Monday, 30 September 2013

Heroes and Villains

The 1978 film Superman is one I'm always happy to settle down and watch. It's a superhero film from the days before superheroes were the monstrous, all-pervading beefcake-with-psychoses cinematic wallpaper they've become today, every cheap short-run failed comic-book experiment turned into a very expensive failed cinema experiment. I now refuse to watch them: Watchmen was an embarrassing sacrilege and I gather Green Lantern was an insult to the original.

Superman was different. Innocent in many ways: it's a caper without any designs on profundity, which is where our current costumed creations fail: the screenwriters aren't good enough. Superman isn't quite All-American. Yes, he tells Lois that he's there – from another galaxy –  to fight for 'Truth, Justice and the American Way', which you could read as an attempt to recuperate American spirits after having their asses (as they call them) well and truly kicked in Vietnam), but the film's over-riding light-heartedness of tone undercuts this rather implausible claim. He has no political axe to grind nor unresolved Oedipal desires (though his dead father is a Law he breaks, giving rise to the appalling teen-misery of the recent Superman film and Smallville).

The clip above is one of my favourites, and one I show to students when trying to explain semiotics, and cultural studies. Arch-villain Lex Luthor neatly encapsulates the know-nothing reverence for the canon we find in the reactionary newspapers and the views of people forced to read by rote without ever understanding them. He beautifully encapsulates the need to examine all of culture and media – down to the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper – to truly understand our condition. Raymond Williams and Norman Fairclough would be proud.

My other favourite line in the film is towards the end of this clip. Past the glorious geological pun 'We all have our faults: mine's in California' (Lex has launched a nuke to trigger the San Andreas fault so that California slips into the sea, boosting the value of the desert he's bought cheaply), Miss Hackensack points out that the other missile aimed at Hackensack will kill her own mother. Rarely has a shaken head been put to such good use.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Wot no blog?

Plashing Vole Towers apologises for the break in service. Outrage and irony levels are currently heavily depleted by a) Israel denouncing Iran for potentially possessing nuclear weapons and breaching UN resolutions (b) Dan Hodges (c) The Tories and (d) the wilful destruction of New Tricks.

Fresh supplies of outrage will be delivered soon, when normal service will resume. In the meantime, feel free to acquire opinions from so-called rival sources.

It's true. I've been busy with pleasant and/or quotidian duties recently and my blood isn't currently angried-up. Last night I attended my colleague @MsEmentor's book launch (pics) followed by a convivial curry. I've read a couple of books (Jonathan Coe's Expo '58 which was enjoyable but wasn't quite funny, profound or moving enough compared with his usual work, and DJ Taylor's The Windsor Faction, which I immersed myself in, but which would require the Dictionary of National Biography and a decent encyclopaedia for people who aren't, as I am, 1930s culture obsessives: half the pleasure is in appreciating his research).

I've been to some decent classes, met some very promising students and recovered from the trauma of watching Threads the other night. In fact I'm so full of general bonhomie that I'm going to post some cheery songs by The Wonder Stuff, The Delgados, Shack, George Formby and finally some Cannonball Adderley:

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Come, friendly bombs?

Afternoon all. It's afternoon because I've been busy doing actual teaching today, rather than simply lecturing you lot over the interweb. And what a schedule it's been. Last night, I popped along to the Unpopular Texts module which kicked off in sunny style with that feel-good classic, Threads. Written by Barry Hines, socialist author of A Kestrel For A Knave and other delights, it details with unflinching horror the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the UK. Set in Sheffield, it follows the fortunes of the local emergency committee and two linked families, though to be honest they're reduced to one broken woman before very long. 'Bleak' and 'harrowing' don't cover the half of it. The story is harsh enough, and the style merely adds to it. Long periods of silence broken only by the wind howling over smashed cities, or the sobbing of our heroine reduced to exchanging sex for a couple of dead rats. There isn't a chink of light or hope in the whole thing.

Threads and The War Game (suppressed by the state and the BBC for decades: I saw it in a nuclear bunker and it scared the hell out of me) are partly why I joined and remain a member of CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The UK's 'independent nuclear deterrent' isn't independent (it's owned and controlled by the USA), nor a deterrent. It's a weapon designed not to knock out enemy military materiel, but explicitly to kill millions of civilians and poison the earth for generations. As a peace campaigner in Threads points out, there is no victory in a nuclear war. The winning side doesn't get to expand its borders and loot the homes of the losers. There will be no homes, and no loot. The earth will be dead, the wind toxic and the rain poisonous.

British nuclear policy is to launch 'first strikes'. That means that our government will kill millions even if the enemy hasn't launched nuclear weapons. The claim is that this will 'deter' attacks on us. But if you know the British will nuke you, you may as well nuke them too, rather than using conventional weapons.

I won't go on: either you're happy with the holocaust or you're not. Aside from the principles, last night's class was astonishing because of the students. After the first five minutes, the phones were ignored. Nobody twitched, fidgeted, whispered, texted or updated their status. They were stock still for two hours. When the film ended, they got up and left, in silence. No chatting, no hanging around to talk to us or their mates, just a sense of shock and oppression. I wondered how affected they'd be, having been born a decade at least after the end of the Cold War. Their apocalypses (judging by the shelves of the stuff in the YA Fiction aisle) are environmental.

I felt it too: I went home alone and found myself wondering how my flat would protect me, what the locals would do, how long I'd survive for and what I'd do. By and large, I'm with the Soviet president, Nikita Kruschev, who said of nuclear war that 'the living will envy the dead'.

Here's the entire film. It starts early with some interesting soap-style scene-setting, then rapidly descends into pitiless, scientifically accurate, horror.

I like Threads precisely because of its bleak honesty. It rejects all preparation and defence as useless and self-deluding. It's an antidote to the holocaust-as-thrill discourse prevalent in so many (particularly American) post-apocalypse texts. Britain's John Wyndham, for instance, depicted fallen worlds in which upstanding sensible chaps overcame the horror through moral courage and Boy Scout skills. I recently read Peter Heller's The Dog Stars which – while having a serious side – did seem to see the general depopulation of the world as an opportunity for Daniel Boone/Thoreau types: his hero rather enjoys hunting, walking his dog and flying his plane in the absence of millions. Then there are the countless post-apocalypse survivalist fantasies which allowed readers to revel in gun lore and dreams of throwing off the veneer of civilisation required in a dense urban situation: many of them are deeply fascist and seemed to welcome the End of Days. Not that this is simply a gung-ho American instinct: Betjeman's 'Come friendly bombs, and fall on Slough / It isn't fit for humans now' is funny, but does display a certain level of contempt for those denied the social lives of his own circle.

Still, there's always humour to be found in the total annihilation of civilisation, as Mitchell and Webb discovered:

Compared with that, today's Renaissance class, followed by Media, Communications and Ethics, were a doddle!

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Scumbag of the week

I know this is hardly a controversial nomination, but this week's recipient is Bono. 

Not, this time, for the stupid glasses, the mullet (it may have gone but its spirit lingers on) or the appalling music, not for the sanctimony, nor for the cosying up to some of the vilest people on the planet. 

No, this week's prize is awarded for his statement, in the course of an incoherent and hypocritical interview, that people who criticise his band's tax affairs are terrorists

That's right. After claiming that moving his money to the Dutch Antilles to avoid paying any tax in his now bankrupt country actually helps the Irish economy, he made this observation:
 I think some of the people who criticise us in Ireland and America have a history that you can trace back to our opposition to Noraid.
Noraid was the IRA's fundraising-and-arms-buying organisation in the US: if anyone jangled a collecting tin under your nose in a proper Irish bar in Boston, it was probably them.  Personally, I can't see much clear blue water between misty-eyed Irish-Americans supporting physical-force republicanism from the safety of the US and misty-eyed rich jet-setting rock stars condemning it from the cosy seats of the Clarence or the Lear jet. 

I'm pretty certain, however, that almost everyone who thinks you don't end poverty by hiding your money offshore while your country's young emigrate at a rate of 100,000 per year is a terrorist. 

His alternative explanation is even more pathetic:
A lot of the others probably hate our music.
That's right. We all base our moral and political judgements on whether or not we think 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' is searing comment or empty bluster, Bono. I think what I find most objectionable about him is the sanctimonious hypocrisy. There are lots of very unpleasant rock stars out there, and a lot of them avoid paying their taxes. But only Bono has the sheer gall to avoid his taxes and lecture the rest of us about fairness, making poverty history and moral responsibility. I'd far rather listen to Ted Nugent ranting about his gun collection than endure another sermon by Mr Vox. 

Whovians v Thaterites

Reading an MA thesis, it strikes me that I've never actively considered the use of relative pronouns and what they mean in an essay. It is – for me at least – more interesting than you might think.

Lots and lots of students use 'that' when they're referring to people, which is plain wrong. When the subject of the sentence is a person, it's 'who' (and 'whom' as the object of a sentence). As in 'Churchill is someone who…' or 'To whom did you give it?'. When it's a thing, use 'that': 'that thing in the corner'.

That's basic grammar. But of course language is always an exercise of power and ideology, even down at this level. The choices you make tell us a lot about the way you see the world. I refer to animals as 'it' whereas my more sentimental pals use 'he' or 'she', which may be sexually accurate but confers rather more agency and consideration on the dumb beasts than I'm prepared to bestow. For me, the pronoun you get reflects the likelihood that I'll be able to have an intelligible conversation with you about Samuel Richardson at some point. Obviously that renders most babies and Conservatives as 'it'.

Miss Havisham: just a string of words

But it gets more complicated when we're talking and writing about literature. I've been sitting here for years crossing out 'that' in essays discussing literary characters (yes, I know I micro-mark and I'm not proud) and replacing it with 'who', like some kind of mechanical grammar-Nazi. Mostly because I am a mechanical grammar Nazi.

Until this week, when I realised that this insistence on 'who' marks me out as some kind of 19th-century humanist romantic who'd never read Propp or indeed any structuralist, post-structuralist or 'linguistic turn' criticism. The who/that divide struck me as the key to literary criticism's twentieth-century struggles. On the one hand, the Whovians, determinedly asserting the claim that literature reflects 'real life', that words can authentically recreate the interior and social contexts of characters: that we can get into other people's heads and explain them to a reader. On the other hand, the Thaterites imply the constructed nature of literary characters: they're simply collections of words on a page. Some texts dishonestly (or arrogantly) pretend to reproduce reality by making us believe that Miss Havisham is a person, while more honest texts openly proclaim their artificiality. And then of course there's the tricksy postmodernist work which tries to have its cake and eat it. Take Pirandello's play Six Characters in Search of an Author, in which the hapless characters of an abandoned text desperately seek an author to release them from the stasis in which they were left:

But don't you see that the whole trouble lies here? In words, words. Each one of us has within him a whole world of things, each man of us his own special world. And how can we ever come to an understanding if I put in the words I utter the sense and value of things as I see them; while you who listen to me must inevitably translate them according to the conception of things each one of you has within himself. We think we understand each other, but we never really do.” 
“Life is full of strange absurdities, which, strangely enough, do not even need to appear plausible, since they are true.”  
Then there's Spike Milligan's novel Puckoon, in which the author's (also a character) legs criticise his/its characterisation and behaviour, thoroughly messing up the real/fictional divide:
'Legs? LEGS? Whose legs?'
'Mine? And who are you?'
'The Author.'
'Author? Author? Did you write these legs?'
'Well, I don't like dem. I don't like 'em at all at all. I could ha' writted better legs myself. Did you write your legs?'
'Ahhh. Sooo. You got some one else to write your legs, some one who's a good leg writer and den you write dis pair of crappy legs fer me, well mister, it's not good enough,'
'I'll try and develop them with the plot.'
It's a dia-bo-likal liberty lettin' an untrained leg writer loose on an unsuspectin' human bean like me'.
Finally, I recently read John Scalzi's Redshirts, an SF romp in which a spaceship crew starts to realise that they're characters in a lazily written Star Trek-like show and develop serious existential angst.

A Whovian treats characters as real people, a Thaterite analyses them linguistically and celebrates the separation of art and what some people still refer to as 'real life'.*

I suspect my students don't notice the that/who divide consciously, and why should they? Now I have, I can tell it's going to nag at me whenever I read or write anything. I don't know if there's anything written on this conundrum: certainly I've never heard it discussed anywhere. What do you think? Is 'that' too cold and mechanical? Or is 'who' a reactionary turn back to Leavis and the humanists? Should we speak of Hamlet or Alice or Ratty as 'it'?

Pressing stuff… I'll leave you with a Gadda sentence sent to me by that excellent author on all things educational, Andrew McGettigan:
"Pronouns! They're the lice of thought. When a thought has lice, it scratches... they get in the fingernails, then… you find pronouns, the personal pronouns.”
*This is reminding me too strongly of another famously bitter war of principle.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Jim Murphy, affront to democracy

In case you don't know who Jim Murphy is, he's the current Labour Shadow Minister for Defence. I remember him as a particularly reactionary president of the National Union of Students, back in the days when the National Organisation of Labour Students stitched up the presidency to ensure that a) the NUS continued to blindly serve the interests of the Labour Party's upper echelons and b) provide a training job for future MPs and Cabinet Ministers (cf. Jack Straw). Indeed, I have a file of satirical flyers and posters about Mr Murphy from those halcyon days, all predicting his eventual elevation.

Mr Murphy was then and still is one of those grim-faced machine politicians whose self-appointed job is to ensure that the Labour Party tacks ever to the right wing of politics. He has zero interest in the ordinary lives of this country's citizens. I've never detected a shred of political principle on his part, merely a determination to submit to the prejudices of the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Telegraph. As Defence Shadow Minister, his role is to deify the military and ensure that we never stop spending billions on illegal weapons of mass destruction, driven by taunts that his party is 'soft on defence': he's a spiritual grandson of Bevin et al.

This morning's outrage is brought to you by Mr Murphy's performance at the Labour Party conference, where he's cynically utilised the brutal murder of young soldier Lee Rigby several months ago. Mr Murphy has announced that attacking a member of the armed forces is now to be a specific criminal offence.

What's wrong with this, you may ask? It was an horrific event and the military do a difficult job (etc. etc. our boys…heroes…blah blah blah).

What's wrong with this is that attacking anyone is already a criminal offence: violence is reserved for the state under this country's laws. The safety of the individual is paramount, and the law demands that it be applied equally. As one military officer, Colonel Rainsborough, said in 1647,
'I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest… I do find that all Englishmen must be subject to English laws; and I do verily believe that there is no man but will say that the foundation of all law lies in the people; and if it lie in the people, I am to seek for this exemption.
It's really simple for me. If you stab a soldier on the street, you go to prison. If you stab a milkman, teenager, pensioner or stockbroker on the street, you go to prison. The right to life is sacrosanct. Yet Murphy's Law will divide the people of this country into two categories: the military and the rest of us. Yet British law and custom specifically holds uniformed personnel to be simply 'citizens in uniform', with surprisingly few privileges: a bulwark against martial law and state oppression. In practice of course the police and armed services behave as though the'yre exempt from the laws applying to the rest of us: de Menezes, the guy killed while making his way home during the G20 protests, Northern Ireland and Baha Moussa, extraordinary rendition, the behaviour of the TSG and the the undercover cops fathering children with activists and subverting their legal activities. But the principle is an important one: that the armed and uniformed services are public servants, not our masters.

Imagine being caught up in some bar brawl in Aldershot, Colchester, Warminster or any of those garrison towns. Some drunk soldier takes exception to you and swings a punch. You all get to court and he's charged with common assault while you're done for common assault and violence against the person of the armed forces. A Quaker CND marcher is done for impeding a nuclear base's guard. Or a Northern Irish nationalist protest defending herself against state violence gets charged with extra offences. Does that look like fair and equal treatment? Once we decide that one person's body is more worthy of legal protection than another's, we've abandoned the notion of basic human rights entirely, on favour of a system in which power accrues rights while the rest of us hope for legal goodwill.

The second embarrassing thing about Mr Murphy's proposal is that it's such a shameless exercise in headline-grabbing. He isn't promising that a Labour Government will bring in this law. He's going to table it in Parliament next month, from the opposition benches. He knows perfectly well that such bills never succeed. They run out of time. Governments defeat opposition bills simply for political reasons. That's what Murphy wants: he can achieve headlines about uncaring Tories abandoning Our Boys. Either that, or the government adopts the Bill and declares itself the winner. I can't see any Conservative politicians making the point about equal citizenship: they'll wrap themselves in the flag at the first opportunity and another blow is struck against equality. So Murphy knows that this isn't going to become law: he's just after cheap headlines,

This is cynical, awful stuff. Murphy's got no defensible principle and he's reaching for the lowest form of tactical politics for short-term. I honestly thought that under Ed Miliband's leadership, this kind of nonsense was a thing of the past. I know he's under pressure to get some quick wins with the press, but he should be beyond this kind of rubbish. It's the sort of nonsense that makes me ashamed to be a member of the party.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Of Sluts, and Strikes, Or, Forward to 1912!

One of the interesting things about postmodernism is that with language and meaning sundered, anyone can appropriate it for their own purposes. 

Take this clip of Godfrey Bloom, Member of the European Parliament and former habitué of Hong Kong brothels, berating – and hitting – journalist Michael Crick for his supposed 'disgraceful' racism, after the Channel 4 hack pointed out that UKIP's conference material didn't stretch to a single non-Caucasian face.

This is the Godfrey Bloom whom this morning described women in politics as 'sluts' and referred to Africa as, well, see for yourself:

Somewhat unfashionably, I'm quite a supporter of 'political correctness', or to put it more simply, politeness. Anyone with a serious argument to make doesn't need to reach for personal, racial or sexual comments to further said argument. Bloom's dyspeptic accusation of racism is laughable on one level, but also dangerous: it's a deliberate attempt to render the term meaningless so that it can't be used against him and people like him when they say racist things.

Perhaps UKIP couldn't find a single black person for their publicity because they don't have any black candidates or even members. In a sense, their brochure may be honest at a deeper level: where other parties (and even some advertisers) feature people from ethnic minorities to look inclusive and progressive, UKIP is clear: they just don't want black people in their party. The leadership might not say so out loud, but the membership speaks volumes. They see all black people as foreigners and would happily see them deported. 

It's easy to dismiss UKIP as the latest manifestation of red-faced blustering Tory golf-club bar bores calling for 'a small libation for my good lady wife' and dreaming of bringing back the birch. For good reason: that's what they are. But they're far more important than that. The UK has a shrill, rightwing media which concertedly plays on the prejudice of bourgeois reactionaries while tacitly encouraging the dominance of another group of rightwingers, the financial engineers. The little-Englanders attract votes for neoliberal parties through dog-whistle politics while the parties they elect get on with cutting wages, axing pensions, privatising hospitals, denying climate science and removing workers' protection. On some of these things, the UKIP voters agree with the money-men; on others, they just don't care. Currently, the rightwing newspapers loathe the Coalition government and use UKIP to drag the Tories further to the right, economically and socially. This contradiction in the strands of conservatism is encapsulated in Nigel Farage: while he talks endlessly about the conservative culture wars (hating political correctness, the little man being crushed by Brussels etc etc), he made millions in the City, exactly the kind of 'socially useless' gambling which erodes the supposedly 'English' or 'British' values many of his members purport to endorse. Given the opportunity, he would privatise everything in sight, yet his members are staunchly against the free-market free-for-all for which their monetarist cousins yearn. Farage wants a low-wage economy in which shareholders take what the workers should be paid: whatever he says in public, he knows that a globalised, mobile proletariat is key to maintaining this capitalist Utopia. Truly, being a conservative politician is to ride two horses straining to gallop in different directions. 

Giving UKIP the oxygen of publicity makes them seem important, provoking the Tory Party to chase their votes by shaping an even more reactionary agenda. We all know UKIP's leadership are bluff 'common sense' buffoons who'd steer the country into a ditch on their first day in office, or liek Farage, appear to be bluff common sense buffoons while actually pursuing a private agenda inimical to their own voters. But they're important because they're being given the opportunity to make the political running, despite their minimal size and lack of elected representatives. We're being dragged to the hard right. 

The Tories have accepted this drift from respectable conservatism to fringe lunacy as the price of power, becoming a Tea Party in tailored suits. So much, we'd expect: the Tories value political survival way above principle or ideology. But Labour should be ashamed. Ever since the dark days of Blair, the Oxford-Party HQ-SpAd-Safe Seat brigade who run the party have assumed that the working class is made up of thuggish racists. Needless to say, virtually none of these Bright Young Things have ever worked for a living, originated in the working class or lived amongst them. But they've read about them, and they know that White Van Man reads The Sun and hates Gypsies, women, foreigners and 'poofs' (his boss reads the Mail and expresses his identical prejudices in politer language). 

Rather than assume that a misinformed population has better instincts which can be awakened by discussion, education and reason, New Labour decided that it would be easier to pander to these prejudices, hence the vile race-baiting perpetuated by Labour ministers like Reid, Blunkett and Woolas, the immigration minister who claimed that 'illegal immigrants' and al-Qaeda wanted the Lib Dems to win in his constituency:

So what we now have is a political system in which all the major parties have decided that a) the voters are vile scum and b) their perceived prejudices should be adopted as party policy. UKIP is merely the latest boogie-man used by Murdoch et al. to make potential governing parties stay at heel. 

I'd like the Labour Party, at least, to return to the 1930s. Back then, it was forced by the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party to remain agile, radical and close to the electorate without adopting the darker impulses of the populus. It had confidence in the people's intelligence and goodwill. Now, we have parties which fear and resent the population, a political class which wants to be left to get on with things unhindered by the mere citizenry. One section of the left was Syndicalist. Their vision of the future was workers' co-operatives running each industry and negotiating with other industries to the people's mutual benefit, without government. You may or may not see this as a good idea, but the Syndicalists had a very keen eye for the pitfalls of representative politics such as the UK adopted. Here's what the 1912 South Wales Miners' pamphlet The Miners' Next Step has to say about political and trade union leaders' inherent conservatism:

In the main, and on things that matter, the Executive have the supreme power. The workmen for a time look up to these men and when things are going well they idolise them. The employers respect them. Why? Because they have the men - the real power - in the hollow of their hands. They, the leaders, become "gentlemen," they become M.P.'s and have considerable social prestige because of this power. Now when any man or men assume power of this description, we have a right to ask them to be infallible. That is the penalty, a just one too, of autocracy. When things go wrong, and we have shown that they have gone wrong, they deserve to be, and are blamed. What really is blameworthy, is the conciliation policy which demands leaders of this description.

For a moment let us look at this question from the leaders' standpoint. First, they are "trade unionists by trade" and their profession demands certain privileges. The greatest of all these are plenary powers. Now, every inroad the rank and file make on this privilege lessens the power and prestige of the leader. Can we wonder then that leaders are averse to change? Can we wonder that they try and prevent progress? Progress may arrive at such a point that they would not be able to retain their "jobs," or their "jobs" would become so unimportant that from their point of view, they would not be worth retaining.

The leader then has an interest - a vested interest - in stopping progress. They have therefore in some things an antagonism of interests with the rank and file.
The ordinary people, they say, are reduced to the status of fans at a football match: while they might have picked the team, they no longer have any say in how play is organised. For the Syndicalists, betrayal was inevitable. The leaders would go to London, sit in negotiating rooms with the opposition, visit their tailors, drink their whisky, pick up their discourse and before long, those outside would find it hard – to nick Orwell – to tell the difference between the pigs and the men. 

Reading today's revelations about New Labour's infighting in the dying days of the Blair regime, it's depressing to note that neither Blair's nor Brown's minions give a moment's thought to political principle, to the hopes and dreams of their party members or the people they're elected to govern. The people are an inconvenient embarrassment, carping and jeering while their leaders try to look dignified in the offices of The Sun or Goldman Sachs. Again, those miners knew what they were talking about in 1912: the leader

sees no need for any high level of intelligence in the rank and file, except to applaud his actions. Indeed such intelligence from his point of view, by breeding criticism and opposition, is an obstacle and causes confusion. His motto is, "Men, be loyal to your leaders."
In order to be effective, the leader must keep the men in order, or he forfeits the respect of the employers and "the public," and thus becomes ineffective as a leader.
Paid-up members of what Sampson called 'the political class', this is politics reduced to a game of who's up and who's down, who's in and who's out. That lives, communities and futures depended on how they behaved appears not to have occurred to Blair, Brown, the Blairites and the Brownites. Bereft of any political principle, they'd read Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and agreed that ideological differences were dead: we were all free market capitalists now (a weak argument demolished along with the Twin Towers) and all that remained was to bicker over who would referee the bunfight. As usual, the Tories were hatefully honest: they never believed that the war was over. Not until the last worker is reduced to peon status, the last job exported to some North Korean slave factory will they declare victory over us. There's no humbug in the Tory wing of the Capitalist Party, unlike the Lib Dems or Labour: they hate and fear us and aren't afraid to say so, sure that false consciousness will deliver them enough votes to be in with a shot of power at each election.

Ed Miliband shows signs of understanding this, but there's little hope of success without as much pressure from the left as there is from the right and the media conglomerates who serve as the PR wing of Big Money. Which brings us back to dear old Godfrey, Boris and Co. They're the jesters of Big Money. They raise a stunned gape at their knowing use of language and ideas previously thought beyond the pale. Like comedians relying on rape jokes, the shock diminishes but the ideas permeate into polite society, disguised as 'speaking your mind' or 'common sense'. Exaggerated by an echo-chamber media pursuing other private interests, their plain-speaking is seen as attractive to the serious politicians and we're dragged, one gaffe at a time, into a smaller, meaner, less hospitable, more suspicious condition. 

Other than that, I'm quite relaxed at the moment. Looking forward to teaching next week. Toodle-pip!

Thursday, 19 September 2013

"Books! And cleverness!"

Despite being a largely 'insensitive wart' with 'the emotional range of a teaspoon', and once having been described – by a friend, no less – as 'emotionally dead', I shall make an exception today to wish a happy birthday to a fictional character.

Today, we celebrate the birth of one Hermione Granger, the true hero of the Harry Potter novels. Lacking a Messiah complex, her character is a paean to the virtues of reading and research. 

Without her devotion to books, the world would not have been saved. Yes, she's a little pompous in the early novels and films, and her upper-middle-class status, it is implied, is normative (whereas the Weasleys' poverty is picturesque and sentimental) but she becomes an exemplary young woman: intellectual, thoughtful and independent. 

She's also a skeptic of the finest kind, turning down Divination lessons and evoking a response which warms my own shrivelled heart:

I disagree with Hermione in only one regard:
"Books! And cleverness! There are more important things--friendship and bravery"

Nonsense. Friends can unpick the locks and escape while you're asleep, whereas books stay exactly where you leave them and don't whine about needing daylight or to 'go home' or another bowl of gruel.  More trouble than they're worth. 

Another hero who spent a lot of time in libraries was Buffy: you younger readers may not remember her but Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a superb satire on teenage hopes and dreams, in which Buffy discovered (rather to her dismay) that she was another Chosen One (adolescent literature teems with them: perhaps they need a union), which promised to put a severe dent in her plans for dating and teen high-jinks. Conveniently, the opening to hell is located in her school, providing a neat opportunity for an even odder examination of the American education system than the many other fine sit-coms and dramas set there. Props too for Blossom, My So-Called Life and Canadian Degrassi Junior High, Lisa Simpson and for BBC2 for showing them all: without them I'd have assumed that all other girls were like my myriad sisters and become a socially maladjusted weirdo. Oh, wait…

Aided by Giles, the dryly humorous British school librarian and mentor ('What are you going to do?' 'Get my books, look stuff up'), Buffy saves the world from assorted hell-beasts in every episode, through a combination of book-smarts, sarcasm and roundhouse kicks. 

Both Hermione and Buffy negotiate the demands of adolescence (sexuality, education, isolation, socialisation, soul-sucking monsters) with aplomb. They aren't obsessed with appearance or validation through boys and popularity. They don't always wear pink and they aren't simpering sidekicks to some macho male here. Being the products of a capitalist, patriarchal media industry, they aren't ideal feminists, especially the film version of Hermione, and their post-adventure trajectories are fairly conservative, but looking around the fiction landscape, they're quite impressive. They do and know things rather than aspiring to fame or attachment to some equally vacuous man. As characters, they have intrinsic worth, rather than existing to accentuate a male hero's attractive qualities. When Hermione and Ron get together, they enrich each other: she's not a prize. 

There are some pretty awful role models relentlessly promoted in the media. Hermione and Buffy are good alternatives from pop culture - and not just for girls. 

(And while we're at it, here's my boss explaining to students why they need to talk in seminars: 'you don't get fit by going down to the gym and watching someone else work out'). 

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

A final selection of School Games 2013 fencing photos

Last few, I promise. Feast your eyes on the rest either here, or at a selection of others on Plashing Vole. Click these to enlarge.


Katie Heeps' saltire fingernails

Ken Rose, Scotland coach

Leah King, U18 Foil Champion

Niamh O'Donnell, Scotland foil fencer
Harry Peck, England epee

Rajan Rai, England foil 

Sadeghpoor, Scotland foil

Flick to the back

Alex Fitton takes off

Webb evades Williamson in the sabre

Woodburn, Scotland sabre

Yet more fencing photos

Some more favourites from this year's School Games fencing event at the English Institute of Sport, Sheffield. See the whole lot here, click on these samples to enlarge.

For photography nerds: sports halls are awful, awful places for good pictures. The light is dank and/or harsh, and good spots for composition are hard to find. You need a really fast lens, a high standard camera and lots of patience: I took 1200 photos and edited them down to 500 acceptable ones. Then there's the problem that fencing can look very samey: once a fencer has the mask one, character is hard to capture.

I used a Nikon D7000 and a 50mm f/1.8 lens - the best I can afford. Flash isn't allowed and tripods get in the way. The lens is fixed, so you move rather than the hardware. Noise is a problem in these poor light conditions, because the speed of movement needs settings of at least shutter speeds of 1/640th of a second and an ISO somewhere above 1600, which causes noise. If anyone wants to buy me a 300mm f/2 (several thousand pounds) I'd be very grateful.

Anyway, these are what came out of the camera.

This one might be my favourite: Kate Daykin has such an expressive face.

Appealing to the referee

Appeal refused

Giving the referee your interpretation

Jai Birch, England foilist

Guess who's back!

Hi everybody. How are you all? I didn't mean to suspend bloggage for a full week, but life – in the form of the School Games and then the start of Freshers' Week – got in the way rather. The Games were mostly enjoyable. The fencers and other athletes were largely lovely and happy. Tired, bruised and focussed, with the usual fallings out between themselves, but nothing serious. The adults, on the other hand, were infuriating. Some team management seemed to consist of little more than sniping at each other, while some of the parents were vile. Not just demanding, selfish, reactive and dumb, but hostile, rude and arrogant to boot. For future reference, an early start is neither 'child abuse' nor 'a breach of the Children's Act'. Your son is one of several thousand elite sports performers and the occasional early alarm call is entirely normal. Oh, and describing the event as 'not serious' really insults the other participants: being selected to represent your country is actually quite a big thing.

Rant over. Here are some of my favourite pictures from the weekend. I'll spread them over a couple of Vole entries and you can see the rest of the 500 here. Click these to enlarge them. While I'm at it: Flickr Uploadr is awful and I've wasted a day trying to get it to work.