Monday, 29 July 2013

Au revoir, mes enfants

I'm off on my holidays. Camera, big pile of books and some clean undercrackers. No phone, no email, no Twitter, no Web. Just rain and the written word. I'm taking a pile of Patrick Hamilton, Martin Green's Bright Young Things history Children of the Sun and about 6 novels whose names I forget now. Add to that the Guardian every day and the Irish Times and it's going to be a good couple of weeks. And perhaps the occasional swim in the Atlantic and a trip to the Skelligs. In fact, have another picture.

In the meantime, this is what a proper holiday looks like… thankfully in days gone by.

Enjoy your break (from me). I'll be back in a couple of weeks to do my bit in the Clearing call centre ('Computer says yes'). All that's left is to leave an 'out of office' message. The Dean sent us a 45-line essay which struck me as being patronising and humourless. Let's see if I can't do better:
Dear correspondent,
                                I am away from the office. It doesn't happen often but Mr Gove is also on holiday so it might just be safe to leave Higher Education unattended for a couple of weeks.
     Leg-traps are positioned around the printer, so don't even think about nicking the paper. My books are in order and I'll know if you've touched them.
     I'll respond to interesting email when I get back in two weeks' time. If you don't get a reply, try again, and be more interesting. Remember: importance and interest aren't the same thing.
                                                                Plashing Vole.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Pay As You Go: for corporations

I've been reading over the last couple of years about massive global corporations playing the system to avoid paying any tax. Vodafone, for instance, hasn't paid any corporation tax despite making profits of billions. Apple, by dodging between jurisdictions with differing taxation principles, has built up $188 billion in its subsidiaries' offshore bank accounts, untouched. The list goes on and on and on.

Why should they pay tax? Because tax makes their profits possible. Taxes empty their bins. Taxes educate their workforces in schools and universities. Taxes pave the roads on which their products and executives travel. Taxes fund the research which makes innovation profitable. Taxes keep their private jets from hitting other tax avoiders' private jets. Taxes keep the lights on, the water running and the sewage drained. Taxes heal their sick and investigate shoplifting. Taxes pay for the courts they repeatedly run to when they think their copyrights have been infringed. Taxes pay to prosecute the illegal downloaders and taxes protect their patents. Taxes make up the gap between what these companies pay their poorest workers and what they need to live on (the biggest, sickest subsidy of all).

Apple, Google, Tesco, Amazon, Vodafone, the banks and a whole range of organisations need us – but they don't want to pay their share. They are stealing from us, building huge profits not from innovation or efficiency, but from ducking out of the agreement we all make to be part of a civilised society.

It's time to hit back. Cut off the water. Block their sewers. Stop the police from answering the phone when they call. Wipe Vodafone HQ off the ambulance service database. Block off their access roads. Withdraw their executives' passports. Cut off the power. When CEOs fly in, tell Air Traffic Control to close the airspace until a very large sum of money arrives in the state's bank account.

Seal off Canary Wharf and similar enclaves of capitalism, and see what happens without all the things we pay for and they sponge off. Don't let them withdraw from their social duties while continuing to enjoy the privileges of membership of developed societies. If they want to exist in a no-tax, no obligation polity, invite them to move their HQs to Somalia.

And then we start sending in bills. Work out how much each employee cost to educate and add it to local and property taxes that they can't avoid through transfer pricing and Double Irish manoeuvres. Bill them in A+E. Coin-operated courts, police cars and ambulances – or simply refuse to come out. Let the bins pile up outside Vodafone's offices unless they pay cash. If they decide to move their businesses offshore, we tax the imports until we think they've paid back what they owe. Most of them claim to be doing their business elsewhere anyway, like Google's London sales team which 'books' the actual sales in Ireland.

The principle comes from a passage in Lewis Jones's 1937 novel Cwmardy, in which one sell-out miner refuses to join the union. He loads up his truck, down in the blackness, and it starts to slip down the incline. Desperate, he begs them to help before it rolls down over him. Grimly, they refuse: he's refused to share their load and in return they teach him a lesson in collective struggle. Eventually, they relent when he promises to join the union, suitably chastened.

What they did to one class traitor, we can do to any number of free-loading, thieving corporations. Vodafone has started 'rounding up' pay-as-you-go bills to squeeze even more money out of their customers. Fine: let's do the same to them. Pay As You Go services until they give in and cough up.

(This is, of course, pure fantasy. While the government talks big about corporate tax, the truth is that they're actually making it easier to avoid tax. They're cutting corporate tax rates to 20% and George Osborne has made it easier for companies to hide their money offshore. Of course he has: they're his friends. He'd rather they paid a few millions to his party than many millions to the state).

Thursday, 25 July 2013

From the highest of horses: a sermon to a plagiarist.

I got an email this morning from a student who failed her first assignment and partially plagiarised the re-sit. Because I'm in a preachy mood, I sent her a long, personal and emotional email about the value of education and in particular, of doing an English literature degree.

Obviously now I'm cringing at the thought of it being passed round for the cynical amusement of my students, but there's always the possibility of my words striking a chord. Embarrassing as it is, here's what I said to her, lightly edited to avoid identification.

I really want you to think about why you're here. Nobody's making you take a degree, and we operate under the assumption that you're enthusiastic about studying literature, even if individual texts aren't your favourites. If you see modules as obstacles to get over (or around), then trying to cheat or take shortcuts makes perfect sense, but we will catch you. We don't want you to treat your time here like that. We want to help you widen your intellectual horizons, to enjoy the process of learning more and thinking more. Cheating doesn't help with any of this. It might get you a degree certificate if you evade detection, but you won't come out of it educated. We aren't your judges: you should be your own judge. Ask yourself these questions:
  • Am I here for the right reasons?
  • Have I fulfilled my own potential?
  • Am I thinking about study in the right way? 
  • Are reading and writing changing me? 
At the risk of being extremely boring, let me tell you about my first degree. I got to university (not this one) on the Clearing system. I'd done well at English but never felt I was particularly good at anything and assumed everyone else was better than me. But I was lucky in one regard: all I ever wanted to do was read and think about books. Before long, I decided that to get anything out of my time at university, I had to talk about books too, in lectures and seminars and tutorials: a horrible thing for someone naturally very quiet. But enthusiasm and determination got me through: a good degree, an MA, a PhD and finally a job in academia. 
But all these things are far less important than one fact. Doing an English degree changed me in every way possible. I read more. I thought about what I'd read in lots of different ways. That meant that in a sense I knew less – because the things I assumed were totally true were revealed to be contingent on context and background. Finding new ways to think about poems and plays and novels soon meant that I had new ways to think about people, ideas, politics, belief, love, hate, sex, death, the past and the future, communities, and everything in the world about me. The world was revealed to be a much more interesting place: more difficult, sometimes terrible, always hard to understand and always changing, but definitely more interesting.  
Perhaps this sounds ridiculous to you, and on the screen maybe it is. But I know one thing for sure: if I'd copied and pasted from the web on an essay, I'd still be the idiot I was when I started my degree. So what I'm saying is: it's OK to find a lot of it difficult. It's OK to struggle, it's OK to absolutely hate some of the texts we ask you to read. It's OK to find it hard to balance academic work with all the other things in your life. We understand all that and we can help. But it's not OK to treat your time here – an opportunity to transform yourself into someone even more wonderful than you might already be – as a game with a prize at the end. Forget the degree certificate: that's just a piece of paper. It's what happens to you in-between that really matters. Give yourself a chance to be changed and amazing things will happen. I know: it happened to me, and that's why I'm in this job.  
I know this sounds really preachy and heavy-handed: you just caught me on a day when all these things are on my mind. But I and all my colleagues really want you and all the others on the course to grasp the opportunity. The worst thing for me is sitting on stage at Graduation Day and not recognising some of the people who are collecting their degrees, because they've never made an impression on us, or seeing students who could have done really well but chose not to make the effort. Don't be one of those people. You've failed this module, but you have every chance of fulfilling your potential. 
You just have to want to. 
Wonder what the Employability and Retention units will make of that? They're probably tying a noose as we speak…

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Women: Know Your Limits

Do you ever shop in Marks and Spencer? I'm ashamed to say that I do: for hats and salted capers. In my defence, all supermarkets are evil, and M+S is the one closest to Vole Towers. That, and the fact that there are no independent shops in the city. Not for clothes, wine, cheese, bread or any of life's necessities, even hats. It's such an awful place that even Stoke-on-Trent is better served: that city even has a massive independent book shop that towers over Waterstone's.

However, M+S makes some effort in the environmental and sustainability spheres, even if it is run by a bunch of uber-Tory toffs. Every time I go past the newspaper stand there I shudder: Daily Mails flying off the shelves because the core customers are basically reactionary bourgeois racists in floaty linen.

But it's not just the customers: the company's reactionary tendencies can be glimpsed in their products too: here's a desk planner I spotted there recently, left over from Father's Day. Apologies for the picture quality: snapped in a hurry on my phone with no time to rearrange lighting and composition.

That's right. Only men have desks, and only women are secretaries. And those women are pretty-headed forgetful flibbertigibbets who impeded the Important Work done by the men.

And it's even worse: this is a Father's Day gift. So the idea is that a child buys this for his or her father, reinforcing patriarchy and sexism for both of them. Imagine being a girl child choosing this – perhaps at her mother's suggestion. Way to be initiated into misogynistic culture! Abandon your aspirations right here! It's bad for the boy too, learning that only his father should have a desk and a life which requires planning and organisation.

Now I know what some of you will be thinking. It's just a joke. It's post-modern retro irony and you feminists have no sense of humour. Relax! Chill! And it's true that I personally have very little sense of humour. I don't even find Drop Dead Fred funny, which I gather is a male classic. But this product is more than a joke. Several million pounds were invested in it. Designers came up with the idea, manufacturers were contracted, Chinese slaves beaten in the rush to meet deadlines, marketing and advertising slogans concocted. Look at the beautiful typeface: talented people got together to make this thing happen, and not one of them saw it as problematic.

I'm sure Marks and Spencer will employ the words 'ironic' and 'humorous' if challenged. They'll point to the 'retro' trend: Mad Men, aristocratic and cruel Tory governments, Kath Kidston, The Hour, Barbour jackets and claim that they're just having a laugh. In a sense, they're right: we are living through a particularly reactionary period and the 'retro' trend is a cultural reflection of that because it allows us to return to the bad old days by selectively reproducing the signs of the past without bothering with their signifieds. Mad Men and The Hour are sort-of excused: the sophisticated texts don't simply invite us to revel in the misogyny and racism that pervaded their period, but that's sure as hell not how some sections of the audience receive them. Style and fashion are naturally guilty: the rush for 'looks' requires that troubling signifieds are airbrushed out: Kidston, or the cup-cake craze hark back to a world in which women were assumed to be domestic servants and decorative objects, while blithely implying that their status as ironic consumer objects excuses their semiotic import.

But this nasty little M+S product takes us beyond the lazy denial of some products. These people sat down and decided to add explicit misogyny to a decent bit of retro design, knowing that it would increase sales. In short, M+S know that a proportion of their customers are sexist pigs who think women are stupid: and some of these customers are self-hating women.

There are worse and more blatant examples of misogyny around, I know. There are more pressing concerns. But this one caught my eye, and I think it's important because M+S has a particular standing in British middle-class culture. It's emblematically British, and this product implies that there was a high point of Britishness: about 1952. Since then, it's all been downhill. Women: Know Your Limits (at least Harry Enfield and Chums were being satirical).

Right, now I've got that off my chest, I'm off hospital visiting. Toodle-pip.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Random opinions

You're probably expecting a pithy, contrarian comment on the Royal Baby from me.

Nothing doing. I have so little interest in the affairs of the hereditary rulers that I can't even be bothered to work up any outrage. It all reminds me of Diana's death. There I was, momentarily saddened by the death of a complete stranger who couldn't be bothered to use her seat belt, surrounded by ordinarily calm and reasonable people openly crying and lamenting the loss of someone they only every knew through the distorting lens of the media. I prefer to save me grief and joy for those I know, and for those less privileged. I'm a little embarrassed that the country has (at least according to the media) regressed to the 13th century simply because someone has managed to give birth.

So moving swiftly on. Other momentous events are afoot. I was all poised to collect my shiny new bike, but the day-long thunderstorms have reduced my enthusiasm… maybe tomorrow. I also got a cheque for £100 today - all for expressing my slightly unhinged opinions of R S Thomas's poetry in the latest edition of Poetry Wales. I don't know if anyone's told them, but the New Media age involves people writing for free while the outlet coins it in. Just look at the Huffington PostPW is a small, beautiful literary periodical, not a globe-bestriding news maw, so it probably has an excuse not to pay its contributors, particularly as we academics are used to publishing for free (and in science, paying to be published). So hats off to Poetry Wales: old-school and lovely.

I was going to give you the gist of Paul Uppal's latest letter. After he voted against a carbon cap on the grounds that it wouldn't, er, cap carbon, I asked him to comment on the news that the UK's carbon emissions have gone up. Needless to say, his letter entirely fails to mention this. If I can face it, you can have it tomorrow, and I'm going to send him an even simpler letter, and one after that ad infinitum until I extract a single true, relevant and non-evasive sentence from him. Or until he's sacked at the next election, whichever comes soonest.

Finally, some bossy and exasperated advice to some students.

I'm sorry you're disappointed with your grade. I'm sorry you feel you've been treated unfairly and I'd like to talk to you about why this might be the case. Simply handing in an essay or a re-sit essay doesn't entitle you to a passing grade. Nor does putting in a lot of effort. Lord Lucan put in a lot of effort to bludgeon Sandra Rivett to death, but nobody thinks he should be given credit for it. It's what you've written that matters. But please don't throw accusations around until you've collected your work and read the comments. Don't tell me that your friends think it's a good piece of work: I've taken four degrees to qualify me to decide that (similarly, don't ask friends when work is due in: look at the module guide we give to every one of you). I still get things wrong and that's why two of us look at your work. We want you to pass, but it would be dishonest and a disservice to you to pass any work you hand in just because you think it deserves a pass. Essays aren't judgements on you as a person: there a means by which we assess how far you've got. We aren't out to get you, but we do ask that you pay attention to what's required and assume our good faith.

Rant over.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Warnings from history: one in an occasional series

Robert McCrum is a very important man these days, in media circles at least. No, make that 'in liberal bourgeois media circles', which isn't quite the same thing. He's an associate editor of the Observer, former editor-in-chief of Faber and Faber, and a big cheese in literary reviewing. A taste-maker for the chattering classes, of whom I am decidedly one (except for the income, London pad, Tuscan villa and Cotswolds bolt-hole).

But Mr McCrum is also a novelist, and in 1980 he published In The Secret State, and hailed by Auberon Waugh no less as 'A major talent in the world of thrillers'. Lots of literary types think they have a thriller in them: Jonathan Freedland writes tosh as Sam Bourne, JK Rowling was recently outed as apparently rather good thriller-author Robert Galbraith, and Mark Lawson has written several accomplished novels. Perhaps McCrum thought that all journalists should be capable of churning out a novel. Or perhaps he has a political axe to grind which can only be fully explored in fiction: I came across In The Secret State while looking for novels by politicians.

Certainly In The Secret State is a deeply political novel. Its central protagonists are Frank Strange and James Quitman (most of the characters have unsubtly suggestive names): Strange is the unfairly-deposed head of a British intelligence division, and Quitman is his diffident junior torn between loyalty to Strange and the department when they come into conflict. It's all very sub-le Carré: strange could be a lazy first draft of a Smiley novel. The characterisation is limited and the scene-setting (unavoidably, I suppose) dated: the love interest is 'doing well' in PR. We know this because she drives a company Ford Cortina in 'shiny red'. Secretaries are conniving little sex-pots, and computer operations have to be described to us in considerable detail.

And yet it's not a bad novel, despite structural and literary flaws. The main interest is the background, which is late-70s Britain's perceived decline. Bombs are going off, the deep state is turning fascist and treasonous, the body politic has turned septic as suspicion and selfishness fester. McCrum, like le Carré, rejects simplistic Reds-under-the-Bed stuff, preferring to examine the consequences of a security apparatus which decides for itself what constitutes the national interest, and what means are acceptable for preferred ends. In a sense, it's a very British version of an essentially American genre: the oppressive government (Europeans tend to fear corporations more than their governments).
What's really interesting about McCrum's novel is its interest in information processing and harvesting. Some passages could be plonked into a modern spy novel without much editing at all:
'I'm getting frightened by the state we all live in now… Census records, school records, health records, social security records, political records: I don't think most people realise how much personal information is collected by the department… The power we have over people, that's what's frightening, Frank'.
     'Don't you believe in the safeguards?'
     'I wish I could. But the security forces we serve are beyond Parliament… There's no accountability worth speaking of. … Take our data-gathering programme. There's no stopping it. Each scrap of data leads to another piece of data. It gathers momentum of its own accord'.
And later on:
'I'm not just talking about simple census facts, age, sex and so on, but also political behaviour, personal spending patterns, travel, in fact almost a day-by-day, characteristic-by-characteristic record of movements, affiliations and behaviour of all listed individuals… every time we have one of those "emergencies" more and more civil liberties get curtailed without a single protest, freedoms that were won by generations of agitation. I mean the enlargement of police powers… the corruption of the jury system in state trials, and the illicit surveillance of so-called subversives. That's what happens in the secret state'. 
The only unconvincing aspect of this last speech is, sadly, that it's delivered by a left-wing Labour MP determined to stand up for civil liberties: one of the most depressing things of the last 30 years is Labour's mutation into a disgustingly authoritarian party in thrall to the security services of government and the private sector.

Apart from that, everything McCrum writes has become true. He writes of the police infiltrating pressure groups and inciting them to commit atrocities:
'This is an old Nazi trick. It justifies the emergency measures the department is taking these days, and, as it were, proves the claims made…about the threat to our society'
In our own time, policemen adopted dead babies' names to infiltrate and even lead the activities of law-abiding pressure groups, fathering children to further the trick and committing perjury. All without oversight. They decided who were the subversives (people campaigning for better fast food, and the parents of a murdered black boy), without anyone to deny them. They decided what constituted subversion and normality, a deeply political act, and played hardball opposition, knowing that nobody would every contradict them. Elsewhere, Prism and Tempora collect and analyse every phone call, tweet, text-message and Facebook update. Secret trials, under the name 'closed material procedures' replace open jury trials when the state has something of which to be ashamed.

The only trick McCrum missed was the intervention of the private sector. The bad guys in his novel have been using state assets to trade with terrorists, arms dealers etc for money.
'Information is a sort of currency like anything else, it just happens that Preece has had free access to rather a lot of it. Preece has supplied trading banks, large companies and multinationals with confidential data. He has sold personal information about prominent people without their knowledge. He has also worked as an agent for other private data-accumulating organizations which, as you know, are not restrained by law'.
The more the crisis of British society grows, the greater will be the temptation to enlarge the programme. The problem is that Hayter is not an elected politician, but a bureaucrat whose powers and behaviour are accountable to no one…
The British state hasn't changed in this regard. The deep, unelected state tames ministers. Defenders of civil liberties during election campaigns (as Labour, the Lib Dems and even the Conservatives have been in recent memory) become enthralled by the mystery and horror presented them by the civil service, or by the apocalyptic visions of a US whose demands can never be refused. And besides, what politician or spy is ever going to refuse more information?

What has changed is that we don't need Preece any longer. The customers are the same as in 1980, but we've become our own agents, whoring ourselves round the corporations without a single thought for the ramifications. . The private sector has built a far greater surveillance system than any government every could. Rather than trawl through our activity, they facilitate it. We hand over every single detail of our lives, from where we are, who we're talking to, what are our deepest fantasies, how we vote, whom we shag and everything else: without a moment's thought. And they in turn hand it over to governments and to private corporations to make sure we remain obedient little consumers. I have no doubt at all that any of you could work out my name, email address and work address in moments, given the clues scattered carelessly about this blog.

Porn-again government

Amazingly, the Prime Minister and his government want to ban access to internet pornography.

Yes, the politician who is best friends with Murdoch, The Sun and a range of unsavoury characters associated with that newspaper, most famous for a) accusing Liverpool fans of urinating on their comrades' dead bodies and b) running a daily picture of a young lady with her secondary sexual characteristics on display.

Clearly he's decided, à la Marshall McLuhan, that the medium is the message. Paper-porn: fine. Screen-porn: evil. And maybe there's something in this: printed material is easier to regulate and it's probably harder to acquire the vilest stuff if you have to run the gauntlet of a shopkeeper rather than simply lock yourself in the bathroom with an iPad.

You can see the attractions. Nobody wins votes by declaring that porn's fine, help yourself, relax. Not with the Daily Mail about, anyway. Let's not get into a discussion of whether the Daily Mail's constant diet of pictures of underage girls in bikinis is paedophilic (it is). That would just muddy the waters. Every government wants to be seen to oppose Filth. The more Filth you claim is out there, the more Filth you can claim to have cleared up in the face of Anonymous Offshore ISPs who Don't Care About Your Kiddies. The more Filth you clear up, the more votes you get.

This time, the Prime Minister has hit on a wheeze.

Previous governments have persuaded ISPs to instal filters which 'parents' (apparently the only citizens worth giving a flying one about) have to opt into to block pornography. They like it that way: no providers want to make their customers answer the question 'are you a filthy pervert?'. Filthy perverts make up a large proportion of the customer base and you don't want to alienate them. Especially if the filth they're downloading is perfectly legal. There are laws against downloading certain kinds of porn. And there are laws against ISPs making them available. Those intent on circulating or consuming illegal pornography are, I suspect, beyond Googling for their particular interest and won't be affected at all by the proposed tweak. There is an internet out there beyond Google and Facebook, you know. So what we have here is a crackdown against people who have tastes you and I (possibly) don't share.

So the Prime Minister's solution is to make open access the default, while allowing filters to be installed. This is called 'active choice'.

The Prime Minister's wheeze is both genius, and cynical. He's written to the ISP's demanding action. Sorry, not action but rebranding.
"Without changing what you will be offering (ie active-choice +), the prime minister would like to be able to refer to your solutions [as] 'default-on'"
I'll type that again in case you didn't get it:
"Without changing what you will be offering (ie active-choice +), the prime minister would like to be able to refer to your solutions [as] 'default-on'"
That's right. He's suggesting that the ISPs connive with him in a cynical attempt to garner approving Daily Mail headlines by actively misleading their customers, rather than actually do anything.

Sigh. We've been here before. Every three months or so, some Tory MP demands that all citizens be blinded by red-hot pokers to prevent them from seeing Filth. I have no doubt that the Pharoahs campaigned against Sick Perverted Hieroglyphics ('er, look, that one's having sex with someone he isn't related to') and under-the-counter papyri. I'm also reminded of one fact I took away from a class I attended on pornography: that it took a mere 7 years from the invention of photography before a man was arrested for trading mucky pictures featuring a lady with a Shetland pony. I'm not sure that adds to the debate but it's a mental image that you'll find difficult to shake off.

I think my main point is that moral panics always attend new technological developments. After a while, things settle down, but the intervening period is ripe for political exploitation. What's interesting about Cameron is the sheer cynicism of trying to make political capital while simply doing nothing. He clearly doesn't really care about the issue he's manufactured: it's just a stunt.

Filters don't work. Any child with two brain cells to rub together will be able to get round one. Any child with one brain cell will be able to Google for instructions about how to get round filters. These supposed technical fixes are a massive evasion of the real challenge. You don't put an electric fence round the tiger enclosure so that potential trespassers learn they'll get a mild shock if they cross the barrier. You make it clear that if you go into the tiger enclosure, you'll get eaten. A couple of years ago, I heard some Sir Bufton Tufton backbench Tory MP demand that the government protect his children from Internet Pornography. I was suprised to hear an instinctive small-state libertarian demanding state intervention: these are of course the people who don't want to outlaw smoking around children etc. etc.

So I wrote to him with a suggestion: instead of demanding that the state mandates some useless technical fix (the electric fence), how about he engage in some parenting? Actually educate his kids about what pornography is, what its social effects might be, and what healthy sexuality involves (and yes, for some people this might include some use of pornography). Then he could monitor his kids' internet use, or simply keep the computer in the drawing room rather than have one in every bedroom.

Obviously he didn't reply.

Every society generates pornography, and then argues about what constitutes porn. I can't help recalling that Jilly Cooper's Rivals breathlessly follows the sexual adventures of Caitlin O'Hara, culminating in her defloration a full week after she reaches the age of consent. That certainly makes me more uncomfortable than the idea that people are looking at pictures of consenting adults. The same goes for the Mail's obsession with the bodies of celebrities' children, encapsulated in the revolting phrase 'all grown up'. I'm not keen on pornography. I find it reductive, exploitative and often boring - though amongst my 4000+ books there are plenty are or would have been considered pornographic by previous generations. I don't necessarily oppose the production of texts or images that give people a sexual thrill: I just oppose the conditions of their production and the sexual politics of most pornography. And they're mostly rubbish. Then again, my experience with such stuff is rather limited. A few tatty magazines passed around in school; foreign Channel 4 films in the days when it wasn't wall-to-wall exploitation of the sick and poor; some novels recommended with nods and winks and that's about it. I don't have the internet at home (I know, I'm such a luddite) and my office colleagues would probably prefer that I didn't explore the web's sexier corners while I'm at work. Besides, I've enough novels left unread without adding to the pile.

My views are encapsulated by Pulp's creepy, exhausted, claustrophobic 'This Is Hardcore', the song that called time on the Carry-On lad culture of Britpop (sorry about the ads: I wish a government scheme would filter them out):

It would take a brighter person than either me or the Prime Minister to work out where the border is between the erotic and the pornographic. The difference between us is that I'm not chasing headlines, and I believe that most people, given the right education, are capable of sensibly differentiating between harmful and harmless use of erotic materials. Nor do I believe that governments should use moral pressure to end the use of material of which they don't approve but are too cowardly to ban. You can't legislate for culture – but you can encourage a more grown-up approach. The problem the Prime Minister has is that he's in denial. He's torn between the hypocritical conservatism of the Mail and its readers who hark back to a (non-existent) period of innocence and the conservatism of his free-market friends who will always find profit in the human body and the sexual act.

The Media Blog has helpfully pointed out how the Mail is reporting Cameron's announcement:

It's easy for me: as an anti-capitalist, I can say that capitalism will always exploit sexuality, will always reduce the body to the labour it produces. Without capitalism, perhaps a healthier sexuality will be possible, or at least a less exploitative and misogynistic pornography industry. Plenty of hard-left and libertarian thinkers believe that once exploitative capitalism and repressive hegemony are removed from the picture, we'll live in a poly-sexual paradise in which all sexual practices are demystified and equally fulfilling and respectable.  I'm not entirely convinced: plenty of sexual Utopiae (look at the 60s communes) lead to vicious harm.

He can't address the relationship between capitalism and pornography because his solution to everything from the NHS to nuclear weapons is that the market is good. To be consistent, he has to accept that individuals have the right to sell their labour – even sexually – for corporate profit. I simply don't accept this premise. Cameron's solution is sheer cant: avoiding his responsibility as a legislator and proposing deception to the market rather than taking a concrete position. The worst of both worlds.

When the 'debate' is reduced to cynical politicians reacting to the demands of cynical newspapers, all nuance is deliberately lost. That's why the Labour Party's response is 'OK, but that's not repressive enough'. I really wish they'd said 'stop mucking around with moral panics and improve school and parental sex education'.

As I said, we teach a module here which includes a session on pornography. It takes a cultural and historical approach and invites students (fully prepared and invited to opt-in) to discuss the shifting boundaries of taboo. We discuss the social contexts of forbidden texts, and explore the boundaries of what's acceptable in public discourse. There's a really simple reason for this: millions of people consume pornography. More than read Jane Austen, I suspect.* We need to talk about what people actually do rather than what they should do. Governments making it more difficult to access this stuff doesn't stop people wanting to access it. It's like I said to the Tory MP: fiddling with the technical stuff is an evasion of his public and private duty. It's much more mature to clearly delineate what's legal, then make sure adults and children understand the nature of pornography and its use within a civilised framework. Porn isn't going to go away. Fetishising it with technological obstacles isn't going to make it less attractive to some people: it's going to be more attractive. Whereas an education system which contextualises it might make porn less exciting.

But then we might have to examine the Mail's Sidebar of Shame, or Mr Murdoch's Page 3. And we can't have that.

And while we're at it, what's more pornographic than the world's media training its cameras and notebooks expectantly on a young woman's vagina waiting for the birth of another benefits-dependent child of workshy parents royal baby?

*For those of you who enjoy both Jane Austen and pornography, I can recommend Arielle Eckstut's Pride and Promiscuity: the Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen (as endorsed by the Jane Austen Society of America) and Szereto's Jane Austen: Hidden Lusts, both of which have considerably more respect for Austen's prose than P. D. James's execrable Death Comes To Pemberley

Friday, 19 July 2013

On your bike…

Good stuff and bad stuff today. The good stuff is that I've signed up for a bike under the tax-free Cycle to Work scheme, which means I'll pay half-price for a bike, with the cost spread over 12 months, deducted from my gross salary. If your employer does it, get one. If they don't, make them sign up! My bike arrives on Monday.

So in addition to my rare design-classic 'heritage' bike (the lovely customised but only 4-speed 1967 Moulton F-Frame), I'm going to be riding this little beauty: a Forme Longcliffe 4.0, built in Derbyshire.

Carbon forks, mostly decent components (though I can see myself upgrading the chainset and a few other things in the fullness of time) and a comfortable ride position. I looked at a few bigger names: Giant, Specialized, Trek etc., but I really appreciate the culture of small-scale bike-building you get in the UK, so the Forme really appeals. If my £5 of Premium Bonds ever does the business (38 years later, I've won precisely nothing), I'll buy a Moulton New Series Double Pylon Stainless – a snip at a mere £16,500)

but the Forme will do me very nicely until then.

But that's the fun part of the day over. I'm taking the day off to visit my friend and boss, Paul, who had a massive stroke several weeks ago and is still in a very bad way in hospital. I gather that he probably won't even know we're there, but it's important to visit whether he knows about it or not. The thought of someone so relentlessly intellectual and fizzing with ideas being reduced to a husk is horrifying (not that it would be any better for anyone else) but there's always hope. Since it happened, lots of people have been swapping stories of amazing recoveries and the body is a mysterious thing. I've added swimming and cycling to my fencing over the past few years because mortality is creeping up on me and I have no intention of spending my few remaining years wheezing on the stairs or shopping in specialist Fat Bastard emporia. I'll never be wiry or lean (or tall, or good-looking, or talented) but I reckon pain now will reduce pain later.

So enjoy your weekend. I intend to do precisely nothing. Marking's finished, I did enough ironing yesterday to stave off the guilt, and I have piles of books beckoning. That, and the Tour de France. After yesterday's cheating, I hope Froome and the rest of the Sky team crack spectacularly. It's the least they deserve.

My only other desire for the weekend is to avoid blanket Royal Baby coverage. My MP recently signed up to the 40 Ideas Tory manifesto, which blames society's ills on teenage mothers having babies to get state housing. I can't help thinking that this child is precisely one of these unfortunates. Its father is the latest of a family which has depended on state handouts and accommodation for generations. Its mother – despite benefiting from a state-subsidised university education – has joined the scam by bearing a royal child, and is now on easy street for the rest of her life. Sure, she may develop RSI from cutting too many ribbons, but the next generation's benefit dependency is assured.

I suspect I'll have to impose a news blackout for the next few weeks. It's going to be unbearable. I spotted a BBC story the other day: 'Queen wants baby to arrive' before she goes on holiday (from what?). For Christ's sake. If she didn't want it to be born, that would be news ('One's nose is proper out of joint. Nobody will be talking about one for months. Who's Queen?'). This is the level of commentary we're going to have to endure incessantly for ages.

Anyway, time to go. See you on Monday.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

A day in the life…

Another sticky, but only partly frustrating day. Lots and lots of marking, plus toweringly angry emails from students who tell me that their grades are 'wrong' and 'unfair', despite not collecting their work to find out why the grades have been awarded. I've done my best to explain that we can only mark the work, not the effort that's gone into it, and that doing a re-sit doesn't guarantee a better grade. Being kind, I didn't employ the first analogy that came to mind: that Hitler worked hard to establish the Third Reich but that didn't mean he deserved praise. (The less offensive version of this analogy is to point at Channel 4's output).

I've also tried to work out how to extraordinarily render a student to the United States as quickly as possible. (He wants to go, just didn't get round to it early enough and now it's a bit difficult). Having despatched him to High Chaparral U or wherever, I'm still hopeful of getting an exchange semester for me with the University of the Faroe Islands, or perhaps Greenland U. Anywhere cold and Scandinavian, basically.

I did have a very enjoyable morning though. One of my MA students came in for a tutorial. I'm getting a bit twitchy about time running out, but she's writing some really interesting things about country houses in late-1920s/early-30s middlebrow and popular novels: Waugh, Green, Wodehouse, Christie and various others. We talked about readers, women, characterisation, why mothers are almost entirely absent and a host of very interesting things. It's always good to talk about ideas and books to motivated students (a big cheer here too for those dissertation students I've already talked to ahead of their final academic year), but I particularly enjoyed today because her interests are close to mine. We don't work on the same material, but her stuff is close enough for me simply to enjoy and learn from what she's doing.

So despite the pitiless scorching heat and the sheer misery of marking, I'm feeling rather serene. Amazing what a bit of an old chat will do. That, and sneakily following both the Ashes and the Tour de France on the Guardian's minute-by-minute coverage. The regular habitués are like old friends, and the discussions are often more interesting than the regular commentary, where available - and perhaps more exciting than the action in places. The idea of watching a TV feed with Boycott, Gower or any of those pompous buffoons droning on now seems unbearable compared with the wit generated by one hack watching a TV in the newspaper office and the other learned, enthusiastic readers. If the dreaded New Media kills off the cult of Fat Matey Former Players Complacently Talking Bollocks In The Studio For Massive Cheques (as I gather the format is known), it can't come too soon for me.

OK, here's a little treat for you: the funny, erudite and humane Stewart Lee talking to students about 'Not Writing'. And lots of other things.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

I'm melting…

It's far too hot to slave over a hot keyboard to bring you much in the way of blogging delights today. And anyway, my temper rather overheated while writing yesterday's review of the Tories' 40 Ideas manifesto. It makes my blood boil even to think about it. Mind you, it doesn't take much in this weather. I evolved to trudge through Irish bogs carrying freshly-cut turf, in the rain, wearing thick tweeds, not endure the relentless searing heat.

Instead, I've been marking re-sit essays (another blood-boiling activity) and going for lunch to mark my friend and colleague Emma's birthday. Despite this town looking like the remains of a bombed out post-Victorian theme park, the art gallery is rather fine and boasts an excellent café. Those of my colleagues who don't queue outside the pub for breakfast are to be found lurking amidst the Edwardian Municipal oils. Or at the moment, admiring the Pauline Boty exhibition. A rising star of the Pop movement in Britain, her death at 28 in 1966 led to her eclipse and obscurity. A shame really: the exhibition neatly demonstrates her rise from derivative student to experimental, talented and independent-minded artist. Lots of her work is lost, but what remains is enough to persuade me that she'd have become really great.

Here are a couple of her paintings, both on display in the exhibition:

It's A Man's World II

My Colouring Book
And now I'm off fencing again, still bruised and aching from the weekend's exertions. Too hot… Tomorrow it's more re-sit marking and a meeting with an MA student who is (hopefully) writing a fascinating dissertation on the changing nature of country houses in interwar detective literature and comic novels.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The dumbest guys in the room want a word with you

In case you've missed the obscure rustlings in the Tory undergrowth, there's a new and only fitfully literate manifesto out from the Forty Group. These are the forty Tories in the most marginal seats - the mediocrities not expected to win last time and destined for a watery grave in 2015 barring the government giving us all everlasting-life pills and flying cars between now and then.

It's a fascinating read. It's the product of people who appear to have been imprisoned in the basement of a think-tank since the Suez Crisis. Everything has passed them by: racial equality, the EU, the crashes of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, sexual liberation and equality, the end of Empire: the lot. It's like the company directors of Barnes' satirical England, England, or the near-future Tory government of McEwan's A Child In Time: fuelled by paranoia and sexual damage. All you need to heal the country is to hand it over to Big Business and sterilise the poor and the young. You think I'm joking? Read on…

Needless to say, my egregious, poisonous, dishonest and vacuous MP Mr Paul Uppal is one of the conspirators, never having met a short-sighted, reactionary and revanchist idea he hasn't liked. Not that he contributed any of the ideas, of course: his grey matter is too busy inventing evidence for Parliamentary speeches. One of life's sidekicks, our Uppal. He's the Richard Hammond to the government's Clarkson: he enjoys the cruelty but doesn't have the imagination or wit to do anything more than cheer it on.

So let's have a look at these intellectual adventurers' solutions to the country's ills:

1. “Excessive regulation is the biggest brake on our business
This sets the tone for the entire document. The innocuous tone of this assertion belies a total absence of fact (who says? one-third of Chambers of Commerce survey respondents: not exactly clinching), and in particular ignores the biggest credit crunch and recession since the Weimar Republic, which I would consider a greater drag on business than 'excessive regulation'. This is simply imported American small-state ideology unconvincingly dressed up as fact. Surely nobody could object to 'excessive' regulation? But what do they mean by 'excessive' and 'regulation'? Easy: they're free-market ideologues (in theory: Uppal wants tax breaks for commercial landlords like, er, him). To them, all 'regulation' is excessive. And what they mean by 'regulation' is things like pollution restrictions, the minimum wage, unfair dismissal protection, the right to organise, to be protected from sexual or racial harassment, to a working life that takes into account family needs. It also – explicitly in this manifesto – means exempting small companies from contributing to employees' pensions. The result? Either they starve or the costs are passed on to the state.

What these people want is the capitalist dystopia of Back to the Future II before Marty goes back and saves the day from Biff Tannen. The problem with the Forty Group is that given a choice between Democracy and the Triumph of the Market, they plump for the market every time – because they've benefited from both markets and (though they'd deny it) democracy and the state. The experiences of those they're meant to represent are far less important than the Hayek and Pinochet they cream over in private. The Market is what needs appeasing: not the humans for whom (they forget) politics serves.

Big idea No 2 is 'more female entrepreneurs'. And celebrating the ones we have. Not exactly a policy, and again, it leaves unquestioned the notion of entrepreneurship, which is far less economically important than the discourse around it suggests. All 60 million of us can't be entrepreneurs, nor can all 30 million women. The glaring absence of any actual ideas suggests that 'women' as a concept are fairly alien to the authors and not at all a priority.

Moving on to number 3, we discover that discredited, dystopian, Ballardian notion of handing over Town Centres to private businesses, neatly ensuring that Consumers (we're no longer citizens) aren't impeded by unproductive drones: people taking the air, holding protests, chatting or otherwise subverting the Business of Business. The dreaded Portas is invoked in the course of a plea to turn over our towns to cars and shopkeepers: physically and legally. It's a bleak vision but a profitable one for someone who'd directly profit from this policy.

The next bit wounds me deeply:
“Universities offer a perfect environment for fledging businesses.”
Actually, universities offer a perfect environment for critiquing and comprehending the status quo, including capitalism. The problem is that these guys are spiritually poor: like Gradgrind, they can't see further than the balance sheet (and certainly don't want to address capitalism's manifest failures: another advantage of ignoring recent history).

The plot here is to make universities become profit centres, mini-industrial estates, the butlers of businesses, entirely subservient to the (often short-sighted) demands of businesses, which would – surprise – get another tax break. In case you've forgotten, universities are about new ideas and not simply reinforcing the prejudices of the hegemony (which is why Mr Gove hates us so much).

No. 5 proposes encouraging more people to start their own business. Hard to object, though it's marginal at best: most people work in, and want to work in, stable established businesses. The meat of the idea, if we're being kind, is to suffuse schooling and higher education with capitalist propaganda: this isn't policy, it's a naked attempt to turn Britons into a nation of alienated privateers, a programme already advanced by the wholesale abandonment of secondary education to the tender mercies of the very shady businessmen currently 'sponsoring' academies. The result will be a country of obedient conformists in a nation safe for exploiters, polluters and rent-seekers.  

The same is true of the next section: elevating 'workplace skills' rather than merely 'intellectual skills'. Presumably this will include Advanced Loyalty, Total Submission and Shutting Up. Then we're back to free-market capitalists' demands for more taxpayers' money. The State is evil, unless it's bankrolling these Tories' friends:

A state-backed Enterprise Bank could be a permanent solution to the lending gap and would lend to any company
The next section continues the theme: it namechecks Germany's industrial success without mentioning the employee-union-owner structure. Instead, industrial success depends (brace yourself) on handing over the State to business:
More must be done to address politicians’ knowledge gap of industry through better cooperation and collaboration with industry itself. This means having those who have served in the sector taking more prominent roles in the relevant departments of BIS and the Treasury and more policies that actively promote manufacturing. 

This is a tacit admittance that these politicians are anti-politics. They don't negotiate the competing requirements of the people: they just want to hand the state over to their mates. They also don't want to address economic matters. To them, manufacturing is held back by whinging lefties, not macro-economic factors. Once we 'free' children to stitch footballs, we'll all get rich. And once we unblock those outflow pipes:
Policies that are aimed at tackling climate change have their heart in the right place but are stifling industry.
They also want us to fly everywhere too.

The global trade section is particularly backward looking, to the League of Empire Loyalists. Instead of trading with those perfidious Europeans, the UK should demand that those disloyal Commonwealth johnnies should show some gratitude and shovel their dinero Britain's way. You know Godwin's Law? That the first person to mention the Nazis in pursuit of an argument, has lost. Voila:
World War Two demonstrated the extent to which we need countries like Australia and New Zealand to overcome obstacles and challenges, and in present times the Commonwealth could provide the key to our part in the global economic recovery… Traditional links should be at the forefront of any anti-trade barrier argument and there is nothing wrong with playing on old sympathies
And then we get to another nasty little surprise: the 'logistics friendly' government, i.e. one which encourages more and bigger lorries onto the road while ignoring mass transit such as rail. Less a policy, more a present for their mates. But this is just a warmup for the real nastiness: energy policy. Dig, drill, burn and rape with no regard for environmentalism – particularly fracking. The Big Idea is in fact Deny and Defer.

This gas should be used to replace coal and oil in our power stations, producing a reduction in our carbon emissions on an order of magnitude greater than anything achieved to date by wind or solar.
This is offensively dishonest: shale gas is a fossil fuel. It's better than coal, but there's no way on earth it'll be used as a temporary stopgap on the way to a carbon-free future. It's just a greedy, selfish fuck-you to our descendants. The only think climate change is good for is making money: the unspoken assumption is that it's all a big hoax:
let the market take its course. The plethora of artificial incentives, such as feed in tariffs and renewables obligations, should be phased out…
Though they are deeply interested in geothermal energy, which I had no idea was or could be a major player in UK generation. Presumably one of their donors has some hot water going cold without subsidy.
But we need to give projects like this greater government support.
To help geothermal companies attract private investment we need to create the right financial incentives using the Strike Price and the Renewable Heat Incentive. At the moment less technologically proven and cost effective renewable energy technologies receive larger incentives. 
But now we're getting close to these guys' hearts. Having spent an awful lot of our imaginary money subsidising their mates' businesses, they address tax. And guess what? They're not keen. The magic word here is 'simplification', by which they mean 'less tax for corporations and the rich'. But they don't say so. Embarrassingly, the policy doesn't have a single word to say about income tax, corporation tax, artificial vehicles, off-shoring, evasion or avoidance. Instead, they propose that public servants' tax returns be made public. And that's it.

But when we turn to property, we're reminded strongly that this is the manifesto of the 1%. The pressing issue is apparently too much taxation on property sales. Not the massive gap between salaries and property prices. Instead, they want to reinstate the Property Madness which condemned most of to mouldy flats and the extortion practiced by landlords like Uppal.

The housing market is in need of a tax neutral nudge in the right direction to make it more buoyant and fair. 

Ah yes, the 'nudge theory'. Who needs to bother the populus's pretty little heads with ideas? And what to we onlookers get as a reward for tolerating gimcrack developments thrown up willy-nilly?
Maybe a playground for local children, maybe the renovation of the Parish Hall. The sums will be minor
Even the most naked attacks on our collective decisions are dressed spuriously in the language of liberation. Everything our local authorities do, it's assumed, is repressive and incompetent. We busy people are to be freed… but only to choose a different corporate interest:
the localism act introduced a ‘community right to challenge’ clause which gives community and voluntary groups a ‘right’ to challenge a local authority for the services they provide.
The clause is limited in that it merely provides for a local authority to trigger a procurement process which may mean that the challenging group is not successful in being commissioned to provide the service.
There is a need to create much more diversity of provision at the local level which harnesses the expertise, skill and knowledge of a the community and voluntary sector. 
Yes, it's illiterate, but you have to look at the discourse as well as the typing. Elected local government = Stalinist Monster. 'Diversity of provision' sounds lovely.

Local groups should also be encouraged and similarly incentivised to challenge as consortia which would enable a consortia of local groups the ability to challenge for a range of services. For example a consortia of local groups currently providing youth services outside of that which is provided by the local authority could come together to put in a joint bid for the whole of a local authorities youth provision. Local authorities should actively encourage and facilitate these local consortia.
It took me a while to get the hang of this illiterate garbage, but I think what they're really saying is this:
We all like diversity. But really it means public services sold off to offshore, tax-evading, profit-increasing, service-reducing, unaccountable, wage-lowering exploiters.
Only they think these are positive terms.

You can have a small prize if you can explain this sentence:
we need to write the independence of local government into our unwritten constitutional arrangements.

Apparently Local Government is going to be freed from the Tyranny of Central Government through establishing a Decentralisation Committee. Excellent. Where's it going to be located? 10 Downing Street! Who's going to head it? The Prime Minister. Glad that's clear.

Another example of the group's faux niceness is the section on Community Hospitals. They're for them, and opposed to the centralisation of specialities in mega-hospitals. Medical madness, of course: you want your child's heart surgery done by a doctor who does these ops every day, not one who gets one every few years. But there are no votes in closing down St. Teacosy's down the road. Perhaps, though, they have in mind the Cuban polyclinic initiatives, which are hugely successful.

Er, no. They just want to close the NHS:

Community hospitals also need to be freed from the central control of the NHS. They should be free to own their own buildings and service users and employees should be encouraged to develop new ownership models based on mutual, cooperative or social enterprise models where that would maintain or enhance existing community services. 
But more positively, their plan for transforming Britain – in the depths of a serious recession, mass unemployment, failing services, overworked hospitals, environmental apocalypse etc – come in Idea Number 30: Cleaner Beaches. You want detail? They've got detail! They're going to test the water a few times a year rather than just in the summer. Seriously, these Tory kids are blowing my mind with their wacky, zany ideas!

Is all this affecting your mental health? Don't fret: they've a policy idea to treat your aching brainpan! You'll never guess what it is…
GPs should to be encouraged to look beyond traditional approaches whether through drugs or short term psychological therapies so that patients do have a viable range of choices appropriate to their condition. Commissioning should be opened up to allow therapists operating in private practice, in longer term therapies, to be able to bid for services within the NHS. 

So that's a) homeopathy on the state and b) more privatisation. 

I feel better already.

And in case you're thinking 'at least they care about my children's mental health even if they're deluded about the solution, let's see why they want you to get better:

Increased levels of achievement, education and productivity on an individual level that will translate to an increased ability to contribute to the state. 
They don't care why you're ill. Causes are irrelevant. They just want you back up that chimney and paying your taxes (not you, Mr Vodafone, you're excused) because someone's got to subsidise those corporate taxes and let's face it: you'd have to be mad to go along with this stuff.

But some citizens are Just Not Playing The Game, and Spoiling It For The Rest Of Us. The bankers? Guess again. Corrupt MPs? Nope. News International? Keep trying. Google, Starbucks, Lord Rothermere, the Daily Mail? No, no no and no. It should be obvious.

Teenage mothers. 
If it wasn't for those greedy bastards, we'd all be living in Easy Street right now. The banks would be solvent, the job centres empty, the Volvos full and the kiddies dancing round maypoles spontaneously erected from Walthamstow to Moss Side.

Take access to housing benefit, for example. 16-17 year olds are currently entitled to claim housing benefit if they “have a good reason for not living at home.” Some teenagers may view this, quite incorrectly, as an automatic right to free housing, encouraging them to have a child. 

Evidence? Oh really, what planet's political discourse have you been engaged with recently? We all know teenage mums have caused a) the credit crunch b) SARS c) 9/11 d) Charles Saatchi's violent behaviour d) Jimmy Savile and e) the decline of Channel 4's credibility, to name just a few of their crimes against humanity. So what if there's no evidence? Mr Duncan Smith made it very clear in his radio interview yesterday: evidence schmevidence, it's what he believes that matters.

All benefits to teenage mothers should be made on the condition of them living with their parents or in supervised hostel accommodation

So what if some of this very tiny number of people are fleeing abusive and neglectful homes? They need punishment. They might be old enough to join the army, kill people, be killed and pay taxes, but the female youngsters are still the property of their parents. If they're not forced back into the home with their little one, or locked up in a Home For Shamefully Disgusting Incontinent Little Slappers Who Are No Better Than They Ought To Be and taught to Know Their Places, how are they ever going to learn that female abstinence unless within the boundaries of a middle-class heterosexual official marriage is the cornerstone of Western Civilisation. Or more simply, ladies of a teenage persuasion: keep your legs crossed or the terrorists win. And the fathers? No mention. Presumably they're just 'sowing their wild oats'. Boys will be boys!

Note the sheer, despicable cowardice here:

The public perception of these policies adds to the general view that many teenagers are having children to attain benefits and subsidised housing, creating a great deal of resentment and unease. 
There's no attempt to ascertain any facts. Instead, they're nakedly endorsing 'the general view', 'resentment and unease' generated by… well, by them and their friends at the Mail.

Teenagers will be left in no doubt that teenage motherhood will not lead to an automatic right to subsidised housing and other benefits, while the general public can be assured that a teenager’s motivations for having a child are not related to housing access. 

They've found a victim, the lynch mob's waiting and these Tory scumbags are knotting the nooses for a very profitable hanging. And people wonder why they make me angry.

And then it gets really sinister. Under the guise of 'contraception efficiency', these Tories have decided that abortions have got to go. Especially for women who've had more than one. Yes, they're extended CCTV and GCHQ's activities to the final frontier: the uterus.

The Government should, for example, consider the merits of allowing agencies to check in with women post abortion, ensuring that they are continuing to use contraception provided to them.

Can you imagine the conditions and content of these 'checks'? Present yourself at the DSS for a Paupers' Duff-Upping Prevention Swab? Perhaps an RFID tab on your pill box. Or simply a two-way TV screen through which the Leader (in this case, Jeremy Hunt) conducts a uterine inspection before work on Monday morning. Free membership of the Primrose League for any C2DE who volunteers for sterilisation!

Marriage, of course, is key. What's stopping people having a proper (i.e. religious) marriage? The 1753 Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage, which bans religious marriages in any random location. Spot on, Tories! That's why marriages have been declining. And not a widespread perception that it's not appropriate for the range of sexual and romantic dispositions now available. Thank heavens you've got to the root of the matter.

But what if some feckless oiks slip through the net, have some kids, and can't make them go to school for their daily class in (Significant Dates in Conservative Party) History? Can't pay the fine?

fines should be taken directly from child benefit payments… It might just give the most dysfunctional family the incentive to get their child to school.

Starve them into submission. That's the ticket! It's not as if truancy and other social problems are at all complicated. It's the poor kids who are to blame:

Pupils on free school meals are around three times more likely to play truant than their counterparts. 

I'm too depressed even to bother presenting you with Idea 37: male role models in schools. Apparently all engineers, fire-fighters and soldiers are men. And we should be getting trained killers into school to give the boys something to which to aspire. 

Still, at least they're tackling the Timebomb of Obesity. Which could be very messy if we don't defuse it. But don't worry, it's easy to fix. Just abolish the 'risk-averse culture' and it'll all be fine. Anybody who mentions the pervasiveness of fat-laden food and the massive sell-offs of school playing fields will be sent to the Coca-Cola-sponsored naughty step.

And now we're back to education. One of the Forty, Paul Uppal, has a large university in his constituency. A university which finds itself repeatedly victimised by a government determined to restrict funding, research and high-achieving students to a small band of élite universities. A university which is doing its best to make ends meet by providing a decent education to overseas students. 

What does Paul want to do about this state of affairs? 
The permanent cap on non-EU workers has been a success and should now be extended to include some of our universities. We must be unashamed in our policy of only wanting to attract the very brightest and best students to come to the UK and so our top universities would be allowed to continue to enrol all students on an unlimited basis as they do now. 
That's right! He wants to deport all our non-EU students. They didn't get in to Oxford or Cambridge, so they must be thick (because obviously all universities offer the same courses) and they're just scrounging, even if they do pay massive fees which subsidise the EU students. For Christ's sake. 

And there we have it. Forty fag-packet ideas to keep the UKIP wolf from the Tory door. A rag-bag of cruelty, prejudice, hysteria, pandering, reaction, hypocrisy, bare-faced lies, omissions, distortions and fantasies. Many of them are dignified by the name 'idea': they're mere wisps, dispersed on the lightest intellectual breeze. All concerned should be ashamed and embarrassed. 

If I was Labour, I'd buy a million copies and send them to every household in these MPs' marginal constituencies. IF you thought Hunt et al. are vapid, this lot need the attentions of a mortician. Certainly there's no detectable cerebral activity. They're dead men (and 8 women) walking. If this is the best the Conservative Party can do, they're history. Let's make sure. 

Monday, 15 July 2013

I must be 'owling mad

This particular Monday is more painful than most: I celebrated my 38th birthday yesterday by pretending I was still young and fit enough to don four layers of protective clothing (one of them made of metal) and go toe-to-toe in the relentless searing heat with a succession of lean, hungry youngsters eager for glory in the Much Wenlock Olympian Games fencing event. The Games have been running since 1850, and were one of the inspirations for the upstart international event: Pierre de Coubertin visited Wenlock Games to see what was possible. It's a brilliant mix of serious events (triathlon, fencing) and fun ones: bean-bag throwing and the Vintage Bicycle Race, spread over the beautiful Shropshire countryside.

I've tried to compete in the fencing every year, though last year's London Olympics and a succession of weddings on this weekend have sometimes interrupted my attendance. I turn up the day before and help set up the event, stay with friends and drink cold beers (essential to any champion's training regime), then lose badly the next day. This time I stayed with my coaches' neighbour in her rambling, comfortable, lovely country house. Books of the kind I work with everywhere, and decor/furnishing from the age before disposable fashion. It was like the country house in The Box of Delights or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: quirky, unpredictable, surprising and loved. And so quiet: woken by the humming of bees.

This time wasn't too bad. A mediocre showing in the poles (not helped by some refereeing slips) placed me 17th, then I miraculously beat a higher-ranked fencer in the knock-out stages, largely by bullying him rather than through pure skill. My reward was meeting the No. 1 seed, a humourless but talented young man. He beat me - handsomely - but I made him work seriously hard for it, which for me is a very satisfying result. After that, I refereed the kids' team matches (so young, so energetic, so much more ability than I'll every have) and went home exhausted, aching everywhere, and bearing an Olympian Games jug and a bottle of wine. Oh, and a birthday card from all my fencing chums.

The best thing was that my friend Matthew, who has a terminal cancer, came up for the weekend to spend it amongst all his oldest friends in the fencing world - sharing a convivial dinner, getting stuck in to the habitual gossip and (most characteristically of all) wittily abusing my fencing, win or lose.

A couple of days before, I actually took an afternoon off (the power kept going down at work so I didn't miss much). My mother and I visited the Saddest Zoo In The World, then went for a random drive and a pub dinner. The perfect day. The Zoo is really an animal sanctuary which takes in abandoned and unsuitable pets: there's a wolf, some lemurs, raccoons, wild cats and loads of owls and other birds of prey.

Here are a few of my favourite shots (click to enlarge): the rest are here.

Harrier hawk?

I feel like this when I'm hunting plagiarists

The academic spots the crumb of funding, just out of reach

Self-portrait in an owl's eye