 'good' and 'relevant': both very subjective terms. It's a fraught experience. There's a limited amount of time. Who do we heave overboard when something new comes along? Should we leave a text for a decade or two after publication to see whether it's still 'important'? What if some of the readers find it offensive?

What I suspect Gove means by a canon is texts which appear not to have any subversive political or social content. No lesbians or uppity minorities. No lefty authors or chippy proletarians. He'd be a fool though: Austen, Eliot, James and Conrad are profoundly critical of their own societies, more or less openly. Away from Gove's office, we hold that meaning is created in the space between text and reader: Gove might restrict the texts students read, but he can't limit the ways in which they read them.

What's on the list now? Shakespeare will stay, despite virtually every play examining the abuse of power (shh, don't tell Michael). Of Mice and Men will have to go: Lenny will never pass the CRB check and its author was a notorious lefty. Mister Pip and Purple Hibiscus are about Johnny Foreigner and To Kill A Mockingbird is soft on crime and promotes multiculturalism. The Modern Prose section will have to go: too many of its authors are a) alive b) keep moaning about libraries and c) don't promote boarding schools and corporal punishment. Some of them may even be Guardian readers. Dylan Thomas is too Welsh and would have objected to minimum unit of alcohol pricing. Duffy is way too lesbian, JB Priestley is the kind of do-gooding liberal hand-wringer we can do without, Lord of the Flies appeals to the Hoody Fraternity whom we are no longer hugging. Arthur Miller's The Crucible is clearly unsuitable for an interventionist government which does believe in persecuting minorities, the mentally ill and women in the cause of 'mainstream society'. Out with them all!

In with? Obviously Andy McNab. Don't you know there's a war on? For the girls, obviously some Louise Mensch, some PD James and some Jilly Cooper. Biggles of course, and liberal (ho ho) amounts of Enid Blyton's boarding school novels (note: no Rowling. Subversive lefty rubbish with girls in er yah boo sucks to you). Commando comic for the dyslexic boys. Some Jeffrey Archer ('a real page-turner, you know: none of that arty-farty stuff'). And eventually, Michael Gove's memoirs, perhaps packaged as a Little Red Book to be distributed to every 5 year old on their Micro-chip-Fitting Day.

I'd love to know how this canon will be chosen. Will he just consult his old school exercise books (you just know he's got them preserved with every gold star lovingly uncreased on the page)? Or will he outsource the work to his Special Advisors on Books What Are Good For Learning You Morals And Stuff? Perhaps they could helpfully provide a list of Non-Canonical Texts. We could call it the Index Prohibitorum. Or just substitute the pensioners' Winter Fuel Allowance with a delivery of verboten books for efficient disposal. The libraries are being closed down anyway…

Finally, canons don't preserve 'the best that is thought and known'. They pickle them. They wrap them up in cotton wool. They stick books on pedestals and pretend that the books – and the societies that conserve them – are static and eternal. This is an unhealthy form of cultural onanism. Tell a kid that a book is Important and s/he will be bored by it. Put a book in its cultural context and it will appeal. Imagine giving a 15 year old a Henry James novel… ridiculous. They'll never go back to that great author again. The easiest way to kill off a book is to tell people it's Improving. And what of the texts not on the canon? Is a great work by a modern author going to be considered rubbish because Michael Gove's Panel (and you can bet it will consist of Spads, Tory Donors and Celebrity TV Talking Head From Central Casting) hasn't read it or doesn't understand it?

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Another obituary

The way things are going, Plashing Vole may as well become the Daily Telegraph obituary page (the best bit of that newspaper, by the way). Today, two days after my beloved grandmother died, my Aunt Margaret passed away of pancreatic cancer. She wasn't particularly old and we'd hoped she was beating this particularly vicious variant: only a few months ago she was well enough to fly out to Hong Kong for her son's wedding.

Margaret was my uncle Patrick's wife. Dumped into a large, boisterous, opinionated and mostly male family, she coped with us through a combination of gin and a very dry sense of humour. Egos were deflated and pomposity pricked with deft ease and wit. She brought common sense and a degree of proportion which were sometimes in short supply: she was a great ally to my grandmother.

Just as with my grandmother, my most prominent memory of Margaret is linked to gin. This time though, I was the consumer. I landed an interview at the university in the town in which she lived, so went over early in the morning planning to look round the place, meet her for a coffee, then go for the interview in the afternoon. She had a different plan. Her plan was to have a long and liquid lunch, and it was probably the first time I'd ever spent time alone with her. She plonked down two large gins and tonic, the first I'd ever tried, and they were soon followed by more clinking glasses until she realised that my interview was about to start. I was way beyond that kind of perception by this stage, which was enormously helpful. For once, I wasn't a nervous, shambling wreck (my Cambridge interview was a disaster: I forgot the plots of my favourite novels and walked into the doorpost on the way out) and had a really enjoyable time at the interview. The interviewer seemed to like me and offered me a place on the spot with a tariff of two E grades, and gave me a copy of my headmaster's reference ('Vole does not deserve a place at any university. He is a troublemaker and is entirely without merit'). All thanks to Margaret and her Bottomless Glasses of Gin.

I am, like Bertie Wooster, blessed with Aunts. They are all funny, fearsomely clever, practical and enormously likeable (and forbearing). Margaret was the first of her generation in the family to go and I shall miss her terribly. What I'd like now is a pause of several decades before I lose another.

Paul Uppal and Captain Kirk

In several Star Trek episodes and films, trainee James T. Kirk's solution to Starfleet Academy's Kobayashi Maru test is spoken of with alternately, admiration and disdain. Here's the version from the recent film:

The point of the Kobayashi Maru test is that it's unwinnable. A captain who tries to win misses the point that it's a test of character in an impossible situation: facing death is the real test. James Kirk cheats: he reprogrammes the simulation to make winning possible. Here's Kirk's explanation from The Wrath of Khan.

Which brings me to Paul Uppal MP and Equal Marriage. When he was lobbied last week, he expressed a view that he opposed it: firstly for legal reasons and subsequently on the grounds of religious freedom. Personally, my feeling is that he reckons the Daily Mail voters on the western fringe of The Dark Place plus the Sikh vote will get him re-elected if he panders to their prejudices enough. I also think he's wrong: Sikhs, like everybody else, vote according to a range of personal concerns and can't be treated as a block. They won't vote for him just because he too is Sikh.

The other impulse pulling Paul Uppal was his craven loyalty to David Cameron. As I said yesterday, he voted for student fees, NHS dismemberment, EMA withdrawal, multiple wars, benefit cuts for disabled children and any number of vicious and retrograde laws. He is a man for whom the mirage of advancement means much.

So there he was, last night: his own personal Kobayashi Maru. Vote against equal marriage and lose his 100% record of unthinking loyalty but appease the bigots who elected him. Or vote for equal marriage despite his own views and alienate said bigots, making re-election even less likely? Luckily (and I should have seen this coming given his record thus far), Paul did a Kirk. Rather than face the test, he bottled it and abstained. In one of the most symbolic votes in years, one which firmly divides the political class between humane progressives and reactionaries, Uppal took the coward's way out.

Will it help him? I don't think so. He presumably calculates that Cameron's revenge will be focussed on those who voted against the Bill rather than those who quietly ducked the challenge, while the anti-equality voters will similarly give him a free pass. Wrong. The Conservative leadership will despise him as an unprincipled coward while the bigots will take the view that the Tories enacted equal marriage and won't make any distinction between abstainers and supporters when it comes to putting an X in the box.

Uppal won't go on to save the universe and breed with multiple glamorous aliens. He's destined for humiliating defeat and a life of bitter contempt for the voters. He faced the unwinnable situation and cheated in the most spineless fashion possible.

I know Captain Kirk. And you, Mr Uppal, are no Captain Kirk.