Both night and morning

“for Mr Ó Nualláin, ‘might have been’ has loomed largely in his college life – larger than his bantam strutting will admit”

“When Mr Fitzpatrick grows up, he will find that ‘might-have-been’ figures too largely in his own little life, as in everybody else’s, to be safely employed as a weapon against others.”

I’ve recently read No laughing matter, Anthony Cronin’s biography of Brian O’Nolan (a.k.a. Flann O’Brien). It’s one of those books that I bought on a whim but took a while to get round to reading, and when I say a while I mean ten or fifteen years. Having finally read the book, the delay seems horribly appropriate – this was someone who’d written two masterpieces before he was thirty, but then did basically nothing for the next twenty years. Reading the life backwards, as a biography inevitably does, makes him seem like a lifelong ‘might-have-been’ – even back when he was a might-have-been-to-be. (The exchange quoted above is from 1935, when O’Nolan was 23.)

It’s not a very good biography – Cronin knew O’Nolan and acknowledges assistance from his widow and several siblings, which may account for a slightly cramped, reined-in quality to some of the writing. There is too little on the great books (but rather too much on The Dalkey Archive, including a slightly embarrassing account of Cronin’s dismayed reaction to the work in progress); an account of the first Bloomsday celebration, in which Cronin and O’Brien were both involved, peters out midway without describing “the breakdown of the grand scheme”; there isn’t even a conclusion to the book itself, which simply stops at the moment O’Nolan dies.

What there is, though, is both suggestive and troubling. Continue reading

So near my nose

[Crossposted from Oh Good Ale]

There was an interesting article by Gazza Prescott in the July 2010 Opening Times (the CAMRA magazine for Stockport and South Manchester), called “Mid-Atlantic: the new ‘Best of British’?”; it’s a slightly shortened version of a similarly-titled post on Gazza’s site.

Gazza’s argument goes something like this. There’s a distinctive beer style, which Gazza labels “mid-Atlantic”; it’s characterised by the use of lots of hops and the palest possible malt, to give an end result which is clear and pale yellow to look at, light in mouthfeel and very, very hoppy. Gazza traces the ancestry of this style from Exmoor Gold and Summer Lightning, through experiments by Rooster’s and Brendan Dobbin’s West Coast brewery, to today’s Pictish, Phoenix and Marble brews (“brewing of the new style around Manchester continued apace”). The growing availability of new varieties of hop, particularly from New Zealand, has fed into the growth of this style.

So far, so descriptive, but we’re rapidly reminded where Gazza’s allegiances lie. “The drinking public are waking up to pale and hoppy beers – or ‘Mid-Atlantic’ as I call them – with their intense flavours and attractive colour”; “happily, the number of brewers specialising in this new style of beer is growing all the time”. The conclusion is downright triumphalist:

Pale’n’hoppy beers are slowly taking over the beer culture of the UK … in the majority of specialist cask pubs nowadays, it’s common for most – if not all – of the pumps to be pouring beers of this style … this golden revolution is here and, on what I’ve seen atop bars and heard from brewers, it’s only going to keep growing.

“Mid-Atlantic” combines the UK’s growing love of extremely pale beer with the American ethic of large-scale hopping and, in doing so, has created a style of beer which is easy to drink, full of hop flavour, uncluttered by dark malts and – importantly in these image-obsessed times – a delight to behold atop a bar. It’s becoming extremely popular in the UK at the expense of old-fashioned “brown bitter” … we can legitimately claim it to be a new style of beer, one we have invented, and one of which we should be justifiably proud. So, long live “Mid-Atlantic” pale ales… the UK’s new favourite beer style!

I’m particularly struck by the idea that a pale yellow pint is intrinsically more attractive than a nut-brown one, irrespective of which you prefer to drink; it’s not a thought that’s ever crossed my mind before.

For my money, Gazza gets one thing right and a few big things wrong. Here’s the text of a letter I’ve sent to OT:

I came to Manchester in my early twenties, in 1982. In the previous few years I’d drunk and enjoyed beer in London, East Anglia, Cumbria, Scotland and Wales. Those beers were very different – you’d never mistake Buckley’s for Young’s, or Dryburgh’s for Tolly Cobbold – but two things they all had in common: they were brown and they were malty.

In Manchester things were different. The pride of the city was the yellow, hoppy Boddington’s Best; my local served the yellow, hoppy Hyde’s Anvil. I tried seeking out Robinson’s pubs, I tried switching to mild, but I soon realised I was fighting a losing battle: I was going to have to learn to like the Manchester pale style.

It’s taken a while, but I’ve just about managed it. So I agree with Gazza Prescott on two things: there are a lot of these beers around at the moment, and some of them are very good. But I don’t believe this style is anywhere near as new as Gazza suggests, and I don’t believe it’s “taking over the beer culture of the UK”. Without looking particularly far afield, I’ve drunk big malty ales in 2010 from Allgates, Conwy, Dunham Massey, Moorhouse, Robinson’s, Rooster, Titanic… the list goes on. And surely this is how it should be – the strength of British beer is its diversity.

Gazza’s “Mid-Atlantic” (I prefer “Manchester Pale”) isn’t a “golden revolution”; it’s just one style among many, one that happens to be popular this year. Done well (Pictish) it’s very nice indeed; pushed to extremes (Marble) it’s interesting at worst, stunning at best; done badly (no names) it’s bland as Budweiser. Hops have their place, but so does malt; brewers who forget this fact, in pursuit of the taste of 2010, could end up taking British beer up a flowery, lemony, smoky dead end.

The first point here is Gazza’s “mid-Atlantic” family tree. I yield to no one in my respect for Brendan Dobbin, but – as anyone who remembers Boddington’s Best can attest – Manchester’s affinity with pale hoppy bitters goes back well before he got started. I wrote about this back in 2006 (in a post on the class politics of the smoking ban). [Updates in square brackets.]

In south London, where I learned to drink, the bitter is generally tawny and malty. In south Wales and East Anglia, the next two areas where I tried the beer, the bitter is usually both malty and tawny. The types of bitter native to Scotland, Cornwall and Yorkshire, in my experience, have similar characteristics. There are variations – Cambridge beer is flat and tannic; a lot of Scottish beer tastes as if a bag of toffees has been dissolved in it (which in a sense it has); and South Walian beer is the best in the world bar none. [Damn, but I miss Buckley's bitter.] But they’re variations within a shared style: in most parts of the country, if you order the local bitter you can safely expect something T and M.

Manchester is an exception. At least since the heyday of Boddington’s, there’s been a distinct local style of ale: pale and hoppy, with variations ranging from light-but-sour through cyanide-with-a-hint-of-malt to just-plain-undrinkably-bitter. I am not, as you may have gathered, a fan of this style – but the brewery which owns one of my two main locals [viz. the Marble] is very big on it. They brought on a seasonal ale in summer (when, to be fair, pale and hoppy styles do go down well) [the original (2005) Summer Marble]; I tried it once and seriously considered leaving the pint unfinished. It was the bitterest thing I’ve ever tasted, clove oil not excepted. The brewery does three or four different bitters, but they’re all pale and hoppy; most of the time the guest beers are pale and hoppy too. There’s a definite demand there, too. You can tell by the way the regulars’ favourite guests keep coming back – and the way their names keep including words like ‘white’ or ‘golden’. I’m in a minority on the tawny-and-malty front. A couple of years ago I had two pints of a guest mild they had on, and the barman asked me when I wanted to have the other 62.

The other points I don’t agree with Gazza on, clearly, are whether this style is “taking over” (clearly it isn’t, although it is having a bit of a vogue in a few parts of the country) and whether it would be a good thing if it did (absolutely no way at all). As Pub Curmudgeon commented at the time,

It’s probably also fair to say that these beers are the beer world’s equivalent of highly-peated malt whiskies such as Laphroiag and Talisker – very well-respected, but too much biased towards one extreme end of the flavour spectrum to appeal to many people as a regular tipple. You might well enjoy one or two during an evening’s sampling of a variety of beers, but few would want to drink them all night.

That’s about right. I’m baffled by Gazza’s repeated assertion that these beers are outstandingly ‘drinkable’ or ‘easy to drink’. Most Marble beers, in my experience, have a full-on front-of-mouth attack combining bitterness with hop aroma. Sometimes they’re brilliant beers, but they’re certainly not easy drinking bitters; sometimes, when a brew is particularly hoppy or has a particularly strong nose, I’ve found it a challenge to get through a whole pint (especially when they were using that particular hop variety which smells of stale beer and vomit – or is that just me?).

To my mind, Gazza let the cat out of the bag in a sentence which was cut (diplomatically?) from the print version of his piece. Describing the characteristics of the “mid-Atlantic” (or Manchester Pale) style, he says

The malt is here to give body, alcohol and a suggestion of flavour and not to balance the hops; if you have balance then there’s something wrong!

I like a lot more malt in my beer than Gazza, but I also like the sense that the different flavours are in balance. I think great beers almost invariably give that impression of balance, of no one flavour swamping the others; this is as true of Summer Lightning as it is of Old Peculier. What Gazza’s presenting is not so much a “golden revolution”, more a Hopheads’ Manifesto.

Then take up the strain

One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.
- Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds

There’s an old Chinese story about an acolyte who asks his teacher what he should do (to achieve enlightenment, or with his life, or that day, it doesn’t really matter). Sweep the path, says the teacher. He sweeps the path for an hour. The teacher takes one look at it and slaps his face. It’s not clean! He sweeps the path for two hours. He goes down on hands and knees and picks off every last speck of dirt. He tells the teacher he’s finished. The teacher takes one look at the path and slaps him again. It’s not clean! Not knowing what else to do, he sweeps the perfectly clean path for the rest of the day. As the sun sets the teacher comes out of his cell, looks at the path and slaps him once more: It’s not clean! Despairing, the acolyte pleads with the teacher to tell him how he can possibly make the path any cleaner than it is. The teacher takes a handful of rose petals and scatters them on the path. Now it’s clean.

Here’s a song by the Canadian songwriter Stan Rogers (starts at about 1:40, but the first part of the clip is worth watching).

You can read the lyrics here. The chorus goes like this:

Rise again! Rise again!
That her name not be lost to the knowledge of men
Those who loved her best and were with her till the end
Will make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.

I last heard that song at a singaround last week. Continue reading

Playing across the river

Here’s a meme of sorts, for anyone who’s interested.

1. Which blogs did you read regularly when you first started blogging?

The first blog I read regularly was Tom Watson‘s, of all things. It was the run-up to the 2005 election and I was one of the people pushing (at least within blogworld) for anti-Labour tactical voting; Tom Watson is a pretty good blogger for an MP, and – being a Labour MP – took a fairly straight-up-and-down “vote Labour to stop the Tories” line, which was fun to argue with. I started my own blog when my comments started getting too long, and started leaving comments and links on a bunch of related blogs – Blood and Treasure, Chicken Yoghurt, Europhobia, the Yorkshire Ranter, the Jarndyce Blog (defunct).

2. Which blogs do you read regularly now?

These days, on the other hand, my main hangouts are Aaronovitch Watch, Splintered Sunrise, CT and Daniel’s blog, although I do still read the Ranter and B&T. (Edit: since I began this post I’ve had to give up on Splintered, or at least start reading with a very long spoon. The comments threads there, in particular, have changed overnight from a thoroughly congenial environment to, well, something else.)

3. Which blogs have you stopped reading, and why?

I’ve tried to find some kind of political trajectory in the blogs I’ve spent a lot of time on over the years – Tom Watson to Gauche to Dave to Socialist Unity to AaroWatch, what’s that, right to left? Labour loyalist to not actually anti-Labour as such? anti-Trot to, er, slightly less anti-Trot? The fact that three of my favourite political blogs – Liam, Splinty (when he’s on form) and Cedar Lounge – write about Ireland may also be significant, or it may just be that I like the way they write.

Another couple of categories of blog I’ve stopped following are easier to identify. I used to run two separate blogs, one of them devoted to what was then work-related stuff; this was in what retrospectively looks like an odd period in my career, when I was heavily into ethnoclassification (a.k.a. ‘folksonomy’), the Semantic Web, ontology modelling and so forth. (A philosopher friend remarked that the entire ‘ontology’ project was doomed to confusion the moment they adopted that term – ‘ontology’ in this context signifies a logically-structured and locally complete set of inter-related terms, the mental universe of a particular discipline or application. An epistemology, in other words.)

Anyway, I spent quite a while looking for pointers on this brave new world of software-enabled social networking, while also looking for stuff to write about on my work blog and looking for something to read in between working. At one point I started writing a series of posts debunking the then-fashionable image of the “Long Tail”, and was at once downcast and relieved to discover that Tom Slee had done it all already. (Tom’s a fine blogger and I strongly recommend his book.) Nick Carr gave me several “oasis in the desert of hype” moments; he also gave me personally some useful advice when I was looking for writing work, for which much thanks. I used to read Dave Rogers with more attention than he solicited; he oscillated unpredictably between LiveJournal-ish chat, testy common sense and flashes of real wisdom. I discovered Maciej Ceglowski’s Idle Words by way of his “Dabblers and Blowhards” essay taking down a writer called Paul Graham, which is (a) much more widely applicable and (b) hilarious. (It occurs to me that a lot of my favourite bloggers from this period were (or are) essentially anti-boosters; people who react to the latest from Clay Shirky or Chris Anderson or Dave Sifry with varying proportions of scepticism, irritation and laughter. On Clay specifically, this from Tom is brilliant.)

At some point I noticed that most of my work blog feed was American (or Canadian), while almost all my home blogs were British (or Irish); at a later and less definite point I more or less decided to make a policy of this. So when I stopped reading blogs (from the world of software-enabled social networking) at work, none of the transatlantic blogs I’d been reading made it onto my feed at home (even if they weren’t all about s.-e. s. n.) It was an arbitrary decision, only really justified by the fact that my home feed was quite long enough as it was. I sometimes miss reading these blogs regularly, & sometimes check back on them. The blog from this period I look back on with most fondness is Shelley Powers’s Burningbird, which is currently running as five or six separate blogs but at that stage was all in one place. I can understand the decision to split it up – as a single blog it must have been taxing and challenging on quite a personal level – but from my selfish perspective as a reader I miss the single BB; it combined green politics, software development, feminism, the Semantic Web, personal experience and photography in some extraordinarily rich and powerful ways.

The other main category of blogs I’ve stopped reading consists of blogs that have stopped appearing. Short of dropping off the Web altogether, like the Jarndyce Blog, it’s not always clear when a blog has gone silent for good; I guess in practice it’s partly a matter of how long different readers are prepared to wait for the next post. Martyn Connell’s beer blog Zythophile went quiet for half of last year before coming to life again – I unsubbed at the time and had a six-month backlog by the time I caught on. I’m keeping Rob on the list for now, despite his silence for most of this year, in the hope that he’s also just resting; as far as I can see there’s nobody else doing what he used to do with that blog (viz. blogging a Marxist engagement with the legal form). By contrast, both Ellis and Justin put a fairly definite full stop to their blogs (although Ellis went on to do something not quite completely different). They’re both fine writers and these were both great blogs, which made me feel there were people out there doing the kind of thing I wanted to do with a blog. Saying any more than that seems both pointless and impertinent.

4. What blog did you start reading most recently?

My most recent addition to the RSS feed list is Jon Boden’s A Folk Song A Day, which does more or less what it says on the tin and does it rather well. But that isn’t really a blog so much as a project exploiting blog software. My latest blog discovery is Luke Roelofs’ superb (and exhaustingly prolific) Majestic Equality. Despite its title – taken from that Anatole France quote about the law – Luke’s blog is not devoted to a Marxist engagement with the legal form (although I wouldn’t be surprised if he gave it a go). What Luke does is to argue from first principles, taking a standpoint informed by Marx and Spinoza, and tackling questions like these:

What is meant in calling a prediction of the future, or a political theory making such predictions, ‘utopian’?

what goes on in someone’s mind when they help someone else with something?

is a human society possible, in which individuals will, except in very exceptional circumstances, be able to act without violating any genuine value, given sufficient wisdom?

It’s a bit like what Stumbling and Mumbling might look like if the more challenging arguments were followed through instead of grinding to a halt in a sputter of rhetorical questions – and it were written by a Canadian anarchist instead of a writer on the Investors’ Chronicle. Strongly recommended. For a taster, try these three posts on the deceptively intuitive concept of “violence”.

5. List every blog you’ve ever contributed to.

Actually Existing. I started blogging in March 2005, as a spinoff from the arguments on Tom Watson’s blog; my first post (digging out some material from 1997 which I hadn’t known what to do with) was rapidly followed by this bit of navel-gazing and this post, which before it was chewed up by Blogger was quite a decent bit of psephology. Another nine “how should we vote” posts followed, all concluding that we shouldn’t vote Labour. In the circumstances I don’t think that was wrong.

Apparently… (later Cloud Street). My work blog, set up later in March 2005. “I’ve started this blog as a place to collect my thoughts on user-centred ontologies, ethnoclassification, folksonomies, emergent semantics and so on.” They can’t touch you for it. First post: a reply to a comment on a blog post by Clay Shirky, taking a sceptical view of the claims then being made for Wikipedia.

What I wrote. A short-lived attempt to use Blogger to showcase (or park) some offline writing which I thought could use a wider audience. All three of these were merged into The Gaping Silence in March 2007, or November 2006 if you believe What I wrote.

Then there was the 2005 UK Election Roundup group blog (which no longer exists) and its larger, shinier, more ambitious but ultimately less coherent successor, The Sharpener (link goes to a list of all my posts). The Sharpener started well, with a bunch of us between us publishing at least one good post every day, but ultimately foundered because none of us were really sure what its identity was. I think in retrospect we should have been able to work “not Left but not anti-Left” into a USP – it would certainly be unique – but we couldn’t even agree on that much. The alternative was simply to be the politics blog that was open to everyone who wanted to write on a politics blog that was open to everyone who wanted, etc, but that wasn’t enough in the end to keep regulars motivated or stop occasional contributors from drifting away. The new Sharpener? LibCon for dedication, Fistful for variety, AaroWatch for attitude.

But my first blog, or blog-like thing, dates from 2003. On May 28 I put up the first two instalments of

A life in theatreland, clubland, Hollywoodland and the Land of Green Ginger: the memoirs of Sir Frederick Bodine.

and waited for the plaudits to start rolling in, if that’s what plaudits do. Oh well. The title of the blog was Remembering July Garland. An introductory post explained all:

“Ditch the rainbow song!”

The words were mine, all those many years ago; those sad, misguided words were mine. Fortunately for all concerned, my advice was ignored, as it would be so often in the future. But that’s another story for another day.

Of course, dear Judy didn’t ditch ‘the rainbow song’; indeed, it would be associated with her name for many years to come. It affords me a crumb of solace to note that the song was heavily edited before recording, eliminating most if not all of the elements to which I had objected. Even the title had to change – “Have yourself a merry little rainbow”, what sense does that make? None! None, I say!

These, then, are my memories of a life in the green room; a life which I can truly say has been lived among the stars; a life that’s full, in which I’ve travelled each and every byway. But more, much more than this.

I tried to place Sir Frederick’s memoirs with some of the top publishing houses, but sadly without success. (To be precise, I ran them past someone at Word (who said “very nice, but no thanks”) and someone at Mojo (who said “not really us, try Word“).) My dreams of finding fame and fortune as the Bodine amanuensis were dashed. But it was fun while it lasted.

Perhaps it was the drink talking, but at one point I asked old Morrie what had gone wrong – why wasn’t he the big star he used to be? He wasn’t best pleased, I can tell you. He glared at me, brandished an old Smiths 12″ and said, with great aplomb, “Sir Frederick, I’m still big – it’s just the records that have got small.”

I apologised, of course, and Morrie was soon his old charming self again. Apparently the restricted dimensions of CD packaging are a genuine concern for him.

Another couple of blogs need mentioning for the sake of completeness, although my song lyrics blog isn’t one of them (it’s invitation-only, and besides I haven’t updated it for ages.)

Oh Good Ale. At the beginning of 2008 I started keeping beer tasting notes in this post. My notes on beer rapidly outgrew the post and turned into a static page, and subsequently into their own dedicated blog. I‘m planning to turn have just turned the “tasting notes” posts back into static pages, after which I’ll and I may now start writing the occasional post and turn it into a real blog.

¡Vivan Las Caenas! This doesn’t really qualify as a blog I’ve contributed to, as there’s absolutely nothing there; I snagged the WordPress domain name late one night, not realising that I wouldn’t be able to unsnag it. The plan is to spruce it up a bit and put longer, retrospective posts up there – “My life as a military historian”, that kind of thing; either that or an issue-by-issue overview of my involvement with Red Pepper. Or both. The reference is to the revolutionary(?) slogan shouted at the beginning and end of my favourite film – and, indirectly, to the materialist idea that our lives are built in and through circumstances we didn’t create, and have been since before we started thinking about it. Structure determines agency, and agency would be pretty empty if it didn’t. Of course, at the moment it’s all I can do to post here occasionally and keep Oh Good Ale updated, so whether anything will ever appear on ¡VLC! is something of a moot point.

So there you go. Here are the questions again:
Tell us about…

  1. the blogs you read regularly when you started blogging
  2. the blogs you read regularly now
  3. some blogs you’ve stopped reading (and why)
  4. the blog you’ve started reading most recently
  5. every blog you’ve ever contributed to

Have at it!

What I’m looking for

There is (unless I’ve changed the design of the blog by the time you read this) a widget about halfway down the righthand column giving some of the more interesting search terms that people have used to find this blog. I don’t update it very often, partly because I don’t get many interesting searches and partly because I don’t want to bump most of the phrases that are listed there at the moment. I mean, take Dalton aspirin communism headaches – I’m quite proud to have been there for whoever was looking for that, even if the actual post was mainly about the future of the EU. (Note to self: planned Roque Dalton post prompted by recent LRB article now seriously overdue. I mean, recent LRB article no longer all that recent.)

As I write, the search terms for yesterday and today are listed as

“dont think we have enough protest
universita sweater
and was jerusalem builded here rules
underneath elegant women pics
heswall animal rescue
why are americans so uptight about eroti
manchester grammar school naked swimming
scott walker protest song

The last one is odd – “Hero of the war” would qualify, I guess – and I’m sure there’s a story behind the last but one. (Although not one that you can find anywhere on this blog – I’ve never even mentioned Manchester Grammar School before this post.) “and was jerusalem builded here rules” (emph. added) is also a bit of a mystery. As for this week’s Top Searches, here they are:

universita sweater
vivid cambridge topless
fashion shoot with social awareness
fass glas
“these scientists eh? they’re so stupid! you know those black box flight recorders they put on aeroplanes? and you know they’re meant to be indestructible? it’s always the thing that doesn’t get smashed? so why don’t they make the planes out of the same stuff?” the audience roared with laughter at how stupid scientists were, how they couldn’t think their way out of a paper bag, but i sat feeling uncomfortable. was i just being pedantic to feel that the joke didn’t really work because flight recorders are made out titanium and that if you made planes out of titanium rather than aluminium they’d be far too heavy to get off the ground in the first place?

The first three… well, you can find it yourself if you’re curious; I slightly regret posting it, although probably not as much as some people regret clicking through to it. “Fass” and “Glas” both appear to be German words, but otherwise the fourth search term is a mystery to me.

But the fifth is something else. It’s an extensive quote from Douglas Adams, which goes in this instance to this post. Blimey, I was writing proper posts back then. It’s crafted like a sermon, that one – or a good opinion column, which I guess was the model I had in mind: you go from the David Bowie title to the Douglas Adams quote, which turns out to be there to support an observation about Terry Pratchett, which in turn leads into a discussion of… the War on Terror and the London bombings of July 2005. Proper deep thought, and fairly controversial with it. I’m bigging myself up here, but only myself in 2005 – reading that post in 2010 makes me feel quite inadequate.

Setting aside where it leads, a couple of things about that search term boggle me. I can’t imagine why somebody would type the whole thing into a search box, and find it hard to imagine that anybody would. Nevertheless, somebody (and perhaps more than one somebody) does seem to have done so – the lower-case letters in particular (was i just being pedantic) militate against cut and paste. I hope they found the post interesting when they got to it. I was also struck by the fact that my blog isn’t the only hit for that chunk of text – it’s actually the eighth out of eight (although the post on my original blog is third; I think I copied the text myself from the first hit, which is on Charles Arthur’s blog). It’s nice to see that there’s an audience for Adams-related blogging, as I’ve been planning to do a bit more – well, I’ve been planning to write something about And another thing, anyway. I wasn’t thinking of using it as a lead-in to anything else, though, except possibly another book I’ve read recently. (I feel like apologising to Phil of 2005 – I’d be a great disappointment to me. Not sure what’s changed; perhaps it’s because I had a less interesting job back then, or I pinned more hopes on blogging – or just because I was newer to it?)

For now, can I interest you in Douglas Reed? “Bernard, Bernard, this bloom of youth“? giant octopus? They’re not necessarily the best posts I’ve ever written, but I can guarantee that none of them is about the future of the EU.

Update 5th August. Search of the day: “fashion photography from the boobs”. Yes, it’s another one of those searches – I’m starting to wonder about taking those posts down – but ‘from’ is curious; wouldn’t that rather defeat the object?

I’ll get my raincoat.

I got a message

Back in December 2008, commenting on the career of the recently-deceased Conor Cruise O’Brien, Daniel Davies casually sketched out… well, I’ll let him tell it:

I think his decline and fall from sensible, interesting, Good Bloke to reactionary ballbag outlines the Three Prime Directives, the rejection of which defines Decency:

1. Think about the consequences of what you’re saying

2. Don’t become an ethnic partisan

and, the Ultimate Prime Directive

3. No need to be a c**t about it.

CCO’B started off on the right side, but one by one he gradually broke them all.

(Daniel didn’t use asterisks, but I’m a bit less fearless about causing offence. Plus I’m getting quite enough one-handed traffic as it is, thanks to this post.)

In the shortened form of ‘BACAI’, the phrase has entered the language – at least, it’s entered the jargon used on Aarowatch and D^2 Digest. What does it mean? I’ve written elsewhere on what precisely the insult in question signifies, and Daniel’s usage isn’t that far from mine. Basically there is no need to start from the assumption that disagreement can only be motivated by evil and stupidity; no need to be aggressive, wilfully insensitive and deliberately offensive; no need to challenge the other person to jump through hoops of your own devising and denounce them when they fail to do so. Above all, there’s no need to enjoy doing all this, or to congratulate yourself and others for doing it. (If anything sums up the meaning of the C-word in BritEng, it’s this combination of insensitivity and self-congratulation: he’s ruined your day and not only does he not care, he thinks he’s been rather clever.)

As well as identifying the deep affinity between BACAI and what’s become known as the Decent Left, Daniel has repeatedly stressed the importance of the (Ultimate) Prime Directive in blog discussions (the other two have rather fallen by the wayside). I think the PD can be unpacked into two equally important statements:

1. Whoever you are and however just your cause, there is no need to BACAI.
and
2. This matters: BACAI is never a good thing and should always be avoided.

The second statement is there to help enforce assent to the first, which everyone is wont to regard as dispensable on special occasions (e.g. when they’ve been annoyed by somebody enough to want to BACAI).

Fast forward to last weekend and TAM 8 – the eighth annual session of The Amazing Meeting, James Randi’s sceptics’ conference. And:

Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” talk, in which he decried what he sees as the rise of incivility in the skeptical blogosphere.

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Owing to my state of mind

Jamie is on the trail of derelict mental hospitals (not ‘asylums’, thanks all the same). I used to work at Cane Hill – well, I worked there for about six months in 1979, but it seemed a lot longer. Some of the pictures behind that link looked incredibly familiar, even with several years’ worth of dilapidation – looking at one of the corridor shots I was half expecting to see someone pushing a floor-buffer. As an unqualified Nursing Assistant I did shifts more or less wherever I was needed, so I saw just about everything: the psycho-geri wards (very quiet but quite a lot of dirty work); the short-term ward (for people who had only just come in and people who would soon be well enough to leave, although these weren’t always the same people); the locked ward (less scary than it sounds – largely because everyone was drugged up to the eyeballs – but not much less). I spent most of the time I was there on a long-term ward; it was about half-and-half schizophrenics and people who were just too institutionalised to function anywhere else, many of whom had originally been found on the streets.

It was a dreadful place, which institutionalised patients more or less as a matter of course, and in some cases confined them for decades; there was an old man on the ward who’d had a bit of a weird episode at the age of 16, in 1932, and been locked up ever since. It also put vulnerable people at the mercy of staff many of whom were both dedicated and competent, but not all of whom were either. The long-term ward was run on the basis of a flurry of activity in the morning (wash, shave, dress and feed 25 men), another at lunchtime and a third in the evening. Between those times, nothing happened – nothing at all. Once the morning rush was over, in particular, the charge nurse would take the opportunity to call for tea and biscuits, then tell me and the student nurses about his views on life at enormous length. One long-term patient died while I was there (although after I’d been moved away from that ward); apparently he fell on the steps up to the ward, hit his head and lay there all night undiscovered. He was an unusually florid schizophrenic – nothing they could give him would stop him having strange ideas and compulsions, which generally involved wandering around the hospital – and the door to the ward was often kept locked to stop him getting out, although this was officially an open ward. As I understand it was locked that night.

But I’m not totally convinced that hospitals like that were a bad thing. One of the drugs we used to administer to schizophrenics was fluphenazine, a.k.a. Modecate. It was a slow-release ‘depot’ injection, designed to keep the visions and compulsions damped down for a fortnight at a time, and as such was administered intra-muscularly; you’d draw a cross on one of the patient’s buttocks with an alcohol swab, take aim for the upper outer quadrant and away you went. (I never did this myself – being untrained, unqualified and terrified – although I was repeatedly urged to have a bash.) I asked one day what would happen if you were careless and jabbed them in the lower inner quadrant. You don’t want to do that, you could paralyse them, I was told. This all came back to me the other day, when I noticed packets of Modecate on the pharmacy shelves at our local Boots, presumably for people being cared for in the community to take away and self-administer. The idea of trusting schizophrenics to inject their own anti-psychotic medication, at just the time when the previous dose is wearing off, strikes me as a bit hopeful.

Tangentially, it’s things like this which make me wonder what on earth the Tories’ plans for public expenditure cuts are actually going to mean. The old institutions aren’t there to be cut any more: the erstwhile populations of Cane Hill – and the others – have already been tipped out into community care. Similarly, councils have already been forced to outsource what used to be in-house services, the profitable bits of the postal service have already been carved up by TNT and DHL, and Stagecoach have already eaten public transport. If (on top of all that) defence is going to be protected, it’s hard to see what’s left to cut. Perhaps in another thirty years we’ll be looking at slideshows of abandoned universities.

When the winds begin to sing

Winter ade!

I went to a graduation ceremony at the University of Manchester yesterday. I’ve worked there for most of the last six years, so I’d taught a lot of yesterday’s graduands in all three years; it was good to see them make it to the end.

I’ve been to the last couple of graduations, but this will almost certainly be my last; I started work at another university at the beginning of February. For most of the previous three years I’d been working as what my new employer calls an hourly-paid lecturer. (Manchester, less grandly and less descriptively, calls the post “Teaching Assistant”.) This is not a great position to be in, particularly over summer. Summer 2009 was particularly difficult, and the start of the new academic year wasn’t much better. (It’s no coincidence that this blog was dormant for most of the calendar year 2009, or that I’ve been posting a lot more since February.) My current job was the right opportunity at the right time.

So yesterday’s ceremony roused some very mixed emotions. Leaving Manchester was a wrench, but it was the right thing to do and I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I left Manchester and it was the right thing to do, but it was a wrench. I’ve got the Anselm Kiefer picture at the top of this post on my desk at work (literally on my desk – I must invest in a mount or at least some sellotape). The verse handwritten across it is adapted from a German folk song; it reads

Winter ade,
scheiden tut weh,
doch dein Scheiden macht
daß mein Herze lacht…
gerne vergeß ich dein,
kannst immer ferne sein
Winter ade,
scheiden tut weh.

Which means something like this:

Goodbye Winter
Leaving hurts
But your leaving makes my heart laugh
Gladly I forget your leaving
May you always be far from me
Goodbye Winter
Leaving hurts

Everything you stand for

In itself, there’s nothing unusual about someone being left wing when young and becoming more right wing as they get older. What’s strange about the RCP, though, is the way the group seems to have moved together

From Jenny Turner’s terrific piece on the Institute of Ideas and its siblings and precursors.

What’s particularly good about this article, apart from its length and thoroughness, is its open-endedness: the title is “Who are they?”, and this question – like the related question “what are they doing?” – is never really answered other than descriptively. Turner’s conclusion gestures towards the idea that the ex-RCP network might be keeping its powder dry for the coming upsurge in class struggle, but her heart isn’t really in it. More typical is her remark that “it isn’t clear what the Continuity RCP is after, except that someone, somewhere, really likes setting things up”.

I seem to have jumped the gun on anecdotes involving the RCP, but don’t worry, I’ve got more. One more, at least. In 1993 or thereabouts, I was in London on an assertiveness training course. I was on my way back to my hotel when a Living Marxism seller made the mistake of approaching me. Usually I would just walk straight past, but that night I said No, thankyou!, quite loudly and distinctly. I was feeling rather pleased with myself when the guy called after me, “Why not?”. I stopped and spun round. Why not? Because you’re a bunch of fucking fascists, that’s why not! (This language is of course aggressive rather than assertive, and is not recommended in a workplace scenario; the poor guy would have been well within his rights if he’d told me that he had an issue with the way I addressed him. He didn’t, though.)

They do consistently tend to rouse strong feelings, the RCP – never more so than in that period, when Bosnia had substantial parts of the Left feeling fairly aggrieved with one another. But “fascists”? Not really. It would have been true to say that I felt an absolute enmity towards the RCP, more than I did towards Labour or even the Tories – or anyone else except the fash – but that’s not quite the same thing. Turner again:

‘RCP members were the first to imitate neo-Nazis and deny the existence of a Serb concentration camp in Bosnia,’ Nick Cohen wrote in 2006. Neo-Nazis? Really? ‘Living Marxism’s attempts to rewrite the history of the camps,’ Ed Vulliamy wrote in 2000, ‘was motivated by the fact that in their heart of hearts, these people applauded those camps.’ How could he possibly know that?

It’s a point that needed making. They’re not fascists; in many ways they’re quite recognisable revolutionary socialists. The contrarianism, and the dogged rationalism that backs it up, aren’t at all unusual – back in the eighties any socialist worth their salt could explain at some length how it was that the Labour Party were the real class enemy, the British Army in the North of Ireland were the real terrorists, or whatever. Also very familiar is the stultifying fakery that comes of combining front work with cadre organisation:

These days, IoI bods look like delegates at a Unison conference, or the seekers who gather at Landmark seminars and the Alpha Course. The ones who make the speeches are mostly white and in their thirties and forties (the volunteers on the cameras and boom-mikes are younger and more diverse). They’re more relaxed than they used to be, less aggressive and overtly controlling, but they still have a habit of sitting on panels together, pretending they don’t already know each other, and they still dominate meetings with tedious, well-rehearsed spontaneous interventions.

I’ve noticed something similar from SWP members, some of whom seem to have taken a vow never to mention the party itself – even when the conversation turns to Martin Smith (of Unite Against Fascism), Weyman Bennett (of Love Music Hate Racism) or Marxism 2010 (“great speakers, great workshops, have you thought of going?”).

What’s not clear is why the RCP have ended up staking out this weird business-friendly anti-green smug-libertarian corner – or, for that matter, why they went quite so heavily for the pro-Serb (or anti-anti-Serb) cause in the 90s. I don’t believe they’re provocateurs in any straightforward sense, but their psychological makeup does seem to include a love of the wind-up – a sense that getting a reaction is an end in itself.

The magazine’s Bosnia coverage had a very odd tone, cold and flippant and a bit sarcastic. The July 1992 edition had Serbia on the cover, described as the ‘WHITE NIGGERS’ of the New World Order. ‘The world’s media have invented a veritable Holocaust in Bosnia,’ Furedi wrote, under his own name, a couple of months later. ‘It is surely only a matter of time before gas chambers are discovered in the car park of the Agriculture Ministry in Belgrade.’ LM was perhaps trying to counteract the ‘very one-sided, anti-Serb’ gushiness it objected to in ‘the liberal media’ but the effect is not cool, disciplined, objective – it’s just mean.

Put it another way. Suppose you were accused of denying that a prison camp known to be a place where people were brutalised and murdered was really as bad as all that. You probably wouldn’t set up a libel defence campaign and advertise it with a picture of the barbed wire that caused all the trouble in the first place. You probably wouldn’t call it ‘Off the Fence’.

Their more recent angles – denying global warming, denouncing anti-racism – are perhaps a milder form of the same kind of shock tactics; they’re certainly aimed at shocking the same kind of people. It’s not, to put it mildly, the way political groups generally make propaganda. It’s more like a particularly dedicated satirist, trying to identify the few kindred souls who get it by setting out to offend almost – but not quite – everyone in the audience.

So what is it all about? Back in 2003, Jamie suggested that this might be what you get if you keep the vanguard role going (with its contrarian and rationalist presumptions) but quietly lose the revolutionary politics that gave it its point:

Their oppositionism has been the one constant thing about them. Yet it does seem to have led over the years to a kind of surreptitious hankering after nihilism, expressed at one level by their eager apologetics for genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda and on another by their inability to avoid mechanical sneering at any social or political phenomena. In theory, they are apparently in favour of confident humanity making choices. A glance at Spiked tells you that they can find nothing good to say about the choices humans make. The whole site reads like the effusions of the snottiest 14 year old in the grammar school playground. This is apparently where vanguardism for its own sake leads.

Or perhaps they run campaigns and hold conferences and issue press releases because it’s what they’re used to doing – someone, somewhere, really likes setting things up – and their pro-corporate evolution is just a kind of tropism towards a guaranteed source of funding.

Anyway, read the article. Jamie’s post about it is also well worth a look, particularly the comments thread.

Late in the evening

I agree with Ken Clarke, up to a point. A prison sentence is a bad thing to inflict on anyone, and one which often has bad effects on the lives of those who suffer it; the government’s priorities should be to maximise the chances of good outcomes, through education and training opportunities, and to minimise the number of people who go to prison in the first place. If that’s what Ken Clarke is saying, then I’m with Ken Clarke. I’ll add that our government should follow the Scots in abolishing short sentences, many of which only last long enough to disrupt offenders’ lives and exacerbate the problems they already have; and they should certainly abolish the monstrosity of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection. It seems strange to place any hope for liberal reform in a Tory government, but – sadly – not as strange as it would have been to place those hopes in New Labour. (Incidentally, isn’t it funny the way we’re not talking about the crucial moderate and liberal influence being exerted by the Lib Dems? Yellow Tories, now and forever.)

So I’m a bit wary of Dave’s Conservative contradictions on crime and punishment. He’s certainly right about the contradiction between Clarke’s decarceral rhetoric and policies which will cut both welfare and jobs; Tory social policy is going to make for a landscape of unparallelled bleakness for the released ex-offender to return to. I’m just not sure that this tells against Clarke in the way Dave seems to think. I’m also concerned about a rather dodgy bit of cost-benefit analysis which Dave quotes, apparently approvingly. Dave:

Several academics – such as Prof. Malcolm Davies – have come forward to suggest that actually leaving potential re-offenders at large (and even with continuing educational measures, reoffending jumped by 8% from 2006-8) costs more than prison.

I don’t know about ‘several’ (more than two?) but here’s Davies.

Prof Malcolm Davies, from Thames Valley University’s law school, said sending criminals to jail was often the cheapest option.

“It costs a lot more to have persistent offenders out on the street,” he told the BBC.

“If you add in the full cost, other than sending to people to prison, which is the processing of the police, the prosecution time, the cost to insurance, the cost and trauma to victims.”

(BBC News story, but taken from an aggregator – the current version of the story doesn’t include the Davies quote.)

This poses two questions. Firstly, can it possibly be true? Secondly, would we want to act on it even if it was? The reoffending rate for released prisoners currently stands at 70%, up from 50% when Michael Howard took over as Home Secretary from Ken Clarke (for it is he); it’s reasonable to assume that this increase has something to do with the change in prison regimes brought about by Howard, for whom prison was all about locking up the bad men and not so much about education and training. But let’s assume that Clarke only manages to make a small dent in the reoffending rate, and it goes down to 66%. Then let’s assume that the aggregate cost of their offending is 1.6 times what it would have cost to keep them inside. So keeping all of them inside would be cheaper than letting them out. Of course, releasing the 34% who aren’t going to reoffend would be cheaper still, but unfortunately we can’t know who they are in advance, so we’re a bit stuck. So the only revenue-neutral option is to do a Minority Report on the 66%, incarcerating them in advance of the crimes they would have committed if they’d been released – and do a massive, unpardonable injustice to the 34%.

Then it gets worse. We’ve saved money – or at least broken even – in year 1, but what do we do the next year? Remember, we don’t know who the likely reoffenders are. For any given group of 1,000 prisoners, all we know is that it will cost society £38 million (say) to keep them all banged up, while – given our 66% reoffending rate multiplied out by victim costs, police costs, prosecution cost, insurance cost, other tax and so forth – it will cost £40 million to release them all. So when we look at each individual prisoner, we see an average loss to society of £2,000 per year if we let him out. But if prisoner X being free in year 1 costs £2,000 more than keeping him inside, then the same will also be true of year 2, year 3 and ever year thereafter until he’s too decrepit to offend. Ergo we should give everyone a life sentence for the first offence, with eligibility for parole only when they’re too old to hang out with drug dealers, too rheumy-eyed to hot-wire a car and too feeble to leg it when the police show up.

Either that, or we should try understanding a little more and condemning a little less; find fewer pretexts for locking up our fellow citizens and put fewer obstacles in the way of releasing them; and put most effort into giving offenders chances to go straight, both in prison and out of it. New Labour’s term was a long 13 years for anyone hoping for liberal reform to the criminal justice system. Let’s hope the Tories, in spite of everything – in spite of being Tories, apart from anything else – will do better.

You what?

At the end of the first series of Doctor Who after the handover from Russell T. Davies to Steven Moffat, we can detect a subtle but definite difference in the way Moffat and his predecessor think about the character and his canonical backstory. As scripted by Moffat, the Doctor still has a gift for inserting chunks of plot exposition into action scenes. (And it is a gift. The other evening on Dollhouse there was a scene in which a group of characters ran between two action scenes while shouting bits of plot at each other; they looked as if they were running between two action scenes shouting bits of plot at each other, which is to say that they looked ridiculous. The Doctor can bring it off, and has been doing so since the Jon Pertwee era. I suspect there’s a manual somewhere.) What’s changed is the substance of the plot that gets expounded.

Davies:

Ha! Of course! The Daleks have managed to invoke the protection of the Covenant of Horg, which was laid down by the original rulers of Gallifrey just before the Dark Time (very bad time, that was – very dark). The Time Lords took on the Covenant, and its powers were sealed in the Signet of Harg, which was lost in the first skirmish of the Time War. Or… how could I have been so stupid! The Signet couldn’t be lost – it was forged within the Omni-Vorticon on the Anvil of Hurg, and hence it was eternally pinned to a single point in space-time! Which means that… we’ll have to hurry. You two, run down that corridor and keep running. I’ll stay here and pull some levers; I’ll be all right, I’ve got a fire extinguisher. Now go!

Moffat:

Ha! Of course! The Daleks have managed to detonate a cataclysmic explosion within the heart of space-time itself! All that’s preventing it from destroying the entire fabric of reality is that the explosion is timed for one second in the future – but that second is growing weaker with every moment that passes, and our reality is being bombarded with explosive time-rays. Or else… how could I have been so stupid! The detonation occurred before the removal of the Daleks from this plane of existence, which meant that we were safe as long as nobody thought about the Daleks! Now that we’ve remembered them, they’ll recover their physical form any second now, and the entire fabric of space-time will explode. Which means that… we’ll really have to hurry!

Davies’s scripts could have been written for Vince, the Doctor Who anorak from Queer As Folk (in a sense I suppose they were written by Vince). After an info-dump like that, you could imagine someone like Vince freeze-framing the DVD and ferreting through his Who reference data – “but that would mean… wait, this would have to have been before the founding of… oh, right, yeah, it would fit.” Moffat’s, not so much. The fact that Moffat’s not writing ‘nuts and bolts’ sf doesn’t matter – Who has always been on the fantasy end of the genre, a kind of frequently-earthbound space opera. What is new is that he doesn’t seem to have much interest in ‘maps and timelines’ sf either; he seems to be steering the series out of space opera altogether and into something altogether more impressionistic and psychological. Less Left Hand of Darkness, more Lathe of Heaven.

Which works for me. As, much to my surprise, does Matt Smith, who grew on me rapidly over the course of the first episode and had made the role his own by the middle of the second. David Tennant was good, of course, but his trajectory in the series was very much the established dramatic lead on an upward path – go in with Casanova and Blackpool, come out as a star. Christopher Ecclestone was good, too, but his career was also established to the point where he couldn’t do anything with Who other than become a star in it, which he didn’t seem to want to do. In Matt Smith, for the first time since the revival, the Doctor is played by someone who doesn’t come trailing his showreel: he’s not a star in the making, he’s… the Doctor. He’s also been reminding me a lot of Patrick Troughton, who is probably the best of the old Doctors for any new Doctor to emulate. (I still remember odd bits of Troughton Who from first time round. I started watching when William Hartnell was playing the Doctor, although ‘watching’ almost certainly means ‘not being taken out of the room because my parents didn’t want to miss it themselves’.)

Karen Gillan proved herself in that extraordinary final episode – starting with that really extraordinary pre-credits sequence (“Right, kid. This is where things start getting complicated.”) – and, for one story at least, it looks as if the Doctor will be operating with two companions. That really takes me back, to those days when Peter Purves bestrode the screen like a hairy-kneed colossus, in a doomed attempt to compensate female viewers for the claim on their menfolk’s attention of Louise Jameson in a fur bikini (are you sure about this? – Ed.) Roll on Christmas – or if you’re Russell T. Davies, roll on the Feast of the Birth of the Nazarene Theohominid.

Bashkohuni!

Speaking of Albania, there was a sad little item the other day in the Cedar Lounge Revolution‘s continuing series of ‘Left Archive’ posts, viz. Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist), Red Patriot, August 1982 (including Communiqué of the Central Committee of the CPI (M-L) on the Occasion of the Party’s 12th Anniversary).

The Albanian connection is that the CPI(M-L) had been Ireland’s main (only?) Mao-line Communist Party, with an international orientation towards two countries – the People’s Republic of China and Enver Hoxha’s Albania. Nixon’s visit to China in 1971 led the relationship to get a bit strained, with the Albanians accusing their ally of revisionist tendencies. The death of the Great Helmsman in 1976, followed by an official visit to Beijing by the arch-revisionist Tito, led to an outright break (Nixon was bad enough, but this…!). In reaction, Albania declared itself the only Marxist-Leninist state in the world and China, understandably, turned off the aid tap. The Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) split in this period, with a pro-Albanian minority forming the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), who we met earlier. (Update 3/7/10 Many thanks to running dog in comments, who pointed out that this is wrong in every particular. The Bainsite RCPB(M-L) (Wikipedia) was founded separately from Reg Birch’s CPB(M-L), initially as the CPE(M-L); the RCPB’s current Web site (yes, they’re still going) translates the name of the party into Welsh, which may explain the name change. The CPB(M-L) in fact went with Albania as well. See also running dog‘s second comment, which came in while I was typing this update(!).) The Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist), on the other hand, also went with Albania, although not without having to expel a couple of dissident factions.

According to the poster on Cedar Lounge, the 1982 Red Patriot clarifies the self-perception of CPI(M-L) as it entered the 1980s. Or in other words, as it headed towards oblivion. Hoxha died in 1985, and then there was 1991; the Albanian Party of Labour rebadged itself as something innocuous involving the word ‘Socialist’ and lost power for good. A few years later the EU expanded eastwards and the word ‘Albanian’ started to appear in the press, generally accompanied by the word ‘immigrant’. It struck me that Albania under capitalism was causing more anxiety in Western Europe than it ever had under Communism, and I wrote this song: Continue reading

Mullet with headlights

I stumbled across this video the other day:

I’m a sucker for the old subtitle gag, and this is a particularly good example. It made me laugh like a drain, but then it got me thinking… thinking…

FX: repeat audio with echo and fade, visuals wibbly-wobbly and dissolve

about the song… Bloody hell, Jim Steinman! I’ve never been a fan of the work of Meat Loaf, or ‘epic rock’ in any form – I remember thinking “Born to Run” was a dreadful old pile of clichés the first time I heard it (and don’t even mention “Freebird”). But you’ve got to admit the man can write. I mean, the repeating “Every now and then” thing made it a bit easier for him, but those are seriously long lines, and plenty of them. The song as a whole may be the musical equivalent of a five-tier wedding cake consisting entirely of costume jewellery and American cheese, but the structure of the lyrics is interesting and actually quite ambitious. Try singing a whole verse if you don’t believe me.

…also, about the singer… Given that it is a beast of a song, you’ve got to hand it to the artist formerly known as Gaynor Hopkins – she made a damn good job of it. (OK, you can’t hear the real vocals in that version – try here, or a live version from 2005 here (ratty video, awful accompaniment but great singing).) A proper belter, which goes for the song and the singer – nice to see she’s still working. Shame she didn’t seem to be enjoying the video, mind.

…and about that video. The video is a strange one. The song seems to be about romantic love envisaged in terms of insecurity and obsessive dependence; the singer’s experiencing a moment of desperate need, while at the same time yearning for her lover to transform her life utterly. (Well, we’ve all been there.) The video, storyboarded by Steinman and directed by Russell Mulcahy, is another matter. According to Some Guy On The Net, the video “drew inspiration from the 1976 film Futureworld“, but what this means is something of a mystery – nothing I’ve read about that film bears any resemblance to the video. It seems to be about a woman visiting a boys’ school to present prizes, and dreaming the night before that she’s lost in the school and surrounded by… boys! Posh boys! Fit boys! Posh fit boys! Posh fit boys fighting, tumbling, dancing! Posh, fit, half-naked boys dancing around her! (I think we can see where this is heading.) Then the next morning she gets suited up and does the cool authoritative adult thing, and it was All A Dream. Or… Was It?

It may be best not to over-think music videos. Tim Pope, appearing on the briefly-revived Jukebox Jury, opined that one video (not one of his) was “full of symbolism”. Symbolism? replied Jools Holland. What kind of symbolism? “Meaningful symbolism,” said Pope. This video is positively rammed with meaningful symbolism (the rendering of the phrase “bright eyes” is some kind of coup) – and the “boys’ school erotic fantasy” setup is certainly a concept, if it’s a concept you want. And if the execution is over the top, what else would you expect from the combination of Steinman and Mulcahy? The overall effect, though, keeps going past Over The Top and comes out in Downright Odd: a strange combination of relentless pace and disjointed cutting, together with facial expressions from Bonnie Tyler which range from blankness to mild disgust, give it a really nightmarish quality. A clue may be provided by Some Other Guy On The Net, according to whom

Bonnie Tyler refused to spray a group of young men with water during the filming of ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart.’ Tyler admitted she called Mulcahy a “prevert,” which may be Welsh for pervert.

(“Prevert” is of course a well-established English-language usage, and may have French-language roots.)

Watch the video again (go on, I dare you) and it’s quite striking how Ms Tyler seems to be trying to keep her distance from the circumambient boys, to the extent of not appearing in the same shot as them any more than she has to. If Mulcahy had been working with a singer who was a bit more up for it, the video might have ended up looking less uncomfortable and less disjointed. (Just getting that shot of Bonnie Tyler making with the bucket of water – instead of the swimmers being hit by an anonymous bucket of water from stage left – would have changed the whole mood of the video.) On the other hand, it’s hardly surprising that a singer wouldn’t be up for it, considering that this is a song about romantic love envisaged in terms of insecurity and obsessive dependence – and not, for instance, a song about being unexpectedly surrounded by ninjas, Fonzie clones (“Fonzie’s been cloned!”) and flying zombie choirboys.

Which is where we came in.

Up you comes and down you goes

Mixed message of the day:

As soon as this pub closes, there'll be no future for you!

You remember that song, surely?

Dreams
Can come true
dum dum-de-dum dum…
You know you’ve got to have hope,
You know you’ve got to be strong
dum-de-dum dum…
Thirty years of hurt
dum-de-dum…
There is no future
In England’s dreaming!

They don’t write ‘em like that any more.

(The beer, incidentally, is very nice indeed – one of those heavy pale bitters, quite a full-on flavour and a big bitter finish; if you like Summer Lightning, you’d like this. If you don’t like Summer Lightning, whyever not?)

Now the grownups have gone

I’ve just signed the 38 Degrees petition on capital gains tax:

Dear George Osborne,

Please stick to your commitment in the coalition agreement by increasing Capital Gains Tax to rates similar to income tax by:

* making the top level of Capital Gains Tax the same as income tax
* reducing the level at which people have to start paying tax on money earned from investments like stocks and shares, and second homes

I’d urge everyone to do likewise, even though it goes against the grain to petition George Osborne for anything – shouldn’t there be structures for this kind of thing? isn’t petitioning a fundamentally pre-democratic mechanism, implying that the subjects are respectfully tugging the sleeve of their exalted ruler, there being no other legitimate way for them to express themselves? Or maybe it’s a post-democratic mechanism, I dunno. (File under ‘cheery thoughts’.)

Anyway, the petition comes with a comment box, and I was very tempted to add the line “Make the rich pay for the crisis”. Then I remembered the provenance of that particular slogan and left the box blank. There’s always the possibility – the depressing possibility – that whoever ends up looking at the petition would see my comment and think “huh, a tired old bit of sloganising from a Radio Tirana listener and fellow-traveller of the RCPB (M-L)!” Not to mention the even more depressing possibility that they wouldn’t.

I owe the Hoxhaites a debt of gratitude, as it happens. Back in 1983, waiting for a demo against anti-union laws to get started, I came quite close to being recruited by the Revolutionary Communist Party; a bored-looking girl with a crew-cut gave me a copy of the next step [sic] and explained how, er, I forget what exactly. I was quite impressed, anyway, and continued to be impressed by what I read in the paper. The RCP were in their phase of well-er-obviously ultra-logical not-quite-ultra-leftism at the time – not quite ultra-left, just enough to outflank everyone else except the anarchists (who don’t count, of course). So obviously the state of Israel must be destroyed, and obviously the IRA must be supported unconditionally, and obviously the union leaders (all of them) must be totally ignored in favour of really extra-vigorous rank-and-file stuff of some sort. This approach had the merit of simplicity, allied to an appealingly cool tone (in both senses of the word – tns really did look nice) and logic – lots and lots of logic. It was also considerably more revolutionary than you, unless you were an anarchist (but anarchists don’t count, of course).

Anyway, I was young, I was radical, I was single and unemployed – I was about as available for recruitment by a Trotskyist group as I’ve ever been, and I vaguely knew it. (My student days don’t count – I was at Cambridge and mostly avoided getting involved in any kind of organised politics out of sheer embarrassment. I didn’t know much about the revolution, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be made by Cambridge students.) So I was mulling over the RCP’s overtures later that day, when the demo finally got going. Being on my own, I’d decided to watch most of the march going by and tag on near the end. And who should pass by but a contingent of about eight middle-aged beardies, clustered quite closely around a large and elderly red banner, walking in step and raising a chant of – you guessed it – “MAKE THE RICH PAY FOR THE CRISIS!” Not the snappiest slogan at the best of times, and being chanted by eight middle-aged blokes (who were passing by at quite a brisk pace) didn’t enhance its impact. The banner – one of those big square-ish ones in a frame – read “REVOLUTIONARY COMMUNIST PARTY OF BRITAIN (MARXIST-LENINIST)”.

Blimey, I thought – so that’s what they’re really like!

Update 4/7/10
In response to Kier in comments: OK, that’s not the whole truth. At first I was genuinely confused by the mismatch between the cool paper with the purple ink and the knot of earnest beardies – and I did momentarily think that the latter was the real face of the former. But I did work it out after a while, and the RCPB(M-L) didn’t put me off the RCP(no relation) for good; in fact I had a few contacts with them back in Manchester until they gave up trying to recruit me. (Which, I remember, they did with a very bad grace, with the strong implication that I’d been wasting their time.) I just think it’s interesting that, while my first impression of the RCP was positive, my second impression was that they were a tightly-knit group of dedicated activists declaiming peculiar-sounding slogans in apparent indifference to how they looked to the rest of the Left.

The Liberal Democrat Party: a concluding unscientific postscript

Unlike leftish fiction-writer Ian McEwan, I am disinclined to extend much goodwill in the direction of the coalition government. In fact, anyone capable of judging this government – and the Lib Dems’ role in making it possible – as positively as McEwan strikes me as having something important missing from their own political makeup. It’s a bit like hearing it seriously argued that apartheid was good for the South African economy, or that Mussolini did in fact make the trains run on time: you just know that you’re not going to agree with this person on anything. (Not that I’ve agreed with old Leftie McEwan for quite a while.) Tory government is bad; if you join a Tory government, or (even worse) make a Tory government possible, you and your party are off the political roll-call forever.

This position seems pretty fundamental to me. But can I justify it on the basis of anything other than what McEwan refers to as “deep tribal reasons”? Continue reading

What you hear is not a test

Sorry to go quiet on you. Since the election I’ve been insanely busy – not to mention being depressed and really rather tired – so there hasn’t been much blogging and probably won’t be for a while (although I’ve got a concluding unscientific postscript to the previous post worked out and ready to go, just as soon as I can find the time to get it blogged).

In the mean time, this was too good to miss:

what was number one in the week you were born?

At the risk of not so much showing my age as waving it about, here’s mine:

In the spirit of the BBC’s Eurovision voting forms, it has to be said that the “Performance” isn’t up to much, and the less said about the “Dance and Outfits” the better. But the “Song” is holding up pretty well.

The Liberal Democrat Party: An Apology

I’d like to apologise to James Meadway, Justin Horton, Ellis Sharp, Richard Seymour, Les Jones, my wife, and all the other people with whom I have argued about the political positioning of the Liberal Democrats and Liberals over the years. I now realise that my efforts to counter these wise and sensible people’s criticisms of the party were entirely misplaced, and that my repeated assertions that the Liberals were in some sense on the Left of the British political spectrum were, at best, wishful thinking.

I would also like to apologise in advance to Nick Barlow, Alex Harrowell, Mike Holmans and any other friends of mine who have the misfortune to be members of this shabby, unprincipled, Tory-tailing rabble, for any acerbity or unpleasantness which may unfortunately creep into our personal relations now that their leaders have sold us all down the river and delivered the country into the hands of David Cameron. I hope that the conditions leading to this unwelcome situation will rapidly be rectified with the introduction of a fair voting system and the holding of fresh elections (in which the Lib Dem vote will surely drop like a stone). I recognise, however, that this is unlikely, given that the Lib Dems’ new chums are certain to shaft them royally on that issue as on most other things. I note finally that Nick Clegg, the Parliamentary Liberal Democrat Party and the Liberal Democrat Executive did not come down in the last shower and have collectively gone into this with their eyes open, and conclude from these observations that they’re allying with the Conservatives because they want to ally with the Conservatives. Which brings us back to where we came in.

Thanks Nick, and Vince, and, er, the other ones. You had the chance to do something really different, do the country a lot of good and (incidentally) prove several of my friends wrong. Instead of which… well, you’ve certainly done something different. Yellow Tories, now and forever.

I didn’t make him for you

I don’t know if the ‘traffic light’ coalition is going to work, although it has to be said that the arithmetic isn’t as tight as it’s often made look. I think the problem is that the media here keep forgetting about the North of Ireland. (Great argument for the peace process that is – at one time the province was never out of the news.) Take the weird and wonderful story of UCUNF, a party which I think has appeared on the BBC News precisely twice – the manifesto launch and the DUP poster debacle. I’m not sure anyone in the British media noticed what’s just happened to the Ulster Unionist Party – you know the ones: the heirs of ‘official’ unionism, the ones who weren’t in big with the Orange Lodge and the gunmen, the ones that British government always used to talk to. Quick recap: they merged with the Tory Party; they gave themselves the worst acronym in the world, and they got wiped out; party leader and all. Newly-formed NI wing of the Tory Party: nul points, or rather zero MPs. Sole survivor of the wreck: Lady Sylvia Hermon, standing as an independent, against a candidate from her old party, and taking over 60% of the vote. Story there, you’d think, maybe?

Anyway, NI votes are crucial to the coalition arithmetic, in a number of ways. Firstly, the ‘winning post’ of 326 Commons votes (650/2 + 1), cited over and over again by BBC News, is mythical: there are five MPs from Sinn Fein who never attend, not to mention the Speaker (a Tory). So there are 644 MPs who turn up and vote in divisions, meaning 323 votes (not 326) are needed for an absolute majority.

NI MPs’ votes also count positively. The starting point for a ‘Lab/Lib’ coalition is 320 votes, not 315: Labour + LD + SDLP (whose MPs take the Labour whip) + the Alliance Party (sister party of the LDs) + Lady Sylvia (who left her party rather than vote with the Tories). Admittedly, that’s still a minority overall, but from the Tory point of view it’s an alarmingly big minority. To win a vote against that lineup Cameron would need all 306 Tories (not including the Speaker) plus 15 of the remaining 18 – 3 Plaid Cymru, 6 SNP, 1 Green and (let’s not forget about the province again) 8 DUP MPs. The DUP platform is a many-splendoured thing, but a significant part of their appeal to the NI electorate last week was not being allied with the Tories (as witness that unfortunate poster). That doesn’t look promising for the Tories. (If Thirsk goes Lib Dem on 27 May, which is possible, the basic Labour/Lib Dem alliance goes up to 321 votes, and the Tories are scraping around for 17 votes out of 18 to beat them – basically they’d need everyone but the Green.)

Anyway, it’s still all to play for, although probably not for much longer. But what I really wanted to put down, before this post becomes obsolete, is that you can tell something about the quality of a deal by the opposition it provokes. And this deal really seems to be annoying all the right people. A few quotes culled from the BBC’s live feed:

The Tories came out of the election in a far better fashion than Labour and this should be acknowledged, former Home Secretary John Reid says. The major party should be allowed to form a government, he tells the BBC.

Telegraph commentator Toby Young tweets: A Lab-Lib coalition would be like a declaration of civil war.

The Lib Dems are guilty of a form of betrayal by opening talks with Labour after being offered compromises by the Conservatives, Phillip Blond, director of the Tory think-tank ResPublica, says.

The Daily Mail has a bleak view of Monday’s proceedings. It proclaims a Squalid Day for Democracy, calling Nick Clegg two-faced. The Daily Telegraph calls Mr Brown’s decision to quit a sordid attempt to keep Labour in power.

David Blunkett says the Lib Dems are behaving like every harlot in history, and that Labour should not be seeking to form the next government.

This is the Robert Mugabe style of politics, says Conservative MP and former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind. It’s exactly what Mugabe did you know, he lost the election and scrabbled to hold onto power.

It’s a strong field, but I think the Robert Mitchum Award for Cool-Headed Sagacity has to go to Sir Malcolm.

But what are they all flapping about? Elsewhere there’s been some discussion of whether the major parties would fall apart under PR; I’ve argued against, citing the experience of Scotland (the Scottish Labour Party’s had 12 years of PR now and still seems to be in one piece). In the case of the Conservative Party, I think I might make an exception. There’s a lot going on under the surface of the Tory Party these days – pro-Europe, anti-Europe; liberal, reactionary; Thatcherite, old-school Tory, beyond-Thatcherite… The genius of David Cameron has been to bundle it all into a big opaque parcel, sealed with a label saying Next Stop Downing Street. That’s what’s starting to come undone now, and the fallout could be catastrophic for the party – all the more so under PR, not least because it would bring the far Right into play. (UKIP got nearly a million votes last week, and the BNP half a million. The Greens got 300,000.) Small wonder they’re panicking.

As for the Blairites – or is this a subspecies, the Blairite Home Office Authoritarian? – I guess they see their grip on the party slipping, and think it would be easier to recover in opposition than while sharing power with the Lib Dems. (Think of it, no ID cards! no control orders! The horror! The horror!) Really dreadful stuff from Reid and Mr Brightside – one of whom is, as far as I know, still under Parliamentary Labour Party discipline. Being prepared to consign Britain to Tory government – positively eager in Blunkett’s case – rather than risk diluting the Labour programme is pretty contemptible sectarianism; when you look at the kind of dilutions that would be needed to accommodate the Lib Dems, it’s beneath contempt.

Your weakness is none of my business

One interesting aspect of the election result is that it’s been bad for all three of the main party leaders. (You could even extend that and say that it’s been bad for all the party leaders – Ieuan Wyn Jones, Alex Salmond, Salma Yaqoob and Nick Griffin have all had a disappointing time of it, not to mention Reg Empey and Peter Robinson – but it doesn’t quite work; Caroline Lucas had rather a good night, and I don’t think the non-Unionist parties in the North of Ireland are complaining. Bad joke about wearing of the green goes here.)

But Brown, Cameron and Clegg have all had a bad result, and will all be facing criticism from within their party: it’ll be argued that a different style of leadership could have saved Labour from the wipeout, could have given the Tories an outright majority, could have made the Lib Dem breakthrough a reality. (This is clearly magical thinking to some extent – after all, if all the parties had performed better their results would presumably be stuck pretty much at their current level. Also, the idea that the leader has a defining influence on the party’s performance smacks of power-worship and is almost certainly inaccurate anyway. But we’ll go with it for the time being, because the current stalemate does put the leaders front and centre, and I want to think about what they’re going to do next.)

Now, the one thing a party leader can never do – or not while remaining party leader – is to lose face by conceding to criticism from others. (This is what made the Gillian Duffy story so grimly fascinating; Brown did nothing that we haven’t all done, but his political position meant that a loss of face was a tremendous risk – and it was extraordinarily difficult to extricate himself without one.) There are two main strategies for dealing with criticism without losing face: one is to double down and make a virtue of the position being criticised, demonstrating its strengths and merits; the other is to adopt the criticism as one’s own and address it without seeming to concede anything to the critics, getting out of trouble in a kind of knight’s move. All three of the main party leaders are going to have to adopt one of these tactics over the next few days, and it’ll be interesting to see which escape route they each choose.

What Brown did wrong – or what Brown will be seen to have done wrong; or the area where Brown will be seen to have gone wrong by acting like Brown – was to hang on like grim death: refusing an early election, refusing a leadership election, refusing to resign as leader, refusing to call the election until the very last minute. Right from when he took over from Blair, Brown was determined to k. b. o., in Churchill’s immortal phrase. It’s going to be hard over the next few days for him to make a virtue of this approach; flexibility and surprise are going to be at a premium. The obvious escape route – in more ways than one – would be to resign, but I don’t see Brown resigning as PM or party leader and simply walking away, like Heath in 1974 (as PM) or Wilson in 1976; I think his parting gift to the party would be to resign in such a way as to hand power to a chosen successor, as the prospective head of a coalition government. I haven’t the faintest idea how that could be fixed – it would need to involve an awful lot of talking to the Lib Dems and other parties – but I wouldn’t be surprised if Brown’s working on it.

What Clegg did wrong – or where Clegg went wrong by acting unlike Ashdown or Kennedy, say – was clearly to move the party to the Right. You can look at this as an attempt to return to equidistance between the main parties after getting uncomfortably close to Labour, or simply as a move rightwards: tailoring the party’s approach to its main target seats by appealing to Tory voters, while banking the support the party had already gained from former Labour voters. Either way, it backfired spectacularly on the night: faced with a party that seemed destined for coalition and refused to rule out coalition with their least favoured party, many people not only declined to vote Lib Dem but actually cast an anti-Lib Dem vote. 23% isn’t a bad vote, but it’s well down in the realms of the third-party squeeze – in a way that the 26-28% the polls seemed to promise wouldn’t have been. Clegg could double down on the move rightwards by sealing the deal with Cameron; he could even double down on ‘equidistance’ by proposing a Grand Coalition, although I suspect that if he was going to do this he would have done it by now. These options would not be without problems, to put it mildly. I’ve been defending the Lib Dems for years, pointing out their radical policies to Labour loyalists and socialists who dismiss them as ‘yellow Tories’. I’ll never say another word in their defence if they make a deal with Cameron now – and I imagine there are many more like me, some of whom have actually voted for them. The alternative would be to cut the knot by dumping equidistance, shifting back leftwards and forming a ‘progressive’ alliance; that would work – it could solve our problems as well as Clegg’s own – but I’m not sure Clegg’s the man to do it.

Cameron is probably in the worst position of all, and in the most need of some quick and innovative thinking (hmm…). His critics are sure he’s done something wrong – something bad enough to turn a Tory landslide into a mere 307 seats, without even any Ulster Unionists to prop up the numbers – but they don’t agree on what it is. For every Tory who thinks Cameron should never have linked up with the assorted nutters of the European Conservative and Reformist group, there’s one who thinks he’s too much of a Europhile; for every Tory who thinks he should face down the climate change deniers, homophobes and cadet Teabaggers who now find a home in the party, there’s someone who thinks those groups are the future. And then there’s Philip Blond and the ‘Big Society’ theme, which hardly anyone has any enthusiasm for – but it’s hard to even hang that on Cameron, since it’s not clear that he has much enthusiasm for it either. The problem is, he’s not a conviction politician and never has been; he’s Dave from PR (or rather, Eton, BalliolBrasenose and PR). Both of the tactics I’ve been describing – doubling down on the offending behaviour or convincingly repudiating it – are going to be hard for Cameron, since they would require him first to identify something people think he’s doing wrong and then to make a convincing case for it. (Or, indeed, against it.) I think rather than open any of these ideological cans of worms, he’ll take a couple of steps back and conceptualise his approach to leading the party as one in which they trust him and he gives them power – and on that basis where he’s gone wrong is in failing to deliver. This would make the escape route easy to identify, too: he gives them power, they get off his back.

With all this in mind, I think we can expect the Tories to go quite a long way to meet the Lib Dems halfway. Whether it will be enough is another matter, as the one thing they will need the most in that situation – some way of maintaining their credibility on the Left – won’t be in the Tories’ gift. Cameron could go some way to providing it by offering the Lib Dems a loose alliance, with a free vote on non-confidence measures; however, this wouldn’t be enough to solve his own problem, by guaranteeing the Tories power as well as office. At some not too distant point it’ll be up to Brown to produce a better offer, i.e. one which solves his problem as well as Clegg’s; in principle this seems, if anything, more achievable than a durable Lib Dem/Tory deal, but the practicalities may be against it.

With the possibility of PR aroud the corner and the possibility of the Lib Dems taking a definitive step to the Right in the mean time, the stakes are high. The British political scene may be about to become a great deal more fluid, or the music may be about to stop, freezing it in a definitively right-of-centre configuration. All we know at the moment is that it’s not over yet; we can still hope for the best as well as fearing the worst.

UpdateThoughtful postscript The question is what arrangements there are which would allow two of the party leaders to pull off one of the self-justifying/self-exculpatory moves described above. As we’ve seen, Clegg could answer the critics of equidistance by collapsing the Lib Dem waveform either rightwards or leftwards. Justifying himself by sticking it out seems less likely, if only because the only practical way of doing this – offering a Grand Coalition – is in nobody else’s interest. Going Left would probably be easier than going Right, if only because the Tories are unlikely to be able to offer enough to make the deal palatable to the Lib Dem base. But if the Lib Dems can’t meet Cameron halfway, he’s going to be stuck: unlike the other two leaders, there isn’t a reverse gear (or a knight’s move) available to him. All he can do is double down on being him: Dave from PR, the sincere opportunist, the liberal Tory, the reactionary moderniser; all the contradictions of the post-Thatcher Conservative Party swept under one shiny new market-ready carpet. But that’s only going to work for as long as it delivers results, which it may be about to stop doing.

As for Brown, a good move would be to make a virtue of repudiating his limpet-like tendencies, by offering his resignation as a sweetener to a deal with Clegg. As well as being a costly signal, this would up the ante on the Lib Dems (what else do you want?). A really good move would be to make a virtue of going while also making a virtue of staying, as the one politician capable of steering Britain through these troubled times, and so forth.

Clegg has, of course, said that he’ll give the Tories first go at winning him over, but it occurs to me that he might be playing quite a clever game. If Clegg had announced after the election that the Lib Dems would talk to both major parties, he’d have been lynched by the press. So perhaps the plan is to talk publicly to the Tories, but also talk to Labour without telling them. Then, by the time the Tories reach their high bid, Labour will know the target they need to beat; they’ll also know by then that they need to make an offer pronto. These could be very interesting times.

That was a thoughtful and prescient postscript written on the 8th of May. Not an update written with hindsight on the very interesting evening of the 10th – certainly not.

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