Friday, 25 September 2015

Death: at least make it profitable

Occasionally, you see a publicity stunt so inept, so tone-deaf, that you wonder how it got through the planning stage. Here's a humdinger folks.

This morning I got an invitation to the university's Macmillan Cancer Coffee Morning. I decided to  go along, if I'm free. I'm largely against death in general and I've had enough friends and relatives die of cancer in recent years for me to be against the misery and suffering of that particular diseases for me to want to support efforts to prevent or cure it.

Then this Tweet caught my eye:

Isn't that sweet? A massive engineering firm helping its employees contribute to curing cancer in a fun and cute way.

Hold on a minute. BAe Systems Air? I'm sure that rings a bell. I know that 'Systems' is a nice bland word that doesn't give much away but there's something nagging away at the back of my mind.

Ah, yes, that's it. BAe Systems is British Aerospace as was, and BAe Systems Air makes big fast stuff.

What kind of big fast stuff? Well, Typhoon fighter-bombers and Paveway IV bombs, amongst other things. Just for you students of Anglo-Saxon literature there's also a Beowulf all-terrain vehicle, described as 'poetry in motion': Auden apocryphally said that 'poetry makes nothing happen' but the Beowulf can insert heavily-armed killers into any crowd of pesky protestors in minutes.

And they don't just make this stuff: they 'support' their own customers just like football teams have sponsors. BAe Systems has picked the cutest underdogs in the league: the Sultanate of Oman, a violent dictatorship rated by Freedom House as 'not free'.

So that's BAe Systems. I guess their PR department knows that it needs all the love it can get, between the core business of providing mass death to any customer, no questions asked, and the awkward business of all those bribery and corruption allegations and convictions. A coffee morning for charity, heavily promoted on social media is just the ticket.

But what of Macmillan Cancer Care? I know it's hard to say no to eager volunteers, but did nobody at HQ wonder if a charity working hard to prevent suffering, misery and death might look a teensy bit hypocritical hosting an event and taking money from a company whose whole raison d'être is the aforesaid suffering, misery and death. Perhaps they had a big banner hanging above the coffee and cakes: 'Death From Above, Not From Within'. Perhaps they can have a little competition like the Great British Bake-Off?

Ah yes. The Bombe Surprise. It's hard to pick just one winner when your normal method is to kill them all and let God sort them out.

Oh look: double points for this one as it manages to promote the company, grovel to its customers and threaten death from above, all the while polluting the timeline of a cancer charity.

Perhaps there's a perfectly rational way of looking at it. From BAe's perspective, every cancer victim is a potential target lost. It is clearly not against premature and piteous deaths, it just wants to find the profit in it, and quite frankly carpet-bombing is far more efficient than cancer (and besides, quite a few munitions are subsequently carcinogenic to the inhabitants of the unfortunate lands visited by their customers). So if Macmillan cares to open an outlet in say Syria, it's guaranteed some repeat customers. Everyone's a winner!

Joking aside, this is a superb case study for PR students. For Macmillan a nice idea has become appropriated by a major arms manufacturer to whitewash its reputation: for both BAe and Macmillan it's an object lesson in giving a moment's thought to the credibility of your activities. If this story grows, they'll have a representative on the airwaves trying to normalise what it does, and claiming that events like the cancer coffee morning demonstrate what a good corporate citizen it is: we see the same thing when Labour MPs in places like Barrow defend the retention of nuclear weapons because it 'provides employment': in the short term, it does. In the long term, as Keynes put it, we are all dead, and I guess the survivors of a nuclear exchange can find fresh employment burying the remains and decontaminating the scorched earth.

As for me: I think I'll find a cancer charity that doesn't think it's OK to be used as part of a PR campaign. Though weirdly, this happened:

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The wanderer returns

Where have I been? Well, I gave a paper with my co-author at a conference in London on Rediscovering Class Consciousness in Contemporary Literature last week. It was held in the Senate House, University of London, that great Deco bulk on Malet St. While we talked books, an FBI thriller called Undercover was being filmed downstairs, which provided some amusing juxtapositions of scholars and gun-toting stars. I intended to sneak off to see the Terry Pratchett Archive in the library but the other presenters were too good to miss. Ian Haywood was the keynote speaker: one of the greats in the field. He spoke about the Beano chapter of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell's ur-proletarian novel and socialist touchstone. It was hard to imagine there's much more to say about it, but Haywood managed to do so, leading into a fascinating discussion of literary representations of leisure and sex on the beach in 20th century fiction.

I also enjoyed Phil O'Brien's discussion of Anthony Cartwright's Black Country masterpiece, The Afterglow - Cartwright's work is hugely under-rated. It turned out that Phil read it because I'd mentioned it to him at a Radical Studies Network conference a couple of years ago, so I'm quite proud of making a contribution. David Peace's work also heavily featured: a panel and another paper elsewhere on the schedule. I'm a huge Peace fan: I like his ambition and experiments with form, which deliberately disorient the reader to make her experience the cultural, social and political disorientation its subjects undergo. The conference focussed on his Red Riding quartet and GB84: the former cover late-70s Yorkshire and the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, while the latter is loosely about the Miners' Strike. Every time I read them again I think he was some kind of seer. Peace's Yorkshire is a failed state: rotten to the core. The State is a series of self-interested fiefdoms. Policing is utterly corrupt and largely the pursuit of personal gain or serving the sectional interests of the powerful. As the fish rots from the head, the hollowing out of morality, public duty and the organs of the state lead to total social degradation. The public realm becomes a place of strife, decayed and dangerous. Democracy is a remote and irrelevant concept in his novels: power is wielded against the people and the ideal of the public good is forgotten. I get the sense from history texts that this isn't far removed from reality, but the revelations of Jimmy Savile, the inquiries into Orgreave and other events suggest that Peace was spot on, and that the effects (and causes?) are still being felt.

My session also featured Mark Schmitt of Dortmund Technical University talking about work by Irvine Welsh, John King and Niall Griffiths. As Niall is a friend and colleague of mine, I enjoyed emailing him snippets – he was pleased to be the subject of a paper and that Mark understood him, which is more than I can claim: Niall thinks Wreckage is his weakest novel, whereas I think it's his best! Scotland was very much prominent: there was another piece on Irvine Welsh and Corey Gibson gave a fascinating and hilarious tour of the post-Referendum literary scene and the role of authors in the debate. Lisa and I did a comparison of representations of working-class lives in Welsh writing in English and Welsh: we feel that the English texts are pretty despondent, which manifests itself in recurrent images of zombies, haunting and memory, whereas the Welsh-language ones are – with some exceptions – more open to the complexities of class, culture and the everyday. Nobody else there had any Welsh so couldn't discuss some of the texts in depth, but there was a lively discussion afterwards.

After that, I went to a session on working-class lives on stage (about which I knew nothing, other than loving Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem), then the plenary session: the stand-out one was Kathleen Bell and Nicola Valentine's 'Reclaiming Class: a Complex Negotiation'. The day was hugely enjoyable: I bought a lot of books that I clearly should have read years ago, and it was good to be amongst scholars committed to keeping class alive as a topic when the dominant discourse is keen to stifle it. I don't see the neoliberal, techno-economy as a post-class one: further divides are opening up, but old ones are being reinforced. How could we understand the attempt by Google, Apple, Pixar and a host of other Silicon Valley companies to conspire together to keep salaries down other than by referring back to Marx? Those techs might be rich, pampered nerds but they're clearly part of the proletariat, however many gadgets they own.

Following the conference I headed off to Cardiff for a new experience: an international rugby match between Ireland and Canada. I always watch Ireland matches on TV, but rugby's not my favourite sport. However, it was a great occasion. The city was a sea of green, leavened by a few hundred Canadians, and everyone was in festive mood. I don't often get to Cardiff, so it was lovely to reacquaint myself with an unappreciated place. I paid the compulsory homage to Spiller's Records (bought albums by Gwenno Saunders and Meilir) and finally got hold of some laverbread. If you've never had it, get some. It's the best seaweed-based foodstuff there is. The match itself was thrilling – although Canada was bound to come off worst, they had two tries disallowed and played much better than the official gulf between them, and the score, suggested. Afterwards, we returned home the slow route through Abergavenny, Herefordshire and rural Shropshire, all deserted and breathtakingly beautiful. We stopped for dinner at the Stockton Cross Inn, a 16th-century country pub in Herefordshire. This plaque was attached to the back of the toilet door:

Since then, I've been fixated by our graduation ceremonies, which always thrill me because it's great to see my students grown up and going off, but I'll miss a lot of them an awful lot. We gave poet Jo Bell an honorary doctorate: her work is great and her speech was a model of encouragement and inspiration. 'Ask for help', she told them, 'but never for permission'. 

The other big stories of the week of course are Pig Gate and the VW story. You'll no doubt have followed Pig Gate, the claim by Lord Ashcroft that David Cameron had to insert his undercarriage into a dead pig's mouth as part of an Oxford society's initiation ritual. Such things do happen in rich, spoiled circles, though I think I'm safe in congratulating my own students in getting through a degree without once sexual molesting a dead animal to ingratiate themselves with their friends. It's a gruesome thing to do but basically the kind of inane things the children of the establishment indulge in to fool themselves that they're rebels, before they go off and run the country. Quite astoundingly pathetic, really. 

The real story behind this is the fragmentation of the Conservative Party. Ashcroft is quite clear that his motive in raising this claim is revenge: he gave the Tories £8m and was only offered a junior position in government. Both sides agree on one thing: ministerial jobs in this supposed democracy are for sale in return for party donations. What's in dispute is merely a matter of scale. Ashcroft called  the post he was offered 'declinable', whereas Cameron obviously thought it was OK. Ashcroft may have a point: Lord Nash acquired a seat in the house of Lords and a job in the education ministry, where he oversaw the privatisation of schools while simultaneously opening a load of 'free' schools of his own, having forked over less money than Ashcroft: as blatant a case of corruption as I can imagine. Ashcroft was, of course, domiciled in Belize for tax purposes for most of his political career.

Neither Cameron or Ashcroft (or Nash, or any of the others) seem to believe that democracy requires that government jobs should go to people who a) pay all their taxes according to both the spirit and the letter of the law, nor b) that jobs in a government should be subject to the approval of the electorate via the ballot box. Instead they become rewards for donations to the party, just as the Americans give Ambassadorships to big party donors rather than to professional diplomats. 

The other interesting aspect of the story is the role of the Mail. There have always been two wings of the Conservative Party: the hardline neoliberal economic conservatives and the social conservatives, essentially the City and the Country wings. One lot wants to privatise everything and doesn't care what you do with your genitals, while the other wants to go hunting and doesn't like the nouveau riche. There is of course some (uncomfortable) overlap: the PM wants to go hunting while selling our schools to the highest bidder, but there's a basic tension between conserving things and exposing them to the whims of the Market. 

The Mail is the voice of the middle-class Country wing of the Conservatives: its readers are largely urban but they are deeply suspicious of slick billionaires and money-men, hence that paper's hounding of the bankers over recent years, which may have surprised some people. The Mail doesn't like foreigners, gays, liberals, socialists, feminists, the Scots, Welsh-speakers, Eurpoeans and anyone else who thinks Britain could do with changing. It likes 1952. It distrusts Big Money for the same reasons I do: it sees them as a global elite of asset-strippers. It also suspects that David Cameron is a Tino: a Tory in Name Only. It hates his supposed social liberalism and thinks – bafflingly for me – that he's going to see Real Conservatism down the river. So it's got into bed with Lord Ashcroft, who is the very personification of City Conservatism: a man with billions acquired from dubiously labyrinthine business deals, multiple passports and a buffet approach to tax residence. There's also a deeper irony: while the Mail masquerades as the staunch defender of Country Conservatism and Englishness, it's owned by a man who claims to be French for tax purposes, via a series of shell companies located in some very distant islands. Much like Ashcroft, in fact. 

So what we have is a civil war in British conservatism, in which personal vendettas between Cameron and Ashcroft, and the Mail and Cameron, mask deeper and often contradictory struggles for the definition of conservatism. The pig-boffing is probably untrue and if true, probably unproveable, and has given millions (including me) a day of joy, but it's a distraction from the real arguments. 

The other big story is the one that almost nobody has noticed, which is a shame as it's far more important and instructive than the one about the Prime Minsterial Appendage and where it might or might not have been. The American authorities, acting on a tip-off from a European pressure group, has caught Volkswagen cheating on its cars' emissions. It fitted software that detected when emissions tests were being conducted, and altered the exhaust gases to conform to the legal limits. When the cars were out on the roads, they emitted forty times more NO2 than the law allowed. I'll type that again: forty times above the legal limit

In fact a lot of this deserves spelling out in italics and probably bold. One of the biggest corporations in the world took the deliberate decision to a) make cars that are FORTY times more poisonous than an already lax law allowed, then b) decided to find a way to hide this fact and c) invented a mechanism to do so. Then they did it. They produced 11 MILLION of these vehicles, worldwide.

This isn't a rogue engineer fiddling with a couple of test vehicles. VW is a global corporation worth hundreds of billions of euro. To install a device on a range of cars required work by engineers, software developers, chemists, accountants, lawyers and directors. Multiple committees will have held meetings to agree that they would deliberately break the law and add massively to global warming, pollution, and to damage the health of millions of people. It's not an accident, it's a conspiracy. Car manufacturers have always fiddled their performance and emissions results: it's well known that the figures in unreadable text on adverts are produced in lab conditions with heavily modified vehicles rather than in ordinary driving conditions, but this is way beyond that kind of game-playing, and it's likely other manufacturers will have done the same. 

My point, I think, is that you can't trust corporations. They are liars and cheats. They spend a lot of money persuading us that they care and that they are progressive contributors to a better future. Car manufacturers always promote efficiency, safety and green credentials. They make and sell a few hybrid or electric vehicles and make sure they get press coverage. Here's what Volkswagen claims, for instance:

It produces a Sustainability Report and claims it will become the 'world leader in environmental protection'. 

This is lies from start to finish. Greenwash. Tony Benn once said that 'the way migrants are treated is instructive, because it shows you how governments would treat the rest of us if they could get away with it'. Volkswagen treats us this way because it thought it could get away with it. Like every other capitalist institution, its purpose is the immediate acquisition of profit. It has no conscience, green or otherwise. Producing a few thousand electric cars is part of a PR operation, not a commitment to mitigate the destructive effects of the internal combustion engine. When faced with the opportunity to make billions, it deliberately opted to poison us all and break the laws of the most powerful state on earth. 

Volkswagen is not an outlier, or an outlaw, or an aberration. It is a mainstream, ordinary company, and it behaves the way all companies do if they think they can get away with it. Will anyone go to prison? Probably not, though the American authorities are tougher on this kind of thing than you might think. 

And people wonder why I'm a socialist…

Friday, 11 September 2015

Epiphanies in Chintz

I was listening to the wonderful The Reunion on Radio 4 this morning, which gathered Alan Bennett and the living actors and producers who made his seminal series Talking Heads back in the 80s. Every one was a quiet triumph of democratic art: closely observed revelations of the profound moments that all of us experience, often unnoticed by ourselves and others in a noisy culture which tends to overlook people like his subjects: older women, northerners and the petit-bourgeoisie.

It reminded me of half an hour I spent in a café in Newcastle-under-Lyme in late 1996, a half-hour which was as close to a Talking Heads script – as funny and sad – as anything I've ever experienced. I was enduring one of my short periods of unemployment, between graduation and starting an MA. Living in the depths of the countryside, I had to walk a fair distance to catch the twice-daily bus into town to sign-on for the dole, a magnificent £24 per week. Having hours to wait for the return trip, I would spend hours in the library, then splurge £1.20 on tea and toast in a very chintzy café, accompanied by the old broadsheet Guardian. I liked the pots of tea and patterned china, proper tablecloths butter knives.

That day, the only other customers were two old ladies. They wore hats, sensible raincoats and floral dresses: prime Alan Bennett characters. They had tartan shopping trolleys and small dogs (also wearing tartan). One was recently widowed and struggling to cope with her new condition. She explained to her companion that the hardest part was meeting old friends. I can still hear the desolation as she said 'I've seen them spot me coming and cross the road because they don't know what to say to me'. I'd been to plenty of funerals by that point and lost enough relatives to appreciate the situation: even now I find it hard to say anything that isn't cliched, patronising or useless. But what really moved me was that she wasn't bitter or angry: despite her loss and grief, she understood and even empathised with what her friends felt.

I can't remember what her colleague said – I think it was supportively sympathetic. But then the conversation took another turn. They started discussing the deceased's funeral, which they agreed was a fine send-off for a decent man. Good turnout, nice hymns, decent spread afterwards. The only problem, the widow explained, was the argument she'd had with the undertakers the day before. Clearly snatched from life unexpectedly, her husband had been to Marks the week before, and they'd bought him some new pants. 'Nice white ones - best they had. He always got his pants from Marks'. Denied the chance to wear them in life, his widow told the undertakers that he would wear them in death. For some reason, they demurred, explaining that while the body would be dressed in a suit, they didn't see much point in putting on underwear too. 'But I told them flat. He'd wear his new pants and that's that. You can't be buried in no pants, I told them. It's not right'.

By this point, I was torn between tears and laughter, and the sound of my newspaper rustling in my shaking hands was becoming obvious, so I left in a state of both admiration and sympathy for her. I don't know whether all undertakers are that difficult when it comes to corpsewear, but it struck me as an unnecessary bit of cavilling in a moment of grief. I liked her for her insistence that certain standards apply beyond the requirements of practicality, and I'd learned something devastating about how we deal with loss. I don't know if I'm a particularly nice person, but I think that half-hour taught me that I wasn't the star in the drama of life, and that kindness and a little empathy is more important than any of the brasher passions.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Fun and (School) Games

Hi everyone. Since I last posted, I've had a rich and varied week or so: volunteering at the School Games in Manchester and Bolton, attending a full-on Communist funeral (the Internationale, Bandiera Rossa, Party banners, the lot) and participating in a twilight slow bike ride around Stoke festooned with fairy lights and soundtracked by ambient music. As I said, an eclectic set of experiences.

I only have pictorial evidence of the School Games, so those of you allergic to young people and/or sport might wish to view something else. It was an interesting Games. Sainsbury's has pulled out of its sponsorship of UK Athletics activity ahead of schedule, which is pretty churlish: this includes the Games, so while the branding continued to infest the event, budgets were clearly very, very tight.

I wasn't particularly impressed with the Opening Ceremony either, though four of my fencers were picked to take the oath on behalf of the athletes. The D-list presenters engaged in the most painful and rehearsed banter, interspersed by off-the-cuff sexist comments, while the entertainment was almost entirely female dancers dressed in skimpy sequinned costumes (or 'showgirls' as the compere called them). Very good at their job, but in front of several hundred sporty teenagers, perhaps the organisers should have considered whether it's appropriate to present women solely as decorative objects. Maybe including some male dancers would have helped. Anyway, there were some sports stars present: Ellie Simmonds was very good, while a male athlete helpfully and repeatedly explained that success is achieved by 'staying positive' and 'giving it 110%', which I personally found inspirational. He also confessed that the high point of the School Games in his day was when he put a frog in a microwave. Vile, yes, but I enjoyed the almost audible quality of the spanner dropping into the banter works.

The rest of the games passed in a haze of exhaustion punctuated by admiration and jealousy of the young fencers, any one of whom could thrash me without breaking into a sweat. It was also lovely seeing fencers I knew as tiny scared creatures reappearing as hulking great winners, and to catch up with all my friends from the fencing world.

Here are some of my favourite shots (click to enlarge) and you can see the rest here. Fencing photos are tough: the lighting's terrible, you can't use flash, my equipment is ageing, and everyone looks the same once the mask is on. So I tried to capture personality as best I could: victory, defeat, battered fencing shoes, team hugs and so on.

The Toast Rack - near my room on Manchester University's Fallowfield Campus. Formerly part of Manchester Metropolitan University


Scotland's women sabreurs console each other after defeat

Searchlights on the roof of the Opening Ceremony venue

Soundcheck for the opening ceremony

Jess Corby reads the oath with George Morris behind her

Volunteers at the opening ceremony

The aforesaid 'showgirls'. 

Generations of Adidas fencing shoes

A fistful of foils

About to be interviewed on camera

Corby under the Klieg lights

Kamal Minot taking media duties in his stride

Ken Rose (Scotland coach) discussing the fight with referee Sean Grundy

Celyn Lewis takes off

…as does Kamal Minott

The referee awards the hit and the Welsh women's epeeists celebrate

Simultaneous hit by the two Scottish women foilists Morrison and Black

Multiple exposure…very tricky without a tripod. 

Battered old Adidas fencing shoe

Charlotte Slater lands a foot hit on Scotland's Paisley.

Jovial ref explains a decision to Gibbon

The referees about to launch into a ballad

The Leon Paul technical staff applaud the medallists

Sabre Selfie!

Schneider and Slater at a tense moment

Moody shot of a Scottish sabreur warming up backstage

Philip Slater celebrates with his coach

Slater, defeated in the team event.

Taylor takes off.

The selfie

Welsh women's epee team celebrates

Edwards and the Welsh coaches celebrate

Yellow card for Dolan