Friday, 28 June 2013

A day of random delights

Morning all. I feel like a broken man. Went for a swim before work. Got in to meet a student to talk about his work. He didn't turn up. Complained to the Press Complaints Commission about this Mail on Sunday article. The scum.

Now I'm going to read a friend's PhD chapter and another friend's MA dissertation: both fascinating. One's on Lewis Jones, the Communist miner, activist and novelist on whom I wrote my PhD. The other is about America's initial involvement in the Pacific rim in the late nineteenth-century.

The soundtrack of the day is beautiful Welsh-language indie and electronica: I bought the lovely coloured double 10" releases Y Record Goch and Y Record Las (The Red Record and the Blue Record) and they are corkers.

Here's the lovely Kraftwerk-influenced 'Bish Bash Bosh' by Dau Cefn.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Uppal: a lesson in evasion

Those of you with nothing better to do might recall that I rather suspected Paul Uppal of telling porkies in Parliament, given that he always manages to find constituents to quote who completely agree with him, and speak in fully-fledged parliamentary language.

The latest excrescence was his claim that young constituents feel completely trapped by state subsidies.

My constituency has a rich industrial heritage, but many young constituents come to me and say that at so many points in the history of the constituency they have been dependent on the public purse and whatever quango or mechanism. I think people are looking forward to some aspect of private sector entrepreneurship to provide a route out of the poverty that exists in so many of these industrial constituencies.

I was intrigued. Who are these kids? What do they mean? How many of them are there? Are they referring to the scrapped Educational Maintenance Allowance, which helped people stay in school or college? The one the Tories scrapped? I think we can all imagine what 'private sector entrepreneurship' routes out of poverty means: it means more children up more chimneys. Let's not forget, of course, that the Conservative Party opposed the National Minimum Wage and some of its MPs want it abolished.

So I wrote to Mr Uppal on this subject, and also took the opportunity to ask him to release the constituency's unemployment figures since he took office. All the other MPs in the city do this: it's collected and sent to them by a government agency.

I also asked him, given that he'd mentioned the new Jaguar Land Rover engine plant in the city, whether it was an example of private sector entrepreneurship, or heavily-subsidised by the local taxpayers through the area's councils.

Here's the letter I sent him:


Dear Mr Uppal,
I note your recent speech in parliament expressing the desire of 'many young consituents' to escape dependency on the public purse and quangos. Could you please enumerate to me how many young constituents have expressed this desire and how they experienced this 'at so many points in the history of the constituency' given that they are 'young'. To what organisations and mechanisms do you think they are referring? 
Secondly, could you please make public the unemployment statistics for the constituency since your election in 2010? I gather that constituency break-downs are provided for each Member of Parliament and that other MPs in the city make them public. 
Finally, I note that the biggest investment in the city for some years (Jaguar Land Rover) was achieved through the incentives provided by Wolverhampton City Council, South Staffordshire Council, Staffordshire County Council and Advantage West Midlands. Given your professed opposition to quangos and state subvention for the private sector, will you be lobbying for an end to this taxpayer support?
So: I asked him for details on these youngsters' claims; the constituency's unemployment profile; and some recognition of the state's role in landing the area's only big investment.

Can you imagine what the reply was? Honest and straightforward?

Don't be silly.

On the question of what exactly these youthful idealists had to say about being 'trapped' in dependency:
I have met with [oh dear: only Americans and illiterates add the preposition] many young constituents during my weekly surgeries and my frequent visits to schools… the future of the city is often discussed… The views of many young people in the constituency are reinforced by the City Council's 'City Strategy'. Their assessments highlight the city's over-reliance on public sector employment, the lack of private sector jobs, and the gap between skills and those required by the emerging knowledge-based economy'. 
So that's bollocks. Uppal's surgeries are by appointment only, and held during the week: I can't see many kids skipping school to earnestly express their Ayn Randian opposition to child benefit and the EMA. I note he can't say how many have expressed these views to him, though I rather wonder if his sample runs to the two slightly creepy Young Tory interns he uses as muscle on his rare public appearances.

I can't think why the city is over-reliant on public sector jobs. Oh hold on, I can. Is it because successive governments – not solely but mostly Tory – completely abandoned the industrial areas while pursuing a policy of making Britain a land fit for Hedge Fund Traders? Might it be because the Tory industrial complex shifted all the jobs overseas where they can pollute and exploit out of sight? Could it, even, be connected to the fact that the Tories have utterly wrecked this country's economy? Could be, you know. Could be.

OK, question 2: what's happened to unemployment since Paul Uppal became the MP? Simple question. He just has to photocopy the quarterly briefing sent to him.

Oh no.
The employment rate for Wolverhampton fell significantly since early 2006, at least a year before the first impacts of the recession were felt in other areas. During the three years between 2007 and 2010, nearly 4000 jobs were lost. The unemployment rate in Wolverhampton South West is currently 9.1%. 

Just a couple of points here. Firstly, he shifts neatly from 'Wolverhampton' to Wolverhampton South West: neatly avoiding the specific constituency's profile: it's far from clear that unemployment was rising in the constituency between 2006-2010. Then there's the abrupt shift from trends to a single figure. It's awful that unemployment is 9.1%. But Uppal's carefully evaded my question. I wanted to know what the rates were in the period since he was elected. Instead, he's carefully claimed that the place was doomed by the previous government, without letting on that unemployment has been steadily rising since he took office. He has personally made the situation worse for the people in his care, employed and unemployed, while getting richer and richer himself.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call disingenuous.

As for my question about state subsidies for business: he didn't weasel his way out of that one. He simply ignored it. Silence. Not a word.

He's got to go.



The usual dispiriting Uppal rubbish

I wrote to my MP, Paul Uppal, asking him to vote for an amendment setting a maximum carbon production ceiling target by 2030. 

He voted against the amendment and wrote back with the usual boilerplate rubbish dictated by Tory HQ. Apparently rather than identifying a maximum we can safely pump into the atmosphere, we need to consider 

prevailing circumstances at the time, and in the context of the economy as a whole. 

This means, of course, kicking the can down the road and ensuring that the big polluters continue to pollute. What these Tories cannot comprehend is that there's a massive economic opportunity in building a renewable-energy economy. All they can see is their donors' perspectives, allied to their American-style rejection of climate science in its entirety. 'The context of the economy as a whole' actually means not impinging on the obscene profits made from wrecking the planet. But we all know what happened to other sectors of British industry that refused to invest in new technology: look at the decline of UK cars, aerospace, ship-building, electronics, chemicals and heavy industry. All gone to Japan, then China and soon Brazil and India. The same will happen with energy. 


Uppal tells me that:

The government is already pushing through ambitious reforms to overhaul existing old fossil fuel plants and replace them with new low carbon generation. 

It isn't. It plain isn't. Coal burning for power generation has increased over recent years from 31% of the energy mix to 40% because coal is cheap. The 'ambitious reform' to which Uppal refers is a failed competition to get Carbon Capture and Storage to work in one or two power stations. It hasn't worked and isn't likely to: it's just a little present to the coal burners rather than a serious idea. 


So it's clear that free-market solutions don't work: given the chance, polluters will opt for the cheapest substance, which happens to be the nastiest. Corporations don't invest in the future: they strip-mine the present because nobody gets bonuses and dividends for being responsible.


What else does Uppal say?

…new Contracts for Difference… will help developers secure the large upfront capital costs for low carbon infrastructure
This is Uppal's way of admitting that capitalism doesn't actually work. 

If you've never heard of a Contract for Difference, you're lucky. It's a nice shiny technical term for a bloody big bribe, or subsidy. Like with the railways, we've decided that we want an economic system which looks like the free market but is actually a state-subsidised racket. We need renewable energy. The government wants nuclear power stations. The private sector will build and operate them, but they can't build them on time or on budget (Flamanville and the Finnish one are both coming up to a decade late and the costs have soared into the stratosphere) and they can't operate them profitably, mostly because coal is so cheap. So they demand Contracts for Difference to cover the gap between the price at which they sell electricity and the price (plus profit) at which they produce electricity. 


The simple answer, of course, is for governments to own and run electricity generators. It would be cheaper: it's never been easier for governments to borrow money. But that would mean admitting that markets aren't the solution to everything. 


The other solution of course is to tax carbon, so that the cost of environmental damage is built in. But then we'd have to take climate change seriously, and think about changing our lifestyles. 


I won't bore you with the rest of Uppal's letter because it's misleading, disingenuous bullshit. He mentions the Green Deal, which is a) a bit of scam and b) a failure, and the Green Investment Bank, which isn't a bank and has a piddling amount of money which I strongly suspect will be wasted. It's just an attempt to promote markets rather than tackle climate change. And oh yes, it's only funded until 2015.


So let's skip to the end of Uppal's missive:

I feel that the Government is already taking the necessary action to decarbonise Britain's energy supply… the Government is determined to achieve our carbon goals, and will continue to work towards a low carbon future. 
OK. Let's put that to a nice, simple test. What happened to the UK's carbon emissions last year? 
The UK's emissions of climate-warming gases surged in 2012 as cheap coal replaced gas in power stations, official data revealed on Thursday. 
The UK's carbon dioxide emissions rose by 4.5% from 2011-12, with coal use in power stations jumping by 31%. Coal prices have dropped significantly as the US has exported the coal it no longer needs at homedue to the shale gas boom 
But don't worry, we've got tough targets. Haven't we?
The UK is on track to miss its carbon targets in the 2020s, the government's advisers on climate change warned on Wednesday. Efforts to cut emissions are not happening quickly enough, and a looming "policy gap" will lead to a shortfall in the investment and infrastructure needed for a low-carbon economy, they said. 
But that's just a parliamentary report and will of course be entirely ignored. Because we're not dealing with facts here. Just more of Uppal's lies and evasions. Which is why he's climbing the greasy pole with alacrity.  

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

If you read this, you'll be on a list.

Afternoon, readers.

I'm afraid that despite the momentous events of the week, I'm slightly devoid of pungent opinions. Too much going on at work. Mostly boring to the outside world, and some very sad, such as my friend's stroke. No news on that front today. Instead, I've been in meetings about pensions (generally bad news) and the regular union negotiating committee session. An interesting mixed bag as always, but in general a depressing view of how the senior management operates. However, I've now been elected to the university's Board of Governors, so I'm looking forward to seeing how oversight operates from that perspective.

Most of the week's outside news doesn't surprise me in the slightest because I read the newspapers and I'm a socialist. Police spying on dead mens' families? UK security agencies hoovering up every single communication? Law-abiding campaign groups riddled with police informers to the extent that cops wrote their material, in some cases kept the organisations going, and fathered children with activists before disappearing? Cops conducting spying missions against their perceived political opponents? Awful, awful behaviour. But not in the least surprising.

Now and then British newspapers publish stories about Over There. Terrible countries – Iran, North Korea, Russia, East Germany etc. – in which governments vet educational materials, spy on their citizens, operate secret courts and possess fearsome secret police forces which serve the political establishment rather than the people.

The plain fact is that Over There is really Over Here. Our schools are being handed over to corporate interests without a murmur of complaint. The UK has secret courts, boringly disguised as Closed Material Procedures. The Education Secretary and the Prime Minister personally write the curriculum, particularly for History because those with no memories have no means of cultural resistance. Anyone with any knowledge of leftwing politics, Northern Ireland (or indeed Scottish and Welsh nationalism) is well aware that beyond helping old ladies cross the road, the police services in this country are the reactionary lackeys of the ruling classes. In previous decades, they were merely corrupt, especially the Metropolitan Police, but they became politicised by the Miners' Strike (150 arrests at Orgreave: no convictions as it turned out that the cops faked their statements), Hillsborough, by Northern Ireland and by the Thatcher Government, by the shrieking neofascism of the Sun and the Daily Mail. Any light shone on Special Branch and its sub-groups, and the Security Services, reveals bodies with absolutely no political neutrality. They aren't interested in right wing, capitalist and racist subversives: their enemies are environmentalists, anti-racists, ethnic minorities and the poor. The permanent state is authoritarian and capitalist and its foot-soldiers operate to ensure that the arms dealers, bankers and uniformed services are never scrutinised, let alone overseen by the likes of us.

All this is one of the reasons I read science fiction: so much of it extrapolates from the assumption that state and corporate forces will always do whatever's technically possible, regardless of the law. Given the means to record every tweet, email and phone call, they will. States – of any complexion – fear their citizens, and rightly so. They aren't scared of each other in any real sense, they're scared of us. Luckily for them, most of us don't care in the slightest. Politics is boring and we're busy. We accept reassurances like Hague's that only guilty people are monitored: something that's not technically possible and it assumes that the natural state in which to exist is the Panopticon: that all instincts for privacy are automatically suspect.

Thomas Jefferson said that a situation in which the people fear the government is tyranny, whereas liberty exists when the government fear the people. He's now wrong. We don't fear the government: hegemony has manufactured consent, largely by persuading people that the subversives are Them: the Muslim bomber, the environmental activist, the Edward Snowdens of this world. In the modern tyranny, we've taken the free gifts: Twitter, Gmail, The Voice, CCTV, credit cards and mobile phones, without question. In the modern tyranny, the government fears us, and it acts on those fears to the fullest extent of its capabilities. The state doesn't have specific fears (the Irish, the ALF, Islamic terrorists). It has one general fear: that there are things it doesn't know. And yet when it comes to things it should know, it fails every time. MI6 was as shocked as everyone else when the USSR collapsed. Nobody knew the banks were lying, cheating and stealing. And yet the Met knew whether or not the Lawrence's friends had ever been on demonstrations or joined political parties.

I've always assumed that any campaign group is riddled with police officers, however anodyne the cause. They aren't detecting crime or disorder: they're conducting political surveillance. There's no other earthly reason to spy on Stephen Lawrence's grieving parents other than to destroy the credibility of their criticisms of the police. Perhaps I'm overly paranoid, but it does seem like the state and corporate bodies (this week revealed to have bugged and hacked their way across the country without any legal action at all: instead, the cops covered it up). Stand up for badgers and you'll be infiltrated before you can staple a placard, but Corporate Security Providers have carte blanche to do whatever they want: and yet last time I looked, business had bankrupted the country.

I said earlier that I'm a socialist. This means that I'm saddened by this state of affairs. In a socialist society, governments are a good thing. They're set up by the people as an efficient and fair means of distributing wealth and protecting themselves. Socialists don't trust corporations to do it, and believe that collective action is better than individualism. But because governments have power, expertise and stability, they attract the wrong kind of people and develop a tendency towards omniscience and omnipotence. Smarter socialists are aware of this, and believe in distributed power: grass-roots decision-making and the like. Some tend towards municipal socialism, others towards anarchism. But I still think we need governments. I've just read Cory Doctorow's interesting novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (he's posted it for free here, though I bought the book), which posits a society that's replaced money with accrued respect, and 'ad hoc' coalitions running everything from Disney Land to transport networks. It's a lovely semi-anarchist vision, but it's based entirely on the assumption that there are unlimited resources and – for the most part – general good will: the novel cheerfully just states that energy and resources are infinite and carries on from there. Back in the real world, we need democratic governments to referee the competing demands of its citizens (or you just need to put me in charge). But this is a Utopian vision: what we actually get is governments behaving oppressively as a means of self-preservation, or because it openly declines to serve the interests of its people, preferring instead to (in the case of the UK government) serve the US and the markets.

Radio 4 is currently running a series of programmes about British Dystopian entertainments called Dangerous Visions. Seems to me we don't need to imagine them. We're in it.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

New Labour: still not getting it.

I got this unsolicited text message the other day.


As you can probably imagine, it got my hackles up. 

Firstly, because it's spam. No doubt joining the Labour Party is taken as implicit acceptance of spam texts, but I don't remember opting into it. 

Secondly, because Neena is endorsed by David Miliband. I don't like him for two reasons: I've met him, and he was a minor cog in the Rendition machine. He is a war criminal, or would be in a world in which international law meant something. 

Thirdly, I object to someone claiming I should vote for them because someone else supports her. This is the worst of celebrity politics. I want to vote for a candidate based on what their policies are. What are Neena's policies? I have no idea. Her website is broken, and her Twitter/text publicity is (deliberately?) a policy free zone. Literally, not a single policy is visible. Although she doesn't like the BNP: laudable, but hardly distinctive. This isn't politics. It's sales.

Fourthly, I find the discourse oppressive. 'Thank you for your support' presumes my support: it's a Neuro-Linguistic Programming-style device to make dissent harder. The second text I got ends with 'Your Number 1 Choice for MEP'. Neena: I rather think that's for me to decide, and tired, bossy marketing techniques really don't endear you to me.

The whole problem is summed up – and Marshall McLuhan would agree with me here – by the medium as much as the message. Watch what happens when I hit reply:


Now it doesn't really matter whether or not you agree with my dislike for David Miliband or not. The point is that in a supposedly democratic organisation like the Labour Party, things should be decided through discussion, and exchange of ideas. But the New Labour structure is authoritarian and hierarchical. Members aren't important. Our opinions don't matter: we're voting fodder and piggy banks. So sending texts from a number which doesn't allow any reply perfectly encapsulates the way they treat us. This, I would argue, is where Labour went wrong. If Tony Blair and his circle had seen the members as the party's repository of experience, ideas and political nous, we wouldn't have ended up in a disastrous war, in an overheated economy, run by corrupt MPs, police officers and bankers.

I don't think this is entirely representative of the party: my local Labour MP candidates are responsive even when I'm slightly rude to them, and Ed Miliband's lot are a distinct improvement – but it's a definite characteristic of the clique which captured the party for so many years, ruined it, and won't shut up and go away.

Which is why I'm posting this: I can't simply reply to Neena Gill and her friends because she's not interested in my views, just my vote. I hope she reads this.

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Awful day. One of my subject heads, a close friend, has had a massive stroke and we don't know what will happen to him. It looks very bleak and we're all shocked.

In the meantime, some random pictures from the ones I took in London at the weekend. They have no photographic merit, they're just pretty. You can see the whole lot here. I played around with my new 11-16 f/2.8 panoramic lens. Great skies. Click on them to enlarge.

A wedding party we chanced upon in Greenwich. 

Greenwich Naval College Chapel

Greenwich Naval College Chapel

Solitary man contemplates time gazing at the Royal Observatory and the meridian line

Lanterns at the Queen's House, Naval College, Greenwich

Colonnade between the Maritime Museum and Queen's House, Greenwich Naval College

Time – or the Meridian – made this area of London the centre of the world: now it's Canary Wharf

This child is planning an act of unspeakable, implacable evil. Just look into his eyes.

Roof of the Painted Hall, Greenwich Naval College

Painted Hall, Greenwich Naval College
I strongly approve of the sentiment. I just don't think he'll get much done here.

A very photogenic uncle

I know they're vermin (and from experience, very tasty vermin), but they're so cute!

Squirrels go nuts for, er, nuts. 

Monday, 24 June 2013

Cor blimey guvnor

Evening everybody. What a day it's been. I've worked hard on the conference version of our jazz in contemporary fiction paper ready for next week, and edited the photographs of my trip to That London for my cousin's 21st birthday. Apart from the party, I mostly spent the weekend walking round Greenwich and Blackheath grinding my teeth in pure envy.

I also – you'll be surprised to learn – visited a book shop. Sadly, though the stock was magnificent (I've never seen so many Beverley Nichols novels in one place), the prices were insanely aspirational, judging by the ones I already own. £30 for a decent copy of Stephen Spender's Forward From Liberalism in the Left Book Club edition? Mine was £3.50.

That said, I couldn't leave empty-handed. I picked up some lovely rarities: a volume of poetry by Angry Young Man novelist and poet (and son of Stoke) John Wain, melodramatically entitled Weep Before God; a collection of poems by Rex Warner, the celebrated absurdist interwar novelist, and an undated Edwardian one-act play, called Trouble At The Telephone ('A Serio-Comic Sketch for Lady and Gentleman') by Campbell Rae-Brown, who had some work filmed in the 1920s. I couldn't resist this early foray into techno-fear art. I'll let you know what it's like when I get round to reading it. Sadly, they didn't have any copies of the racist and misogynist plays advertised in the back, such as The Suffragettes: A Farcical Sketch by E MaKeig Jones, or The Black Rivals: Five Negro Characters, which appears to be a collection of comic songs.





More tomorrow. If you're very good I'll show you some pretty pictures of Cockney squirrels. 

Friday, 21 June 2013

Random facts that explain Britain's current state

There are 57 Liberal Democrat MPs. 14 Liberal Democrat MPs have Knighthoods. 7 Liberal Democrat MPs have XX chromosomes, i.e. are female.

Of last night's Question Time panel (Boris Johnson, Melanie Phillips, Ed Davey, Tessa Jowell, Russell Brand, David Dimbleby), 100% attended fee-paying schools, regardless of party. Only Jowell and Brand didn't attend Oxford University, and 33% of the panel were in the élite Bullingdon Club (Johnson and Dimbleby).

Income distribution has never been less equal. The richest tenth of the population has become richer every year. The poorest tenth are now poorer than they were ten years ago.

15% of Cabinet Ministers are women. 51% of the population are women.

Well over half the Cabinet attended fee-paying schools, compared to roughly 6% of the population. 19 of the 29 Cabinet Ministers attended either Oxford or Cambridge Universities.

33% of the Cabinet are millionaires, collectively worth roughly £70m. Given that there are roughly 10,000 millionaires in the UK (approx 0.015%), that's an amazing coincidence.

70% of people on the National Minimum Wage are women.

Women are disproportionately imprisoned for offences for which men are given fines or non-custodial sentences.

Being female makes you far more likely to be harrassed, sacked, on benefits and unemployed.

Being female and from an ethnic minority basically makes you a non-person. Work, social security, political representation, media work, economic power… you name it, you're not important. 3 FTSE 100 companies have female CEOs. Only 17% of board members are female.

5.7% of FTSE 100 directors are from ethnic minorities. None are CEOs. The same applies to the Civil Service: the senior levels are disproportionately white, male, privately-educated and Oxbridge.

70% of judges attended fee-paying schools.

17% of 'leaders' (business, government, law, education etc) attended comprehensive schools. 47% of them went to Oxford or Cambridge.

The Ministry of Defence is stuffed with arms company employees on secondment - awarding fat contracts to… themselves. Similarly, the Big Four accountacy firms have people in secondment across government, and offer free work to all the political parties, hence their unreformed, unregulated and unexamined promotion of tax evasion and fiscal irresponsibility throughout the recession and beyond. When ministers and civil servants leave office, they go to work for the arms companies, banks and other bodies they're meant to regulate. So there's no incentive to question them. Rather the opposite.

Hope you can see why I'm so depressed. My students are 99% state-educated, 30% from ethnic minorites, and in my subjects, overwhelmingly female. We do our best (though there are worrying stats at minority degree outcomes) but it boils my blood to look them in the face and know that however energetic and well-educated they are, they're vanishingly unlikely to run the country or a company. Their needs are irrelevant to those in power. They're more likely to be in prison, unemployed or indebted. They don't have social, cultural or financial capital. Collective bodies such as political parties and trades unions which used to offer advancement are either closed to them or banished to the social margins.

There's an Establishment. Rich people employ their own. They run government and the commanding heights of the economy. They send us to prison and they treat our diseases.

What price social mobility? This game's rigged.


Thursday, 20 June 2013

A rant-free, politics-free blog entry. No, really!

Afternoon, gentle readers. I've had a ridiculously busy day. I've seen students who failed their essays to advise them on resits. I've seen students collecting their work (hint: the ones who do well are the ones who collect their essays whatever grade they achieved) and I've been to a long long meeting to discuss how the union can help a hard-working, undervalued group of colleagues. So I'm tired, but I'm feeling like I've been helpful.

Once back from the meeting, I bumped into a colleague who observed that there are 'no female guitarists' or lead singers.

Oh dear. Ohdearohdearohdear. Where to start? So instead of my usually sterile dry political moaning, I thought I'd collect some of my favourite female musicians from across the musical genres. The only ones I'm excluding are the ones you should all know about and adore already: Baez, Mitchell, Kate Bush, Blondie, PJ and so on. It's quite interesting going to Youtube for these: I've never had music TV and not seen all these bands live, so it's fascinating seeing what they actually look like. Also in honour of Kim Deal, now ex-of Pixies but still presiding genius of The Breeders.

In no particular order:

The world's greatest bass hook ever: The Breeders' 'Cannonball'. The soundtrack to every indie night I went to for about 15 years.



Shoutiest feminist riot grrl thrill: Bikini Kill's 'Rebel Girl'. And yes the drum intro does sound a bit like the Stone Roses.



Heart-breaking cover of New Order's 'Bizarre Love Triangle' by Australians Frente:



Some late, jazzy, Madder Rose:



Here's an ethereal snatch of Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man. She's in Portishead. He isn't. They made what I reckon is one of the Great Lost Albums.



I don't know much about Rose Elinor Dougall or Nancy Elizabeth except that I like them:





Back to ethereal 90s indie? Some Mazzy Star then (sorry about the ad):



More upbeat? Anjali's your woman:



Astonishing wordy surrealism? I prescribe some Kimya Dawson, 'The Beer':



Country heartbreak? Laura Cantrell's 'Bees' and (tongue in cheek), Amy LaVere's 'Killing Him Didn't Make The Love Go Away':





If you ever wished Pale Fountains had a female singer, then Camera Obscura are the band for you. Here's a cut from their latest album:



Though of course the queens of female-fronted indie were Lush:



Better than Salad, anyway. But not as good as the Delgados and Catchers.





Bubbling under? St. Vincent are new to me. Like David Lynch got hold of some perfectly good pop music:



She's a bit like an American Melys:



Breathy French catchy pop? Camille's 'Ta Douleur': unlike what I know of most French pop culture, she puts on her clothes as the video progresses.



Then – because I like it – a Julianna Barwick track. Depending on your tastes, this is either the most shoegazey Sonic Cathedral there is, or the wettest track ever:



I was going to give you Heavenly's 'Sperm Meets Egg, So What?', but I love their cover of 'Nous ne sommes pas des anges', so here's that instead:



Sleazy lounge music? 'Come On Over (Turn Me On)' by Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan:



Widescreen rock: The Joy Formidable.



Part of my ongoing mission to collect every New Order-related track ever, here's 'Selfish' by The Other Two, aka Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert of New Order.



And there I think I'll leave it, point massively proven. Whatever it was. Though there's plenty more where that came from…

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Misanthrope of the day

I've posted this poem before, but I've never heard a reading from it by its author, Philip Larkin. I implore you not to watch the clip: it's nastily animated which rather detracts from the poetry. 

The poem is This Be The Verse, and Larkin's reading alters the text in minor ways. It's a beautiful, bitter summary of the Angry Young Mens' reaction against their parents' generation, allied to the anti-abstract form of the Movement. Not a new feeling of course: the Bloomsbury Set rejected its Victorian forebears equally passionately in texts such as Lytton Strachey's incendiary Eminent Victorians

Larkin knew whereof he spoke: his racist, misanthropic politics were echoes of his father's open Nazism: Larkin Sr. had to be ordered to remove his Nazi memorabilia from his Coventry Town Hall office after World War Two had started. Philip's relationship with his mother was also fraught, claustrophobic and troubling, explaining at least some of his manipulative, dependent, cruel and exploitative behaviour towards other women in his life. 

And yet… his poetry is often so beautiful, aurally and conceptually. It's the final stanza that does it for me. 'They fuck you up…' is almost standard adolescent, Kevin and Perry stuff, and 'mum and dad' is a nod to the post-war generation. But the final stanza's 'coastal shelf' is so evocative, bringing to mind the unseen misery of claustrophobic, mutually incomprehensible and destructive family dynamics. 




They fuck you up, your mum and dad. 
  They may not mean to, but they do. 
They fill you with the faults they had
  And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
  By fools in old-style hats and coats, 
Who half the time were soppy-stern
  And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
  It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
  And don’t have any kids yourself.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Pep rally?

One of my colleagues has just called in. He's been at a meeting which provided a packed lunch.  I don't know what meetings he gets invited to, but at mine there are coin slots on the windows, let alone free water. Apparently convinced that the rest of us are starving to death over our computers, he has presented me with a spare packed lunch.

In the bag is a cheese sandwich, a cake and a bottle of Pepsi.



So what?

Well, I've never tasted Pepsi. I'm no Coke devotee either: I think the last time I tried one was when I was eight. It was vile and I've never had any desire to go back. So basically the only fizzy drink I've consumed since 1983 has been champagne. And now alcohol's banned on campus, I can no longer swig that during lectures. My family, on the other hand, swigged fizzy brown stuff at ever opportunity, except for my mum. Despite both parents being doctors, I don't recall any caution about the stuff. I didn't reject it for health reasons: I just found the overwhelming sweetness completely disgusting.

So in the spirit of Martha Payne and her wonderful blog Never Seconds, and a little bit by I've Never Seen Star Wars (I've seen twenty minutes here and there of the original trilogy, and was forced to see The Phantom Menace by friends, which convinced me that George Lucas despises you all), I'm going to try this brown carbonated water and review it for you.

So. First impression. Bottle: extruded plastic. No aesthetic qualities, and destined to poison the environment for some time to come. After it rattles around in my office for a couple of years. Colour scheme: red white and blue roundel is clearly meant to inspire subliminal American patriotism and – accidentally – perhaps British patriotism too. As I have an Irish passport, I'm pretty resistant. Oh, and because I'm not a capitalist and don't believe that consuming Pepsi (or Coke) is living the American dream. The lower-case typeface is airy, rounded and clearly influenced by urls and Apple. Personally, I think it's cowardice: like The Guardian becoming theguardian and therefore announcing to the world that it's a secondary product. But I digress. Basically: I feel patronised. I know Pepsi isn't cool and friendly. It's a corporate monster which makes money by persuading people to get fat and sick on its products.

Talking of which: the ingredients. In order of content: Carbonated Water; Sugar; Colour (Caramel E150d); Phosphoric Acid, Flavourings (including Caffeine). The links are to analyses of what these things are, and how much there is in the drink. The good news is that the Carbonated Water is pretty harmless, though quite ridiculous. Next: the sugar. Well, it seems that there are 13 teaspoons of this stuff in the bottle. Rather naughtily, the information on the bottle gives the amounts per 100ml and per 250ml. In very small print. Odd choices of quantity, given that the bottle itself is 500ml. Almost as though they hope anyone bothered to check the amounts won't notice the sleight of hand. The chart on the front lists the most important quantities per '250ml serving': though I'd guarantee that very few people indeed drink just half the bottle of fizzy stuff. OOH! No fat, Saturates (er, fat) or Salt! It must be healthy. Except for the 53 grams of sugar and the 10% of daily recommended calories.

The caramel seems to be harmless enough: carcinogenic in very large quantities but relatively piffling here. The Phosphoric Acid is what gives the drink its tang. But it's so bitter that it apparently needs the 13 teaspoons of sugar (sorry, but that number is obscene. I don't put sugar on anything and only have it in the house for guests who like a teaspoon of it in coffee) just to make it palatable. And then there's the caffeine, which although it's listed as a flavouring, is actually undetectable in scientific taste tests. It is, in fact, there as a mildly addictive stimulant to make you want more. The utter scum.

I've actually given up caffeine. I used to drink coffee in enormous amounts. A full stove-top espresso machine for breakfast, several trips to the CorpoCup bar at work, shaking, tired and weird by lunchtime. So this is going to reawaken a lot of bad memories.

Right. Enough displacement activity. Time to try the damned stuff. Good job I've been for a swim today. I'll open the cap. Helpful arrows to show which way it turns, which seems particularly moronic. It will only turn one way.

Pleasing sound of carbon dioxide escaping into the atmosphere. That'll show those polar bears who's boss.

Bouquet? Sugary with an undertone of acid. The Phosphoric Acid, that'll be. The stuff also used to remove rust and which reduces bone density. A hint of lambs gambolling across meadows. I'm getting hot-air balloons and starfish. Chignons and cherished books.

Not really. It just smells of sugar and acid.

And finally: emptying this stuff into my innocent, unsullied mouth.

Instant fizz on the tongue, teeth and upper palate. A huge rush of sweetness with the dense acid undertow. There is no 'body', as the wine-tasters say. After a microsecond, only the sweetness and the fizzing sensation are left. The 'finish' is revolting. Really, really unpleasant. The best I can say is that it's over quickly. Except that it isn't, of course: as the foul pollutant courses through my intestines, it induces a bout of belching of a most ill-mannered sort. My teeth, too, feel like they've been given a faux-fur coating.

What do people see in this stuff? Are you all just hooked on the caffeine? Or is it the marketing? I just don't get it at all. Beer, that I get. But brown sugary water with an addictive substance mixed in? No.

Will I be repeating this foray into Convenient Carbonated Sodas? Ask me again in another 30 years. Perhaps the memory will have faded. Actually, I'll be 68 then, so all my memories will have faded.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Back to the Futura

Yesterday, I went down to an old-fashioned physical book shop to buy the latest and last Iain Banks novel, The Quarry. Banks himself died last week from cancer, at 59: a massive loss to contemporary fiction. Ironically, he'd almost finished The Quarry before getting the diagnosis – ironically because one of the central protagonists is dying of cancer, and takes the opportunity to deliver some ripely expressive diatribes on the subject of those he's leaving behind.

When I took the book to the counter, the assistant remarked on the oddness of the cover:


Which was interesting because the day before, at the Futura Science Fiction convention (attended so poorly that a standard-issue police box would have suited us fine, never mind a TARDIS), one of the panels mentioned a book shop which deliberately obscured all its stock's covers with a paper bag on which a summary was hand-written. The thinking behind it is that cover design is a marketing tool which encourages ever-tighter genre descriptors and alienates potential readers. I'm in total agreement: much cover art is derivative and/or terrible, and it is alienating. There's a lot to be said for the old uniform Penguins.

Sometimes there are interesting experiments: I collect Jane Austen editions, and use them in my teaching about 'popular' and 'high' art. I show the students these copies and some other Austen editions, from too far away to read the names and titles, and invite them to guess what kind of novel is inside.




Then we talk about genre, marketing and how our reading are shaped by these kinds of expectations: the 'adult' cover art for children's novels also get an airing. It's a fun class and one which gets students talking about reading as a social and economic activity, as cultural capital and social positioning. At Saturday's convention, we were given several free books which looked like typical SF novels. One of them was described on the back as 'military SF': a sub-genre of which I've heard but never wanted to read. To me, military SF evokes Heinlein's neo-fascism and the kinds of terrible 'find planet-meet aliens-kill them all' stuff beloved of America's most imperialist phase, rather than Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. So you see, genre and cover art can repel as much as it can attract. 

But back to Banks. The quick chat with the bookshop assistant formed a kind of sad little coda (for me: she didn't appear to know who he was and I didn't want to break the bad news) for the weekend. The Futura event (I couldn't resist an SF conference named after a typeface) was overshadowed by Iain's death - for me as a reader but more painfully for the writers gathered. They'd lost their brightest star, and in the case of Ken MacLeod, a very close and longstanding friend. I didn't want to dig around in his grief during the kaffeeklatsch session (buying a convention ticket does include access to a man's grief), but he spoke very movingly and amusingly about their long association during his reading and presentation. Banks reciprocated: he makes a point of praising MacLeod's unpublished poetry in his last interview. We got the sense that the late 1970s was great for them: before Scotland's industrial destruction at the hands of Thatcher, Banks and MacLeod were bright, educated, hip young literary gunslingers. Active on the hard left, fond of a drink, full of the Scottish virtues of socialism (MacLeod described their politics as 'Socialism within, Anarchy without', which seems pretty seductive to me), contempt for the cosmopolitan and determined to put all this into their work, they seemed to have had a ball. Banks had three SF novels rejected before deciding to write a 'mimsy mainstream Hampstead novel' as MacLeod put it, and he worried that it was a betrayal of all he stood for. No need to worry: The Wasp Factory was hailed and condemned in equal measure as a nasty piece of outsider tyro viciousness. 

The convention itself was enjoyable, though it did feel a little like the last months of the airborne party Douglas Adams wrote about in The Restaurant At The End of the Universe: all the ingredients were there but the audience was slightly lacking. Literally: despite the publicity's exhortations to sign up for the various elements as numbers were limited, the total turnout was in the 30s at most. So I felt a little sorry for the authors (Ken MacLeod, Ian MacLeod (no relation) and Adam Roberts, plus several others of whom I hadn't previously heard because I don't read many graphic novels, or what Pratchett affectionately calls Big Comics). They are eminent and popular authors, and here they were in a cavernous space talking to tiny numbers of people: 5 of us in the Banks kaffeeklatsch. The day before, Adam Roberts (who writes cerebral SF and is a Professor of 19th Century literature and culture) gave a TEDx talk in Parliament to 1000 people. Yet here he was, discussing Kant and reading from his new novel, in which a cow mournfully (spoiler: and unsuccessfully) tries to persuade the man with the bolt gun that cows should be Turing Tested before meeting their ends in the abattoir. Roberts is interested in culture's representations of animals and aliens as (perhaps necessarily) anthropomorphised devices to talk about ourselves: the truly alien couldn't be comprehended. He read the piece in an Ermintrude voice, and I mentioned philosopher Peter Singer's article Heavy Petting, in which he suggests that bestiality really isn't so bad in comparison to just killing animals for fun and food. It's a provocative and enjoyable piece. 

Apart from the author stuff, I went to a panel which discussed whether SF is 'mainstream', which was very enjoyable. There's no answer of course: SF is certainly on prime-time TV, elements of SF surface in other popular genres, and literary fiction sometimes appropriates SF themes and tropes. Yet what is the mainstream? Is it critical approval? Canonical acceptance (I set books on academic courses: am I one of the 'them' who approves or disapproves?) Sales? What's so great about being mainstream anyway? Is anything mainstream in an era of targeted marketing and ever tinier sub-genres? Certainly there's an element of any genre's readership which defiantly rejects being popular – very reminiscent of my other hobby, record-collecting. Some people would rather their favourite music was never heard by the 'sheeple', which I think is a moronic attitude. I mostly listen to music that isn't popular, but I regret it: I'd rather my favourite singers and authors made a living than starved to death in a garret to increase my cool quotient amongst a tiny band of obscurantists. 

I also bought a couple of books and was given a couple more. Who could resist a pulp-homage zombie attack novel set at a Star Trek convention? Not me, especially not for a shiny £1. I also bought a book in which a man in search of a fabled lost Carry On film finds himself joining a shadowy underground army of resistance fighters. Can't remember the title, but it sounds promising. 



And I won a raffle prize - at 37, I'm no longer a loser in life's lottery! A copy of Ian MacLeod's Wake Up And Dream in a slipcase, signed in a limited edition of 100. It's very beautiful and I'll cherish it, though I really don't like the wider culture of limited edition things. I spent quite a lot of money buying the only copy of his The Summer Isles I could find, which was also highly limited, signed etc etc. Very lovely, but I wish an edition was freely available to potential readers who don't have money. The same goes for beautiful William Morris work, De Morgan tiles, or the new collection of James Joyce work in progress, Finn's Hotel: copies range from €350 to €2500. Beautiful things, whether they're books, wine, hand-knitted jerseys or paintings are expensive and slow to make, but when the objects become fetishes, they offend my democratic instincts, especially when they're valued solely for their rarity rather than their intrinsic cultural value. 

Of course this was also an opportunity. These three writers are amongst my very favourite contemporary authors and we had the chance to chat to them without any pressure or time constraints. I bagged them all as future guest speakers at the university too: we're trying to strengthen our cultural activity and these authors can contribute strongly to the sense that there's intellectual life here. A larger event wouldn't have afforded these possibilities, yet I was acutely aware of the social boundaries slightly blurred by the  accidentally-intimate scale of the proceedings. We turned up for the quiz which was meant to round off the evening: it didn't happen, and probably 12 people stayed in the bar. My little group of academics. Some non-academic fans. The authors. I didn't feel comfortable joining the authors' group because it felt intrusive, especially as we'd spent the entire day talking to them about their craft, the process, their ideas, Iain Banks and so on. And yet the other fans had no such compunction and enfolded the authors into their circle. Perhaps it was the financial relationship which inserted the awkwardness: we'd paid for their time during the day's events, so I felt quite strongly that stepping into their social space was presumptuous, as though it communicated a sense of 'I've paid £25, so I have the right to engage in drinking banter with you whether you like it or not. '. This, by the way, is why I oppose student fees so much: a customer/provider relationship is alienating. It erects social and intellectual barriers between what should be a unitary group of truth-seekers. 

So there I was, slightly absurdly drinking 4 yards away from the main attraction of the day, studiously keeping myself to myself. I can't speak for my colleagues of course, let alone the authors and the fans so I have no idea how they perceived the social situation but I was well aware of the absurdity. Perhaps I'm just too middle-class and repressed for ordinary social interaction. Mark Corrigan's spirit is most definitely hovering above me as I type this. Perhaps that's why I read SF: the classic loser's choice of reading – or it used to be until the nerds took over the levers of popular culture, to the bewilderment of people like my parents who spent my teenage years trying to ban SF from the house. 

OK, I should stop now: this is a rambling and random collection of thoughts. Futura: fun. Great to meet and talk to interesting, thoughtful and talented authors. A social minefield though. And now it's time to go to the launch of a history of The Hegemon. Which includes photographs taken by, well, me!

Political Smackdown!

No need for commentary from me: just a classy smack-down for my arrogant and out of touch MP, Paul Uppal:

Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West, Conservative):
On the issue of fact and fiction, I respectfully say to the hon. Gentleman that this comes in the context of a week when the shadow Chancellor, directly answering the question of whether Labour spent too much, said, “No, I don’t think we did.” That is not fiction; that is fact. This debate comes in that context.

Christopher Leslie (Nottingham East, Labour):

The hon. Gentleman seems to think that the problems of the global financial crisis were caused by too many police officers, nurses, teachers, hospitals, new schools… I am only trying to answer the question, Mr Amess. I am trying to be as helpful as possible to the new guru of No. 10’s policy unit. I envisage him sitting at the table there with many of the new fresh-faced Members as they produce detailed papers that are then ignored by the Prime Minister weeks later. I wish the hon. Gentleman luck. I hope he has some influence in that new august body and that when the reshuffle comes he does as well as the Minister assumes he will.
While I'm at it, Mr Uppal claimed last week that removing rights from workers in exchange for a few shares would transform employees into 'employers', referencing his own business experience. However, Mr Uppal is very reluctant to discuss what his company does and how it works. From what I can tell, Pinehurst Securities is enmeshed with his family, employs very few people and is merely a property speculation company. Are his unrelated employees shareholders?

 If he's so keen to enfold employees into the corporate structure, why does he require them to give up their health and safety protection, right not to be discriminated against and so on before British workers are permitted to rise above the status of wage slave?

 The truth is that this is a scam. It's another way of degrading working conditions for the poor, while providing a massive tax-avoidance loophole for the rich. Imagine you're signing on at a high level for a bank. You sign away your employment rights in exchange for a massive chunk of tax-free shares. You know that you don't need statutory protection: you can afford high-powered lawyers if working life takes a turn for the worse. Meanwhile your employers have found a way to pay you £50,000 without troubling the HMRC. Win-win. Unless you're one of the minimum wage drones Mr Uppal thinks are wrecking the economy.

Friday, 14 June 2013

No Love for Johnnie

What images are conjured up by that sort of title? For me, it's 1950s kitchen-sink drama. I'm half right: Wilfred Fienburgh's novel was published in 1959, shortly after the left-wing Labour MP's death in a car crash, aged 38. They say 'write about what you know', and this tale of Johnnie Byrne, socialist firebrand MP alienated by his party's rightwing leadership must surely be a thinly-disguised biographical tale. Mind you, from this summary it's a shame more Labour MPs didn't read it in the dark days of New Labour. I'm currently reading Bob Marshall-Andrew's caustic, outspoken memoir of his 13 years as a despised civil liberties-defending MP, hated by Blair and the rest of the leadership. I wonder if he's read No Love For Johnnie?

I haven't started reading it yet, but I'm looking forward to it. Who could resist a novel reviewed as 'the most utterly cynical book on any subject that has ever been written'?




Fienburgh was one of those almost extinct species: an MP who'd worked with his hands. He was a manual labourer whose (unspecified) war service gained him an MBE and an entrée to political life, first as a researcher and eventually as a London MP. Very much a figure of his time, he quickly developed a sideline in TV and newspaper appearances and apparently enjoyed what we'll euphemistically call a rounded social life. He was also a progressive socialist thinker and progressive author of political tracts and manifestos. Yet No Love For Johnnie (later filmed) seems to express the disillusionment felt by many on the serious left about parliamentary politics and the Labour Party in particular. 

The syndicalists always said that the workers' representatives will always lose sight of their interests once they get to London, don a fine suit and dine out with the opposition. Certainly the Labour Party as an institution has very rarely, if ever, come close to being a socialist party. 1945 was a high point, and the oft-slated 1983 Manifesto (once called the 'longest suicide note in history') looked pretty good, but it's always been too boxed-in by fear of the Mail, Tories and global business. Which is why we're in the state we are…



Thursday, 13 June 2013

Fired up!

Morning everybody. Did you enjoy me taking a day off from blogging yesterday? Or notice? It was a combination of exhaustion and business. I nearly got locked in the office at 10 p.m. the night before, having got caught up forensically examining Booz Allen's Code of Ethics, under which they fired Edward Snowden for leaking details of the NSA's Prism programme of spying on everyone, everywhere.

Then yesterday we had a series of meetings including one with the External Examiners – academics from other universities who analyse our curricula, assignments, marking, content and all the other things which constitute a course. It's the most important way we ensure that we're up to scratch intellectually and pedagogically. Weirdly, it was fun: we talked about all the things academics moan about in general, they praised the things the university is about to abolish (like the marking scheme) and we talked about individual modules. It was like being released after years in a hostage cell: words like 'imaginative' and 'sophisticated' were being bandied about. Our best undergraduate students, we're told, are almost operating at MA level, while even the mid-range ones are very strong compared with other universities. It's just so good to hear some validation now and then: we don't often get an outside perspective and it's easy to get caught up in the quotidian annoyances, losing sight of the genuinely good work we and our students do.

Somehow, perhaps dazed by all the praise (for my colleagues' work) I landed (well, volunteered for) the job of scanning and uploading all my colleagues' REF material: the chapters, articles and books which will be assessed in the programme which determines which universities will get research funding over the next few years. I suppose it's only right: I'm not in the REF exercise because too much of my suddenly free-flowing research is due out next year rather than this time (which is infuriating) but I can't help thinking that in a research-oriented university, academic staff wouldn't spend their time doing this kind of work. There's nothing demeaning about it, but having spent all these years training to produce research, it's not a great use of my salaried time. That said, the REF leaders for my subject group have spent the best part of two years doing this sort of thing, at great cost to their own research outputs, so it's time someone else took on some of the burden. They also serve who stand and photocopy…

At completely the other end of the working spectrum, I helped out with an MA class on Popular Culture the other evening which was probably the most fun I've ever had in a classroom. Or perhaps just the most fun I've ever had, which may give you a little more insight into my psychological condition. I was so enthused that I even took a picture of one of the whiteboards we filled:


Led by my colleague Steve with me chipping in and restraining him from playing yet another illustrative Grateful Dead track (he's a barely-reformed hippy), the subject was the dialectic relationship between postmodern religion and aspects of popular culture, and the ways in which they've affected each other: discourse, ritual, architecture, music and so on. With two of us and three students, we spent three hours talking about Victor Turner's work on rites of passage, Orientalism, the fascinating ways in which Western capitalist technology is used to construct a romanticised version of tribalism (a side-effect of postmodern discontent), Harry Potter and the Sorting Hat, rave culture, why Richard Branson is such an awful enemy of enlightened values, Bakhtin and the carnivalesque, Electronic Dance Music and trance, coffee bars and Tea Ceremonies, performativity, Foucault's notion of heterotopia (i.e. that people experience the same event in different ways), shamanism and techno-shamanism, ritual spaces, places and times and most of all, liminality and its essential place in human experience. All soundtracked by the direst music you can possibly imagine. Still: heavy metal next week. The relief…

So it's not all drudgery round here: my enthusiasm has been thoroughly rekindled by that class and I'm raring to go. I've just received the final proofs of one of my publications to check, and I'm spending the day doing final edits of another, having received the readers' reports. Today will be a good day. Once the after-effects of last night's curry with the external examiners subside…

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Ethics? Schmethics!

OK, it's 8.30 p.m. and I'm still in the office (been co-teaching a fantastic MA class), but this caught my eye. Edward Snowden, the man who leaked the NSA surveillance presentation has lost his job:
Booz Allen issued a statement on Tuesday saying that Snowden had been fired for "violations of the firm's code of ethics".
One of the things I teach here is a course called Media and Ethics. We start with Kant and Mill and build up their two ethical notions (ontological and utilitarian) and then examine the behaviour of media, PR firms and readers/audiences through these paradigms.

One of the things we talk about is whether corporate Codes of Conduct such as that espoused by the Chartered Institute for Public Relations practitioners are anything more than propaganda. After all, the various versions of the CIPR code have huge loopholes which silently acknowledge the impossibility of serving your client faithfully and having a rigid moral code. One of my colleagues writes about this in relationship to the discourse of professionalism. Certain jobs are seen as more than paid gigs and require the practitioner to adhere to higher moral codes than the rest of us. Lawyers for instance aren't just answerable to their clients: they have to uphold the law as the impartial arbiter of disputes, which is why they can't deliberately lie in pursuit of their client's case. Doctors swear to 'do no harm' and to treat patients without regard to who they are. Academics have a duty to 'The Truth' (though most of us deny it exists) and a complicated set of values which stop us passing students on the basis that they've paid their fees.

PR operatives aren't professionals in this sense: they have no higher moral code or duty to society, as a group, though of course individuals I'm sure are essentially honest. But the fact remains that the CIPR code is meaningless: you don't need to be a member to be a PR operative; it's full of loopholes, and nobody has ever been sanctioned under it. Not even Max Clifford. But it looks serious and persuades clients that they're in good hands.

Which brings us to Booz Allen and its 'code of ethics'. The one Edward Snowden has been fired for. Luckily, Booz Allen has put it online. If you think this is a shrewd PR move to make them look less like the rapacious henchmen of unrestrained state power, you'd be right. It's even got smiling Asian people, black and several smiling women on the front to show that when it comes to multicultural semiotics, Booz Allen is totally ethical, man. One of them even further down the page looks like he might be a little bit gay! Wow. Booz Allen's like the most swinging total surveillance corporation in the world!


This is such a slick bit of PR. Smiling happy multiracial employees. 'Our' values, like they're central and natural to Booz Allen's soul. And of course it's a Green book. Because green = gentle and harmonious and natural. Actually, this might be a little bit of a teensy error: the other Green Book I can think of is by one Colonel Muammar Gadaffi of Libya. He used to press it on every visitor. You can read it here.

But let's have a look inside. Here's a lovely graphic of their core values:


Sadly, it's prettier than it is honest. Client Service, for instance, is not an ethical concern. In the current case, Booz Allen has helped the US Government spy on all its citizens and most of the rest of the world. Why? Because it was paid for. Is Entrepreneurship an ethic? Most people would struggle to define it, but very few definitions would associate it with multi-billion dollar mega-corps, or find an ethical angle. Respect, Fairness, Integrity, Trust, Professionalism, Excellence and Teamwork are of course like babies and sunshine: hard to oppose in general, though often a bit whiffy and unpleasant when examined closely. After all, all these things might well mean 'spying on millions of citizens industriously and excellently'. It all depends on the context of these terms: to whom does Booz Allen answer? The only operative response is that phrase 'client service'. None of these other terms conflict with Booz Allen taking government money to abolish the privacy of citizens. It is, in fact, a meaningless and evasive list which isn't about ethics at all: it's about evading any discussion of ethics. Neither Kant (who believed that moral choices had to be instinctive and inflexible) nor Mill (who believed moral choices were determined by calculating their outcomes) would recognise this as an enunciation of moral principles.

What words are missing? For me, any commitment to 'honesty' and human rights. Of course they are: Booz Allen wouldn't make any money if its employees applied ethical standards to its daily operations. But let's look at the company's extended definition of these terms (click to enlarge):


The word 'honest' does appear, but only under 'professionalism', and only as a device for improving relationships between employees. There's no recognition of an ethical code beyond operational efficiency. Under 'Integrity', we find 'representing the truth', which sounds promising. It's not culturally relativistic and appears to protect employees - but the context implies strongly that this is about, again, the employees daily conduct. It's more about not phoning in sick when you have a hangover than enabling the oppressive state. Other clauses are so circular that they're meaningless: apparently behaving ethically means to 'adhere to the firm's ethics', which wouldn't test the moral boundaries of Charles Manson as far as I can see. Is 'insisting on excellence' an ethical value? What, I ask you, is 'doing what is right'? To me, Edward Snowden did what is 'right', but this list is clearly about being an obedient and efficient employee, not about adhering to any wider moral code.

The whole thing is subverted by Client Service, which makes it clear that the highest ethic is Doing What You're Told Without Question To Make Money From Your Clients, Whatever They Want.

On the other hand, if I was Edward Snowden's union caseworker, I'd be contesting his dismissal on the grounds that he has completely fulfilled the Entrepreneurship requirements: he has taken risks, engaged in creative thought and action, inspired millions of us with a shared vision, and taken on new responsibilities and skills. Well done Edward!

Check out these two clauses:


We can forget about the 'values based, inclusive' bit because they're just boiler-plate, or filler. But Edward has certainly shown 'independent thinking', 'continuous learning and individual initiative'. Perhaps too much for the company's liking. What he's breached is the 'pride in a client-centric organization focused on results'.

Let's look at Booz Allen's case studies. Here's Angela Cole. She's won an award.
With a military background and a husband on active duty, Booz Allen’s value system mirrors my own. My parents ingrained the golden rule in me to treat others as you want to be treated, so I have both a high standard and clear expectations for how I behave and what I expect of others. Most of my colleagues are the same way. That’s powerful, working with so many people so willing to not only do the right thing, but go the extra mile along the way. As a firm, we are quick to own up and step up. 
—Angela Cole, VIP Award Winner 2012 (San Diego, CA) ProfessionaLism 

Sounds promising, doesn't it. She's tied in to American military culture. Couldn't be more honest coughMyLaiGuantanamoBagramcough. She wants to do the 'right thing'. She goes the extra mile, she owns up and she steps up. It sounds exhausting.

It also sounds like utter bollocks. Of course military values aren't inherently ethical. The military take orders and commit crimes. That said, the military have legal and moral constraints in a democracy - such as the Geneva Convention. Angela may move in military circles, but she isn't a public servant in the way that a soldier is. She works for a company and so is free of such constraints: which is the entire reason why the US Government (and the British) are so keen on privatising military activity. No scrutiny, no high standards, no scruples. Just business.
And the fact that all these unspecified 'right things' are listed under the discourse of professionalism means that Angela is protected from serious moral choices. She won't have to decide whether spying on your porn fetish is wrong. She simply has to do 'the right thing' by her fellow employees – not by her fellow humans. It's just a Personnel thing.
Having read the whole document, it's very clear that the philosophical notion of ethics is entirely absent from Booz Allen's code. It has to be. Instead, we get a lot of sometimes sensible, sometimes meaningless rules about how to behave at work - the vast majority of this document is about not cheating on your expenses. The nature of the work is not up for any sort of discussion. Check out this section:
Q: What should I do if my job manager is asking our team to do something that does not violate the laws or our policies, but I do not think it is ethically correct?
A: You should constructively discuss the issue with your manager. don’t be confrontational or assume that your manager knows everything that you do— or that you know everything that he or she does. understand that where no violation of law or policy is involved, you may need to agree to disagree and comply with duly-given instructions. if you are the manager in this situation, consider the employee’s concerns with an open mind and, depending on the situation, respond to the employee, take the matter under further consideration, or raise the concerns to your leadership. As appropriate, explain the final decision to the employee. 

It explains what you should do if you have ethical qualms. What you should do is shut up. The Company Knows. Anything that is legal, is ethical (and let's not forget that the NSA is apparently operating under a secret interpretation of the Constitution, running its requests through a secret court on the occasions it bothers to go to court). You are not capable of moral choices. You must obey. This is entirely contradictory to the fine-sounding words about individual responsibility and growth: it's an explicit warning that the individual is inherently dispensable.

There are more uplifting sections but there's always poison in the rose:
simply because something is lawful does not mean that it is right or would reflect positively on us, individually or as a firm. indeed, upholding our commitment to ethical business means that we will voluntarily refuse to do something— even though it is allowed legally—if it is not consistent with our Core Values.
In another clause, one imagined ethical doubt is:
“This helps only the client—not me or the firm”
Whether or not an action fails to benefit the company is not, as far as I can remember, in either Kant or Mills' texts. Supplying Zyklon B clearly helped its makers but I don't think that selling it to the Nazis to murder millions of Jews, Gypsies, Communists, Jehovah Witnesses and others is quite what we mean by 'ethical'. Clearly Booz Allen just doesn't consider the things they do within any ethical framework: there's nothing in any of the company's statements to suggest they thought twice about the NSA gig, despite this 'commitment to ethical business'. I'm also worried that their concern in this paragraph is not the innate morality of an action, but whether or not it 'would reflect positively on us'. That's not ethics: that's PR.

I wish I was Edward's union caseworker. I'd love to get my teeth into the Non-Retaliation Policy:
Q: What does it mean when we say that there are no “negative consequences” for raising issues or reporting misconduct?
A: it means that we do not tolerate retaliation in any form. Retaliation includes actions such as termination of employment
Sadly, I'd lose. As this document proves time and again, 'ethics' and 'values' don't relate in any way to any concept of universal morality. Ed's broken the rules on internal behaviour, not proper morality. The core values only protect people who blow the whistle through company procedures, which are explicitly drawn up to stop employees developing moral qualms about the company's raison d'être. Complain about sexist comments? You might be protected.
you must act to protect the firm when you observe, or have a good reason to suspect, that someone is violating the law or regulations, our Green Book, or a firm policy.
Complain about industrial spying on innocent people? Guards!
I love this bit:
where we determine illegal conduct related to our business has occurred, we voluntarily disclose it to the appropriate authorities unless disclosure is prohibited by applicable law.
Clear? They'll report themselves for breaking the law, unless it's against the law to confess to breaking the law (and anyway, this doesn't cover Constitution-busting work where the client is the state). 

But let's get to the exciting stuff: p. 27 and Confidentiality of Client and Third Party Information. This should be good!
The best way to protect client information is to not take possession of it. Each of us must restrict receipt of client information to only information that is reasonably necessary to propose or conduct an engagement even if greater information access is offered.
How does this relate to the wholesale theft of billions of people's phone calls Tweets, sexts and so on? Er… it doesn't. You and I aren't clients. The US Government is. We're the product. Though they're very keen to stress that they really don't want identifiable details of medical patients:
unless contractually required for our work, we do not accept personally identifiable information from our clients.
'Unless contractually required', that is. And that, my friends, is why these words, and your visit to this site, have been noted and recorded by Ed's successors and colleagues.
And of course Booz Allen is very keen to protect the privacy of its own employees (except for when they use the phone, web, iTunes etc.):
Booz Allen employees may not disclose any non-public firm information (including personal data regarding employees) to any third- party except as authorized by the firm. each of us must exercise extra caution when handling an employee’s personal data. We do not disclose current or former employees’ personal data to third-parties other than confirmation of employment dates and position without prior written consent from the employee or former employee unless the information is required to fulfill a legitimate business need—such as employee benefits—or as required by law.

Er… within very vaguely drawn limits:
No expectation of Privacy: You have no expectation of privacy regarding your use of any firm or client-issued IT assets. We reserve the right to monitor and inspect your use of firm IT assets at any time without notice to you and without your consent. Clients may also perform similar inspection or monitoring in connection with the use of their IT assets. Also, remember that all data stored on a firm IT asset is owned by, or licensed to, the firm, and clients may have similar ownership rights to data stored on their IT assets.
Next time you read a Booz Allen statement to the press about this affair, think about this:
in communicating via any public channel, Booz Allen truthfully and accurately represents itself while respecting its confidentiality commitments to its clients, employees, suppliers, and others. We do not make statements to any third party that are untrue, inaccurate, or omit relevant information that make the statements misleading.
Yeah. Right. And the consequences of any breach are?

 It couldn't be clearer. Lawyers, doctors, teachers are professions because they have a duty which transcends the client. Booz Allen doesn't. It was paid to breach the human rights of millions of Americans and it did so. Yet Edward Snowden is the one who gets fired for breaching 'ethical codes'.
I'm angry (though not remotely surprised) about the NSA activities: all our governments and many corporations do it, or want to. But I think this is also an instructive event for all of us. We're surrounded by Codes of Conduct, Ethical Values, Mission Statements etc. etc. etc. We never read them, even when we sign them. We think they mean something. They don't. They're carefully constructed to persuade us that we can relax: our morality is outsourced and we never have to examine our conduct again - our employers have taken on the responsibility for us. And when we engage with other organisations, we assume their codes mean something. They don't. They're just diversionary tactics. All that matters is the law (which is easily circumvented) and our own values, a muscle deeply in need of more and frequent exercise. 

Your thoughts?
(Apologies for the scruffy formatting: Blogger won't save any of my edits and keeps messing up the presentation).