Friday, 21 November 2014

Not drowning but waving.

What a week. I am quite literally bruised, but also exhilarated. Some great things have happened. I did my usual load of teaching, and the classes went really well – lots of talkative people. I particularly liked the Chinese student who said the most annoying thing about moving to the UK was discovering that the Chinese President has a Twitter feed and Facebook page, while banning those services in China. She also said that Chinese TV is all cooking and 'talent' shows too, so nobody should feel superior.

On Tuesday I visited Newham College's University Centre, which is accredited by the Open University. I'm the external examiner there - EE's are the method by which universities know their standards are kept high. We all offer different things, but the idea is that we're equally testing. Our own English Lit external told us that the students who get First class degrees would achieve the same at her own Russell Group establishment – any other league tables, reviews, newspaper pieces and marketing claims are meaningless besides EE reports. NUC, I can tell you, is a gem. It's tiny and relatively new, so the students luxuriate in small classes. The modules are innovative, rigorous and fascinating, and the staff are intellectual, uproariously amusing, opinionated, caring and very progressive (so are their children, I discovered). The recent graduates I met are also lovely – sparky, clever and questioning. The first one I met told me all about her dissertation on food culture and Baudrillard: she's a fan of my colleague William's book on the philosopher. If that was a set-up, it was a damn good one. Weirdest of all, I met the management and the staff and they all said very complimentary things about each other. Those people are actually happy! I never knew management and academics could peacefully co-exist. Perhaps it'll catch on!

If I lived down there, I'd happily take a course at NUC. They also don't stint on the cake.

After a happy morning, I wandered off to meet my sister, my latest niece and her toddler brother. I hadn't met the baby yet. True to form, she cried from the moment she was placed in my arms, and stopped as soon as I handed her back. I have the same effect on students come to think of it. My nephew and I bonded over shared addictions to posh cheese and haggis (not in the same course) and the family's cat was even more pleased to see me than anyone else because it gets ignored amongst the chaos of small children.

I did something really touristy on the way back. Instead of taking the tube back into central London, I walked down to the Cutty Sark and took a boat back to London Bridge. Night was falling and the city looked magical from Canary Wharf (which I think of as one big financial crime scene), under Tower Bridge, past the Tower of London into the heart of the city in just half an hour, for £6. I'd love to do the full cruise down the river, and I'm never going to get the underground on that route again. Then it was on to a train home, during which I finished a piece for the Times Higher on politicians' novels ('why do politicians kill?')

The next day was moving day. I spent the morning with my rather underpowered but nice movers carrying 60 massive boxes of books and records down three flights of stairs to the lorry - I'm still covered in cuts and bruises. By the time I left to go to a meeting, I was shattered. We founded an MA course in the afternoon and I took my Media Ethics class later on, while I tried not to think about how they were throwing the vinyl around. Then the evening descended into farce: I expected to let myself into the house and find the flat keys and new house keys there. At this point I discovered that the 'spare' keys weren't anything of the sort. Even with the help of a neighbour who helped me over a couple of locked gates, none of the keys got me in. The movers' phones weren't ringing. I had to call a locksmith, who got the front door open in 5 seconds with a piece of plastic (£85). No keys can be found. More to the point, no furniture either. I start to wonder whether the movers have crashed their lorry when along they came - they'd had to dismantle all 15 bookcases to get them out of the flat, which took ages, and their phone batteries had died. Naturally I felt like an impoverished idiot, but hugely relieved. They took the last lorry load home with them and I went off to sleep in my bare, echoing flat…the sleep of the truly wrecked. My belongings are going to remain packed until the house is painted top to bottom over the next couple of months.

But not for long - the next day I had to meet a decorator who turned out to be a former Cultural Studies lecturer, so we chose paints according to the semiotic method. My missing furniture turned up, then I hared back to the university to record an interview with Jon Gower who came up from Cardiff to talk about Caradoc Evans: it's the 100th anniversary of My People, Evans's scandalous short story collection. The programme is going out on Radio Wales in early January. I'm not sure why Jon asked me, given the eminence of the other contributors, but it was fantastically enjoyable. The panel will talk about Evans's Welsh reputation: My People attacked (in English!) what he saw as the dead hand of nonconformist liberalism and rural Wales's Gothic darkness, so my job was to talk about him in the context of anglophone literature, his reputation outside Wales, and the literary nature of his work. I suggested that he was part of the post-Victorian Angry Young Men movement, alongside Lytton Strachey and Edmund Gosse, similar to Joyce, Brinsley MacNamara and Lawrence, influenced by Hardy and Zola, an influence on Gwyn Thomas and akin to Steinbeck and Faulkner in that all three loved but were compelled to attack the societies which spawned their work. No doubt this will all sound appallingly pretentious in the broadcast, and it doesn't help that my voice sounds like the quacking of a bronchitic duck.

Jon's one of the world's renaissance characters. I made the mistake of asking him what he has on after the radio piece. The answer? 7 fiction and non-fiction books in two languages, a couple of TV documentaries, and he's running a very good publishing firm. He gave me a tip about another (unpublished) politician-thriller writer and a personal introduction, and a list of Welsh-language science fiction titles I'd missed for another thing I have in mind. The man is a whirlwind of activity, but one given solidity by sheer intellect. I'm never going to claim to be busy again.

So that's the end of the week. All I have to do this weekend is attend The White Devil with some students and colleagues, and clean my flat to such levels of perfection that even this landlord – a lying cheating devil of such wickedness that Beelzebub would be compelled to say 'steady on old chap' – can't retain my deposit. What are the chances of that?

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

This week…

Review a play and a PhD proposal and a journal article.
Write a piece for the THES
Write a piece for the university magazine.
Departmental meetings.
Fencing regional committee meeting.
Seminar on higher education with visiting Nigerian senior academic managers (this was enormously rewarding but a lot of extra work)
Design an MA
Paint new house
Pack up old house
Clean old flat to ensure that grasping landlord gimp has no excuse to steal my deposit
Move house.

I won't even have time to form opinions about anything, let alone blog. In the meantime, have some Havergal Brian.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

News from Nowhere

Last Saturday, I went to Stoke-on-Trent's Potteries Museum and Art Gallery for the annual Stephen Hagger Lecture (very sadly I was the youngest there by a good twenty years, and too many of them were from the National Trust wing of Morris fans). This year's lecturer was Fiona MacCarthy, design historian and biographer of Edward Burne-Jones, Eric Gill and William Morris, whose life and influence was her subject for the day. What links these three men and those around them is a commitment to art as a way of life: from the production of goods they evolved a philosophy of community, economics and politics – especially Morris. Stoke is the perfect venue for a lecture on William Morris. The industry which sustained the city was pottery: thousands of highly skilled workers producing globally-renowned items of astonishing beauty, and yet the city is a depressing sump of deprivation and unemployment now, and always was ugly: talk about alienation in action.

Morris, by GF Watts

Morris is perhaps best known as a designer of hugely expensive wallpaper and furniture: the current revival of interest in Victorian Gothic has placed him front and centre. However, he was also an accomplished novelist, typographer, poet, songwriter and revolutionary socialist activist. From his aesthetic interest in the medieval period evolved a conviction that industrial society and production led to degradation of the spirit. From Marx, he learned that alienated work beggared us not only economically but spiritually. He learned every skill from the basics, even making his own dyes for wallpapers and tapestries, and when Morris and Co. was founded, ran the company along egalitarian lines.

Morris seems to have been a force of nature - constantly trying new things, full of energy and also enormous fun: his friend Burne-Jones's cartoons of him are affectionate as well as satirical:

Basically, he was a big fat jolly man who couldn't sit still: his death was ascribed to a doctor as due to 'simply being William Morris and having done the work of most ten men'.

I don't know if Morris's aesthetic appeals to you. I find the wallpaper beautiful but too busy, but the late period 'Arts and Crafts' furniture is really to my taste, and I'd love some of the ceramics designed by his associate William de Morgan.

a de Morgan pot

Morris developed a conviction that beautiful things must be useful things - his followers became the kind of sandalled vegetarian liberals that Orwell hated so much. The contradiction for Morris, of course, is that producing hand-made work ethically cost a fortune, so his customers were only what he called the 'swinish rich'. At least – unlike now – Morris's workers were making a decent living from selling expensive goods to these scum: in our day the shareholders profit while goods are made by slaves in sweatshops.

While I can't afford Morris furniture, glass, wallpaper or ceramics (and in the antiques context their cultural meaning is very different from what he intended), I can read his books and poetry, and I have a cheap facsimile of his astonishing version of Chaucer's work. His novel News From Nowhere is perhaps the most accessible.

News from Nowhere

It's a Utopian fantasy set in a Britain which underwent a socialist revolution in 1952. Classes, law, finance, private property and cities have been abandoned and the people live in agrarian, peaceful, small villages (we tend to part company here: I grew up in the countryside and it's more Cold Comfort Farm than communist paradise). The details are less important than Morris's underlying assumption that human nature is essentially altruistic. Our faults, he says, are those of industrial, capitalist urbanism. It produces competition, hatred, violence, oppression and (not incidentally, aesthetic ugliness).
it is the allowing of machines to be our masters and not our servants that so injures the beauty of life nowadays. And, again, that leads me to my last claim, which is that the material surroundings of my life should be pleasant, generous, and beautiful; that I know is a large claim, but this I will say about it, that if it cannot be satisfied, if every civilised community cannot provide such surroundings for all its members, I do not want the world to go on
Reforming work will lead to beauty both internal and external, open to all. In this common weal, beauty is a condition of justice, and vice versa: the inhabitants, we're told, could not be happy knowing that fellow citizens are in prison, or trapped in loveless relations: mutuality is the key to social harmony (in contrast to the current Justice Secretary, who is scrapping the Human Rights Act and has banned sending books to prisoners). This was also the basis of his Socialist League

Simply the design of the membership card brings me to the real point of this rambling post. Art and labour brought together. The card is simply beautiful. It proclaims the unity of politics, life and art and above all it is optimistic. Like News From Nowhere, it assumes that the socialist future will transform people's lives for the better. When did we stop believing this? It's still there in Atlee's 1951 Festival of Britain (yes, the Tories took power in 1950 but the Festival was planned under the pioneering 1945-50 Labour government that founded the NHS and did so much more). After that? Not so much. Our supposed leaders are ashamed of the word socialist and whatever they do believe in, it isn't founded in optimism. Nor does it believe in a future which unifies love, life, joy, work, art and politics. Neither Labour nor the multiple far-left splinter groups offer anything positive. We spend our time accepting the ideological boundaries of neoliberalism and finding ways to mitigate the damage it does. I can't imagine the Milibands, Clegg, the SWP leadership or any of the others being able to understand the emotional or spiritual aspects of socialism that are integral to Morris's version.

Stunted by 'politics', they've lost us because they no longer have anything positive to offer beyond technocratic fixes. There's no way of life embodied in modern politics. There is in rightwing politics, but it too consists of joylessness: the Tories and UKIP spend their time saying 'no' to things – foreigners, human rights, the poor, community, altruism. That's OK: beyond Major's lazy fantasy of old maids cycling to communion, capitalist politics has always been about material acquisition. But it's not true of us. The left has forgotten that Marx, for all his talk of materialism, was funny, cultured and engaged with more than just economics - that's why his work is shot through with Shakespeare. Economics was part of his philosophy of life, rather than the other way round. Once the economics was sorted, he thought, our social, spiritual and philosophical ones would be too: happiness was the end, not simply material comfort. Morris knew this, and acted on it.

So why have we ended up with a political culture which would rather have us fulminating against 'scroungers', immigrants, Europe and each other, or competing over who can inflict most austerity to win votes rather than a labour movement which has a positive vision of how life could be. Last week the government gleefully announced that it would rather let African migrants drown than address the causes of their desperation. Every dead African is a vote reclaimed from UKIP, or so it hopes.

When did we forget that politics could be a vehicle for aspiration and happiness rather than a game of beggar-thy-neighbour? I believe, like Morris, that my fellow citizens are essentially altruistic and well-meaning, that given reform of our industrial, political and social structures this altruism could be liberated to achieve a better society. This is why I teach, and why I teach in an unfashionable ex-polytechnic in an unfashionable town (that and being essentially unemployable otherwise). The lesson of Morris is that all are capable of blossoming under and deserve justice and beauty – it's a socialism of humanity rather than just of economics: this isn't the 'art will civilise the brutish lumpenproletariat' argument of people like Matthew Arnold. It's the idea that intellectual and emotional freedom means nothing if it's reserved for the powerful or the 'swinish rich'. Hence Jeremy Deller's Venice Biennale painting:

It's called 'We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold' as was inspired by Roman Abramovich mooring his mega-yacht in the middle of Venice, obscuring the views adored by Morris's hero Ruskin, without a thought for others. So here's WM, hurling Eclipse (the world's second largest yacht: two helicopter pads, two swimming pools etc.) out of the way. Morris really does seem to be having a moment.

I'd give up if I wasn't an optimist. I just wish there was a political party I could vote for that feels the same way. Suggestions on a postcard?

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Homeopathic education from 'alternative providers'.

Are you a student at an 'alternative provider'? You could be forgiven if you're not sure - the terminology is deliberately obscure (and pedagogically suspect). 'Alternative providers' are usually private corporations which happen to be in the education business, teaching mostly HNDs awarded by the giant vampire squid that is Pearson Education, though a small number are non-profit set-ups.

Like 'alternative medicine', 'alternative providers' of education (I hate the idea that we 'provide' education like a workhouse overseer ladling out porridge to waifs) appear not to work. Andrew McGettigan's explosive article in the Times Higher Education Supplement points out that a shockingly low number of students at one particular institution submit work or attain the qualification, despite being funded as full-timers for two years and having five years in which to complete the course. Recruitment material strongly promotes the state funding available to students recruited from the EU, while the quality assurance bodies have little or no access to retention and progression statistics.

The USA has long had a system of private provision of higher and further education, and a shorter but notorious history of provision by for-profit organisations. Most notorious of all is Phoenix, which started off as a decent enough degree-completion outfit, but later became the biggest 'university' in the US when it listed on the stock exchange, with half a million students at any one time. The problem was that only 40% of those students left with a degree: the rest stayed, on average, enrolled for four months. Phoenix is only the worst and most prominent example of these vulture colleges.

Why do they exist? Simply as a means to channel taxpayers' money away from the state and established non-profit HE institutions towards corporate America: it's an ideological move. The free-marketeers are convinced that for-profit organisations are efficient and competitive. Perhaps they are, if the bottom line is all you care about, which I don't think should be the case with education. Every penny of shareholder dividend and executive pay (and Phoenix's profit margins, despite massive student drop-out rates, were around 27% while 18% of the budget was spent on teaching) is removed from research budgets, equipment provision, student support and so on. Economies are made be removing the essential bits of the university experience: being taught by highly-qualified educators at the cutting edges of their fields. Instead, you increase class sizes, cut contact hours, teach from a website or textbook, and dump complicated subjects. Business English ahoy! This also means – pleasingly for a government and indeed political establishment across parties that doesn't recognise non-market thought as valid – that critical thinking will be very much off the menu. Forever.

The quieter motive of course is to lance what right-wingers see as the liberal boil: universities (as Mr Gove's assault on university teacher-education demonstrates) are thought to be hotbeds of opposition to the onward march of market progress.

The providers of for-profit education are, however, not free-marketeers. Like Serco, G4S and co., they pose as competitive capitalists, while making all their money from the state. The UK recently followed the US in providing state monies to private education providers. In the US, companies like Phoenix simply sucked on this cash pipe and forgot to even pretend that they existed for educational purposes. The cash didn't follow on attainment, just enrolment, so there was no incentive to ensure only students with potential for completion were enrolled, nor to ensure they stayed on the courses and gained their qualifications.

As one Phoenix student puts it, the organisation is
"kind of like a car dealership. They want to get you in the door," and "want you to have success with the car. They want it to go well for you. But if it doesn't, they've already been paid."

Instead, turnover became key: far more was spent on recruitment and marketing than on academic support. The shareholders aren't interested in attainment or whether their students should be taking on debt to pay for uncompleted or dubious qualifications, just as McDonald's shareholders couldn't care less about their customers' cholesterol levels as long as they keep ordering more.

The same happened in the UK. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of private providers sprang up once the Tories and their Lib Dem colleagues authorised state funding. They employed agents across the EU and in the UK to recruit students, many of whom rarely if ever darkened the classroom door or troubled to submit work. The colleges were happy – they've been paid – and so were the students, who acquired a chunk of cash they had little intention of repaying either. So much cash disappeared for so little educational return that even this government had to suspend a swathe of these dodgy organisations, but the push is still very much on, and some very ill-advised universities and FE colleges have even supported this venture for no reason I can see. At least some of us traditional institutions still have a pang of conscience when Admissions recruit students whom we know aren't up to it: for the private providers, such people are the ideal customer. I'd love to see one or two of them invoke the Sale of Goods act and other consumer protection legislation, seeing as they've been turned into consumers.

This is one of the most cynical and scandalous stories of recent times, but it's also invisible (the banks and the DWP tend to dominate the few investigations into financial corruption, but we should be furious about it. For political reasons, a government decided that our money could be handed out to fly-by-night shysters to exploit vulnerable students and reward fake ones. I mention banks because they're a prime equivalent. Blinded by ideology, the government believed that the free market leads to 'best practice'. The banks stole from us, from each other and from the government via mis-selling, manipulation and crime (that's you, HSBC). They couldn't help it: that's what capitalism is. It's not about level playing fields and honour. Companies spot advantages and take them. The private providers of education were offered free money without regulation or responsibility, and they took it. That money was taken from funding for reputable universities and FE colleges with a history and reputation for fairness and student support. Higher Education funding is being reduced, and increasing chunks of it are being reserved for these vampire colleges. Massive debts have been loaded on to taxpayers and good educators have been weakened, all because a government blinded by theory (and their personal shareholdings) abandoned students and embraced rip-off merchants. They aren't educators. They're tax miners who happen to be doing a little educating along the way (to flog the 'alternative' point to death, they're taking our money to provide homeopathic levels of education).

There's an election in May. Just saying.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Why let facts get in the way of a good campaign, Paul?

Over on my local MP's Twitter feed, you can see him boasting about the frankly astonishing uplift in employment in the constituency.

I think we can all agree that roughly 800 people a year either getting jobs or falling off the unemployment register (which is what really matters to politicians) is an amazing result. And I'm sure some of them won't be doing part-time, zero-hours or self-employed work for tiny sums at all. No, it's a stupendous figure. Statues should be erected to Mr Uppal for his sterling work in saving these people's lives.

But what's this? There are naysayers abroad, people who doubt Paul's claims about the economic revival! Just look at them!

What's wrong with these people? Can't they see the economic miracle? The greatest resurrection since the big one? What on earth could have prompted this mean-spirited attack on Mr Uppal's efforts?

Ah. I think I get it. When Paul proclaims the Employment Miracle, it's because he's hoping we thank the Conservative government. When his own local Conservative Party attacks the Unemployment Disaster, it's because there's a Labour council which should get the blame. So let's be clear: there's a Conservative Employment Success Story and a Labour Jobs Fail…using the same statistics. 

Isn't politics wonderful?

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Grab yourself a whore and settle in

I'm getting increasingly bored by the glut of super-hero films: the studios are now run by men in their late 40s trying to recreate the witty glee of 1978s Superman and its ilk, unhampered by reflection on the fact that their feelings about such films is coloured by seeing them when they were boys. The nostalgia is accompanied by cold hard commercial concerns: they conceive of the audience as a later generation of teen boys and find it nigh on impossible to make films for adults, women, teenage girls (other than vilely patronising rom-coms).

The latest bit of boy-man rubbish is that some extra, once caught, will be fined $5 million (affect a Dr Evil tone for that bit) for leaking the top-secret hush-hush news that the new Batman movie will have a FEMALE Robin.


I just think it's embarrassing that in this day and age, it's considered a major transgressive, progressive move to make a familiar and relatively unimportant character female. It suggests that the studio chiefs, directors, producers and scriptwriters still think of women as The Other, and assume that their audience does the same. Of course it's possible that the female Robin has been cast so that homophobes behind the camera and in the stalls can't giggle about the homosocial bond between these two men. Far better that Batman has a female junior: 'normal' gender roles return!

She-Robin will become a symbol rather than a character: every time we point out that female superheroes are always sexualised in ways the men aren't, their defenders will whine that they 'let' us have a female Robin (and hope that we don't notice the inevitable marginalisation and gendered nature of said representation). Commissioning 'erotic artist' Milo Minara for Spider-woman is just the latest example of a tawdry, sleazy tradition:

The obvious rejoinder to this is to say that it's better than nothing. As a Doctor Who fan, I was disappointed by the latest selection of yet another white male Doctor, however excellent I think Capaldi is. It's about time such roles were taken by women without any fuss being made about it whatsoever. I'd like the next director to say 'we auditioned x number of people and she was the best fit', rather than – as the Batman people evidently have in mind – using the moment as a big shock.

A friend tells me that Robin's been female in the comics for some time – I wonder whether the same arguments popped up when that happened. Films are different, of course: the history of comic book adaptations is of massively widened audiences consuming watered-down versions of characters held dear by 'real' fans: The Kick-Ass films, for instance, skipped the gang-rape of KA's girlfriend, thankfully.

We seem to be at a particularly low point in gender representation. The whole Gamergate thing reminded me of a particularly good undergraduate dissertation one of my former students wrote. A keen gamer, she simply recorded and analysed the comments, conversations and behaviours of fellow players when she played as a supposed male and as a female. So the vile poison of Gamergate was no surprise: I've read all the rape threats and torture propositions before – my student was a tough cookie but I still worried about the cumulative effect of this stuff. Gamergate, in case you have a life, started off as a nasty personal spat between games developer Zoe Quinn and her ex-partner, who posted some petty and apparently untrue accusations on his blog relating to her professionalism and morality. Before long, certain corners of the internet spawned regiments of male gamers pouring out misogynistic bile and claiming that the real problem is journalists' failure to 'understand' the ethos of online gaming, which they feel should be a space removed from 'real life' politics and social movements. To them, games are goal-oriented quests with pretty basic requirements: killing, and scantily-clad women to provide sexual services or be killed. And perhaps some magic rings thrown in. This, they feel is 'normal'. Anything else is 'political' or (perhaps even worse) 'art'. Ugh. To recap: games which privilege white males slaughtering Vietnamese/Native Americans/Orcs/aliens etc., and reducing women to sidekicks, prostitutes or slaves isn't political, while mentioning this is political, and engaged in by SJWs, or 'social justice warriors'. No wonder Charlie Brooker is driven to despair:
Never, ever choose “woman” on your first playthrough of The Internet, because you’ll face an immediate difficulty spike. Suddenly it’s a stealth game with nowhere to hide, one with hundreds of respawning enemies waiting to attack you the moment you make a noise or stand out in any way whatsoever.
I SAID DIE U FUCKN WHORE says the game, accompanied by an animated gif of your head on a porn star’s body.
You decide to see what you’re carrying, by typing INVENTORY.
You try something else. You type GO NORTH.
The game thinks for a while, then distributes your home address and phone number and threatens to murder you and your entire family.

They particularly hate independent games authors who don't provide said slaughter'n'slags action. Some of them are even WOMEN. Which just proves to them that women aren't gamers and have no sense of humour. Apparently.

Take this well-spoken chap who has recorded a 20 minute walk-through of Dragon Age in which he matter-of-factly goes looking through the brothel, in which he meets a woman who describes her time as a prostitute as 'fun times' (around 3.45).

This is also the game Anita Sarkeesian points out contains the injunction to

Having made that point, Sarkeesian has had to cancel several lectures because she's received death threats, and left her home. Quinn wrote a game about suffering from depression: this is apparently 'too dark' for gaming (despite the multiple games in which you can play an SS officer for instance), and like Sarkeesian these critics have made their points through the medium – again – of death threats. As she explains,
"the Internet spent the last month spreading my personal information around, sending me threats, hacking anyone suspected of being friends with me, calling my dad and telling him I'm a whore, sending nude photos of me to colleagues, and basically giving me the 'burn the witch' treatment"
Amusingly, said threats come from people who say that online content and other media activity have 'no effect on real life'. I don't like this false distinction, and it seems that someone who'll simultaneously say 'it's just a game' while sending assassination threats doesn't really believe it either.

Does it matter, given that these keyboard warriors are a small band of men? It does, because they're vocal, they drown out debate far beyond their numbers. They've hijacked the terms of the discussion and they've moved from issues to identity. To them, it's not enough to disagree with other people's opinions - they issue personal threats or stay silent when others do the same. They've achieved the silencing of women and their male allies, and even ended careers. Depressingly, there's the inevitable hashtag for these anti-political warriors: #NotYourShield, which claims that accusation of misogyny are used as a weapon to evade the 'real' core of the argument: journalistic ethics when writing about games. The bigots even funded a supposedly feminist group to design a fantasy character called Vivian James – the result is an embarrassing tamed girl-woman whom the loons are now depicting as an innocent victim of these ball-breaking commie man-haters:

It reminds me of break time at school, when the girls mooched around the edges of the playground while the boys took up the space to play football, and this was accepted as natural.

BY this point, you're probably as bored and depressed as I am. The difference is, I'm going to have to teach this stuff, in media ethics classes, to male and female gamers. I'll say one thing for cultural studies: there's never any shortage of new material for discussion. I think I'll stop now – I'm pretty certain the #NotYourShield people will have enough death threats lying around to spare one for little ol' me.

PS. I'm such a politically-correct pinko liberal that I stopped playing games when I realised Civilisation II was rigged so that you couldn't win by running a peaceful, socialist economy.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Apocalypse No

Amongst the many literary sub-genres I keep an eye on with a view to one day doing some work is the dystopian novel, particularly the Young Adult variety. There are so many – I've tagged 120 of my works with 'dystopia', 56 with 'dystopian' and 33 with 'apocalypse' on Librarything (though there's some overlaps). The types of dystopia presented move with the cultural and political times: obviously nuclear war figured prominently between the 50s and the late 80s. Various shades of authoritarianism are similarly present in Cold War-era fictions, while environmental collapse starts to appear in the 60s and really gets going in the late 70s. Climate change becomes the most common theme in adolescents' fiction in the 90s. There are also some oddities: I own a copy of the graphic novel Apocalypse Meow, which depicts the Vietnam War as fought by Viet Cong cats and American rabbits. Tim Lebbon's Bar None parodies John Wyndham's post-holocaust tales as a quest narrative between Welsh pubs, while Dick Morland's Albion, Albion draws on 80s fears to present a Britain descending into fascism as a response to football hooliganism.

Thank heavens football has become the expensive preserve of the middle classes with better manners.

The YA dystopian genre might change the nature of its disaster, but the structures don't much change. Children, we're wearingly told, are the future. Adults are compromised, cynical, defeatist or plain evil. They've let terrible things happen or deliberately caused them. The young are the innocent victims and only they have the moral purpose and intellectual clarity to save civilisation (or at least to try).

There's also something interesting going on around the origins of this morality. Heroes from Harry Potter to Katniss Everdeen are Kantians: only in the most sophisticated versions do they experience philosophical ambiguity or confusion. For the most part, they just know what is the right thing to do (the most horrific of these smug know-it-alls are of course Peter, Susan, Lucy and eventually Edmund  in C. S. Lewis's Narnia tales: that train crash couldn't come soon enough for me), and this is what makes these particular individuals heroes/chosen ones or whatever. Adults, it seems, are Benthamites or consequentialists: those who aren't simply enemies of Justice are rendered passive by their failure to act boldly. The kids, however, are uncompromised by calculation: their morality is pure and instinctive, though we rarely find out where it comes from. My assumption is that this is simply authors pandering to readers just discovering philosophical and ideological principles. Certainly this is how it worked for me: I inhaled this kind of stuff as a teenager, which is how I ended up joining Militant and marching for a multitude of causes. Certain issues seemed (and to some extent still seem) obvious: inequality, environmental degradation, nuclear weapons and so on.

Whether my reading led me to sharp-edged politics or politics led me to this kind of fiction, I couldn't say, but I'm still a member of CND, I'm a union activist and a supporter of various kinds of radical causes. No doubt if I'd been around in the 1640s I'd have been a hardline Royalist, a Roundhead or a Digger, at least until the serious billhook work hoved into view…

But recently, I've become rather suspicious of developments in dystopian fiction. Partly it's me, partly it's them. Me first. Quite simply, exposure to more and more sophisticated theory, plus living a more compromised life, means that the hard edges and simply solutions proposed by dystopian fiction – particularly the YA kind – no longer suffice. It's like the move from Marxism to Gramscian socialism, and thence to Foucault. Marx thought the oppressed masses would grasp the obvious nature of their situation. Gramsci explored the reasons why they didn't (hence the notions of cultural and political hegemony) and Foucault identified the distributed, discursive and internalised aspects of power and oppression as a lived experience. From this perspective, the Kantian purity of the dystopian hero looks evasive.

Which leads me to the second point: it's the books that changed too. Recently I read a very interesting dystopian novel, Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, one of the recent flood (sorry) of disease dystopias (very fitting as the papers get hysterical over Ebola). Not long ago I read Peter Heller's The Dog Stars and before that, James Kunstler's World Made By Hand series. They're starting to worry me. Mandel's novel is far more sophisticated than the others: it follows a rag-tag travelling orchestra between tiny settlements of survivors around the former US/Canada border, detailing the protagonists' fractured memories of the past and how it impacts on their current conditions. Heller and Kunstler's novels are about individuals and small communities getting on with life post-technology.

Two things are really starting to bother me about this kind of text. Firstly, they seem to imply a certain satisfaction with the extermination of the vast majority of the population. Having cleared the planet of most of us, resourceful and intelligent individuals can get on with living a simpler life: it's like a mix of Walden, Wagon Train and The Good Life served on a bed of billions of bodies with added self-congratulations. There's little examination of the politics, sociology or technological which led to disaster: instead there's a dramatisation of good/intelligent survivors triumphing (or not) over bad ones. This critique isn't a new idea, of course: Brian Aldiss wrote about the 'cosy catastrophe' in his 1973 history of SF Billion Year Spree. In them, he said, middle-class people had rather a jolly time once the initial horror passes, after which they rebuild a society in their own image - try John Wyndham's work for examples, although I should point out that I'm a fan of Wyndham and think there are tougher moments. The excellent author Jo Walton wrote a very good piece on cosy catastrophes and their readers (link is to her summary: original article has vanished) in which she
argued that the cosy catastrophe was overwhelmingly written by middle-class British people who had lived through the upheavals and new settlement during and after World War II, and who found the radical idea that the working classes were people hard to deal with, and wished they would all just go away.
More contemporary texts have gone for the cosy catastrophe much more enthusiastically. Wyndham's generation had lived through World War Two, fighting, liberating concentration camps, having their cities blitzed, coped with rationing or seen pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: they didn't need much in the way of imaginary leaps to conceptualise the apocalypse, and can perhaps be forgiven for a degree of comfort. No such excuse applies to contemporary texts like The World Ends in Hickory Hollow in which good ol' Texas values carry on regardless, or Heller's The Dog Stars which actively seems to promote the apocalypse as a way of making space for hunting-shooting-fishing types to lead a more 'natural' life unencumbered by the mores of 'civilisation': that the protagonist spends a lot of time in his aeroplane looking down on the world and other people implies a certain contempt for the (slaughtered, unfit) masses which I've seen in a lot of aviation and mountaineering books from the 20s and 30s. People, these books seem to say, are largely scum and deserve what they get if they lack the skills and mental resources to survive. Walton points out too that while 50s readers (many of whom wouldn't be SF readers) wanted the poor to go away if they weren't going to settle for gainful employment as maids and footmen any more, the cosy catastrophe has made a home in Young Adult novels because 'teenagers do want all the grown-ups to go away'.

This isn't just an SF trope of course: pretty much every children's novel starts by removing parents to allow the adventures to start, whether it's adoption, going to stay with relatives for a holiday, orphans or disaster. Aunts and uncles may be good or bad, but they're about as close as you want your relatives – parents just impose authority and spoil all the fun. Famous Five, Swallows

While Station Eleven focuses on culture and World Made By Hand promotes hand crafts and small communities, I can't help feeling that they're little removed from the gun fetishism of The Survivalist and similar texts, despite their very different tones.

However, what struck me about Station Eleven and the other books I've read recently is that they're the products of decadence. Surely only a society that luxuriates in its impregnability and superiority can afford to fantasise about having it all taken away? These books are virtually all by, about and read by Western white people: I really doubt that Syrians and Yemenis are consuming dystopian novels in the midst of their troubles. The power of these texts is in the fantasy of stripped-down, individualist society in which a hero's innate strengths are revealed, having been crushed under the oppression of civil society pre-Disaster (I suspect this is what fuels rightwing politics in our societies too, hence all the opposition to 'political correctness' etc.).

Obviously nobody wants to read novels about protagonists doing good works by getting elected to the parish council or sitting on committees (except for me: I love George Eliot and Trollope), but however elegiac some of these dystopian novels can be, there's an implied rejection of ambiguity, complexity, communitarianism and empathy at their heart. This genre ignores the real struggles of our own lives and denies the tougher ones of the vast majority of the world's population. It normalises abundance and luxury, then lets us test our resilience by fantasising about living just like most of the world's people already do, but in the safety of our warm homes and safe communities. I once thought that the readership was people genuinely worried about oncoming disaster - now I think it's made up of people who either rather smugly look forward to it, or those who think it will never happen to them, because we're on top of the heap. A World Made By Hand is – like many dystopian texts – a way of criticising the way we live now by proving that stripping society down to small-town values, religion and self-reliance by force of necessity demonstrates our own moral and political failures, yet much is ignored: racial and sexual prejudice, the need for dissent and diversity and much else besides. I can live with the decadence frivolity of the Apocalypse, but the sheer conservatism of the genre is what's now turning me away from it.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

What passes for normal around here

As befits the start of a new academic year, the past couple of weeks have been full of highs and lows. Management have taken decisions so breathtakingly stupid that I've felt like wandering round to their secure location, necking a couple of spinach cans and POWING them through some walls.

The Lego Academics wanted a quiet word with whoever makes the decisions around here

Thankfully I have a boss with a good line in soothing humour. He recommends that we all play this satirical gem on repeat, while taking deep breaths. It might be stuck in your head for a while though…

And yet, the highs have outweighed the lows. Now I've met the students in both my departments (one subject cannot contain my powers, puny mortals) and it looks like a second year of engaged, knowledgeable people in a row. For no reason I can discern, cohorts have collective identities, despite individuals of course coming to the fore. This lot, like the last, are talkative and ready to go. I intend to keep up this conviction until the first essays come in…

"We have marked your first essays"

I've also had some really good news personally. My application for a couple of hundred hours of teaching exemption to get on the Readership track has been approved, so I'm thrilled about that. Sad too: I love all the classes I teach, and will miss those I have to drop next semester and the one after that. Still, I'll get some decent research done and come back bursting with new ideas. In theory.

The other bit of good news is that a PhD I proposed with colleagues has attracted funding, so I'll hopefully have a minion eager next-generation scholar in a year or so. If you're interested in media ethics, watch this space!

We're attempting to detect the Mail's conscience. You have three years. 

Finally, a friend has located the first episode of Scotch on the Rocks, the BBC's early-70s adaptation of Douglas Hurd's terrible Tartan Terrorism novel. It's too large to post here, but I'll try to find some way to edit it so I can share the horror. 

Friday, 3 October 2014

Rights - but only for your friends

My last post was titled 'Democracy - but only for your enemies', and discussed the curious fashion amongst politicians of bombing vile countries with which they'd fallen out while supplying weapons to equally and identically vile countries whose views aligned with their own. In particular, we bomb Syria both for being oppressive and for hosting rebels with a penchant for beheading people. Meanwhile, we arm and bribe Saudia Arabia's rulers, despite their oppressive government and penchant for beheading people.

Today's rather weary lesson comes from closer to home. I've heard senior government ministers take to the airwaves and say some very scary things. Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, said that 'people get frustrated by human rights'. The Prime Minister said on Channel 4 News that the government needs to develop a mechanism for people who 'currently on just on the right side of not endorsing violence…we shouldn't give freedom to these sort of groups…who are really inciting people'

Now call me a boring old democratic stick-in-the-mud, but from all my history lessons, I remember being told that the glory of the British legal system was that freedom was enshrined in law (in theory, naturally). If something wasn't specifically illegal, it was permitted. I'm no lawyer, but I was under the impression that if you stayed – as the politicians accept – on the 'right side of the law', then you're a law-abiding individual free to go about your business unhindered. Yes, the security services might spy on you and so on, but you can't be silenced just because you're an idiot. We make laws by electing MPs and putting party donors in the House of Lords so that there's a degree of discussion about what we collectively consider OK, and what isn't acceptable. If there's doubt, you get your day in court and a judge or jury decides, rather than some party hack.

But now the Conservative Party (with the connivance of a Labour Party which has abandoned all commitment to civil rights because UKIP is coming) has decided that there's a special category of people who are both law-abiding but also deserve silencing and repressing.

These upstanding members of society have earned human rights

These people don't. I mean, just look at them

I suppose it's part of the 80s revival: back then Sinn Féin members couldn't be heard on the airwaves despite being a legal political party, while Ian Paisley's extremists were perfectly welcome. The media responded rather satirically:

Personally I'd have pushed the satire and employed a Margaret Thatcher mimic to voice Gerry's words. So here we are again. We've decided that some politicians can decide amongst themselves (largely for electoral purposes) who we can and can't hear without regard for thought-through law. The just want to ban people like the rather disgusting Anjem Choudhary, recently arrested after saying this:
“The war being waged by the US/UK & co is a war against Islam & Muslims,” he wrote. “The Islamic State could not wish for a better rallying call for Muslims worldwide to join them than for the USA to start bombing again.”
The first phrase is, I think, erroneous: while the US and UK are apparently addicted to waging war on Muslims, I don't think it's because they are Muslims, and anyway, the ISIS conflict is between competing interpretations of Islam to some extent. The second clause of Choudhary's sentence seems to be sound common sense to me, rather than incitement. It's not hard to find ISIS propagandists – including  Choudhary – framing the Western powers' actions as anti-Islamic. But I don't think this is incitement. I'm very, very scared that the rule of law is being subverted by a political culture which sees freedom as a brand rather than as a practice, as a prize for people who behave, as something reserved for those who know when to shut up. Without the certainty of law, the limits to free speech become arbitrary and unfathomable: the start of the lynch mob. I always thought we elected people to make laws and constituted juries to decide whether they'd been broken. Apparently no longer.

Surely freedom is only present when it's tested? The freedom to conform is no freedom at all. The freedom to offend and dispute is in a sense the only kind of freedom there is, and sacrificing it so that a party can win an election is terrifying. Ranting Muslim militants today, the heirs of Scargill tomorrow, civil liberties campaigners the day after? Here's how Alan Moor put it in his graphic novel V for Vendetta all the way back in 1982.

Worse than that, our elected leaders have decided that 'human rights' should actually become 'some humans' rights'. 'People', said Nicky Morgan, 'are frustrated'. Which people? Well, Conservatives, New Labour and UKIP voters are frustrated that other people have rights. Those other people being brown, poor, unemployed or without the rightward-shifting political 'mainstream'. Morgan herself voted against extending equal marriage rights to homosexuals, for instance, which didn't stop the Prime Minister making her the Minister for Equalities.

The Minister for Justice announces that 'rights', like democracy, are something to drop on other countries. He's going to join Belarus in the list of European Countries Outside the European Convention on Human Rights (written by a UK Conservative Government) while saying that
the Conservative Party will always defend "real human rights" in countries like North Korea.
What this means, of course, is that the Conservative Party doesn't believe in 'rights' at all. Rights are universally applicable. The point of having rights legally enshrined and tested in a law court is that it protects us from demagogic politicians announcing that the Enemy of the Week doesn't deserve freedom of speech, movement or the right to life. We test our principles by applying them to the very worst people. Choudhary is a hateful figure, but surely we demonstrate the strength of liberal values by respecting his right to free speech and arguing with him? Silencing him proves – as it did in the case of Gerry Adams – that we don't really believe in freedom at all.

What will happen when the UK withdraws from the ECHR? Here's what the Minister for Justice says:
The UK armed forces would cease to be subject to human rights legislation overseas, and Labour’s 1998 Human Rights Act would be scrapped to be replaced by a “British bill of rights and responsibilities”, the policy document states.
We also have to be much clearer about when human rights laws should be used, and that rights have to be balanced with responsibilities. People in this country are fed up with human rights being used as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour.
That's right: any foreigner who gets himself shot, blown up, kidnapped, handed over to oppressive regimes we currently support, tortured or murdered by UK forces will just have to suck it up because hey, 'stuff happens'. Back home, it's clear that rights will no longer apply just because you're human. You'll get rights if you behave yourself, of fulfil some vague 'responsibilities' nobody asked you about. What's 'unacceptable'? Who knows? Why are rights suddenly dependent on Britishness?

David Cameron has said the court risks becoming a glorified "small claims court" buried under a mountain of "trivial" claims , and suggested Britain could withdraw from the convention to "keep our country safe"
I always thought a country's duty was to keep the people safe, not the other way round. Countries don't have rights, they have armies and treaties. People have – or apparently had – rights. What the hell is a 'trivial' right? The answer, of course, is obvious: it's really an 'inconvenient' one, similar to the air pollution laws Boris Johnson ignores in London.

Because Tory and UKIP voters think that Britons (white, upper-class, Mail-reading) are under attack by Abroad (incorporating poor, gay, lefty, black, feminist, honorary foreigners who were mistakenly born here).

Think I'm joking? This is what happens to judges who disagree with the Mail:

Just look at her. She went to a posh private school and betrayed her class by going to a polytechnic, and her sex by remaining unmarried, childless and developing mild female tendencies. 

Now imagine what kind of treatment gets handed out to people from less privileged backgrounds who are even more extreme than a woman who declines to call herself Miss. 

I'm going to write to my (Tory) MP and ask him which human rights he particularly objects to. I suggest you do the same. Beyond that, we can do nothing, because he, and several other MPs in marginal constituencies, have potential UKIP voters to placate. Who cares about treating our fellow humans with the dignity and justice we'd expect when there's an election to win?

And by the way: the whole plan is legal bollocks, to use the technical term. The Tories know this: they're just engaged in a political stunt. 

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Democracy, but only for your enemies

I'm watching the British media coverage of the Hong Kong democracy protests with some fascination. I'm supportive of the protesters: China is in no way a socialist or communist state, merely an autocracy or kleptocracy which has retained the branding of communism. Any decent communist should be fervently wishing for a complete collapse of the now satirically-titled 'People's Republic'.

So that's the cause dealt with: three cheers for Occupy Central and its allies. But cursed with a little historical knowledge, I view the UK's political and media support for Occupy with a jaundiced eye. The British took Hong Kong by force in 1841 in reprisal for the Chinese forcing British drug dealers to destroy their stock (opium, in this case). They then negotiated additions to the territory at various points, with a lease that expired in 1997.

So that's 156 years without a single election for the premier, and elections to vague and useless 'advisory councils' only started in 1984, after the return of HK to Chinese rule was negotiated. It's hard not to see this late and tokenistic democratic gesture as little more than a satirical gesture designed to establish some tiny distinction between the 'free' West and 'tyrannical' China. For 156 years, decisions about Hong Kong were made 6000 miles away in London and executed by a man dressed like this:

I think this extends to the UK media coverage of Hong Kong's protests. I haven't seen a single word about the colony's political history: the silent implication is that denying HK democracy is typical Chinese or Communist behaviour. The British like to pose as democrats to the fingertips, but they've always preferred to drop it on their enemies rather than extend it to their subjects or (in postcolonial times) business partners. Yes, Saudi Arabia, I'm looking at you. When Tony Blair announced that Britain had to invade Iraq for 'democracy', I congratulated my New Labour MP and asked when the invasion of Saudi Arabia would begin. His reply was a rather huffy 'that's different'. Of course it is: Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a vile dictatorship of terror, while Saudia Arabia is a vile terroristic dictatorship which buys a lot more weapons, beheads a lot more people and makes women's lives a living hell.

I guess I'm still a political adolescent, caring about principle over realpolitik. But back to Hong Kong: let's all support the protestors not because we enjoy annoying China but because democracy is a good thing per se, while examining our own national consciences a little more closely. I can't help thinking that if the democracy protests had occurred under British rule, we'd have had a lot of furrowed-brow commentators interviewing bank CEOs worried about 'stability' and the economy, just as we have with the Scottish independence referendum.

Here, for example, is a staged ambush performed for the Pathé cameras by the British Army in Ireland, 1920 (sorry I can't embed it) and here's another in which those debonair Black and Tans keep proper British order in a devastated Ireland wrecked by rebels. Meanwhile the same arguments against Scottish Independence were being raised against Irish Home Rule in the Irish Times:
…today’s Irish Times… claimed that the cold reality of the mistake that was Home Rome was now beginning to dawn on nationalists as they looked at the detail of what was proposed.
The paper said that ‘fantastic assurances can no longer deceive intelligent nationalists. They are beginning to realize the hideous barrenness of the Promised Land.’ The paper concluded: ‘They begin to perceive that the Bill for which they have sacrificed so much spells national bankruptcy for Ireland - increased taxation, the starvation of all schemes of material improvement and social reform.'
'The Irish Parliament must find the money for all these things, and will be powerless to find it.’

There's always a framework within which the media operate - you just have to look for it. So don't expect support for the HK democracy movement to last beyond what's politically expedient. States and parties don't work like that - but we can.

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.