Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Beam Me Up, I'm Done

(I gather that there's a desperate shortage of online commentary about popular science fiction franchises: here's my contribution to remedy that shortfall).

When I was young, I watched repeats of the original Star Trek series, usually on BBC2 at 6 o'clock. This was just about tolerated by the rest of the family: my grandmother quite liked it and it filled a gap between Australian and European soaps for the rest. I liked it because it was utopian, troubled and thoughtful. Though there was a certain amount of bug-eyed-monster zapping, and Kirk's rampant heterosexuality gradually dawned on me, it was clear even to an undiscriminating viewer like me that here was a series that used encounters with the Other to examine the dominant culture's values as well as to reinforce them.

Vietnam (originally for, eventually against), colonialism, nuclear weapons, racial hatred, the role of the individual in maintaining or ending oppression, the tensions between emotion and logic, principle and pragmatism – all these dilemmas were played out in bright colours amidst a beautiful late-60s version of the future, written by serious SF writers who often felt they were rather slumming it by doing TV work.

I took a pass for The Next Generation, which felt too weedy for me: part of the 1990s' fashion for a particularly egotistical version of spiritualism and self-help (a ship's counsellor? Really?) though it does have some strong elements. Deep Space Nine was a poor rip-off of Babylon 5, though Sajid Javid's philosophical and physical resemblance to the Ferengi is striking. I loved Voyager, which seemed to be a return to the stripped-down dynamic of the original: a small crew lost and struggling to comprehend and survive encounters with each other as well as with profoundly different peoples.

Then there was Enterprise. Oh dear. A show with such promise: back to the early days of humanity emerging into the community of civilisations, but which in fact became the TV analogue to Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror, gleefully endorsing torture.

As for the feature films: I have a much softer spot for them than many people. The Motion Picture got by on wide-eyed mystical fun. The Wrath of Khan had a top-quality bad guy and a line in Shakespeareanism that several of the movies retained

plus of course the death of Spock and the start of a space-bromance story arc that just about kept Star Trek III: The Search for Spock alive (along with some Jewish-derived ritualism and the pleasure of seeing Shatner et al. trussed up in corsets under their generously-cut uniforms). Number 4, The Voyage Home was well-meaning eco-criticism with some fine moments of comedy. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was rather poor and the sixth one, The Undiscovered Country (that's a Hamlet line kids) was a confused but again well-meaning attempt to examine the messy consequences of the end of the Cold War. The First Next Generation movie Generations, was appropriately about a failing and ageing franchise tried to come to terms with irrelevance through a plot line about an alien race keeping itself young by rather unpleasant methods, then accepting that time marches on. Star Trek VIII: First Contact was what inspired the Enterprise series: an enjoyable tale of myth-busting as the Enterprise's crew go back in time to meet the unlikely and largely unpleasant selfish drunk who got humanity into space back in the day. Good knockabout fun.

And then, having discarded most of the original actors from TOS and TNG, we got the JJ Abrams reboot. The first two were kind of fun: glossy high-octane stuff with more than an added touch of 90210 or Dawson's Creek. In Space. Bearable, but not particularly Star Trek beyond the signifiers.

Beyond this, I've even incorporated Trek into my professional life: stardate 2017 sees the publication of my seminal, earth-shattering paper on Star Trek, Doctor Who and Governmentally. I even bought the Beard of Evil towel to drape over the lectern for the conference presentation version.

Last night, I went to see Star Trek: Beyond. 

Beyond Parody.
Beyond Belief. 

Beyond me, certainly. How bad was it? Warp 10 bad. Phasers-on-stunningly terrible. So execrable that I cannae take any more. Worse than any pun I could come up with. I went with, amongst others, an astrophysicist: we didn't even get on to the film's scientific delusions, so engrossed were we in enumerating its dramatic flaws. Visually, of course, it was amazing. The design of the space station Yorktown was clearly derived from 1960s science fiction illustrations. The rest though, was dreadful. Preening post-teen Californians? Oh yes. Appalling, leaden bromance? Present and correct. Faux-profound exposition of the moral and philosophical underpinnings of the Federation that could have been written by a teary-eyed 4 year-old? You got it. Apparently we should all be nice to each other.
Spock: Fear of death is illogical.
Bones: Fear of death is what keeps us alive.
Captain James T. Kirk: We got no ship, no crew, how're going to get out of this one?
Commander Spock: We will find hope in the impossible.
Captain James T. Kirk: My dad joined Starfleet because he believed in it. I joined on a dare.
Doctor 'Bones' McCoy: You joined to see if you could live up to him.
Doctor 'Bones' McCoy: You spent all this time trying to be your father, and now you're wondering just what it means to be you. 
Krall: Unity is not your strength. It is a weakness.
Captain James T. Kirk: I think you're underestimating humanity.

Every time an actor assumed the expression usually associated with severe constipation, you knew one of these 'deep' statements was coming. By about an hour in to this overlong film I was sighing. Another 15 minutes in I was balling my fists. By two hours I was curled up in a ball, sobbing and begging for the pain to stop. But at least I understood the ennui expressed by James T. Kirk a couple of years into his five-year mission.

An ancient weapon taken apart and disposed of in deep space so that it can't be used again, suddenly reacquired? It's there, apparently borrowed from any old episode of Stargate and indeed the later Hitchhiker's Guide novels. There's some awful, soul-sapping attempts at humour, an ancient motorbike found in the bowels of an ancient ship on an alien planet that still works and is integral to what passes for a plot, and the universe is saved by a Beastie Boys track played on a galactic stereo system. The women are still largely objects of fantasy, and rather dependent despite superficial attempts to make them heroic. The weakness of one woman's emotion is the means by which the bad guys acquire the fearsome weapon too. Feminists: in space, nobody can hear you scream.

The whole thing felt like one of the Transformers movies, or The Fast and the Furious. Some of the characters appeared to be directly derived from their Galaxy Quest parodiesRelentless, shouty, loud, plot holes deeper than the biggest black hole imaginable and a deliberate insult to the intelligence and moral core of the original series (and even the movies). It felt like the dialogue was simply filler between overlong music videos. No reflection, no moral doubt, no nuance. Just some uniformed teenagers getting bored and angsty and fighty.

It felt like someone had dug up the corpse of Star Trek, smeared it with their own faeces, then worn its skin as a suit in some kind of enormously profitable act of necrophilia. Except without the 'philia'. Yes, the old Treks were often cheesy, morally flawed, overly-sentimental and subject to the whims of lazy scriptwriters and hack directors, let alone the vicissitudes of its cultural context. But they were never, ever, cynical. They reached for the stars and sometimes – often – failed to reach escape velocity. Star Trek: Beyond lacks ambition, soul, brain cells and purpose. It's dead, but it doesn't even deserve a decent burial in space.

I have been Star Trek's friend. I can no longer claim that I always shall be. Its assimilation into the mindless collective has been completed. This is what Justin Lin, Paramount and the whole damned crew have done:

In the words of this film's Kirk, 'let's never do that again'.

PS: It was nice that Sulu is shown to be in a same-sex marriage. That bit was fine. The other 119 minutes though…

Friday, 22 July 2016

Every Loser Wins, Or How I Became An Academic

When did I first realise that I was destined for a career in academia? Obviously as teacher of sorts I should add some qualifiers: 'career' is a hollow joke and I'm not entirely convinced I'm really an academic, so perhaps the question is 'when did I realise that I was unsuited to what people habitually refer to as normality?.

A few clues appeared early on. I recall being invited to a meeting with the head teacher and my parents on the subject of reading. Aged 8, I'd exhausted the school's entire stock. I'm not sure I understood it all, but I'd read it. I gather that a donation was secured and more boring books about children learning practical and moral lessons were procured. A similar thing happened at the local library a few years later. I moved on to the adults' books and – perhaps slightly weirdly – decided I may as well tackle them alphabetically. The advantage of this was that I became very widely read, though not very discerning. Additionally, some extremely heated discussions ensued when my parents – hugely intellectual but entirely uninterested in fiction – took offence at some content. They objected to science fiction in its entirety, as well as anything with bad language in. Imagine their displeasure when they found me tucking into an SF novel whose protagonist was called Porno! (If anyone can tell me what that title was, I'd be very grateful). Having 4 sisters and a brother, I also worked my way through the complete works of Enid Blyton and similar authors, and now have an unparalleled though perhaps slightly misleading understanding of a) boarding schools and b) horses.

I don't have any regrets about finding science fiction early. After reading some pulp stuff about rockets, I got to B in the adult section and found Douglas Adams and JG Ballard, which made me realise that science fiction wasn't really about technical details and dematerialisation, but about the possibilities and horrors of what we're already doing to each other: utopians and dystopians using future frameworks to hold up a mirror to capitalism, imperialism and all sorts of other -isms. And being entirely indiscriminate, I read all the sub-genres and strands going. I also read Catherine Cookson and Jilly Cooper and Miss Read and all sorts of other things you wouldn't expect a schooled to be reading, which is why I'm not a total snob.

I know that beyond your socially-constructed definitions of quality (and I do think there are differences in quality between say Gawain and Goldfinger), there are socially-constructed contexts and uses for all sorts of text that are all worth taking seriously (one of my friends told me all about Stalag Fiction: Hebrew-language Nazi concentration camp erotica, so nothing about human behaviour gives me the vapours any more.

Playtime at school was rather binary: I was either reading a book or being beaten up, usually for reading a book, which apparently was an outward sign of being 'bent' (teenagers then weren't known for their liberal qualities) or a coping strategy for being bad at sport. After a while the thugs got bored and it was accepted that as long as I kicked the ball back when it came near me, my presence would be tolerated. It also led to another distinct occasion on which I realised that I wasn't Normal. Not having a VCR at home (the devil's work) I headed off to a mate's house to spend an entire day watching Vietnam movies. After taking four hours to watch Full Metal Jacket because they kept rewinding it to view heads being blown off in spectacular fashion, I noticed that I wasn't watching it for the same reasons. My friends liked a) gory deaths and b) spotting continuity errors. I didn't care for the explosions but was thrilled by the idea of an anti-war war movie, even one which didn't care about the Vietnamese in the slightest (as Caroline Magennis says, this is why academics can't have nice things – they can't help picking holes in them). I remember sitting there wondering why it felt like my friends and I were watching two different movies: even now I run sessions on reader-response with students in which we talk about where their interpretations come from and why extreme boredom is a perfectly acceptable response to a text as long as you're prepared to analyse its origins.

After a while (a very, very long while: 3 high schools and a university entrance via the Clearing system later), the advantages of doing nothing but read became apparent academically. OK, I lacked any social skills whatsoever and couldn't keep up with a bronchitic slug and was constantly disappointed by the real world's lack of style, manners and car chases, but I had acquired some critical faculties independent of the philistinism of the educational system and national curriculum. I'd read all of Jane Austen because she was near the start of the alphabet, not because I'd been told her work was Classic and Important. Rather than being turned off by veiled comments delivered over tea, I found a sarcastic, worried and witty voice which had plenty to say to me despite me being very far removed from stately homes and muddy petticoats.

Getting to university after this kind of self-education meant that I was in the right frame of mind to work independently, to resist regurgitating the opinions of others, and to dive heading into any text I was asked to read, then read even more off-piste. It didn't feel like work: Clarissa led to Pamela led to Shamela; Shakespeare led to Gammer Gurton's Needle, The Chester Noah Play and all the other Mystery Plays, but also to Edna St. Vincent Millay, the Harlem Renaissance, and Anne Lister; the Brontes led to Radcliffe and Beckford and Edgeworth, Kate Roberts and Rose Macaulay… It also helped that Bangor University's English department, while being fairly conservative in many ways, was packed with interesting tutors who encouraged people to head off into the unknown, and to take chances: I acquired an education in philosophy, performed (terribly) on stage, got some rudimentary Welsh and ended up doing an MA and PhD. The result is that I still spot odd things and patterns in texts and how people relate to them, but now I get paid to point them out to other people rather than beaten up. Take that, former classmates!

Which is all a long-winded way of saying: if any of this sounds like you, you have a bright future as an academic ahead of you. Well, a future anyway. Wait 'til I tell you about the admin. You'll love that bit.

PS: recent reading recommendations: I've just read Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond and Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The former seems like a slightly dotty period piece, with one of the most famous first lines ever:
“Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, climbing down from that animal on her return from high Mass.”
It's on oddity which mixes Brits-abroad comedy, a tinge of Cold War fear, an obsessive interest in the minutiae of relations between Anglo-Catholics, ordinary Anglicans, Catholics and Muslims, which suddenly and belatedly takes a very dark turn. Funny and very moving. Jackson's novel isn't funny at all. I picked it up on a whim and was hooked immediately. It manages to combine light, conversational style with the darkest of psychologies: the 'secret' can be guessed within the opening pages but it's a horrifying, Gothic novel like distilled Faulkner.

I'm going back to random reading over the summer: I've a shelf or two of old orange Penguins. I've put them in order of publication and I've started at the beginning. Next up is Rex Warner's The Aerodrome

Thursday, 14 July 2016

It's not fair

Today is my birthday and the cosmos has bought me The Apocalypse, at least politically. I've been chairing panels at the British Comparative Literature Association's annual conference. It goes like this:

Beep: Happy Birthday
Beep: Another Lizard Creature has been put in charge
(20 minutes of erudite high-minded discussion of literary matters by clever people)
I say something dumb
Beep: Beelzebub is now Minister for Baby-Eating
I clumsily introduce the next genius to talk about things I haven't read.
(Another 20 minutes of intellectual exploration).
I hope fervently that someone else has better questions than the ones I've written down in case of embarrassing silence
Beep: New Environment Minister says 'I'm against it. The deforestation starts tomorrow'.

And so on, ad infinitum. 

Yesterday I watched the Cabinet Appointments and wondered if Theresa May is trolling us. It's the auto-satirising government. For instance, not long ago she posed in this t-shirt (sorry to start by discussing a female PM's clothing but this time it is relevant.

This occasioned the Telegraph to ask:

Well, maybe. But one of her first appointments was David Davis, who ran his election campaign based on a Page Three-style pun. So I doubt it. 

As to the rest: let's just remember that the Foreign Secretary once referred in a speech to 'picanninnies' with 'watermelon smiles' and claimed that black people had lower IQs than whites, campaigned against immigration while omitting to mention his American birth and citizenship, was fired from one newspaper for faking quotes and was recorded helping a friend organise a beating over a business dispute.

Oh yes, he also published a comic novel about suicide bombers. It's called Seventy Two Virgins and it is quite, quite racist. All the Arabic characters have hooked noses, which gives you a rough idea of Boris's literary abilities.

 He also thinks that the ban on fox-hunting puts the Labour party at the moral level of Nazi Germany and Saddam hussein's Iraq.

What a day to be alive.

Monday, 4 July 2016

From Despair Thus High Uplifted: John Milton Live Blogs the Tory Election

Lines Upon The Current Election Within Ye Conservative Party, penned somewhat in advance by Mr. John Milton, Regicide and former Latin Secretary to the Commonwealth.

Prologue: having Fallen, ye Demons of the Conservative Interest do Cast About for an Leader to renew the Warre 'Gainst Heav'n.

But first whom shall we send
In search of this new world, whom shall we find
Sufficient? who shall tempt with wandring feet
The dark unbottom'd infinite Abyss
And through the palpable obscure find out
His uncouth way, or spread his aerie flight
Upborn with indefatigable wings
Over the vast abrupt, ere he arrive
The happy Ile; what strength, what art can then
Suffice, or what evasion bear him safe
Through the strict Senteries and Stations thick
Of Angels watching round? Here he had need
All circumspection, and we now no less
Choice in our suffrage; for on whom we send,
The weight of all and our last hope relies.

all sat mute,
Pondering the danger with deep thoughts; and each
In others count'nance read his own dismay
Astonisht: none among the choice and prime
Of those Heav'n-warring Champions could be found
So hardie as to proffer or accept
Alone the dreadful voyage…

Part Ye First: Mr Boris Johnson, giving his Celebrated Rendition of Satan:

High on a Throne of Royal State, which far
Outshon the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showrs on her Kings Barbaric Pearl and Gold,
Satan exalted sat, by merit rais'd
To that bad eminence; and from despair
Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires
Beyond thus high, insatiate to pursue
Vain Warr with Heav'n, and by success untaught
His proud imaginations thus displaid.
who here
Will envy whom the highest place exposes
Formost to stand against the Thunderers aim
Your bulwark, and condemns to greatest share
Of endless pain? where there is then no good
For which to strive, no strife can grow up there
From Faction; for none sure will claim in Hell
Precedence, none, whose portion is so small
Of present pain, that with ambitious mind
Will covet more. With this advantage then
To union, and firm Faith, and firm accord,
More then can be in Heav'n, we now return
To claim our just inheritance of old

Part Ye Second: Moloch, played by Dr Liam Fox, Apothecary and Meddler:

My sentence is for open Warr: Of Wiles,
More unexpert, I boast not:

let us rather choose [ 60 ]
Arm'd with Hell flames and fury all at once
O're Heav'ns high Towrs to force resistless way,
Turning our Tortures into horrid Arms
Against the Torturer; when to meet the noise
Of his Almighty Engin he shall hear [ 65 ]
Infernal Thunder, and for Lightning see
Black fire and horror shot with equal rage
Among his Angels; and his Throne it self
Mixt with Tartarean Sulphur, and strange fire

Part Ye Third: Mammon, guis'd as Ms Andrea Leadsom, counselling continued resistance to Europe Heaven:

what place can be for us
Within Heav'ns bound, unless Heav'ns Lord supream
We overpower? Suppose he should relent
And publish Grace to all, on promise made
Of new Subjection; with what eyes could we
Stand in his presence humble, and receive
Strict Laws imposed
Our greatness will appeer
Then most conspicuous, when great things of small,
Useful of hurtful, prosperous of adverse
We can create, and in what place so e're
Thrive under evil, and work ease out of pain
Through labour and insurance.
All things invite
To peaceful Counsels, and the settl'd State
Of order, how in safety best we may
Compose our present evils, with regard
Of what we are and were, dismissing quite
All thoughts of warr: ye have what I advise.

Part Ye Fourth: Mrs Theresa May in full Costume as the Prime Minister of Hell, Beelzebub counselling Unity and Sneaky Revenge:

Thrones and Imperial Powers, off-spring of heav'n [ 310 ]
Ethereal Vertues; or these Titles now
Must we renounce, and changing stile be call'd
Princes of Hell? for so the popular vote
Inclines, here to continue, and build up here
A growing Empire; doubtless; while we dream, [ 315 ]
And know not that the King of Heav'n hath doom'd
This place our dungeon, not our safe retreat
Beyond his Potent arm, to live exempt
From Heav'ns high jurisdiction, in new League
Banded against his Throne, but to remaine [ 320 ]
In strictest bondage, though thus far remov'd,
Under th' inevitable curb, reserv'd
His captive multitude
Warr hath determin'd us, and foild with loss [ 330 ]
Irreparable; tearms of peace yet none
Voutsaf't or sought; for what peace will be giv'n
To us enslav'd, but custody severe,
And stripes, and arbitrary punishment
Inflicted? and what peace can we return,
But to our power hostility and hate,
Untam'd reluctance, and revenge though slow,
Yet ever plotting how the Conqueror least
May reap his conquest, and may least rejoyce
In doing what we most in suffering feel?
Nor will occasion want, nor shall we need
With dangerous expedition to invade
Heav'n, whose high walls fear no assault or Siege,
Or ambush from the Deep.

Part Ye Fifth: Belial, here Performed by Mr Michael Gove, Esq. 

On th' other side up rose
Belial, in act more graceful and humane;
A fairer person lost not Heav'n; he seemd
For dignity compos'd and high exploit:
But all was false and hollow; though his Tongue
Dropt Manna, and could make the worse appear
The better reason, to perplex and dash
Maturest Counsels: for his thoughts were low;
To vice industrious, but to Nobler deeds
Timorous and slothful: yet he pleas'd the ear,
And with perswasive accent thus began.
our final hope
Is flat despair; we must exasperate
Th' Almighty Victor to spend all his rage,
And that must end us, that must be our cure,
To be no more; sad cure; for who would loose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being

and thus is born ye Reluctant Candidacy of Mr. Michael Gove now as Satan:

Satan, whom now transcendent glory rais'd
Above his fellows, with Monarchal pride
Conscious of highest worth, unmov'd thus spake

But I should ill become this Throne, O Peers,
And this Imperial Sov'ranty, adorn'd
With splendor, arm'd with power, if aught propos'd
And judg'd of public moment, in the shape
Of difficulty or danger could deterr
Mee from attempting. Wherefore do I assume
These Royalties, and not refuse to Reign,
Thus saying rose
The Monarch, and prevented all reply,
Prudent, least from his resolution rais'd
Others among the chief might offer now
(Certain to be refus'd) what erst they fear'd;
And so refus'd might in opinion stand
His Rivals, winning cheap the high repute
Which he through hazard huge must earn

Part Ye Last: Response by Ye Tory Party Faithfull:

He scarce had finisht, when such murmur filld
Th' Assembly, as when hollow Rocks retain
The sound of blustering wind
no less desire [ 295 ]
To found this nether Empire, which might rise
By pollicy, and long process of time,
In emulation opposite to Heav'n.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Bullshit and the End Times.

Back in the late 18th and 19th centuries, there was a minor craze for contemplating The End, through the medium of vast, thought-provoking canvases of familiar landscapes. Europe's ruling élites were familiar with the ruins of Rome, aware of the parallels between that empire and the various ones they were constructing, and a small proportion of these chaps wondered if sic transit gloria applied to them too. 

One of these was Sir John Soane, who not only commissioned the enormous, Classical, Bank of England complex, but also commissioned Joseph Gandy to paint his new gaff utterly destroyed in some unspecified future.

Joseph Gandy, A Vision of Sir John Soane’s Design for the Rotunda of the Bank of England as a Ruin (1789)

Not that this taste for thrilling contemplation of destruction has gone: there's a rather distasteful aestheticisation of industrial decay known as 'ruin porn' in photographic circles, from Chernobyl to guided tours of Detroit. Then there's Ballard's Tales of the Near Future. 

Why am I thinking about this stuff now? Well, it's been a weird week. On Monday and Tuesday I went to Swansea to examine a PhD and ransack the bookshops of what Dylan Thomas called an 'ugly, lovely town'. Barely a new infrastructural development lacked an EU plaque, yet like all of Wales outside Y Fro Cymraeg voted to leave. I returned to lengthy emails and texts from colleagues and friends from all points on the political spectrum expressing feelings of devastation. One of my friends – a banker – has joined the Conservative Party to vote for the most ludicrous leadership candidate possibly to ensure that they become unelectable. Though looking back on this week, I'm not sure the Tories need the help. 

The Labour Party is ripping itself apart as the right and left wings, the MPs and the members, the pragmatists and the idealists, the capitalists and the socialists engage in a blood bath. Personally I'm stuck in the middle. I happen to agree with pretty much everything Corbyn believes, but I think it's true to say that he hasn't managed to engage in the day-to-day political trench warfare required in this appalling polity. His opponents, however, are awful: most of them are right-wingers whose own constituents defied them to vote Out, a lot of them have blood on their hands from Iraq, and they're precisely the kind of polished, remote, managerialists the public now hates utterly. 

Yesterday I went to London for a British Academy lecture on Writing Political Leaders, which turned out to be a chat with Michael Dobbs of House of Cards fame. I read the newspaper on the train. Stirling had plummeted. Investment had crashed. Farage had insulted his fellow MEPs to applause from Marine Le Pen, a halal butcher's shop was burned down in Walsall, a Polish cultural centre had been vandalised, and several people had been racially abused in the street. The Governor of the Bank of England had announced that billions would have to be magicked up to save the British economy following the vote. The Leavers were explaining that they never really promised to spend £350m a week extra on the NHS:

Actually, I agree: people are quite naturally reading the bus slogan as a continuous sentence rather than as separate sentences. Remember The Simpsons

Bart sees an advert for Itchy & Scratchy cells:
Commercial: Each one is absolutely, one hundred percent guaranteed to increase in value.
Voiceover: Not a guarantee.

As I entrained, Boris Johnson's rag doll Michael Gove announced he was standing for the leadership of the Conservative Party. As I detrained, I heard that Boris Johnson wasn't standing, the night after Mrs Gove the Daily Mail columnist accidentally sent a weird strategy email to a member of the public, which advised her husband on negotiating with Johnson. To her, the approval of Rupert Murdoch and the Mail's editor was of paramount importance: the actual citizens weren't mentioned. So we have a Tory lineup (this morning, anyway) of Sajid Javid, a Ferengi who believes only in the Rules of Acquisition and whose favourite book is Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and whose favourite film is the adaptation of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Liam Fox who is essentially Major Corkoran from Le Carré's The Night Manager, Big Brother's keener protege Theresa May, Stephen Crabb the (he says former) homophobic bigot who is backed by his associates Malfoy and Goyle, Andrea Leadsom who is a wholly-owned subsidiary of various hedge funds and who likes to send her money away on holiday to some very discreet islands in the sun, and Michael Gove who looks like Pob, sold schools to his rapacious weirdo friends in business and assorted sects, and insisted to a Parliamentary committee that all schools could and should be 'above average':

Q98 Chair: One is: if "good" requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?
Michael Gove: By getting better all the time.

Q99 Chair: So it is possible, is it?
Michael Gove: It is possible to get better all the time.
Q100 Chair: Were you better at literacy than numeracy, Secretary of State?
Michael Gove: I cannot remember.
The Remainers thought everything would be fine because chaps will do the decent thing. The Leavers never thought they'd win so didn't bother thinking about what might happen if they did. The financial sector is in meltdown (but will recover just fine even if it means stepping over heaps of our skulls). Labour is engaged in a protracted and cynical war and the government of the country is staggering from crisis to crisis like someone stuck in a wasp's nest who has forgotten where the entrance is. One of my friends pointed me to Harry Frankfurt's short book On Bullshit, in which he explains that there's a difference between liars, who at least know what truth is and orient themselves around it, and bullshitters, who speak according to the pressing demands of the moment without having even the regard for truth required to be a successful liar. As an analysis of our post-truth politics, it really works.

However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something. There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity which resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline.  
It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit. 
Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires…It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art.
The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor co conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction… He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. 
Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a personís obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled – whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others – to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. 

No wonder I'm thinking apocalyptic thoughts.

So yes, I went off to London for this Writing Politicians Event. Before that my cool and clever young cousin took me to a glamorous restaurant: we were the only customers who lacked a limo and chauffeur outside, and couldn't discuss our yachts. You could tell it was a great restaurant because despite being a decent cook myself I had absolutely no idea how the various dishes were made. Then we headed off to take in a matinee to cheer ourselves up. It was called The Truth, a French farce in which an incompetent adulterer discovers that his wife, lover and her husband (the protagonist's best friend, who is sleeping with his wife) are slightly more competent adulterers than him. Sparkling, well-constructed and feather light, it promised to be a grand distraction. Only it gradually dawned on me that it was a comical allegory of the British Ruling Classes. There's Boris, betraying his friend Dave. Here's Michael, betraying Boris… et cetera ad infinitum.

Then off I went to the British Academy, the only branch of academia outside Oxbridge that had hundreds of millions of pounds to spare, judging by its accommodation round the corner from Buckingham Palace. It was billed as 'Writing Political Leaders' and featured Dobbs talking to an Oxford Professor of Chinese History. I went because I'm researching politicians' writing at the moment and I had Dobbs on my panel at the Cheltenham Festival. I was hoping to meet other people researching the same thing, and also a tiny bit annoyed that I hadn't been asked to be part of the panel.

Turns out that it wasn't an analytical or academic event at all: it was a mutual love-in for old and young Tories, and my God the larval Tories were terrifying: 18-22 year-olds dressed as their great-grandfathers keen to learn how they too could be Francis Urquhart or Frank Underwood. Certainly a future Tory leader was in the crowd – probably one or two of them have joined the race this morning. It was also rather creepy that not a single female said a word throughout the 90 minutes. Margaret Thatcher was reverentially discussed (Dobbs candidly and admiringly said that she dispensed with his services ruthlessly a week before the 1987 election and Edwina Currie's books got a passing mention), but this was an event for, by and about the patriarchy. Still, on such a dramatic day it was interesting to be surrounded by Tories: they had nothing interesting to say on the subject (Dobbs: 'I don't know whether Boris and Michael are acting out of principle or for personal reason, it's usually the latter') but their very demeanour was instructive. Dobbs wheeled out the same anecdotes he had at Cheltenham and there were no interesting questions. Not exactly up to the level I expected from the British Academy but I suppose they're interested in maintaining links to power. And at least I learned that the field is still free for my amazing revelations…

Who knows what fresh horrors this afternoon will bring?