Thursday, 25 September 2014

On different kinds of Sound and Fury

A couple of notable anniversaries today: the birthday of William Faulkner (b. 1897) and the death of Edward Said (2003).

I sometimes think of Faulkner as an American DH Lawrence: all heightened emotions and volcanic passion within supposedly repressed cultures. The difference for me, personally, is that I can no longer read Lawrence's novels with much enjoyment, though the stories and poems still do it for me. Faulkner's novels have never lost their fascination for me: I'd recommend Absalom, Absalom as a good starting point. Recurrent themes are the torrid American South's racial conflicts and complexities (Faulkner was partly educated by a black woman), memories of the Civil War, the poisoned but proud remnants of the Confederacy's plantation aristocracy. His work is a branch of Southern Gothic on its own, yet highly modernist. Claustrophobic stuff.

Here's the opening to the 1959 adaptation of The Sound and the Fury:

Faulkner also wrote a lot of amazing film scripts, such as The Big Sleep: here's a great scene – and it's Bogart and Bacall.

The other anniversary is Edward Said, critic, theorist and excavator of imperialism, racism and in particular scholar of Western narratives of the Orient, informed by his Palestinian origins. For me, Orientalism was my introduction to non-chronological literary and cultural history and criticism. Without it, I probably wouldn't be an academic, despite none of my work being directly related to Said's.

I do have one awful anecdote about Said's work to share. I went to my first conference in 2000, at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. It specialised in literature and culture between the world wars (my paper was shamefully bad). The conference itself was wonderful: meeting and chatting to people whose work I'd almost memorised, sharing ideas and starting to feel like a contributor to knowledge rather than a spectator (jet-lag may have affected my perception – I'd never flown before). So I was having a great time until the last session of the conference. A young American post-graduate was giving a presentation on something fairly uncontroversial, and most of the very eminent speakers were there. As an aside to a key point, he mentioned something Said had written that he thought was relevant.

Sharp intake of breath.

A few minutes later, he finished and questions from the floor were invited. If you've ever met an academic, you'll know that this is how it usually works:

Not this time. It didn't matter that this poor chap had cited Said in pursuit of a harmless discussion of literary characteristics. He had cited a man known to have Palestinian sympathies. The great and the good – with some exceptions – launched into a vicious critique that had nothing to do with Said's ideas and everything to do with his politics (which to us European lefties don't seem particularly controversial) and his nationality. I watched with horror as a future academic was ripped to shreds on spurious grounds because he'd done what I assumed was the right thing and concentrated on ideas rather than imposed an intellectual no-go zone. So much for the Republic of Letters… 

Here's Said talking about Orientalism. Don't worry, it won't make you strap on a suicide vest or bomb Tel Aviv. But if you've ever wondered why the non-English bad guys in Hollywood are Arab-looking, here are some of the answers. If only our political leaders had read it.

Friday, 19 September 2014

"Everybody's looking for their Brigadoon'

How is everyone today? Relieved that the progressive union of the UK has been saved? Or depressed that the progressive instincts of the Scots have been thwarted by Project Fear?

Though my feelings about the independence vote were hopelessly muddled and inconsistent, I always thought that No would win, though I predicted a 53-47% gap, narrower than the final result.

I'm exhausted today. I went to a friend's house for a Scottish all-nighter, despite none of us being Scots. We cooked haggis, tatties and neeps, consumed Scotch eggs and drank Scottish beer, Irn Bru (a revelation) and whisky. One of the beers is called Bitter and Twisted, which was guaranteed to match the mood of at least one of the camps by morning.

We decided that it would be impossible to sit and watch the live TV coverage: the BBC had a stream of crypto-Tory senior reporters, Tory politicians, Tory business types, neo-Tory Labour types, UKIPians and a scattering of cliché-wielding nationalists. So we decided to construct a collage of Scottish media. We lined up the sole surviving episode of Scotch on the Rocks (the racist Douglas Hurd adaptation mentioned previously), Gregory's Girl, the MacAdder episode of Blackadder and various other delights.

Music provided by Altered Images

and Arab Strap for added skag-fuelled self-loathing.

In the end, we stuck to flipping between the news and Brigadoon, which turned out to be enormously enjoyable as well as far more interesting than I'd ever have thought (and as convincing a construction of Scotland as the Yes and No camps' versions).

It's a musical, which would normally have me running for the hills. Brigadoon is a village saved from a plague of witches by a preacher who made a deal with God: in exchange for his life, the village would be removed from time: it would appear for one day every hundred years. The inhabitants know all about it, and for them only a couple of days have passed when the action starts. Their survival depends on none of them 'crossing the bridge' out of the village: if one person does, they all die.

Into Brigadoon wander two Americans: one young, with 'commitment issues' (played by Gene Kelly) and the other a jaded, misogynistic, bitter, atheistical and cynical older man.

There's a very entertaining homoerotic and homosocial subtext to their relationship despite Gene Kelly's burgeoning relationship with Fiona (Cyd Charisse) and Meg's spirited and – for its time – explicit sexual fixation on grumpy Jeff (played by Van Johnson, whose real-life homosexuality was disguised by a 'lavender marriage' arranged by MGM, according to his ex-wife).

The set is appalling: every shot is filmed in a studio. The actors' voices bounce off the scenery even when they're meant to be out on the moors. The accents are many and varied, none of them Scottish and none as convincing as Groundskeeper Willie,

or Scotty,

The clothes are a garish hell of implausible tartans and the endless bloody songs are beyond awful even by the standards of musicals.

And yet… the various sexualities are barely concealed and always add tension. The counterpoint of the isolated village sets up some interesting dynamics. For outsiders and a few insiders it's a refuge from modernity (and therefore a conservative modernist construction). For others it's a living hell, a prison of conformity and familiarity: this is what leads Harry Beaton to attempt to kill them all by crossing the bridge.

For our American heroes, it provides relief from Yankee cynicism and spiritual exhaustion – the villagers are tartan versions of Avatar's natives, or the Native Americans in Dances With Wolves: spiritual, pure, untainted etc. etc.

Were Yes voters pining – as the wise old man says in the film – for their own Brigadoon? Perhaps so: romantic nationalism functions, amongst other things, as a way of simplifying a complex and fluid existence. The film ends with our Americans heading home: damaged Jeff persuades Tommy that such a pure, unexpected love can only be a fantasy, but after a few months in his empty relationship with an urban young woman Tommy returns and such is the strength of his love that Brigadoon miraculously reappears, out of schedule, a testament to the power of desire (and conservatism).

Just like the referendum result, eh readers?

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The New Statesman and Hegemony

As I've said on this blog before, I'm not sure about Scottish independence, and many of my reasons for it are based on post-colonial revenge. That said, every time a No supporter puts pen to paper I can understand why the Yes vote increases.

I subscribe to the New Statesman, the weekly magazine of the metropolitan left. I once had a cheap student subscription which I ended early because it was so massively boring, but now it's a lively and thoughtful read (when it manages to steer clear of religion).

So I was a bit shocked to read its editor's essay this week, 'Is This The End of Great Britain?'. The simple and pedantic answer, of course, is 'no': 'Great Britain' is the major island of the archipelago, named to differentiate it from Brittany which of course has a population which speaks a language closely related to Welsh.

Cowley's piece shocked me, however, because it's far more imperialist and reactionary than the current government. The Tories and Lib Dems acceded – grudgingly – to a referendum because they recognised that legitimacy needs to be conferred by democratic means. The SNP have won several elections, which indicates that the question of Scottish statehood needed to be put to the people. Yes or No, the state that exists on Friday will have had its legitimacy asserted through the ballot box.

This isn't good enough for Mr Cowley. He speaks for a 'we' that seems to mean an English ruling class that possesses the rest of the country. Here's his conclusion:
For now, as we enter the last days of the referendum campaign – perhaps the last days of Great Britain – those of us who do not have a vote, who loathe neoliberalism but who feel culturally British and believe in the multinational ideal of the United Kingdom, for all its flaws and incongruities, can only watch and hope that pragmatism will hold sway so that Scotland is not lost as Ireland was before it.
The English have of course asserted multicultural values as long as those other values are muted under a blanket of supposed Englishness. But what really annoyed me was this casual use of 'lost', as though first Ireland and then Scotland (as usual Wales is invisible) are simply holiday homes for the English, rightful possessions that they accidentally let slip. Things are lost by their owners or keepers, and I really don't think countries come under this category. Cowley assumes that British domination of Ireland was somehow natural, and that Irish independence wasn't a matter of the Irish asserting themselves, but of the English 'losing' that country, and that Scotland might be carelessly 'lost' in the same way.

He goes on:
 If Britain cannot work out how to stay together when so much unites us – language, culture, shared sacrifice, blood – the portents for the 21st century are dark indeed. 
Language? Welsh was for long periods banned in its own country. Scots Gaelic was marginalised, Irish suppressed: none of these languages have recovered. Culture? Again, the cultural expressions of the Celtic nations are marginalised, silenced or diluted. Shared sacrifice? You have to be pretty damned selective to exclude the multiple occasions on which the English murdered each other in a series of civil wars, let alone the Irish campaigns, Glyndŵr, the Clearances, the Troubles and many, many more conflicts. No nation in the British Isles is innocent of spilling the blood of others across the world but they've spilled each others' on enough occasions to render Cowley's fantasy of a family under the paternal hand of an English father ludicrous.

Democratic states exist for the convenience of their citizens, and their legitimacy needs to be tested now and then. Cowley's 'we' is a permanent ruling class which reveals a worryingly anti-democratic undercurrent to his apparently progressive internationalism.

The limits of Cowley's political imagination are delimited by his portentous closing phrase:
…the British state will have been broken and we will be plunged into a constitutional crisis with devastating consequences for David Cameron and Ed Miliband.
Really? Whatever the result of the referendum, there will be consequences – good and bad – for the 60 million people who live on these islands. What a shame that Jason Cowley's idea of 'devastation' extends only to the careers of the current leaders of two political parties.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Och Aye? Scottish independence in politicians' novels

Today's text is Scotch on the Rocks, a 1971 novel by Douglas Hurd (later Conservative MP and Foreign Secretary) and Andrew Osmond, with whom he collaborated on a number of formulaic thrillers.

It's about Scottish independence, in the same way that Jaws is about a fishing trip. Here's the blurb from the back cover:
Civil War in Scotland. What if an extremist Scottish army had access to unlimited arms and money?
If Scottish Nationalists held the balance of power at Westminster?
Would the British government lose control?
Would the fighting stop at the border?
In it, a resurgent SNP with dangerous socialist leanings is accompanied by the Scottish Liberation Army and a load of violent Irish Catholic Celtic-supporting gangs, which British security services try to infiltrate. The enemies are clear: Scots Nats, Catholics, socialists, academics, students and Gaelic speakers. What's at risk is 'Britain', which is clearly the English establishment. (Lots of the plot is lifted for Helen Liddell's later Scottish Labour thriller, Elite).

The Tories agree a form of devolution but the hardliners kidnap the Secretary of State for Scotland but he unfortunately drowns, so the deal's off. Then it turns out that French Communists and Cuba are involved! War breaks out, including a mutiny by Scottish members of the British Army. The big reveal is that the hard-liner on the British side is secretly the leader of the Scottish Liberation Army!

I wonder if Douglas Hurd regrets the name he gave to this doughty defender of Britishness who in fact betrays his country and nearly leads the Scottish people to freedom?
It looks like they're going to win, but luckily a principled SLA leader thinks again and gives the British a letter from the French Communists which reveals that the secret plan all along was to turn Scotland into a Communist dictatorship! The British win the civil war as right-thinking nationalists turn against the SLA. Its leadership flees to Moscow (except for Cameron who kills himself) and Scotland gets a limited form of independence.

The picture drawn of the Scots is very, very old-fashioned. Fiery, principled, dependable in some ways - it's the 19th-century Walter Scott view with a dash of outside agitation (which is also a familiar trope in novels about working-class politics). The Cold War element is interesting: this is the period in which it was revealed that the real traitors to Britain were Philby, Maclean, Burgess et al: aristocratic, public school and Oxbridge rather than grass-roots socialists.

Scotch on the Rocks is the third of a loose trilogy in which Hurd and Osmond examined threats to the stability of the UK, their prime political concern. Send Her Victorious has racist businessmen apparently murdering the King to prevent armed intervention in Rhodesia, while The Smile on the Face of the Tiger has China causing a nuclear stand-off by taking Hong Kong.

Is Scotch on the Rocks any good? Er…

For Hart, the tough MI5 hero,
'Wogs start at the Tweed' 
while Tory politicians believe that people join the SNP out of
Who's left in the wreckage of Glasgow?
'only Pensioners and Pakistanis'
But we can trust the Conservative Party:
a good deal less capable of unscrupulous tactics than outsiders supposed 
The dialogue is utterly painful - at the level of 'hoots mon' or Groundskeeper Willie.
'aboot biddy time'
'Don't get narky with me, mate'

'We got a bird there to take a butcher's in the files…the fellow's a pansy'.

All Scots say 'och'. Men are men, women are women, aristocrats are largely honourable and homosexuals are pansies. Patriots sing 'Land of Hope and Glory'. An Englishman's word is his bond (as one character actually says). Some utter cad blows up a statue of the Queen outside the Bank of Scotland and murders three pigeons. Mackie, 'school-teacher, ex-Labour MP, City Councillor, spokesman of the shipyards, SNP candidate for Glasgow Central' will be 'the Pied Piper of the Left, leading the abandoned armies of social democracy into the Nationalist fold' (he got that bit right anyway!). You can tell he's a bad'un because he's having sex with a Gaelic woman, Seonaid (actually Seonaid because it's such an exotic name) who is literally out of his class:
the product…of centuries of careful breeding, nurtured on wholesome food and moorland air, untouched by drugs, drink, housework or any man's hand but his own…John Mackie was not the first champion of the working class to prefer upper class girls, a taste justified by the principle that until you could beat them it was all right to join them. It was the challenge that appealed…Suke Dunmayne had been irresistible: tall enough to look down her nose at him, Catholic, a virgin, and daughter of the richest laird in Scotland. An icy Highland peak, to be climbed because she was there. 
Where to start? The horror of inter-class sexual relations? The painfully obvious symbolism, explained in the crudest, most reductive terms? The presentation of women as territory, and as physical manifestations of their patriarchal signification? The fear that people of different classes might make political alliances? Or the assumption that all ideology is a veneer on the surface of cruder impulses? Or the novel's climactic depiction of the British state clearing the Highlands of the die-hard rebels without a single hint that the original Highland Clearances might just have been a tad reprehensible and not an ideal reference to make while writing a happy ending? But then again, Hurd's imagined reader is certainly not Scottish.

Even the cover is offensive: a Ginger terrorist in a paramilitary tam-o'shanter glaring malevolently out at the defenceless reader.

Scotch on the Rocks had a curious afterlife. It was filmed by the BBC in 1973 and shown in 5 episodes at peak time in the run-up to the 1974 election, one for which the SNP had high hopes, having ridden high in the polls. The viewers loved it but the SNP went ballistic (metaphorically speaking) and the BBC, its Unionist duty done, promised never to show it again, though the tapes apparently still exist. I wouldn't put it past them to show it on the eve of the referendum this week. Sadly, no trace of it exists online, so I can't show it to you.

There are few 'tartan terrorist' novels, but I'll only mention one more: Michael Sinclair's The Dollar Covenant in which independent Scotland goes financially bust. It's not notable for its literary qualities (it has none) but because the British press are currently hyping the Queen's supposed intervention in the independence debate. Shea was in fact Michael Shea…the Queen's press secretary, and he sought and got her approval before publication

Friday, 12 September 2014

Elvis 1, Kate Bush 0?

In the course of my post about seeing Kate Bush a few days ago, I made a disparaging comment about Elvis Presley (why is there no Middle-Earth tribute act, obviously called Elvish?). This incurred the humorous wrath of a friend and eminent historian with a lot of time on his hands. It's so good that I feel obligated to post his defence of Elvis (with added links and video) and Kate Bush-naysaying for the entertainment of my readers. It's made me revise my Elvis-denialism. He's completely wrong about Kate though and deserves to be horse-whipped through the streets until his quiff droops.

It is not very often that I disagree with views expressed by the Plashing Vole but on this occasion I'm afraid I have to take up the pen in defence of Elvis Presley. In your review of Kate Bush (more on this later) you claim the Elvis's Vegas years were notable because he was 'washed-up creatively and physically"' It seems to me that you have swallowed the mythology of the NME and the rhetoric of punk far too easily. In fact, the years 1970-77 witnessed Elvis at his creative peak. In these years his recorded output was eclectic and experimental, covering blues, gospel, slave spirituals, civil rights protest songs, rockabilly, counter-cultural anthems, jazz, folk, country and pop. All this backed the best backing band on the planet (the great James Burton on guitar! Sweet Inspirations on vocals!). Unlike Kate Bush his voice showed no weakness through to as late as the final concerts in 1977 (check out the 70s Masters Box Set and especially his version of Dylan's Don't Think Twice Its Alright).

Moreover, this period was not just 'Vegas'. Elvis was touring constantly in these years criss-crossing America from East to West and North to South (see Elvis on Tour DVD, which by the way has a great version of American Trilogy). 

The physical decline also comes later than you suggest. Check out That's The Way It Is (1970 Vegas concert film) and Elvis looks great. 

He's declining slightly by the 1973 Hawaii concert but still looks good. I could write more but I will point you in the direction of Careless Lovethe second volume of Peter Gulranick's magisterial biography of Elvis for a revisionist account of the 70s years. 

And now dear Kate. I've been a casual fan of Kate Bush since I heard Wuthering Heights in car journey from Leigh to North Wales in 1978. 

I loved the early albums and dipped in and out of her career ever since. I was tempted to take in one of the shows but had my suspicions re set list etc. Once I saw what was on offer I'm glad I kept my money. 

[At this point our esteemed correspondent loses touch with reality. Ed].

Kate has not released a decent album for near on thirty years yet remains critic proof. 

[Nurse! The screens! Ed.]

She then performs a concert without five of her best songs: Wuthering Heights, Wow, Man With The Child In His Eyes, Army Dreamers and Babooshka (and nothing from the first four albums). 

[No disagreement here: they are amazing songs but the current performance isn't a greatest hits set]

From what I can see the 'fans' were treated to obscure album tracks, a puppet show and some amateur dramatics. But whatever she did the critics would love it. But I suppose if you charge that much for a ticket and generate demand through absence then this is the outcome. I'm not being a cynic here but there's no way she can keep that set list if she wants to continue to tour. The 'greatest hits' set on the pyramid stage at Glasto beckons! I have some friends who went and all said it was sublime. But it reminded me of people who visit Australia and say its wonderful… because they paid that much and travelled so far they have to believe its great. 

[At this point the sedatives kicked in and our correspondent embarked on a detailed and highly amusing comparison of Sydney and Wigan over which I shall draw a veil for fear of annoying the inhabitants of both teeming metropolis. Ed.]

I think if I would have been in the audience for Kate I would have pissed people off by intermittently shouting 'do a good one'! I've adopted this strategy at over 60 Van Morrison gigs over the years (you can hear me on a few bootlegs!).

[Funnily enough, the colleague with whom I saw Kate Bush also went to Portishead with me a few years back, on a free ticket. He hurled the foulest abuse at the band for the entire set. Next day I asked him why he'd been so horrid. 'Was I?' he said. 'I loved it. They were great!'. The fault was the venue's for serving Guinness in 2-pint containers. I cast no aspersions on my correspondent's myriad defects. Ed. ]. 

I was going to start writing one of 3 book reviews that are pending but this has been much more fun.

[Yes. Yes it has been]. 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Scotland the Brave?

Literally none of you have begged me for enlightenment about the Scottish Independence Referendum. In the face of this overwhelming public demand, here's my two cents in a random and confusing fashion.

Obviously not being Scottish I neither have a vote nor quite such a pressing interest, but my views are shaped by my deeply-held socialist views, by my Irish background and by my post-colonial and post-Enlightenment ideology. All this pulls me both ways.

It's like this: I think that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been one of the most pernicious states on the planet. Pick up any globe from before about 1945 and you'll see a massive area of the globe under British domination. Despite the propaganda of Empire Loyalists, it was a ruthless killing machine designed to extract commodities, labour and obeisance from Wales, Scotland and Ireland to the South Sandwich Isles and everywhere in between. Civilisations were crushed, economies wrecked, development stalled, languages made extinct, borders artificially imposed – much of the current world's problems were caused by the foundation and dismantling of the Empire.

So a small part of me wants to see the final disarmament of a state that's never come to terms with its crimes against humanity. Sundered, the English, Welsh and Scots won't be able to exert this kind of dominion, or even influence, ever again. I also think it's a good opportunity for the constituent nations of the UK to rediscover some of what it lost in the process, including the Celtic languages. It's weird: I find myself for once agreeing with that repulsive old racist Nick Griffin of the British Nationalist Party:

I might be a cricket-loving, Marmite-slurpiing, real ale-drinking fully paid-up member of the bourgeoisie, but I'm definitely a Marxist Fenian at heart. Nick uses the term like it's a bad thing! As for why 'British Nationalists' aren't working hard: they're too fixated on racial purity to make an argument about a union which is at least in part successfully multi-cultural.

One of the arguments against Scottish independence that does weigh heavily on me is the old socialist rallying cry of solidarity between the workers in all nations: that what binds the proletariat together around the world is stronger than the bonds between classes in any particular state or nation. Certainly I don't see the Scottish establishment having much love or concern for the unemployed of Glasgow: Salmond's disgracefully close to the likes of Murdoch and Trump who want independence because bite-size countries are easier to digest. On the other hand, it's hard to promote socialism in all countries when the Labour party isn't at all interested in socialism in any country, and in a global economy which depends on slavery (yes it does: where do you think the minerals in your iPhone come from, and who puts them together? How much was the person who made your clothes or fished for your dinner paid?).

The idea of a small, nimble, green and egalitarian state really appeals: the radical independence campaign paints a seductive image of a Republican, small-scale country at ease with itself – a McScandinavia if you will, though it's an image which requires us to discount the tensions underlying social conditions in many of those nations. I also think it rather overlooks the tensions within Scotland: there's the conservative (not Conservative) Catholic working-class, the ultra-loyalist Protestant working-class (will Rangers fans become a revanchist, Union-flag waving bunch or transfer allegiance to independent Scotland?), and the much posher Protestant elite, let alone the cultures of the Highlands and Islands and the multicultural communities of the big cities. If the social and political elites get their feet under the table, supported by the banking and oil industries, Scotland might be a much less comfortable place for the poor and minorities.

I don't think states are or should be permanent (and in my syndicalist fantasies, the state is reduced as altruistic people aid each other and lose the need for oppressive structures of control – this is what makes me an optimist and not a Tory). The UK is fairly recent: the last big change was Irish independence in 1922. It's an instructive model which hasn't been explored enough in the current debate. Ireland fought a short and bloody war in 1916, followed by a vicious Civil War in 1922, the social and political consequences of which are still being felt. Nevertheless, independence was negotiated with the British. A currency agreement was struck: the Irish punt was pegged to the UK pound until 1979, yet nobody claimed that Ireland wasn't properly independent or in charge of its own economy. The Free State gradually became the Republic without further tensions with the UK other than over the Six Counties. When TV came, people in the East and near the North picked up BBC programming and now everybody receives it. If Ireland could succeed after its bloody imperial entanglements, Scotland definitely can.

The obvious rejoinder to the Irish model proclaimed by Salmond when he thought the Celtic Tiger was real (which should call into question his judgement) is that Ireland was a poverty-stricken, repressive, misogynist, priest-ridden and massively corrupt rotten state for much of the twentieth-century, only to become a greedy, credit-junkie, sexually-corrupt cowboy state which helped crash the global economy in the 21st. All true of course: but in a sense, so what? The economic argument is in a sense beside the point of independence. If you think that a nation is more than its economy, you should vote yes even if it means getting poorer.

I like small states (but big government). They do run the risk of becoming crony oligarchies, but they do make for more responsive governments and I suspect more peaceful ones. In Scotland's case, I'd vote yes partly on moral principles: I'm a long-term supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Scotland will expel the British nuclear fleet. On the other hand, I do agree that larger blocs are more influential and when we're facing environmental and economic collapse, we should be working together.

What will happen to the rest of the UK? For purely selfish reasons, I'm hoping Scotland votes no. I don't want Wales and nationalist Northern Ireland, the British working-classes and Northern England to be trapped in an abusive relationship with the Tory and UKIP-voting bigots of the south. UK politics will be dragged to the right: goodbye to the Human Rights Act, farewell to EU membership, what remains of worker protection and to environmental politics. Hello to a dystopia of golf course fascism, ever-reducing wages, isolationism and reactionary culture.

I would think that Welsh nationalism would become ascendant, even if an independent Scotland didn't thrive, because England would be so utterly dominant and so rightwing: I can't see the feeble milk-sop Labour party we have now holding back the tide of leftwing Plaid nationalism or the Old Labour strands of Welsh socialism – the valleys might decide that they can build socialism in one small country. I have no idea what would happen to NI. Its unionist population is so invested in the British monarchy, but its core cultural and religious identity is Scottish - it's hard for me to work out how these tensions would play out there. The English and Northern Irish have little in common and little understanding of each other. Perhaps Northern Ireland would vote for union with Scotland? Or maybe a successful independent Scotland would persuade Northern Irish unionists that life in a Federal Republic of Ireland would be bearable after all.

So ultimately my heart says yes, my head says maybe for the Scots. The rest of us have a lot to fear, I think: though the unionist establishment will be wounded, the combined forces of the landed elites, the financial oligarchs and the reactionary right will bear down on the rump UK's progressive forces more heavily than ever.

My utopia would be a world socialist state with responsive local units elected by proportional representation, fully representative of nationalisation of core activities, a steady-state green economy and industrial sector, strong trades unions, ingrained respect for all cultures, languages and ethnicities and largely disarmed. No dependency on oil, or on the vile countries which produce it. State-funded healthcare, childcare and education. Total political transparency, and no more monarch, lobbyists, state religions or Lords. With a moon colony for Mr Farage. Unless the UK is feeling really vindictive. It could lobby the EU nations to refuse Scotland entry to the EU. Then Nigel would feel compelled to emigrate to Scotland to live in a European-free paradise. Sorry Scotland!

I don't know if an independent Scotland would be a richer, poorer, nicer or nastier place. If your imagined nation is based on shared culture then I don't think these things even matter so much. But at least its people get a chance – for the very first time – to decide the shape of their state. Their ancestors didn't vote for Union, after all.

So vote for me. Or wake up one day in a Vole Re-education Camp.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Don't read this. It's mainly boasting.

Afternoon all. The sun's shining and I've had an unusually wonderful few days, so I thought I'd indulge in a little light gloating.

It all started on Thursday. My colleague and I headed off to London (eventually) to present a paper at the Politics of Doctor Who conference organised by the indefatigable Prof Danny Nicol at the University of Westminster. Our hotel was in Walthamstow, East 17, which reminded me of my younger sisters' taste in 90s music. After that, a night drinking fine Samuel Smith ales on Shaftesbury Avenue, then off to the conference in the morning. I was stunned by the international nature of the event - lots of speakers from US, Australia and Germany – and by their eminence: lawyers and others with strings of books to their names and all cheerfully proud of our Who knowledge. It was really multi-disciplinary too. The Germans from Chemnitz Technical University drew parallels between Who stories and the NSA, social scientists did content analysis work (months of painstaking event logging), lawyers examined questions such as whether the Doctor is a war criminal and whether the assistants can sue him for distress and injury (yes he is and yes they can, but he can also sue the TARDIS for negligently taking them to dangerous places, as it's sentient). One paper looked at parallels between Doctor Who and HG Wells, while others examined the fluid gender politics of the various series. My paper used Foucault's theories of power relations to examine the dystopian mirror universes of Doctor Who 'Inferno' and Star Trek 'Mirror, mirror' (ensuring that I beat the other nerds hands down) to suggest that the idealised prime universes (near-future Britain and the Federation) might actually be more subtly oppressive than the abjected evil mirror universes, and that the British and American shows have a rather different politics. Who is pragmatic, flexible and believes in muddling through, while Trek deals in moral absolutes even if it means avoiding resolution in the end. It was enormous fun, and I think people liked what we said, especially when we introduced them to the Beard of Evil. I blogged a summary a few days ago.

I guess what held us together was the shared understanding that popular culture is important from a supply and a demand perspective. Popular drama matters because they're platforms for the expression of aesthetic, ideological and cultural perspectives and reach people in ways that formal non-fictional genres don't. From the reception side, I think that anything millions of people consume – and the very complex and multiple ways in which they consume them and incorporate them into their lives – is by definition important. That's why I happily promote media studies in the teeth of snobbish opposition. If you want to know what the majority of a society cares about, you don't examine the avant-garde: you examine the soap operas, news broadcasts and prime-time TV shows.

So that was massively enjoyable and interesting. How could we top that? Well, by going to Hammersmith's gorgeous deco Apollo to see Kate Bush perform, her first live shows since 1979 when I was four (and hadn't heard of her). I've only known her music very well for a few years, but couldn't miss these shows. In our lifetimes, I guess they're the equivalent of Elvis's Vegas years, except that Bush isn't washed-up creatively and physically. I wasn't disappointed. Her voice is strong, dark and rich. The high notes are still there, but they've lost the piercing quality that may have put off people in songs like 'Wuthering Heights' all those years ago. The show is split into two - The Ninth Wave which is the second side (that dates me) of Hounds of Love, and 'And Endless Sky of Honey' from Aerial, a much later album. I love both LPs very much, but preferred the staging of 'The Ninth Wave' - slightly less sentimentality about her son, and a darker tone (and no puppets). Whatever the differences, this was more than a gig, more than a list of songs: it was art. The staging was inventive and mesmerising, always daring if not always successful.

The crowd I could have done without. A standing ovation every time they recognised a song starting, and obsessive cheering and applauding Bush's son came close to sycophancy. As her chat between songs was completely drowned out every time, I wondered if everyone was too fixated on being part of the event that they'd forgotten who was actually the creative one. Credit to everyone for accepting Bush's request not to film or photograph the show though: I didn't see a single glowing screen.

Though I had a few reservations about individual artistic decisions, the event was important because it so confidently raised the artistic bar. Bush takes risks because she believes her music, acting and dance form a coherent mode of expression which deserves respect, and she's right. It'll be hard to go back to see bands which just run through a set-list and hope they land a lucrative advert. The tickets were hugely expensive, but you could see that every penny had gone into planning, designing, building, rehearsing, lighting, choreography and thinking. Other bands have staged spectacular events – such as U2's supposedly subversive Zoo TV and Popmart tours, which simply demonstrated that they'd grown too big for their tax-avoiding globe-trotting boots, and that their grasp of irony was superficial at best. Bush's worked because she's more intelligent and more sophisticated than anyone else in her field.

How to top presenting on Doctor Who and seeing Kate Bush on the same day? Spending the rest of the weekend in good company. A trip to Tate Modern, an afternoon catching up with more distant friends, one of the best meals of my life in a dilapidated, deserted Indian social club, and finally a trip to the William Morris Museum in Walthamstow. After that, it was back to work, where the first job was to give the encomium at a graduation ceremony to Olympic athlete Denise Lewis, to whom we awarded an honorary doctorate. I'd seen her in action before at the UK School Games: she's down-to-earth, funny and kind, as well as inspirational to our students. She even laughed at my reference to her second place in Strictly Come Dancing, which was generous of her.

Today I've been meeting the new Graduate Teaching Assistants, a new training post for the next generation of academics: I'll be mentoring them. I'm slightly scared: they're all very very clever and much more advanced than I was at their age. I shall have to crush their optimism and energy before they turn their powers against me. Otherwise, I have visions of Logan's Run, and I don't mean the naked Jenny Agutter scene.

Tomorrow it's back to more graduation ceremonies, back in the gown and hat. This time it's for my own students, so I'll be applauding (mostly fondly) as some familiar and some inexplicably unfamiliar) faces appear on stage. If I'm feeling really satirical I'll bring along all the uncollected essays from their years here. I've done it before…

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Daily White Male Reaches for the Stars

You may remember from some months ago, outrage about the way the Daily Mail covered the appearance of two eminent scientists on Newsnight:
Newsnight's Guardian-trained editor, Ian Katz, is keen on diversity.
So, two women were invited to comment on the report about (white, male) American scientists who’ve detected the origins of the universe – giggling Sky at Night pre-senter Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Sri Lanka-born astronomer Hiranya Peiris.
Obviously only people indoctrinated by those Commie Feminists at the Guardian care about diversity. Thus he deliberately searched the astronomy and astrophysics worlds until he found 'two women' – we'll just have to live with the 'giggling', just as the Mail's (white, male) editor has to cope with constantly being referred to as 'simpering' whenever he flaunts his luscious curves on the comment pages. And what women he found: a giggling TV presenter and a foreigner.

Or as we know them, Dr Maggie Aderin Pocock, research fellow at UCL's Department of Science and Technology Studies, inventor, managing director of Science Innovation Ltd and James Webb Telescope instrument designer, and Dr Hiranya Peiris,  
Reader in Astronomy in the Astrophysics Group in the Dept. of Physics and Astronomy at UCL. I am also the coordinator of the CosmicDawn project, funded by theEuropean Research Council under the FP7 Ideas programme.

Prior to becoming a Lecturer in Cosmology at UCL in 2009, I was an STFC Advanced Fellow at the Institute of Astronomy,University of Cambridge and a Junior Research Fellow at King's College Cambridge. Previously, I was a Hubble Fellowin the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at theUniversity of Chicago. I did my postgraduate research at theDepartment of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University.
Clearly these two were just plucked from a list for their looks, and not at all for their incredible knowledge of the subject.

And talking of incredible knowledge, what about this 'white, male' bit? I looked up the authors of the research they talked about. It took literally seconds. Turns out that this international BICEP2 partnership consisted of men and women of almost every ethnic grouping. The Mail journalist simply assumed that clever science can only have been the product of 'white, male' minds.

So I complained to the Press Complaints Commission, and on Friday, 2 days before it was replaced by IPSO, I got a reply. Guess how apologetic the Mail is feeling!
The newspaper explained that its columnist’s focus on gender and ethnicity was designed to be nothing more than a “cheeky reference” to the BBC’s alleged political correctness. In the columnist’s view, the selection of Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Dr Hiranya Peiris to comment on the BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarisation) study was another such example of this institutional approach.
I see. So you can print untruths as long as they're 'cheeky'. And obviously a professional journalist lacks both the skills and the motivation to quickly Google the scientists' names to see if they are actually fully qualified to comment on a subject, in pursuit of his job.

The resulting outrage did push the Mail to publish a partial retraction of the factual errors it hadn't bothered to check before publication
The newspaper took a number of measures to address the situation: the managing editor wrote to both Dr Aderin-Pocock and Dr Peiris; a letter criticising the columnist’s argument was published the following day; its columnist later explicitly noted both scientists expertise, and competence to comment on the study; and, a correction was published promptly in the newspaper Corrections & clarifications column which acknowledged that the BICEP2 study was “conducted by a diverse team of astronomers from around the world”, and which “apologis[ed] for any suggestion to the contrary”. The latter measure was sufficient to meet the newspaper’s obligation under Clause 1 (ii) of the Code, to correct significantly misleading information.
but isn't really sorry:
The columnist’s suggestion that Dr Aderin-Pocock and Dr Peiris were specifically selected for the Newsnight programme because of “political correctness” was clearly presented as his own comment and conjecture which, under Clause 1 (iii) and the principle of freedom of expression, he was entitled to share with readers. There was, therefore, no breach of the Code in publishing that suggestion. However, the subsequent correction of the factual inaccuracy regarding the BICEP2 team and the acknowledgment of both experts’ expertise will have allowed readers to assess the suggestion in a new light.
Who needs evidence when conjecture will do? On the main point of my complaint, they've got away scot-free:
Under Clause 12 (Discrimination) (ii) of the Code, “details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story”.  
I suggested that coverage of a scientific discovery did not require discussion of the scientists' (or scientific commentators') sexes or ethnicities. The Press Complaints Commission said:
While the terms of Clause 12 (ii) do not cover irrelevant references to gender, the Commission would need to have received a complaint from a member, or members of the BICEP2 team, or Dr Aderin-Pocock or Dr Peiris in order to consider the complaint about [word omitted: race or colour?] under this Clause. In the absence of any such complaints, the Commission could not comment further. 
So according to the PCC, you can lie and fantasise to your heart's content as long as the specific individuals are too depressed, worn-out or distant to personally complain about your disgusting behaviour. The rest of us just have to let them get on with it. In essence, the Daily Mail's defence is that their reportage is just 'banter'.

Can IPSO be any worse?

Monday, 1 September 2014

They sickens you

Apropos of nothing, here's a 1992 Steve Bell cartoon which I have long loved (click to enlarge).

He drew it for the Guardian two days after the 1992 election in which John Major (John Major!) won a majority with far fewer MPs but the largest popular vote in British electoral history. Gramsci must have been turning in his grave… The cartoon exactly captures the shocked numbness I felt after the result. The poll tax was the worst imposition on the public since the Peasant's Revolt, and caused a widespread insurrection, and yet the bloody Labour Party couldn't scrape a victory against the party that instituted it.

The image references a Russian socialist cartoon from 1900, and an American version from 1911, after which it became a favourite on the left:

I remember the '92 election horribly clearly. I spent the Easter holiday in Rheims, on a desperate attempt to learn enough spoken French to scrape through the A-level. The sojourn consisted of horribly embarrassing exchanges with a family who had little interest in helping a withdrawn and incompetent visitor. It didn't help, either, that the le pére of the house was a gendarme who would wave his gun about muttering about les negres every time a black person's face appeared on the television which lived on the dining table. Two weeks of this, interspersed with classes in town in which my fellow learners muttered darkly about the prospects of a Labour victory (the apocalypse, apparently). Couldn't talk to the French because the non-racists were too busy laughing – and rightly so – at my shamefully bad French, couldn't talk to the British lot because they were vile Tory scum. 

I thought differently, having been accused of being a 'bloody Guardian reader' by my headmaster. I wasn't, but rapidly became one. I also joined the youth wing of Militant too, mostly for the annoyance factor. Getting the papers delivered to school guaranteed a weekly row which I quietly enjoyed. Not that it made much difference: several sixth-formers drove around the nearest council estate when the election result became clear, waving banknotes out of the window at the poor. Occasionally I Google people with whom I was at school, in the hope that they're dead, or in prison. One appeared on Newsnight recently talking about charity work, which must have required a massive personality transplant. Could be worse: my older colleagues with Oxbridge degrees know pretty much all the current political establishment. Ugh. 

I was just depressed. As a teenage Trot I knew that Kinnochio was a disastrous capitalist running-dog, but it was pretty obvious that we were in for many more years of corruption, poverty, misery and war. And I was right: 1992 was the first year I noticed the emergence of one T. Blair as shadow home secretary, already attacking people like Goebbels for not being tough enough on lawnorder… So it went. Having decided that a population which voted for Major must actually want economic deprivation, nuclear holocaust, the Daily Mail and all the other awful things of that period, the Labour Party decided to double down on the Tory model. Goodbye civil liberties, goodbye the public good, goodbye cohesive communities looking out for each other, goodbye diplomacy, goodbye civic society… Hello lobbying, wars, league tables, personal enrichment, corporate mega-greed, ATOS and pervasive surveillance. 

People occasionally ask me things like 'when did you get so gloomy'?, and the answer is 1992, when I started reading newspapers and paying attention. Anyway, I'm not cynical. Cynics stop caring. I'm depressed about everything that's happening because I do still care. 

There was one good thing about that trip to France. Sneaking into a bar underage (as if they cared) I saw my first music video. It was dark brown and angry and insistent – and a whole new world opened up.

Apologies for being so grumpy today. I've actually had a lovely time, working on my Foucault-Doctor Who-Trek paper with my co-writer, who managed not to tear my work up in disgust. Quite a result!