Abstract: Autobiography or confessional? The title is not plagiarised from the literary offering by a certain Mr. Tim Griggs, but that of a short story that has been languishing in my archives for over ten years, an ironic comment on the requirement in modern Western society for a female to be attached and the difficulties in attaining this state of “bliss”.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Pips and Gown

Filed under: — site admin @ 12:53 pm

My relationship with male authority figures has always been fraught.  From my earliest years of squirming on a hard, unrelenting pew with only a Pan Drop for consolation (possibly also a tactical move on the part of my kind neighbour to avoid the restlessness induced by the sheer tedium of the sermon manifesting itself in commentary), I was subjected to subtle brainwashing about the innate rightness of males in power, the Supreme Being a father figure (mirroring the domination of earthly patriarchs), concerned for the welfare of his charges, kindly, yet distant, benevolent, yet not averse to dispensing brutal discipline when his querulous underlings challenged his ascendancy.  A man in charge was inscribed in the very order of things, so natural as to go unnoticed, a fact of life corroborated by countless examples in my everyday interactions.  As soon as I stopped being overwhelmed by the inexpungible stain of having been born female and the attendant guilt (so skillfully manipulated by His representatives in the church with their monopoly on absolution), I discarded God as a noxious encumbrance.

Yet how saddened I was at the news that one of the icons of childhood Saturday evenings had passed awayBrigadier Sir Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart belonged to the Establishment, yet his admiration for the Doctor was genuine.  Although conventional in his attitudes, he was not as starched as a military moustache and tolerated his scientific adviser’s flaws out of respect for his knowledge and in recognition of their common cause, protecting humanity.  I unconditionally adored the Brigadier.  He was handsome, dashing, level-headed no matter how dire the threat, stoically resigned both to the doctor’s soft-heartedness and his propensity to disappear for prolonged periods only for them to pick up where they left off when he finally returned, unfailingly loyal in his friendship.  Relegated to the sofa as my Father claimed his rightful place in the armchair (he would never miss an episode), I was enthralled by the Brigadier’s adventures, how the Doctor could temper his no-nonsense pragmatism  when confronted with invaders to at least give him a chance to dissuade the latter from their plans in the interests of self-preservation.  The Brigadier could always be relied on to save the day, indulging the Doctor with mild amusement or exasperation depending on the direness of the circumstances, yet willing to accommodate his desire to negotiate rather than succumbing to the knee-jerk prohibition a commander of lesser calibre might have resorted to (the default setting instilled by rigorous training).

The image that most haunts my memory is of Jo Grant sitting on the floor, so engrossed in reading that she does not notice a repulsive giant maggot crawling towards her, her complete vulnerability conveyed to perfection by the nakedness of her exposed back in the carefully chosen dress.  Although the Brigadier did not come to her rescue by firing a few rounds into the vile creature, this was one cliffhanger that did not inspire nightmares, as, in spite of plot constraints (I was only 8 when the installment was broadcast), I anticipated his intervention, his presence so comforting.

Latterly, I find I identify with fictional male characters who occupy a position within a hierarchy broadly analogous with my own.  Over the last few months, my favoured escape from the stresses and strains of a workplace that devours ever-increasing amounts of my time and energies (intellectual, creative and emotional) has been into a similarly paranoid environment, the world of The X-Files (together with the Hungarian and my son we have watched every single episode plus the films).  I have earned scorn and derision not only from them, but from my dear friend Annie, who summed up their collective reaction succinctly: “You are deranged!” on the subject of which I find more attractive: Mulder or Assistant Director Walter Skinner.  Sorry, but I have remained true to type in this respect: Mulder embodies the masochistic male persecuted and suffering for his beliefs, an archetype drawn for Western religious tradition.  Skinner, by contrast, is more decisive, with his military background (the Marines), yet faces dilemmas and difficulties I can most certainly empathise with.

From the outside, Skinner wields power, yet his exercise of it is hedged about not only by the institutional imperatives inherent to every bureaucracy (and which by definition must take precedence over individual projects, such as Mulder’s quest for the truth), but his room for manoeuvre is also severely circumscribed by the scheming of his superiors as well as the machinations of the grey eminence lurking malevolently in the shadows, whose menace permeates Skinner’s office, symbolised by the cigarette smoke that lingers after his departure.

In order to climb to his present rank, Skinner has been forced to trade in a portion of his integrity, entering into compromises, which implicate him in the wider conspiracy, however marginally and however reluctantly.  No matter how much sympathy he might feel for Mulder and Scully, he has no option but to act as an agent of the forces they seek to expose.  He too possesses knowledge it is better for them not to be made party to.  Where he can, he leaves a space for autonomous action for them, turning a blind eye to their potentially disruptive and dangerous activities.  When left with no option, he instinctively sides with his subordinates at considerable risk to his career and even life.

Personal experience is not as straightforward and some affronts can neither be forgotten nor entirely forgiven.  Inevitably, my thoughts drift back to secondary school and the rector, swathed in his gown of mourning black, prowling the corridors to enforce his reign of fear.  His obituaries in the local and national press last year did not cause me to review the past with a glow of nostalgia, a melancholy fondness or introspective regret at the ineluctable destiny of all flesh.  I have no reason to dispute the testimonials about his dedication to his calling or that he rose from humble origins, yet to my mind (then and now), he epitomised the arbitrariness and unfairness of male authority.  This is the juncture at which wider social narratives intersect with my own drama.

Maggie, the most brilliant of them all, who circumvented the strict uniform rules with wonderfully insubordinate inventiveness and flair, wrapping a PLO scarf round her neck in the chillier months (in those days you could be belted for wearing skirts deemed provocatively – in both senses – short and overt political statements were anathema).  An ardent Communist in defiance of her privileged roots, she loathed the drilling cold-bloodedly calculated to transform hormonally-tormented, passionate teenage (potential or actual) rebels into model citizens, meek and obedient, knowing our place all too well.  She bailed out to study medicine at the age of 17 rather than put up with that constricting milieu any longer than absolutely necessary.  She had not been infected by the snobbery of reputation and did not stay on simply to pander to the expectations of parents or friends.  Any university would have scrambled to offer her a place.  She had nothing to prove and was free of the insecurity that whispers continually in my ear.

My Latin teacher, a much-loved eccentric, who always wore a bow tie signalling that he would play by the rules, but never abandon his individuality in the process, encouraged me to apply for an Oxbridge place.  My results were unmatched in my chosen subjects (I have no problems admitting to a weakness at maths and physics, languages and history always being my strengths), so there was no disputing my ability.  However, the support of the headmaster was essential, so I was summoned into NM’s presence.  Peering over the top of his glasses, he reviewed my results and summarily pronounced his verdict: he was only allowed to issue two recommendations, one of which was reserved for the male dux, the other for the son of the English teacher.  He would not waste one on a girl (not even on the female dux).  Only with the distance of many years can I see that I did not stand a chance; that from his vantage point it would be reckless to risk his good name in giving the benefit of the doubt to someone who came from the wrong part of town, a mere housing estate as opposed to a hilltop villa; that he owed his English teacher a favour in exchange for faithful service and this trumped any obligation towards a nobody, albeit a talented one.  This does not vindicate him in my eyes, even though I can recognise that he was a product of his time and generation every bit as much as the rest of us (which most definitely encompassed deep-rooted sexism and class prejudice).  It was still a mean-spirited decision that caused me a great deal of anguish.  He would have seen me as fit for a more modest role as a mother, as a compliant housewife, perhaps a pillar of the local community, but discerned nothing to justify broader aspirations.

As it turned out, the son of the English teacher was rejected and went to Durham instead.  I studied at Edinburgh.

On a visit home one summer, some twenty years or so after leaving school, I spotted the rector, gown long since handed over to his successor, striding along the pavement, diminutive wife scuttling several paces behind, desperately trying to keep up.  Although diminished in stature, his face was still set in a scowl, eyes ferociously intense yet devoid of any human warmth.  There was no flicker of acknowledgement as we passed.  The adolescent boys he punished with his strap would still be standing tall and straight, yet I wondered whether they would answer back.  Long suppressed anger welled up, yet I let the moment slip by without introducing myself to extract revenge by listing all my academic and other achievements in a demonstration of how wrong he had been, the extent to which he had allowed bias to interfere with his judgement.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Britblog Roundup 290

Filed under: — site admin @ 3:48 pm

Welcome to the 290th edition of the Britblog Roundup, which offers a light serving of nominations (the amnesty implied by the spirit of goodwill to all makes for quiet blogging), by way of an antidote to the excesses of the season amidst the debris of pulled crackers, discarded party hats and turkey bones.

Ellee Seymour of Proactive PR asks a question of relevance to all bloggers: Should web links be free?  Collections of links are at the very origins of blogging as a genre.  Attribution of borrowings is one thing (and as a veteran of hosting this particular Roundup, I can state with some authority that the bloggers whose output I have sampled and analysed have been punctilious about acknowledging their sources), being forced to go through a cumbersome procedure to obtain permission before including a link quite another.    The convenience with which readers can assess the merits of the blogger’s response by clicking on the link to the original piece means that both sides are accorded equal weight.  This lies at the core of the much-vaunted enhanced democratic access to information, which would be put at risk.  Moreover, the spontaneity and swiftness of the blogging community’s reactions to news, another key component in the circulation and filtering down of information would be lost.  How many actually make money out of their blogs?  Even those who have secured book deals have only reaped the reward through the transition to print (the association with the publishers), the online content of the original remaining free of charge to the reader.  Quite frankly, the newspapers should be glad of the readership boost and free publicity their writers receive through being linked to by bloggers.  At its best, blogging beats newspaper commentary hands down and when the anonymous author is an expert and dedicates their blog to the field in which they have privileged insight and first-hand experience the same is true of analysis and behind-the-scenes reportage.  Rather than striving to maintain its audience through consistent excellence and greater accuracy of content, it smacks of complacency for the mainstream media to wield the sledgehammer of charging fees to crack the nut of blogging.

Green Party activist Ashley Gunstock of the eponymous blog responds to Andrew Rawnsley’s article in The Observer David Cameron really should be sharing Nick Clegg’s pain in a letter to the editor entitled Lib Dem angst and no Tory thanks.  What more perfect illustration of the benefits of blogging as a format alluded to above?  There is no guarantee that the letter would actually be published by The Observer, but by posting the submitted text on his blog, Ashley is able to comment intelligently on the original piece, thereby articulating his opinion and making it available to anyone with an interest in the issues raised.  One of his readers nominated his distilled thoughts and the word is duly spread amongst the Britblog constituency, some of whom might be prompted to quote it or to present their counter-arguments in a ripple effect.

For the next submission, Roding Liberal Democrats – Cllrs. Felicity Banks, Ian Bond and Gwyneth Deakins, I will quote from the text that accompanied it: “It is well-written, concise, factual and informative and covers those things we locals want to know about.  It is a template for local councillors everywhere not for what it says, but for what is missing – the usual sniping at the other parties”.  I suggest that you sample it at your leisure to decide for yourselves whether that glowing endorsement is merited.

Christmas is traditionally the time of year when we focus on the family, retreating from the winter chill into the safe haven of our homes.  In Activist state, concentrated harm, Jackart of A Very British Dude provides a powerful and shocking reminder of how the agents of the state, in the name of enforcing a court order, may rip a protesting child out of the arms of his father before pinning that same child to the ground, handcuffing him and dragging him off to be taken into care, all against his will and with no shortage of threats about how resisting constitutes a criminal offence (as if a 12-year-old asthmatic could put up a fight against three burly police officers).  To read about such cases in the abstract is quite a different proposition to being confronted by their brutal reality as captured by a video camera.  Jackart comments: “How many Victoria Climbies or Peter Connellys are there?  Or more importantly how many such cases do the intrusive police/social worker/ local authority care system prevent?  Not all, obviously, because such an outcome is impossible.  How many children are snatched from adequate and loving homes into an environment that is NOT conducive to a happy upbringing as a result of that system?  How many parents are forced into the Kafkaesque nightmare of the family courts where the burden of proof is reversed and justice is anything but public?  And more importantly is the cost – forcibly broken loving homes worth the attempt to save a few extra lives?  You cannot stop all bad people doing terrible things – should we risk the awesome power of the state to destroy the lives of innocent people in order to reduce the risk of a tiny number of terrible things?”

Two further video clips follow, the first via The Daily (Maybe) on Education and inequality recording Natalie Bennett’s stance on tuition fees.  This is a matter I personally feel very strongly about, having taken to the streets myself many moons ago to oppose the abolition of student grants in favour of loans.  Just a quick snippet: “This isn’t a handout, it’s an investment in the future of our society.  Education cannot simply be a debt trap, a step on the learn to earn treadmill that we’re all stuck on for life”.  I wholeheartedly agree.

Secondly, Mark Pack alerts us to the latest method of sidestepping difficult questions in The cookie: a new weapon in media relations for politicians.  My sympathies are very firmly on the side of the journalists in this one.   The question for me revolved around whether the reluctant interview subject would be more likely to choke on his own overweening arrogance or the biscuit crumbs first?

Stuart Jeffery of Green Man of Kent warns us that November is the hottest month.  I heard on the radio two days ago that Central Bulgaria had recorded temperatures of plus 20 due to winds from the Sahara and the icicles are dripping before plummeting to their doom as I type, so let’s wait and see.

Kate Smurthwaite of Cruella Blog is dismayed by Peter Preston’s Climate change: human numbers don’t add up in The Guardian.  She explains How Women’s Rights Could Actually Save The Planet: “The thing is that YES – solving the problem of runaway climate change is dependent on limiting and reducing the population.  But NO that doesn’t mean adopting a China-style one child policy or running around like crazed eugenicists sterilising anyone without a degree.  And it also doesn’t mean doing away with child benefit.  because (surprise Peter!) child benefit is not paid to encourage people to have children.  It’s not a reproduction bribe.  Who the hell would decide to raise a child for 18 years in return for £15 a week?  It’s paid to help parents afford to raise their children well.  Once you’ve fed, clothed, housed, educated and entertained your child you’re not necessarily going to have much change left to treat yourself to nights out and designer clothes…

But here’s the good news.  There are millions of women around the world and right here at home who desperately want to have less or no children, to have children later in life and to control their own fertility.  Furthermore some of us crazy feminist types actually think it is their right to do so and to be given access to the tools and education to enable them to make those choices in their own lives.  We call them reproductive rights”.

Juliette of The New Adventures of Juliette introduces us to her Geek Of The Week, Josh Hadley.  Her verdict on his culinary skills: “And I bet you make a mean organic lentil and tofu bake, and all”.

Sticking with the food theme (inevitable during the season of blow- and bloat-outs), Jay Rayner, restaurant critic recently extolled the virtues of sincerity concerning the protein we derive sustenance from: “I do so love animals, especially dead, sliced up and roasted ones, their very life blood oozing out of them to the rim of my plate; the colour of conker on the outside, of velvet plush within.  Stop wrinkling your nose like that.  If it wasn’t for people like me wanting to eat them – and there are a few people like me – the animals wouldn’t exist.  What matters is that, on their journey towards satisfying our appetites they should be treated with the utmost respect: a good life, a sweet death, and the attentions of someone who knows what the hell they are doing in the kitchen when it gets there.  Because there really is no point taking the life of an animal if all you are going to do is ruin it the moment you get it near the fire.  In short, asking for your steak well done is a crime against food”.

My own squeamishness at the prospect of sticking a fork into something to be treated to precisely the spectacle he describes accounts for why I never eat beef, which would consign me in his eyes to the ranks of picky eaters, who have not lived their lives to the full.  Not that he is in any position to judge.   Flesh is Grass is not impressed, although concludes that Jay Rayner is not a hypocrite about meat: “If like Oscar Wilde you understand that hypocrisy is a compliment that vice pays to virtue, you’ll also understand how natural it is that anybody who has begun to engage with what animals experience in the run up to their unnecessary slaughter should actively try to forget what they’re eating.  You’ll also conclude that Jay Rayner has no conscience with regard to animals”.

All that is left is for me to wish all Roundup readers a Very Happy New Year when it comes!

The next Roundup will be hosted by Mick Fealty of Slugger O’Toole.

As always, nominations should be sent to the mailbox at britblog [at] gmail [dot] com.  For a full statement of editorial policy, plus the hosting rota and a complete archive of the Roundup since its inception, please consult the Britblog Roundup Central website.

bigben           phonebox

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Wingbeat

Filed under: — site admin @ 12:05 pm

Unlike the Guinea pigs whose bar-gnawing demands for two teaspoons of dried fodder summarily put paid to any prospect of abandoning the rhythm imposed by the commuter train timetable during the week, we cannot set our watches by him.  His ceiling stained by a ghosting of moths lured to their doom through the balcony door, the narrowest of cracks for ventilation.  Outside, the fox and weasel patrol the lawns and flowerbeds, far fewer cats, he tells me, now that the house at the top of the street lies empty, awaiting tenants.  He remembers walking past the drive when she still lived there, never fewer than half a dozen, ginger, black and white, sunning themselves on the path.  They never quite grasped just how unwelcome they were peering in fascination from the undergrowth on our side of the fence at the blue tits and sparrows pecking at the bird ball, no matter how often we would evict them by our various methods.  He would walk calmly through the back door towards them and you could see them struggling to decide whether his intentions were friendly until his sudden spurt.  The Hungarian preferred to emit a sound as easy on the ear as the proverbial fingernails scraping their way down a blackboard, like a particularly urgent demand for silence, the threat quite unambiguous.  Even in winter, I found the sheer moronic persistence of their invasions so irritating that unless it was pouring with rain when I awoke, I would hurl my slipper (substituted by a detached broom head when I grew tired of hopping across the dew-drenched grass to retrieve it) in their general direction, never aimed to hit its furry target, merely to convey the undesirability of their continued presence (after a while at least one of them concluded that the act of throwing constituted some particularly bizarre form of greeting and did not so much as flinch).

Sometimes he emerges in the early afternoon, sometimes the late evening, his hair tousled and greasy since he only washes it when imminently about to mingle with friends or venture into town.  He leaves the door shut, which I don’t mind as it prevents the cigarette smoke from being wafted downstairs, but it does mean that it is easier to communicate via the balcony.

Summoned to the one proper meal he consumes each evening (his daytime sustenance derived from scavenging tins of pate or surveying the contents of the fridge in the hope of Caprice des Dieux), we join forces to tease the Hungarian.  Soon he will be gone and I maintain the appearance of absolute calm and cheerfulness, as if the inexorable countdown of each passing second did not matter.  His passport runs out soon and I will have paid the last instalment of the house purchase tax in my adopted homeland so that I will be able to subsidise his rent until he is able to fund it himself.  Nothing to keep him behind, his second and definitive departure.

Everything is quiet here, dust accumulates, layer after layer, on the newspaper articles cut out, sorted and deposited on the parquet and discolours the Teddy bear I have owned since I was five, who sits faithful and uncomplaining by the alarm clock.  The rattle of the trolleys pushed over the uneven surface of the car park beyond the hedge, the monotonous throb of drumbeats as the in-vehicle sound system is pushed to its limits, the flap of the wood pigeons’ wings on a Sunday.  Days merge, the purple blossom on the buddleia shrivels, existence as transitory as a swirl of autumn leaves.  I wouldn’t stay here if I had a choice.

He wears the same size of jeans that he did when he was 12, a confidence-booster, he told me, appropriating the language of my brother’s household.  The effortless, yet fragile perfection of youth, somewhere between boyhood and manhood still, the pattern of stubble on his chin, the occasional mannerism betraying that the name on his birth certificate is not, after all, a fiction.

The pebbledash uniformity stifled me, I wandered the paths separating vegetable patches, restless and determined not to be confined.  How could they be satisfied with this substitute for living, this parade of characters flicking before their eyes?  Whose appearance regulated their activities, cut phone calls short.  Yet having first withdrawn, the unchangingness that had so frustrated me became a comfort.  Sitting on the bench beneath the parasol reading her large-print library book, the Tummel mint alive with bees, her tomatoes ripening in the greenhouse.  When I was driven to the station, she would stand at the front gate, waving and walk down the path to wave again from the back garden.  Later, when rising from her armchair was all she could manage, I would see her stand in front of the net curtain until we turned the corner, then it was just her hand.  I always knew I would come back.

Soon he will be gone.  A few drained Coke bottles toppled on their sides.  A coffee jar lid of squashed butts soaked in rainwater on the window sill.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Britblog Roundup 280

Filed under: — site admin @ 2:44 pm

Welcome to the 280th “cucumber sandwich” edition of the Britblog Roundup (its somewhat peculiar title a homage to the term used by many of our Continental neighbours, “cucumber season” for the traditionally quiet spell when politicians head off for the yachts and luxury pads of their billionaire buddies).  The quiet that has descended on the Gothic spires of Britain’s very own law-factory, deserted for the recess and the corresponding dearth of material for comment has not induced torpor in our bloggers, as demonstrated by the variety of submissions over the last few weeks, all reviewed below.

Politics

The 9th of September will prove a momentous day for one member of the Britblog hosting team, cabalamat of Amused Cynicism, who has announced that I’m standing for election to Edinburgh council!  He is the Pirate Party candidate at the Liberton/Gilmerton by-election.    As you might expect, his arguments are particularly strong on the Digital Economy Act: "Britain today is an information society; millions of people now have the internet interwoven into the fabric of their everyday lives.  But our leaders are still living in the past.  A symptom of this is the Digital Economy Act, where the politicians decided to try to cripple the internet and abolish our civil liberties in order to save the record companies’ obsolete business models".

Not that he can be accused of one-sidedness and lack of awareness of the needs of the local community.  He has some very sensible ideas on how to improve Edinburgh’s public transport system, calling for the introduction of day tickets and for a single bus fare valid for a journey involving a change of bus.  Even Budapest has introduced the átszállójegy, allowing passengers to change from one Metro (bus or tram) to another without having to stamp a new ticket, yet the capital of Scotland still lags behind.

For those who might harbour doubts about whether this might be tantamount to scrunching up the ballot paper, cabalamat explains: "One further point: don’t forget that this is an STV election, and that you can (in fact, should) express more than one preference.  If you give your 1st preference to me, and I don’t win, your vote gets counted for your second preference (and third preference, etc), so voting for me isn’t a wasted vote, as you can re-use your vote to your other preferences".

Shake the established parties out of their complacency, you know you want to, send them a message about accountability and how fed up you are with their arrogance in treating their seats as fiefdoms in miniature.

Many on the Left are still reeling with the shock of defeat and bracing themselves in anticipation of the chill autumn of cuts ahead.  The 100 days’ worth of hindsight has permitted enough emotional distance to be gained for reflection and analysis.

Brian Barder at Ephems, takes stock of the events of the Five Days in May, arriving at the conclusion that the LibDems made the wrong choice of coalition partner before rehearsing future scenarios: "(…) Labour’s new leader must have in mind at all times the real possibility that the coalition may come a cropper well before its vaunted ‘fixed’ five-year term is up, with another general election the almost certain consequence.  the increased unemployment likely to result from the almost unprecedented reductions in government spending to which Osborne has committed the government will both add to the unemployment and other benefits bill to be paid by the Exchequer and reduce its tax receipts, thus widening the budget deficit yet further.  There is no obvious indication that the private sector will move in to fill the public sector gap, as Tory ideology recklessly assumes.  Even if the dreaded double dip recession can somehow be avoided, it seems overwhelmingly likely that the recovery from recession will be drastically slowed down, perhaps to a stagnant halt.  Meanwhile the dire effects of the cuts on the unemployed, the poor and the vulnerable will increase back-bench LibDem restiveness: further damage to the LibDems’ standing in the polls may further frighten them.  If Labour moves convincingly into the lead in the opinion polls, the attraction for the LibDems of a switch from support for the Tories to a loose – or formal – alliance with labour might well prove irresistible.  the consequence might be a split in the Liberal Democratic party, the loss of the coalition’s majority in parliament, and fresh elections in a year or 18 months".

His second essay on the subject looks at the Lessons for Labour: "It’s unlikely that either of the two obstacles to a Lab-LibDem pact or coalition last May will apply in the situation following the next election, even if it again produces a hung parliament.  Depending on whether the present coalition’s slash-and-burn policies will have succeeded in reducing the budget deficit without too greatly impeding continued recovery from the recession, and if the level of unemployment, having initially risen sharply, has begun to fall, and if the sweeping changes to the NHS, the state education system and the structure of social benefits have resulted in perceptible improvements in these crucial public services despite the swingeing cuts in their budgets, then the electorate might well provide a mandate for the Tory-LibDem coalition to carry on – or even deliver a clear majority to the Tories.  But these are all huge ifs.  the likelier scenario is that coalition policies will have had only limited success, if any, and that widespread disillusionment will have set in.  The next election may even be precipitated by a split in the Liberal Democratic party or the eventual withdrawal of the LibDems from the coalition, out of nausea at their association with reactionary policies driven by an obnoxious ideology.  In that case another hung parliament will be very much on the cards, and Labour will need to be much better prepared for it next time.  With luck the problem of a deeply unpopular Labour leader won’t yet have arisen.  before there can be another election, Labour will need to have worked out, published and campaigned vigorously for a new and radically different programme for government, offering credible alternatives to reactionary Tory cuts and assaults on the welfare state, putting the restoration and protection of civil liberties at the heart of its agenda, and proposing realistic, hard-headed changes to such moth-eaten policies as those on the UK nuclear deterrent, intervention in foreign wars, the core functions of the armed forces, and so forth.  If Labour is ever to return to office, it must do so on the basis of a programme which the LibDems will be forced to recognise as hugely preferable to anything the Tories have to offer.  It must be manifestly realistic and progressive in its own right; if it is, there should be no question of the LibDems even thinking about rejecting it".

An atmosphere of despondency at the prospect of a full-scale assault on the benefit cuts permeates much of what is being written.  Stroppybird of Stroppy Blog laments the insidiousness of semantics in ‘Middle Class benefits’ – My Arse!

A more accurate term in relation to Child Benefit and Winter Fuel Allowance would be universal benefits: “When the filthy rich remain filthy rich, when they are suffering a tiny fragment of the cuts which hit everyone else savagely, it also seems to me that turning fire on the so-called ‘middle class’ is aiming at the wrong target.  Usually, when anyone gets down to specifics, they talk about excluding families with an income over, say, £40,000 from these benefits.  But raising kids, or paying the bills, on a joint income of £40,001 is not exactly the life of Riley.

If people are really railing at the injustice of very rich people being entitled to benefits, fair enough.  But rather than take the benefits away, make them pay for it through a more progressive tax system”.

As Zygmunt Bauman makes clear in Work, consumerism and the new poor (Buckingham, Open University Press, 1998), means-testing can further entrench hostility towards the disadvantaged: “The overall effect of means testing is division instead of integration; exclusion instead of inclusion.  The new, smaller community of taxpayers constitutes itself by using its political muscle to constitute the category of deficient citizens, and then pulling its own ranks together in a determined effort to marginalise that category and punish it for failing to live up to the standards advertised as the trademark of the constituting and self-constituting core.  The indignant and self-righteous verdict, like that of R. Boyson, that money is taken ‘from the energetic, successful and thrifty to give to the idle, the failures and the feckless’, finds then a growing number of sympathetic ears.  The receivers of what now bears an uncanny resemblance to extorted pay-outs must be feckless, so that the majority, can ascribe its own good fortune to thriftiness, and they must be failures, so that the majority can treat its own life as a success story” (p50, emphasis in original).

It is easy for the opponents of the benefits system to lapse into invective when the targets of their ire melt into a seething, anonymous mass.  An excellent antidote to such sanctimoniousness may be found in Dawn Foster of F For Philistine’s eloquent On Scroungers: “I think it’s easy to spout those arguments when you don’t put a face to those concerned.  But that is my family you’re talking about when you bemoan those who’ve been on benefits for years.  For as long as I’ve lived my family have been on benefits.  my earliest memories revolve around rows over money, and the fact that for long periods the only meals we had were free school meals.  That the school uniform vouchers were issued late one year so my sister and I were told off in front of our entire classrooms for wearing the wrong clothes.  That I was shouted out in front of an entire school assembly for being late to school when my mother couldn’t afford the bus fare, as Social Security had yet again suspended payments due to ‘administrative errors’.  That most of my childhood was miserable due to abject poverty, and that my mother couldn’t find work because she’d been unemployed for years, had no qualifications, and a minimum wage job would mean she had even less chance of making ends meet.

I despise the fact that people are angry that benefits can be spent on things that can cause any enjoyment in people: Satellite TV is a big bugbear.  Do we really believe that if people can’t contribute to a society financially they don’t have a right to any entertainment as a human being?  I find the lack of comprehension of how demeaning, depressing and dehumanising unemployment can be astounding.  My friends constantly wonder what they’re doing with their lives.  What direction they’re heading in, where they’ll go next.  Long-term unemployment is like staring into the abyss.  Everyone is against you.  The media and government despise you.  You are nothing but a drain on society, and fodder for mid-afternoon exploitative chat shows.  The number of benefit claimants on anti-depressants is phenomenal.  It’s impossible to go to interviews with that level of self-hatred and assume that it won’t come across to potential employers”.

In a similar vein, Harpy Marx denounces the latest plans to pry into the lives of benefits claimants in Credit agencies….the new bounty hunters: “The poor are being vilified and stigmatised as the cause not only of their own plight but of the economic mess that Britain is in (the rest of the world is not of much interest to those inclined to get hot under the collar about benefit fraud).  It is an exercise in distraction.  Political distraction.  the Con bit of the ConDems are creating a smoke screen for their mates in the city (…nice one George, cheers old man!).  the only other motive is crude class hatred of ordinary people who dare to ask for anything from the system other than to be exploited and oppressed.

And the latest wheeze by the Con/Dems (or as David Cameron put it, ‘using modern technologies in dealing with benefit fraud’) is using credit reference agencies as ‘bounty hunters’ (sounds like the Wild West) tracking benefit fraudsters.  Surreal but true”.

Love it or loathe it, The Guardian has certainly provoked debate amongst bloggers over the last few weeks.

Fears abound that action to tackle persistent inequalities will slide inexorably down the agenda of the coalition, displaced by the imperative to reduce the deficit.  In response to the Cranfield University annual Female FTSE report, according to which 25% of major firms still have men-only boards, compared with 36% a decade ago, Michael White in The Guardian asks whether Equal pay: is this just about sexism?: “The eternal question is whether this is just about sexism.  I’m sure it’s partly so, though even that point is not straightforward.  For example, from what we constantly hear from the financial sector investment banking – the crowd who got us all into economic trouble – is very male in its attitudes and pay structures.

Women bankers win employment cases on pay and harassment.  But then investment banking must be a very testosterone-driven activity which requires relaxation in lap-dancing clubs, expensive motors and other toys for boys – a lifestyle that can’t have much appeal for sensible women.

So the nature of the work – banking or coalmining – may be a factor.  Even a cursory glance at Google suggests that hours worked are also a likely factor.  men tend to put in more hours at work, a detail that leads to the old familiar core issue – women are both inclined and/or obliged to make their families a greater priority in the work/life balance equation”.

This article prompted Josephine Tsui at The F-Word to pen an Open letter to Michael White: “Where Michael first fails in his assumption is that he sees the dilemma as linear where it’s simply about making choices between family and work.  He doesn’t recognise that we live in a world where a hard worker is defined as someone who works more than your average 37.5 hours a week.  We live in a world where three quarters of the houses have dependents at home (whether they are children, elderly ageing parents, or ill and sick loved ones).  The economy is structures that most households require two incomes to support the family.  Exactly where must the sacrifice be to ensure the dependents are taken care of come from?

Michael says that women can choose to use child minders.  He forgets that child minders can take a significant portion of a couple’s salary.  A parent who stays at home can save the family over £25,000 a year on expenses taking care of dependents combining skills as a cook, nanny, and a chauffeur.  In some cases, a family would save more money having one parent stay at home rather than find work in the labour market.  And the choice to stay at home often lies in the parent who earns less financially which in doubt enters the gender question.  It’s no wonder women earn 20% less than their male counterparts”.

Good old-fashioned discrimination has not been consigned to the past however, as Kira Cochrane’s You’re fired reveals: “In 2005, the Equal Opportunities Commission estimated that 30,000 women in the UK are pushed out of their jobs due to pregnancy each year – that is 7% of all pregnant women in the workforce at any one time – and since they are being attacked when they are often low on resources and wary of a fight, it remains largely a hidden problem, with only 3% of cases going to tribunal.  And it’s not just being fired or made redundant that’s a problem.  Discrimination means that many mothers and women of childbearing age simply aren’t being given jobs in the first place.  Last year [Cochrane’s article dates from 2008], the Equalities Review, commissioned by the government, found that mothers face more discrimination in the workplace than any other group.  A woman with a child under 11 is 45% less likely to be employed than a man, and that figure is 49% for a single mother.  Citing a survey of 122 recruitment agencies, the Equalities Review, found that more than 70% had been asked by clients to avoid hiring pregnant women or those of childbearing age – which, given that that period now potentially stretches from our teenage years to our early sixties, means discriminating against any woman of childbearing age”.

Emine Saner’s Why women won’t ask for a pay rise returns to the theme of the gender pay gap: “But 40 years after it was enshrined in law in the UK, women are still paid, on average, less than men for full-time work and 39.9% less for part-time work.  last week a report by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) warned that it would be 57 years until female managers reached equal pay with their male counterparts – the average male manager is now paid a basic salary of £41,337, while their female peers get £31,306.

Professor Marilyn Davidson, co-director of the Centre for Equality and Diversity at Work says there are many reasons why the gender pay gap persists.  One is that typical ‘women’s work’, such as cleaning and catering, has traditionally been lower paid, and another is that women are more likely to take time out from their careers to raise children.  Women are also ‘more likely to be offered less when they start a job, which automatically puts them on a lower level’, she says”.

Tim Worstall takes issue with the accuracy of the calculation before teasing out the implications of another study mentioned in Ms. Saner’s piece in Equal pay again: “So women think that pay is not as important as men do, eh?  So other things are more important…perhaps flexibility, working hours, the actual job itself?  Which means that women are going to negotiate for (and yes, you do negotiate, even by just accepting the terms of the job or not) things other than pay…and thus going to end up with less pay and more of whatever else it is they think more important”.

Bauman’s brilliant disquisition on the philosophy of consumerism is highly relevant to the next topic which exercised the minds of bloggers over the summer, showing where the ideological battle lines have been drawn: “Consumerism puts the highest premium on choice: choosing, that purely formal modality, is a value in its own right, perhaps the sole value of consumerist culture which does not call for, nor allow, justification.  Choice is the consumer society’s meta-value, the value with which to evaluate and rank all other values.  And no wonder, since the ‘choosiness’ of the consumer is but a reflection of competitiveness, the life-blood of the market.  To survive, and even more to thrive, the consumer market must first shape the consumer in its own image: the choice is what competition offers, and discrimination is what makes the offer attractive.

The myth of a discriminating consumer and the myth of the market as the purveyor of free choice and the guardian of freely-asserted preferences nourish and cultivate each other.  Without the first, the second would be hardly imaginable.  The right type of consumer is a person who cherishes the right to choose more than the object of choice, and celebrates visits to the market place as the public manifestation of connoisseurship.  The wide assortment of goods on display, and the possibility of selecting one object rather than another, lifts even an unrefined dilettante to the rank of a connoisseur, while being a skilful, cultivated chooser is, in a consumer society – a society stratified according to the ability to choose – a most coveted accolade.  The conviction of being a cultivated practitioner of choice is richly gratifying.

The no-choice situation – taking what one is given solely because nothing else is on offer; having no voice in the selection – is, accordingly, the anti-value of the consumer society.  being deprived of choice is in itself degrading and humiliating, whatever its effects on the well-being of the deprived; it is also a deeply dissatisfying, joyless and annoying condition.  Goods acquire their lustre and attractiveness in the course of being chosen; take the choice away, and their allure vanishes without trace.  An object ‘freely chosen’ has the power to bestow that distinction on its chooser which objects ‘just allotted’ obviously do not possess.  The fully-fledged consumer will therefore put choice, with all the risks and the unfamiliar, often frightening traps involved, above the relative security carried by rationing and allotment.  The ideal type of consumer will tolerate a great deal of relative inferiority of the object of consumption just because it has been ‘freely chosen’ and not assigned.

For this reason the institution of the welfare state is starkly out of tune with the climate of a consumer society, whatever the quality of its provisions are.  If the marketing of products cannot operate without promoting (through lip service at least) the cult of difference and choice, the idea of the welfare state makes little sense without appealing to the idea of the sameness of the human condition, human needs and human rights.  Consumerism and the welfare state are therefore at cross-purposes.  The odds are against the welfare state; the pressure of consumer mentality is overwhelming.  Even if the state-offered services were of much better quality than they are, they would still be burdened with the fundamental flaw of being exempt from allegedly free consumer choice – a flaw that discredits them beyond redemption in the eyes of converted and devoted, ‘born again’ consumers” (op. cit., pp58-9, emphasis in original).

Little wonder then that when Catherine Bennett in The Guardian threw a choice-related question into the arena, it touched a very raw nerve.

In Since when was giving people choice a good idea? her main focus is on schools.  She quotes a study, State of Confusion by Professor Harriet Bradley, Bristol University, which claims that people are paralysed by a "state of helplessness in the face of big, irreversible decisions".  Choice, in Bradley’s view, is not "an unmitigated good". 

Back to Bennett: "After surveying 3,000 people on their attitudes to choice, Bradley says: ‘I believe most people want the state to make these big decisions for them’.  This is not only because, in many cases, consumers are well aware that the choice of, say, school or hospital is – unlike a commercial selection of jams or phones or holidays – an utter fiction.  The process of choosing is itself oppressive when the issues are life-changing, relating to health, money or careers.  In her London focus groups, she found parents ‘absolutely terrified of the whole process of selecting schools’, because of the impenetrable, changing rules about eligibility.  Even allowing for those professional oxymorons, choice advisers, this situation favours society’s most able, while it penalises confused, passive, busy or ill-informed individuals".

What remedy does she propose?  That the state to take the decisions for them.

This is where I am forced to come out of the woodwork as a shallow product of my environment, a well-trained, obedient consumerist.  I may well have been conditioned since birth to buy into the illusion of choice, but quite frankly, I would rather eat my own intestines wrapped around a stick than surrender my autonomy.  True enough, I have accumulated considerable reserves of educational, cultural and social capital along the way, but from very inauspicious beginnings and I am damned if I am going to let some drooling bureaucrat issuing an edict about where to send my offspring to have the three Rs drummed into them.

Mr. Eugenides would find such a scenario equally unbearable as he makes plain in The agony of choice: "(…) it is the most infantile drivel to presume that we are too fucking pig ignorant to choose our own paths in life, and downright dangerous to insist that the government should make these choices for us.  It’s typical that those who purport to care the most about ordinary people – the self-same ones who want to take choices away from those citizens, keep them dependent on the state, make sure that misery is equally spread about – would not themselves dream of living by the same standards that they set for others.  I’ll bet you Catherine Bennett wouldn’t last ten minutes if you took away the organic vegetable section in her local Waitrose, but that won’t stop her writing asinine drivel like this, will it?  Such total lack of self-awareness must be a wonderful thing".

The Devil at The Devil’s Knife, as you might expect comprehensively fillets the article in These people are dangerous: "The state can’t make choices for some – it must make choices for all.  And thus those who do want to choose have that freedom removed from them.  Or, of course, they choose to move house to get into a good school’s catchment area; or – horror of horrors – they choose to send their children to private schools.

At which point, of course, they get attacked, ridiculed and demonised by Grauniad columnists (who all, of course, do precisely the same thing and so leaven their more aggressive articles with the occasional 1,000 word screed declaring how guilty they feel about being rich enough to be able to send little Jocasta to a ‘good school’ rather than the local shithouse)".

Diane Abbott springs to mind on the “do as we say, not as we do” front.

Bennett’s withering sarcasm about how, if patients wish, they can avail themselves of homeopathy on NHS, did not attract such controversy: "No doubt, in the years to come, patients will become more familiar with the concept of state-endorsed quackery.  Indeed, civil servants facing redundancy in the coming cuts might like to reflect that a qualification in professional homeopathy can be completed within as little as two years – and one in niche alternative treatments, such as Japanese Holistic Face Massage or Hot Stone Therapy, in far less.  These, following the government’s logic on patient satisfaction, surely deserve their place in the enlightened GP’s me-time repertoire".

Unity in debunking mode at Liberal Conspiracy, picks apart some very questionable research findings in  Making bogus claims, the homeopathic way, whilst Adam Grace of The Young Lefty in Caroline Lucas and the anti-science motion takes issue with the Green MPs support of a Parliamentary Early Day Motion voicing concern at the BMA’s vote against homeopathy funding on the NHS: "No community needs medicine that doesn’t work.  Granted, communities do need diversity, and diversity of culture brings diversity of traditions.  But medicine is not a tradition, it is an exact science which is violated when inexact and lazy concepts are given parity to it.  I would not deny a traditionalist their right to their customs.  I wouldn’t deny an eccentric their right to eccentricity, but I would deny the assertion that I should be obligated to fund their houses wrapped entirely in bacofoil, or the whiskers tattooed onto their face.

Acupuncture and faith healing will undeniably cause some relief to the recipient.  Perhaps it’s even possible for this relief to be down to more than a simple placebo effect and should people wish their acupuncturist to ply them with needles and charge their card for the pleasure, I’d say more power to them.  The state shouldn’t be funding this, just like they shouldn’t fund the teaching of religious dogma alongside empirical science, as though they are both equally plausible concepts.  Any institutionalised, tax funded acceptance of homeopathy or creationism is a direct affront to the rigours of science".

Jim Jay of The Daily (Maybe) addresses the difficult balancing act involved in convincing potential sympathisers that his Party’s repertoire consists of more than a single issue without losing sight of the commitment at its heart in A way forward: Greens and the environment: "Climate change is almost entirely off the agenda of our political class, are we pushing hard enough to get it back on?  I don’t want to exaggerate, it’s not as if the Greens never talk about their core issues, but we’re not bellowing from the roof tops either.  We’re a broad left party, and members join for a number of different reasons.  We need to make sure we’re serving their needs as well as putting out a clever electoral message.

For me one of the reasons I joined the Green Party was to help myself learn about and understand environmental issues, and take part in a project for a cleaner, safer, fairer world.  I’m not entirely sure the Party has fulfilled the former for me.  I know why it has been necessary to highlight other manifesto areas, that are just as important, but I do worry that we’re verging on taking our green policies almost entirely off the menu".

Andrew Cooper of Greening Kirklees assesses the coalition’s performance during its first 100 days on climate change in Green Deal or No Deal? and finds no grounds for jubilation: "In abolishing the Regional Spatial Strategies, where the primary purpose was to abolish housebuilding targets, the government have also abolished the regional renewable energy targets.  These were supposed to drive the installation of wind turbines, solar panels and other clean energy sources.  With this gone there is very little hope of the UK hitting the EU’s 2020 target of 15% of the UK’s energy from renewable sources unless government acts quickly to put new policy drivers in place".

David Boyle of the New Economics Foundation thinks it is high time that we should start Reclaiming free markets: "But there is a powerful core at the heart of the original idea of free trade which has been pushed aside by the powerful.  It meant the right of equal communities to trade with each other, not the right of the rich and powerful to ride roughshod over the world".

The seamier side of politics comes to the fore in Craig Murray’s Julian Assange Gets The Bog Standard Smear Technique, which dismisses allegations of rape and molestation against the Wikileaks founder: “The Russians call it Kompromat – the use by the state of sexual accusations to destroy a public figure.  When I was attacked in this way by the government I worked for, Uzbek dissidents smiled at me, shook their heads and said ‘Kompromat’.  They were used to it from the Soviet and Uzbek governments.  They found it rather amusing to find that Western governments did it too.

Well, Julian Assange has been getting the bog standard Kompromat.  I had imagined he would get something rather more spectacular, like being framed for murder and found hanging with an orange in his mouth.  he deserves a better class of Kompromat.  If I am a whistleblower, then Julian is a veritable mighty pipe organ.  Yet we just have the normal sex stuff, and very weak”.

One sentence jars, however: “Julian tells us that the first woman accuser and prime mover had worked in the Swedish Embassy in Washington DC and had been expelled from Cuba for anti-Cuban government activity, as well as the rather different persona of being a feminist lesbian who owns lesbian night clubs”.

This leaves a sour taste, as Murray uncritically and gratuitously regurgitates completely irrelevant details – irrelevant and gratuitous that is, unless you wish to imply that being a lesbian and, to make matters worse, a feminist undermines the woman’s credibility, as if these two alleged attributes render her testimony inherently untrustworthy or mendacious, as if you were happy to indulge in a little character assassination yourself.  I don’t see anything remotely disreputable or reprehensible about being either a lesbian or a feminist.

Judging by some of the comments posted to online reports about Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt’s recent announcement concerning his sexuality, congratulating ourselves on being a completely tolerant society would be premature.

In Crispin Blunt, Jim Jay paints a balanced portrait of the politician, not balking at reviewing some of the more controversial aspects of his career, such as his voting record and contribution to the age of consent debate.

Iain Dale tries to account for a delay that has left many baffled in Crispin Blunt Comes Out: “Yes, there will be those who condemn him for doing this.  They will ask why, if he has managed to suppress his feelings for all these years, why has he felt the need to ‘come out’ now?  The answer is simple.  Because he at last decided to be true to himself and face up to the man he is.  For anyone to do that at the age of 50 is a very big deal.  I did it at 40, and I can tell you that it was the most traumatic thing I have ever done – and I wasn’t married with children.

There will be those who ask why, in this day and age, didn’t he do it before.  They forget that it’s really only in the last decade that homosexuality has become almost totally accepted in this country.  For those who have had a rural upbringing, or in Crispin’s case come from an army family, it is just not the same as for those who have lived all their lives in metropolitan centres”.

Phil Walker of The Melangerie takes the as a starting point for some more profound observations about the significance of promises in human relationships in When to his hurt he swears, naught changes he?

“When someone leaves their wife for their secretary, or on the grounds of their sexual orientation, it is increasingly difficult to find anyone who will express any sort of concern at the breaking of the promises which were made.  This may be born of an honourable desire not to intrude on private grief.  Given the absence of these sentiments apart from the immediate circumstances as well, however, I fear that more often it stems from a widespread view that breaking such an intensely personal, intimate promise is not all that serious.

Contrast that with the disapprobation heaped on the politician who makes a political promise and then breaks it.  Although cynics observe that every politician’s ‘tell’ is moving lips, the public does generally express at least a degree of anger at this broken promise.  What this communicates is that while we care little about the breaking of promises to other people, we care deeply about breaking promises made to us”.

Rhetorical skills are surely the very essence of politics, guaranteeing the talented orator a distinguished place in the annals of history (or ignominy to the less gifted, in which case we could perhaps remove one ‘n’).  Charles Crawford regales us with two enlightening pieces on the subject.  Firstly, Ground Zero ‘Mosque’: Another Obama Speech Clunker: “Forgetting the merits, look at the poor technique and remember that it is not that politicians make mistakes as they all do – it is the quality of those mistakes which are so revealing.

Basically, the Obama ‘remarks’ erred towards a trite, oh-too-clever legal formalism which was clearly just not politically or morally good enough in the circumstances”.

Quite.  I warmly commend Charles’ own version.

Secondly, he gives us the benefit of his expertise as a trainer of speechwriters with tips on  Top Speechwriting: How To Raise The Audience’s Intensity?

“Normally the speaker is quite interested in what s/he has to say, but the audience by contrast need to be convinced to tune in to the speaker and not play with an e-gadget until the dreary session ends.

So the speaker has the difficult task of quickly catching the audience’s attention and then gently pulling them up through the gears to raise them to somewhere close to where the speaker himself is”.

What follows is a toe-curlingly vivid illustration of how it can all go horribly wrong.

Alluding to a slightly more successful example of rhetorical flourish, Anna Raccoon in Fighting ‘them’ on the Sandwell, highlights the grossly disproportionate penalty meted out to 70-year-old widow Sheila Martin. 

The OAP hardly conforms to the stereotype of the hardened criminal: “She was part of that unsung army of hard working, clean living, decent individuals, who cheerfully got up every morning and trudged off to put in a decent days work for a paltry wage as a ‘Mrs. Mop’, raised her family, nurtured her marriage, made ends meet, saved little, but asked little in return, save the freedom, and tolerance that her older relatives had fought to provide.  She is not a politically aware lady, nor insolent, nor ambitious for financial rewards”.

What wrongdoing could she possibly be guilty of?  At a bus stop (not a shelter, so we are talking open air here), she “nibbed” the cigarette she was smoking (the last one until pension day), allowing the lit end to fall to the ground and keeping the other half in her handbag for another occasion.  Cue two “enforcement officers” who proceeded to issue her with a fixed penalty notice.  The final demand has now expired and she faces a £2,500 fine plus costs.  She may even have to go to prison.

Just when you thought you could breathe a sigh of relief, that the days of nannying were over, we are confronted by more interfering from politicians determined to dictate to us how to lead our lives.  Enough of feigning concern because it would be career suicide to advocate a switch to a Continental-style health insurance system.  Instead they cannot even be honest about how they couldn’t really give a fuck about whether we live or die as long as we don’t put a strain on the budget in the meantime.  I went through the heartbreak of watching my Mother die a protracted and painful death as a result of smoking, have never smoked a cigarette myself and confess that, on a purely selfish level, I am glad of smoke-free restaurants.  However, that does not mean that I look down on people who do smoke (my son does for a start) or condone any bullying of them.  If you want to smoke in your car or home, it’s none of my business.  If I accept a lift from a smoker, I will ask permission to wind the window down on my side and I certainly will complain when the driver lights up.  Unlike the McKeganeys of this world, I am certainly not going to push for intrusions into privately owned vehicles or the home by self-righteous snoopers.

Denis Campbell, writing you-know-where, maintains that a Smoking ban in cars carrying children backed by majority of public: “A YouGov poll for the UK faculty of Public health (FPH) found 74% support for banning anyone from smoking in a car in which children are on board, with 10% against and 11% undecided.  The faculty, which represents public health specialists in the NHS, academia and local government, said that although politicians may be concerned about legislating to curb behaviour in ‘private space’, adherence to seatbelt laws shows people would accept it.  Second-hand smoke can be 27 times more toxic in a car than a smoker’s home, it says in a report published today”.

Christopher Snowdon of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist blows the latter claim out of the water in Glass Onion (and the companion piece Before the truth could get its shoes on also deserves to be read).

As if that weren’t enough, Andrew Ian Dodge informs us that the ConDem Coalition targets cheap booze: “The ConDem’s coalition nannying authoritarian instincts are again showing themselves.  David Cameron is calling for the state to ban ‘cheap booze’ and set ‘minimum pricing’.  In short he wants the state to nationalise the sale of alcohol and dictate how much it can be sold for.  To make it seem better he wants to give local authorities the power to do it.

This is the man that many in the US were hailing as ‘libertarian-minded’.  Those who actually followed Cameron’s rhetoric before the election will know he is nothing of the sort.  He is in fact a patrician politician who believes the state exists to dictate behaviour just in a different way to the socialists”.

Next up on the list of targets for bansturbators actually impinges on one of my pleasures (I knew it was only a matter of time), military-themed random slaughter online.  TravelGall at A Very British Dude castigates Defence Secretary Liam Fox’s for Medal of Honor to be banned in Nerds go spastic.  Although the FPS genre does not feature in my repertoire (RTS being my addiction), Fox really ought to have checked his facts before mouthing off.  The game’s single player campaign centres on US forces defeating the Taliban (not one British soldier in sight).  In FPS, it is single-player mode that contains a narrative, or what those who look down their noses at video games would regard as the semblance of a plot.  Multiplayer, by contrast, has no plot and can be characterised as a free-for-all splatterfest, but the player is free to choose sides.  And that does include the Taliban.

Travelgall’s portrait of gamers is offensive and inaccurate.  For one, there is no mention of the stacks of empty Coke bottles and cartons of half-eaten takeaways you have to navigate to reach the keyboard in the first place: “On the other hand you have the nerds who have put down their suspiciously sticky laminated photos of Captain Janeway and hit the internet in outrage that somebody would dare take away their SAS walting fantasies.  They argue that Electronic Arts carries out a vitally important service.  Like Vegans they aren’t able to physically lift an FN Minimi, would soil themselves if they had to walk across Salisbury Plain – let alone Brecon, can’t bear direct sunlight for longer than it takes for them to take the rubbish out for their mothers, and would be rejected from the Army on the grounds that – if deployed – their body odour breaks the 1993 UN Chemical Weapons Convention treaty”.

Matt Wardman of The Wardman Wire warns that Male teachers are playing Russian Roulette with their own future (which obliquely touches upon gender segregation in employment from a slightly different angle).  Two teachers have been placed under investigation for an alleged offence of possessing indecent images of children: “The future careers of these men may now have been irretrievably prejudiced, and from that point of view whether they are innocent or guilty of the offences for which they are under investigation is completely irrelevant.  For that we can thank a culture of public hysteria and ‘child protection’ disclosure requirements which very effectively punish people who are guilty of no offence.

The Vetting and Barring scheme, though slightly blunted by the new Coalition government, still permits disclosure of information about unproven allegations under its ‘Enhanced CRB Check’ procedure if deemed ‘relevant’ by a Chief Constable.

Given such information, how is any Governing Body of a school going to act if a job application is received from someone with such a false or unproven allegation on their record?  And given the public culture, how will any parents react who find that their governing body did not follow the ‘precautionary’ principle and exclude such an applicant from any potential employment?”

To conclude this section, a brainteaser from Peter Risdon.

Feminism

Earwicga at Pickled Politics gives her diagnosis of The problem with feminism…

“Gender inequality is NOT the only way to interpret the world, it is one essential way but on its own is utterly pointless.  hence we see the domination of mainstream feminism by comfortable white middle-class fuckwits who can dismiss male rape victims via the phrases ‘what about teh menz’ and ‘lolz’ – and they do.  And support the emancipation of Afghan women through war – and they do.

Second wave feminism was essential to its time, but its time is over.  Move on.  Especially all you supposedly radical feminists who are the most conservative people I have ever had the misfortune to come across.  THIS is why women don’t call themselves feminists, they don’t ascribe to the views of the dominant club – the prescriptive ideology formalised by an established elite – who protect their borders with academia and columns in the MSM.  Today, as the ConDem coalition attacks women in particular, feminism needs to stop excluding people, get politically savvy and start protecting ALL women”. 

In A reply to an unfair generalisation of feminism… Jane Watkinson of Jane’s Political Ramblings demonstrates that she is far from impressed: “There were gradual realisations from the 1960s onwards about the ways in which the second wave feminists were arguably reinforcing the gender binaries by making women out to be different to men.  We have seen the rise of intersectionality, different aspects of identity are now being considered in relation to gender, such as race (consider the formation of Riot Grrl’s in 1980/1990s – however, they themselves as an organisational set up have been accused of unfair racial representation) and sexuality”.

In The female lead? Tugela Barnes takes umbrage at Kate Spicer’s interview with Sarah Shotton of Agent Provocateur (for once published in the Sunday Times’ Style supplement as opposed to The Guardian): “Language like ‘demanding’ and ‘fight for your right’ and even ‘in-yer-face’ paints an all-too-familiar image of feminism as angry, snippy and controversial for the sake of controversy.  It’s always easier to remember the people who shouted the loudest and lewdest, but was that really the whole stance of the Second Wave regarding sex?  What about awareness and acceptance of female sexuality and sexual equality in terms of pleasure and respect?  And, hell, just the fun of it all?”

Not all eye-scratching, Hannah Mudge of We Mixed Our Drinks, delves into the columns of the Mail on Sunday’s YOU magazine to establish whether Beyoncé might be Fierce & Feminist?

“So it’s always nice when someone as famous as Beyoncé actually elaborates on their answer [on the subject of friendships between women] in such a positive way – a way which may not be impressively intellectual or reference a shedload of influential books or thinkers, but a way that we can all relate to and that is so important.

It might seem ridiculously simple, but the power of female friendship and supporting each other through life’s trials is enormous.  It’s not a message we hear too often these days, when every other magazine feature is about bagging the perfect man or getting rid of ‘toxic friends’ and the tabloids are reporting the latest ‘feuds’ between female celebrities several times a week as proof that we’re inherently nasty.

But in a world where so many people – or newspapers, or books, or films – want to bring us down and belittle us or paint us as ‘catty’ and ‘bitchy’, the very fact that we can be a good friend to other women – and that this is a positive and life-enriching thing – is really vital to making the world a better place for women”.

Abby O’Reilly appraises Girl With a One Track Mind: Exposed, in which Zoe Margolis, the real person behind pseudonym Abby Lee, sets out in detail the devastating impact of her identity being revealed in the national press: “From the outset it was clear that she was not writing to titillate.  And unlike the many blogs that followed, she was not writing in pursuit of a book deal.  Lee was a happy woman working hard to rise through the ranks in the film industry; a woman who enjoyed sex and who decided to articulate her desires to understand her own sexuality.  the ordinariness of her circumstances resonated with most women, those of us who felt the same way but who lacked the confidence to speak about our penchant for masturbation or our rich and varied fantasy lives, for fear of being branded morally depraved or, worse still, not ‘normal’.  Women could identify with Lee.  her introspective musings invested female fans with the confidence to begin an open discourse about their own experiences in a bid for freedom from the socially constructed shackles of shame and embarrassment we have been taught are synonymous with female sexual desire.  men enjoyed the insight into the female psyche, and her erotic, delicious and, most significantly, honest writing was like literary crack leaving readers desperate for more”.

Natalie Bennett of Philobiblon, expertly reviews two very interesting and quite different books.  Firstly, The origins of the gender binary?  Reflections on Vigdis Songe-Møller’s Philosophy Without Women: “What’s the origin of the fundamental misogyny in Western thought?  If we’re ever going to get rid of it – to, in the large-scale terms I’ve started to think recently – get rid of the gender binary, the insistence that everything be split in two opposing categories to which the negative is assigned to the female – one of the things we certainly need to do is work out where it came from”.

She then turns to the autobiography of the first editor of The Guardian’s women page in Thoughts on Before I Go…Reflections on my life and times by Mary Stott: “Born in 1917, she’s something of a bridge between the First Wave feminists and the Second Wave, which she viewed from a place of mature professional power and influence (one of the few women in that position at that time) with some understandable bemusement.  By modern standards she’s unsound on the subject of ‘Ms.’, she hated it, and rather unsound on homosexual rights, but given the world she grew up in, she’s humane, commonsensical and remarkably clear-sighted, while being self-effacing and almost frustratingly humble”.

Rural Retreat or The Beauty of Blighty

Calm contemplation of the loveliness that surrounds us has the power to transport us away from the stresses and strains of the daily grind, refreshing our weary souls.  Jonathan Calder of Liberal England shares a passion for the work of a certain author and broadcaster (I know for a fact our DVD shelves have one item in common) and set off on in the footsteps of the master, on a quest for authentic, untutored English architectural expression, unconstrained by the tyranny of planning permission, In which I find Jonathan Meades’s Severn Heaven: “They [the Bewdley plotlands] turned out to be quite extensive, occupying one side of a wooded valley.  The buildings were not quite as ramshackle and anarchic as Meades made them seem.  I did not find any former railway carriages, for instance.

Perhaps the most decrepit have been replaced in the 20 years since the programme was made, or perhaps he chose the ones he filmed with great care”.

Roy Booth of Early Modern Whale  some of the perils of exploration even in our green and pleasant land in At Kilcolman Castle: “It’s not an easy place to see: a colleague tells me that the landowner detests all mention of Spenser, and is reputed to remove any signs directing the curious.  I hiked across a couple of fields covered in long wet grass, was shocked three times on electric fences, climber over lots of barbed wire, and discovered on my way back that the herd of cows I had seen grazing were large and rather too curious young bulls, who had me backing out of their field, and smartly back over the electric fence that I’d first thought of as surely too rusty to be electrified…”

In Dymchurch, Kent, Phil Wilkinson of English Buildings puts the spotlight on an exhibition of photos by Mark Duncan (which runs until the end of September) who has documented a unique and disappearing architectural feature: “The flat landscape of Romney Marsh is dotted with a number of small buildings that most of us would hardly give a second glance.  Tiny, brick-built, with a pitched roof and a chimney at one end, these are the lookers’ huts that provided shelter for those who looked after sheep on the marsh and who needed to be near their flocks for weeks on end – especially during the lambing season.  Although they’re not elaborate pieces of architecture, these huts are important because they were a vital part in the lives of ordinary people for many generations over a period of around 100 years”.

The undisputed master of the genre, as evinced by the popularity and frequency of nominations, is diamond geezer.  His style is factual and unpretentious, his journeys educational, combining insatiable curiosity about his surroundings with unparalleled local knowledge, adeptly guiding the reader through unfamiliar territory, providing us a wealth of ideas for a “staycation”.  

He takes us on three separate excursions this week, firstly to one of the The Lost Rivers of London, The River Walbrook: “You’d think it would be easy [to follow the Walbrook], passing as it did through one of the most well-documented square miles on the entire planet.  But this means it disappeared early, several centuries before any other London lost river bit the dust.  What had once been a ‘fair brook of sweet water’ had by the 13th century become an ugly sewer that was ‘neither fair nor sweet’.  The middle and lower reaches of the Walbrook were paved over in 1463 thanks to a hygiene-minded Royal Act, and the original watercourse hasn’t been seen since”.

In complete contrast to the claustrophobic lanes and glass towers of the City, we move on to Berney Arms station, the remotest in Norfolk: “As the train slowly disappeared along the arrow-straight track, we were left to stand on a most unusual platform.  One modern station name sign and one old, the latter reminiscent of an era when a steam train might have pulled alongside.  One tiny wooden shelter, of a size to protect only two waiting passengers from driving rain, containing a map of the local area (mostly empty) and a telephone number to call ‘to advertise here’.  One help point, consisting of a button and loudspeaker on a stick, plugged in goodness knows where.  A cycle rack, with space for only two bikes, although goodness knows who’d be able to ride out this far to use it.  And a ramp down to ground level, leading to a crossing point over the track and a short path down to the station ‘entrance’.  It’s this ramp and flat path which allow Berney Arms to be described as a ‘step free station’, although this accessibility triumph is somewhat hollow as no wheelchair users could negotiate the stiles and kissing gates required to make a getaway”.

Finally, we pay a visit to one of the Olympic venues outside the capital, Hadleigh Farm, where the mountain biking event will be held: “There’s not much to see yet, to be honest, just a few sinuous paths cut into the hillside and surrounded by flapping orange netting.  It’s not yet clear whether these are tracks for competitors or access routes for spectators, probably the latter.  But what is clear is that there are definitely enough contours here – nothing too precipitous, but equally nothing too restrictively feeble.  There’s also every chance of a mudbath should the clouds open during the week before the competition.  my boots got absolutely covered in sludge during my wanderings in the local area last weekend, and I had to endure more than one awkward scramble down a treacherously slippery mudslide.  Even if the rest of London 2012 is thwarted by torrential rain, at least here it’ll make for some damned fine competition”.

Miscellaneous

Stephen Paterson of An Anthology of English Pros is guaranteed to bring you back to the real world with a jolt.  Lifting the lid on ‘Project Acumen’, exposes the sloppy methodology and even sloppier reporting on its findings gauging the extent of trafficking in women in England and Wales: “perhaps project Acumen’s greatest use lies in busting stereotypes.  Violence and coercion is unacceptable at any level, but , having said that, it clearly isn’t as endemic as many have painted it in the sex industry, with just one sex worker assaulted and five families out of 210 said to have been threatened with violence.  Details on the 21 ‘debt bondage’ cases is lacking, in some cases the debt could merely be covering genuine costs of travel and subsistence, in others far more vast and complicated, covering family debts and so forth.

Of 210 migrant sex workers, at least 202 entered their situations knowing full well what they were getting into, few deceived would-be nannies here.  Other than debt bondage cases, few seem coerced or pressurised by organisers, and the most that can be said about the majority is that they are no more vulnerable than most of us would be living in a foreign country with very limited knowledge of the language, some of them present unlawfully”.

Alasdair Thompson of brightgreen gives us the low down on Philippe Legrain at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Bystander of The Magistrate’s Blog tells us how feathers have been ruffled in Dissent In The Ranks: “The traditionally placid proceedings of the Magistrates’ Association have been replaced in recent days by turmoil and confusion.  Last week’s extraordinary statement from deputy chairman John Howson about setting up ‘justice-lite’ courts in shopping centres got a bit of attention from the press, and things became stranger still when a sort of clarification-cum-withdrawal was given to the Solicitors’ Journal, of all publications”.

To celebrate five years since its first posting, Malcolm Eggs of the London Review of Breakfasts awards The brekkies: 10 of the best breakfasts available to humanity.

I only have the luxury of sampling the full Scottish once a year and could not resist quoting the site’s wonderfully evocative mission statement, which so perfectly (and mouth-wateringly) encapsulates all the virtues of a good breakfast: “We love the splendid taste of expertly cooked, herb-filled sausages, the aromatic texture of crispy bacon, the burst of yellow yolk as the knife breaks the surface tension.  We love piping hot beans, buttered toast and squidgy grilled tomatoes.  We love to wash it all down with a reassuring cup of tea as – deliriously hungover – we babble about the dodgy antics of the night before.

But we hate bad breakfasts.  We hate nudging limp forks at greasy microwaved sausages, miserable pink bacon and the clear and runny white of an unloved fried egg.  We hate beans that are room temperature and bread that’s only toasted on one side.  we despise cold hard tomatoes.  hate it when we order tap water and it never comes and we don’t know what to say to each other and we have a relationship crisis and suddenly everything seems too cramped and stuffy and the night before embarrassing”.

Every evening whilst on holiday I braved the ferocious midge attacks that left my forehead a mass of virulently itchy bumps to witness the emergence of the magnificent Barn Owl from the abandoned cottage in which it had taken up residence.  Its head would appear first from the rusting corrugated iron chimney before it would suddenly launch itself into the night air, silently swooping over the parked car and away across the darkening fields.  So it should come as no surprise that I found the image accompanying Bigblue of bigbluemeanie’s Owl roadkill quite depressing.  This finely crafted meditation certainly provides us with a reminder of how casual thoughtlessness on the part of humans can wreak so much havoc: “And maybe the accidental death tag is rather too easy to hang on roadkill.  While the standard line in driving advice is ‘don’t swerve to miss a small animal, because you might hit an oncoming car and crash; just run over it’, there can’t be many drivers who turn the ignition key with carnage on their minds.  Yet there are echoes here of all those other accidental deaths – of people.  Traffic accident, hit by a car, tragic, like an act of God.  The word accident tumbles out so easily.  Sometimes there are accidents; generally it’s somebody’s fault”.

Jim Jay ponders media depictions of academic success in A level results in pictures.  Interestingly enough, all the subjects are highly photogenic, no swotty, bespectacled, mousy types on view and the images cannot even pretend to offer a representative cross-section of contemporary British society. 

Reynolds of Random Acts of Reality reminds us that behind the cold and intrusive lenses of surveillance cameras, human eyes also survey the streets in CCTV and Drunkenness.

Wartime Housewife presents us with some sobering statistics concerning the mind-boggling quantities of perfectly edible food discarded each day and investigates the causes in The Great British Disgrace: “Sell-by dates are there for the convenience of the supermarkets, for their stock rotation and their pathological fear of falling foul of the health and safety fascists.  Sell-by dates, like so much recent political legislation, have successfully robbed individuals of their common sense and their ability to make reasonable, instinctive judgements about what they put in their gobs.

I used to work for one of the (more ethical) leading supermarkets and I asked the manager why such huge amounts of food were going into the waste bins every day.  They are past their sell-by dates he told me and not fit for human consumption.  ‘I’d eat it,’ I said, hopefully, but it was made very clear that if I so much as glanced sideways at a wholemeal seeded batch I would be sacked on the spot.  I asked why the food could not be given to the homeless shelter.  I was told that would be illegal.  Wasting a skip-load of food every day should be illegal.

We, as consumers, are the biggest problem as far as the supermarkets are concerned.  The public has become obsessed with visual perfection and alleged convenient uniformity at the expense of flavour.  Egg farms throw thousands of eggs away every day because they are too small.  Apparently, the British housewife cannot work out how to use a small egg and panics if confronted with a hefty courgette”.

In the intriguingly titled Mr. Attlee’s cap and the nun index, Jamiek of Blood and Treasure has been sampling the delights of Listening to Britain (edited by Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang), when the Home Intelligence Unit, headed by Mary Adams, enlisted the services of regional information officers to eavesdrop on the populace at large and determine what preoccupied them.  Jamiek’s selection makes for very amusing reading and reveals that the scripts of Dad’s Army were not at all far-fetched.  I cite my personal favourite: “Amongst all classes, dislike of Belgians is growing”.

Finally, although it cannot by any stretch of the imagination be categorised as a blog entry, a bit of light relief in the form of the Cat’s Revenge (just to prove yet again that what distinguishes this Roundup from all the others that have followed in its footsteps is the commitment to including all content nominated).

The next Roundup will be hosted by Charles Crawford.

As always, nominations should be sent to the mailbox at britblog [at] gmail [dot] com.  For a full statement of editorial policy, plus the hosting rota and a complete archive of the Roundup since its inception, please consult the Britblog Roundup Central website.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Britblog Roundup 272

Filed under: — site admin @ 6:55 pm

Welcome to the 272nd Forrest Gump chocolate box edition of the Britblog Roundup, the weekly compilation of delights where you are never quite sure what you will find until you have removed the cellophane.

At examiner.com, Andrew Ian Dodge brings us up to date with the latest developments within the Direct Democracy project in US exports tea party movement to UK and elsewhere.

As an ex-pat I am torn between homesickness, yearning for mountains amidst the unrelieved flat monotony of Waffleland, and despair at the relentless tide of encroachments upon freedoms and wholesale abandonment of that once staple British virtue of common sense.  From the safe distance I inhabit, my abiding impression is that Britain ever more closely resembles Airstrip One, a surveillance society complete with Thought Police where the prevailing orthodoxy is rigorously enforced with the connivance of technologies the Stasi could not have imagined in their wildest fantasies (for example the state of the art CCTV cameras which allow operators to listen into casual conversations as well).  Where curtain-twitching and snitching are in the process of being elevated to civic duties thereby severing the few remaining threads of community and solidarity.  Trawling through the columns of even the broadsheets leads me to the uncomfortable conclusion that Britain is sliding down the proverbial slippery slope towards the kind of oppressive, interfering state that it took Central Europe over 40 years and countless personal tragedies (both in terms of wasted potential and as the price of resistance) to rid themselves of.  More worryingly, that the kind of inbuilt safeguards you might expect to accrue from acculturation in a democracy possess all the resilience and durability of the morning dew in the face of the opportunity to combine the pleasures of a new toy with those of meddling in the business of others.

Contemplating the rot that has set in, I was reminded of Piotr Sztompka’s brilliant essay Civilisational Incompetence: The Trap of Post-Communist Societies (Zeitschrift für Soziologie, Volume 22, Number 2, April 1993, pp85-95).  The incompetence referred to in the title is defined as “a complex set of rules, norms and values, habits and reflexes, codes and matrixes, blueprints and formats – the skillful and semi-automatic mastery of which is a prerequisite for participation in modern civilisation” (p88).  He identifies three causal mechanisms to blame for the pernicious state of affairs: “The first was direct indoctrination through socialist propaganda, as well as habituation in the ways typical for socialist economic and political practice (this is responsible e.g. for primary egalitarianism, demands of welfare and social security from the state, claims to ‘leading political role’ by the working class etc.).  The second involved successful attempts at totalitarian control, by means of coercive state apparatus (resulting e.g. in opportunism, blind compliance, reluctance to take decisions, avoidance of personal responsibility etc., which together make up the syndrome of ‘prolonged infantilism’ matching the ‘paternalism’ of the state).  The third, and perhaps most crucial, were adaptive, defensive patterns developing spontaneously against indoctrination and totalitarian control.  They took the form of unintended consequences, or ‘boomerang effects’ (e.g. lack of respect for law, institutionalized evasion of rules, double standards of talk and conduct, glorification of tradition, idealization of the West)” (p89).

Loathe to say it though I do, his description of the paralysing impact of decades of authoritarian rule on individual minds contains elements, which ring disconcertingly true when viewing contemporary Britain from the outside.  I admit, polemicising aside, that there are limits to the comparison, but since nominations have been thin on the ground, indulge me a little longer with one further quotation from Professor Sztompka, this time cataloguing the factors inhibiting the acquisition of civilisational competence once the Communist regime has finally been overthrown, the anxieties of transition: “First is the widespread anomie or axiological chaos, common disorientation as to the binding norms and values, valid rules, right ways of life.  Old patterns have fallen down, new ones have not yet been legitimised.  thrown into uncertainty and devoid of moral guidance, people feel isolated, lonely, and turn their resentments against others.  Interpersonal suspicion, hostility, hatred – destroy whatever social bonds have been left intact by totalitarian rule (…) Second, the emergence of new life-chances, opportunities to raise social status, by freshly opened access to wealth, power, prestige – generates brutal competition, in which stakes are high but rules of the game – undeveloped.  Civility, fair play, cooperative attitudes – do not find conducive ground to put roots (…) Third, the rigid social controls, both external and internal are suddenly released.  Police force and the judiciary get disorganised and lose any legitimacy they might still possess.  The law is undermined by the claims that its totalitarian origins make it illegitimate and not binding.  If law is considered unjust or anachronic – why should one comply?  This is not the helpful condition for establishing the rule of law, as the fundamental principle of democracy.  And fourth, there are unintended costs of opening toward the Western world.  The flow of consumer mass culture of lowest quality arrives first, before any truly valuable products, and brings pornography and drugs, brutality and mysticism, organised crime and deviant ways of life.  The enthusiastic adoption of most superficial symbols of capitalist affluence reminds one of ‘conspicuous consumption’, ‘nouveau riche’, and ‘Great Gatsby syndrome’” (pp89-90).

There are certain familiarities with the litany of discontents related to how unpleasant a place Britain has become to live in, how courtesy and service have vanished from everyday interactions, even the pretence of politeness ousted by grasping commercialism and cynicism, the vacuous cult of celebrity and route to short-term fame (notoriety) via the likes of (now thankfully defunct) Big Brother where contestants parade and perform themselves in all their glorious banality, the eschewal of effort and quietly plugging away as the pathway to the rewards of peer recognition and achievement.

All of these thoughts were inspired by Charles Crawford’s piece addressing the limits of the redistribution of wealth within our societies in Being, Not Producing.  Particularly the (to me at least) revelation that amongst the array of punitive instruments and penalties that has been put in place to compensate for the erosion of meaningful social networks (in this particular instance a supportive family or set of responsible friends actually worth the designation who might be willing to show some tough love and help keep the recipient’s self-destructive tendencies in check) police may issue a Drinking Banning Order covering the entire country.

Before returning definitively from Central Europe, Island1 of Polandian shows us an intrepid Polish TV reporter showing off his waders at a variety of waterlogged locations in Floods in the news.

Although children playing conkers in school playgrounds have allegedly been forced into wearing protective goggles, I am heartened to hear via Wartime Housewife in Beano! that killjoy regulators have not yet succeeded in eliminating the catapult as part of standard issue mischief-making equipment.

Matt Wardman of The Wardman Wire highlights a possible large-scale miscarriage of justice in relation to child pornography charges in Operation Ore: Profound Consequences if it Collapses: “If this appeal is successful, the ultimate consequences will be profound, because Operation Ore was the first large-scale British ‘paedo’ case.  The alleged success of Operation Ore, and the public fear of paedophiles created and fed in its wake, is the foundation upon which law enforcement around paedophile offences and a related public culture dominated by fear of child abuse has been built”.

This is not the only instance where the questionable decisions have been taken to prosecute without robust evidence.  In When it comes to sexualising children, the CPS is far worse than Primark The Heresiarch of Heresy Corner deplores the conviction of two boys of primary school age for rape: “Until relatively recently, a boy under the age of 14 was deemed incapable – that is, physically incapable – of committing the crime of rape.  That was in a sense ridiculous, but it may validly be asked if a boy as young as ten is mentally capable of rape, even if he does have the hydraulic capacity.  It is the most adult of crimes – more adult than murder, for while children have a fairly clear concept of death, sex is something of which they have little comprehension.  Even if they do know where babies come from.  And however much porn they’ve seen on the Internet.

At most, these boys were acting out things that they had heard discussed – possibly watched online – and wondered about, for there is nothing more natural for children than curiosity about their bodies.  Though the boys in this case were the youngest children ever to accused of rape in England, childhood ‘sexual’ play is far from uncommon – as indeed it always has been, even in the days before children were bombarded daily with sexual imagery and talk.  There has, however, been an increasing (and frankly bizarre) tendency in recent years to view such activities through the prism of adult concerns about paedophilia and abuse, and to impose adult understandings of sex on children who are pre-sexual.  When the law steps in, with its adult-oriented definition of what is and is not a sex crime, the stage may be set for a tragedy of inappropriate labelling – the results of which will live with the children involved long after their childish misdemeanours should have been forgotten”.

He concludes: “When it comes to sexualising children, it turns out, the CPS is far worse than Primark.  It is strange for child welfare campaigners to trouble themselves over padded bras when the full majesty of the state is putting small boys on trial for the adult crime of rape.  It’s almost as though these children are being persecuted for the wider sexualisation of society and of childhood, which may have contributed to their behaviour, but which is in no sense their fault”.

Next Left blog covers the latest expenses furore in David Laws’ dilemma and the transition to gay equality, broadening the focus to encompass the wider issues at stake: “Some have expressed disappointment that, in the Britain of 2010, the most powerful gay man in the Cabinet did not feel he could be open about his sexuality.  That is an understandable instinct, but it is surely legitimate to think that these are highly personal decisions.  Most of us would be reluctant to think we could pronounce, without having lived in their shoes, on somebody else’s choices about their own life”.

Matt Wardman approaches the same subject from the angle of the coalition’s anxiety to distance themselves from the grubby and grasping exploitation of the system in the past in David Laws: His position is probably untenable.

In a highly productive week, Matt has also reproduced the full compendium of the Top 100 UK Political Blogs for May – by Wikio as well as launching The Orange Digital Campaign Awards (NOT): a gentle protest meme, further consolidating his site as one of the indispensable (not to mention authoritative) stopping off points for anyone interested in politics and the Internet regardless of party affiliation.

Subrosa asks the pertinent question Has the BBC’s Question Time Had Its Day?

In a highly entertaining blend of autobiographical anecdote and analysis, Ian Yorston of The Unreasonable Man highlights a tendency towards irrationality in political decisions (such as the closure of European air space) in Ashclouds, Airplanes, Engines and Risk.  One of the many pertinent questions he asks in relation to the hypothetical scenario in which an aircraft on a scheduled flight between England and the Continent were to encounter some particles spewed out from Eyjafjallajökull is as follows: “if the worst did come to the worst, and all the engines stopped working, then how difficult is it to land a modern commercial aircraft – deadstick – no thrust – given that the starting point is 20,000 feet above mainland Europe? – bear in mind that every Shuttle landing is a deadstick landing – and the Shuttle flies like a brick.  Bear in mind that we can land aircraft in the Hudson River.  Bear in mind that technology is getting better.  Bear in mind that there are airfields all over the place”.

Whereas any decision-maker will pay lengthy lip service to safety, I suspect that the real underlying concern is with litigation and avoiding compensation claims rather than any genuine human empathy.

Tim Newman’s White Sun of the Desert offers a fascinating insider’s view of the oil industry, embodying all the qualities that ensure the best of blogging beats journalism hands down (a distillation of specialist knowledge presented in accessible form, accuracy, passionate interest in the subject, the space to develop an argument as much as it requires without an editor breathing down your neck, freedom from the tyranny of writing for the sake of filling in column inches rather than when you genuinely have something to say and so on).  Let’s face it, the microcosm that is the high-pressure corporate world is about as alien and far removed from my daily reality as I can possibly imagine, in the popular imagination at least is awash with cigar-chomping, ruthless men in Stetsons, too macho even for the likes of Rosie the Riveter.  In Fateful Decisions on the Deepwater Horizon, he discusses possible contributory factors to the disaster not immediately apparent to the layperson: “The problem is, I think, a matter of egos.  Like I said, some oil companies deliberately recruit little Napoleons with egos bigger than your average offshore platform.  The interviews and selection process favour the born leaders and weed out the compliant team players, with the result that you have a generation of natural leaders – who have been told since joining that they are the very best, the cream of the crop – and nobody who just wants to settle down to the drudgery of getting the job done.  Which is why half the damned industry is made up of contractors, nobody else wants to do any actual work.  I exaggerate, but not a lot.  Anyway, if you have a bright, young, energetic high-flyer who you want to develop and gain experience in another area, then you put him in charge but you assign him a lieutenant.  And that lieutenant should be a grizzled old dog who has been round the block a dozen times and then some, knows everything and everybody, is as cynical as hell, but just doesn’t have the drive or energy or career desires to lead any more.  The old dog would ensure the young pup stays on the straight and narrow and doesn’t do anything stupid and remains on call should he need to offer advice drawn from his considerable experience.  The oil industry is chock-full of these blokes, and they’re being laid off by the thousand when they should be doing everything they can to keep them.  Instead, the egos of the high-flyers and the management, who are effectively promoting somebody just like themselves, won’t allow him to be told he’s wrong, about to make a stupid mistake, knows sod all, and really needs to start listening and wise up a bit.  All young engineers, myself included (on more than one occasion), have had a slap down like this from some old hand when we’ve stuck our neck out and thought we knew it all.  You feel pretty hurt afterwards, but it’s a vital process in learning what your limitations are and how to respect and listen to those around you.  When it happens, boy do you learn.  Sadly, I sometimes get the impression that some oil company staff are taught by default they know more than the contractors and everybody else and they should not be cowed into listening to them, hence you find experienced hands being second-guessed and shouted down by some arrogant git who has no idea what he’s talking about, and you find it far more often than is healthy for the industry”.

Another author with a privileged insight into a profession that comes under intense public scrutiny, Inspector Gadget of Police Inspector Blog, draws our attention to certain inconsistencies in expressing national pride in Through the Looking Glass.  In my days as a postgraduate student, I spent the best part of three years in Denmark, carrying out research into a subject, referred to rather dismissively by Lord Palmerston thus: “The Schleswig-Holstein question is so complicated, only three men in Europe have ever understood it.  One was Prince Albert, who is dead.  The second was a German professor who became mad.  I am the third and I have forgotten all about it”.  One of the things that struck me during my time in Copenhagen was how the flag, Dannebrog (which according to the myth of its origin was a gift from heaven that turned the tide of battle in 1219, a peerless pedigree if ever there was one) was seamlessly woven into the fabric of everyday life, unashamedly on display everywhere, fluttering in the sea breeze on flagpoles in allotment gardens, waved to welcome family members being greeted at the airport.  It is not banned by over-zealous officials petrified of giving offence, folded away in a drawer to be consumed by moths, an object irredeemably tainted by unsavoury associations.

Yesterday, Viktor Orbán in his speech prior to being sworn in as Prime Minister of Hungary deployed a striking phrase when characterising the defeatist attitude propagated by the Socialist governments over the last eight years.  He talked about how Hungarians have been wandering around, heads bowed and that their horizons have never extended beyond their shoelaces.  In the UK, patriotic sentiment has been thoroughly pathologised by the Left, conflated with racism and intolerance.  However, the reason why one local council has banned flag flying whereas another has encouraged it is intimately linked with the specific context.  In the former, the flag is being linked to the World Cup, football, a sport much loved by the working class and carries connotations of hooliganism, brawling and mindless, drunken violence on the part of supporters.  Presumably, local worthies are terrified that the mere glimpse of an England flag on a passing vehicle might be enough to incite passers-by to engage in loutish behaviour, according to the red rag principle, triggering barely suppressed tendencies to lash out at the nearest target amongst the lower orders.  By contrast, sailing is a genteel, middle-class pursuit.  In addition, the Dunkirk evacuation (in which my grandfather took part) is a revered and iconic episode in our history, incorporated into our national identity along with the Battle of Britain and the White Cliffs of Dover.  The emphasis in the re-enactment was presumably on sacrifice the British genius of muddling through and coming up with pragmatic solutions when confronted with the most dire of circumstances, not letting our boys down in their hour of need.  In short, what separates the two is not only distance in time (past and all too threatening present), but respectability.

Sticking to the theme of the irritations of modern existence, Wrinkled Weasel of the eponymous blog loses patience with an ailing institution in Paper Free but not junk free: “Since when was the Post Office letters division a Public Service?  When was the last time anybody received a meaningful communication via the Royal Mail, that could have been done electronically?  The last important document to arrive at Weasel Hall was a Passport.  And that was by Private Courier.  The only thing we get from the postman these days is junk.  Day after day after day.  These days, posties are in reality, highly paid leaflet distributors, and, forgive me if I am mistaken here, but this aspect of the Post Office is done entirely for commercial reasons and is highly profitable.  It benefits nobody but the Post Office and perhaps also the companies who use this method of marketing, which apparently raises £67 billion in sales.  hardly what you could call a ‘public service’, though, is it?  Getting details of Twofers at Somerfield?  Do me a favour”.

Quite.  I completely agree with the Wrinkled Weasel’s point that the advent of e-mail has been the death knell for traditional postal services.  Over here, on the other side of the Channel, “pas de publicité” stickers were distributed for mailboxes (with the typical Waffelian twist that you can refine these instructions somewhat by demanding that unsolicited advertisements only be delivered in Flemish and not French).  Whenever the red van pulls up in front of the house, I can be fairly sure it is either for a bill or the tax declaration form, nothing to look forward to in other words.  More recently, De Post conducted a sneakier campaign to prise information out of residents as a means of getting round our grass roots resistance to any extraneous printed matter.  Feigning concern for the environment (the waste of thousands of tonnes of paper consigned to the recycling bins without having been so much as glanced at never having caused them sleepless nights), De Post sent a questionnaire form to every household in the region unapologetically poking its nose into every conceivable aspect of existence from income to hygiene product preferences, “All the better to target you with, my dear”.  Having taken the trouble to ascertain that amongst the hundreds of boxes to tick, there was no option for “I do not wish to receive any advertising” (although, to be honest, by the time I reached the end, I would seriously have welcomed the option of “Fuck off”).  Something about their assurances that the data was anonymous did not quite ring true (maybe it was the fact that my name and address was printed brazenly at the top).  Let’s face it, how could they tailor the advertising to suit your personal preferences if they did not store the information?  Seriously, who in their right mind would voluntarily surrender that amount of intimate detail about themselves just to eliminate a minor inconvenience?  I don’t care about data protection disclaimers, I bet that the sole purpose of the exercise was to gather saleable intelligence from the widest possible sample (apart from central government only De Post keep records of every single householder in the country).  End result: apart from the local double glazing and garage door specialists, the only rubbish I am pestered with comes from the eternally optimistic Aldi, God bless them.

Not that all is hunky-dory in the virtual world, as Mark Pack demonstrates in Dear Facebook, I don’t like you this morning.

Jess McCabe of The F-Word announces a Summer school for feminist activists to be held in London between 31st July and 1st August.

To conclude, I warmly commend three posts by way of a balm for the soul, two revealing hidden gems of the countryside and one in a more urban setting.  Firstly, a very warm welcome back to Jonathan Calder of Liberal England with a delightful introduction to The old church at Tur Langton.  Followed by Philip Wilkinson of English Buildings on Horningsham, Wiltshire, which surely comes close to the English pastoral ideal, though its thatched Congregational Chapel was built for Scottish workers.  Last, but by no means least, Diamond Geezer gives us the benefit of his unparalleled local knowledge the latest instalment of his guide to the Lost rivers of London in Hackney Brook.

Next week’s Roundup will be hosted by Jackart at A Very British Dude.

As always, nominations should be sent to the mailbox at britblog [at] gmail [dot] com  For a full statement of editorial policy, hosting rota and a complete archive of the Roundup since its inception, consult the Britblog Roundup Central website.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Britblog Roundup 263

Filed under: — site admin @ 7:15 pm

Welcome to the 263rd short but sweet edition of the Britblog Roundup, which presents a varied assortment of submissions for your delectation in an exercise comparable to tipping the envelopes (whether brightly coloured or just plain brown) and packages from a postbag onto the table without their having passed through the sorting office first.  The weekly host’s task being that of organising the material into a few loose categories rather than censoring (or censuring) the contents.

Politics

Andrew Ian Dodge writing at Pajamas Media gives us his Reaction to the Inaugural British Tea Party Event in Brighton on 28th February.

Andrew Cooper of Greening Kirklees extols the virtues of installing solar panels in I join the ‘Energy generating Democracy’!: “It is quite a liberating feeling.  I know one of my potential energy suppliers is 93 million miles away but I feel a much greater affinity with it than the earthbound energy companies.  I guess it is because the sun never sends me any bills and 0p/kWh is by far my favourite tariff!”

Not that there are enough tranquil leafy suburbs to go round…Sarah Cope of the eponymous blog ponders how best to coerce private landlords into cleaning up their act and stop scrimping on repairs and basic maintenance in Private Sector Housing – time to get tough: “Sewage splattered across the path to the front door due to a broken pipe.  Houses split into 10 to 12 rooms, looking decidedly dilapidated.  Huge bundles of wires strung along outside walls, clearly a health and safety nightmare.

These are just some of the badly managed properties that I have come across in the private sector whilst door-knocking in Stroud Green.  One resident told me it was ‘like living in a slum’ and that it had been that way for years”.

Retreating for a moment from the sleeves-rolled-up more practical side of righting wrongs to a more theoretical level, David Morgan of Washminster summarises Lord Chancellor Jack Straw’s lecture on Parliamentary Reform, whilst Riversider of River’s Edge contemplates A hung parliament – Implications for the Left: “A hung parliament, or a government with a weak majority would reflect the weakness and indecision of the ruling class and their political representatives in the 3 main parties.  They have been badly shaken and disorientated by the disastrous credit crunch, which burst their bubble of ebullient confidence.  Now they foresee a much more complex, difficult and dark future for their system”.

At the RMT London Calling blog, Janine is not quite so optimistic about the prospect of future improvements and is prompted to pose the question Does the Economic crisis Mean that Employers ‘Have To’ Cut Jobs? contrasting responses to recession by London Transport in more confident times with those of the present day.

Slightly further afield, Fraught Mummy of the Brits in Bosnia Blog deplores the recent arrest of Ejup Ganic in British politics, a dirty, dirty game, arriving at a damning verdict: “The British Government has said that it was ‘just a case of the judicial authorities following their legal obligations’ and they were not making a political statement at all.  Try telling that to the thousands of protestors outside of the British Embassy in Sarajevo on Friday.  They, like pretty much everyone else, see it as a way of appeasing Serbia for the trial of Karadzic”.

Neil Craig of A Place to Stand provides an alternative analysis in two pieces devoted to the subject, Ejup Ganic – War Crimes Extradition and Ejup Ganic – ‘Let justice be done though the heavens fall’.

Ben Challis, part of the team of At last…the 1709 Copyright Blog draws our attention to some suspiciously fortuitous timing in relation to the publication of certain research results and the sublimely catty reaction to it by one ISP in OOOO errrr missus, the claws are out in DEB debate.

Dwelling for a moment on the theme of Internet freedom and intellectual property rights, Andrew Robinson of Pirate Party Blog publicises the outcome of a vote in the European Parliament in ACTA Supporters – UKIP named and shamed.

Inspired by news of a controversy over the underlying message conveyed by differential pricing of Ballerina Barbie and Theresa dolls as examined by Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy, Charles Crawford addresses some of the wider dilemmas in Racism In The Toyshop Sale: “is there any sensible way other than the price mechanism to measure the weight of rival views’ view on the subject?  If ten people complain but 900 do not, is there any issue?  Is a good enough answer to those offended along the lines of ’shop somewhere else’?”

Guy News covers the release of pub landlord Nick Hogan, the smoking ban martyr.

Feminism

Gavin Robinson of Investigations of a Dog reminds us that Women Really Do Exist, a statement not as straightforwardly obvious as you might be tempted to think given the marginalisation (to the point of almost complete invisibility) of women in traditional historiography.  As part of a contribution to Women’s History Month, he links to They Really Do Exist, an initiative of Liberal Democrat blogger Jennie Rigg aimed at disproving sweeping assertions that downplay the role played by women in any given area of cultural endeavour.  Gavin states: “What I find most striking about this situation is that many male political bloggers (even liberal ones) try to delegitimize feminism by claiming that it isn’t really politics.  In contrast, anti-feminist academics are more likely to delegitimize feminist history by asserting that it is political and therefore doesn’t meet their standards of (false) neutrality.  This double standard gives patriarchy the best of both worlds and makes things even more difficult for feminists”.

In a thoughtful essay that combines practical valuable tips on publishing on demand with a keen sense of how such forms of expression perpetuate the venerable tradition of the women’s movement and political activism within it, Adventures in self-publishing, Deborah Withers encourages the pooling of skills and resources in order to articulate viewpoints that would otherwise be ignored or misrepresented by the mainstream media.

Culture

Philip Booth of Ruscombe Green assesses a recent performance of The Amazing and Preposterous Constance Smedley at Everyman Theatre (with a couple of other recommendations thrown in for good measure).

In a review of Robert Harris’s Lustrum, Natalie Bennett of Philobiblon considers the similarities and differences between modern British politics and those of a turbulent antiquity in The pains of politics, Roman-style.

Miscellaneous

In 40,000 new sex workers for the South Africa world cup?  Really?  Anatomy of a number, mngreenall issues a salutary reminder of why we should never relax our vigilance whilst perusing newspaper reports.  Search engines are a treasure trove when it comes to fact checking and tracing the origins of unsubstantiated rumours.  Indeed, when journalists wax snooty about the alleged unreliability and sloppiness of bloggers it is good to have a few ripostes in one’s repertoire…

Jim Jay of The Daily (Maybe) vents his spleen about one of his less conventional pet hates in Disorganised Rage!  And, yes, I most definitely feel his pain.

Tom Reynolds of Random Acts of Reality recounts why he has decided to banish Unwarranted Uncharitable Thoughts when called out early in the morning.

With customary charm, the ever-entertaining Diamond Geezer invites us to hop on board the Number 45 to accompany him on an exotic journey: “There are many glamorous destinations to which a man can travel from St Pancras International.  Paris, Brussels, even Margate, to name but a few.  But instead I took the bus to Elephant & castle, Camberwell, Brixton and beyond.  Given that I was staying on board until the very last stop, it was the ‘and beyond’ bit which unnerved me”.

To close in humorous vein, Ross of Unenlightened Commentary is captivated by a tale of Teenage Lesbians Stripped…, all strictly in the pursuit of research into outrageous manifestations of blatant discrimination, you understand.

Next week’s Roundup will be hosted by cabalamat at Amused Cynicism.  As ever, nominations should be sent to britblog [at] gmail [dot] com  For a full statement of editorial policy, hosting rota and a complete archive of the Roundup since its inception, consult the Britblog Roundup Central website.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

X

Filed under: — site admin @ 12:04 pm

When an architect is so swept away by the splendour of his own vision and the grandeur of his plans, so utterly convinced of his own genius the needs of the users might seem to him nothing more than the petty gripes of lesser mortals whose imaginations are enslaved by their addiction to trivial comforts.  The quality of the materials assumes a fetishistic significance, any quibbling with the unblemished integrity of the original concept on the basis of mundane concerns blasphemy, any alteration to the plans, however minor, a wanton act of desecration.  How his Muse would stamp her feet in rage undignified.  Not that this particular architect paid the slightest heed to the objections of the delegation during the inspection tours.  So the corridors are at their narrowest (just wide enough to allow one person of slender build to pass another provided that both are completely unencumbered by documents and files) where the through traffic is greatest, causing maximum inconvenience precisely at the moment when punctuality and smoothness of passage are everything.  Admittedly, the central atrium with vines climbing steel cables from floor to ceiling possesses a certain charm, though not nearly enough to alleviate the stress of trying to navigate through the crowds of lobbyists and journalists to the meeting rooms.

Our chief objection was to the black walls lining the booths, imparting a coffin-like atmosphere to our workplace.  Seven hour shifts deprived of the slightest chink of natural light enough to reduce even the most resiliently cheerful of disposition to a state of despondency.  Our mental health and emotional well-being summarily dismissed, a further reminder of our lowly status could be issued with impunity.  In the interests of cost-cutting (perhaps this ascribes more calculated malevolence than is warranted, as it is equally plausible that so little thought was devoted to the issue that no deliberate disdain was involved though this is hardly a source of consolation), interpreters are expected to answer the call of nature in a mixed-sex environment.  Quite startling for the first several months so deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche is the segregation pertaining to intimate and embarrassing bodily functions.  I open the door and can instantly determine that a male colleague had availed himself of the facilities before me (one of the anecdotes recounted with particular relish concerns the occasion when the institution played host to a congress of sex workers – which greatly expanded the vocabulary of the professional linguists in a particularly memorable field of terminology that day – who undaunted by the lack of ladies’ toilets invaded the gents where, much to the astonishment and admiration of the teller, they peed standing up with a no-nonsense perfect aim, at any rate better than he was able to muster with his inhibited and flustered dribble).

The speaker was droning on in colourless, unmodulated international English about some obscure codicil in the domain of intellectual property rights.  Needless to say our attention wandered despite the architect’s best efforts to banish distractions beyond the usual speculating on whether the delegate’s hair was natural or a clever weave.  Words have different flavours for us, we savour them in a kind of occupationally-induced synesthesia.  Their sound evokes vivid responses of pleasure or disgust and we recall those that have fallen into disuse in our everyday exchanges with the fondness that others reserve for the memory of lost loves.  “Wassock” was the first to provoke debate (with a fierce argument over the appropriate spelling).  Followed by “coffin-dodger” and whether Grufti could be considered the correct equivalent in German (kriptaszökevény, literally “fugitive from the crypt” in Hungarian in my opinion a far closer match).

This was followed by a nostalgia-tinged discussion on technological obsolescence.  Our third colleague with an academic background in anthropology who had been taught at university by Mary Douglas (thereby incurring my undying envy) had lived in France for so long that not only were the terms we had mentioned unknown to her, but she could remember the not too distant days when IBM had been an excellent employer of freelancers.  The language combination before English displaced all other modes of communication had been French, Italian and German alongside the tongue that was destined to elbow out all others with supreme ruthlessness.  She then proceeded to laud the virtues of one of that company’s products of yesteryear, which she referred to as “the golf ball”.  Neither of us belonged to a generation for whom this sparked any associations.  I barely remembered the floppy disc, having been in an extended state of student poverty precluding the purchase of such luxuries as a PC.

Her reminiscences transported me back to September 1996 when, at a conference in Budapest, I sat listening intently to every syllable of the opening address by the President of the Republic Árpád Göncz.  With no trace of bitterness about his past, he joked about how the population of the prison he had languished in comprised the most eminent gathering of translators and intellectuals in a single location in the country’s history.  His speech was delivered in the style still prevalent in Central Europe, sentence by sentence with the interpreter working in staccato bursts rather than in more coherent and flowing five-minute (or longer) segments as is customary in the Western context.  This gives rise to particular challenges, particularly when the speaker has a sly sense of humour and gives the poor interpreter little to go on (all the more cringe-inducing for victim and audience alike, as every interpreter feels more vulnerable when exposed in full view rather than huddling in the booth behind protective panes of glass that separate them from the listeners).  When Göncz proclaimed: “For the translator the letter X is the most important” his interpreter checked that he had heard correctly, understanding the words without grasping the meaning.  With a twinkle of mischief in his eye, the President then deployed the rhetorical device of emphasis through repetition to increase the clamminess of his interpreter’s palms.  The latter could bear the tension no longer and begged for clarification.  Göncz then took pity and explained: “In the days when we worked on typewriters, using the X-key was the only way we could erase any errors by blotting them out”.  No correction ribbon was provided, and the white fluid we take for granted had not yet been invented.

Sam Lowry retreats from the unbearable present into the solace of delusion, but Göncz enjoyed no such escape in the world outside fiction.  Yet what better means to preserve one’s sanity in confinement than to translate, releasing the imagination to soar beyond the walls and bars.  As Göncz described it: “(…) the translator has to become part of – not the sentence or the text – but of the situation, which is described by it.  he has to enter the setting.  Like an actor entering the spirit of his role.  Only then will he know with certainty what the book or the subject of a particular sentence may have and should have said at that point and how he did say or do whatever he said or did.  because at that point, in that situation and at that particular place or moment these were the only words he could have said.  Whether he is emperor, shaman or American teenager.  So the translator sitting by his typewriter, has no choice but turn himself into emperor, shaman or American teenager.  He develops a sensitivity, for which otherwise, in his daily life, he has no use at all” [ quoted in Klaudy Kinga and János Kohn (eds.), Transferre Necesse Est, Budapest, Scholastica, 1997, p17]

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Britblog Roundup 247

Filed under: — site admin @ 2:12 pm

Welcome to the pre-hibernation edition of the Britblog Roundup where blogging activity appears to have succumbed to seasonal sluggishness in the absence of major scandals.

 Politics

Writing at Pajamas Media, Andrew Ian Dodge weighs up the Tory leader’s prospects of success at next year’s election in David Cameron Likely Britain’s Next PM, But He May Yet Blow the Chance: “Labour might change leaders between now and the election.  They know that Gordon brown, barring a miracle, would go down to a crushing defeat and cost many a Labour MP his seat.  Their clamouring for change was mostly pacified at their party conference, but as their doom looms larger and larger, it seems hard to believe they will not attempt to rid themselves of the loathed Brown.

There is no guarantee that any other leader would win the general election and keep Labour in power – in fact, it is almost certain that they would not.  however, a new leader might be able to significantly reduce the majority held by David Cameron.  It is even possible that there might be a ‘hung’ parliament, where no party has overall control.  This would bring up the possibility of a ‘minority’ government, which are notoriously weak.  Worse, it could lead to a ‘coalition’ government made up of everyone who wants to keep the Conservatives out of government”.

Meanwhile, James Higham of Nourishing Obscurity has high hopes of a radically different coalition: Brit politics suddenly interesting – time for a coalition to win in 2010, an idea on which he elaborates further in Steps to getting this coalition afloat.

In a slightly late entry (given the date of publication, it would have been more appropriate for last week’s edition, but I am in an indulgent mood and it is a first-time nomination, after all), Joanna Cake of Having My Cake and Eating It Too assesses Nick Griffin’s performance in Question Time: the BNP on Homosexuality and Immigration: “What the BNP is doing is their own form of exploitation.  Appearing to stand up for the common man whilst, all the time, merely adopting a stance that will win them enough popularity to start feathering their own nest.

Our only consolation is that watching Mr Griffin weaseling and smiling as he spouted statements and denials that made so many people just stare open-mouthed with disbelief, his transparency became obvious to all”.

Mick Fealty of Slugger O’Toole encourages us to listen to Clive James on the subject of the postal strike in An ‘old-style left’ view on the dignity of labour…

I agree with him that it is well worth the effort, especially when you are treated to soundbites such as this: “Where there is dignity in labour, workers usually want to work, even if the task is a drudge.  They should beware of any outrage on their behalf by false friends on the playtime left who have never done a hand’s turn.  While it is a fine thing to be an artist, it is an even finer thing to be a doctor or a nurse.  And it can be just as fine a thing to stack shelves or clean lavatories”.

Having dealt with a client convinced that electrical appliances are insidiously whispering at him to commit murder, Clairwil ponders the corrosive and compassion-dulling impact of constant exposure to benefit scroungers rhetoric in The Value of Nothing!

“I do realise that whilst this chap is out of work he’s costing us all money, but I personally find the idea of a seriously ill person being harassed into employment for the sake of saving a few bob morally repugnant.  Money is important and it’s very useful at the shops, but a person’s worth cannot be  determined solely by their economic worth.  Good Heavens if people believed that they’d cheer when they hear about the deaths of those deemed economically worthless and no one has been that evil since we saw off Hitler”.

Except for the Daily Mail readers who left – moderated – comments of approval on a piece reporting that an illegal immigrant had suffocated whilst hiding on board a lorry that is…

In Secret ACTA treaty would impose 3-strikes, cabalamat of Amused Cynicism highlights the latest moves to clamp down on Internet freedom.

In a customarily incisive piece at Liberal Conspiracy, Unity examines the issue of Offensive Language?

On the subject of banning the use of “retard” as a term of abuse, Unity remarks: “You can’t make words disappear, but you can educate people to use words in their proper context and to understand why context matters.  That’s how you change attitudes and it’s attitudes that matter, not words.

That’s where the dogma of ‘political correctness’ too often gets it completely wrong.  It tries to change attitudes by making rules, giving people banal lists of words that they supposedly can’t use in any circumstances because the words themselves are ‘offensive’”.

And: “Making simplistic rules about what can and can’t be said doesn’t change attitudes.

frequently, all it does is provide cover for people whose attitudes aren’t going to change no matter how much you try to educate them.  Sure, you can use these rules to force Nick Griffin into saying ‘Muslim’ rather than ‘Paki’, but you know damn well that ‘Paki’ is what he’s actually thinking when he starts railing inanely against ‘Muslims’ for the umpteenth time.  It just doesn’t change attitudes at all, but it does explain why people are so vocal in their complaints about political correctness – because sticking to those ‘rules’ doesn’t always work as well as the unreconstructed bigot might hope.  No matter how careful they are in sticking to the rules, the vast majority of bigots are still easily identifiable because they still get the context of their comments hopelessly wrong”.

Feminism

Penelope Trunk recently updated her Twitter feed with a short message: “I’m in a board meeting.  Having a miscarriage.  Thank goodness, because there’s a fucked-up three-week hoop-jump to have an abortion in Wisconsin”.

Cue outcry on the appropriateness of her admission of relief.  Far from being a callous self-promotionalist, Ms Trunk has personal experience of the distress a miscarriage can bring in its wake:

“I also understand the pain a miscarriage can cause.  I had one in between having my two kids, and I thought I was never going to recover.  I remember the ultrasound technician’s face when she saw the baby was dead.  I knew before she told me: I screamed and had to be put in a separate room at the doctor’s office because I had a panic attack and nearly fainted.  I was inconsolable for days.  I was scared I’d never have another child.  I hated myself for not trying to have children sooner.

But this time was different.  I knew I did not want the baby.  Is that so bad?  I had taken a pregnancy test when I couldn’t do my normal run or stay awake at work.  When it came back positive, I felt old, scared and angry.  When I called my boyfriend to tell him, he cried.  He doesn’t believe in abortion.  But I have a child with autism and the odds that the next child will have autism is almost 90%.  The odds of a mother over 40 having a child with Down’s syndrome is one in 100.  The risk that a woman who is 42 will miscarry at some point in the pregnancy is higher than 50%.  These are not good odds.  And I’m the sole breadwinner.  I already knew that the risks of this pregnancy were huge.  And if I had a baby with compromised medical health, it would jeopardise my ability to care for my two kids in the way I want to”.

She opposes the suppression of women’s voices through the weight of collective disapproval, as this merely serves to perpetuate isolation and suffering:

“I believe that the history of women can be seen, in some ways, as a history of language.  The more women talk about their experiences, the more power they have to shape those experiences.  Words such as date rape and antenatal depression are empowering because they give us ways to talk about issues that were hidden when we did not have the language to express them.  We have a word for miscarriage.  We should use it to explore the complicated issues around it.

If you insist on keeping the word private, you force the experience of women back into darkness.  If you start telling women which media is appropriate for which emotion, you undermine the progress we make”.

Laurie Penny of Penny Red reacts in Have you no shame? (her title echoing the question asked by the CNN news presenter):

“Personal, factual, shoving the meaty details of women’s everyday life up in your face.  Plus, it quite delightfully manages to combine in 32 words most of the big taboos of modern misogynist thought: women bleeding in the boardroom.  Women being candid about parts of our physical lives which aren’t to do with fucking but also matter to us.  Women’s bodies being, in fact, more than just tools for baby-making and delivering sexual pleasure to men”.

I am delighted to announce that next week’s Roundup will return to the more than capable hands of Clairwil, former member of the regular hosting team.  As always, nominations should be submitted to britblog [at] gmail [dot] com  For a full statement of editorial policy, a list of the upcoming hosts and a complete archive of the Roundup since its inception, consult the Britblog Roundup Central website.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Hearth and Homeland

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:49 am

In many respects, ex-patriate exile resembles a form of self-delusion.  For many years, I would not entertain the thought of buying rather than renting, as to commit myself to a mortgage would be tantamount to acknowledging that my stay was anything other than temporary.  Some places lend themselves to cocooning yourself in denial more easily than others, Waffle Central surely near the top of the list for the Brit, with London close enough to make even a day-trip feasible, BBC One and Two on tap via cable providers (and well within the satellite footprint for Freeview), newspapers and magazines freely available and the presence of a large community enabling anyone so inclined to pursue a hermetically-sealed virtually monoglot existence disrupted only by a minimum of dealings with local and fiscal authorities.

Ultimately, when the pressures of work subside for a few hours the pang of separation, of physical distance coupled with the knowledge of having missed out, no matter how frequent the phone calls or electronic missives, prompts doubts or even existential questions about whether the extra income is really worth the sacrifice of months and years that can never be recovered.  The fortnight in the cottage, as the only occasion on which I return, becomes invested with great emotional significance, as my opportunity to catch up, to atone for my unavailability.

Mattie took possession of the keys to his ground floor council flat, an empty shell, or blank canvas as he prefers to think of it.  The previous tenants had left behind some unwanted gifts, having dumped their household refuse in the shed rather than availing themselves of the local disposal services.  In spite of the lack of carpets, the entire property had become flea-infested, so Mattie had to fumigate it before he could even contemplate moving in.  The garden is an embarrassment, used by neighbours near and far as a tipping ground (Mattie’s greatest fear discarded hypodermic needles tossed casually over the low fence).  Its forlorn appearance at least made him feel good about himself, however, reminding him that he has standards and would never have allowed such neglect to set in.  Some satisfaction could at least be gained from restoring it to a more respectable state with flower beds and perhaps a modest patch of lawn.  Between viewing and picking up the key, a can of petrol had been discarded.  I enquired whether he could lodge an official protest, but he explained that prospective tenants are given the keys for an inspection and are then required to sign a form declaring that they are satisfied that the flat or house is in an acceptable condition, in effect a liability waiver.  When the river is in spate there is a more than negligible risk that Mattie’s best efforts will be submerged anyway, so I teased him about how the peaty waters would save him the trouble of a major clear-out.

The conversation turned to Stuart and the relish with which he had stripped off to go wading out into the chilly waters, giving us comfort-junkie adults the shivers just watching him.  As Lorna pointed out, his lack of inhibition comes from his innocence, he is still happy to wander about “in the scud” with an unselfconsciousness the rest of us could only envy (as he himself had put it to me with guileless sincerity: “I like being naked in a big house”).  I asked about his two front milk teeth, which have decayed into tiny black stumps, a query motivated by concern rather than disapproval, as I could quite easily imagine how it would be next to impossible to force Stuart to acquire the habits of dental hygiene, wriggling and writhing in dissent before screaming and howling (he combines the notorious family thrawnness with a substantial bulk for his age, relegating the idea of restraining him long enough to insert a toothbrush and pea-sized portion of fluoride salvation to the realm of pure fantasy).  Rory patiently explained the dire situation patients are confronted with in 21st century Scotland.  He had heard rumours of a new NHS dentist opening up in York Place (a good 35 miles away) and made the trip down to join the queue.  Although he arrived fairly early, it already snaked round several streets, with over 4,000 hopefuls desperate to sign up.  He refuses to darken the doors of the local private clinic after three incidents.  Once when he was fined £20 for failing to turn up for an appointment on the day our Mother died; ditto when his wife was bleeding from her placenta whilst in the advanced stages of her pregnancy with Stuart and they were terrified that they might lose him and finally when he was sitting in the chair, two of his teeth having been filed down ready for the insertion of crowns, he was treated to the unedifying spectacle of the supervising dentist bawling out her younger colleague for incompetence, that she was to be summarily dispatched to re-sit the relevant tutorial she had botched the procedure so badly.  In the meantime, Rory was turfed out with a number mouth and no crowns.  Lorna, whose entire nursing career has been in the NHS, corroborated that there is no comeback with private dentists.  This news merely strengthened my resolve never to settle back in my homeland, no matter how great the wrench, how constant the ache of voluntary banishment.  I remembered my parents’ horror stories of how it was standard practice for the dentist to simply remove all the teeth of non-lucrative patients so that he would never have to bother with them again.  As a result, they both wore dentures from the age of 18 onwards.  It sickens me to think that the clock has been turned back to the bad old days when level of care is directly dependent on level of income, that the most vulnerable are being callously betrayed (so far the rot is most visible in the dental sector, but its inexorable spread is attested to by the absence of compassion implied by refusals to treat individuals who have brought their conditions upon themselves, through their “lifestyle choices”.  Why should anyone feel sorry for the fag-puffers and the fatties whose illnesses are all self-inflicted?  This is the ugly truth behind rationing, the implicit value judgement that deems the life of one human being to be of lesser value due to “bad habits”, another sign of the erosion of solidarity within our society and the triumph of middle-class moralising, the sneer of the self-righteous).

After a dinner of roast pork, mashed potato, broccoli and Yorkshire pudding followed by the chocolate sponge Lorna had bought for my birthday with Mackie’s traditional Scottish vanilla, which transported us back to the days of the ice-cream van that summoned the children outdoors for a 99 (a cone with a scoop or two and half a Cadbury’s Flake protruding) or a slider (with the ice-cream sandwiched between two wafers), we made our way down to the shore in the fading light to watch the bats skimming over the surface of the calm loch.  In the beam of the torch it became apparent why: hundreds of thousands of sedge flies hovered in a feeding bonanza for nocturnal predators.  G’s sleep had been interrupted by a Pipistrelle the previous night as it had attempted to fly through the skylight into his room, thwarted by the mosquito mesh and had started clambering over it, leaving little tokens of its distress and displeasure before locating an escape route to the grey slates.

When the midgie onslaught became intolerable, we retreated to indulge in a game of knockout whist, a tradition we have preserved since childhood.  Except that now we are the boozy grown-ups, our laughter enhanced by a large bottle of Leffe Blonde and Schiehallion Beer (a 4.6% Pilsener with a slightly smoky and not too bitter flavour that I developed a taste for over the fortnight, the initial purchase one of those fortuitous spur of the moment decisions attributable to a blend of curiosity and sentimentality – how could I resist a brew bearing the name of the mist-clad slopes of the mountain whose moods we observe each day?)  As the beer flowed, Mattie’s mischievous streak manifested itself.  He kept pestering the Hungarian: “Can I pull your beard?”  When the latter feigned anger after the umpteenth challenge, reaching over to my cousin, Mattie issued a mock warning: “I’ve got a lighter!”

Another custom that we have kept alive in slightly modified form is the “sweetie ration”.  Every morning, my Mother and Auntie Cathy would solemnly distribute a certain quantity amongst us, very solicitous about fairness, blind to age and gender, we received an identical number.  On rainy days when we were confined indoors, Rory, Lorna and I would gamble our precious treats with predictable results: Lorna, the card sharp, would always end up with a huge pile, I would keep some, but not all and Rory would fume with rage and anguish at being left empty-handed (although kind-hearted Lorna always took pity on him and returned them).  Nowadays our substitute is either buckets of Maltesers or, as was the case this year, a massive tin of Quality Street donated by Lorna that had been languishing in her flat since Christmas.  As we played, Mattie noticed that the Hungarian’s favourite was the chocolate-covered coconut (easily spotted with its rectangular shape and blue wrapper) and proceeded to sneakily spirit them into his pockets.  I aided and abetted him in this endeavour, sliding one across the table every time he won a hand (Mattie never ceases to amaze us with the sheer audaciousness of his luck, coming back from the dead time and again to beat us on a blind chance).  Eventually, the long drive back along the winding shore road could be delayed no longer (Rory very laudably never touches a drop when he is behind the wheel) and they laced up their boots in the conservatory before heading to the car.  When Rory had reversed and they were about to head off up the path, Mattie wound down his window for a final taunt: “I’ve got all the coconut ones!”

Stuart Testing the Waters

Saturday, 26 September 2009

McLaughlin

Filed under: — site admin @ 12:05 pm

[15th August 2009]

We were all feeling despondent at the news of Wayne’s suicide.  Such a gentle man, the only hint of violence directed against himself at the end.  Gathered in the living room, Mattie attempted to relieve the tension by distracting us with anecdotes.  Amongst his numerous past jobs, he spent a long stint working at Victoria Wine at the bottom of the Old High Street (ignominiously ousted by a bakery chain, falling victim to changing fashions and competition from the sprawling perimeter hypermarkets, their accessibility unimpaired by double yellow lines), which had been a wine merchant’s premises for 250 years, its cellars like catacombs extending all the way to beneath the City Hall.  Blessed with a healthy natural curiosity, Mattie had taken full advantage of the opportunity to explore and had come across some ancient crumbling ledgers, which he correctly surmised nobody would miss and still owns today.

For the most part, the hours behind the counter were fairly monotonous, but he was once forced to call for emergency assistance.  Towards the close of an unremarkable day’s business, a stocky yet somewhat intimidating figure shuffled through the door, his expression both detached and oddly intense at the same time.  Ignoring the well-stocked shelves of reds and whites spanning the globe from the fragrant vineyards of Tuscany to the New World, his order was simple: Virginia Gold tobacco, filter papers and matches.

“That’ll be £5.95″.

“The name’s McLaughlin and the government’s paying,” came the matter of fact reply with a slight undertone of menace.

Slightly taken aback by this bold assertion, Mattie scrutinised the customer more closely.  Slightly too conspicuous to blend in with a crowd, he seemed an unlikely candidate to be on Her Majesty’s payroll as a secret agent.  Unless he was making a deliberately cryptic reference to social security benefits, indeed a government payment by proxy, his statement was difficult to fathom.

“Do you have any cash, sir?” Mattie politely enquired, keeping hold of the requested items.  Silence ensued.  Several minutes crept by, McLaughlin’s face failing to betray any agitation or inner turmoil at Mattie’s intransigence.  He turned and walked out without a word.

Approximately five minutes later, the bell tinkled again, announcing the arrival of a client.  Mattie looked up from his paper with a sense of foreboding.  For once, he would have preferred a lonely pensioner about to blow his cheque on a carrier bag full of oblivion, or a suspiciously callow specimen whom he would be obliged to challenge for identification only to be regaled with an unsolicited introduction to the most recent innovations in pejoratives.  Sure enough, the shadow over the classifieds was cast by his impecunious friend, undaunted by the rebuttal.

“The name’s McLaughlin and the government’s paying,” he repeated, when Mattie cited the same price as before.

“I’m sorry, mate, the government’s is not paying, now, please, do you have any money?”

Again, no response was forthcoming, not even the merest hint of displeasure or consternation.  Not wishing to risk any provocation, Mattie did not dare to avert his eyes as McLaughlin stood impassive before giving up and exiting the premises.

In the interval between visits, Mattie pondered his options, closing early an increasingly appealing scenario.  His thoughts were interrupted by the return of his persistent visitor.  This time, he did not bother retrieving the articles from the shelf.

“The name’s McLaughlin and the government’s paying”.

“Let me explain how it works,” Mattie replied, unsure of whether the concept of a commercial transaction was something McLaughlin had ever been exposed to.  “You tell me what it is that you want, I find it, I tell you how much it costs, you give me the money and I hand over the goods.  I supply you with your cigarettes in exchange for notes and coins.  Do you understand?”

“Are you refusing to serve me?” McLaughlin asked, his voice trembling.

“No, but you have to be able to pay me before I can give you what you are asking for”.

Outwardly unperturbed until that moment, McLaughlin’s eyeballs rather alarmingly started rolling in opposite directions.  Afraid that his patron might lash out in frustration and reluctant to put his own reaction times to the test, Mattie ducked beneath the counter and slammed the panic button.  The police arrived with exemplary promptness, McLaughlin having vacated the off-license.  As Mattie accounted for his actions to the WPC, describing his terror of imminent violence in spite of the lack of evidence of vandalism, theft or the most minor of scuffles, he noticed a familiar shape approaching the door.

“That’s him!” Mattie yelled and the WPC set off in hot pursuit, as McLaughlin made himself scarce at the sight of the uniform.

“Mr McLaughlin!  Mr McLaughlin, can I have a word with you, please?”

Three patrol cars and a “meat wagon” pulled up on the pavement at the end of the pedestrian zone to block his escape, the burly duty sergeant lunging for him.  In the end, it took six officers to restrain the recalcitrant captive.  The local force had been on high alert, as McLaughlin had absconded from a secure ward at Murray Royal psychiatric hospital the previous day and they had been expecting trouble.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Moonbeam Brothers

Filed under: — site admin @ 12:36 pm

[13th August 2009]

At the cottage, the approach of the weekend is betrayed by two tell-tale signs: the level of the loch and the sprouting of tents on the opposite shore like noxious fungi.  The former attributable to anticipated peaks in electricity consumption, as the water drives the turbines in the power station and is artificially regulated, the latter leading to every available lay-by becoming clogged with campers in spite of the best efforts of local farmers to sabotage their sleepovers (one gouged huge holes out of the embankment with a digger to render the ground too uneven).  In spite of their occasionally ferocious exteriors (leather jackets, jagged, blood red Mohican haircuts, steel toe-capped bovver boots) defiantly displaying their rejection of the values of the mainstream, Rory, Mattie and Spike have always taken great pride in being responsible campers and concealing every trace of their presence upon departure.  Over the years they have cleared out practically every stick of dead wood on the Foss side to fuel their massive bonfires, sneering at the amateurism and dim-wittedness of townies let loose from their concrete confines.  Whose guttering flames were fed by green wood.  Where Rory and the lads had carefully removed the fallen branches grass and bluebells thrived, compensating in some measure for the indifference of the Forestry Commission in maintaining the native woodland.  Rory recounted one occasion when Spike began shaking a rotten-looking birch to test its suitability for combustion and the crown came plunging down, landing neatly between his feet.  A sobering reminder of our tenuous hold on life.

On another evening whilst searching for a suitable spot, an elderly farmer had warned them: “Ye cannie go campin’ here, boys”.  They protested that they would clear up after themselves and he relented (perhaps in the frailty of his advanced years he did not fancy his chances against a clutch of bikers).  They dutifully buried the ashes and removed all the litter so that no visible evidence of their brief sojourn remained.  The following year, the scenario was repeated, but when they maintained their innocence, recognition smoothed away the farmer’s frown and he told them they were welcome.

The owl’s eerie hoot travelled over the surface of the water, although we could not be sure about the intelligibility of our greetings (the unrepentant impudence of intruders upon our idyll had to be responded to in kind, mostly we contented ourselves with signalling with the large torch and, without fail, I would curse my ineptitude at forgetting to look up “Fuck Off!” in Morse code, our isolation meaning that the nearest Internet café was a 12-mile drive away, my memory always jogged at the most inopportune of moments), tradition stipulating one of a limited range of variants, usually along the lines of “Weegie bastards!” or “Fuck off and die!” yelled in unison.  Not that we really bear any deeply ingrained grudge against the inhabitants of our largest city, some of my best friends come from Glasgow.  The inevitable pang of guilt that accompanies such recklessly juvenile behaviour (in my case at least) assuaged by the fact that the replies bawled in unison are normally so garbled that the likelihood of them deciphering our abuse is negligible.  They probably return to the high rises and permanent dampness with fond recollections of the friendliness of the locals.

Having dropped Lorna off at the train station, the Hungarian nipped into the chippie (its name containing an excruciating pun, The Plaice to Be) for G’s staple, pizza and chips.  Demonstrating a perfect command of the vernacular, he placed his order: “I would like a pizza supper please”.  In a spirit of courteous concern, the man behind the counter warned: “We deep fry our pizzas here”.  “It is for my son, who is Scottish,” the Hungarian replied undaunted, yet still slightly miffed that the subtle linguistic clue of his impeccable deployment of the correct terminology, “supper”, having been overlooked.  Indeed, as a non-native speaker, he had shown greater competence than the customers from South of the Border, who had ineptly asked for “fish and chips”.

When we arrived back, G informed us that Rory and Mattie had retrieved their rods from the old bench and headed off for the Point.  As soon as he had finished eating, I laced up my hiking boots and we traversed the fields to join them.  The Point marked the end of the property belonging to the croft and, as such, the end of our temporary domain.  During childhood holidays, we never dared to venture beyond the boundary fence for fear of slavering hounds bounding towards trespassers to tear them limb from limb or, far worse, a telling off from our parents and possible deprivation of a sweetie ration.  In those days, we were able to clamber over the boulders along the shoreline without having to put on our wellies.  It would always take a while, as there were too many gleaming pebbles, skimmers and shards of broken porcelain (which I always referred to as “pottery”) to add to my collection, disgorged from the peaty depths, perhaps from one of the submerged dwellings of lore.  The ghostly remnants of a warm hearth and comforting cuppa.  The Point possessed one great advantage over the portion of shore nearer the cottage: a sandy beach that jutted out a long way into the loch, ideal for spreading our blankets and splashing around.  Nowadays, however, the boughs of trees conspired with the demand for green electricity to block the easy path and we had to squeeze through wire fences and hack down ferns whose fronds gave shelter to unpleasant parasites (such as the souvenir I had unwittingly brought back from our abortive ascent of Farragon).  Its relative inaccessibility had made the Point attractive to the flock of Greylag geese that had colonised it as their roost.

Once again, we discovered the unmoored white rowing boat, which would have been ideal to borrow for an hour or two, had temptation not been averted by the lack of rollocks, bung and oars.  Mattie and Rory had set up their rods in a sheltered niche just short of the Point, perpetuating their good natured rivalry over who could catch the most, the biggest and who would be the first to land a trout.  I enquired as to why they had not chosen our usual spot and they replied that the burn had been transformed into a raging torrent, flooding the entire beach.  They had lit a bonfire, kindled by the day’s edition of The Times, once Mattie’s favourite paper, in his assessment now debased into an only marginally more highbrow version of The Sun.  It physically pained him to notice one typo after another, the superfluous inverted commas, apostrophes where they didn’t belong and the incorrect use of prepositions (starting on p2 already!) left him in a state of gloom about the decline in standards so profound that he preferred to incinerate the broadsheet rather than inflict its ungrammatical articles upon his eyes.

A small fish was impaled on a stick by the gills, giving rise to their new name for the cove: “Mattie’s Perch”.   The campers opposite started making an unseemly din, prompting Mattie to yell his well-worn salutation.  Rory became paranoid that they might be spying on us with binoculars, as we had not been indulging in any behaviour that might have provoked their whooping.  By way of retaliation, Rory and G simulated masturbation (”I can’t believe you did that in front of your Mum!” Mattie exclaimed in shock) with unfeasibly large invisible tokens of manhood.  Then, in a spontaneous show of disapproval at being observed like some exotic species of lowlife (although, to be fair, by that stage we might easily have been mistaken for such), we performed a tribal jig, the principle novel feature of which involved much animated gesturing with raised middle digits.  Rory swore that he heard our foes’ indignant shouts of: “They’re doing V-signs!” (which does not really say much about the quality of their optical instruments…)  “There’s only one thing for it!” he cried and he and Mattie turned their backs to the enemy, dropped their trousers and wiggled their bare backsides in a double moonbeam.  About thirty seconds later, the valley rumbled with the roar of a pair of Eurofighter Typhoons on low-level manoeuvres, close enough for us to see the pilot of the near aircraft clearly.  Rory quipped: “That’s the RAF for you, one glimpse of the buttocks and it’s ‘Tally-ho, chaps!’”  Mattie voiced regret that he hadn’t mooned the occupants of the cockpits.  We laughed that they might have sought revenge by targeting a tender part of his anatomy (a narrow escape from “a Cruise up the crack”).

Our merriment was interrupted by a tug at Mattie’s line (to Rory’s great initial chagrin, as he was trailing badly in the contest).  However, we again dissolved into fits of laughter when the fish emerged: it was barely bigger than the bait.  We immediately dubbed it “Mattie’s Tiddler”, or “The One That Didn’t get Away”.

As clouds of midgies descended with the definitive retreat of daylight, we decided not to let the irritating little bloodsuckers feast and returned to the comforts of civilisation.

Dodging the thistles and deposits left by the grazing sheep, Rory remarked that when he and Mattie had walked through the golden grass of the meadows earlier with nothing but their fishing gear and the prospect of a cigarette and a conversation it was the nearest thing to heaven he could imagine.

Barring a fat trout sizzling over an open fire and a couple of million pounds accumulating interest in the bank.

 

 

Mattie’s Perch

 

 

Mattie shows off his tiddler

The One That Didn’t Get Away…

Monday, 21 September 2009

Toady

Filed under: — site admin @ 6:04 pm

 

On the slopes of Creag an Lochain (at conk-out point) we came across this attractive amphibian

 

 

We spotted this slightly less colourful cousin by the path leading across Rannoch Moor to Glencoe

 

 

But in terms of sheer immensity, what could beat the Rannoch Frog Stone?

Friday, 21 August 2009

In Memoriam

Filed under: — site admin @ 10:42 am

From the urgency with which my son passed on the message to contact him immediately, I knew my brother’s news could only be bad.  Death swooping down from a clear sky without so much as a wingbeat to alert its unsuspecting prey.  The unmistakeable tremble in the voice.  We had just finished a three-course late lunch and were foraging in different shops to ease the pain of the inevitable eviction at the end of the holiday.

I did not even hear the phone ring before he picked up the receiver.

“Is Dad dead?” in place of a greeting, the logical question, although my mind rejected such a proposition as we had only just seen him and he had seemed in perfect health.

“No, Wayne”.

“A car accident?”

“No, suicide”.

When I plunged the kitchen knife into my stomach, it had been an act of protest, the wine-ignited fury of a spurned lover, a spontaneous act of self-immolation intended to punish another, my left hand permanently bearing the trace of where he retrieved the blade I stubbornly clasped.  He bundled me into a taxi at my request, and I shivered uncontrollably in my hotel room all night.  My cousin was possessed of a dreadful calm, stripping his bed, washing and ironing the linen, folding it neatly, dusting his room, leaving it immaculately tidy, preparing notes, wrapping a birthday present for his brother, feeding the cat and eating lunch before retreating into the recesses of the garden.

My handsome cousin, always carefree, face never clouded with grief, at least in public, warm, friendly, uncomplaining, yet latterly refusing to leave even the confines of his room.  I am familiar with that heaviness in the chest, that immobilising apathy, draining colour from the brightest sky so that its very cheerfulness taunts you with its indifference towards your numbness, the brutal knowledge of the overwhelming futility of our every thought and feeling leeching the taste from each morsel.  I understand.  That loneliness, which the presence of others only serves to exacerbate, which gnaws at the living marrow, the disjointedness of watching them laugh and turn up for work punctually, mouthing the occasional resentment, yet perhaps finding some comfort in the sheer repetitiveness of the routine, the detachment from the gaudy parade of their bickering, conformity and ambition.  Now that I am older, still not reconciled, I know that oblivion will seek me out.  Better to emulate the butterfly in its erratic flight, sipping nectar and spreading its wings in the sunshine as it rests on brick or stone.  Driving through the golden fields of ripe wheat with the mountains spread before me, I could draw on their healing powers and nothing could persuade me to exchange the sound of the wind in the branches and the melancholy hoot of the owl from the opposite shore for the unrelenting silence.  If only we could have reached him, hauled him back.

Here the branches are groaning with pears, purple damsons, blushing apples and ripening peaches.  I had never tasted sweetness to compare with the grapes I picked from the vines entwined around the fence.  So very incongruous when they will soon be gathering to pay their respects in subdued tones over tea and sandwiches, sombre-suited with traditional Scottish dignity and restraint.  The brave faces concealing to perfection the aching hearts.

And still I cannot be with you, my presence symbolically marked by a wreath ordered online with all the trite convenience modern consumer society can offer.  I will enter an alien and sanctified space for you, all of human ingenuity and artifice directed towards the unfeeling heavens in the yearning for something more, creative effort desperately concentrated to propitiate, an act of supplication against the restlessly grinding teeth of time, sandstone depictions of praying hands crumble, even granite cannot withstand the onslaught forever.  I will light a candle, a tiny, guttering flame in the cool vaulted interior alongside so many other offerings and unheeded pleas.

Sleep well, my darling boy, untroubled by regret-tinged dreams or the demons that lurked in your shadow.  Sleep well and know that you will always reside in the hearts of those you left behind.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Britblog Roundup 231

Filed under: — site admin @ 6:02 pm

Welcome to the 231st edition of the Britblog Roundup.  Forgive the uncharacteristic terseness of my introduction, but I have reached an advanced stage of sleep deprivation induced by the relentless onslaught of dust particles on my lungs and the consequent impossibility of drawing breath with ease whilst reclining.

Blogging

It is quite gratifying that for once this section does not begin with outrage at the latest encroachment on our freedom of expression.  Those particular storm clouds have receded, beaten back by the summer sunshine.  For the moment, at least.

Judging by the number of vote-soliciting exercises involving cutting and pasting the rules accompanied by a bit of gentle wheedling or less subtle instructions, the story of the week that in the minds of many of the regular contributors to the Roundup eclipses all else is Iain Dale’s annual call for nominations for inclusion in his Total Politics Guide to Blogging 2009-10.  A bit of recognition can never do any harm, especially in the blogosphere where rewards for effort tend to be restricted to a badge of honour in the sidebar and, given the congregation of hosts and readers of this Roundup it does seem appropriate to publicise the ritual in spite of its limitations.  In Mr Dale’s own words: “There are many ways of measuring a blog’s popularity.  Wikio and Technorati have complicated logarithms which measure the importance of incoming links and traffic.  Google Analytics does it by measuring how many people visit.  But the TP poll gives blog readers the opportunity to vote for the ones they like and visit most often.  It’s not scientific.  It’s impossible to achieve 100% balance and no one pretends it’s perfect”.

Jim Jay of The Daily (Maybe) interviews Councillor Sue Luxton (of the Green Ladywell blog) about the blogging experience with some interesting insights into how her role as a public figure influences what subject matter she feels she can and cannot include.  However, there is plenty to empathise with when she sets out the low points: “trolls – I’ve had petrol heads making quite personal remarks because I had the audacity to support 20mph speed limits, someone accusing me of supporting the Tamil Tigers and others who try to turn any topic into a discussion on their pet issue.  Also writing post after post, not getting any comments, and wondering if anyone is reading it (happens less often now).  Occasionally feeling a slave to the blog or guilty when I haven’t posted after a busy week”.

Politics

In Democracy Diner, Mark Thompson of Mark Reckons serves up a splendid satire of democracy’s blemishes and discontents, continued with aplomb in the comments section.

On the issue of party funding, Stephen Tall of Liberal Democrat Voice asks the pertinent question To tithe or not to tithe?

Jennie Rigg of the eponymous blog is seduced by a meme, cataloguing her political achievements by the tender age of 17 in Monday, bloody Monday and what I was doing at 17.  With admirable humility, Jennie acknowledges the shortcomings of this particular piece of copycat light-heartedness: “At 17 I was elected chair of the debating society on the back of beating the Labour Party into fourth place representing the Monster Raving Loonies in the 1992 mock general election.  My reasons for choosing the party were simple: I was, at that stage, an adherent to [sic] the misguided and childish notion that all politicians were as bad as each other, and the best thing one could do was take the piss.

And this is the key, really.  At 17 I was full of misguided and childish notions.  I had yet to go to University and have On Liberty as a set text by the wonderful Stuart Toddington.  I had yet to be introduced to media spin, and the workings of local government by Dr Mike Feintuck.  And I had yet to develop the research methods which doing a law degree instilled in me.  My ideas were all secondhand.

[...]

I was immature, and so were my political ideas.  I was horribly wrong on many things, and woefully idealistic on others.  And yet I was convinced that I knew The Truth, and that when I was old enough I would Show Them, and that I was going to Change the World.  I was 17″.

How refreshingly realistic an appraisal.  The only person amongst my cohorts at school who was remotely politically aware let alone active at that age was my friend Maggie who supplemented her uniform with a PLO scarf (until barked at to remove it on a monotonously regular basis) and whose casual wear of choice comprised an army surplus stores combat jacket.  Rebelling against her middle-class privilege, she espoused Communism with a fervour only matched by my religious zeal as a fundamentalist born-again Christian.  Whilst she memorised Russian irregular verbs, I prayed for the salvation of her soul and we devoted fruitless hours to the attempt to convert each other over Viennese coffee at an establishment so snotty prams were not permitted to cross its threshold.  She left to study medicine at 17 whilst I stayed on and that was the last I heard of her until very recently when she traced me via my parents’ address and she told me she had become a Buddhist – how typical, a religion without a God!

Responding to a report by the Canadian Privacy Commission, Letters from a Tory explains why Facebook should be illegal: “I think most people have realised that you need to activate some privacy settings on Facebook to prevent your profile being accessed by people who are not your ‘friends’ but, unknown to many, Facebook is still allowed to throw your personal information to developers.  Facebook’s own privacy settings page says: ‘When a friend of yours allows an application to access their information, that application may also access any information about you that your friend can already see’.  So, according to Facebook, if your friend signs up to an extra little programme on Facebook, it is perfectly acceptable to hand over all of YOUR personal information including your picture, date of birth, address, work history, relationship status, all your photos and a whole lot more.  How can this be legal in the UK?  How can we have such little respect for people’s privacy that we allow a company to just hand over extremely personal information?  Now, you could argue that no-one is forced to use Facebook and you don’t have to put too much personal information on there, but the way Facebook is set up deliberately sets the default options to allow sharing of your personal details.  This is totally unacceptable.  Every website and company operating online should work on a simple premise: you can’t give out my personal information unless I actively allow you to.  Preying on people’s ignorance or lack of IT skills in order to harvest personal information is wrong and Facebook is clearly not the only offender in this respect.  However, unless we put in place some privacy laws that not only stop the paparazzi snooping on people’s private lives but also stops companies stealing personal information without permission, this situation will only get worse”.

I unreservedly share the author’s qualms, which is precisely why I have avoided setting up an account, adopting instead a variety of Internet aliases for each of my online activities (blogging, publishing academic articles, gaming and so on).  Perhaps there is a generational factor at play, as my teenage son carelessly strews details of his identity all over cyberspace without batting an eyelid, much less losing sleep over it.  However, I have serious objections to the de facto uneraseability of a profile and the commercial exploitation of my every whim (true, I am not always consistent in that I do own a supermarket loyalty card, though I try not to think too hard about the implications, whereas a survey that the local postman popped through my letterbox on the pretext of cutting waste by eliminating non-targeted advertising was treated with derision, promptly consigned to the paper recycling pile, as it was breathtakingly shameless in prying into the minutiae of my existence, seeking to siphon information on everything from my income level, the extent to which I spoil my Guinea pigs, holiday plans and the like).

Facebook has come under fire for perceived moral muddle-headedness, as illustrated by Andre Oboler’s piece in The Guardian, Facebook gives hatred a hand: “Facebook has decided not to remove groups that deny the Holocaust.  This policy contradicts its own ’statement of rights and responsibilities’, which clearly states ‘you will not post content which is hateful’.  Facebook seems to be ignorant of the inherent danger of Holocaust denial, the deeply hateful nature of it, and international efforts against racism.  It either fails to understand the responsibility it has to society, or it has placed profit far above morality”.

His conclusion: “The internet requires regulation, just as film, television and computer games do.  If companies such as Facebook abdicate that responsibility, it suggests government intervention is needed to prevent an internet-powered surge in racial hatred.  The spread of racism and hate is not something that can be left to chance or the whims of the private sector.  Working against hate, bullying and racism must be part of the price companies pay when they offer an online social environment as their product.  In the meantime, more than 68,000 people have joined the Facebook group ‘United Against Holocaust Denial On Facebook’.  Facebook, get the message and remove the hate!”

In Ban the Internet!!! Charlotte Gore takes issue with Mr O in no uncertain terms: “Requires?  Surely it is not the internet that requires the regulation.  It is politicians and idiots like Andre Oboler, the article’s author, that demand and ‘require’ these things to be regulated.  It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s always worth remembering who benefits?

It’s not even worth debating this moron’s specific argument.  The point is he wants to use fascist tools against fascists he doesn’t like, as a way of trying to stem the tide of fascism on the internet.  Anti-Fascism FAIL.

Free Speech is a wonderful, wonderful thing Andre.  You brush it aside too easily”.

Personally, I agree that Mr Oboler’s approach is too heavy-handed.  Surely the odious Holocaust deniers and their ilk are already contained behind the cordon sanitaire of mainstream opinion.  Let them slaver in their delusional little circle of the woefully ignorant.  Their own words ought to be enough to condemn them in the eyes of any sane individual.  Let those so inclined mark their disapproval by joining the group Mr Oboler mentions if they are afraid that their silence might be misinterpreted as agreement (I find the increasing pressure to take a public stand by participating in various “Not in my name” actions slightly worrying, as it parallels the “guilty until proven innocent” attitude currently functioning as our Government’s operating assumption.  Even the overwhelming need I feel to distance myself from the unsavoury villains by including this crystal-clear disclaimer in itself constitutes proof of the existence of the imperative to avoid being tainted by – erroneous – association.  The fact that the sensible majority would never vote for the slobbering throwbacks of the extreme right is more than amply reflected in the tiny number of seats that they obtain.  Let me reiterate: tacit approval is not the correct conclusion to arrive at if I do not take to the streets in protest that they won any seats at all).

Matt Wardman of The Wardman Wire paints a chilling picture of how miscarriages of justice and socially corrosive hysteria can result from well-intentioned efforts to clean up the Internet in Is Operation Ore on the Skids at Last?  Can we now roll back paedomania?

In days of yore, criminals were put in the stocks and pelted with rotten cabbage leaves and overripe tomatoes transmuting community anger at their misdeeds into highly tangible form.  These days, as the Bring Back Birching Brigade would no doubt lament, the tearaways of today get off lightly by comparison.  In Community Payback: Modern Branding, Harpymarx castigates Jack Straw’s plans for inflicting humiliation upon juvenile miscreants between the ages of 10 and 17 by forcing them to carry out their community service sentences in attire that quite unambiguously advertises their penance, namely, high-visibility jackets with the slogan “Community Payback”.

One of the dilemmas facing contemporary society is how to reconcile respect for human dignity and humaneness (minimising distress) with traditional morality, in short, how to confront those who have crossed the line of acceptable behaviour with their transgression and mete out a fitting punishment.  Some contend that we inhabit a “victim culture” where self-proclaimed experts are soft on deviancy and devote their energies to absolving the perpetrators of responsibility whilst failing to give adequate redress to those left damaged.  Against this backdrop, plans to attach electrodes to the brains of hoodies to gauge their emotional responses to images of angry faces and to attribute gang membership to defective genes fit in with the overall logic.  Harpymarx does not approve: “I am highly cynical and sceptical about these studies as they smack of biological reductionism and determinism.  Human behaviour is viewed through a biological vacuum.  There is more to us than DNA and biology, humans are far more complex.

Actually, on the subject of scanning brains, here’s a thought.  Instead of scanning the brains of NL clones (I wonder if there’s a ‘NL gene’?) how about checking whether they have a backbone…?”

Dame Suzi Leather of the Charity Commission, has been causing ructions by threatening to withdraw the charitable status of two private schools if they do not overhaul their bursaries schemes to make more places available to children from less wealthy backgrounds.  Cue righteous indignation from Simon Heffer in The Telegraph: “Last week I visited a superb public school, which had done me the honour of asking me to present the prizes on speech day.  It, like many private schools I have seen, was no nursery of privilege or affluence.  It is a place that allows parents on modest incomes to buy for their children the sort of education the state sector largely fails to provide: and fails to provide after 12 years of a sectarian government that said its first three priorities were ‘education, education, education’.  Such parents make enormous sacrifices to send their children to these schools.  These are all clichés, I know, but let me repeat them: they drive battered cars, they have frugal holidays or no holidays at all, they re-mortgage their houses.  They expect no sympathy: it is their choice.  But it is a choice the utter failure of the Government forces upon them”.

Juliette of the new adventures of juliette walks off victorious with the pun of the week award in her bittersweetly humorous take on the subject, Opportunity Mocks: “Without readily available bursaries on tap, you’re going to get these bright kids going to the local comprehensive with their friends from primary school.  Part of a dull, undistinguished, lumpen mass of anonymous humanity.  In this environment, they’ll quickly get absorbed into the ebb and flow of comprehensive life – and learn to be exactly the same as everyone else.

When, with the help of a bursary, they could be standing out, unique and special, making the most of their individual potential and abilities.  Like their unique ability not to be able to afford the school trip to Verbier.  And their unique ability to be the only kid in the class without their own tennis racket.  And their unique ability to have their life made a misery 24/7 from the moment they rock up in a ten-year-old Nissan with the cheapest trunk known to humankind.

Given a bursary, these children will be in a position to discover sports and activities they’ve never even dreamed of before – and at which they may quickly come to excel.  The 100 Metres Running Away.  The inscrutable Oriental art of Bushido, which involves hiding behind a bush when you see the rich cool kids coming.  They’ll even have the opportunity to develop their potential in the dramatic arts, as they try to convince the matron they have a temperature so they won’t have to face the others in the changing rooms for games.  And all of this will take place in the glorious no-expense-spared settings that you’d normally expect to pay a hell of a lot of money for”.

One of Juliette’s replies to a comment brought memories flooding back: “Being a nerd at the local comp is also better, because – no matter how bad things get – you can console yourself with a small crumb of knowledge.

Barring an unforeseen meeting with Steven Gerrard or a big break in Nuts magazine, the local Kewl Chix are going to end their lives weighing twenty stone and sitting behind a Tesco checkout.

Tragically, this is a consolation you don’t get in a posh school – where even this small and fragile future hope can be filed straight under NGFH (Not Gonna Fucking Happen)…”

Although I won various bursaries (beating the crap out of private school pupils in the process), being labelled the “swot” consigned me to outcast status.  Two particularly unpleasant incidents haunt me even from the safe distance of over two decades: having bricks lobbed at me, which thankfully missed, as I was determined not to give my tormentors the satisfaction of breaking into a run to escape their ire and being abducted at knife point by a fellow pupil who forced me into a classroom full of my detractors for interrogation.  I dulled the pain of isolation through study and the church, driven by the desire not to suffer the kind of fate Juliette so eloquently sketches out (in which undertaking I succeeded, apart from the 20-stone bit!).  Indeed, I did not mingle with the products of a fee-paying education until university, where they oozed a confidence and sense of entitlement that left me tongue-tied and intimidated in their wake.  We dubbed them the “OK Yahs” because of their plummy accents and took pleasure in outperforming them.  Social mobility through education will always be dear to my heart, as it permitted me to escape the dreary confines of my housing estate and home country.  Having been on the receiving end of class hatred, with zero expectations as its most muted and least virulent form, I believe it is vital that the means be provided for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to unfold their potential.  I achieved my aims through a combination of natural ability, hard graft and refusing to listen to those who were hell bent on keeping me down and I do not have a recipe for an ideal policy.

Molly of Gaian Economics outlines Ten Ways to Challenge Capitalism That Wouldn’t Frighten Your Grandmother, whilst Natalie of Philobiblon cites A small example of how our economy went terribly wrong.  The latter takes Harry Whewell’s The seeds of an idea from 1980 as its starting point, in which the journalist ponders the devastating impact of something as seemingly trivial as buying bird seed instead of scattering yesterday’s crusts over the lawn: “He [the owner of the local garden and pet food store] had no idea why people were no longer content to feed the birds in their garden on scraps, as had been done from time immemorial, and he didn’t seem very interested in the question either, but it niggled away at me.  Old ladies and lonely flat dwellers had to buy tinned meat for their cats because the meat they bought for themselves had little or no waste, but was there anybody who could not find crumbs in their cake tin, stale slices in their bread bin, and bits of bacon rind in the sink tidy, enough to keep half a dozen sparrows, two blackbirds, and a robin happy?

Taking an early morning walk on Wednesday another thought struck me.  Where did the packers get their supplies?  Were the wild grasses harvested from woods, lanes, and fields, perhaps by country children who made pocket money thereby?  If so – and it seemed more likely than that they were grown as crops on specialised holdings – then might not this be a rather bizarre way of interfering with nature?  A charm of Cheshire goldfinches might find one autumn that its normal supplies of thistle seeds had totally disappeared, the plants having been stripped by foraging schoolboys and the seeds sold to pet shops in Manchester”.

Natalie counts the environmental cost: “And when you think about it, he’s absolutely right.  (And to add in today’s concerns: all of that seed was shipped, using fossil fuel, to the mixing plant, packaged in plastic bags made from petroleum products, shipped likewise to a superlarket, and very likely carried home in a private car).

Meanwhile, the same people who are carefully pouring this into the bird feeder, are most likely throwing large quantities of perfectly good food – certainly good for the birds – into the waste bin, from where it is carried in lorries to a landfill site, where it will eventually produce globally warming methane”.

Looking up from the keyboard, I can see the greenish ball of fat and seeds dangling from the veranda in plastic netting for the consumption of the pair of blue tits that nest in the brick by the guest bedroom’s window year after year.  Their broods have been nurtured on the stuff and we never cease to take pleasure in the sight of them abseiling down the lace, an acrobatic feat that their rivals, the sparrows, cannot match.  There is no excuse for us not to deposit the uneaten rolls on the sill, although larger birds, such as the wood pigeons that currently forage for the fallen leftovers from the blue tits’ frenetic excavations, might be attracted in greater numbers.

In Mainstream media’s responsibility? Vicky of Green Girls Global expresses her dismay at GMTV presenters for extolling the virtues of cheap labels, glossing over their production in sweatshops in developing countries: “How opportunistic and irresponsible, in a time of economic instability and money worries, to tell a mass audience that this is the way to enjoy fashion cheaply; not to mention patronising coming from a group of women who earn salaries most of us could only dream of.  If they wanted to promote fashion that doesn’t cost a lot of money why not talk about charity shops, vintage shops, customising clothes and even the high street shops with more positive ethical credentials?  Traditional values of designer fashion were to create beautiful, well made and stylish garments that would last for years, not some throw-away item to be bought for one night out”.

Feminism

Penny Red fulminates against Conservative Party social engineering policies, demonstrating why for her the term “Compassionate Conservative” is and remains an oxymoron, in Torygeddon 1: Every Family Matters?: “The Family – what does it mean, this ephemeral concept that makes Tory policymakers so very moist and excited?  It doesn’t mean any old bunch of people bound together by blood and love.  Ian Duncan Smith’s vision of The Family as propounded in his new policy paper, Every Family Matters, is the relatively recent kitsched-out 1950s incarnation of the nuclear heterosexual brood: you know, one man and one woman bound in holy wedlock, living together with their genetic offspring, him in the office, her in the kitchen.  Well, that rules out my family for a start, and probably yours too.  And yet Tory wallahs – not even in power yet but already slavering to sink their teeth into Labour’s social reforms – get all gooey over The Family.  All you need do is have a shyster mention ‘ordinary families’ as distinguished from the rest of us scum, and Tory spinsters start wetting their little knickers.  Every Family Matters wants to actively force men and women, who have been drifting gratefully away from the ball-and-chain-live-with-it moral mentality for generations, back into the heteronormative marriage model.  If Tory plans are initiated, they will institute a compulsory ‘cooling off’ period of three months before divorce proceedings, offer tax breaks and benefits bribes for married couples, and demolish Labour plans to offer the same recognition to unmarried couples and civil partners, as well as boring us all with a whole pile of ‘Pro-Family’ rhetoric”.

She quotes Johann Hari’s reaction to the document, which strikes a blow against Tory orthodoxy, When divorce is the right choice: “At first glance, the sociological evidence shows that the kids of broken homes or single parents are more likely to drop out of school, slip into crime, and become drug addicts than children whose parents stay together.  So the solution is, to Cameron, obvious: keep parents together using the tax code and thse problems will slowly be reduced.  Stop Jimmy’s mum and dad splitting, and Jimmy will be more likely to stay in school, on the right side of the law, and off drugs.  Isn’t that what the stats show?

A major study has just shown that this is based on a simple misunderstanding of the evidence.  Professor Kelly Musick and Dr Ann Meier of Cornell University have carried out a study of children whose parents stay together for the sake of kids.  We all know some: parents who can’t stand each other, but have made a hard-headed decision to stay together nonetheless.  They are exactly the kind of people who would be glued back together by Cameron’s policies if they succeeded in their goal.

It turns out their children do worse than any other group – including those of divorcees or single mums.  If you are raised by arguing parents who stayed together only for you, then you are 33 percent more likely to become a binge-drinking teen than if you have a single parent, for example.

Having parents locked in live-in combat damages children more than having separated parents, or just one single parent – and the damage lasts well into adulthood.  The offspring are more likely to have bad marriages themselves, and more likely to have children at a very young age.

It makes sense.  Would Jimmy rather have a happy mum and dad who live apart, or depressed, stressed, angry parents sharing a bed?

So Cameron’s first glance at the figures turns out to be wrong.  He was comparing divorcees and single parents to happy two-parent families who want to stick together.  But happy two parent families who want to stick together are not what his policy would create.  If he had an effect at all, he would be tying together miserable couples who would otherwise have split.  To assume you would get the same sociological outcomes from them is an Enron-style accounting error”.

He rejects the hankering after a more innocent world viewed through the distorting rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia: “In the real past – as opposed to the phantasm of Tory creation – divorce was low not because every couple was living in a happy wholesome hearth, but because the door of divorce was barred shut.  You don’t have to read much Victorian fiction to see that no matter how much a couple detested each other, they were trapped behind binding vows.  Women, of course, suffered worst, since they were largely trapped in the home, and if in desperation they tried to flee, they lost their children, their homes and their reputations.

Far from being a time we should pine for and try inexpertly to rebuild, we should be proud we have left this behind for a more civilised and compassionate world.  Isn’t it a strength that we accept that marriages fail, not because of wickedness or moral laxity, but because of ordinary human incompatibility?  Yes, it brings some problems – but this study underlines that they are far less than the problems of imprisoning people in dead marriages, and lecturing them it’s for their own moral health”.

Clare Laxton holds one of the almost completely overlooked aspects of the Coroners and Justice Bill up to scrutiny, its implications for women who kill their partners after years of abuse in Real Justice?: “Clause 44 looks at loss of control as a partial defence to murder.  The important part of this clause for me, is the fact that a person cannot be convicted of murder if their loss of self control has a qualifying trigger.

Clause 45 deals with that ‘qualifying trigger’, stipulating that fear of serious violence from the victim is a qualifying trigger for loss of self control and subsequent murder/assault.  This means that women who kill their partners after prolonged abuse and violence [or] fear of violence from their partner will have this counted as reason for their actions.

Clause 46 abolishes the defence of ‘provocation’ that is often used by men in cases when the prolonged abuse and violence that they have brought on their partner has finally ended in their death.  This defence often means that while women serve life sentences for the murder of their violent partners, men often get away with suspended sentences or short sentences because they claim they were ‘provoked’ by their partner”.

Julie Bindel comments on this discrepancy in Driven to kill: “Men commit almost 90% of domestic homicides, and the victims are their female partners – who have often been previously battered by their killers.  On average, two women die every week as a result of domestic violence.  For men who kill their partners, the defence of provocation is tailor-made.  Provocation will reduce a charge of murder to manslaughter if the defendant can show that things were said or done to provoke them, causing them to experience a sudden loss of control.  In such cases they will often justify their actions by claiming that they ‘just snapped’ or ’saw red’.  Judges have been known to express their sympathy for men who claim they were nagged or cheated on by their partners, but often appear to have little for women who kill after being raped by their partners or experiencing domestic violence.  This tends to be because when women who are being regularly beaten by their partners kill, their dominant emotions are usually fear or despair – not exactly a sudden, explosive ‘loss of self-control’”.

In Eve Was Framed (Chatto and Windus, London, 1992), Helena Kennedy explores the concept of provocation in law in greater depth: “Provocation is a defence to murder and only to murder.  In any other case, such as assault, it can only provide mitigation.  If a defence of provocation is successful and reduces the charge to one of manslaughter, the court still has to pass an appropriate sentence.  Women invoke self-defence or provocation defences infrequently, and the reason is that the legal standards were constructed from a male perspective and with men in mind, and women have a problem fulfilling the criteria.  the question for the jury in a case where provocation is raised is whether a reasonable man might have suffered temporary and sudden loss of self-control so that he was no longer ‘master of his own mind’ in circumstances similar to those described in the evidence.  The issue is one of opinion, not law, but the judge has considerable power in the way in which he presents provocation to the jury.

Little account is taken of the cultural differences between men and women and the way that our socialisation affects our responses.  Women are much less likely to respond to provocation immediately, for obvious physical and psychological reasons, and therefore self-defence and provocation are less available to them.  But the legal standards are built upon ideas of instant ignition and a hotheaded rush to action.  The spark has to be immediate, an assault which requires self-protection or a blow, a curse, an insult that goes to the core of a man’s being.  judges try to create a parallel analogy, the trigger to violent reaction being terrible insults against a woman’s chastity or her way of life, both of which are male ideas of what might make a woman run amok.

the majority of women convicted of homicide kill a member of their own family or someone with whom they are intimate or whom they look after.  It is rare for a woman to kill a stranger.  In 1987, 36 per cent of those convicted of murder had killed their husbands (a crime which in former times was indicted as treason).  In the majority of those killings there was a history of cumulative violence towards the woman, yet a significant number would fail the test for provocation.  Fortunately for most of the women – or unfortunately from another perspective – the toll of violence usually means they are able to invoke a defence of diminished responsibility, suffering as they almost invariably are from depressive illness or post traumatic stress disorder as a result of the abuse.  By and large this reliance on their psychiatric state takes the sting out of the other defences, because the women are then sentenced with appropriate compassion, but there will always be women who slip through the net.  There is also the principled concern that women should not so readily be pushed towards a pathological explanation for their behaviour, an argument which seldom troubles women looking at prison bars, who understandably value their liberty and the companionship of their children above all else.

It is well established that retaliation and revenge have no place in our legal code, and if a woman is seen to bide her time and to strike when her attacker’s defences are low, she is seen as playing dirty and loses the protection of the law, unless she can invoke mental disturbance.  It matters not that she may have been subjected to years of beating and may feel that no other avenue is available to her.  If she makes a deliberate decision to kill she is guilty of murder, even if at the time she is no longer mistress of her own mind.  Temperature seems to be all important.  If the crime is to be reduced to manslaughter the act has to be seen to be in the ‘heat of the moment’ with no time to ‘cool off’.

The immediacy principle makes no sense when the provocation takes the form of long-term abuse.  When a person lives with persistent violence and alcoholism she often becomes overwhelmed.  Her whole life is out of control.  She would not be thinking rationally for some time, and her feelings often would not manifest themselves as ’snapping’, in the form of the crazed outburst, but may seem more controlled: a snapping in slow motion, the final surrender of frayed elastic” (pp199-201).

Once again at The F-Word, Anna Corbett chronicles the epiphany that fundamentally altered her view of the world in Confessions of a brand new feminist: “I was sat in one of the computer rooms of my university trying to find the motivation to start an essay.  next to the computers as usual were leaflets advertising various events, sports clubs and rooms for rent.  Procrastinating, I started to read through them and came across a small slip of paper from the women’s committee.  I wish I’d kept it.  It was only a few short sentences on how careers traditionally considered men’s preserve, such as the police, were better paid than those traditionally followed by women, such as nursing.  This, among numerous other issues, contributed to the pay gap between men and women.  An idea swam through my mind that would characterise my next few months: I’d never thought about it like that before”.

Culture

Carl Gardener at The Wardman Wire reviews Sacha Baron-Cohen’s latest outrageous incarnation, Brüno, discovering serious social critique beneath the brash surface: “Yes, the film gets lots of laughs from gay stereotypes: Brüno loves sex with incredible mechanical contraptions, has to call hotel security to get him and his boyfriend out of chains, and calls his agent while having his anus bleached.  But the real target is the homophobia and bigotry of others.  the climax, at Straight Dave’s TV fight show, is the most hilarious, frightening expose of violent redneck homophobia you could see – Brüno needs a fence to protect him from American men so pumped up with anger at the idea of homosexuality that baron-Cohen really is in danger.  And one of the rednecks is brought to touching, sickening tears at the thought that even this oasis of true butchness could be tainted by the gays”.

Over at Liberal England, Jonathan Calder is offering a chance to Win James Robertson Justice.  Not literally, as in a set of reliquary bones, but a copy of James Hogg’s biography of the great British actor.  All you have to do is answer five questions correctly – hurry on over!

In a beautifully evocative essay showing how celebrity biographies become subtly (and insidiously) interwoven with our own recollections, Martin Newell of The Wild man of Wivenhoe reminisces on the demise of Brian Jones, The Blond Stone: “I couldn’t get the news out of my head.  I think it was then that I realised that The Sixties, if there really were such a thing, was over and by default, so was my late childhood.  I now realise that I had a kind of breakdown at the time.  I didn’t recognise it as such but certain others did and after quitting my job I was dragged to the doctor’s by my mother and medicated with some rather crude drugs.  Poor old Brian.  The establishment and the straight people all around me were actually glad he was dead.  I couldn’t believe the world could be so cruel and nasty.  I pored over every detail of the circus surrounding his funeral.  I had my haircut as closely like his as I could.  I looked at pictures of him.  I wrote poems and songs about him, and as you will imagine, they were the work of a sixteen year old boy of fragile mindset”.

Miscellaneous

Philip Wilkinson of English Buildings draws our attention to a once ubiquitous item of street furniture, as embedded in the British consciousness as the other two icons in the same shade of red, double-decker bus and the postbox, but which with the victory of the mobile is rapidly attaining endangered species status, the old-fashioned phone box.  I echo him in supporting the Adopt a Kiosk initiative launched by BT: “The kiosk, minus its payphone, remains in situ, as a visual amenity, for future generations”.  Settle Town Council has converted one such booth into the Gallery on the Green, whose curators welcome postcard-sized submissions.

The Ill Man similarly encourages us to make a simple contribution towards making our urban surroundings a little less bleak with another idea I wholeheartedly endorse, the Ten Thousand Bulb Appeal: “Just think about that for a minute.  A wave of colour amongst the concrete and tarmac, defying the fag butts and making a rather drab corner of the city look so much better.  This is what we’re trying to achieve at our Townhead garden site currently tended to by [former Britblog Roundup host] Clairwil, Michael and myself”.

When you consider that the city in question is one whose mythology revolves around poverty, children dressed in hand-me-downs lurking in dank tenements never penetrated by a ray of sunlight, but with the warm-hearted generosity and unpretentious welcome of the working class (the difference between the largest agglomeration in Scotland and the country’s snooty capital neatly encapsulated in the witticism that if you arrive in genteel Edinburgh at around five in the evening your host will begrudgingly enquire “You’ll have had your tea?” whereas on the opposite coast, the citizens of Glasgow will phrase the query slightly differently, “You’ll be wanting your tea then?”), all the more reason to donate directly or help out by dropping by the Squidoo site dedicated to the work of the intrepid Guerilla Gardeners.

Tarrying for a moment longer on the floral theme, Ruth of Meanwhile, here in France transports us to the Lavender Harvest.

Cocktails and Records introduces us to a list of The most liveable cities in the world…ever! as compiled by Monocle magazine.  Without giving too much away, only two in the Top Ten are located outside of Europe, none in the USA (sniggers with Schadenfreude).  Having spent three years of my life in one of them, Copenhagen, I was reminded of the culture shock that awaited me as I moved to my present abode of Waffle Central, swapping the bracing sea breeze for the stuffy bourgeois uptightness of the place of my employ.  I was seven months pregnant at the time, the prospect of single parenthood weighing me down as heavily as the two suitcases containing my accumulated worldly goods.  As the escalators were out of order, it took me over two hours to emerge from the station, the commuters disgorged from their trains strategically averting their eyes (this unwillingness to spontaneously help the vulnerable par for the course in a country where teenagers do not give up their seats in buses and trams for the elderly and infirm even as the latter’s arms are nearly ripped out of their sockets when the vehicle lurches at foolhardy speed round a corner).

David Keen at The Wardman Wire gives a blow-by-blow (if not quite wicket by wicket) account of Day 3 of the England versus Australia match in Can you sing ‘Jerusalem’ in Cardiff?

Barrister Simon Myerson of Pupillage and How to Get It, which as its title suggests, dispenses handy tips for those aspiring to an analogous position within the legal profession, sets out the results of a survey rating the courtesy or lack thereof with which job applications were treated by Chambers across England and Wales.

The downside of the media obsession with swine flu is vividly evoked by Suzi Brent of Nee Naw: “I’ve just come back from three weeks’ leave and found the service absolutely inundated with calls from people who think they have swine flu.  No one seems to have taken any notice whatsoever of the NHS’ advice, which is to ring your GP if you are worried that you may have a touch of hamthrax.  (The only expectation is if someone develops life threatening symptoms as a result of the flu, which is extremely rare and usually only seen in people who had poor health to start with).  No, the general public have cleverly decided that they want to take their piggy germs to a hospital where they can spread it to thousands of sick and pregnant people and on their way infect a poor ambulance crew who will then go off sick for a week, leaving our resources even more stretched”.

They ought to take a leaf out of the book of poor Susanne Lamido, Britblog stalwart, who sensibly contacted her doctor to ascertain what was wrong: “Was informed it is so common round here they have stopped testing people – got to take Paracetamol to reduce the fever and to keep the temperature down.  However, if I have real difficulty breathing then and only then it’s time to call an ambulance.  In the meantime somebody healthy has to go to collect a document entitling me to antiviral medication.  Have been advised rest, keep at home as much as possible and avoid close contact with children”.

I am sure that I speak on behalf of all readers and nominators when I wish you a swift recovery and return to blogging, Susanne!

Finally, staying with the medical theme, but on a lighter note, Reynolds of Random Acts of Reality recounts Catching Something Other Than A Cold: “‘I’m going to have to take a look,’ I tell the woman and she lifts up her skirt to show me her genitals.

In training school there were two things that we were told to be wary of causing offence, the first was traipsing around Mosques in our boots.  The second thing was that Muslim women don’t want men who aren’t their husband looking at their bare flesh – strangely enough, when someone is about to deliver a baby they don’t seem to care.  I would guess that common sense tends to trump religion when you (and your husband) are scared and in pain.

I tilt my head to one side, trying to visualise exactly where the baby is.  Then she pushes again and I deftly side-step the gush of amniotic fluid as it shoots past my ear, it’s nice and clear which suggests that the baby hasn’t pooed in it.  The un-professional part of me gives myself a mental high five for not getting caught by the spurting body fluids”.

Next week’s Roundup will be hosted by cabalamat at Amused Cynicism.  As always, nominations should be submitted to britblog [at] gmail [dot] com  For a full statement of editorial policy, a list of the upcoming hosts and a complete archive of the Roundup since its inception, consult the Britblog Roundup Central website.

Monday, 1 June 2009

The Great Divide

Filed under: — site admin @ 12:48 pm

In Hungary, the European Parliament election campaign is in full swing.

 True to Form

It's got bells on it...

 fidesz09

fidesz092

eleg

 Reds Out!

Monday, 20 April 2009

Britblog Roundup 218

Filed under: — site admin @ 8:43 pm

Welcome to the 218th edition of the Britblog Roundup where in a nightmare vision, speakers blare the incessant admonition of our Wise and Glorious Leaders to:

“Keep young and beautiful,

It’s your duty to be beautiful;

Keep young and beautiful

If you want to be loved.

Don’t fail to do your stuff

With a little powder and a puff,

Keep young and beautiful

If you want to be loved.

If you’re wise, exercise all the fat off,

Take it off, off-a here, off-a there”

Al Dubin, 1933

Or, adapting the lyrics somewhat: “If you want to receive treatment on the NHS (though we will probably send you packing on the grounds that your problems are all self-inflicted)”.  Nothing epitomises better the intellectual vacuity of the present Government than its preaching about lifestyles to distract from the assault it has launched on our fundamental freedoms.

Politics

James Purnell, Work and Pensions Secretary’s has come under fire for his latest bright idea to cut the welfare bill by depriving alcoholics of benefits unless they submit to the humiliation of penance on a government treatment programme, a measure, which surely would entail constant interference, monitoring and intrusion if it were to have a hope of being implemented, erasing forever the distinction between public and private.  As if the idea were not offensive enough in itself, Mr Purnell compounds his error by dressing up a punitive measure as an act of compassion: “He said: ‘We need to look through the eyes of the person defeated by an addiction that keeps them out of work and on the outside of the community and give them the help they need.

‘But we can’t abandon anyone to long periods on benefits without help to overcome problems.  So that’s why we are going to look at the arrangements for alcoholics on benefits, just as we did for problem drug users, so that people get the help they need to get sober, to get their life back and get back to work’.

He also condemned Tory proposals to withdraw benefits from unmarried couples.  He said: ‘We know couples don’t marry for money, but often they do split up because of money worries’”.

The implication here is that Labour is less stuffily judgmental as they are only going to punish true social inadequates.  Gordon Brown may peer into the living room, but David Cameron wants to police the bedroom, branding you as deficient for failing to seal your covenant of love with a band of gold.

Unsurprisingly, Purnell has attracted derision from various quarters.  Dr John Crippen of NHS Blog Doctor summarises the general mood in Attacking the drunks: “Another bit of headline grabbing, focus group driven cynical cruelty from this failing government.  Declaring ‘war on the work shy’ is always worth a vote.  And yes, there are some boozers who are both on the piss and taking the piss.  But, mostly, those sad people with chronic alcohol problems are an inadequate lot who need sympathy and support.

‘What is an alcoholic?’ I have not got a clue.  I long since stopped using the word.  I don’t know what it means.  It conjures up pictures of vagrants on park benches with bottles of strong cider and Carlsberg Special brew half concealed in brown paper bags.  And, for sure, some of these people are victims of alcohol.  Some of them are ex-servicemen (Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan).  Some of them are schizophrenics.  How will cutting their benefits help?  Conventional use of the word ‘alcoholic’ does not encompass the housewife drinking two bottles of wine a day; the solicitor who has a bottle of wine with his lunch and two more at night; or the politician and his advisers, drinking the hours away in one of the many subsidised bars of the House of Commons”.

The unacknowledged class dimension becomes pretty apparent here with the ability to maintain a front of respectability crucial to avoiding the scrutiny of the busybodies.  Only the blatant drop-outs would be penalised.  It is more than a little disheartening that the supposed champion of the vulnerable now gets its kicks out of putting the boot into those who cannot retaliate, whose ingenuity and energy are devoted to survival on paltry allowances.

The good Doctor is only too aware of the pernicious effects such a policy would be likely to have, exacerbating shortcomings, which already leave the ailing in the lurch: “There are a number of people who, long before they turn to alcohol, cannot function at any level.  They become reclusive.  They struggle by without engaging with their fellow man.  Some eventually become alcohol dependent.  Alcohol is their refuge, their hiding place.  The alcohol is the symptom of their underlying problem.  It is not the problem itself.  More than half the people with diagnosed psychiatric problems drink too much.  Sadly, those who above all should be there to help them usually let them down.  I talk of course of the medical profession.  Approach a doctor smelling of alcohol and he will begin to lose interest, but not before he has made a pompous remark in your notes: ‘Smelt of C2H5OH at 5.00pm’.  Approach a doctor looking down and out and smelling of alcohol and he will take no interest at all.  Even the psychiatrists are intolerant.  Our local alcohol ’support’ unit throws out anyone who arrives looking or smelling the worse for wear from alcohol.  Talk me through that”.

Neil Robertson at Liberal Conspiracy likewise castigates the stone-hearted secretary in Purnell’s silly plan for alcoholics, pointing to the difficulties besetting the idea, beginning with the definition of an alcoholic, adding up to some fairly insurmountable obstacles: “(…) how is the state going to identify alcoholics?  The people who work in job centres are perfectly good at their jobs, but those jobs only involve following pre-approved computer procedures for eight hours a day.  None of these people are trained in medicine or psychology, and therefore won’t be qualified to label people as alcoholics, much less terminate their benefits for it.

How does the government get around that?  Will they subject every claimant to a full medical?  Will they perform breathalyzers on everyone who walks through the door?  Or will they be more discreet, and just ask staff to walk around council estates with clip boards and ask them to count how many cans of Special brew are left in recycling bins?”

Clairwil of the eponymous blog also takes Purnell to task in a truly spectacular demolition of the plans Benefit Scrounging Scum! , illustrating the reality beyond the Victorian era rhetoric of the “undeserving poor” from her dealings with the proposed victims of his “spongers’” cull: “First up is a fellow, also called James, a lovely man, very polite, reeks of piss, wears a dressing gown as an overcoat, can’t go anywhere without his mother, talks about his cat all the time and would like to join the police force.  For some reason employers seem to be reluctant to employ him.  I’d love Jamesey to tell us where we’ve gone wrong and identify exactly what sort of work this man is fit for because his department declared him fit for work despite him suffering a wee touch of Paranoid Schizophrenia.  he scored zero points on the Incapacity Benefit Descriptors”.

As Clairwil then demonstrates via a link, a benefits medical is far from a pleasant experience. harrowing even to read, reproduce an excerpt (preserving the spelling and style of the original) written by a 41-year-old man, routine humiliation: “He asked if I has seen a Psychiatrist which I said yes he asked when which I said yesterday and showed him a letter to which he said ‘that’s not a psychiatrist that’s a clinical psychologist’ at this point I felt i was being told off he also told my wife when she tried to answer a question to shh don’t answer the questions and who are you I started to get upset as the questions went on he continued in this matter taking no notice of what I was trying to say to the point where I broke down completely and started to cry uncontrollably and become upset sobbing I said I had worked all my life and this is the only time I have asked for anything and I was being treat like this I was sobbing at this time my wife started to cry and said is this really worth your health I would rather do without than you go through this he the just asked the next question then when I couldn’t answer for crying he said if you don’t go on with this you will lose you benefit I said I felt like walking out and he repeated you will lose your benefit do you want to go on.  I muttered yes and we continued however I was not in fit state to continue sobbing and crying.  When I was asked could I wash or shave and I replied due to depression I do not feel like getting shaved and do not have the energy he said what about getting washed I replied I cant do nothing I spending my days in a dressing gown in bed or just throwing something on he then said ‘do you like to smell’ and ‘do you change your underwear’  I replied when im depressed I do nothing I cant face life I feel like I want to dye sobbing all the time”.

The intrepid Clairwil’s coup de grâce is to expose Purnell’s sheer gall in yanking away the safety net to leave those in free fall to hit the sawdust full force whilst milking a slightly different benefits system for all it is worth: “Is there nothing an MP wouldn’t claim on expenses?  Is there no point where they think they might be able to manage to buy something out of their own wages?

I merely ask because the loathsome James Purnell has been claiming £400 per month, roughly double what an unemployed 20-year-old gets a month with which to buy food, pay the utility bills, water and sewerage charge, clothe themselves and travel to and from job interviews.  he was trying to claim £475 per month but apparently that breaks the rules.  Thank God there are some rules otherwise the claims of these scrounging scumbags would run into billions”.

That jolly tune starts playing again…

“Oh, a slim little waist is a pleasure,

And a trim little limb is divine”

If your vice is not that of imbibing but ingesting, there is nowhere to hide, as the Government has its disapproving eye on you too.  Jonathan Calder of Liberal England asks a highly pertinent question in relation to the latest salvo in the war on obesity featuring two images of (slender) children with the kind of hard-hitting slogan hitherto reserved for encouraging smokers to stub out their habit, Government and food companies conspire to denigrate home cooking: “Personally, I find that cake pleasingly old fashioned.  White icing, with a cherry on top.  It’s the sort of cake children scheme to win in the Beano and the Dandy.

When we worry about what children eat these days, we do not worry about home baking.  We worry about things like crisps and fizzy drinks.

So why does this poster show a home-made cake?”

Costigan Quist of Himmelgarten Café follows suit in reacting unfavourably to the woefully misguided initiative in Kids told cupcakes and consoles as bad as smoking: “This whole campaign stinks.  I can understand concern about obesity and inaction, though I don’t think the evidence really supports it (for children at least).

But to be putting out this sort of scary, alarmist and downright nasty advertising you ought to have a damn good reason and they simply don’t.  The message is a lie.

The Government is spending millions of pounds stigmatising our young people.  They’re fat, lazy, unhealthy, anti-social and criminal.  I don’t believe that’s the intention of Labour ministers; but it’s the result”.

However, the most eloquently scathing condemnation comes from Suzi FemAcadem at The F-Word in Fat is the new Folk Devil: “(…) two advertisements from the Change 4 Life campaign, which were run in women’s magazines.  Both threaten the children in those adverts, with premature death, – one for eating a cupcake (girl) and one for playing computer games (boy).  Besides the obvious and irritatingly sexist assumption that only boys play computer games, and only women care about their children’s nutrition and physical activity levels, both adverts are threatening children with dying for doing two very normal childhood activities.

These adverts make me furious on many levels.  As a Mother, it is difficult enough, when my daughter comes home crying because someone at school told her she was fat and ugly (she’s actually ‘underweight’ and always has been.  My son regularly refuses to eat foods because he has been told at school that they are bad for him.

As a Gamer, I am annoyed that once again computer games are being blamed for children not doing more activity.  Just looking at my kids, and their friends, who all have access to at least one games console, not a [single] one of them engages in less than half an hour of physical activity.  We live on a council estate, in an area that is recognised as having health inequalities, and a level of comparatively high deprivation.  The reason those children have access to games consoles, is because their parents will save all year, scrimping on luxuries, walking instead of taking buses and so on, to get them a console as a big Christmas present.  Also, especially with the advent of the Wii and Balance Board-based games, which massively encourage physical activity, and it seems clear to me that once again the Government is falling back on time old and dangerous assumptions.

Finally, as a fat, but healthy woman, I’m annoyed.  This campaign against fatness, which for some of us, is out natural body shape, is infuriating, inaccurate and highly dangerous.  Parents need to be supported to make healthy lifestyle choices, with a focus on Health, not avoiding fat.  It should not be cheaper to go to Iceland and fill your freezer with frozen, processed foods than to be able to buy fresh vegetables and lean meats/fish to cook for your family.  Fat people should not have to suffer humiliation, and be accused of being a drain on resources, just because some idiot in a government department decided that fat was the danger of the day, despite an awful lot of evidence suggesting otherwise”.

What next?  If we exceed a certain weight are we to be issued with ration cards for chocolate and other treats?  Or is unemployment to be alleviated by installing food monitors at every checkout, helpfully unpacking from your carrier bag the items they deem to be extraneous, figure-expanding luxuries?  Or are we simply to be shamed by accusations of a culpable lack of solidarity (by gobbling up scarce NHS resources) in addition to the more traditional prejudices concerning our chronic lack of discipline and self-control, indolence and so on.  What amazes me is the assumption that we are oblivious to the presumed dangers to our health in the midst of a fat-loathing culture.  The Government should not be endeavouring to beat the diet companies at their own game in terms of exploiting our feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

Molly of Gaian Economics continues the moral sermon by exhorting us to pay greater attention to what we stuff into our mouths, advocating self-denial for the sake of the planet in A New Ethic of Consumption: “Let’s start with a cliché:you are what you eat.  I’ve been interested by the growing number of people who have food allergies and digestive problems. Of course some of this results from stress and no doubt post-modern, identity-related orthorexia has something to answer for too, but would it be too fanciful to suggest that we have treated our environment badly and it is now biting back?

Eating is the most direct way in which we come into relationship with our environment by literally consuming bits of it.  In this act we cannot deny our dependence on the natural world around us.  Some of my more consciously spiritual friends remember this by giving thanks to whatever they believe in rather than thoughtlessly tucking in”.

Peter Cranie (who refers to himself as “A Green MEP for the North West”, though surely this must be considered –in charitable mode – as a proclamation of ambition, as the only British Green MEPs in the European Parliament in its present – outgoing – composition are Caroline Lucas and Jean Lambert) tackles the question of Donations and the Law, in essence an extended criticism of Liberal Democrat Councillor Steve Hurst: “Our democracy and the integrity of our political process is dependent on being able to trust that political parties will uphold the law, will not bend or break the rules on donations, and will not bring the results of previous elections into disrepute.

This is an absolutely key issue.  If a political party is not to be trusted on making a full declaration of their donations, then just how do we account for how that money is spent?”

Sarah Cope welcomes the reappearance in showrooms of G-Wiz electric cars, but laments their price tag putting them beyond the reach of all but the few, who content themselves with flaunting them as a trendy accessory rather than acquiring genuinely Green credentials through a more radical change in lifestyle in Gee…that’s NICE: “I do have a problem though with the city exec with the two private regged Range Rovers, tootling into the city in his/her G-Wiz but using his/her gas guzzlers at all other times.  ‘Look at me, I’m down with the kids,’ he/she seems to be saying.  ‘I am so Green it hurts.  Ouch’.

No mate, stop deluding yourself.  You probably have solar panels (because your neighbours can see them) but no loft insulation (because they can’t).  Why not take the tube into the city, or – whisper it – the bus?  Or would that mean mixing with the hoi polloi, and possibly catching/smelling something nasty?  Best to keep yourself cut off in your hermetically sealed (and oh-so-fashionable) bubble”.

Wendy Stayte at Transition Culture shows us the softer side of the environmental movement, providing An Update on Totnes Nut Tree Plantings.

In the dim and distant days before he metamorphosed into a clean-shaven Paw Broon, when he was a mere Chancellor of the Exchequer, our Beloved Prime Minister publicly pondered what it means to be British (British Council annual lecture, 7th July 2004): “What are the core values of Britishness?  Of course, a strong sense of national identity derives from the particular, the special things we cherish.  But it is my belief that out of tidal flows of British history – 2,000 years of successive waves of invasion, immigration, assimilation and trading partnerships that have created a uniquely rich and diverse culture – certain forces emerge again and again that make up a characteristically British set of values and qualities that, taken together, mean that there is indeed a strong and vibrant Britishness that underpins Britain”.

How might the essence of Britishness be put into words? According to Brown as follows: “(…) a passion for liberty anchored in a sense of duty and an intrinsic commitment to tolerance and fair play”.

He elaborates further: “And at every point this British belief in liberty has been matched by a British idea of duty as the virtue that reinforces neighbourliness and enshrines the idea of a public realm and public service.  A belief in the duty of one to another is an essential element of nationhood in every country.  But whether it arose from religious belief, from a noblesse oblige or from a sense of solidarity, duty in Britain has been, to most people, the foundation of rights rather than their consequence”.

And: “Britishness has also meant a tradition of fair play.  We may think today of British fair play as something applied on the sports field, but in fact most of the time it has been a very widely accepted foundation of social order: treating people fairly, rewarding hard work, encouraging self-improvement through education and being inclusive”.

Five years on his pronouncements hold a certain irony: “The two ideologies that have characterised the histories of other countries have never taken root here.  On the one hand an ideology of state power, which choked individual freedom and made the individual a slave to some arbitrarily defined collective interest, has found little or no favour in Britain.  On the other hand, an ideology of crude individualism, which leaves the individual isolated, stranded, on his own, detached from society around him, has no resonance for a Britain that has a strong sense of fair play and an even stronger sense of duty and a rich tradition of voluntary organisations, local democracy and civic life”.

In asking What binds Brits together? former Islamist Ed Husain voices unease about the ability of the concept of Britishness to promote cohesion between diverse ethnic groups:  “Let’s cut to the chase: we have a problem with connected identity here in Britain.  It’s not just Muslims such as [Muhammad Siddique] Khan who feel disconnected from Britain – the problems of atomised, self-centred existence are widespread.  The ‘nothing-to-do-with-me-guv’ mindset has caused us damage.  It has made us unwilling to find common ground with our fellow citizens.

British bashfulness also prevents us from talking about ourselves.  ‘Mustn’t grumble’ stops us from complaining about our identity malaise.  An aversion to ideas and anything remotely intellectual – unlike the eager French – blocks any discussion of shared values, or common ideas that glue us together.  But for how much longer?  I believe that this lack of a vigorous debate is damaging Britain”.

What it boils down to is whether integration and assimilation are desirable goals for minority communities subsumed within wider society: “But can a secular, liberal democracy in 2009 sustain values-based challenges from faith communities?  Time will tell, but a national conversation is overdue.  Without fear of racism or Islamophobia, it is time to ask the difficult questions.  Can religiously observant Muslims really integrate into Britain?  And should they?  How can a nation that has pubs as its shared space, ever truly welcome non-drinkers?  How do ordinary Brits really feel about those who prefer orange juice to beer?  And how can religious, marital monogamists raise children in a sexually liberal society that values individual choice over collective obligations?

And what about the loud minority within the Muslim community who oppose a secular state, and want to rule ‘for God’ and who wish to impose their reading of sharia law?  Is democracy a compromise with hakimiyyah, their version of ‘God’s rule’?

We need to move beyond simplistic debates about identity and engage with the deeper issues that are at stake.  Too often, commentators have suggested that a united society can be built on shared tastes in sport, food, and clothing.  This is not enough: such arguments overlook that the 7/7 bombers played cricket, ate fish and chips and dressed in jeans.  We need a deeper debate about the core values that can bind us together as a nation”.

His Quilliam Foundation is organising a seminar, What do Britons have in common?  Its publicity blurb is telling: “Why does Britain face a difficult challenge around integration today?  Is it because, as some claim, we have too many immigrants?  Or because of Britain’s liberal sexual mores that seemingly contradict religious teachings?  Or is it because our shared national space – pubs – appear inaccessible to some?  Or are democracy and the secular state unacceptable to some?  Or do Asian forced and arranged marriages abroad create generational tensions here in Britain?”.

The ascendancy of secularism and the concomitant loosening of the baleful grip of religion to my mind constitute the greatest achievements of Western civilisation, bringing many other benefits in their wake, including the unfinished project of full equality for women.  As such, they are non-negotiable.  Instead, I would re-frame the debate to focus on the limits of tolerance.

As a fully recovered ex-fundamentalist myself, I am more than aware of the blend of condescension and pity verging on outright contempt (although as Christians we never admitted the latter to ourselves, too piously concerned about the welfare of the eternal souls of the unconverted).  It is when the segregation of the mind is accompanied by social segregation (not by definition unilaterally imposed from the outside) that fanaticism enjoys free rein.  Religious conviction should not be allowed to take precedence over law within a parallel society.  This is where multicultural “tolerance” degenerates into a form of racism (”their” own laws are good enough for “them”, a charter for exclusion, oppression and the perpetrating of abuses, such as honour killings and female genital mutilation, outlawed practices that would never gain acceptance in the community at large).

In spite of being a happily married monogamist, I would never – “live and let live” neatly and succinctly captures the British outlook – seek to force my choice on anyone else much less look down on them for rejecting it.  Sexual permissiveness is always the first evil denounced by the religiously inclined, but I have no desire to see the clock turned back to the manifold miseries of the 19th century where the obstacles to divorce left women trapped in tyrannical relationships with no hope of escape.  The comments about teetotallers are arrant nonsense.  I have never frequented pubs and only drink a glass of wine with a meal in a restaurant in the company of friends yet this does not undermine my sense of belonging.  Mr Husain is oblivious to the history of the Temperance Movement.  The moral panic about women drinking to excess is very recent.  When I was growing up, pubs were completely male-dominated, women only allowed to venture into the Lounge Bars (and even then they were suspected of “loose” morals), but nobody ever doubted that women were part of the nation.

The unfailingly perspicacious Heresiarch of Heresy Corner detects similarities between the two interpretations, which he cogently sets out in His master’s voice: “The concept of Britishness, currently much in vogue, would seem to have two principal aims.  Firstly, to do something about the Muslim ‘problem’; secondly, to give Gordon Brown a point of contact with people in England”.

Khan and his disaffected spiritual brethren surely cannot be portrayed as typical young British Muslims: “It strikes me as ridiculous to frame citizenship programmes around the needs of such an unrepresentative group of disturbed individuals.  All that the state should require of its citizens is that they pay their taxes and obey the law.  beyond that we are in the realms of propaganda and indoctrination, neither of which strikes me as being particularly ‘British’ – any more than Brown’s recently-announced plans to inculcate a sense of national identity by using British teenagers as a source of unpaid labour.  Britishness as something defined by and imposed by the state is – apart from anything else – profoundly un-British, an irony the prime minister seems incapable of understanding.

Nations are brought together by shared stories, by a national spirit, by indefinable eccentricities.  With a government unable, or unwilling, to celebrate our shared national story – which used to concentrate on such things as the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Henry VIII’s wives and the Victorians’ conquest of much of the known world – what is left is nothing but a series of empty platitudes, a statement of ‘values’ that say nothing whatever about being ‘British’ as opposed to being French or Taiwanese.  Or there is an appeal to such things as freedom of speech, the British constitution, parliamentary democracy, the rule of law and other parts of our national inheritance that have been systematically undermined and betrayed by new Labour”.

The Heresiarch lists a few of the cultural archetypes that inform our sense of self: “It is not ‘values’ that define Britishness but particular things – fish and chips, thatched cottages, red postboxes, roads that become impassable every time it snows, the Grand National.  And these things change over time.  Curry houses are now as ‘British’ as old-fashioned pub signs, not because of officially sponsored programmes of multiculturalism, but because they have been naturally absorbed into the landscape and into the national psyche.  And it wasn’t some national characteristic of tolerance and cultural pluralism that made for the spread of Indian restaurants; it was because people wanted to eat the food they provided.

A national culture is organic and unpredictable.  Attempts to impose it from the centre usually fail, or produce ugly results”.

Solidarity and belonging cannot be conjured up to order (or upon orders): “The current Brown-directed garbage about citizenship elides two very different things: an individual’s relationship towards other people, whether in their local neighbourhood or at national (and indeed international) level, and the individual’s relationship with the state.  ‘Citizenship’ is both a legal concept, based on entitlement to a passport and the vote, and a moral concept, based on living in a society.  The same word may be used for both; but that does not mean that they must be or even ought to be confused.  To combine them, as the present British government is trying to do, in an artificial ‘Britishness’, is to assert the state’s sovereignty over both individuals and social groups, even to nationalise personal identity.  I suppose that’s the idea.  hence the paraphernalia of ID cards, lessons in ‘values’, ‘citizenship ceremonies’ (at the moment just for immigrants), repeated consultation exercises, a putative ‘national day’ and the new proposal for ‘compulsory volunteering’”.

The Heresiarch wonders what precisely Husain is driving at: “If all Ed Husain is saying is that all children, including those from Muslim backgrounds, should be taught that they live in a secular state and that they have a duty to obey the law, then I agree with him.  He appears to be saying something far more ambitious, however.  He claims (absurdly) that we are currently facing ‘the strongest challenge to Britain’s value system since the civil war’; his solution, it seems, is that a new notion of national identity ought to be constructed, which everyone of whatever background should have a duty to adopt.  Such ideas are illiberal and, coming from someone who write a bestselling book describing his longtime association with Islamic radicals, presumptuous in the extreme.  He appears not to understand British culture or national character at all.  But then again, I suspect he’s really just doing his paymaster’s bidding”.

With details of the postmortem result emerging (abdominal haemorrhage as the likely cause of death as opposed to a heart attack), The British Citizen protests that the press has its priorities all wrong in Police violence and Tomlinson death more important than silly emails.

However, in what mainstream media-employed journalists would no doubt gloat over as proof of the self-obsessed nature of blogging (thereby conveniently glossing over the sheer quantity of column inches they themselves have devoted to the issue), the ongoing saga linked to the leak of the electronic missives dubbed “Smeargate” has attracted greater attention amongst nominators this week.

Blogging

In a speech on Public Life delivered in Canary Wharf in June 2007, Tony Blair (not a politician from whom I can be accused of quoting very often) presented his thoughts on the implications of technological developments on the media (which opened up an ever-expanding niche for bloggers) and the latter’s relationship with politics: “The media world – like everything else – is becoming more fragmented, more diverse and transformed by technology.  The main BBC and ITN bulletins used to have audiences of 8, even 10 million.  Today the average is half that.  At the same time, there are rolling 24 hour news programmes that cover events as they unfold.  In 1982, there were 3 TV stations broadcasting in the UK.  Today there are hundreds.  In 1995 225 TV shows had audiences of over 15 million.  Today it is almost none.

Newspapers fight for a share of a shrinking market.  Many are now read on-line, not the next day.  Internet advertising has overtaken newspaper ads.  There are roughly 70 million blogs in existence, with around 120,000 being created every day.  In particular, young people will, less and less, get their news from traditional outlets.

But, in addition, the forms of communication are merging and interchanging.  The BBC website is crucial to the modern BBC.  papers have Podcasts and written material on the web.  News is becoming increasingly a free good, provided online without charge.  Realistically, these trends won’t do anything other than intensify.

These changes are obvious.  But less obvious is their effect.  The news schedule is now 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It moves in real time.  Papers don’t give you up to date news.  That’s already out there.  They have to break stories, try to lead the schedules.  Or they give a commentary.  And it all happens with outstanding speed”.

In the wake of Smeargate some of these contentions seem to have been borne out: “The reality is that as a result of the changing context in which 21st Century communications operates, the media are facing a hugely more intense form of competition than anything they have ever experienced before.  They are not the masters of this change but its victims.

The result is a media that increasingly and to a dangerous degree is driven by ‘impact’.  Impact is what matters.  It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamour, can get noticed.  Impact gives competitive edge.  Of course the accuracy of a story counts.  But it is secondary to impact.

It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unravelling standards, driving them down, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be but an impulsion towards sensation above all else.

Broadsheets today face the same pressures as tabloids; broadcasters increasingly the same pressures as broadsheets.  The audience needs to be arrested, held and their emotions engaged.  Something that is interesting is less powerful than something that makes you angry or shocked.

The consequences of this are acute.

First, scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down.  news is rarely news unless it generates heat as much or more than light.

Second, attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgement.  It is not enough for someone to make an error.  It has to be venal.  Conspiratorial (…)

What creates cynicism is not mistakes; it is allegations of misconduct.  But misconduct is what has impact.

Third, the fear of missing out means today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack.  In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits.  But no-one dares miss out.

Fourth, rather than just report news, even if sensational or controversial, the new technique is commentary on the news being as, if not more important than the news itself.  So – for example – there will be as much interpretation of what a politician is saying as there is coverage of them actually saying it.  In the interpretation, what matters is not what they mean; but what they could be taken to mean.  This leads to the incredibly frustrating pastime of expending a large amount of energy rebutting claims about the significance of things said, that bears little or no relation to what was intended.

In turn, this leads to a fifth point: the confusion of news and commentary.  Comment is a perfectly respectable part of journalism.  But it is supposed to be separate.  Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible.  The truth is a large part of the media today not merely elides the two but does so now as a matter of course.  In other words, this is not exceptional.  It is routine”.

Even in a relatively measures speech such as this, Mr Blair could not resist the inevitable swipe: “New forms of communication would provide new outlets to by-pass the increasingly shrill tenor of the traditional media.  In fact, the new forms can be even more pernicious, less balanced, more intent on the latest conspiracy theory multiplied by five”.

Blogging has not rendered the printed press entirely obsolete, however: “It is sometimes said that the media is accountable daily through the choice of readers and viewers.  That is true up to a point.  But the reality is that the viewers or readers have no objective yardstick to measure what they are being told.  In every other walk of life in our society that exercises power, there are external forms of accountability, not least through the media itself.  So it is true politicians are accountable through the ballot box every few years.  But they are also profoundly accountable, daily, through the media, which is why a free press is so important”.

Not long ago journalist Nick Cohen waded into the debate with the question Who would you rather trust – the BBC or a blogger? (slightly lopsidedly pitting the true Goliath of news coverage against the rather puny David of the one-person blogging operation characteristic of most output): “[Clay Shirky] quotes the example of Alisara Chirapongse, a marvellous Thai student who blogged mainly about fashion.  Her readership was tiny, until the 2006 Thai military coup.  Chirapongse ignored a news blackout and described life in Bangkok.  She posted photos of mutinous troops on her website and organised a campaign against the army’s attempts at censorship.  When the crisis was over, international admirers left and she went back to sharing thoughts with her friends.

Newspaper correspondents in Thailand may have been censored by the military.  If their editors had sent them from London, they may not have known the language or understood Thai politics.  It is possible that Alisara’s writing was not only equal to the work of her professional rivals but superior and more widely read.

Why, then, mourn the passing of the hack?  The best reason for wanting my colleagues to survive is that serious reporters and broadcasters offer a guarantee that what they say is true.  If they stray, their editors impose journalistic standards and insist on objectivity.  They may not have the best or fullest story or the most vivid account, but readers should be able to assume their work is reliable, while a blogger’s commitment to objectivity can never be assumed”.

All too often, such a lofty depiction of your average journalist’s work is inaccurate to the point of travesty, as we shall explore later.

Gaby Hinsliffe in Guido Fawkes: Fast, furious,buccaneering…and now claiming their first major scalp bemoans the sheer nastiness of “the bitterly personal and vindictive world of the blogosphere”, adding: “Political blogs are a mix of the courtly (they acknowledge a story taken from another blogger by crediting the source with a ‘hat tip’, for example) and the toxic, with bitter feuds regularly erupting between players.  Both tactics actually help boost readership, by encouraging casual surfers to hop between sites or raising the profile of both sites in a spat”.

Briefings, lunches, consorting with the powerful and the implicit flattery of being invited have been the preserve of the fortunate and favoured few, who could congratulate themselves on having made it.  At some stage the unwavering pursuit of the truth no doubt slipped down the list of priorities compared to wining and dining, or mixing in the right circles for the elite.  Bloggers by contrast are not pampered and privileged in this way and our dedication to the truth (at least as we perceive it) has never faltered.  By trespassing on the territory of the “professional” journalist, Guido’s scoop represents a milestone.

Nick Anstead, occasional contributor to Slugger O’Toole and lecturer in politics, sets out his assessment of the significance of the episode in Media in the digital era: “While not structurally revolutionary in itself, I would however contest this kind of event is more and more likely to happen.  the mass media elite was defined by narrow inputs (produced by a small number among an information elite – journalists and publishers, for example).  It was because there were few of them that the role of the modern spin doctor developed in the first place.  A dialogue could occur among a narrow group of people and information could be managed.

Now though, we live in the digital era and have moved to a time of broad (and growing) inputs – in short, information cannot be managed in the same way by spin doctors when publishing is so easy.  Secrets are far harder to keep.  Look at wikileaks for just one example.  This means a fundamental readjustment in the way parties and governments handle information, and the ending of the nineties consensus on how politics is done”.

In Drapergate: Labour falls into a banal pit of despond…, Mick Fealty of the excellent Slugger O’Toole furnishes us with a very useful (though not exhaustive) review of articles and opinions, setting out what he regards as one of the important messages to be distilled from the furore: “One is that if you are going to get into the business of smearing your opponents (and I would strongly advise against it), make them plausibly deniable.  Guido has traded in smears of his political opponents from the start, some of it very personal and involving family members of the intended Labour party victim.  But, so far as we know, he is not on the Conservative party payroll!

But, as I argued on Brassneck in February, Draper was wrong headed in his handling of his blog Labour List…He and his party have paid a high price for the banal nihilism card of getting your opponents, no matter what…”

Indeed.

Not that the blogosphere and mainstream media are locked into mortal combat by some ineluctable law of nature.  As Slugger O’Toole demonstrates, when freedom of speech is under threat, they can fruitfully come to one another’s assistance.  Slugger landed an exclusive (as finally acknowledged in The Irish Times) when a rather nasty letter was passed on, prompting the question A legitimate complaint, or case of bullying from the top?

Jim Jay of The Daily (Maybe) also analyses the deeper significance of Smeargate in There are lessons for every party in the McBride scandal, more particularly the tendency to stifle any manifestation of criticism or dissent (which even the most cursory glance at the history of Central Europe will reveal is a Socialist speciality): “It amounts to an unaccountable clique at the heart of the party, and in this case the government.  Any criticism of Draper’s extremely problematic LabourList, for example, was seen as disloyalty to the party.  Even senior cabinet members were unable to curb these rogue elements because they had backing at the highest level.  This isn’t just a problem that the Labour Party faces, it is a potential problem for every political organisation (and non-political ones too probably).

Party members who have criticisms to make of party initiatives, departments or members are not just inconveniences but an important corrective that can help improve party performance.  Without the ability of members to at least have a say over the direction of the party they are a member of, and that includes publicly voicing concerns, that party cannot make any claim to democracy – and certainly will be sabotaging its own ability to retain experienced members.

That does not mean that all criticism is appropriate or, heaven forbid, correct but its existence is not an affront to anyone but control freaks and psychopaths.  But alas there are plenty of those in every party.  Those people wrongly see every suggestion that things could be done differently as evidence of an enemy within who want to tear down everything their party has achieved”.

In passing, Rachel Sylvester in Brown’s loyal attack dogs always bite to order elaborates on the nature of the Prime Minister’s inner circle: “There is a laddish and bullying atmosphere to the cabal of advisers and MPs surrounding Mr Brown.  Small talk revolves around football.  Briefings take place in pubs and karaoke bars.  The alleged coup against Tony Blair was planned over balti and beers.  It is not surprising that Mr McBride begins his e-mail with the word ‘Gents’ – the underlying misogyny of the rumours he was trying to spread is one of the most shocking aspects of the whole thing.  ‘Gordon is from Mars and more than half the voters are from Venus,’ one female minister says”.

Charles Crawford in Blogging Remora Fish: A Lack of Semiotic Subtlety? quotes from Wrinkled Weasel on the issue of blogging as a propaganda tool: “The real life parallel of blogging is a bar room rant, not an exchange of letters on Basildon Bond notepaper…

…If there is anything that could be described as ‘discourse’ in the blog world, it moves very quickly and is non-linear, which is why a lot of it becomes reduced to swear bloggery and ranting, since you do not have the time and reflection to agree on the meanings of terms, and ‘arsehole’ or ‘jerk’ tends to sum things up nicely”.

Blogging involves the gradual building of a constituency.  Summoning up an instant audience flash mob-style according to the Draper/McBride recipe was doomed to failure.

Charles ends his piece with a wonderfully witty comparison: “Finally, bloggers love to bang on about the iniquities and incompetence of the mainstream media, whose journalists in turn uneasily bang on about the soaring irresponsibility and trivialisation brought about by blogging.

To use another biological metaphor, are the MSM a group of elderly and lazy sharks, while bloggers are the Remora fish who swim around their jaws and backends picking up decaying morsels for the benefit of both species?”

In a comment on Janet Daley’s rather sour A star blogger admits that the blogosphere has not yet come of age, Oldrightie forcefully conveys why bloggers have a reputation for trustworthiness surpassing that of their highly remunerated counterparts: “The blogosphere, Madame, is a place to vent one’s spleen whilst the MSM chase advertising and power.  The self-interest and financial ambition of career journalism rarely taps the psyche of a public now very disillusioned by the media.  In particular the shameful BBC bias and the power crazed manipulation of people such as by Rupert Murdoch.  To gain way in journalism often requires the kind of subjugation as demanded by brown of his cohorts.  Honesty is never an issue, just egotism and hubris.  I’m afraid few journalists achieve accuracy or honesty in their commentaries and remain successful”.

Trixy, of Is there more to life than shoes? reminds us of the positive aspects of enhanced ease of access to information in Things to be thankful for: “The not-so-whispered concerns among hacks is that how did Guido get the mails before they did?  Why was he the first port of call?  Sunday papers in particular need those big scoops brought about when someone calls them with a scandal, or a video or some e-mails.  They pay thousands of pounds for them knowing that it will draw in the punters to buy their weekly rag.  It’s their life blood.

And now some upstart blogger who hasn’t done a graduate trainee scheme or worked on a regional paper has been running rings around not only the seemingly terminally foolish Dolly Draper and the political editors of the nationals but magnificently called the bluff of these spin doctors.

I can see why they’re concerned, but the running of this country and the actions of the people who do it is too important for the information not to be published.  How dare people being paid from the public purse spend their time thinking up such deceptions?  How low must one sink to try to divert democracy in such a way by seeking to alter the view voters have of an opposition party with such lies?

The internet has many pitfalls, but the quick, cheap dissemination of important information is one of the reasons we should revel in our new found power over people who seek to control the information we have access to.

If economics flourishes with information, then politics – an industry where the abuse of power can dominate opinions, actions and pay cheques, will surely benefit as people realise that they aren’t safe from the voter finding out.

And with the internet and blogs in particular, those who stand to lose the most can’t lunch or bully everyone”.

Bloggers do not pose a real threat to the livelihood of journalists attached to the major papers (even with their diminishing circulations we still cannot really compete with their entrenched position in the national psyche as authoritative and reliable sources of information, nor can we remotely command anything like the resources at their disposal).  A few, such as Guido, might make inroads into their celebrity, the rest of us diligently plugging away in obscurity (I am not complaining, I prefer not to have every minute detail of my life held up for inspection).  What irks me about the attitude of many journalists is that, instead of welcoming the broadening of opinion, and taking it as inspiration to improve their own writing to stay ahead, they fear it as a challenge to their authority.  Like mice at a banquet, all we can do is gnaw at the hem of the tablecloth yet even this appears to be more than many can stomach.  Yes, we bloggers are so bold as to deconstruct slovenly writing and to dish out criticism where it is deserved.  “Keep Out” signs will not deter us.  Journalists have to wake up to the fact that deference is not automatic, and respect has to be earned.

Returning to the lofty pronouncements of moral superiority and professional integrity on the part of our haughty detractors, I submit for your consideration two case studies.  First up is Bill Carmichael in the Yorkshire Post on Brutal truths about protest: “The female protester allegedly assaulted by a police officer during the G20 protests is said to be ‘traumatised’ by the incident.

Poor love!  She sounds like a delicate flower, doesn’t she?  Strolling alone minding her own business in the City of London when suddenly she was struck down by the jackboot of the fascist police state.

Er…well, perhaps not.  The marvellous thing about all this video footage that is swilling about on the internet is that truth cuts both ways – and often it dispels the myths on both sides.

Take a few moments to look at the video and a strikingly different picture emerges from the propaganda being put out by the protestors and their friends at the BBC and left-wing newspapers.

Instead of the sanitised version of injured innocence, what you’ll see is an aggressive-looking young woman – as yet unidentified –hat pulled down over her eyes, mouthing obscenities into the face of a police officer, who is trying to ignore her.

After several minutes of this he snaps and slaps her with the back of his hand with the words :’Go away’.

She doesn’t and she continues to hurl abuse.  At which point he draws his baton and belts her on the legs.

If anyone ever deserved a good slap, this woman certainly did.

Instead of being suspended and investigated, I believe the officer involved should be commended for his forbearance”.

It is entirely inappropriate and completely reprehensible for a supposedly reputable publication to condone the physical chastisement of women for defying male authority.  Perhaps the activist transgressed Mr Carmichael’s notions of demure, simpering femininity by spouting foul language, who knows, no doubt his remedy would be to resuscitate the laws against the pestilential scourge of uppity women, of communis rixatrix, bring back the scold’s bridle!

Harpymarx shares my disgust at his views, which she summarises thus: “(…) state thuggery and violence against women is totally acceptable as this woman got what she deserved.  Is his next column going to argue for the return of the ‘rule of thumb’ against lippy women who step out of line?”

She pours justified scorn on Carmichael: “Let’s not contend ourselves with the boring details about this TSG cop not wearing his number let’s distract ourselves with the details of the woman who had her hat pulled down over her eyes.  Shocking!  And could she have done that because…it was a sunny day…(Oh, hiow prosaic!).

She remonstrated with the cop, if you look at the video on youtube, the cops decided a couple of mins. previously to grab a man for no reason that is what she and others were responding to.  I witnessed them grab this man for no reason and that caused people to remonstrate…I saw the TSG cop grab another woman seconds before, he was intent on punching her as well!  Carmichael would undoubtedly believe she deserved a beating too!!!”

Secondly, Uponnothing of Angry Mob picks apart the reporting of a tragic accident in Newspapers lie about the death of Georgina Williams, showing how biases lead to the wilful distortion of facts: “The Daily Mail reveals once again its obsession with class, it feels necessary to say she attended a ‘top grammar school’ which is then clearly juxtaposed with the ‘nearby comprehensive’ – so the Daily Mail clearly picks a side in the opening paragraph as well as the headline.  Further unnecessary details include the value of the home in which she was found dead, again cementing the idea that a respectable upper-middle-class girl has been hounded to death by feral comprehensive children.

However, the interesting details are that there are ‘fears she was bullied’ by comprehensive students, the inquest and father of Georgina Williams had concluded that any fears were not founded, and in fact that no ‘row’ had actually taken place.  So where is the Mail getting its evidence from?  Their source is the reliable and neutral news source: Bebo” (going back to Nick Cohen’s piece, not only are the dailies failing to dispatch correspondents to Thailand, but even the wild, conflict-riven wastelands of Kent would seem to be too remote and expensive!).

As Uponnothing concludes: “The Daily Mail is therefore able to trump fact with unsubstantiated rumours posted by children in the period of time following the death of a fellow student.  The Daily Mail are not reporting news, they are indulging in scaremongering gossip dressed up as investigative journalism – as if digging around  Bebo page could provide answers that the inquest could not”.

The credibility that blogs possess by virtue of articulating the authentic opinions of the author has been recognised by those who would dearly love to hawk their wares and have no scruples about how they go about it, as discovered by Gordon McLean of One Man Blogs in Evil Pharma: “After some investigation it turns out the entire blog is fake, in fact it isn’t a blog at all, it’s a single page with faked comments, which inserts a ‘recent’ date at the top of the page and uses a script to match the IP of the visitor (you) to make it look like it’s being written by someone in the same local area”.

Thankfully, we bloggers are not as under-endowed with intelligence as the advertisers would like to think, as Gordon makes clear: “(…) you cannot simply con your way to having a good ‘online presence’, that blogs take work and effort, care and attention, and that,ultimately if you cock something up or try to con us we WILL find out”.

To close on all matters Internet, Letters from a Tory mulls over whether Twitter and Facebook may damage our sense of morality: “The speed at which we now receive a breathtaking volume of information every hour of every day is something that should be both praised and damned in some respects.  As an adult who was brought up on the crest of the digital wave, I don’t think Facebook or Twitter or anything of the same ilk represents a threat to my morality or ethics.  However, the prospect of someone developing and maturing in a world where instant reactions are the rule rather than the exception raises some interesting questions, particularly for parenting.  No doubt some idiots along the way will call for digital media outlets to be banned or curbed but it is impossible to fight the tide”.

Feminism

Laurie Penny of Penny Red argues that feminism’s emancipatory agenda is not confined to the liberation of the female sex in Men, feminism and the patriarchal con: “There are many urgent reasons why socialist feminists of all genders need to concern themselves with popular misandry and the subjugation of men, especially when we’re facing down the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.  A recession is never a good time for women’s rights:economic crisis moves economic equality from the agenda, and a great deal of women’s struggle in and out of the workplace revolves around the battle for equal economic status.  Cuts to welfare benefits and part-time employment hit women with children hardest.  But most importantly of all, recession creates a large body of justly angry, disenfranchised working men, men who are encouraged implicitly and sometimes explicitly to take that anger out where it will do least damage to capitalist hegemony: to wit, on women.  It is a well-known and oft-repeated fact that domestic violence against women increases in times of economic crisis, usually, as is the case now, contiguously with a cut in state spending on women’s refuges.  But another backlash against feminism itself is also to be expected – and as feminists, the fallacy that the problems that men face in a recession are the fault of feminism is something that we need to turn and face”.

As if to substantiate her argument, Lynne Miles at The F-Word informs us Council strikes blow for gender equality, cuts women’s pay by 25%: “Sheffield City Council has announced a salary restructuring as a result of the onerous duty of gender equality legislation.  Apparently the unreasonable burden of having to pay the workers equally for doing similar jobs has caused them a great deal of trouble.  When they looked into it they found – as so many do – that they weren’t.  Solution?  Cut the pay of your lowest worker, blame the lefties who made you do it”.

Culture

Natalie Bennett of Philobiblon reviews Melissa Franklin Harkrider’s Women, Reform and Community in Early Modern England: Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, and Lincolnshire’s Godly Aristocracy, 1519-1580 in How to really annoy David Starkey, a tongue-in-cheek title, which she explains for the benefit of those not familiar with the historian’s prejudices: “Women, in Starkey’s world, had no significance in the 16th century, and writing a biography of a woman, even one who was high ranking, with access to royalty, would be a pointless exercise. Read this slim monograph, however, and you’ll realise just how silly this stance is”.

Whilst Susanne Lamido of Suz Blog samples some slightly less rarefied pleasures in Britain’s Got Talent Susan Boyle Sings Les Misérables.

If there was ever a feature of Englishness remarked upon by outsiders, then surely it is the proliferation of eccentric customs, such as gurning, Cheese-Rolling or the Hallaton Bottle-Kicking faithfully catalogued by Peter Ashton at Unmitigated England.  No quaint, sedate rituals these.  Their boisterousness and risk to life and limb in sharp contrast to the cotton-wool cosseted, drab government-approved entertainments of more recent vintage.  Long may they flourish!

Miscellaneous

The Heresiarch contemplates the divine on the basis of research carried out by Professor Uffe Schøjdt into how believers apprehend God by scanning their brains during prayer in What a friend they have in Jesus: “What Schøjdt’s brain imaging reveals, then, is something that we really know all along: that when it comes to worshipping, or praying to, or putting trust in, ‘God’ most people (even, I suspect, some of the sophisticated theologians) are not relating to the Supreme Being, or to the Ground of Universal Transcendence, or some such abstraction or spiritual essence, but to something much closer to the human scale.  Perhaps language, with its talk of heavenly fathers and ‘the word of God’, pushes them in this direction.  But I suspect that religion, as a way of making sense of the world, had its origins in anthropomorphic ways of thought that seem to come quite naturally to human beings.  Evolved to relate to other individuals with minds, people tend to relate to inanimate objects and even the universe itself as beings possessed of intelligence.  In the days before science, people conceptualised forces at work in the natural world as reflecting the activities of beings with intentions, or as beings themselves.  Even today we tend to (half-jokingly, perhaps, and in full knowledge of its futility) feel anger towards a car that won’t start.  And we are constantly exhorted to feel a sense of responsibility towards ‘Gaia’”.

Cabalamat of Amused Cynicism expounds why Blair’s Faith Foundation is full of shit: “So Blair wants us all to respect other religions, or ‘faiths’ to use the namby-pamby ecumenical mot du jour.  But hang on, isn’t Tony Blair a Roman Catholic?  And don’t Catholics believe that if you’re not a Catholic (or at any rate not a Christian) you’ll be tortured in Hell after you die?  That being the case, surely Catholics shouldn’t ‘respect’ other religions at all, but should regard them as deadly serious errors?

For example, if Blair saw a friend about to drink weedkiller, mistakenly believing it was blackcurrant juice, he would say ‘No!  Stop!  Don’t do that!’  And so it should be with religion, if Blair is truly a believer in the Catholic faith: if he notices that one of his friends is a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu, and he really cares about his friend, he should say ‘Stop, friend!  Don’t do that!  You’re risking being tortured for eternity!’”

In a thoughtful piece, which perfectly encapsulates the virtues of the blog as a mature medium for informed comment, Margin at Pseuds’ Corner and Home of the Frustrated Hack recalls An earlier Hillsborough disaster, the Spurs versus Wolves match at the grounds in 1981, which has not left a scar on the collective consciousness: “And the reason for that is simple.

Unlike their counterparts in 1989, the police commanders in charge in 1981 were not in charge of their first match, were not ignorant and incompetent, and were seemingly not predisposed to assume all problems were the result of violent scum on the terraces who deserved everything they got.

Instead, those in charge acted sensibly on the feedback of officers on the frontline.  As a result they ordered the closure of the gates leading to the most crowded pens, and then directed incoming fans to safer areas.  They acted somewhat late, but they did act.  And many fans were helped out of the crowded spaces by fellow fans and police alike.  They then sat along the edge of the pitch to watch the game unfold”.

Craig Murray pays tribute to the late Clement Freud, one of his predecessors as Rector of the University of Dundee: “For the student charities’ campaign he produced The Rector’s Cookbook, a collection of recipes that could be cooked in one pan on a single gas ring – in those days a not unusual sole cooking facility for a Dundee student.

He did a promotional piece for STV in a student flat in Springfield, equipped with a fold-away gas ring that swung out from the wall.  Halfway through his cooking demonstration the cooking ring collapsed, the pan clashed to the floor, spraying everyone with chilli, and a jet of yellow flame shot across the room, setting fire to the bedclothes. Freud turned to the camera and said, in the slowest and most deadpan voice imaginable as the room blazed around him: ‘And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the perfect demonstration of the conditions which students have been reduced to under the Labour government’”.

Nest week’s Roundup will be hosted by Matt Wardman of The Wardman Wire.  For a full statement of editorial policy, the hosting rota and the complete archives of the Roundup, consult the Britblog Central website.

As ever, nominations should be sent to britblog [at] gmail [dot] com

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Gripe

Filed under: — site admin @ 1:56 pm

[Background: on 20th November 2008, I received an unsolicited mail from Blogged.com generously awarding me a score of 7.4 out of 10 whilst informing me with all the gushing, upbeat insincerity of contemporary corporate rhetoric: "This is quite an achievement!"  The sender encouraged me to festoon my site with a promotional link proudly displaying my rating for the vast legions of bored males who according to Google Analytics spend less than one second on my site, just long enough to be disabused of the notion that my category XXL might have anything to do with simulations of writhing ecstasy, perhaps pausing for a Homer Simpson-like, forehead-slapping epiphany that the abbreviation quite innocently refers to clothing sizes.  No doubt expecting me to roll over like a poodle, tongue-lolling excitedly in transports of self-abasing gratitude that a little affection had been directed towards me.  How sadly mistaken.  A more appropriate canine comparison would involve that house at the end of the road in the sink estate, the one that even the local thugs give a wide berth, with the rickety wooden fence complete with scratch marks from vicious claws and an abandoned supermarket trolley lying helpless on its side on the lawn where the spike-collared Rottweiler roams.  One whiff of an impetuous intruder foolhardily approaching the beast's domain and it launches itself, teeth bared, battering its muscular bulk against the flimsy wood, salivating to part flesh and sinew from bone in its frenzied fury.  What follows is my reply.  Needless to say, I did not receive a response]

Dear Amy,

Thank you for taking the time and trouble to send me a standard format mail with a corresponding one-size-fits-all text.  No doubt the implied flattery of the phrase “This is quite an achievement!” is intended to elicit a Pavlovian response from the recipient to increase your site’s prestige (and position in search engine rankings) by pasting the link onto the sidebar as a badge of honour.

I, however, do not have the remotest intention of so doing and would like to explain why.

Firstly, I harbour serious suspicions that no human editor has so much as given the most cursory glance at my blog.  In part because I do not believe that you possess the financial and staffing resources necessary to substantiate your claim (albeit not expressly stated, but inherent in the nature of a site assigning scores to blogs) to function as some kind of arbiter of good writing.  In view of the sheer number of blogs (many of which are strewn over the pages of Blogger like so many archaeological remains, having been abandoned shortly after coming into being in the first instance either because the author’s attention span compares unfavourably with that of a thereby much-maligned amphibian or because they quickly succumb to the disillusionment that sets in when they are not instantly catapulted into the limelight or inundated with offers of book deals and the only attention bestowed upon them manifests itself in the inane and malevolent scribblings of trolls) it would require hordes of full-time employees to sift through and provide a genuine, considered assessment of each and every one of them.

Secondly, because of the score awarded to my blog.  All evaluation criteria are open to contestation, but some are more nebulous or likely to attract objections than others.  Let us examine each of the rating-determining criteria in turn.  The first is listed as “Frequency of Updates”.  This is founded on the assumption that a good blog is updated every day or perhaps more than once a day.  However, as the most superficial perusal of any teenager’s blog will suffice to demonstrate,  frequency of posting is usually in inverse proportion to quality.  Had an actual human judge proceeded to investigate my Profile Page, the logical place to begin when attempting to glean relevant information about the author or to acquaint oneself, however fleetingly, with the persona they wish to adopt, he or she would immediately have been appraised of my “mission statement”, or my stated purpose in writing: “Redemption Blues was conceived as an autobiography in fragments, but equally as a work in progress not easily reducible to any single (or simple) category.  My hope is that Redemption Blues will eventually attain the status of a ‘blog’ as opposed to a ‘good blog of the hour’ to adopt and adapt John Ruskin’s classification in Sesame and Lilies”.   The quotation from Ruskin which follows would have alerted them to the fact that the blog is not intended as some temporary or ephemeral venting exercise or disjointed series of huffings and puffings about the relentless flow of events, but as a literary/academic work including serious commentary and in-depth analysis.  True, the author’s initial perception of her output was as a “Personal Blog”, but the undertaking grew over time, expanding like a tree trunk, the rings invisible until exposed in cross-section.  This is where I part company with many, if not most, in my appreciation of the potential of the genre as a vehicle of thought and expression.  Its boundaries are not fixed, but fluid, it ought to be able to encompass “art” or at least aspire to, and it should not be regarded as inferior to what actually makes it into print in the bleak, commercially-driven imperative of the contemporary publishing industry.  Why should our views of what a blog should be like be conditioned by the lowest common denominator?  I am quite reconciled to the minute readership my blog commands as I quite deliberately refuse to pander to the tastes of the majority.  Given therefore that Redemption Blues strives for depth, the likelihood of the kind of feverish updating typical of blogs aimed at an average audience is not great to say the least.  Judging it according to criteria that quite self-evidently do not apply is an exercise in futility, if not downright dishonesty.

Then comes the enigmatic “Relevance of Content”, a classification, which begs more questions than it could ever hope to answer.  From whose standpoint?  Is a blog written from a staunchly British point of view to be deemed less relevant than a comparable American one simply because of US dominance of the Internet or because US politics and culture are considered more important by dint of the country’s economic clout and sheer weight of population numbers?  Surely this constitutes a parochial view, further sullied by a myopic and ugly nationalism.  Moreover, what meaning does the concept of “relevance” possess in relation to a “Personal Blog”?  By definition, the content posted on any blog is relevant to the author, otherwise they would not have bothered to write anything at all on the subject.  No external observer is entitled to adjudicate on the question of relevance.  Even if I were to attract a high volume of traffic because of an opinion voiced what is being measured is the interest others show in a topic (influenced by an entire array of factors).  Perhaps a blog that explicitly stakes a claim to being political might at a pinch be graded according to relevance of content in the sense that if the author strays from the narrow parameters defining what constitutes the properly political (a contested category in itself) to talk about the weather (unless the latter is related to anthropogenic climate change) it would not be beyond the bounds of imagination for an excessive and recurrent focus on the natural spectacle beyond the window pane to detract from the supposed “relevance” of the articles under scrutiny, but again exclusively in terms of the individual author’s own stated objectives.  It is, quite simply, nonsensical to try to impose a universally valid relevance criterion to any blog, which fatally discredits the rating system itself.

Next up is “Site Design”.  Blogging has been lauded as a more democratic and widely accessible form of articulating opinion.  Since the vast majority of bloggers are not computer experts/programmers/web designers it strikes me as highly questionable to include site design as a gauge of relative merit.  You really ought to be giving the points to Blogger or WordPress, but not using them as a means of distinguishing between individual bloggers, some of whom might be advanced enough to customise the standard template to add a personal touch.  In so doing, you end up penalising bloggers who might be extremely talented writers, but whose computer skills are more limited, privileging style over substance, slightly odd for a site that purports to direct readers towards quality content.  Then there is the matter of gender bias.  Supposing a female blogger wishes (and I am quite deliberately trading in crass stereotypes here for illustration purposes) to “prettify” her blog with cascades of flowers or a retina-scorching pink background, whereas a male blogger wishes to cultivate an air of “seriousness” and prefers a crisp, austere backdrop to his collected ruminations.  Which of these would yield a higher rating?  Increasing a score on the basis of “superior” site design not only depressingly replicates the kind of snap judgements ascribed to employers when ascertaining the suitability of job applicants (i.e. success or failure hinges almost entirely on superficialities, again surely not the kind of activity any organisation that craves to be taken seriously as a reliable guide to quality ought to be indulging in), but also  rewards those who can afford to pay small fortunes for web designers (in which case it would of course be the latter’s efforts which were being assessed) to impart a polished professional “look” – bringing us straight back to substance versus surface.  How amazingly progressive and enlightened of you.  How profoundly in touch with the spirit of blogging.

Finally, “Writing Style”.  In this context, I decided to check the rating your organisation considered appropriate for another personal blog with which I am familiar, Petite Anglaise.  It trounces Redemption Blues with 7.8 (as opposed to my 7.4).  In many respects, this is analogous to comparing an academic publication with a bodice-ripping bestseller, although both blogs are, it is true, subsumed beneath the same broad category.  You don’t have to take my word for it, simply type the respective URLs into the Blog Readability Test (a blunt instrument, yet instructive here) and you will discover that whilst Redemption Blues targets readers of a certain sophistication, as encapsulated in the “Genius Level” grading (itself an exaggeration betraying a sad decline in literacy levels), Petite Anglaise can be savoured by anyone of “High School” educational attainment.  I am at least somewhat relieved to note that pure readership figures (albeit blogs of stellar renown, such as Dooce.com have obtained remarkably high scores, suggesting that Technorati Authority might be an unacknowledged component of your evaluations after all) do not appear, at least not blatantly, to influence the results, otherwise Petite Anglaise would eclipse Redemption Blues entirely.  Taking raw popularity as an index of quality is extremely problematic.  Although inaccessibility/impenetrability do not betoken academic prowess (particularly to those acculturated into the theory-adverse, pragmatic Anglo-Saxon mindset), widespread appeal does not represent an incontestable guarantee of distinction.  Petite Anglaise does not pretend to be anything other than lightweight (except in the book version, where portentous mentions of posterity recur), profundity is entirely alien to it.  The judiciously edited account of the trials and tribulations of a secretary living in a location steeped in romantic associations in the minds of many of its readers was never going to aim higher than vacuous chick-lit, fit for consumption over a morning coffee, a throwaway piece of entertainment.  Redemption Blues, by contrast, is not hallmarked by either shallowness or pathological self-obsession.  In a nutshell, endorsing Petite Anglaise over Redemption Blues is equivalent to rejecting the Booker Prize shortlister in favour of the sun cream-spattered Mills and Boon beachside distraction.  Therefore it would be extremely difficult to persuade me that your entire rating system is anything other than a hollow, intellectually and morally bankrupt endeavour.

Returning to my initial protest about the total absence of human involvement in the rating process despite avowals to the contrary, the “Related topics” are simply strip-mined from my introductory paragraph and bear no relationship to the actual contents of my blog.  A more refined method of hoodwinking the hapless browser into deluding themselves that an actual person had so much as clicked once on the blog would have been to reproduce the author-devised categories.  This would have included Culture, Sociology and Women and Multiculturalism to name but three.  At least then any reader who might have strayed onto the relevant listing in the Directory might have been given a tantalising flavour of what my blog is about.  As things stand, potential visitors are comprehensively (and reprehensibly) misinformed (I cannot be blamed for this, as by compiling a Profile Page as well as a list of categories, I self-evidently expect curious passers-by to explore further).

I hope that these objections will serve as an inducement not to underestimate the intelligence of blog authors in future and to reflect on the wisdom of remorselessly promoting a hopelessly defective rating tool.  Perhaps they might even prompt you to ponder how best to salvage a semblance of the authority you clearly hanker after by improving it.

Yours faithfully,

The Chameleon

[Footnote for the hard of thinking, orchestrators of two-minute hate sessions, sundry members of Petite's army of (p)sychophants and wilful distorters.  Before hastening to conclude that my aversion to the prose of the Parisian stems from snobbery, spite, sour grapes, bruised vanity or whatever other motive you would seek to impute to me, please recall the vast power imbalance between us, which overshadows all else.  Remember before gallantly rushing to her defence by taking a swipe at me that she is the one who has been able to escape the drudgery of office dronedom with the half a million pound book deal whilst I continue to toil away in obscurity.  There is a certain subtle, self-deprecating (if not masochistic) irony contained in my words.  Like the high-pitched whine of the mosquito inaudible to the elephant it is about to divebomb in spite of the latter's magnificent ears.  The insect's doomed attempt to penetrate the hide so utterly ridiculous as to enter the realm of the farcical.  The mere fact of the inclusion of this piece under Chameleon Lite signals that it belongs to the more trivial postings with a tinge of humour.  Of course, it is quite dismal for me to feel obliged to point out what to a regular reader is insultingly obvious.  Detractors seldom bother with context before launching into invective however and I have already been shunned by the self-proclaimed "cream" of British blogging for the sin of blaspheming against Her Sublime Untouchableness.  I steadfastly refuse to back down from my assertion that marketability does not coincide with merit, a proposition Ms S very vividly illustrates]

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Five

Filed under: — site admin @ 10:44 am

Leaning on the draining board, tea towel for padding, yet your elbows still bruised, the newspaper strategically folded to reveal the crossword as the starlings perched along the empty washing line.  The drowsy hum of the bees at the Tummel mint, in the shade of the parasol planted in the border you watched his infant’s hand reach towards the drooping purple heads to withdraw at your warning.  A patchwork of tiny gestures, the wooden tongs transferring sodden cloth from one tub to another, Scottish breakfast every Sunday, trowel digging the weeds up by the roots and discarding them on the midden with the grass clippings.  The peal of the Academy bell through the open kitchen window, afternoon tea on your best china, sandwich slivers with cucumber for two giggling girls, dissecting the working day, patrolling the corridors, the trips to the library on board the double-decker, smokers upstairs, the shopping lists unworthy of such careful script, the smell of polish.

Yours was the gift of true humility, holding us together with the warmth of your smile, the Mars bar in the packed lunch box, watering the tomatoes in the greenhouse, Mr Blobby biscuits fresh from the bakery, gentle, embracing, welcomed without question, we could always return to you, no matter how bitter the disappointment, you accepted us without judgement, putting the kettle on, and when you could not follow us down the path, your hand waving in front of the lace curtain.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Britblog Roundup 210

Filed under: — site admin @ 9:48 pm

Welcome to the sustainable society edition of the Britblog Roundup brought to you from beneath the the permadrizzle shroud of the city of regulators and lobbyists.  Contributors have been in philosophical mode this week, pondering how best to preserve social cohesion and support a lifestyle that will not deprive future generations of a decent future, covering a wide variety of topics ranging from the devastating impact of chronic job insecurity, through the possible benefits of eugenics to putting on your wellies to emulate the admirable self-sufficiency of Tom and Barbara.

Politics

Andrew Ian Dodge of Dodgeblogium, in Dr Butler on the rot that is Britain today… rightly laments the bias shown by Auntie Beeb in choosing not to peer through her bifocals at a volume published by a think-tank that she disapproves of.  In his review of The Rotten State of Britain at Blogger News Network, he suggests why her bloomers might be in a twist: "The book sets out to detail all the various aspects of life that have worsened under Labour ranging from personal freedom through taxation to the most basic provisions of health in the NHS.  Dr Butler effectively prepares anyone who wishes to perforate the continued assertion that Britain is in its current state because of Conservative administration that ended over a decade ago".

TV and computers are always first in the firing line when it comes to hand-wringing about how we increasingly live in juxtaposition to each other rather than mingling in the outdoors.  However, the doom and gloom mongers of the media are keen to portray public space, where social interaction occurs, as dangerous.  This in turn fuels a pervasive paranoia manifested in the unblinking eyes of surveillance cameras and letting our children out of our sight for a fraction of a second, let alone permitting them to wander off to the playground unsupervised is regarded as the height of folly, an act of culpable neglect.

We retreat into the safety of our properties with a pang of sadness and loss. mourning the demise of the carefree days when we inhabited the outdoors free from a protective adult presence, roaming through the streets until hunger chivvied us homeward.  In our more nostalgic moments, we yearn for the warmth and closeness that appears to have evaporated when we are not cursing our litigious neighbours for suing us over the branches of the lilac brazenly trespassing over their fence.  Is community the product of boredom or deprivation?  As an ex-pat in self-imposed and relatively contented exile, I appreciate the irony of contemplating the issue.  My uprootedness, my existence outside the context of my birth and upbringing are precisely what I cherish, rendering me impossible to "read" (and be instantly appraised, beyond the status of "foreigner" that is).  The precondition of community must surely be the wish to belong, some bond of affection, some feeling of investment in and attachment to a place, all of which are absent for myself and many of my fellow inhabitants of the Eurobubble, surrounded by reluctant and resentful hosts.  Like many immigrants who cannot bear to admit to themselves that they are here to stay, wherever "here" may be, no matter how many years go by, I still think of my residence as transient.

Riversider at Broadgate is Great, drawing on Professor Robert Putnam’s initiative across the Pond, lists, in a creditable effort at transplanting it to British soil, 85 Ways to Build Community.  Predictably (though not without justification), "Turn off your TV or PC" features as admonition number one (on the original American list, top spot goes to "Organise a social gathering to welcome a new neighbour".  Switching off the goggle box is to converse with friends or family occupies 71st position only).  "Go outside" comes in at number two.  Interestingly, "Say hello to strangers" is number 51 (85 in the US version).  People still where I come from and it is part of the charm of the place, but nowadays chiefly the preserve of the older generation.  "Join in to help carry something heavy" would be a non-starter in Waffleland, where nobody would dream of giving up their seat for a white-haired matron on a bus, never mind a pregnant woman.

Continuing on the theme of community, David Cameron recently unveiled the Conservatives’ plans for devolution writ small in the party’s Green Paper on local government, setting out the logic behind the proposals: “Right now most people feel totally insignificant in the political process.  Frankly, that’s because – in the current over-centralised system – they are insignificant.  If you’re unhappy about decisions made by your local council there’s very little you can do about it outside election day.

We’re going to change that by giving people the power to instigate referendums on local issues – including council tax rises.  If there’s a local consensus that a tax increase is unnecessary, people will be able to club together and vote it down.  This isn’t the sham ‘power to the people’ of a one-day consultation or a citizens’ jury; it’s real power in the hands of local people”.

And: “Many worry that decentralisation is a step backwards.  But localism isn’t some romantic attachment to the past.  It is absolutely essential to our economic, social and political future.  If our local economies are vibrant and strong we are far less vulnerable to global shocks or the failures of a few dominant industries.  If people know that their actions can make a real difference to their local communities, they’re far more motivated to get involved – and civic pride is revived.  If local government is both more powerful and more accountable, we can start to restore the trust that’s been lost in our political system.  It’s for these reasons that I am a conformed localist, committed to turning Britain’s pyramid of power on its head”.

In Central truth of Tory localism, Jeremy Beecham endeavours to expose what lurks beneath the rhetoric: “The truth is that the effect of these proposals would be to undercut representative local democracy and diminish the appeal of service as a local councillor.  On the other hand they might, as Nick Boles candidly admitted a year or two ago, be the only way the Tories might exercise influence in much of urban Britain, which has long turned its back on them”.

For Beecham, the cloven hoof positively protrudes from beneath the hem of the gown: “And over local government finance a more than discreet veil is drawn.  No mention of the planned 1% cut in grant, nothing about making council tax fairer or revaluation 20 years after its introduction, nothing about reforming council tax benefit and nothing about relocalising business rates, beyond a modest revision of the government’s scheme for a business supplementary rate.

But then this is not too surprising, for behind Cameron’s warm words lies the reality of the Tory approach to local government, from Eric Pickles’ blustering instructions to Tory councils to the 100 ways to cut council tax promulgated by their flagship (or should that be destroyer?) council, Hammersmith and Fulham, including cutting the youth service, slashing support for the arts, sending children to boarding schools and emasculating scrutiny.  And isn’t it significant that when it comes to referendums on council tax there’s no option to increase it?  The only direction is down”.

Matt Sellwood of Anglo-Buddhist Combine devotes a post to responding to a comment by Paul Kingsnorth to the effect that "The population of the UK is currently 60 million.  At current rates of change it will be over 70 million within a couple of decades.  That’s largely an issue of immigration.  Something can be done about that.  If it isn’t done – because we don’t want to talk about immigration in case we are called racist, etc. etc. – then we are faced with having to provide power for an extra 10 million people.  Any plans for how to make that work in a ‘green’ way?"

In a thoughtful and more detailed earlier post on his own blog, Immigration: truisms vs. clichés, Kingsnorth highlights the perniciousness of stifling debate: "On immigration itself, whatever your view on the matter it is hard to deny that the way it has been handled over the last decade has been deeply undemocratic.  The number of people expressing concern about immigration has shot up in the last decade; coinciding with the largest rise in immigration in British history.  Call them racists if you like (though it would be lazy, and wrong), but if you call yourself a democrat you have to question the right of any government to carry out, over such a long period, a policy which results in such significant social change, against the wishes of its people.  Still, that’s British ‘democracy’ for you".

He describes his forebodings of doom: "Population growth is a disaster for Britain.  We are already, in my view, overcrowded and overdeveloped – especially in southeast England.  The idea of allowing, or encouraging, the population to grow by almost a million a year in the name of propping up global capitalism is a joke.  If you are in favour of unlimited immigration you need to be able to explain where all the new houses and roads will go.  And the new schools, hospitals, power plants, superstores and call centres.  You need to be able to explain the impact on our climate change targets.  And what the country will look like at 77 million and rising.  Environmental arguments are always predicated on the existence of limits.  What is the limit here?  When should population growth – and thus immigration – stop?  If you can’t answer that, you are wasting my time".

Sellwood in Greens and Immigration offers his vision of a remedy: "As Paul rightly points out (…), immigration is not caused because people love Britain’s weather or think our party scene can’t be beat.  It’s caused by economic, environmental and social ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, which force people to leave their homes in order to support themselves or better their lives.  The root of this, quite clearly, is the extraordinarily unequal and unjust world we live in, caused by a particular economic system.  The solution to environmental problems is not to create a kind of fortress Britain, where we keep out all others because of our high-energy lifestyles and the impact that has on the environment.  The solution is to change that economic system" (emphasis in original).

Mr Kingsnorth was nominated in his own right for the strikingly titled Why I am a planet-raping fascist, which reiterated his stance in defence of the spiritual dimension of landscapes unravaged by human hands following heated reactions to a contribution in The Guardian condemning the Severn barrage: "1. Renewable energy technologies are not, despite some green claims to the contrary, always harmless.  Some – those which are carried out on a massive scale – can actually be harmful.  The harm is of a different measure to that caused by fossil-fuel burning; it’s harm to the wild landscape.  But it’s harm nonetheless, and we should acknowledge that.

2. Wild places and the non-human world are important both for the biosphere as a whole and for human well being.  They should not be ravaged by human industrial intrusion.  This goes both for motorways and inappropriately-sited windfarms.

3. Environmentalists should be able to talk about crucial but intangible things – like beauty, wildness, stillness, the soul-lifting power of mountains and forests – without feeling ashamed.  They should talk less like economists and more like poets, because if they don’t, the economists have won.  And then we’re really in trouble".

Councillor with a conscience Antonia Bance of Antonia’s Blog reports that 850 jobs go at BMW in Oxford, expressing her sympathy with these casualties of the credit crunch: "How do you go from £250 per week steady, to £60 per week jobseekers’ allowance, with no redundancy pay?  I don’t know, and I’m incredibly sorry for all those workers who don’t know what the future holds for them and their families".

She criticises the Government for having allowed EU legislation, which would have extended protection to such workers, to gather dust on a departmental shelf.  Their “temporary” status belies the fact that they have been employed at the company for anything between two and five years in spite of which they were unceremoniously turfed out onto the street.

Philip Booth of Ruscombe Green encourages us to dig, if not for victory, at least to extricate ourselves from the hole created by the squander-based economy, our addiction to waste, fired up by the findings of a review commissioned by Gordon Brown in More about need for allotments: “The UK’s precarious food supply needs attention – one way is to mobilise the nation’s 11 million gardeners.  They will be able to grow food for their family and for the community and also help spread greater understanding about food, quality and supply”.

According to Philip, a radical change in mindset is a matter of some considerable urgency: “Fewer than 1% of the population now work in agriculture – one of the lowest percentages in the world.  In 1900 this was 40%.  Some 60% of our food is produced domestically, but imports make up a large percentage of food, for example, 90% of fruit is imported, as opposed to 40% in France.  If you look at apples in a supermarket – which used to be Britain’s major fruit – we have hundreds of different domestic varieties which could be cultivated, during the height of the apple season, you will find there are only a few varieties and are mostly imported!  This makes no sense whatsoever (…) It is only possible because cheap fossil fuels allow transportation from far-off countries.  As oil becomes more expensive, this will become uneconomic”.

Vincent Browne’s article in The Irish Times, The crux of our dire problems is political, advocated a not exactly earth-shatteringly new solution to the country’s current economic woes: “The way out of the crisis is blindingly obvious.  Produce a clear plan that requires the rich to bear the burden of the adjustments required and protect the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the vulnerable and children, with the members of the Government leading the way by taking the first and deepest hit.

Instead, no plan.  Just a first hit at public servants – low paid, moderately paid and rich public servants.  And an attack on social welfare payments in the offing.  Isn’t it shameful that we would even contemplate cutting the welfare of people who have lived on annual incomes that would hardly cover the cost of one hour’s flying on the Government jet?”

He went on to voice his dismay at the sluggishness of the Government in postponing any real attempts to tackle the problems until the publication of the report of the Commission on Taxation in September.  He also harbours serious doubts concerning the credibility of the august body as a result of its composition: “This commission has 18 members and is loaded (almost two-thirds) with people who have a vested interest in ensuring that the taxation system does not impinge unduly on the well-heeled.

I don’t mean to impugn the integrity of any of the commission’s members, but merely to draw attention to the reality that they represent and/or come from the wealthier wedge of society; accountants, tax experts, executives from the financial services, a solicitor and the head of the Stock Exchange”.

These complaints inspired Mick Fealty of the redoubtable Slugger O’Toole to ask the pertinent question Can the Irish left get beyond ‘eating the rich’?: “Such leftist populism (or ‘politics of envy’ as others might choose to put it) is one of the reasons the Irish Left has been left in the ha’penny place for so long.  To be successful, the next generation of Irish political leadership will need to be broad enough to tackle the huge range of challenges coming at it”.

Mick then embarks upon a careful examination of an essay in Renewal Magazine by Alex Evans and David Steven entitled Risks and resilience in the new global era, whose authors identify the hamartia of the Left: “Social democrats, finally, understand the importance of public goods and are prepared to act forcefully to protect the vulnerable.  They are also willing to act boldly to manage global instability.  However, they have the weakness of being instinctive meddlers, crowding out the initiative of other actors and risking over-centralisation in the face of distributed risks”.

It is this latter trait that, in Mick’s view, constitutes the most serious obstacle to putting forward a candidate for leading the next government.

Jonathan Calder of Liberal England reminds us that, however rotten things may be in Britain, levels of corruption across the Pond are (for the time being at least) even worse in Those Pennsylvania judges again, alluding to a recent appalling case where two men charged with the task of upholding justice accepted bribes from a private youth detention centre in exchange for guaranteeing a steady supply of inmates.  Jonathan concludes: “(…) their actions have wider importance because they are the logical outcome of allowing the profit motive into the judicial system.

As Rumpole used to remind us, a great many comfortable professional careers are built on the backs of Britain’s criminal classes.  But treating Crime Control as Industry, to quote the title of Nils Christie’s 1993 book, is dangerous”.

Here Mr Calder indeed speaks the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth…

Chris Dillow of Stumbling and Mumbling returns to the theme of Stalinist companies vs. market forces in connection with the spectacular fall from grace of Messrs McKillop and Goodwin (perhaps he might consider changing his name to Badloss).  He recalls a set of objections to his original comparison by Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek, which evidently stuck in his mind: “Relatedly, unlike with government central planning, the size and scope of each firm on the market is itself constantly tested by competition.  A firm that succeeds today might be bankrupted tomorrow if another firm out-competes it.  That is, the sizes of firms in markets are themselves the result of market experimentation, competition, and discovery – experimentation, competition, and discovery that is never static.

(…) Sure some firms might be too large – but, if so, they’re too large with resources voluntarily contributed.  And in both cases, the forces of competition and entrepreneurial discovery – fuelled in large part by the profit motive and by consumers’ quotidian efforts to get the most value for their money – put constant pressure on big firms to correct their errors.

Managers of even the largest private firms – that are not protected by government from competition or swaddled with state favours – are simply not comparable to central planners in socialist countries”.

Against the backdrop of emerging facts about the authoritarian culture within the bank, Dillow’s analogy has been found to have some merit after all: “Well, it turns out that the RBS was just like a centrally planned economy, complete with the suppression of dissent and cult of personality.  And look what happened.  I’m vindicated.  Or am I?”

I leave it up to you to decide for yourselves.

Arden Forester of A View from Middle England lambastes Labour for its arrogance in taking for granted the unwavering support of the most disadvantaged whilst simultaneously abandoning them to their fate.  Following the party’s defeat in elections to Sevenoaks Council, the BNP might even succeed in gaining a toehold in the European Parliament, Mr Forester speculates.  In Labour flunkies warn Brown over BNP Euro chances, he hazards a guess as to why: “Labour needs to address the core problems affecting people who are attracted to the BNP.  Housing, jobs, schools and hospitals.  These four are the ones that affect these voters most.  These are the issues the BNP are exploiting.  Gordon Brown needs to get his jacket off and get down to the level where the BNP can be taken on.  It’s no use taking a lofty attitude and saying he won’t debate with them.  That over sensitive nonsense should stop right now”.

Cabalamat of Amused Cynicism informs us that the world’s most notorious terrorist has been disowned even by those who could be assumed to be closest to him in Al-Qa’ida’s founder condemns bin Laden, concluding on an optimistic note that: “I think this is a sign that Islamist extremism is on the wane.  It has manifestly failed to deliver the goods, and so is likely to recede from now onwards, and by 2015-2020 it’ll be apparent that it is on the way out”.

I sincerely hope that he is right.

In Single parents, socialist feminism and the right to equal work, Penny Red denounces a fresh assault on benefit payments for the most vulnerable, which would, she tells us, compel lone mothers back into work before their infants are even able to walk and talk.  Apart from the inconsistency of conveniently overlooking that the majority of children living in poverty have at least one parent who works whilst repeating the incantation that the path to redemption for single mothers is through remunerated employment in an environment where the wages earned would be extremely unlikely to stretch to covering the cost of childcare, Penny objects to the more fundamental underlying assumption that bringing up offspring somehow fails to qualify as worthwhile toil: “Let’s make one thing spectacularly, sparklingly clear: being the primary carer of a small child is work – hard work, unending work, work that can last an entire lifetime, work that defines the term ‘labour of love’.  It’s work whether a man or woman does it, although it continues to fall into the historic category of work that women contribute to the economy for free, ‘women’s work’, work undeserving of pay or professional respect.  But, not content with giving single parents with no other means of support a minimum of basic care rather than a liveable salary, the Welfare Reform Bill seeks to force single parents into extra, unpaid work, work that will not even raise their standard of living above the poverty threshold.  That’s extra, paid work that isn’t actually available at the moment, in case you’d forgotten”.

Then there is the element of class stigmatisation: “Women who do not work outside the home, but who do not need government support because they are independently rich or because they have a partner who works, are not considered to be ‘playing the system’, not by the D[epartment for] W[ork and] P[ensions] and certainly not by the Evening Standard group – even though the only difference between these women and single mothers on benefits is the good fortune to be born with money or marry it.  If the world were a late-night tube carriage, the social hypocrisy of the British state would be fumblingly revealing itself in the corner.

In this hyper-capitalist world, power and respect are afforded to those who earn wages – are distributed, in fact, in the form of wages.  By paying a decent, liveable salary to those women and men who have primary responsibility for a child – a wage which they can spend on maintaining themselves out of paid work, or on decent childcare whilst they perform alternative work – we might well fix not only the nation’s soaring unemployment crisis, but go some way towards erasing the breathtaking poverty and hypocrisy of our socially bankrupt self-organisation.  Hey, I’m 22, so I’m bloody well allowed to dream about social justice in vivid technicolour”.

Penalising single mothers, those figures of collective loathing pilloried by the press is a cheap way of being seen not to be a soft touch, of being seen to not be Old Labour, kicking the group least likely to retaliate.  The focus is on these women’s fecklessness, their presumed irresponsibility and immorality, flaw after flaw heaped upon them until they suffocate because it is easier to apportion blame than to confront factors such as the chronic lack of provision of affordable child care.  If you aspire to a career, as opposed to some part-time, low status, insecure and meagre source of income with little by way of satisfaction or advancement, you soon realise that access to the upper echelons is predicated on the anachronistic assumption of complete availability, that the default setting continues to be that the worker is unencumbered with external commitments (dependents , in other words) and has a demure helpmeet at home to take care of the practicalities of running a household.  You have to be both willing and able to put in the hours in exchange for progression, the downside of a high salary that of renouncing the right to a personal life.

This brings us to the heart of what is at stake: the extent of compassion and solidarity within society.

The ease with which it is possible to glide from single mothers (the contemporary embodiment of the "undeserving poor") placing an undue strain on social welfare systems to denying social undesirables the right to reproduce is illustrated by Ross of Unenlightened Commentary in Fun With Eugenics, which starts off with a seemingly innocent throwaway observation: “On another blog I got into a discussion about the topic yesterday, after initially making a half joking remark about wanting to stop the likes of Karen Matthews and ‘Alfie’ popping out dozens of kids for the good of society, I could have mentioned the mother of octuplets as well” (the debate in question is on Tim Worstall’s blog, the comments – where they do not degenerate into unedifying name-calling – are interesting and I can recommend their perusal accordingly).

Ross favours a reappraisal of our negative attitudes: “Eugenics is strongly associated with the savagery of the Nazis and is therefore pretty much the ultimate taboo.  Personally I think the ethical problem with 20th century advocates of eugenics is that they had no respect for civil liberties and believed in the right of the state to forcibly restrict people’s right to reproduce.  It doesn’t therefore follow that there is something intrinsically wicked about non-coercive eugenics”.

I do not wish to misrepresent the contents of the piece, but it is one proposition to talk about eliminating debilitating diseases, which detract from the quality of life and and an altogether different one to think in terms of social as opposed to genetic markers, to eliminate the poor through sterilisation (even where discouragement rather than compulsion is viewed as the way forward).  Ross admits: “When it comes to encouraging the well off to reproduce themselves and the less well off to not do so then it really depends to what extent socio-economic status is influenced by genes, which is altogether a murkier question”.

The meaning of “unfit” is variable in accordance with prevalent cultural values and can be extended to any stigmatised group.  Why stop at the propensity to commit crime?  Why not get rid of the fatties, the homosexuals, women (couples who want to select the gender of their babies generally long for boys), the disabled, and whilst we’re at it, I’m sure our most beneficent leaders would be eager to eradicate the obstreperousness gene, leaving a citizenry of placid drones devoid of character or creativity.  Rather than embark upon such insanity, surely it would be preferable to restore greater mobility, giving the maximum number of people the maximum possible opportunities.  If you are not expected to do well because of the humbleness of your origins, you can either rebel (as I did), proving your detractors wrong or you can listen to them and allow yourself to be browbeaten into submission.

Susanne Lamido of Suz Blog alerts us to what might deteriorate into the latest assault on our civil liberties, the likes of which have never been seen outside the confines of public swimming baths (although in the latter, petting was discouraged, a peck on the cheek considered harmless) in Watch out for the kissing police at Warrington Station.  Personally, after every other incremental paring away at our rights, I am not remotely reassured by the claim that the sign is nothing more than a bit of light-hearted fun.  I wouldn’t put it past some joyless warden whose sole pleasure in life is that of wielding the minute bit of power at his disposal to relish the task of enforcing a ban on public displays of affection.  The slippery slope towards breeding restrictions suddenly does not seem so outlandish…

Refreshing proof that online activism is not a mere exercise in futility is to be found in The F-Word credited for major rethink of “Cervix Savvy” advertising campaign.

Finally, from Witterings from Witney, by way of light relief, the unmissably hilarious Darling Brown’s Salvation?

Blogging

In the latest in a series of entries charting the genesis and evolution of Labour List, Matt Wardman helpfully provides us with an Archive of an attempted ‘blog-mugging’, a sordid and ugly tale of a kind with which we have sadly become only too familiar.  Matt’s verdict: “The alleged threats to close down websites, whoever they came from (!), and to undermine the livelihoods of targeted people, were on a par with the dodgiest manoeuvres I have seen in the blogosphere since I started this site – which are a small number of attempts to get people in trouble with their employers; taking political arguments offline to do personal damage is beyond the pale”.

This does nothing to encourage me to overcome my distaste and investigate Labour List in any depth.  Matt’s assessment is good enough for me (it would take something truly extraordinary to convince me that blogs by politicians are anything but parasitical drivel barely worth the pixels they are composed of): “Derek Draper’s past indiscretions aside, my main problem here is that all the top names seem to see it as a medium to publish bland rubbish that sounds similar to a press release.  It’s boring and lame, and will end up like the far more abysmal Tory effort: The Blue Blog.  Hell, that’s so bad even Iain Dale doesn’t plug it anymore.

Draper has given it personality by ringing up people and picking fights with them, but that’s only going to work for so long.  The point is: if your top bloggers (cabinet ministers) are only going to write boring comment pieces without seeing what others are saying of Labour’s policies and responding to them, then it’s a waste of space.  If we wanted press releases we can go to Labour.org.uk”.

Culture

Ever adept at whetting the appetite for travel, Natalie Bennett has branched out geographically, moving beyond London to My Burgundy, Your Burgundy.  In The Museums of Beaune: The Hotel-Dieu and the Wine Museum she gives us a fascinating insight into some of the region’s attractions: "It’s hard to imagine now, that the Chambre des Pauvres (chamber of the poor) of the Hotel-Dieu was the ideal place for a poor person, for much of its history.  No private rooms here: the huge church-shaped chamber, with its high ceilings and stark stone walls, could hardly ever have been quiet or peaceful, not when the ill were lying in head-to-toe rows along its walls, and the religious sisters who tended them were bustling around.  Still, it was undoubtedly a beautiful place to be sick, and one of the few places where you could expect succour and the best medical care that the past five centuries could offer".

Diamond Geezer of the eponymous blog, that ever-reliable guide to the hidden delights of the capital, takes us on a tour of Valentine’s at Valentines, the reference being to the canny publicity ploy on the part of a council to reopen a renovated mansion to the public on the day dedicated to sending tokens of admiration from afar in the form of tacky cards and red roses: “The good people of Redbridge crowded the rooms and passageways, taking a first opportunity to explore every nook and cranny.  They swarmed round the single interactive history terminal so that nobody else could use it.  they crammed into the tiny shop on the first floor, inspecting its stock of plastic rulers, honey and notelets.  They allowed their uncontrollable offspring to bounce on the four-poster in the bedchamber, much to the annoyance of the lady on duty”.

Peter Ashley of that veritable blog of delights Unmitigated England brings to our attention yet another of those unobtrusive decorative features that alleviate the monotony of the daily commute and lift the spirits, this time at Stamford Station in Unexpected Alphabets No8.

Miscellaneous

Carlotta of Dare to Know, condemns the portrayal of home schooling in BBC series Waterloo Road, which has strayed far from Reith’s injunction to the Corporation to educate, inform, entertain, in Prejudice is IGNORANCE: “(…) amongst our home educating bunch here, it is exceedingly rare to find them closeted in oppressed, highly controlled fashion round a computer in a front room.  Yes, sure they use a computer, but most of the time, it is doing what they want to do, and therefore they are enjoying it.  There is usually a considerable spark of energy emanating from rooms with children using PCs as they would like to use them”.

Bystander of The Magistrate’s Blog divulges the secrets of his calling after four years of keeping his readers in suspense in So What Do We Actually Do, Then?: “A court might be city-centre urban with the attendant problems (such as Haringey or Camberwell Green), suburban (such as Sutton), or predominantly rural (e.g. Hereford).  Dover has the port (smuggling and immigration scams), Crawley has Gatwick (ditto).  Courts in Suffolk know all about moving pigs without a licence, and those in Devon and Cornwall are pretty familiar with what tourists can get up to after an all day session on the beer”.

Mark Myers of Nee-Naw rejoices at the prospect of a change in instructions that will usher in a new era, drastically cutting down on the number of call-outs to non-urgent cases (a problem that has never assumed such proportions in Waffleland, largely due, I suspect, to the fact that the patient has to fork out €100 a whack for the privilege of an ambulance), an instance where rationalisation in the NHS ought to provoke delight rather than despondency in Cotton Bud in Ear = Life Threatening Emergency: “The infamous ‘are you breathing normally’ question is completely gone from a lot of protocols, and when it IS there, a ‘yes’ only results in an amber response, not a red.  The rationale, which I totally agree with, is that if the breathing was that much of a problem, they’d have told us at the beginning of the call.

I can’t wait for this new protocol to come in.  It is going to decrease frustration levels in call takers, allocators and ambulance crews no end, and more importantly, we won’t end up having to waste ambulances on rubbish when people who are really sick are still waiting”.

Next week’s Roundup will be hosted by Jackart at A Very British Dude, which is looking impressively snazzy following its makeover!  Rota details and a complete archive may be found at the Britblog Central website.  As ever, nominations should be sent to britblog [at] gmail [dot] com

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Temptation

Filed under: — site admin @ 2:47 pm

If you are going to engage in an act of wanton vandalism, at least ensure that it is guaranteed to amuse the casual passer-by…

The perfect illustration of how to combine the impulse to deflate pomposity with wit is surely this shop front in Budapest (with thanks to Dino, from whom I commissioned this photo, as lugging my heavy bag of equipment to Hungary for the holidays was not a priority).

arschlecker

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