Sunday, March 27, 2011


Distressing article in the Observer today (starting like that has made me feel quite old). There are quite a few things that are troubling in there: the threat to the very nature of academic research (its not like map reading, it's like map drawing – you don't know what you're going to find until you've found it) being of course the biggest, leaving aside the fact that if they want a definition in under four years, from someone who isn't knackered, penniless, and a little bit obsessed with formatting footnotes, it may not be the best route anyhow. But another troubling thing is the quote from the PM (from last month): "We do need a social recovery to mend the broken society and to me, that's what the big society is all about." Troubling because of the way it talks about society. Politicians often talk about it this way, and the advent of BigSoc has made this all the more prominent.

According to the quote, there's a Big Society, which (according to the rest of the article, is currently conceptual and in need of definition, but once defined) will provide a social recovery to mend the broken society, which is presumably actual, and different from the society that's involved in the Big Society, although they're both social enough for one to be able to facilitate the recovery of the other. Where is this broken society? Has it been put on the kitchen window ledge with the broken wine glasses which at some point Britain will get round to wrapping in newspaper and putting in the bin if you're really sure we can't recycle them? Did we break it ages ago and then whack it in the cupboard under the stairs and forget about it until now? Has one of the kids hidden it in their room because they're frightened we're going to throw it away and they think it looks a bit like a cat?

The thing is, whether it's broken or not, society is us. It's people. People, and the shit we do. It doesn't exist separately from us, in laboratory conditions, where it can be fine-tuned, or altered; it's not stuck on a hard-drive somewhere, and we just need a patch to recover it. Every single thing that every one of us does is what society is. And that includes – in fact, given the nature of our representative, non-referendum driven, parliamentary democracy, it gives a fair whack of priority to – politicians. You could argue that they are basically our nominated society monitors – we go off to our jobs, whatever they may (or, more and more, may not) be, and politicians keep things in order, re-organise them if necessary, order in new stuff as and when. A bit like librarians, but shoutier.

Based on government actions since it formed, a definition of the Big Society along the same analogy might be a new ITV1 documentary – When Librarians Go Bad – watch in horror as the Head of Reader Services makes a bonfire of about 85% of all the stock, arguing that several people he's had round for dinner own all these titles anyhow and might lend them to other people if they're asked nicely and can be bothered.

Because if you actually can break society (seems English might be owed an apology for that turn of phrase), I would imagine that a good way to go about it might be to chip away at the opportunities of the vast majority of people, whilst making sure a small minority (who happen to be just like you) retain them, simultaneously attempting to make this everyone else's fault but yours (I'm thinking especially of the council grants here), and doing all of this from a central power base in the name of minimising the state in order to encourage the growth of social responsibility. Tying a pretty bow on chaos doesn't make it a good idea. It doesn't even make it an idea.

Living in a democracy comes with the risk that, on a potentially pretty regular basis, you will have to live under a government with which you disagree. At these points, it would be comforting if you could at least believe that they weren't incompetent. That their plans were planned. That they could actually explain what their driving philosophy is. That they didn't make policy in the way toddlers make sentences from alphabetty spaghetti - hurling the whole lot at the wall, and praying that some of it sticks. And that they realised that they are a part of society, and their actions have consequences, not just for their careers, but for the society of which they are a part, and which their actions shape.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A short note to Simon Hughes, re his comments about state school pupils and universities

Dear Simon

want more state school pupils to go to top universities? Good. So does everybody. Guess what - you can help! How? Simple.

You're a member of the government. So, how about you, as a member of the government, get that government to put the money back for the school buildings programme, stop underpaying teachers who work in the state sector (maybe you could pay them as much as they can earn in the private sector? That might help), stop underfunding state schools whilst blathering on about how important it is that Toby Young become a headmaster, stop thinking that 'marketisation' (which shouldn't be a concept because it shouldn't be a word) is in any way a valid model for things like education (parents generally don't want a choice of 20 schools, they want one. A good one), and stop going on about this fantasy demon university lecturer who cruelly spurns state school pupils because s/he's bad to the core - these people don't actually exist, politicians just make them up so they don't have to put their hands up to the systematic undermining of state education by government after government for quite some time now.

How about you remember that books and computers cost money, which makes learning once you're back at home expensive, and look into not taking away the EMA? Think about the fact that, as books and computers are expensive, sometimes people like to go to places which have them already, and read the books there, or borrow for them a while, or do online research in peace; maybe then you could help keep open some of those library thingies that may well be the only place where state school pupils can get hold of expensive specialist books that are ten a penny in private schools, or get decent internet access in a quiet environment.

Oh, and maybe stop giving out this image that Russell Group universities hate people who went to state school. Because that might put people who went to state school off applying to Russell Group universities. And universities can only actually give places to the people who've applied to them. That's sort of how it works.

Cos thing is, people who care about what sort of school you went to don't tend to become university lecturers. They tend to become things like Prime Minister, and Mayor of London (ask the Chancellor for his university nickname if you don't believe me). The sort of people who become university lecturers want to teach people who are bright and engaged. They don't actually care about anything else. If you ask, they're probably as annoyed as you are that they don't get more applicants from state schools. So perhaps you could look into doing a few things that might actually change that.


Here's a piece from the Guardian giving details of what Simon Hughes said.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Stupid cat.

I've never been one of those people who thinks that cats are the nippy-brained, intellectual sharp-shooters of the animal world. Mostly because I grew up with them. I used to have a stand up routine about how we only think cats are cleverer than dogs because they bury their shit, whereas dogs leave it for others to clear up, which is clearly us misunderstanding on so many levels it's untrue. Now I have the pleasure of the company of a cat who doesn't even know how to do the turd-last-respects thing properly.

She belongs to the two lovely men who are letting me stay in their spare room while I sort out my life. She has company, in the form of an older cat, who gets how the shit/litter equation works out. She doesn't do the learning from example thing, though. The cats have an indoor lav - one of those roofed-in, luxury litter trays with a carry handle and a petite entry hatch. This morning, straight after I'd emptied out all the old litter, and replaced it with sparkly new, non-clumped, virgin fresh-from-the-bag litter, she went zipping in.

A minute later, I heard banging. Because she was leaning out of the entrance to her box of shame, pawing at the lid. Seemingly unaware of the pristine, untouched litter around her with which she might commit her shit to the earth, she was instead trying to pull the roof down onto it. Literally trying to make the world fall in around her, just because she'd had a dump.

Later on, I saw a Toyota Yaris to which its owner had attached toy furry reindeer antlers, which just goes to show that everything's relative.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Fast away.

There are a few things I've ended up doing in 2010 that didn't even occur to me as possibilities at the end of 2009. Saying 'it's just the ending of Press Gang, but without the humour and eye candy'. Reading more Thucydides. Becoming obsessed with flushing the loo with melted snow. That kind of thing. I'm convinced it all shows my endless resourcefulness.

I'm flying solo again this New Year's Eve. I did last year, too, but that time not through choice, so this time I'm actually going to enjoy the solitude. Probably the strangest New Year's I had was at a party in a barn in Surrey: the electricity went at 11.30, and everyone took this as a cue to start singing and telling jokes like we were on a school trip. We weren't. We were in our early twenties. I also remember fondly standing on the seats in a tram shelter in Danziger Strasse to avoid the fireworks being aimed through the gap between the perspex and the pavement. When I was very young, my parents used to let me have a glass of Advocaat on New Year's Eve. Despite this, I still like alcohol. Nice try, though.

The only New Year's Resolution I've ever managed to keep was my 2008 one: not to add salt to my food before I've tasted it. Probably this is because no-one has since offered me a glass of Advocaat on New Year's Eve. I don't know if I have any resolutions this year. I expect if I had, they'd have occurred to me by now, but I'm keeping an open mind, just in case.

At the moment, everything's a bit mucky out, as the slush has mostly melted (a few large clumps of icy mess still knocking about on the side streets, but only a few), but we haven't had a proper rain yet. It seems right for the year to end a bit messy and understated. Well, comforting, anyhow.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

How to flush your loo with snow

I have learned many things this year. Most of them I'm keeping quiet about: they're known unknowns, or what Vince Cable says when he's being discreet. But there's one thing I really have to share. It's the very special knowledge I've gained in the past few days. About how you flush your loo when your pipes have frozen and you have no water supply anymore.

Cos you have to keep flushing your loo, right? That's a given. Imagine what would happen otherwise. The police (or someone else who can just demand to come into your house and you have to let them – the Queen, Jesus, one of those people from that programme) could come round on Important Business of National Importance, and then one of them needs to use the loo, or maybe they think someone bad has hidden something in the loo and they have to find it, or if it's the Queen maybe she just says 'show me your lavatory now' and you have to, because she's the Queen, of Australia, too, not just Britain, and even if you're a republican you still have to show her your loo at that point. That's a given. So it needs to keep being flushed.

But what with? All your other water needs can be met with bottled water. You can drink it, cook with it, wash with it (though having a sink wash using bottled water is a very confusing experience: where does that go on the 'decadent – Turn-of-century-East-End-of-London-lifestyle' spectrum?), all that. But COME ON: no-one is going to pour bottled water down the loo to flush it. That's a bit like going back in time to the period just before the French Revolution with three months' worth of food in a Porsche, and setting light to it in or around the Bastille area.

Also, if you do pour bottled water down a loo from the bottle, it won't have enough oomph about it actually to flush the loo. You definitely have to put it in a bucket first.

The answer is simple. What you do is: 
have snow outside. 
Then, you put the snow into buckets. 
After which, you transfer the snow from the buckets to a pan on the hob, and melt it (please lose all cartoon-inspired dreams about how quickly snow melts. The motherfuckering stuff takes FOREVER to resolve itself into a dew. FORFUCKINGEVER). You do this two, maybe three more times (it takes about five buckets of powdery snow per flush). You start to remember fondly the time when you had a sense of humour. You reflect on people's determination to simplify their lives and get back to nature, and the fact that those people have likely never had to flush their loo with snow. You assert, loudly, to the pan of snow that you just started stirring with a wooden spoon through reflex action, that Thoreau was almost certainly batshit mental. 
Then you take the pan into the bathroom, lift the loo seat, and pour with as much gusto / oomph as you can manage.

After that, usually, you have to go outside to get more snow.