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.

O.M.F.G.

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.
OPEN MAILBOX.
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 HAVE: A LAMP, A ROPE, A FAT ASS AND SAGGY TITS, chuckles the game.
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.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Och Aye? Scottish independence in politicians' novels

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


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

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

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

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

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

Is Scotch on the Rocks any good? Er…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 12 September 2014

Elvis 1, Kate Bush 0?

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

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


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





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



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

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



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

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

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

[Nurse! The screens! Ed.]

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









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

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

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

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

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

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

[Yes. Yes it has been]. 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Scotland the Brave?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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