Thursday, 31 July 2014

Escaping to the country

I'm off on my holidays this evening.

I know.

I'm not a natural holidayer. I don't have the relaxed and sunny demeanour of even M. Hulot here:

I'm more of a sunburned, sweaty, itchy grump. However, I'll be off on the west coast of Ireland, swimming like an obese brick in the Atlantic, and reading. Lots and lots of reading. The Guardian, Irish Times and Examiner most days, plus a few books. The only 'work' one I'm taking is Simon During's Foucault and Literature, but I'm also taking last year's surprise (and posthumous) hit, John Williams' Stoner. Also some Anthony Trollope, Jack Womack, another biography of John Lilburne, Stefan Collini's What Are Universities For? and a couple of other things whose names I forget. Plus a load of Doctor Who and Star Trek journal articles for the thing I'm writing with my colleague, but they're on an iPad so I can safely ignore them.

The last things I had to do today were read a nearly-completed PhD dissertation by a Bulgarian visiting scholar and buy a house. The first was an enormous pleasure: his central assertion is that remix culture is a local version of art and literary practice since the post-Romantic period. It's a thrilling and provocative thesis: it needs work, but it was an enormous pleasure to read even if he is shocked to discover that I've basically corrected some prepositions and scrawled MORE HAUNTOLOGY over it.

And yes, I bought a house today. I didn't want to on multiple grounds (ideology, laziness, cash, being trapped in The Dark Place) but I'm a) sick of landlords and b) unemployable elsewhere. As long as I don't succumb, like Thomas Docherty, to Academic Bitchy Resting Face, I should cling on to this job for long enough to pay it off. And at least doing it all in one day means I can go on holiday, switch off every electronic device and panic on deserted beaches and up lonely mountains where nobody can here me.

So, for a couple of weeks, farewell. If you're a regular reader, try to break the habit. It's not good for you. If you're the local newspaper: try to find something else to fill your pages lads. Football's starting soon!

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Rah Rah Rah, We're Going To Smash The Oiks!

Last week the delightful Aditya Chakrabortty of The Guardian reviewed the government's plans for funding Higher Education. I won't bore you with the technical details, but essentially they were going to fund expansion (largely through private providers of the kind currently suspended for immigration fraud and low standards) by selling off future student loan payments to banks.

The only problems were that 1) so many students weren't paying back their loans that the whole loans-for-fees system isn't saving the government any money and b) even with a massive discount, banks weren't biting. The whole idea is ridiculous: flogging off a major income stream for a pittance, even on their own terms. I wrote to my MP Paul Uppal, the HE minister's private parliamentary secretary, asking him if he could explain how it would all work. He replied with a very courteous letter essentially saying 'er…no, but I'll write again if we think of anything or if the sale doesn't go ahead.

The sale isn't going ahead. Vince Cable, who as Secretary of State for Business obviously oversees HE funding and policy, has declared that the sale is off, leaving a £12bn hole in the projected budget. My hunch is that they'll close it by ending the expansion of student numbers.

So this is the background to Chakrabortty's declaration that the sector is itself in disarray, with market-friendly managers and senior academics wrecking proud institutions like King's College London.
pushed into a marketplace, the managers of higher education don't really know how to act. So they ape each other, pass off what they are doing to what's left of the staff as the new wisdom – and pay themselves vast sums for wrecking one of the few sectors in which Britain leads the world. The result in all its strategic confusion and grasping anxiety is the university version of The Thick of Itfrom bean to cup, those HE bosses fuck up.
Not that I have a single critical word to say about the enlightened leaders of my own dear Hegemon. I don't want to end up like Thomas Docherty, suspended by the University of Warwick for 'sighing' and  'irony'. Apparently academic bitchy resting face is now a disciplinary issue.

But fear not. The true madness has just descended on us. The deposed minister for HE, David Willetts, has been privately advocating a work of staggering genius. Discovered by Newsnight's Christopher Cook and presumably a government attempt to float the idea, Willetts wants to dump student debt on individual universities.

The idea's simple. You borrow from the government. That debt is then sold to the student's university on graduation. That's the debt that they couldn't sell to the banks, you remember. Then the student owes her debt to her alma mater.

A few problems arise. Firstly, are either the government or university finance offices capable of even managing the process? I can't even get my finance department to pay a visiting speaker £30 in travel expenses, so I have my doubts that it will successfully negotiate the (enforced?) purchase of discounted financial instruments.

Secondly, loading universities with their students debts is guaranteed to lead to fewer courses populated by richer students. Imagine the recruitment department looking at a forty-year old single mother from a minority community applying to study social work or education. Women earn less. They have career breaks, often to have children. School teachers, nurses, social workers and other useful people earn very little compared to the bankers who even steal from the government which bailed them out. The average company CEO, it turns out, is still male, 54 and an Oxbridge graduate (and therefore very likely to be white, too).

Any sane university trapped in the logic of depending on student loan repayments would turn away the poor, the old, the ethnic, the female and the altruistic. It would shut down the courses which lead to socially useful jobs, because they pay less. It would also shut down the expensive courses, like the sciences.

And then we turn to geography. Imagine being a university serving a community of poor, often BME people. The local employers pay the minimum wage or are public sector employees. Unemployment is high. Would you provide courses enabling the poor locals to better themselves? Of course not: because we all know that unemployment and low pay aren't a function of individual fecklessness or bad luck. They're a deliberate strategy designed to provide a pool of desperate workers (keeping wage inflation down) and to increase shareholder and executive pay at the expense of the workforce.

Willetts claims that loading universities with their students' debts will make the institution work harder to make those graduates more employable. This is economic illiteracy or – worse – deliberately deceptive. It implies that employability is solely a matter of personal qualities and education is a private good, when it remains inescapably true that there are (and have been since 2008) more unemployed people than there are jobs, and until the financial recovery becomes an economic recovery, this will continue to be the case. So it doesn't matter if you have 'appropriate' qualifications bursting from every orifice, or your university has showered you with skills, courses and internships, many graduates won't get a job.

Cook points out that six 'top' universities are keen on the whole idea. Of course they are. Getting a degree from the Russell Group, particularly Oxbridge, Imperial, UCL and a couple of others, is like winning a Golden Ticket (though Willy Wonka's distribution of tickets is much, much fairer than elite university entrance, which is largely predicated on parental wealth and private education: as an aside, Piketty's Capital points out that the average parental income for Harvard undergraduates is $450,000 p.a. – feel the egalité). So these 'top' universities, drawing their intake from the global elite, can be pretty sure that most of their students (of course some will dedicate their lives to low-paying, altruistic work) will be earning massive salaries simply because of the name on their degree certification, let alone the social capital acquired along the way. They won't even have to shut down the Medieval Icelandic courses, because institutional prestige will smooth those graduates' paths.

Those VCs are rubbing their hands together with glee, because there's another little bonus coming their way. They can point to their students' economic successes as proof that they have little risk attached to income, and raise their fees massively, thus excluding more of the Great Unwashed. If you're going to become a derivatives broker, £50,000 debt is chicken-feed, a quarter of the price of your latest Lamborghini. So is £100,000. So let's party!

Meanwhile, in the rust-belt, poor old Poly will have progressively shut down sculpture, art, and music, then media and film, then languages (if any still existed), then English. Before long, history, politics and sociology will go. Pretty soon only nursing, law and business will exist outside the sciences. At some point the finance director will point out that sciences are expensive and the students aren't getting well-paying jobs. Then the league tables will point out that legal and business jobs depend on contacts and prestige degrees, while the nurses have stopped paying back their loans. Before long the whole place will quietly shut down with barely a whimper of regret from anyone in authority. A (perhaps the) major source of pride, regeneration, cash and enlightenment in the region will be gone and nothing will bring it back.

This will not be an accident. This is the plan. As I've said over and over again since I started this blog many years ago, successive government long-ago decided that they work for the financial elite. Rather than looking at the industrial situation in 1960 or whenever and work out how 60 million people will earn a living, they decided to concentrate on shareholder profits. This meant crushing wages, reducing labour protection, reducing social security and engineering an economy based on low-paid, low-employment, low-skilled services. This necessarily requires a smaller, meaner state because while most of us can't and wouldn't avoid our taxes, corporations can and do. The grotesque sight of Russian oligarchs paying the Tories £160,000 for a game of tennis with Boris Johnson illustrates this strategy perfectly. Why pay millions in taxes, governments say to these people, when you can pay the Party a few hundred thousand?

Higher and Further education are key to this strategy. They don't want, or at the very least don't care about widening participation. They don't think the poor deserve or are capable of succeeding at HE, and they define success solely as personal financial gain (except for their own kids, who will be privately funded to study wonderful courses I'd love to take such as Medieval Icelandic, safe in the knowledge that they'll never be exposed to the cold winds of the job centre). My students, and their kids, can sod off to an Amazon warehouse and be grateful.

Other, better analyses of this crackpot scheme are here, here and probably all over the net.

Which takes me to the title of this post, derived from the chant of Footlights College when they meet Scumbag College in University Challenge.

It was funny then. Now it's policy.

Lucky there's an election in 10 months eh readers?

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

They can't mean me…

Now and then I get a slightly exhausted senior manager on the phone, asking me in for a little chat about whatever the local rag has stolen from my Twitter feed or blog. So far, they've been very kind and understanding, and always insisted that I would never be asked to remain silent on whatever subject has caught my eye that week. Nonetheless, it's pretty clear that they would rather I occasionally passed up the opportunity to offer my two cents. I do, too: despite some pretty childish attempts by local hacks to rile me, I've let some things drop and not raised others. I'm certainly a lot more circumspect about the things I learn in my role as union rep and university governor too: despite my reputation as a bigmouth, there are plenty of things that have either enthused me or depressed me that I've maintained a discreet silence about. I'm just one person and I'm not always the best qualified individual to judge what should and shouldn't be publicly aired, despite my strong feeling that a university is nothing if it isn't a series of loud, public arguments.

In the sector generally, silence is beginning to fall. Quiet words are being had, prominent individuals are being sidelined, suspended or retired for disagreeing with management in public. In the new university sector, the institution is no longer the ramshackle conglomeration of students, teachers, support staff, managers, local authorities and interested parties. The university is now a small collection of very highly-paid professional administrators at whose beck and call we exist. From cleaners to professors, 'we' are no longer the institution: we service it. (I prefer the original Italian model in which students would hire a room and a lecturer).

One of the many problems with this horrid corporate model is that suddenly we're all meant to obey the Word from on High. Corporate loyalty and obedience become paramount. In the old days, academics were meant to be unruly troublemakers. That's why we were hired: we have a loyalty to the ideals of education, not to the local and contingent structures in which we find ourselves. We challenged old nostrums, whether about the Great Vowel Shift or the catering menu. Now the job consists of two things: Teaching and Shutting Up. One manager recently proudly told me that his job is to ensure that nobody 'disruptive' gets a job here: I thought the point of higher education was to disrupt the status quo.

This hierarchical, top-down corporate structure is beginning to acquire a legal and managerial structure. Take David Browne's public (and hastily removed) musing on Luis Suarez's behaviour and what it means for universities:
‘high performing’ academics can damage their ‘university’s brand’ by their ‘outspoken opinions or general insubordination’.
In the probably non-existent Golden Age of higher education, it was accepted that academics would and could be a royal pain in the arse. There are even witty books about playing the academic game, and hundreds of tedious diaries and biographies of Senior Wranglers from Oxbridge colleges who spent their entire careers whispering poison about each other into influential ears. Campus novels teem with single-minded Vice-Chancellors worn down by academics who won't knuckle down and follow orders. Most of them are very boring.

It's different now. Universities, as Mr Browne observes, are brands and businesses which happen to produce education as their product. Some have been like that for years, such as Warwick. Once the end-result of a university education isn't critical thinkers, an oppressive apparatus of control appears (and in specific regard to Business Schools: the global economy collapses because nobody's being critical). Some elements are minor or silly: meaningless slogans, logos, email footers. Others are more heavy-handed. Out goes the legally-protected notion of academic freedom:
academic freedom is specified in the Education Reform Act 1988, Section 202 (2). The clause, setting out the role of a new body of University Commissioners, is quite specific: “to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions
and in comes the imposition of mission statements, pronunciamentos and a general air of disappointment and fury every time we who have found ourselves at the bottom of a hierarchical structure we naively thought was egalitarian resist the latest attack on principles we hold dear. Yes, we have a legal right to 'question and test received opinion', but I wouldn't mind betting that an industrial tribunal will see a university argue that this right refers only to scholarly concepts and not to corporate policy. 

If I suddenly go quiet, look for me teaching Business English on the midnight shift at our Siberian satellite campus.

For some, sanctions. For others: ammo

We can all be forgiven for thinking the world's going to hell in a handcart. South Sudan, Syria, Palestine, Ukraine to name just a few places. Thank heavens we live in a nice quiet bit of Northern Europe/North America or Australia. What's wrong with these foreigners that they reach for a gun at the drop of a hat? They're just barbarians. We're civilised.

Of course we're civilised. As long as you miss out Northern Ireland, or make sure you carry out your genocides before international law and media get going. Native Americans? Just enough left to weave some rugs for the tourists. We wouldn't behave like these savages. Or at least, not in public. Yes, there's Guantanamo and Bagram and Diego Garcia and black sites in Poland, Romania, Egypt and various other places, but they're only for terrorists. We're for democracy. At least, when and where it suits us. Sure, Egypt's a military dictatorship and Saudi Arabia is the worst place on earth for Jews, women, atheists, black people, liberals, trades unionists and religious minorities. But they put on a good spread and some of their leaders are very hospitable to our salesmen. Really, Rolls-Royce and BAe haven't a bad word to say about them.

Look at these brutes. Smashing civilian planes out of the sky. We wouldn't do that. Well, OK, we would, using the USS Vincennes which had entered Iranian waters after getting annoyed by Iranian speedboats. But that plane was packed with Iranians, in Iranian airspace. Honestly, they were asking for it. And we said sorry. Well, not exactly sorry, but we did give the 290 victims' $61m between them without admitting legal liability. These things happen.
When questioned in a 2000 BBC documentary, the U.S. government stated in a written answer that they believed the incident may have been caused by a simultaneous psychological condition amongst the 18 bridge crew of the Vincennes called 'scenario fulfillment', which is said to occur when persons are under pressure. In such a situation, the men will carry out a training scenario, believing it to be reality while ignoring sensory information that contradicts the scenario. In the case of this incident, the scenario was an attack by a lone military aircraft.
What did President Bush the First say?
"I will never apologize for the United States — I don't care what the facts are... I'm not an apologize-for-America kind of guy."
In fact it was the Iranians' fault for being at war with Saddam Hussein, he said. And you can't say fairer than that. Which is why Bill Clinton continued to refuse to apologise.

But anyway, apart from that, it's pretty clear that the dividing line between Civilised and Uncivilised is religious and ethnic. Arabs and Muslims are Uncivilised, White People are Civilised. We don't do these things to each other.

Except that we obviously do, and we help out when our Civilised friends want to go about smiting the Uncivilised. After all, we can't leave the Israelis to do all that child-killing unaided. We (rightly) sanction Russia for at least helping shoot down a jet, but we send Israel more ammo. All the stuff a feisty little nation might need to bombard a densely packed city with heavy weaponry.
David Miliband admitted that Israeli equipment used in Gaza in the 2008-9 conflict "almost certainly" contained UK-supplied components. He cited F16 combat aircraft, Apache attack helicopters, Saar-Class corvettes and armoured personnel carriers.
Perhaps it's a tinge of imperial nostalgia. After all, it's almost a century since the British got to bombard a densely-packed city of lightly-armed rebellious natives holding a largely symbolic insurrection next door: Dublin, 1916. (A side-note of pride: my great-uncle Thomas was Commandant of the 1st Dublin Brigade and fought in the GPO that day). I'm really looking forward to the wall-to-wall BBC/Daily Mail coverage of that proud moment in a couple of years time. I mean: these Palestinian children and bakers and mothers and street-cleaners and lawyers are just asking for it. And that's not just me, that's the Wall Street Journal:

So what am I rambling on about really? Well, it comes down to realpolitik: the understanding that any principles evinced by democratically-elected leaders are contingent. Democracy is something with which to taunt your enemies, not press on your friends. Palestinian children just are expendable. The planes your enemies shoot down are evidence of barbarism. The planes you shoot down are regrettable instances of unfavourable conditions. You kidnap: we have secure rendition facilities. We were provoked: you're inherently evil. We must defend ourselves: you're warmongers. We have security concerns: you're terrorists. We have values that must be defended: you're fanatics.

Right now, I've got a 'plague on all your houses' feeling, which is wrong. All these conflicts are more complicated than they seem. Every side is committing offences against humanity that we should be getting outraged over, case by case. But watching the news and social media, hearing the same tired old lies and evasions trotted out by our political leaders, it's hard to do anything other than accept the disempowerment and watch events unfold as though we're at the cinema. When you hear John Kerry tell the news that Israel is conducting 'pinpoint' operations then being caught on camera using the phrase sarcastically, you have to admit that – as Baudrillard pointed out – we're not in a real war at all. There's what happens, which Kerry can only mutter to his aides about, and there's the simulation, which is far more important. Kerry clearly doesn't like Israel killing children and civilians on a personal level, but his job is to deny it's happening for the purpose of maintaining the USA's uncritical support for whatever Israel wants to do. (As an aside, the Fox presenter challenged Kerry for expressing regret for the dead children: criticising Israel is just not on). Social media's no better: one Christian activist polluting my timeline on Twitter is spending his time explaining why exactly it is that God needs lots of Palestinian kids dead in a hurry. I'm no wiser, to be honest. It's just thousands of people posting decontextualised photos or propaganda points in pursuit of what, exactly, I don't know. Still, they're all better than Caitlin Moran's all-purpose outrage:

Well done Caitlin. We can all stop worrying about it now because all those FGM-advocates will be bowled over by a columnist writing WTF on her hand. Staying seated on a bus? Passing a law? Throwing yourself under a racehorse? Boring. Or BORING!!!!! as Caitlin would say. She's written an opinion on her hand and posted it on Twitter. End Of!

Time to stop. Even by my standards this is rambling nonsense rather than an argument. It's hot and everybody's gone mad. Including me.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Come into the garden Maud

Life in the new Faculty is less than halcyon. It feels more like this.

And yet somehow you just know that management thinks everything in the rose garden is lovely. Apart from their philistine, arrogant and ignorant attacks on everything they do, they compound the insults by not even bothering to spell our names or get our sexes right on the insulting material they send us.

I know there's a critical management studies field of 'workplace resistance'. They'd get a career's worth of material from this place. Me? I refer you to the sublime Office Space:

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Cutting Edge Thinking from British Fencing

OK, well over 99% of you won't give a damn about this one, but I need a mini-Rant.

I've just read the latest edition of The Sword, British Fencing's quarterly publication. It carries fencing news, results, and sometimes my photos if I've been to a competition recently. The other regular feature is 'Why oh why is fencing in crisis?' (which it usually is).

This time, Ronald Velden, one of the prominent commentators in British Fencing has hit upon a clever wheeze to develop the sport:
improving participation in the independent schools
That's right. When you have no Olympic medals in living memory, and the public perception of your sport is that it's a toff activity, what we really need to do is funnel more cash and attention (including taxpayers' money) to a small percentage of the mega-rich 7% of the school-age population who attend fee-paying institutions. Obviously there must be huge social barriers to their participation which need overcoming. I'm really bothered by the idea that we should recruit from a pool of privileged kids who are largely white and male. That's what led the Amateur Fencing Association's leadership to put on fund-raising events for England epeeist and British Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley: a blinkered, smug and exclusive elitist mind-set.

It may surprise Ronald and his chums in the British Fencing hierarchy, but out here in the sticks we actually do recruit widely and reduce barriers to participation. There are clubs such as Newham, West Fife and Camden which recruit from the local population (very weirdly, Ronald is chair of Camden Fencing Club!). Some of them are even black, which is – sadly – a new experience in the fencing world. Their kids are competitive and hugely successful. Other clubs, like my own, offer free coaching and ultra-low fees (£2.50 for 2.5 hours fencing) but we don't do enough recruitment, relying instead on people finding us.

Other sports, particularly British Cycling, worked out a long time ago that success comes from recruiting from as deep a pool as possible, rather than relying on a traditional circle of insiders. The UK is notably unsuccessful at fencing and I think that's partly because it still recruits from the traditional class-based sources: private schools and the armed forces. In Italy, Germany, France and all of Eastern Europe, fencing is a normal sport open to everyone. It's certainly true that their social elites have a strong historical link to the sport, but participation is open to and affordable by all.

Apart from the argument about medal success, I detest the inward-looking, cosy smugness of the fencing hierarchy. Surely if you believe your sport is wonderful, as I presume we all do, we want to persuade everyone to try it. Fencing requires a set of athletic, mental and social disciplines which are good for individuals and transferable: we should be going in to primary schools and community centres, demonstrating what we do and taking in anyone who wants a go, whether they'll go on to be Olympians or just fat blokes like me.

I was going to say 'imagine going to the Government and saying "give us more money and we'll spend it on private sports"' when it struck me that the current crew would probably open the coffers enthusiastically.

OK, back to the real world shortly.

Friday, 11 July 2014

You shouldn't be allowed to see what it is yet!

So this was in the local rag recently:

The 'anger', it turns out, is entirely felt by one man who feels so strongly about it that he wishes to remain anonymous, presumably worried that the region's roving bands of violent paedophile cartoonists will visit vengeance upon him.

He feels very deeply that the complete works of Rolf Harris should be withdrawn from the public domain:
I can understand books being written about people who committed horrific crimes, but this is something he has written himself…I think it’s disgusting this sort of offensive material is on show for anyone to see.
So, to sum up: he's quite happy for anyone to see and read books about 'horrific crimes' but thinks that  books like A Pet For You: Animal Hospital with Rolf Harris, Can You Tell What It Is Yet? and Rolf On Art: My Approach from First Steps to Finished Paintings are 'offensive'. They also found an 'outraged' user who did give his name and felt that The Best of Rolf CD should be banned too. The council isn't withdrawing the books for adults or the CD, but is taking away a book for children by Harris, as though there's something inherently paedophilic and contagious in the book, which completely baffles me. It's way beyond logic and rationality.

Why am I bothered? Because I came into the office at 7 a.m. this morning to do a live radio interview on the BBC's WM station with this chap and the presenter, and I spent yesterday thinking about how I feel. Sadly, our defender of public morality either didn't wake up or thought better of making a public stand: he didn't answer, and then switched off, his phone. We were going to talk about censorship, the nature of offence, the history of book-banning and whether art and artists can and should be treated distinctly.

Rather than let good material go to waste, you can have my take on the Filthy Books Furore. I guess that you won't be surprised that I'm against censoring books by bad people. I tend to believe that reading Rolf's book on art won't make you a bad person, it'll make you a bad artist. His books aren't offensive: he is. There's a difference. If you don't want Rolf to make 6p in royalties, don't take out his book.

I'd probably yank biographies of Savile and Harris from the shelves on the grounds that they're out of date, but keep the autobiographies. I strongly believe that a society that wants to understand itself shouldn't sweep material under the carpet but examine it. Savile's autobiography was astonishingly candid: perhaps closer reading would have caught him while he yet lived.

I just don't think that art should be judged by the standards of the artist's morality. Rolf's art was always bad art, whatever we did or didn't know about him. Caravaggio was a murderer: should we take his paintings down? The case I know most about is one I was going to mention on air because it's directly relevant to the BBC. Eric Gill was a talent sculptor, typographer and artist - one of the most fascinating characters of the twentieth-century. You've seen his work millions of times, because he designed Gill Sans, a beautiful typeface:

As well as typography, he carved the astonishing Prospero and Ariel figures on the BBC's Broadcasting House, and the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral:

Eric Gill: Ariel Between Wisdom and Gaiety
I tell my Media Ethics students about Eric Gill. I show them the artwork. Then I tell them about his sex life. He had affairs with his sisters (usually no reaction). He had sex with his daughters (some disquiet). He had sex with his dog (utter horror: I usually tease them for their moral hierarchies by observing that it's probably less cruel to have sex with an animal than to kill it, and ask what they had for lunch).

Does this catalogue of horrors mean that Gill's artwork is tainted? I don't think it does. Gill painted and sculpted eroticised images of his daughters and sister Gladys. Knowing this adds a degree of horror, but if I'd never know who the models were, or what their relationship was, I don't think anything intrinsic in the artwork would have communicated abuse or taboo. In many ways, knowing the background to some of the art makes it more complex and intense. I wouldn't hide them away because I don't think there's a magical connection between an artist's morality and his or her work. There are exceptions: I do think Graham Ovenden's art was explicitly paedophilic and don't believe his exquisite technique entitles him to a free pass.

Jimmy Savile recorded a series of road safety adverts, like this one:

Should this be banned? I think not. The message is unaffected by what we now know about Savile. In its time and context, it was perfectly reasonable, and retrospective horror about what Savile was up to in other situations doesn't taint the purpose and content of this text.

Books and pictures don't commit crimes. Writers, artists and photographers do. I agree with the ban on paedophilic photography and film because it requires the abuse of real people in its production. I agree with the ban on the circulation of such material because it stimulates the further abuse of real people. I disagree with the ban on fictional representations of illegal acts however. I don't think the imagination can be legislated against, however vile the products of that imagination are. I don't think fiction creates real victims. I think we should ban the execution of actual crimes, not potential ones.

Secondly, a blanket ban on the discussion or representation of illegal acts prevents understanding them. Book Ban Man explicitly says he's happy for people to read about 'horrific crimes'. He clearly doesn't think that reading about murder or sexual violence leads to more murder or sexual violence - so why does he think that a criminal's thoughts on felt-tip line drawing is 'offensive'? Though if he feels that no books by criminals should be allowed on the shelves, I'm tempted to agree: let's rid public libraries of the complete works of Jeffrey Archer!

Let's talk about Nabokov. Lolita is one of the vilest books I've ever read. As you probably know, it's an exploration of a much older man's sexual obsession with a very young girl. I do actually think that it's paedophilic, and that fascination with young girls pervades much of Nabokov's work. I still wouldn't ban Lolita nor do I think even great literature, let alone Rolf Harris's books should be totemised as magical objects with the power to turn ordinary people into slavering perverted beasts. Texts are framed and contextualised in particular ways: while I find Lolita creepy and unpleasant, I don't think it's an advert for an act society has deemed beyond the Pale. Additionally, texts don't exist in a vacuum. They aren't magic: readers create texts by reading from their own unique perspectives. I'm sure a determined paedophile could manage to turn Lolita into simplistic one-handed entertainment, and perhaps even Rolf on Art, but the problem is with the reader: s/he's the paedophile, not the book. S/he still would be even if the book had never been read. There's only a social and legal problem if the reader commissions or commits a paedophilic act.

Away from the sphere of illegal acts, I'm generally against censorship of other material. Too many texts have been banned because some politician or campaigner sees temporary, local advantage in it. I'm sure Evelyn Waugh had Ulysses in mind when he lampooned the government in the first chapter of Vile Bodies, in which poor Adam has his autobiographical manuscript confiscated by customs.

Oscar Wilde, Radclyffe Hall, Joyce, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter…all have been subject to bans for offending someone (well-meaning liberals don't like To Kill… being used in classrooms because it uses authentic but now-offensive racial epithets, while evangelists in the US condemn Rowling for promoting witchcraft). Social mores are complex and fluid: banning texts often seems very silly in a short space of time. It really bothers me that those with the loudest voices or cultural capital get to decide what gets banned. This isn't mature, democratic debate. It's the morality of the lynch mob.

It's impossible to ban books or anything else anyway. The Spycatcher case established that national boundaries had become meaningless: the book was banned in the UK but published overseas, and a judge ruled that as overseas publication had put any sensitive material in the public domain, British publication may as well go ahead. And this is before the internet, of course. Despite the spirited efforts of every government, material can't be buried for long. If all the libraries removed Rolf Harris's books from the shelves, anyone determined to learn how to draw anthropomorphic kangaroos could locate a copy on the web in seconds.

No, physical interdiction and legal intervention aren't any good when we're talking about ideas. I'm perfectly happy to ban the circulation of material depicting illegal acts, but it's far more important to discuss why we have taboos, and educate people so that they either don't feel or don't act on desires we collectively and calmly decide are damaging.

So anyway, that's what I'd have said in my 2 and a half minutes on local radio. And then the local paper would have led a violent mob to my front door.

Oh, and a final word of advice to libraries and readers. Don't buy books because they're (ghost)-written by celebrities. Buy books on the basis of quality.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

That All-Purpose Today Programme Running Schedule

Today Programme
Broadcast Running Schedule
date: any

  • 6.00 a.m. Headlines
  • 6.03-6.15 UKIP-voting farmers demanding more European subsidies
  • 6.15-6.20 Summary of Daily Mail editorials ('Today's Papers')
  • Inaccurate time-check (to be repeated at intervals throughout)
  • 6.20-6.43 Forced banter. 
  • 6.43-6.59 London weather.
  • 7.00-7.15 Hegemonic Headlines
  • 7.15-7.7.23 Patronising and embarrassing attempt at popular culture.
  • 7.24-7.34 Nick Robinson Fellates A Conservative Politician ('Yesterday at Westminster').
  • 7.34-7.50 Sue McGregor Or Some Woman Gets A Female-type Piece on Caring or Breast Cancer or Children or Whatever. 
  • 7.50-7.53 Everybody Look Serious While a Religious Person Says That It Really Does Make You Think, in kindly tones.
  • 7.53-7.59 - Muslim Outrage Of The Day.
  • 8.00-8.15 Hegemonic Headlines
  • 8.15-8.29 John Humphries Shouts At Member of the Public Excoriated by the Daily Mail (may be replaced by John Humphries Shouts UKIP Talking Points at Labour Backbencher or Daily EU Bonkers Lunacy Outrage Of The Day).
  • 8.30-8.35 Forced Levity While Someone Common Talks About Working-Class Sport Things.
  • 8.36-8.38 Melvyn Bragg Tortures a Topical Pun. 
  • 8.39-8.40 Moment of Silence before presenters manage to laugh at Bragg Pun. 
  • 8.40-8.41 Global News Roundup Token Minute, or 'Foreigners Do The Funniest Things'. 
  • 8.41.5-8.42 Stuff From Outside Central London. Whatever. 
  • 8.42-8.50 Inaccurate Time Check. Hilarity.
  • 8.50-8.58 Evan Davis Pretends To Know Stuff, To Interviewee's Obvious Scorn and/or Embarrassment. 
  • 9.00 John Humphries Finishes Speech Disguised As A Question He Started at 8.15. Crashes Pips
  • 9.01. Gloom Settles Over Nation. 

Friday, 4 July 2014

Dear Jeff: a letter to Amazon

Dear Jeff,
you don't know me. Your company thinks it does: it once emailed with the header 'Amazon loves you', which made me feel all warm inside until I realised that it just wanted my cash. I read recently that you read and pass on to your executives email sent to on the basis that anyone who bothered to get in touch must feel deeply about whatever problem has come up.

Jeff, I have a problem. Several in fact, but only a couple of them relate to you and Amazon. I've been an Amazon customer since 1999. My first purchase was a copy of The Mabinogion for which I paid £5.74. I've still got it. I didn't buy anything in 2000 or 2001, probably because I lived over a book shop. By 2002 I was buying books and music from Amazon: the first CD was a Steve Reich collection. Harry Potter turns up in the next year, alongside some computer peripherals. By 2006, I'm like an alcoholic in a free bar - music, books, DVDs, software, hardware: all sorts of stuff brought to me as if by magic. It's amazing looking at my order history and remembering that CD or this hardback, almost Proustian (though I've never ordered any madeleines, though you do stock them).

And so it goes on: 24 orders in 2007, 78 in 2008, 109 in 2009. 230 in 2010, 256 in 2011, 281 in 2012, 243 in 2013, 114 by June of this year alone. Mostly books, but also plenty of 'big ticket' items. I'm your perfect customer Jeff. I'm hooked. I just can't stop.

But let's look more closely. The value of my orders has decline massively over the last couple of years and the nature of them has changed. If you check my order history you'll see that 3 years ago, I cancelled a £1000 order for my beloved Nikon D7000 camera. I went elsewhere, and paid a little more. Since then, I've mostly bought second-hand books from independent sellers in your Marketplace. I used to buy through ABE, but you bought that. I bought from the Book Depository. You bought that too. If there was an independent global network of then I'd go there for secondhand books too. I buy new books from Waterstone's now, or from Webberley's in Stoke on Trent when I'm up there. The prices aren't too bad. Perhaps they're a little more expensive, but I go to them for one simple reason:
they pay their taxes. 
The other reason is that one of my friends worked at an Amazon warehouse. He and his friends toiled on incredibly low wages, at unsociable hours, with no job security, no benefits, and no trust. He and his colleagues were treated like indentured labourers.

I know what you're going to say Jeff. You're going to say that everything you do is legal. That tax-efficiency is a fiduciary duty to your shareholders. That if it isn't you, it's some other company. That workers are free to take their labour elsewhere (you don't like trades unions either, do you?).

It won't wash. Not any more. Do you remember a company called Standard Oil? Owned by Rockefeller, it was a pioneer of legal shenanigans, secret deals and market abuse, leading to John D. Rockefeller becoming the richest man in the world. It became such a threat to economic stability – to capitalism itself – that the US authorities broke it up. £8.57 gets you a copy of The History of Standard Oil, which I strongly recommend.

I know lots of other people have mentioned this to you, but I wanted to put it out there. Your nifty use of international tax law (and the absence thereof) is a form of vandalism, of self-harm even. Every pound you salt away is a pound removed from a country's education budget, its healthcare system, its social security budget, its road-building and railway networks, its police service and its courts. You need all these things. You need customers who can read and write to buy your products. You need customers who have skills they can sell to employers to earn enough to shop at Amazon. You need workers to keep your company going. You need a health service to keep them upright. You need a distribution network, good roads, health and safety officers to keep your warehouses standing and safe, lawyers to help you hide the cash and courts in which they argue their cases, a social security system that subsidises the appallingly low wages you pay your workers.

The problem is, Jeff, that you want and need all these things, but you don't want to pay for them. You're sponging off your workers and off the rest of us. Two people said interesting things that you should pay attention to. The first one is Henry Ford, who was a lot like you, except he didn't bother to hide the ruthless, oppressive nature of his capitalism. But he was a very clever man. His own company says this about his 1914 master-stroke:
…he startled the world by announcing that Ford Motor Company would pay $5 a day to its workers. The pay increase would also be accompanied by a shorter workday (from nine to eight hours). While this rate didn't automatically apply to every worker, it more than doubled the average autoworker's wage. 
While Henry's primary objective was to reduce worker attrition—labor turnover from monotonous assembly line work was high—newspapers from all over the world reported the story as an extraordinary gesture of goodwill. 
Henry Ford had reasoned that since it was now possible to build inexpensive cars in volume, more of them could be sold if employees could afford to buy them. The $5 day helped better the lot of all American workers and contributed to the emergence of the American middle class.
It's not complicated. He worked out that well-paid, well-rested workers were more productive, and that profits come from spreading the wealth: a lot of people spending some money is better – especially in your business – than a few people spending a lot of money. You don't do this. Your profits come from two sources: shutting down small competitors, and expecting the rest of us to pay for public services, infrastructure and social security support.

President Obama makes my point more eloquently. Ironically, this YouTube clip was put up by the Republicans, who appear to think that enunciating the complex web of social and economic ties we call a community is somehow subversive:

Elizabeth Warren makes a similar point: that massive tax cuts for people like you – who already avoid paying taxes – isn't just wrong: it wrecks the economy on which you depend.

They're not, from my perspective, rabid communists (if only). Of course, if my liberal bleating isn't enough to persuade you, buy a copy of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He suggested, in a barely-veiled warning to his contemporaries, that Rome fell apart because the plutocrats of the day stopped paying attention to social cohesion. They stopped providing bread and diversions to the commoners, and spent more money on private pools, harems and of course higher walls and tougher slaves to keep them safe from the hungry mob outside. Remind you of anyone you might know?

So Jeff. I have a problem. I want to spend my hard-earned money in ways that will help my fellow citizens. If they're well-paid, highly-educated and healthy, they'll give you some of their money too. I'm a little self-interested here, I have to admit. I'm an educator. Everybody else's taxes paid for my BA, MA, PhD and teaching certificate. I get a decent wage courtesy of the taxpayer too, and in return, I help further generations educate themselves (too many generations actually, thanks to the extended retirement date occasioned by the tax-evasion you practice) and in theory they will fund future educators to aid their kids. See how it works? But if you insist on using the state to subsidise your low wages, while making almost no contribution yourself having exterminated your local competitors, we're all screwed, including you and your shareholders. But the way you do business makes it impossible. Your company, and companies like it, act as if you have no ties to human society. You make my friends ill, you make my city dark, gloomy and empty, you close hospitals and you degrade schools. I've helped you do that, and I regret it.

How are you going to make things right?

With best wishes,
The Plashing Vole.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Say cheese…

Rather shockingly, I've won this month's Guardian travel photography competition, on the theme of solitude. Shocking because lots of the other shortlisted entries are stunning, and because I almost never travel, and certainly nowhere 'exotic'. I go to Ireland several times a year, and to Stoke-on-Trent most weeks.

(Click to enlarge the photos)

I can only see the shot's flaws now, but I'm still pleased with it. The girl's hair matches the paintwork, and the different lighting emphasises her isolation. I never use flash or tricky post-production nonsense: this was taken with a 50mm f/1.8 at 1/200, 1600 ISO on my Nikon D7000.

I took it at 1 a.m. at the famous Puck Fair in Killorglin, Ireland. Out of shot, 10,000 drunks are marauding round the streets singing, drinking and celebrating, while a wild goat presides over the festivities from the safety of a tower. I was interested in the aftermath - you can see from my set that the place is trashed, though by 6 a.m. the streets are pristine once more and ready for the child-friendly daytime activities. I've a taste for garish fun sometimes - a couple of years ago I took my old camera to Birds' Funfair at Puck and was pleased with the results despite having very limited technical resources.

The lad demanded I take his picture, then his sister arrived to tell him that I 'might be a paedo' and promised me a beating if I was. She still wanted her picture taking though. 

Live footage of people up on some horrific ride. It reminded me of something from David Lynch. 

The next competition's theme is 'beach'. I don't go to many beaches, but I was thinking of submitting one of these. 

The beach at Formby/Crosbie near Liverpool has these Anthony Gormley statues all over it, at different depths of water or in the sand. People do funny things to them, like paint on swimming trunks, dress them up as James Bond and so on: high art becomes folk art (see them here). They're also ageing beautifully, covered in rust and algae. But they're so familiar now (one was entered for the competition I won) that it's hard to photograph them in a new way. So I was pleased to find this family camped around a rusty naked gentleman even though the beach was almost deserted. The sun was blazing, so I decided that I could emphasise both the heat and their isolation by opening up the aperture to its maximum, flooding the image with light and losing all the background detail.

My other options are more traditional landscape shots, taken from another spot near Liverpool: Hilbre Island off the Wirral peninsula. At low tide, the sea becomes a mud flat, sometimes even a beach, and you can walk out to the islands. The weather changes every few minutes and the light is wonderful.

What could be more English than this? 'Trudging slowly over wet sand' in the rain towards a coastal town they forgot to close down, whose most prominent building is a Morrison's supermarket?

Which one do you think I should enter?