Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Fish Custard (2)

Doctor Who is watched at several levels in an average household. The smallest child terrified behind a sofa or under a cushion, and the next one up laughing at him, and the elder one saying 'sh, I want to listen', and the parents saying 'isn't this enjoyable'.
Tom Baker

It's all about expectations, isn't it?
If you go to a Bob Dylan concert expecting Mozart [*] then you might find Bob a bit simplistic -- decent melodies but not very much happening. But if you expect Mozart to be like Dylan, then you might find him a bit fiddly and showy offy, not enough tunes and too many notes. I myself spent many years thinking that Bob Howard wrote bad fantasy; I recently discovered that he wrote the best pulp fiction in the whole wide world. (Starting to think of him as Bob rather than Robertee helped, I have to say.)
I've talked before about the two different Doctors Who – the Who that exists in the mind of the fans and the Who that exists in the nostalgic memories of people who used to watch it on television in the 1970s. The former is all Time Lord politics and back story, maybe Harold Saxon is the Monk, maybe River Song is the Master, if James Bond is Rassilon then who is Omega? The latter is Basil Brush and Marmite and Frank Bough and the dividend forecast is very good.
And by all means, make a hobby out of the Dalek Civil War and the Other and that peculiar confection in which baby Time Lords are knitted and the Doctor has a pet Badger. By all means believe that some kind of golden age came to an end when Ernie Wise died and they replaced the BBC globe with the BBC hippopotamus. But just occasionally, sit down with Horror of Fang Rock and remind yourself what it is we are talking about.
Which is the real Doctor Who, after all? The one we remember from when we were twelve? The one invented by fan-fiction writers? Or the actual DVD we watch on our actual television?
If I was going to write about The Prisoner remake, and I might, then I could safely talk about it as if it was a telly programme; quite interesting in places but no substitute for the real thing. A bit dull in the middle...Jesus was a bit wooden....Gandalf saved the'd have to have had a heart of stone to watch the scene in which [SPOILER DELETED] tops himself without laughing. I wouldn't waste ten words saying "Bugger all to do with Patrick McGoohan, though". My reader would probably send me a comment along the lines of "Well, duh!"
If you like modern Doctor Who, well, 10 to 1 you'd like anything with the Doctor Who label on it on general principles. Running back to the TARDIS is the equivalent of grasping a favourite teddy bear, quite harmless, possibly, but not a valid basis for a critical response. If you don't like modern Doctor Who, then, 10 to 1, you're one of those fanboys who's still sore at Jon Pertwee for leaving and thinks that everything should be in black and white. And don't dare try justify your position by referring to specific strengths or weaknesses in specific episodes. Only the geekiest of geeky geeks would quote facts about a TV show, and we really shouldn't pay much attention to what geeky geeks say. Simpsons Comic Book Guy. Simpsons Comic Book Guy.
We may have differed by a star rating here or there; we may have dissented about whether Blink really put that much of a dent in the reputation of Phillip K Dick and why The Satan Pit was so quickly forgotten but there was a pretty broad consensus on New Who Seasons 1 – 4. Started well...Chris and Billie...Dalek...gas masks....Tennant...Bad Wolf bay...started to lose the plot....Torchwood....Olympic Torch....dragging the earth....please god, make it stop....John Barrowman...John Barrowman....John Barrowman. But this time, there seems to be a definite split, and I find myself on the wrong side of it. Both my readers have surfed here because they want to listen to me doing some witty pithy slagging off and I'm on the defensive. Not since Deadly Assassin have I felt so guilty about the fact that I'm, you know, a Doctor Who fan but I'm, you know, how can I put this – really enjoying Doctor Who...


[*] Or Bob Dylan, admittedly, but let's not get bogged down in the first paragraph.

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Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Transports of Delight

A couple of weeks ago I was walking along the river, through Bristol's prestigious "impossible to get anything remotely resembling a glass of beer" quarter. On the courtyard in front of the Lloyds building (usually occupied by young men falling off skateboards) I stumbled upon what was obviously some kind of convention or flea market for bus enthusiasts.

You may think that "bus" and "enthusiast" is a contradiction in terms, and I may think that "bus" and "enthusiast" is a contradiction in terms, but the people who were walking around the convention writing down bus numbers in their notebooks were clearly very enthusiastic indeed about buses. And there are apparently enough of them for it to be worth holding a convention in Bristol. There were perhaps 50 or 100 buses: buses that didn't look much more ancient than the ones one waits for on Stokes Croft; buses that looked so old that you wondered why they didn't have horses attached to them. Mostly local and country buses; green buses and buses with regional insignia and heraldry. I venture to say that the fans of scarlet painted London Transport diesel engine 97 horsepower London buses have their own conventions, and laugh (ha!) at regional bus fans. (I am city kid. Buses are red and it is only in quaint places outside the Thames TV area where you visit elderly relatives that buses are green. I have heard that if you stand outside Cockfosters tube (where the London Underground comes to an end) you will eventually see buses turning from red to green, and do in part believe it.) Some of them wore the uniforms that bus conductors wore in the days when there were bus conductors.

I assume that an individual collector can't possibly own his own bus. Presumably, there must be vintage bus societies, and each vehicle must represent thousands of pounds and thousands of hours work by society members. I picture them packing up their sandwiches and piling into the society bus, and then converging on Bristol at an agreed time, like Hells Angels or the Caravan Club. (The last time I went to Bournemouth I discovered the phenomenon of the costumed marching band: a large group of local men in Spider-Man suits doing cheer-leader majorette type marching, followed by, as it may be, a group from Clacton all dressed as Buzz Lightyear or a group from Lewes all dressed as Vikings. Can you imagine a better excuse to visit a different English seaside town each month during the summer? Well, yes, so can I, but that isn't the point I'm trying to make here.) And of course, there were trestle tables on which people were selling antique bus time tables, back numbers of bus magazines, cigarette cards with buses on them, and old Corgi models of buses, many of which are much sort after by the sorts of people who collect corgi models of buses.

Now, I have always taken it for granted that someone, somewhere knows about buses. If I were making a movie set in Weston Super Mare in the 1950s, an admittedly remote contingency, I would expect to be able to give someone a ring and say "There's a scene where my hero is waiting on the sea front to meet his girlfriend off the bus. Please, what kind of a bus should it be?" Some people believe that history grows wild on the Internet. You can close history departments, fire the academics, give all the universities a restructuring they'll never forget, and when the BBC wants to make a lavish costume drama about the life of a kitchen maid at the time of bloody Mary, trivial data about Tudor dish-washing will magically fall from the sky. But I guess I'd been assuming that bus experts were a species of Local Historian or a sub-phylum of Vintage Car fanatic. But no. It appears that there are people whose whole life is buses.

I imagine they are just as bored with people who say that you wait hours for a bus enthusiast and then a hundred come along at once as I am with people (and I'm looking at you, Venue magazine) who can't see a meeting of strip illustrators without saying "Zap!" and "Kapow!"

At this point in the proceedings you would very naturally expect me to start using expressions about "getting a life", wondering whether these bus enthusiasts would ever "grow up" or if indeed they had ever "got laid". But in fact my reaction to a courtyard full of people wondering whether this 1/76 die cast ABC model West Midlands PTR Volvo TRA 5005 was in better condition than that 1/76 die cast ABC model West Midlands PTR Volvo TRA5005 was to cry out "Brother!" or at any rate "Distant cousin twice removed on my Auntie Annie's side!"

In my third favourite pub there is sometimes a group of people who spend the evening talking about their capacitors and their resistors. It turns out they are radio amateurs. Not even Citizens Band: I don't think C.B ever really took off in this country. Proper Hancock style Radio 'Ams. How can it possibly be fun to use home made radios (and Morse Code, for heaven's sake) to communicate with people from other lands in an age when electronic mail, and, I believe, telephones, are relatively common? There's only one possible reaction to this kind of stupidity. "Fellow geeks!"

There is literally nothing better in the world than a group of friends getting together to do something they like. When it's something that hardly anyone else likes, something which everybody else thinks is quite silly – something which in the cold light of day, even they realize is quite silly – that makes it even better. Rather noble. Rather Corinthian, if that's the word I'm groping for. I don't know why the 1972 Pagham – Littlehampton time table was so much less beautiful than the 1964 version had been. Why should I? They don't know that the 1996 invasion of Earth by the Mekon was only defeated because the human race bothered to practice redundant skills like horse-riding and sword-fighting which the Treens had long abandoned.

So. I hope you all enjoy your big game of kickabout very much indeed. But please – don't pretend it actually matters. And do try not to kill anybody afterwards.

You've done this one before - Ed

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Best Political Essay Ever?

A new politics...?

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Martin Carthy / Jim Causely / Emily Portman

Bath Fringe Festival (Tent)
4 June

Martin Carthy wasn't allowed to do an encore. He had already sung all twenty four stanzas of Prince Heathen, including the twiddly bits between the verses. So the show had gone on 15 minutes longer than planned: any later and the tent might have lost its licence...

He also did Lochmaben Harper, which I'm sure I've never heard before, about a harper who makes one of those unwise bets that he can steal the king's favourite horse. He (Martin) claims that it is the most satisfying song in the repertoire. When you know as many songs as Martin Carthy you must have a lot of favourites. (The harper's wife comes up with a ruse to win the bet. Martin says it's always the musician's wife who has to think up a "plan B".)
He also does a lot of the old staples, of course, including the most spine-tingling version of the The Trees They Grow So High I've ever heard.

Jim Causely is notably less silly without Mawkin to banter with, but these things are relative: the set includes a song about a ferret to the tune of My Grandfather's Clock! (And Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, of course.)
His accordian playing is pretty good. There's a poetic vibe to the set. He sings a version of a Dylan Thomas poem about looking for "long linbed summer girls" on the beach. (
"If I tell you who it's by, you'll say "meh, Streets of London"). He also does his own rendition of
"All Souls Day" by Charles Causely, of whom he turns out to be a distant relation.

Emily Portman, who I've never heard before or of, sang a lot of down tempo songs of her own, cleverly and obliquely inspired by fairy tales. They were very dense and I'd like to hear them again. I enjoyed the
jolly traditional number about wife beating ("He put the salt-hide on her back / Hide woman hide /He beat her blue, he beat her black / That'll lay down your pride"). I'm not sure we actually needed the additional verse in which the man gets his comeuppance: we could probably have taken it for granted that the singer didn't approve of domestic violence. She finishes with a Lal Waterson song in which Martin Carthy joins her. Isn't it lovely that such a senior performer will play guitar for the relative newcomers who are supporting him?

As a result of the lady spending quite such a long time refusing to cry when the heathen dog tells her to, I missed the last train back to Bristol and had to sit on Bath Station until 1.15 AM. Worth it, though, definitely worth it.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Nancy Kerr and James Fagan

Jazz@FutureInns Bristol
19 May

I suppose you are are expecting me to say something interesting or clever about this weeks performers.

Well, then.

Nancy comes from England and James comes from Australia.

She plays the fiddle and he plays the ouzouki. I know this because I overheard him telling somebody in the interval that that's what it was. Otherwise, I might have thought that it was a guitar.

They just had a little baby boy named Hamish, who will one day be able to tell his friends that his granny was Madeleine the Rag Doll.

They used to live on a boat on the river outside Bath, but have recently moved into a house because of the baby, which brings them out in a lovely song about sailors longing for the land.

They do a nice line in clever song medleys, so that Thaxted (I vow to thee, my country) turns into Sad To Be Leaving Old England, with just a level teaspoon of Hard Times Of Old England for seasoning.

Nancy has a delicate, little-girl-lost voice; James is more robust, less folk songery.

Nancy sings a lovely gypsy influenced version of Barbary Allen which she says is the first song she remembers her mother singing.

James opens the second half with some contemporary Australian tunes. Blood Stained The Soil of Australia was completely new to me: one of those leftie anthems which makes you want to go on strike regardless of your previous political affiliations. It was written by their late friend Alistair Hulett: I have to say I liked their version better. James also does a not at all folkie but very good song called The Long Run apparently written by a group of left-wing economics students.

The Australian side of the partnership definitely dominates tonight's set: the first half finished with the mighty Farewell to the Gold -- not quite as good as Nic Jones version, but then, what is? Nancy contributes her own ballad about Ned Kelly's final days in Jerilderee. Their next album will consist entirely of original Nancy songs.

Words like "sweet" come to mind when I try to describe the partnership; the music, even the angry political songs are light, melodious, catchy.

Hamish gurgles occasionally from the back row: we're assured he likes Mum and Dad's songs and will go to sleep if we join in the choruses. From time to time during a riff they catch each other's eyes and grin or laugh. The venue is ridiculously empty, but you can tell how much they enjoy being on the stage together.

So, I shall attempt to say something clever and insightful about the evening:

"Nancy Kerr and James Fagan play nice songs, beautifully."

And they seem to be nice people as well.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Songs About the Global Credit Crisis

Good Song About The Global Credit Crisis

Very Good Song About The Global Credit Crisis

Very, Very Good Song About The Global Credit Crisis

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Habemus Papam!
And let's be clear -- when the Blue Nasties start cutting schools, libraries, swimming pools, re-installing Discipline into schools, exorcising homosexuals on the NHS, following President Palin to war against Iran, Korea, France etc -- everyone in the Labour Party will say "That's a price well worth paying for us not talking to the Liberals."

Either the next election (about three months from now, I should think) will be fought on a new, sane, PR based constitution, in which case I will say "Good on you, Mr Klegg, you canny political operator you, you certainly deserve a shot at being Prime Minister under our new democratic system." Or it will not be fought on the daft old first past the post system, in which case I will certainly not vote for Klegg.

Or anyone else.
Do we nearly have a government yet?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Folk Against Fascism Village Fete

Royal Festival Hall, London
May 2

"I've lost Saint George in the Union Jack / It's my flag, Nick, and I want it back..."

Steve Knightley's on-the-spot rewriting of his anthemic folk manifesto provided the high point in an afternoon that was entirely made up of high points.

The conceit behind the Folk Against Fascism Mayday event was that it should be an English village fete. So, sure enough, the sky clouded over, a persistent drivel drizzle descended, and the stalls and dancing were moved into the foyer of the Festival Hall. There was a cake stall and a stall selling Imagined Village bath-bombs and Jim Causley providing possibly a new definition of "good sport" by spending the afternoon in the persona of a gypsy fortune teller. When I arrived, the Oyster Band's celidah was coming to end with loud song about having been up since the break of day-o because it was May-o and winter had gone away-o. This led very naturally into an outbreak of morris dancing.

This was the only part of the afternoon that was really dampened by the English weather. It isn't really as festive to watch morris in the bar of a concert hall as it would have been on the banks of the Thames, and it was perhaps harder to hear the accordions and fiddles than it should have been. I don't know if the groups were chosen specifically to counteract the myth that morris dancing is only done by elderly, beery males: there were all female groups and plenty of young'uns and two ladies dressed up as a horse. The crowd was most pleased by the rappa dancing (that's a sort of sword dance where you get skilfully entangled in strips of leather) but regional pride requires that my favourites were the young men from Brizzle who waved their hankies and leapt in the air with what is technically known as "gusto".

I know not the first thing about morris, but like very much the fact that people take so much trouble to do something which is pretty obviously very difficult and very silly. Village green preservation society, and all that.

Pausing only for a slice of lemon cake, we got to the the meat of the afternoon: a mini-concert of traditional music played by people the Daily Express would consider to be insufficiently indigenous. First up was the remarkable Boka Halut, fronted by Roger Watson (traditional English songs on the accordion) and Musa Mboob (Ghanan-speaking and playing some kind of African drum arrangement.) As Roger Watson told the story, Mboob had remarked that English folk music made him want to dance; Roger replied that African drums made him want to dance. "So let's put them together and make the whole world dance." I don't always go for "fusion" stuff but this works, spot on, simply because both ends of the music were just so damn good. Watson sings a more or less straight John Barleycorn to which Mboob adds a refrain about the evils of beer; then there's a rewritten Haul Away Johnny-Oh which points up the connections between English sea shanties and African work songs. The sax player is German, and notes that he wanted to play the gig because he's only too aware of what happens when the far right appropriates traditional music. Apparently, it only now becoming possible to sing traditional German folk songs in Germany again.

This was followed by an all-to-brief set by Tom Paley and Thomas McCarthy. Tom Paley does bluegrass banjo stuff. He's eighty two, Jewish, lives in England, grew up in New York and once played in a duo with Woody Guthrie, I will say again, once played in a duo with Woody Guthrie. Thomas McCarthy is from an Irish traveller background: apparently he turned up at Cecil Sharp folk club one evening and asked if they'd like to hear his family songs. He sings genuine, uncollected, source-singery songs about getting drunk and waking up with a pig, witnessing the end of the old travelling days and accidentally marrying a lady of 90. It doesn't get more authentic than this.

I may be in a minority of one here, but I was less convinced by Dogan Mehmet. He's clearly a very accomplished violinist, and I have no objection at all to listening to that Turkish Cypriot starts-slow-and-gets-faster-and-faster fiddle music. But this kind of fusion didn't really say anything to me about folk music. It felt like Turkish music which just happened to have lyrics about raggle taggle gypsies. Everyone else in the room obviously thought he was sensational.

By which point, it was time for us lucky ticket holders to proceed into the main hall for the main event.

As everyone knows, I don't think that Chumbawamba can do a single thing wrong. They opened their set with the unaccompanied traditional "arise ye men of freedom the world seems upside down" and followed it with the modern anti-facebook anthem "Add Me". (Once again, I loved it that there were people in the audience who didn't know the song, and were hearing the silly pun in the refrain for the first time and laughing out loud.) It was an absolute revelation to hear them in a concert hall with a classical music acoustic: the detail and skill of their akapella close harmonies just shine through. There was no particular sense that this was a specifically anti-fascist concert – everyone was just doing a set of their songs – but, of course, Chumbawamba are always political and it was inevitable that there would be thunderous, thunderous applause for the mighty "Day The Nazis Died" (with all the verses, this time.) Heidi and Belinda provide the rattles for "Wagner at the Opera", and come on to the stage to help them "Torture James Hetfield." They wind up with "El Fusilado", the song about the man who survived the firing squad, with the audience clicking and clapping as appropriate. Utterly perfect set. If anyone asks me to explain my political beliefs at the moment, I tell them to listen to Chumbawamba albums. Not that anyone ever does. (Ask me, I mean.)

Show of Hands came on next. It could probably be argued that, more than anyone else, Show of Hands is responsible for Folk Against Fascism's coming into being. Chumbawamba are, as we know, anarchists: Mr Beer and Mr Knightley's songs often seem small-c conservative, although Steve might say that he is articulating characters' points of views, not necessarily his own. The opening number, "Country Life", is clearly looking back towards a better rural past: not a pastoral utopia, but a time when the small holder could scrape a living, before Tescos and foot and mouth finished him. "Cousin Jack" is a thumping anthem for the Cornish diaspora, which ends with miner in South Africa seeing a future in which the English buy up his cottages as holiday homes, and the Spanish fish in their waters. [*]

And then there is "Roots", the great, heartfelt, three-songs-in-one crie-de-couer for the English to stop despising their own folk-culture. With Indian, Asian, Afro Celts, it's in their blood, below the belt / they're singing and dancing all night long / so what have they got right that we've got wrong. Steve is quite clear: of course it wasn't intended to be taken up as a theme song for the extreme right (I believe he took legal action to get the song removed from the BNPs website). The target of the song is, if anyone, Kim "bullshit" Howells, the culture-hating junior culture minister who (defending Nulabour's bonkers plan to make pub landlords buy a performing rights licence if anyone sung a song their pub) opined that "listening to three Somerset folk singers sounds like hell". The song is demanding the return of the flag from the far right, not from the immigrants. I chickened out of wearing my Union Jack tie to the event, which I rather regret.[**]

I don't like everything Show of Hands do: I can't really get my head round the easy ranting of "Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed" (A.I.G, geddit?). Mr Tilston and Mr Wood have both written much more reasoned songs about the Global Credit Crisis. But their treatment of the traditional "Keys of Canterbury" is quite wonderful. When they get into their groove, hardly anyone provides a better stage experience: "Cousin Jack", "Santiago" and "Roots" are all handed over to the audience with Steve getting into "caller" mode -- " 'where there's a mine'....'copper and lead'....little bit louder.... raise the last time."

After the interval, we find that someone has placed song sheets on our chairs. Jackie (Jim Moray's Sister) Oates comes onto the stage unannounced, and sings the unaccompanied tale of the sweet nightingale that sings in the valley below, below, which sings in the valley below, whereupon the lights go out, and then red spotlights shine into the audience, and an uncharactersitcally smartly dressed Jon Boden launches into the Prickle Eye Bush. I don't think I've heard Bellowhead do this before, although it's a regular part of Spiers and Boden's act when they're being a duo. Over-the-top even by Bellowhead's high standards, the brass section go into a Morcambe and Wise skip-dance routine at one point; there's a silent-movie style tension-fanfare in the middle of the final verse ("Oh my love have you brought me gold...and silver to set me free?" da-da-da-da "oh yes, I have brought you gold...") and many audience participatory repeats of the last chorus. Sensational. I rather think that 20 years from now, old folkies will still be saying "Aye, lad, I were there when Bellowhead sung Oh The Prickley Bush at the festival hall."

They rattle their way through a good mixture of old and new material: we get Fakenham Fare (which passes for a "slow" track where B'head are concerned) and Haul Away Johnny Oh and finish with the New York Girls, off their forthcoming album. It can be Portsmouth girls or London girls, depending on where you are but you'll always wake up stark naked on the bed thinking that "you have to get up early to be smarter than a whore."

It is possible to have too much of a good thing, and I can sometimes think that by the end of a Bellowhead set I've been repeatedly beaten over the head with a mellodian. In between the songs, there were more unaccompanied acoustic numbers, by Jo Freya and Tim Van Eyken which mitigated the overwhelmingness of it all.

I had wondered what the climax of the event would be – I mean, having had "Roots" and the "Day the Nazi Died" and Bellowhead starting with an earthquake and building up to a climax , how do you end the evening? (When I saw Spiers and Boden in Bristol, they'd suggested that the three groups would be trying to sing each other's songs, which would have been interesting... I still haven't quite got over the fact that I missed Bellowhead covering "Fairy Tale of New York" at their New Year gig.) But in the event, and very sensibly, they kept the conceit of the village fete going and brought everyone onto the stage, including the Voice Lab choir, and sung unaccompanied again, three traddy songs, with the audience joining in off the song sheet for "The Larks They Sung Melodious" and "Farewell Lovely Nancy."

In a way, I was surprised how apolitical the event was. But this was really as perfect an end to the evening as you could possibly have had. It's Mayday. It's pissing down. An English (and, let's be honest here, entirely mainly white) audience are singing English songs. And what's brought us together is a pressing need to say "Bollocks to Nick Griffin."

Bollocks to Nick Griffin. It's our flag too, and we want it back.

[*] When I heard Chris Wood a couple of months back, he noted that his own song, the Cottagers Reply, contained the line "I need the earth that bred my race" and admitted that it would be possible to misinterprate it.

[**] I've only just understood the line "I've lost St George in the Union Jack": I think he means that Englishness (warm beer, morris dancing, folk songs, ye diggers all stand up) has been subsumed him Britishness (land of hope and glory, rule Brittania).

While it is literally true that I have never heard Bellowhead play The Prickle Eye Bush before, if I had a copy of their Eponymous mini-album, I would have done....
"I don't want to go...."

Friday, May 07, 2010

OK. I am quite happy with Klegg saying that he will sign a pact with anyone, up to and including Mephistopheles, provided the offer voting reform. But he mustn't prop up the Blue Nasties for anything less than constitution reform. If you are going to sell your birthright, make damn sure you actually get the pottage.
So, basically, Klegg says he will prop up the Cameron and continue to "argue for" fairness.

Can he really be saying that he'll anoint the Blue Party -- who won't promise any kind of constitutional reform, and keep out the Red Party -- who will have a referendum on voting reform?

And I voted for this guy, when I could have voted for the identity card anti-civil libertarian nutters who lied about a the homophobic old etonian nutters who like national service and was a very good "Legalize Drugs" independent. If I'd voted for him, his score might have reached double figures.
Sure, most of what's wrong with England today can be blamed on Rupert Murdoch, and sure, the Sun is an odious little rag, and everything. But you can't deny that "UKIP brought down by right wing" is a bloody good headline.
How democracy works. 64% of those who bothered to vote didn't vote for the Blue Party. This is an overwhelming mandate for the Blue Party. (71% of those who bothered to vote didn't vote for the Red Party. This amounts to complete annihilation of the Red Party.) 52% if those who bothered to vote voted for either the Red Party or the Yellow Party. A joint Red-Yellow government would therefore be an affront to democracy.
Man in the Nasty Express comments section goes to the heart of the issue: "Brown should not have been allowed to stand as prospective Prime Minister on the basis of election in Scotland."
John says it is now impossible for their not to be a hung parliament.
The Nasty Mail says that Cameron has earned the right to "rule" Britain. Does this qualify as treason against the crown, d'you think?
Cameron: "I don't 'old with all this constitutional stuff. I'm unilaterally declaring that this is an electoral college and I'm president, so there."
I wish I was a member of the Lib Dems so I could resign if Klegg hands power to the Tories.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

What he said, only with fight scenes.


For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something
They invest in....

David Cameron is going to restore discipline in schools.
"Restore." Fine word, "restore".
You might think that the "conservative" party would be the "leave things as they are" party; the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" party; the "even if it is broke it's got such a complex mechanism that fiddling with it will probably only make it worse" party.
But Cameron's Conservatives think that everything is broken, especially Britain, so everything has to be fixed. The "conservative" party is now the party of change. Time for a change, we can't go on like this, that black chappie in America kept banging on about change, and everyone liked him, for a few weeks, at least.
"Restore." There was a time when we had this thing called "discipline". Now, we do not have this thing called "discipline". Vote for us, and we will have this thing called "discipline" again. Vote Tory. Vote nostalgia. Vote golden age.
Even if you buy the idea that schools aren't as good as they used to be, then to talk about restoring "discipline" makes exactly the same amount of sense as talking about restoring "weather". Oh, we used to have so much more weather in the old days! But then the pinko liberals came along, and we don't have weather any more! But elect us, and we'll have just as much weather as we used to have in the old days! If school A gives every child who gets through the gates before 8.55 a jelly baby, and school B keeps every child who come through the gates after 9.01 in at playtime, then school A does not have more discipline than school B, any more than there is more weather on snowy days than on sunny days. School A and School B have different kinds of discipline, and -- depending on your philosophical prejudices -- you may prefer one kind to the other. If you shared my philosophical prejudices -- which are the right and correct philosophical prejudices -- then you would prefer School C which lets the kids arrive at whatever time they like doesn't have any punishments of any kind, makes everyone bathe naked in the brook and gets closed down after a ferocious lion and a mob of medieval knights rampages through it. But I rather doubt that my philosophical prejudices ought to be imposed on everybody by central government fiat. I rather think that parents, teachers and school governors should sort them out for themselves.
So how is Dave going to restore the lost golden age when children were well-behaved, summers were longer, women were braver and soldiers were more beautiful?
1: If a child is naughty, Teacher may say "I am going to keep you in after school tomorrow evening." Dave thinks that Teacher ought to be able to say "I am going to keep you in after school this evening."
2: If a child is very naughty indeed, Teacher may kick him out of school. But if his parents think that this was unfair, they can ask to have the incident looked at again by special "getting kicked out of school" tribunals, who may decide that Teacher over-reacted and let the child go back to school. Dave thinks it would be better if Teacher's decision were final.
3: Nearly all schools make children wear clothes of the same colour and with a badge of some sort on them. Dave thinks that the schools which don't do this kind of thing ought to start. Some schools give older pupils some responsibility to supervise younger ones. Dave thinks this is a good idea.
4: Teacher is worried that if he searches a child to see if he has brought bangers, catapults, pea shooters, flick knives or crack cocaine to school (or if he physically separates two children who are having a scuffle in the playground) he may be be accused of being a paedo by the child's parents, the News of the World, or the Strasburg Court of Human Rights. Dave thinks he shouldn't be.
These ideas appear to be
a: entirely non-controversial
b: trivial
c: non ideological and
d: not likely to do very much harm or very much good
It is actually quite cute that poshboy thinks that in the oikish state schools of broken Britain, feral drug crazed hoodies hold everyone to ransom with knives and guns -- but that if we made a rule that they had to wear blazers with the school motto on them they would
a: start wearing the damn blazers and
b: stop murdering each other.
I would have thought that point 3 was just the kind of "big government" micromanagement that Dave disapproves of. Some schools seem to do quite well with a uniforms and prefects ethos, and others to do equally well with counselling and soft furniture. Point 4 is tilting at windmills: the notion that a teacher can't pull two fighting boys apart because of newman rites and plitickle krectness is, I suspect, a fantasy, like the fantasy (which Gordon believes in) about schools abolishing football and netball because they are too competitive, or the fantasy (which Dave believe in) that teachers are not allowed to put sticking plaster on a grazed knee without filling out complex risk assessment paperwork.
Point 1 is more fun. I was at school in the idyllic days before "discipline" had been un-restored and when every episode of Doctor Who was scientifically accurate. We certainly had a rule that said you couldn't be given a detention without 24 hours notice, although it was more honoured in the breach than the observance. (Our psychotic headmaster reasoned you must have known that you were planning to be naughty when you set out for school in the morning, and should therefore have informed your mother of this over breakfast, and therefore had had your 24 hours notice.) But nowadays, few children live within walking distance of their school ("greater choice"); and no family can pay the mortgage without two parents in full time work ("joy as house prices go up for the tenth month in a row"); and few families are prepared to allow children to travel to school unaccompanied ("if you take your eye off him for one second he'll be eaten by the big bad venables"). So it would seem that Nanny does need 24 hours notice if Johnny is going to be late home, so she can rearrange the Chauffeur's schedule. Carers do need to know if their kids are going to be home at 4 o'clock or 5 o'clock.
Dave goes on and on and on about the child who was expelled from school for attacking someone with a knife, but reinstated by an appeals panel. I bet there were two sides to the story. It may even turn out that it's the kind of story that isn't literally true, in the same way that the banning of conkers and sticking plaster and netball and the Hitler Diaries were not literally true. But surely most people would agree that children and their parents have some kinds of rights? If it's reasonable for parents to fight and plead and appeal and campaign and move house in order to get their kid into "the best" state school then surely they've got some right of appeal if that kid is chucked out of the school they fought so hard to get him into?
Parents have a theoretical right to choose "the best" state school for their child; but state schools do not have the right to select pupils based on ability. (Except in Kent. Obviously.) This has made some people suspicious that some headmasters are using their right to expel (or "exclude") pupils, not so much as a punishment, but more as a sort of back door selection procedure: Jimmy got kicked out of school, not because he drew a dirty picture on the walls of the girls toilet, but because he's not very bright, speaks with a common accent, doesn't come from the right side of town and was going to get the sort of exam results that would bring our Average Grades right down. So some sort of appeals procedure would seem necessary on the ground of natural justice. It's all very well for Dave to say that headteachers should be captains of their own ship, but we don't want them sending the whole school off on a fruitless personal quest to exact revenge on the white whale, do we? Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ask Tony.
This is, incidentally, why we could never go back to the good old caning days, however much contributors to the Daily Mail's comment section might salivate at the idea. You could probably still whip up some support for the idea of mild physical violence being part of the learning process. But since the 1980s, we've become very much less tolerant of arbitrary authority; and much more concerned about fairness and transparency. School punishments are summary punishments almost by definition -- and while we're probably prepared to put up with a miscarriage of justice which results in the offender spending a few minutes in the naughty corner, I don't think we're any longer be prepared to say that if Teacher decides to hit Johnny then Johnny should just accept it and be hit even if he didn't do anything wrong because Teacher is Teacher and therefore always right even when he isn't.
And this, I suspect, is what Dave really means by "discipline". He doesn't mean the various tricks of the trade that teachers use to secure an orderly classroom where they can teach a good lesson. He means the idea that in the Olden Days, we did what Teacher or Headmaster said up to and including letting them hurt us -- just because they were Teachers and Headmasters. Arbitrary authority. Knowing your place. You can see why someone who aspires to run the country would like the idea.

It may be even nastier than that. When they heard the news that call-me-Dave was going to restore discipline and go back to calling Snickers Marathon, the Nasty Mail ran an unfunny cartoon in which a teacher was installing all manner of ghoulish torture devices – the stocks, a rack, an iron maiden – in his office. Now, Nasty Mail readers don't actually think that naughty children ought to have spikes driven through their eyes. At least, I assume they don't. Had the cartoon appeared in the Guardian, the message would have been "Careful! Restoration of 'discipline' could so easily become a pretext for cruelty!" But Mac was clearly saying to Mail readers "Don't get your hopes up! This talk of 'discipline' won't go nearly as far as it ought to."
Two days later, the Nasty Mail dedicated it's front page to a story about a teacher who had, and I'm not making this up, beaten a child about the head with a heavy piece of weight training equipment, shouting "Die! Die! Die!" (This was deemed to be a bigger news item than the third and final Prime Ministerial debate, in which most people thought Dave had performed rather well.) Instead of locking him up and throwing away the key, which is what the Mail usually advises in these kinds of cases, the jury had decided to "free" the teacher concerned, which both the judge and the Nasty Mail described as a common sense decision.
Now, the Mail headline writers don't do "nuance" very well. What the judge felt was "a common sense" decision was convicting the Teacher of the very serious crime of "causing grievous bodily harm", but acquitting him of the very, very serious crime of "causing grievous bodily harm with intent." (That is: it was a criminal attack, but not a pre-meditated criminal attack.) He was "freed", not in the sense that the judge thought that breaking children's heads was not a serious offence; but in the sense that he felt that "time served" was sufficient punishment for the serious criminal offence he'd been convicted of. He also took into account the teacher's state of mind when he "went postal". It has to be said that the Nasty Mail isn't usually sympathetic to the idea of criminals getting lenient sentences because they are poorly rather than bad. They usually explain that we've gone soft on crime, political correctness gone mad, rebalance justice in favour of the victim, what about our human rights, bring back the rope, string em up. It is hard to avoid the sense that in this case they were beatifying the attacker and demonizing the victim because the one was a teacher and the other a pupil: in the good old days, when a teacher wanted to crack your skull open, you took it like a man and laughed about it with your mates in the playground afterwards. Of course a fundamentally decent teacher will, sooner or later, physically maim a pupil who has been told off several times in the last term, who is pretending to sword fight with a ruler and who uttered a word beginning with F that no Nasty Mail readers, and certainly no teacher in a comprehensive school, has ever heard uttered before. In the face of such overwhelming evil, how many of us wouldn't reach for the dumbbell?
Simon Heffer, writing in the Nasty Telegraph, made the point extremely succinctly:
Give tormented teachers the right to fight back...
Finally flipped and hit a particularly revolting offender....
The sorts of children who behave so badly often have parents who are little better than animals...
And that's the point, isn't it? We aren't talking about human beings who occasionally need to be re-orientated towards the straight and narrow with a clip round the ear or a whack on the backside. We aren't talking about being firm with young men so they grow up to be warriors and bankers. We are talking about a war situation; a war between Us, readers of the Nasty Mail and the Nasty Telegraph, and Them, the Chavs, the Oiks, the underclass, literally bestial, sub-human, feral, little better than animals. In the war against the sub-humans, it is perfectly reasonable for a teacher to want to indulge in violent retaliation. Mr Harvey's only offence was that he struck one of the morlocks rather too hard.
What Cameron proposes are some minor bureaucratic changes to the regulations about keeping naughty boys in at play time. (It's pathetic: really, really, pathetic.) But when he writes the word "discipline" in three foot high letters on poster hoardings, he intends his followers to hear: "the absolute, arbitrary power of teacher to use whatever means necessary in the war between you, your children, and the sub humans."
Everyone on the amusing comedy Prime Ministers debate agreed that Immigration was a bad thing, a problem, a thing that we need a solution to. And I'm shouting at the TV: "No! Immigration is a Good Thing! I live near St Pauls, I lived in Tooting Bec, I like the fact that that the Hindu Temple and the Salvation Army citadel are on the same street, I like the fact that I see women in Bristol wearing exotic Somali headwear, I am no more freaked by the lady who wears specs over her hijab than I am by the man with a pierced tongue or the guy in the gym with a tatoo on his arse – it seems weird to me but some of the stuff I do probably seems weird to them, it's really, really great that everyones different and I really, postively, genuinely, love it when I hear kids talking a mixture of British Asian and Brizzle ("where's Rashid to, innit?").
And everyone on the amusing comedy Prime Minister's Debate nodded sagely and said yes, discipline, discipline, that's what yes we need (they've all developed yes Tony's habit of putting the word "yes" in the middle of sentences) and I'm yes shouting at the TV, "No, we want less discipline, less rules, less arbitrary authority, less schooling, hardly any punishments, hardly any violence, hardly any coercion, happy kids, less literacy hours, less numeracy hours, no football unless you like football, more free time to read comic books."
And everyone on the amusing comedy Prime Minister's Debate agreed that in the middle of yes a really bad recession you had to coerce the unemployed into going to yes work because when shops and business are closing (Mrs yes Thatcher already closed all the factories, and, incidentally, David, she was the one who stopped teachers from hitting children) when shops are closing and people are being laid off then of course the main reason people are unemployed is because they are lazy and don't want to work. On your effing bike.
I am not a hard working family. I'm a lazy singleton. I don't believe in discipline. I like foreigners. I don't want anyone to be tough on criminals. I don't want to be tough on the unemployed. I don't want to be tough on anybody, and I certainly don't want anybody to tough on me. I want to vote for the Nice Party, but there isn't one. I am on no-one's side, because no-one is on my side.
Vote lizard, otherwise the wrong lizard might get elected.