Journal, 22nd April – 4th May

May 5th, 2014 by Mike Morris

This week I did an edit on the first third of The Book. Terrifyingly, I read it and thought that it wasn’t that bad. This is a somewhat narcissistic opening, I know; the main reason I’m putting this here, now, is so that I will have told The General Public – or at least, the four of them that read this website – that it has reached the one-third done stage, and that will force me to finish the damn thing rather than giving it up in a quivering fit of raw fear.

OK, now I’m wondering if that last sentence makes sense to anyone reading. The fear isn’t logical, I know. Still it’s not the first time that Making Something That Actually Looks Like It Might Be Okay has just hit me with this dread sense of responsibility. The problem with trying to make something worthwhile is that, until it actually becomes worthwhile, all you’ve really got is a gaping opportunity to make an arse of it and piss all over it and let yourself down. When I speak to other “creative” types (god, I hate that word) they don’t seem to suffer from this, at least not outwardly. They talk about ideas as opportunities, they see projects as exciting avenues to do things; it seems to me that they see exciting possibilities, not windows of great potential fuckups and desperate, sweaty, self-inflicted regrets. Or maybe they just don’t want to bore other people complaining about it.

All this leads me to suspect that temperamentally, I’m not actually that well-suited to the creative process. With hindsight, this makes my choice of profession / pastimes look like a mistake. I’d have been a bloody good accountant, I reckon.

*

I’m writing this on a train, which has just been colonised six screaming children and a young Glaswegian couple who’ve decided that giving them enormous quantities of chocolate and Pepsi is a brilliant way to settle them in for a (presumably) eight-hour train journey, and an iPod dock and speakers are a perfectly reasonable thing to give your children on a train. There’s no reason to get particularly annoyed about this, and even though being judgemental is fun there are few things in life more annoying than people who get priggish about other people’s parenting. Besides the obvious answer is to switch carriages and forget it.

So I just have to figure out a way of moving without making it obvious I’m moving away from this gaggle of kids. I could pretend to be getting off at the next station but, if I’m spotted, it’ll become obvious that I moved and employed subterfuge to do it. It’s also possible that people don’t notice and judge me anywhere near as much as I assume they do, but I’ve never been prepared to take a chance on this and I don’t want to start now.

*

I’ve been doing plenty of travelling, given the comparative rarity of being in Britain and it not raining. Not so long ago I saw the Rhyl Flats wind farm, one of the most paralysingly beautiful sights I’ve seen for some time; blades turning silently out to sea, parallax shuffling the grey silhouettes of the windmills past each other, the slow noiseless motion of the blades contrasting with the stolid stillness of the towers. It was quite lovely.

Not everyone would agree, which is fine: they might prefer the slow sweep of the uninterrupted horizon, and that’s fine too. What does bug me is people who don’t like the look of wind farms, and therefore argue that they don’t work either. We know that the spurious crap about their inefficiency is post-rationalised because, while there are plenty of people who accept wind farms as an ugly but unfortunate necessity, nobody ever says that wind farms are a conspiracy by the green lobby and don’t really generate electricity and then follows it up with “it’s a shame, because they look quite nice.”

This annoys me not just because of its colossal self-serving stupidity, but because it’s just about the least grown-up form of discourse imaginable and grows out of something more insidious. Almost everything in the world has mixed benefits, but it’s increasingly taboo to praise any aspect of something that’s been branded as bad; once something’s tarnished it’s de facto a waste of time. There’s loads of examples of this but here’s an obvious one: some readers might remember a few years ago, when Bryan Ferry got into all sorts of trouble for “praising the Nazis.” What he actually said was that the Nazis knew how to present themselves, that Albert Speer’s architecture and Leni Riefenstahl’s films were bravura exercises in just that. Anyone who understands history would know that there was nothing particularly controversial about any of this, that self-presentation was a key part of fascism’s appeal and a vital Nazi tool, that they didn’t actually rise to power in Germany by saying “vote for us, heh-heh, we’re evil.” However, Ferry broke the cardinal rule that you aren’t supposed to publicly acknowledge that the Nazis were good at anything, as if they took over Central Europe while acting like Basil Fawlty.

*

On that note: this week it’s emerged that Jeremy Clarkson Is A Racist. You can almost taste the polite liberal delight at this, because Clarkson is a tedious reactionary boor who spouts ill-informed stupid opinions and calls them witty. In other words, he should be racist. And so reciting the eeny-meeny rhyme while ostentatiously censoring the word “nigger” for laughs just becomes further proof of his indubitable racism – rather than just a boring guffbag making a shit attempt at transgressive humour that wasn’t even broadcast. It’s even been conflated with the Ron Atkinson furore from years back, even though suggesting an eqivalence between them is borderline delusional. A few days later Steve Davis was branded sexist for offering a few views on why women aren’t very good at snooker, which newspapers reported as him saying they didn’t have “the single-minded determination” when what he actually said was that men are more likely to be sufficiently geeky, obsessive and inadequate to spend eight hours a day practicing the same four snooker shots over and over again. You can argue the accuracy of this point but it’s certainly not ludicrous, and it’s not in the same league as – say – “women are genetically and physiologically incapable of understanding the offside rule.”

(If the above are both oversimplifications by liberal types, it’s by no means a thing that only Guardian-readers do. It’s commonplace for climate change sceptics to talk about “the left” pushing climate change down everyone’s throats, even though there’s nothing inherently left-wing about environmental politics and many environmental campaigners are firm free-market advocates.)

The point here is that the defences given by Clarkson’s and Davis’ mates give the game away. James May assured everyone that Jeremy Clarkson is “not a racist,” just as Victoria Coren made it clear that Steve Davis is “not a sexist.” This notion of “A Racist” or “A Sexist” is frighteningly commonplace, even though it’s obviously daft. It’s true that there are people out there who consistently hold repugnant views, but the overwhelming majority of hurtful remarks are made by people who are essentially decent but were ill-informed, unaware, didn’t think something through or were just being lazy-minded. It’s possible to say something racist without actually being “A Racist,” but increasingly we’re given a binary world where you’re one or the other. And the way of judging if someone’s A Racist or not is whether they’ve said something on a preapproved hate-list: in Clarkson’s case it was the word nigger, in the case of Steve Davis it was the suggestion that men might just have more natural aptitude for something than women.
Fair’s fair, both those things are pretty good indicators 98% of the time. The problem’s that racism, sexism, homophobia and Insert Prejudice Here are often subtle and nuanced things, so it doesn’t help if they’re discussed in a way that takes all the nuance out.

Top Gear isn’t directly racist: it just makes acceptable a form of behaviour that makes racism more likely to happen. Its humour is based on laughing at anything different, ridiculing anything that exists outside a certain chauvinistic white male perspective, by generally normalising a pig-ignorant brand of obnoxiousness. It does all this even though, in all the years it’s been on, there’s only been one commonly-cited racial generalisation (that one about Mexicans being lazy). But if the only criteria for judging prejudice is “did they say the N-Word or not,” then why bother?

So there’s the downside to political correctness: it replaces debate with taboo. In one sense, this isn’t so bad: it means we avoid having the same reductive debates over and over again. On the other, it does mean that dickheads can say all sorts of objectionable shit so long as they’re slightly clever about it.

*

Actually, given that I once explained at length to a friend that money you spent on a credit card wasn’t real money, maybe I wouldn’t be such a good accountant after all. My point was that you just had to pay off the minimum due and they’d keep increasing your credit limit, so you didn’t really have to pay anything back ever. This was a colossally stupid and not entirely serious point but in fairness, this was before the recession so it was pretty much how the economy worked.

Journal, 7th – 21st April

April 23rd, 2014 by Mike Morris

Back at work, and the last couple of weeks have been taken up with readjusting and putting myself on the U.K.’s radar. A few months work in the Inland Revenue, about fifteen years ago, meant that I was on some special sort of list and my National Insurance Number was guarded by MI6, or someone. The getting of a U.K. bank account involved the usual waterboarding and biopsies of my bone marrow.

Still, I live here now: gee, it’s all been so sudden. I don’t know what more assimilation I can do, but next time I burn the toast I’ll try and blame it on all the fucking immigrants or something. Aside from adjusting myself to being a Brit, and reacquainting myself with the salty, pungent ecstasy that is Marmite, the last two weeks involved…

Well, let’s confine ourselves to a trip to the cinema, and another to the theatre.

*

Divergent is absolutely, definitely the last time I go and see a mainstream SF or Fantasy film for quite some time. It’s the perfect encapsulation of everything that’s currently wrong with This Kind Of Thing, and it’s infuriating because I sit there and think that this should be the sort of thing that appeals to My Kind Of People. Science Fiction is supposed to be about new worlds and environments and strange concepts, about revelling in the odd. This was even the case in the 80s, because although we all know that-

- wait for it -

- Hawk The Slayer’s rubbish, it was at least trying to present a story taking place somewhere odd with strange rules. I don’t want to launch into another Star Wars defence but the popularity of the appalling Star Trek remakes, in which every single planet is no more than a stage-set for plodding, cock-obvious stabs at “relevance” and “satire,” indicates that most people don’t even expect sci-fi to take us to strange places any more. There’s a blanket acceptance that science fiction is just an exercise in putting identikit characters in the same generic backgrounds, and all you need to do is to brand said backgrounds with their own paper-thin USP.

Divergent is based on a book I’ve not read, and don’t intend to, but it was presumably written by someone who thought “Hey, that whole Sorting Hat thing in Harry Potter is a bit nasty if you think about it! I bet no-one else in the world noticed.” So it’s set some indeterminate time after an unspecified future war, and there’s a sort of a bombed-out city where everyone lives, and society is divided into five groups called sort-of-pretentious things like Abnegation and Erudite and Dauntless and Candour and something else I couldn’t be bothered remembering.

It’s not all the adolescent fetishising of ooh-his-hand’s-on-her-waist that’s the problem, because ultimately it’s a film for adolescents and that’s fine. It’s not even that it opens with an infodump voiceover that flatly tells us all this stuff about factions and tests that it would actually be interesting to just figure out (and yes, that cockawful film of The Amber Spyglass, you made that royal fuckup too). No, the issue is that there’s no sense of this world actually existing: it never feels like anything other than a cinematic construct, and a flaky one at that. It wouldn’t even fly in a Doctor Who episode, and two hours staring at this universe leads to it coming apart at the seams.

I mean, let’s do the big one first: it’s a society that traumatised and near-destroyed itself through war (somehow). That war would be overtly on everybody’s lips for centuries on end, a historical event that overshadows everything because it’s gouged into the populace’s brains in capital letters two inches deep. But no-one even mentions when this war was, or how it started. It’s an abstraction, used to justify this factions-based setup that revolves around the principle that someone can’t possibly be clever and kind at the same time (or rather, such people are so incredibly rare that they threaten the stability of society). Yes, really.

This lazy sort of disconnect extends everywhere. On the one hand, these people have got the technology to create fully immersive dreamworlds and directly see the thoughts of the inhabitants. They can go together into these environments, just by injecting themselves with a drug. And yet nobody seems to have the slightest interest in doing so, they all walk happily around their post-apocaylptic city living austere lives. When our hero, I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Katniss-Everdeen, joins Dauntless – a faction who early on spend most of their time whooping and being rebellious, free-climbing up buildings and just being teenage aaaawesome types – it turns out to be a proto-fascist military. This isn’t a twist, mind; the two things aren’t seen as mutually contradictory at all. There must have been hundreds of people working on this story, once you count the cast and crew and production team and writers, and not one of them felt the need to stick a hand up and say “ummmm, this hyper-disciplined militia of people who are rebellious and unruly and not afraid of their superiors… how the fuck does that work, then?”

In Harry Potter, for all its low-level tweeness, the world has texture; it’s full of detail and language and weirdly incidentaly places. Diagon Alley and butterbeer and that funny night bus don’t serve any plot purposes, they just make the environment seem properly encapsulating. Yet step up an age bracket and all the teenagers get are hokey premises with nowhere to go, into which demographically-correct heroes / heroines are dropped, and girls become physically strong because it’s the most marketable form of empowerment. You can add superhero films to this list; Superman and Spiderman and Insert Marvel Character Here exist in recognisable capitalist societies which barely warp at all to accommodate a world-changing paradigm. Nolan’s Batman trilogy was a ponderous load of prot-fascist wank, but at least he tried. But in general the environments, the universes, the architecture of new worlds are too difficult to grasp, so fuck it.

*

All the more of a surprise to go and see Much Ado About Nothing in the Exchange Theatre in Manchester and find it to be, accidentally, exactly what decent science fiction should do but never does. It’s got a vivid if predictable plot, it’s got strong characters, and it’s set somewhere strange. People talk in a way that’s entirely alien, but we understand them anyway. There are some acts that are, to a modern-day onlooker, utterly appalling: the shaming of Hero at her wedding, by people we’re supposed to like, is a shocking and dignity-stealing scene. But we’re asked to accept this strange paradigm as an alien manner of behaviour, something that people from this place do. It’s funny, and vividly played, and packs a wallop when it wants to.

The masquerade-dance is rendered in the most extraordinary way; the characters wear enormous papier-maché heads, all the faces the same, performing exuberant dance-moves that produce a spectacle like nothing you’ve ever seen on earth. Watching this fragment into scattered conversations, unsure of who’s who (you’re almost sure, but never quite), is to watch something exciting and unfamiliar that screams of elsewhere. So much for the shock of the new – the future all looks the same, these days. Backs’s the new forward, baby.

Journal, 31st March – 6th April

April 9th, 2014 by Mike Morris

On Friday, after a job interview in Ingerland, I jumped straight on a train and made my way to Dublin by boat.

Is it a bit precious to say that I found this… thrilling? Not just thrilling in a “wheeeeee I’m home” way, because I’ve visited home before; staggering off a plane after an overnight journey, jetlagged and tired, is nice but not exciting. What I liked was the scale, the ability to travel between countries, in a few hours, without ever leaving the ground. Like anyone sensible I hate flying, but the joy of this journey was more the closeness of a human-scaled landscape. One of the things that bothered me about Canada was its sheer size; as David Tennant’s character says in Broadchurch, “the sky goes on forever.” Cities in Canada are isolated in a way that you can’t really understand if you spend a lifetime in Britain or Ireland; surrounded entirely by wilderness, inescapable without a motor vehicle.

Maybe this is why the car is a symbol of freedom in North America in a way that people on crowded little islands don’t really understand. Cars aren’t necessary here to escape, they just bring you onto a crowded traffic system which is bursting with stress. In Britain or Ireland you escape by walking, and I like walking. Other people probably find the vast empty spaces of North America exciting, liberating even. I thought I would, too; turns out that I’m all about the close-knit rolling hills. How terribly bourgeois of me.

*

Anyway, on Friday I managed to convince a UK company that I’m employable – hurray! So, given that I started off talking about liberation, it might be a good moment to talk about dependency.

Dependency is a horrible word. It’s often used in conjunction with the word “welfare,” part of the bog-standard obsession with poor people that seems to exist as the obviously-wrong yin to the “bloody bankers” yang.

As I’ve alluded to a few times, I left Canada under circumstances that weren’t exactly happy. Many of these are personal, messy and not for public consumption, but the final push was so banal it begs to be shared: due to a mess in the immigration department, my work permit application (well, my office’s application for a Labour Market Opinion, but it amounts to the same thing) had been in limbo for three and a half months; as the two-months-out-of-work mark approached I decided enough was enough. This was partly financial, and partly just the cabin fever of not working, but…

…but. What began driving me demented, instilling me with that familiar feeling of restless languour that will be entirely familiar to anyone who’s been out of work, was the sense of not being in control of my own life. Since I had absolutely no timeframe for when the work permit dithering would be sorted, every day entailed waking up with the hope that today might be the day and waiting until about eleven for a phone call, ready to hot-foot it down to Niagara Falls where I could do the necessary at the border. At that point it passed the I-can-sort-it-today mark and so I would go out, without the money to do anything much, but it was better than sitting in a flat with crap internet and those basic cable channels that just dared me to keep watching docusoaps that featured white trash arguing loudly with itself in pawnshops.

Never, ever being in control – just waiting for officialdom to bestow me with a sense of self-respect again. There are no other options with a work permit – you can’t go and get another job because you aren’t allowed, and you can’t do anything to make it go faster because you’ll just end up yelling down the phone at someone and making it worse.

After a while, the rational part of my brain went quiet. The ridiculous delay began to feel, in some strange nebulous way, personal. I wasn’t deluded enough to feel that Canada had a personal grudge against me, but I was firmly convinced that it didn’t really give a toss whether I was there or not. This is empirically true for anyone, really; still, the feeling of being a file-someone’s-going-to-get-to brings this sense that you don’t matter to anyone. You aren’t part of the country, or the workforce, or the system: you’re outside everything, with no stake in how anything operates. In short you’re an irritation, and you know with certainty that everyone with any power over your situation wishes it would just go away so they can go home and have their tea.

This isn’t meant to be a poor-me whinge or a dig at the Canadian government. What happened is terribly unmalicious and boring; somebody decided to overhaul the foreign worker programme for reasons they probably thought were important, resulting in a bureaucatic mess being created at an administrative level, and so a procedure that took two weeks last year was lengthened to nominally six-to-eight weeks this year… and still hadn’t been resolved after fifteen weeks or so. Given that I have a Comfortable Middle Class Job and understanding employers, this shouldn’t have been – wasn’t, if I’m being honest – particularly catastrophic.

Yet in just two months of a reasonably comfortable, if frugal existence – I wasn’t going hungry, for example – I’d become apathetic, irrational, and didn’t really want my situation to be resolved. I didn’t want to go to the border, because it seemed big and scary and an opportunity for me to arse things up by saying the wrong thing to a po-faced bloke in a uniform. I didn’t want to deal with officaldom because I already half-believed it to be blithely inimical. I didn’t really want to go back to a job I’d previously enjoyed, because I felt conspicuous and out-of-place and like I’d fallen behind.

Two months.

So the first thing to learn from this is that I’m a limp-wristed dick who needs a good slap around the chops every now and then.

But the other thing? Those who are part of a much-derided “dependency culture” live in a similar-but-worse circumstance of powerlessness, or at least the feeling of powerlessness (which is effectively the same thing). To borrow a quote from this sharp piece about the rise of the BNP among th U.K.’s poor: “In none of these places was there any sense of hope or a vision of how things could be. Basically, ‘life’ was something that happened to them, not something they had a say in.”

People demonise benefit cheats, and the retort of Lefty Pinkos like me is generally to say that the problem doesn’t exist to any meaningful extent. This is true. However, I’d go further and say I’m not actually that bothered about the few people who do scam the dole at all. To me, it seems a perfectly rational and natural response to being down the dole queue for too long; getting a few quid you shouldn’t, and doing some work without anyone finding out, is just about your only means of taking control of your circumstances. Sure, you’re cheating the system, but you don’t feel like you have any stake in the system so tricking it is a bonus, not a source of shame. You’re robbing your fellow citizens, but whenever you turn on the television your fellow citizens are telling you you’re a problem, so they can go fuck themselves too. And to use another favourite line, the one about the “culture of entitlement,” the point is that if you don’t have a job and you don’t see any prospects of getting one, your entitlements are all you’ve bloody well got. You know that all authority is out to get you, because that’s all its ever done, and your entitlements are the only weapon to use against it.

The cure for me was pretty simple: head to the UK, where I could actually look for work again. Most people don’t have an out, the poor sods. And frankly, no matter how ill-gotten some gains might be, I don’t begrudge them a penny. For most people in power, a two-month hiatus or a three-day wait for the dole cheque is an unfortunate-but-inevitable inconvenience of the system; there seems to be no understanding that, for those on the receiving end, it can be a choice between “don’t feed the kids” and “go to a moneylender.”

None of this offers any practical solution to the “unemployment problem,” although all the historical data suggests “give people jobs” will solve that one sharpish. It’s just that it should be talked about with a good deal less glibness and a good deal more fucking sense. That’s not so hard, is it?

Journal, 24th – 30th March

April 1st, 2014 by Mike Morris

This week, I’ve been thinking about salad. Not constantly, but more than is normal.

My problem with salad is that I hate it. It’s loathsome. I’m very much aware of the requirement to eat it, and I do my best; under normal conditions I force it down my throat three times a week or so, hating every single bite and telling myself it’s better than a coronary at 46. I hate the fact that everything tastes like grazing, except the non-salady bits; the rules for all salad assembly is “gather some tasteless shit, add small quantities of nice-but-bad-for-you-stuff, then drench it in vinegary crap that will hide the shitness of the main ingredients” which tells you exactly how this muck operates. The only salad I vaguely like is Caesar Salad, but if you gave me that without all the lettuce it would be six times nicer.

I also hate the fact getting the stuff from the plate into your mouth is a complex exercise of folding, stuffing, spearing, and chasing cherry tomatoes around the plate. I like food I can shovel. If I have to formulate a plan to trap my food, I’d like a more satisfying reward than two square metres of lollo rosso.

Hang on, though: that’s not my main gripe. No, my main issue is that when I tell people I hate salad, they don’t believe me. “Oh, you’ve probably not had a really good salads-” Bollocks. Yes I have. I’ve had really good salads (in salad terms, anyway) and I still thought they’d be nicer if you took all the stupid fucking leaves out. “Oh once you’ve got used to them though-” Well a: I’m as used to them as I was ever going to be and b: nobody told me I had to “get used to” roast beef. I understand I have to eat it, and it’s a chore. Now stop patronising me, you thin-arsed fuckpiece.

Is there a serious point to this, or does it just get on my increasingly ample tits? Hmm. There is a tendency in our culture to pretend that everything worthy also has to be enjoyable, and vice-versa. There’s a mild taboo against saying white bread is obviously nicer than brown, or jogging is not any fun whatsoever, for exactly the same reason that it’s not OK for anyone on “serious” television to say that going out and getting hammered on tequila is actually really great every now and then. It’s the polite face of kitsch, if you like. This week there has been massive consternation at the latest report on climate change which effectively said it’s now unstoppable, but that’s exactly what happens in a society which has lost the ability to say “this is going to be really shit and we’re probably going to wind up rationing everything, but millions of us are dying so grit your teeth and get through it.” Instead it was packaged as a lovely clean era with pretty windmills and super high-tech, because even if they’re hopelessly implausible, nice stories are the only ones we know how to do.

*

I was in Bakewell this week. The little “welcome to Bakewell, here ‘s a cute map and some things to do” tourist sign was justifiably proud of Bakewell’s best-known creation – “No, not the Bakewell Tart, but the world-famous Bakewell Pudding.” Hopefully, even if you’re aware of neither confection, the construction of the sentence will highlight the problem with the sentiment. If Bakewell was a rock star it would be some arsehole like Sting: “Oh I don’t want to talk about The Police. Let’s discuss my best work, that album where I made all the musical instruments out of vegetables.”

*

This week’s main achievement: recognising a Katy Perry song in front of A Young Person.

*

New countries, new cultures. I decided to take advantage of being in the Manchester region the other day by getting myself a Cornish pasty, because “things wrapped in pastry” essentially covers the entire spectrum of Food England Does Well. The man in the one-of-those-places-like-Greggs-that-only-Britland-has informed me I could get one for 80p or two for a pound, which made me wonder exactly how big a lunch he expected me to eat. When I declined, I didn’t expect the response “You could give the other one to a beggar.”

When I moved the North America, I genuinely thought of getting myself a placard I could take with me when I want shopping, which would read I AM EUROPEAN AND UNUSED TO SERVICE CULTURE. IF ANYONE APPROACHES ME I WILL RUN OUT OF THE SHOP DUE TO RAW FEAR. The things I bought just because I didn’t want to seem rude are a constant source of shame. But of all the sales techniques, the If You Don’t Buy The Second Pasty, You Hate The Homeless is one of the most punishingly smart I’ve ever come across. I don’t hate the homeless, so I bought the second pasty. And could I find a beggar? Could I my prone-to-middle-class-shame arse.

I don’t want to say exactly how this situation resolved itself, but I can report that self-loathing tastes of pastry, gravy, and non-specific meat. And it’s fucking delicious, so there.

*

That’s all this week. Yeah, it’s short, I’ve been jetlagged.

Journal, 17th – 23rd March

March 23rd, 2014 by Mike Morris

This week, I decided to get out of Canada on account of two months waiting for a work permit and no end in sight. I could quite easily talk about this, or alternatively pretend to be all high-minded and talk about how it’s indicative of something something; when I can come up with an argument that doen’t involve indignation / rabid self-pity, I may do this. Maybe.

Instead, I’d like to talk about Russia.

It’s no good, I still don’t understand what’s going on in Ukraine. This Thursday on Question Time, however, somebody asked whether the annexation of the Crimea heralded the start of a new Cold War. This lead to some fairly astonishing views on geopolitics, not least when the standard libertarian businesshead effectively implied that Russia would probably toe the line if the West would only get their shit together and bomb Damascus – no, me neither. The general response, though, was a half-hearted “Noooo… it’s more complicated than that” (That exact phrase was used by two panellists, I hasten to add).

Just dwell on that for a moment. The Cold War was an ongoing geopolitical crisis that lasted for over forty years, incorporating numerous countries aligning themselves to two major superpowers, two major conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, at least one diplomatic face-off which almost triggered a nuclear war, massive destabilisation of poorer countries as part of the ongoing conflict and several wars by proxy. The notion that the Cold War wasn’t complicated…?

…but. One of the defining traits of the Cold War – the defining trait if you like, the single thing that delineated it politically and culturally – was that although shots were not fired, people were encouraged to see the Soviets in the same way they would normally see a wartime foe. The Russians / Communists / Soviets (and at the time, all those words were interchangeable) were the Enemy, that was all there was to it, and nothing else mattered as much as this single unwavering fact. I knew that Communism was terrifying long before I knew what it actually was, and when I did find out (I was about nine, I think) my reaction was a fairly disappointed “Oh, is that all?” Calling yourself a Communist in the 1980s was the equivalent of calling yourself an Islamist today. There were other baddies in the world, but they were just Colonel Morans to the U.S.S.R.’s Moriarty. It emphatically wasn’t simple, but what made it the Cold War was that we were all encouraged to see it in simplistic, bloody-Russians terms. The Russians were looked upon like the Germans had been, which (from the governmental point of view) brought all of the benefits of war without any of that expensive killing and dying.

Now. Here’s a clip from a few years ago, in which David Mitchell holds forth on “the nutty Russians.”

…which is pretty funny… except that this is still exactly how Russia is casually portrayed by almost everyone, including senior politicians. Every country in the West is very comfortable with the Russians As Baddies, and it’s presented as a fait accompli that Russia’s actions are not just wholly indefensible, but a result of “Russian expansionism” which is a disease Russians can collectively get (a bit like Muslims can sometimes come down with radicalisation). Russian motivations aren’t worth even discussing, because we all know that Putin just got out of the shower one morning and though mmm, Crimea – just like we know he’s the boss because Russians, collectively, are mad. The Russians are so overtly the villains that, when the first fatality in the Ukraine occurred, a Canadian on the news claimed that “an innocent soldier was killed” and Russian Expansionism is so undisputed that Hillary fucking Clinton can compare Putin’s actions to Hitler’s Lebensraum policy and very few people bat an eyelid.

This isn’t intended to be an apologia for Russia. Even I can see that the march into the Crimea stinks to high heaven (and I still can’t work out why, if you’re going to hold a dodgy referendum, you don’t at least keep the yes votes down to 70% or so and not make it look like quite so obvious). Russia or the Soviet Union, has carried out some fairly staggering atrocities – particularly to its near neighbours – to an extent that someone from (say) Hampshire, or New Mexico, can’t even begin to understand. To keep the word count down I’m not going to go into detail, but just ask someone Polish if you want the blanks filled in.

However, you could also argue that the people who have suffered at the hands of Russian rulers more than any other are the Russians themselves. While people look at Putin’s existence as a mindwarping example of craziness, the fact is that three of the last four czars were more psychotic even than Stalin, and while you wouldn’t call Putin a reformer, compared to many of those who came before him he’s Clement sodding Attlee.

How about how Russia sees the world, though? Well, in recent-ish history, Russia has suffered two very bloody and traumatic invasions. Napoleon marched to Moscow, and the only way the Russians could defeat him was by destroying their own country, including the torching of their own capital city. In 1941 Hitler violated a (flagrantly nasty) treaty, marched into Russia, besieged Leningrad in a manner so bloody it was borderline genocidal, and almost took Moscow and Stalingrad. In between those two was the nasty Russo-Japanese War and then frightening losses during World War I, which directly lead to a vicious and divisive Civil War. And after all that, Russia was one of two superpowers – indisputably the inferior one, in terms of both finance and technology – that were locked in possible mutual annihilation for over forty years.

So from a Russian point of view, most of the twentieth century saw it either at war, being invaded, under threat of invasion or revolution, or confronted with a powerful enemy who wanted its annihilation. The U.S.S.R. lost around 30 million people during the two World Wars alone – that’s over fifty times the number of U.S. casualties. World War II claimed the lives of about one-seventh of the U.S.S.R. population, a simply staggering figure (again, not as extreme as what Poland endured, and that Soviet population of course included Ukraine). In other words, the Western countries we’re encouraged to see as reasonable have visited appalling suffering on the Russians, and unlike us the Russians actually remember this. Hence they might be genuinely worried if – say – NATO assures them it like, totally won’t expand Eastwards… and then goes and does it anyway.

Now, let’s throw in one more factor. The new rulers of the Ukraine appear to have deeply disturbing links to fascism. Ukraine is not a little defenseless tinpot backwater, as it’s being tacitly portrayed; it’s the biggest country entirely in mainland Europe and has a population of about 45 million. The last time a country near Russia was ruled by a fascist and they were blasé about it, roughly 25 million Soviet citizens died and the most bloody battle of all time was fought at Stalingrad. Russia’s satellite states post-war were intended as a buffer zone more than anything expansionist, simply because they didn’t want to take the slightest chance this would ever happen again; this doesn’t excuse Soviet actions, and nor did it make life any more fun in those states, but its worth noting as a counterpoint to the Russian Expansionism soundbite.

So, given that the Crimea is predominantly inhabited by ethnic Russians, it’s not entirely surprising that Russia might feel bloody worried and take some pretty drastic steps. That’s not a justification, just a rationalisation. But we’re simply encouraged not to think about this, just as thirty years ago no-one was encouraged to equate the Warsaw Pact with NATO. And if your stated aim is to get everyone round the table, talking to one of the countries with a barely-disguised line in “youse are all nuts anyway” seems an odd way to go about it.

As I say, this isn’t an apologia for Russia, and I’d surely be shitting myself just now if I lived in Georgia or Lithuania. It’s just to say that it the Cold War was about how we were asked to see the Russians, it’s certainly circling again. Also, showing the Russians how bastard hard we are is perhaps not the strategic genius it’s assumed to be. There’s no doubt that Russia has behaved and does behave appallingly, but a little recognition that they don’t have the monopoly on this might actually be more effective at getting them to stop it, rather than the West collectively saying “look how big our dick is.”

That’s all this week. Next week’s journal comes to you from Greater Manchester, in which I will ask the searing question “greater than what?” Or won’t.

Journal, 11th – 16th March

March 16th, 2014 by Mike Morris

I always dreaded becoming one of those people who complains about their life on the internet – this website used to have a rule that said I would never, ever talk about myself, which I removed once it became awkward – but this week has made it more difficult than usual. My enforced waiting-for-a-work-permit layoff has now ticked past 7 weeks, which is officially diagnosed as the “climbing the fucking walls” stage; Bob Crow and Tony Benn have both died, which means there are two less of the Kind Of Person We Need A Whole Lot More Of; their reward in death has been to be patronised by complete arseholes to a degree that would kill them all over again through acute nausea; one of the rare occasions I actually enjoyed a game of rugby was soured by a stupid iPhone photo being circulated as the latest Best Of A Thing Ever, reducing a brilliant sporting spectacle into some sort of aura-cleansing party to which the whole of Ireland imagines itself to be invited; and March 17th is nearly here, the only day in the calendar I truly hate. It has been Not A Good Week.

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The deaths would be upsetting on their own, of course. Bob Crow was a sometimes over-zealous but highly intelligent man, who worked bloody hard for people who would otherwise have shit pay and no respect. Tony Benn was someone I wholeheartedly admired, not just for his political insight but his general flintlike beauty. I’m just about old enough to remember a point when he was literally considered the devil incarnate by many, which is why the ‘towering figure’ blather is now borderline emetic. A few weeks before he died, Bob Crow was described on the Question Time as “the fat man with the red face and the pina coladas,” and admittedly this was by David fucking Starkey, but it’s the BBC who still give that obnoxious misogynistic prick access to the airwaves, and politicians who agree to sit opposite him. Besides, the room tittered at his daring transgressiveness rather than telling him to shut his stupid piehole. So it’s a bit rich that everyone has now issued tributes, most of which started with “I didn’t agree with him, but…”

This isn’t to say that they should have been jumping up and down to say he was a fat fuck and they only wished he’d died earlier, but just that if you don’t like a public figure who dies, the best thing is to keep your sodding mouth shut rather than pissing over their death with platitudinous blandery.

The reason this annoys me is simply that, of all the things that annoy me about contemporary narratives both fictional and factual, it’s the insistence on knocking off the awkward edges. I think Bob Crow was a fantastic trade union leader and hugely impressive man, who voiced (entirely sensible) opinions that were highly radical by contemporary standards, and was rewarded by press mockery for having a working-class accent and wearing loud shirts on holiday. He was at an apex of tabloid-lead viciousness and pure decorous spite, so it’s hardly surprising he operated on a war footing: as a result he fought battles when it wasn’t necessary, alienated chunks of the public who might otherwise have supported him, and made a tit of himself on Have I Got News For You. To boil him down to a goop of “tough opponent” and “fought for his members” is to emasculate history and do him a disservice.

And as for Tony Benn – this process of softening him to a pipe-smoking grandfather figure had begun before his death. In fact he was dangerous, with all the good and bad things that implies. As well as being left-wing, Benn was nationalistic in ways that were often completely out of step with mainstream thought. He insisted loudly and publicly that there was no difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber, in a post-2001, post-Iraq world when such a thing was political heresy; yet, because he was tacitly perceived as an idealistic welfare-state out-of-touch granduncle, it was held up as a “he’s still got it” moment, just like people chortle indulgently at a nonagenarian at wedding who says the bride looks like a whore (oh, granddad’s as sharp as ever, he’s such a character). Years earlier, Benn made similar statements about American aggression in a Cold War world (that it was no less than that of the Soviets, not that it looked like a whore), and was denounced as a public menace. Rather than engage with the pure sense behind what they said, Crow was made ridiculous, Benn was made cuddly. And both were ignored.

Apparently Benn remarked, not long before his death, that his whole life had been a failure. The fact is that he didn’t fail, it was those around him who failed. The Labour Party had a choice between Tony Benn and Denis “oh, bribery is fine, really” Healey, and they chose Healey. That’s failure, right there, and it wasn’t Tony Benn’s. Healey’s old too, well into his 90s. When he’s gone I’ll probably read about him with academic interest. When Tony Benn died, I read his letter to his grandchildren and bawled my eyes out.

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Anyway, the rugbyball was genuinely fantastic this year. The problem with rugby isn’t the game, which is OK, but all the crap that goes around it: the pretensions to nobility and honesty, the moral superiority of rugby to all other sports, the pure branded tedium of it. Oh, and George Hook, obviously. So like all right-thinking people I tried quite hard to dislike Brian O’Driscoll for many years, because of his Southside accent and irritating self-possession, and also because I don’t trust anyone who makes difficult things look effortless. It’s not sustainable thought, because however much he whined on about that spear tackle, he did seem to be a genuinely decent fella and fairly witty too.

The point when I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love etc. was when a friend encountered him in Bruxelles. Well… I say encountered, what actually happened was O’Driscoll came to the bar and stood next to my friend, who’d been waiting some time to get served. When the barman did come over he made a beeline for The Famous Man, who just pointed at my friend and said “He was here before me.” I don’t really care how many hospitals he visited, that’s how you earn respect.

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And while there’s nothing more pathetic than doing a men/women comparison, I can say that there’s a 75% accurate split in the reaction to that story: most men react by widening their eyes with incredulity and then trying to find a way to encapsulate their admiration, while most women look confused and wait for me to get to the good bit. Now, I could try making a point about the real way you can judge people is how they act when there’s no expectation whatsoever of them to be generous, and while people expect sporting figures to visit Sick Children In Hospital to some degree, nobody expects someone to tell a barman to tend to someone else’s need for ethanol. Which is plausible, but if I’m honest, men are just generally a bit weird about getting served at a bar.

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Knocking off the edges is entirely what St Patrick’s Day is about, now. For me it’ll always be the day that they cleared Occupy out of Dame Street, and henceforth the day that the Arseholes won. More than that though, it’s overtly about reducing Irishness to a brand; the day that even Irish people are asked to play along with all the leprechaun shite and silly hats, their irony co-opted by marketing men. It’s the day people collectively pat themselves on the back for Taytos and Denny Sausages and Irish Mammies, whether or not they like Taytos and Denny Sausages, even if they’ve never called their mother “Mammy” in their life. Huge swathes of Irish people don’t enjoy this, let’s be clear, and either do their best to join in anyway or just try and ignore it. Since I hate joining in with anything, due to the odious surfeit of Other People, my dislike may be my problem. But…

…no, it is warped, I’m afraid. We’re told March 17th is good because it’s a global day of Irishnessness, when Ireland gets proof that the whole world loves it. In fact, plenty of people quietly fucking hate the global nature of Irishnessness. They hate that the New York parade won’t invite the gayz or the PSNI, for starters. They also have an imperialistic contempt for Irish emigrant communities having the temerity to do things differently. Corned beef and cabbage, four leaf clovers, St Patty’s Day… these can’t just be parallel customs that an emigrant community can develop as part of its own heritage, they’re just wrong and that’s all there is to it. You might as well be watching Raj officers looking down their nose at the natives for using the wrong fork.

I have a feeling that my sense of alienation isn’t actually to do with my sort-of-Englishness, it’s just a natural place for anxiety about sort-of-Englishness to live. Plenty of Properly Irish People feel like outsiders too, I’m sure. But here’s the thing: a few years ago, March 17th was an annoyance – the only day I ever felt foreign, but not something to get to worked up about. Now I don’t live in Ireland, St Welshbloke’s Day is weirdly painful in a way I didn’t expect. It should be a connection to home, but instead it just brings sharply hollow, empty feelings of distance. Seeing a pantomime version of your home played out globally on the city-streets, replete with product-placement, isn’t a celebration of any country at all; it’s just an advertising jingle where a poem should be. Happy Green Consumerist Phantasmagoria Day, everyone!

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Right, this is only the second journal entry, and what was supposed to be a chatty weekly log already reads like a depressive’s list of gripes. I’ll be more cheerful next week, honest.

Journal, 1st – 10th March

March 10th, 2014 by Mike Morris

This week I’ve instituted a new programme where I make myself listen to an album every day, while not doing anything else more intellectually demanding than washing up. This is partly because it’s helpful when it comes to writing The Book, but mainly because I’m increasingly incapable of concentrating on music. I don’t know when I completely lost touch with what’s going on, musically, but I think it was when I began listening to it in work – and suddenly it became something-familiar-in-the-background rather than something challenging and immersive. I haven’t proven a causal link of any kind, and there are several other possible reasons – the fragmentation of centralised charts made it harder to keep track of new stuff, the migration to things like Spotify which I instinctively distrust, and I just hit that age where you’re supposed to lose touch and be so uncool, granddad.

I think it’s a more slippery anxiety, though. My teenage years were in the early 90s, which was a terrible time to be a teenager, when most popular stuff was so awful that everyone had to pretend they liked Soundgarden. Yet what I do remember is that everyone accepted that you were supposed to buy albums, that albums were the fundamental units of music that a band produced. This might just have been because I grew up ninety miles from the nearest record shop, so you damn well had to buy music in great big chunks. Still, the point is that nowadays, albums seem incidental – not to The Young Folk, I hasten to add, but to people my age, who increasingly just stick stuff in their iPod and put it on shuffle. For someone who spent most of his early twenties decrying the shuffle button as the most pointless concept ever created, this is the closer to societal collapse than anything going on in the Ukraine.

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My other musical discovery is that most coffee-shops – where I spend most of my time right now – are advocates of the movement to make 80s or 90s pop-songs more “profound” by playing them on an acoustic guitar and/or piano and getting a winsome female vocalist, as if we were all too stupid to understand how good they were when they were loud. Everyone is much too keen to be sincere these days, but what’s produced most of the greatest pop-songs the world is insincerity. Lots of stunning, liberating, brilliant music is about swagger and poise: putting on a front is the stuff that great songs are made of. Also, as bad as the Come On Eileen version was, to whomever did that version of Love Will Tear Us Apart – if I ever meet you, I’m setting fire to both your ukulele and your hair.

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I don’t really understand what’s going on in the Ukraine, I should add. What I find bemusing is that I’m supposed to, this time round. Nobody seems too concerned that hardly anyone had the faintest idea who the various parties are in Syria, but this time around politicians are repeatedly telling everyone how complicated it all is (except the Americans, obviously, who are happily comparing Putin to Hitler and seem kind of relieved that the Russians are the villains again). There are a lot of prosaic reasons for this – the Ukraine is closer, and Russia – at least to those who decide these agendas – is the sort of powerful yet nutty country that might conceivably nuke us because someone looked at Putin kind of funny.

But the most noticeable thing, in my view, is that people are aware of Ukraine as a proper country – i.e., somewhere with streets and houses that look vaguely like ones you might find in Britain or Ireland, where they recently hosted Euro 2012, somewhere you might reasonably expect your mobile company to cover with a roaming package. The various factions are mostly made up of white people, which is even more important. Because it’s a real place – in those terms – the possibility of reprisals seems tangible, in a way they didn’t in the Middle East which we’re all still conditioned to view as a third-world dustbowl. There still seems to be denial of the fundamental reality that British actions in the Middle East will inevitably have consequences back at home like the London bombings, which is why wanker-politicians still refer to Muslims being “radicalised” as if it’s a genetic mutation triggered by using the wrong prayer-rug. If U.K. forces started dropping bombs on Milan, nobody would be in the least surprised if – in response – explosions in London were to kill fifty people; but if we view the actions as taking place Somewhere Else, we don’t expect anything to rebound on us. Military intervention is so much easier if you half-believe that the place in question doesn’t really exist.

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The other thing that’s floated into my noosphere this week is some sort of Twitter “campaign” (when did retweeting something with a hashtag become a campaign, exactly?) to stop calling little girls bossy, as it means they think asserting themselves and taking charge is a negative thing. It’s fronted by Beyoncé who’s come up with the line “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss.” As she’s American, lots of people are reacting to this in a positive way – which is strange, because if anyone said that to you in real life your immediate reaction would be “ugh, you sound ghastly.” It’s fair to say that Beyoncé is to feminism what Bono is to anti-poverty campaigning, so this isn’t a surprise.

It’s an odd one, this, because obviously it makes sense to encourage girls to think they can do anything boys can do. Then again, a boy is much more likely to grow up and become a football hooligan, but it’s not like we want to encourage girls to do that. The only thing worse than power is the people who want it: those who aspire to be “leaders” are nearly always completely horrible, so the fact that boys aren’t discouraged from this kind of behaviour might be why I instinctively hate most men. As a moderately competent architect I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in meetings of about fifteen men and no women, ten of whom are obsessed with macho cock-posturing and trying to prove they’re the alpha-male, and the notion that this is in any way positive is miles off the mark. People who say we need more leadership tend to be people who think of themselves as leaders, and as such not worthy of anyone’s attention beyond a quick glance and muttering “jesus, what a wanker.”

All that sounds a bit flippant, but hey. The fact is that “encouraging young girls to be less X” is based on the same fallacy as people opposing gender quotas on the basis that women should just toughen up and get there “on merit” – namely, there’s no way we’re going to change a system that’s empirically rigged, so you need to change yourselves to fit in. It’s victim-blaming, in a sense. Most hierarchical power-structures are anti-woman for the same reason they’re plain anti-social, and only survive because men are more comfortable with being a prick in a suit who everybody secretly hates.

So my solution to the problem is that any child who tries to take charge of anything, ever, should be rewarded with the phrase “Oh shut the fuck up you tedious fucking waste of skin.” This is possibly why I’m not a parent.

On Other Worlds

March 7th, 2014 by Mike Morris

So, Series Two of Line of Duty is four episodes down and two to go. This programme has been a recent discovery for me, largely because I now live in another country and don’t watch BBC television any more. This is a bigger factor than advocates of “waheeey, on-demand!” might assume, simply because once you take away the stumbling-upon-stuff and the adverts and the trailers that cause you to go “oh, that looks all right,” the only way of finding good TV is through reviews and internet-buzz… and they keep trying to convince me to watch House Of Sodding Cards. I keep calling it House Of Cards: The Spacey Version, but that just reminds me that it isn’t set in space, rather it’s set in a strange alternative universe where four perfectly decent hours of entertainment can be lengthened to thirteen and everyone calls it “stylish” instead of “flabby.”

So in the week I have to wait until the next episode I’ll almost certainly be hoovering up Series One of this beauty, as it’s fantastic. It’s a tight, taut police-drama-slash-conspiracy-thriller, anchored by excellent leads and an extraordinary performance by Keeley Hawes. It’s the work of Jed Mercurio, who’s best known for taking the tired staples of hospital drama and turning them into an absurdly good drama, Bodies. Line of Duty does pretty much the same thing. Like Bodies, it’s great because it makes all the right choices: it understands what drives the inherent drama in its setting, and is interested in the structure and space of its worlds. Most hospital shows were essentially soap-operas punctuated by people crashing through swinging doors on trolleys, but Bodies was a drama about the NHS. Similarly, this is about the police. The conflict is partly driven by pure institutional stupidity, like the competition between different departments leading to investigations going down blind alleys: the result is real, stinking injustices. Mercurio understands the appalling consequences of high-powered cock-blocking better than any writer except David Simon, and also understands exactly how to wring tense interplay from overpowering pettiness.

It’s more than that, though. The people in this programme have relationships that are truly dynamic, in the sense that our allegiances (and point-of-view) shift from character to character throughout the episode. The result is a story that always manages to surprise, where you don’t ever know how it’s going to end up – not in the sense that “there’s a twist coming,” but in the sense that the whole narrative can just change gears and go confidently off in directions you weren’t expecting. In the best possible way, it’s not that you don’t know where it’s going, it’s that you don’t know exactly what you’re watching. In episode one, Lindsay Denton has her head thrust down the toilet by staff members while her superior looks on. You’d expect this to be the focus of the whole season, but in fact she’s just transferred elsewhere: the assault is just something that happens in this sort of environment, especially when the dodgy decisions of an unpopular woman have just got two fellow officers killed.

In other words, the world has a real texture. So do the people. When a main character covertly orders and knocks back a double vodka in a pub, everyone’s telly-saturated brain immediately says “ah, we’re going to have a series of her alcoholism.” It turns out not even to be an issue, and we never really find out whether she’s an alcoholic or not. Again, it’s texture: she grabs a double vodka on a night out because, hey, that’s what some people do sometimes, for all sorts of reasons. These people and this environment are unpredictable. Therefore, they’re dangerous. When presented with a world this rich, some of the more annoying stylistic tics (the camera zooms are often irritating) don’t even matter, and the occasional improbabilities barely register. This is what drama should do.

What makes this doubly ironic is that I watched the first four episodes all in a row, midway through my foray into Season Two of Game Of Thrones (both these programmes are made in Norn Iron, oddly. Seems to be a good place to make TV hits). Both shows are niche, in their way, but spectacularly successful (in terms of viewers) within their niche. Thematically, they’re doing almost exactly the same thing: creating complex, expansive environments explored by multiple point-of-view characters and no purely heroic characters. So why, by comparison, do I find watching Game Of Thrones… well, a bit of a chore?

Hmm. A lot of this can be put down to basic things, like the pace (you could cut any episode of Game Of Thrones down to forty-five minutes without losing a thing) and the willfully loose structure. Since The Sopranos and The Wire did it properly, this sort of slowness is increasingly fetishised by U.S. television for its own sake. The relatively static cameras, the gratuitous number of characters, the moody glowering; these are now part of the unthinking grammar of “quality television,” something that good shows are just supposed to do, a stylised choice that’s no more inherently intelligent than CSI Miami’s insistence on hyper-saturating all the colours.

In part, it’s a mechanistic exercise in filling out time – U.S. shows are flops unless they get five series of thirteen episodes each, and in the more commercial dramas it’s closer to twenty episodes. So what we’re looking at is just padding with A-Levels, and Game Of Thrones chucks in new characters just like Lost threw in new plotlines. Sorry. but I still see Mad Men as the zero-point for slowness as a style in its own right and the trend for emphasising art direction where the plot should be, which ultimately led to relatively staid dramas being played out with a veneer of oh-so-stylish ponderousness. Game Of Thrones is a far better piece of work, it must be said – if it weren’t half-decent, I wouldn’t be watching it. I’m sometimes tempted to dismiss it as a knock-off of Lord Of The Rings, made by someone who thinks the word “mature” is always preceded by the word “for” and followed by “audiences,” but the fact is that it’s a clearly superior production on every single level. Still, it’s impossible not to watch it and feel there’s a brilliant, lean, six-part story buried in each needlessly extended season.

It’s more than that, though. Take Sherlock, for example – another show set in its own world, in this case a self-sustaining fictionalised London (at least, that’s what made the first series work). It’s the polar opposite of Game Of Thrones in terms of its style – everything accompanied by a whirling camera, no subtext allowed to be unspoken without captions appearing on-screen, every thought-process narrated or acted out in full high-octane visuals – but as market forces, the two programmes are identical. They are brands, made to appeal to fanbases rather than viewers… and one of the functions of branding is that they can never be too unpredictable, as the familiarity is what makes branding work. Branding is about removing unpredictability, outside carefully-defined areas. It’s partly the look, but also the form of the narrative: both programmes can be watched with half an eye elsewhere. In the case of Sherlock it’s because everything is so unsubtle that it barely needs your attention anyway (this is a programme that puts character-points on-screen as a caption, for crying out loud), and with Game Of Thrones the longeurs are built in to the plot. These shows are a place, a club, as much as they are a drama. You can have them on in the background when you’re lying on your couch hungover, or you can have them on when you’re doing the washing-up, or – and with Sherlock this is especially blatant – while you’re live-tweeting it (“Why not watch Sherlock while textin’ your mates?” is exactly how a brand operates). And in the execrable, appalling, cynical mush of Series 3, the direct references to the fanbase and endlessly gratuitous pissing about with the jumping off the building were no more a televised drama than “why not send Booking.com your holiday story?” is a novel.

I’m not saying that a programme being a place, or having a fanbase, is bad. I’m a Doctor Who obsessive, for Pete’s sake: a big part of that heritage is dressing up and going to conventions (which I never did) and/or writing original stories set in the sandbox universe (which I did, and that’s why I became the person who’s… um… writing this). Having fans writing slash-fic or dressing up as Cersei Schemingbitch is a good thing. What I am saying is that one man’s fanbase is another man’s demographic, and things that are demographically targetted are never truly surprising. We know by now, right down to the fourth decimal place, exactly how Sherlock or John will react to any given situation and they seldom meet anyone very interesting (this was true from the first episode, where the one-off villain had his motivations drawn in by etch-o-sketch so the story’s finale could turn into The Princess Bride). It’s also true of Game Of Thrones, which is an extended serial, but only Tywin and Tyrion Lannister really keep us guessing after the first few episodes – and even then it’s more because of the performances than the scripting. When Tyrion tells Cersei “your love for your children is your one redeeming quality,” that’s literally the character’s entire brief; Robb Stark has just given a woman a look while she amputates a limb, and I already know they’re going to wind up romancing. Even the sex scenes are part of the furniture. Again, that’s how brands work, something George Lucas understood back in 1977 – if you’re making a sandbox universe you don’t want unpredictable people, you want two-dimensional icons where viewers can pick a favourite and project themselves onto the character.

All of which fine, if you decide to buy into the brand. The problem is that it leaves out everyone else – those of us who aren’t looking for a lifestyle choice, who only want compelling entertainment that can transport us elsewhere for an hour every week. I was one of many viewers who didn’t really care how Sherlock had survived jumping off the hospital, and just wanted the explanation out of the way so I could get detective stories as good as Series One. Similarly, I don’t need to spend five minutes in the company of Danaerys Funnyhair every week, whether she’s doing anything interesting or not, because hey lots of fans have her as their favourite.

And to revert to Line of Duty: in the first episode we’re presented with Lindsay Denton as an innocent, an incompetent, a coward, a brave whistleblower, a born victim, and a possible scheming criminal. At exactly the point when you think she’s going to fold into a nervous wreck, she smashes someone’s head against concrete. Often “out of character” is used as a criticism, but real people under stress do behave out of character. In the hands of a poor actor this could be a disaster, a mish-mash of incoherent mannerisms – but Line Of Duty trusts its cast and as a result we get Keeley Hawes, who is so astounding in the way she pulls these different reactions into one cohesive, compelling human being that she might as well be given all the acting awards now. I’m four episodes in and I still have no idea where this is going. Four episodes into Game Of Thrones I knew exactly where I was, and was just impatient for more ice-zombies, and for the Starks and Lannisters to start kicking lumps out of each other (oh, and wondering why the girl with Stockholm Syndrome was being presented as a model of female emancipation).

There’s more than one kind of drama, and everything doesn’t have to look like Bodies. However, with the self-inflicted decline of broadcast viewing, generating a demographic fanbase who will buy the merchandise and watch the boxsets is increasingly going to be the template for what drama will do. You can get action figures for The Big Bang Theory now, which says all you need to know. Only the core fanbase really matters: much play was made this year that Mrs Brown’s Boys topped the Christmas Day ratings, but what wasn’t commented upon that Steven Moffat’s demographically-targetted, branded version of Doctor Who picked up only 8.3 million viewers compared to the 13.3 million that tuned in six years earlier, and the 11.6 million who saw Tennant bow out. It  doesn’t matter, because a drama finding a mass audience is no longer seen as important, and the multicoloured Dalek toys are the real measure of success.

All of which means that the brilliance of Line Of Duty, where the broadcast and the initial impact is all that really matters, is under threat – as television atomises this sort of drama will be harder and harder to find. There may only be a few years of being able to see this sort of thing. For god’s sake, watch it now.

Leave It To The Bigger Boys, Please

February 26th, 2014 by Mike Morris

A few years back, I was visiting a couple who’d recently extended their house – not a little kitchen lean-to, mind you, but a great big two storey extension that more or less the doubled the size of the place. They’d self-built it – worked out a plan themselves, got an engineer to draw it up for planning permission, and then hired all the tradesmen and built it without a main contractor. It was a fine extension and a hell of an undertaking, and they were justifiably proud of it. Dammit, this is a cliché but it’s a cliché for a reason: it’s a pleasure to be in the company of someone who’s proud of their handiwork, particularly when it’s something as big and life-changing as a house.

Then came the classic time-bomb of a question: “So how much insulation would you put under a floor these days, Mike?”

Most architects will recognise this as a wide-open invitation to inadvertently imply that someone’s work is Not Good Enough. So I did the sensible thing and obfuscated – it depends, it’s actually related to the size and shape of the floor, yadda yadda yadda. They went on to tell me they’d wanted to do a good job so there was two inches of polystyrene in all the cavity walls and under the floor.

Within the context of houses built in the area, this was a good job. In the mid 90s I’d helped out on site for a nearby house where there was no insulation at all in the cavity, which was a bit old-fashioned but far from uncommon. It was also pretty commonplace not to insulate a floor. I generally try not to be a wanker to people when I’m sitting in their kitchen – at least, not before 1am and enough alcohol to make the drinkaware.ie website weep through my monitor screen – so I told the no-cavity-insulation story. The uncompromised answer wouldn’t exactly have been polite. Polystyrene is practically archaic and two inches is nowhere near enough. You need a minimum of 60mm polyisocyanurate in the walls and probably even more underneath the floor. You haven’t done a “good job,” you’ve built something illegal. What’s more, in the long run your substandard insulation is going to cost you a fortune.

This wasn’t really their fault. Construction is complicated, Building Regulations are complicated things – more so now than they were then – and someone trying to build their own home has very little support to help them learn. Going to an architect was at the time (and still remains, to an extent) a fairly boutique thing to do. They did a better job than many other people in the area, which really goes to show how widespread the non-compliance with Building Regulations actually was.

If those people had known the rules, I’ve no doubt they would have followed them and – along with the trifling matter of heinous examples (pyrite epidemic, Priory Hall and so on) of homeowners being shafted by blatant examples of profiteering – this sort of inadvertent contravention is what Building Control should be helping to stop. The botch job of the introduction of the new Building Control Regulations has been rumbling on in Constructionland for quite some time: however it’s recently broken out and gone mainstream (i.e. people are complaining about it to Joe Duffy), and the reason is perhaps slightly unexpected. The new regulations effectively make self-building impossible. Given that self-builds – building without a main contractor, effectively – comprise a fair chunk of one-off houses built in the country, this has made a lot of people quite upset.

There have been several articles written about the new regulations, generally by better-informed people than me, highlighting the issues with them in great detail. I’m not going to address them in detail here, but it’s worth looking at the issue of how these regulations – and the culture that gave rise to them – affects your average person. When the government published its entirely bonkers draft regulations, in which a building certifier (an architect, building surveyor or civil engineer) had to take responsibility for everything built on the building site, I wrote a piece on thejournal.ie which finished up like so:-

“What do we have, from the point of view of the ordinary person? Well, it’s a reasonable assumption that the mooted legislation will not in fact come to pass, and that the Draft Regulations will be amended to produce certificates that designers can reasonably sign. This will then just amount to an empty exercise in kicking the can down the road, a document that does not strengthen enforcement or inspection in any meaningful way whatsoever, a document which insults the Priory Hall residents it purports to protect…”

I’d argue that this is exactly what’s happened, although you’re entitled to observe “yeah, well you would say that” at this point. The very-low-resolution thumbnail of the new law is that anyone building a house, extension large enough to require planning permission, or any other building will now have to hire an architect (or some other properly-qualified person) for the duration of the job to act as an Assigned Certifier. Moreover, the person in charge of construction needs to be a competent building contractor, and both those parties have to sign certificates warranting their job at the conclusion. This is what’s effectively going to outlaw self-builders.

What it won’t do is stop another Priory Hall happening again. A new building will only appear in the system if a commencement notice is submitted, telling the Local Authority that building has started. If it isn’t submitted, it doesn’t exist. The Building Control Authorities don’t have anywhere near enough manpower to drive around looking for possible illegal building sites, so it won’t happen. You might think that no-one can build a housing scheme without someone noticing, but it can happen and it has happened. Surprisingly, unscrupulous builders and developers are not notorious sticklers for filling out forms.

At this point, we might as well ask the big question: who is this legislation actually intended to protect? It’s not there to protect the homeowner; if it were then Assigned Certifier would be a specialist role requiring a distinct qualification, not just a position that can be filled by whoever works in construction and happens to hold a protected title (arguably, the best qualified people to carry out the Assigned Certifer role are architectural technologists. Unfortunately “Architectural Technologist” isn’t a protected title, so they can’t do it. That’s a sign of lazy lawmaking.) It would also require all Building Control Authorities to inspect more properties than the pathetic, measly 12% figure that’s unchanged from before.

Those with a historical eye on the power of the building lobby might think the new regulations are there to protect the construction industry, but that’s not the case either – without getting wonkish, we can tell this is true because everyone in the industry is complaining about them.

There’s just one stakeholder the new Building Control Regulations heavily and unquestionably protect, and that is the government. The role of enforcement has effectively been subcontracted to private companies or individuals working as assigned certifiers, and they have no link whatsoever to the state. The state’s duties now extend to filing all the forms, and visiting 12% of construction sites per year. That’s it. Everything else is down to the contractor and the assigned certifier, and you can sue them if something goes wrong. They may well have gone bankrupt, but you can still sue them.

I’m not saying that the new regulations are specifically set up to protect the government from taking responsibility for the condition of new houses: I have no idea of anyone’s motivation here. What I am saying is that Priory Hall cost Dublin City Council well over €5m; the pyrite scandal cost over €10m; plenty of people were muttering “tip of the iceberg”; and if you did set out to write a law that quietly excludes the state from any responsibility for new buildings, this is pretty much exactly how you would do it.

And as is so often the case with bad law, relatively small groups of people end up getting diced in the crossfire. It’s undoubtedly true that many self-builds are not fully regulations-compliant. But it requires a spectacularly cock-eyed attitude to think self-builds are at the root of all evil.

The truth is, and whisper it quietly… I suspect a fair chunk of architects wouldn’t be entirely unhappy to see self-building fall by the wayside, especially when the self-build doesn’t involve any designers at all. This isn’t for reasons of self-interest, exactly, but because it offends our sensibilities: if you don’t believe that hiring an architect gives you a better home and more bang for your buck, you probably won’t want to be an architect. Moreover, much of the rhetoric from self-builders carries with it an undertone of “I’m building a house for my family and it’s no-one else’s business: it’s my house, I can do what I like.” The problem with this isn’t its crassness, it’s that it’s not just your house – it will be there after you die, lived in by people you will never meet, and you have a responsibility to them. That isn’t a hippy aspiration or Stalinist dogma, it’s the law in Ireland and has been for centuries; a house is real property and as such part of the land. It isn’t owned by anybody, at least not in the sense you own a pullover. You have a freehold on your house, making you the custodian of it, but that’s not actually the same thing.

I’ll go further. Whenever anyone asks me for advice about building a house, the first thing I say is hire an architect and use a contractor. Given that I know a fair bit about how buildings are put together and quite like DIY, I’m probably better-qualified to self-build than most people, and I wouldn’t do it in a blue fit. I think the financial savings you can make are largely illusory and the stress and difficulty of dealing with such huge sums of money is bananas. In short, I think most people who decide to design and physically build their own houses have made a terrible decision and are basically mad.

However, I like being part of a society that celebrates people who do mad things. Conversely, I don‘t like being part of a culture that feels comfortable in telling people they can’t do something for themselves and they should leave it to the grown-ups. Ireland has a rural history and as such has an important tradition of self-building. Even if hardly anyone ends up doing it, the knowledge that they can - the self-empowerment and freedom that knowledge brings – is a damn good thing. Sure, I think it’s bonkers, but if people want to build their own house because they’ll enjoy the experience and be proud of the outcome, because they’ll feel good about the endeavour and learn something and enrich their lives, then good for them. So the way to make self-built one-off houses better is to offer such people real institutional support and guidance. Given that we have any number of stories showing that a good chunk of Ireland’s “qualified” builders are more than capable of doing a thoroughly awful job, it’s a bit bloody rich to just prevent people from doing it themselves.

The truth is that this is part of a broader and quite nasty trend, where anything complicated should be left to experts and no attempt is made to make things accessible to the pesky general public. Construction legislation is just one of the clearest examples of this. Regulations should be accessible and easy to grasp for anyone who puts the effort in: they should be written for anyone to read, not just specialists, so they can help bring about a situation where ordinary people understand how a building should be built and we have a population growing smarter. Instead they’re growing progressively more wonkish, remote and esoteric. The Irish regulations about energy-efficiency used to give simple transmission values for walls, floors, windows and so on, plus an efficiency rating for boilers; they now require the use of a state-sponsored piece of computer software with a 200-page guide. The given reason for this is to make the regulations more accurate, but the real effect of that negligible increase in accuracy is to ensure that hardly anyone in the country can even hope to understand the laws any more.

If you want a snapshot of power, that’s effectively what it is: a group of patriarchal cabals who think they know better than anyone else, making things more and more complex so that ordinary folk can no longer access them. That way, they can no longer by scrutinised by anyone outside the bubble. And while Minister Hogan may love his pathetic posturing in that role of Big Phil Cleaning Up Dodge City, that’s ultimately what these regulations are. They simply elevate house-building into an exclusively professional sphere, and thereby ensure that the government doesn’t have to do anything to protect the homeowners it secretly holds in contempt. They’re purely a dodge, with incidental cruelty thrown in; an exercising in ducking any potential missiles and not caring where they land. This is not leadership, it’s not protecting the public. It’s not really government at all.

Dreams Of Empire

February 16th, 2014 by Mike Morris

Like most people who aren’t from Scotland, I don’t know much about Scotland. Admittedly I probably know a little more than your average non-Scot, in that I lived in it for a couple of years of my life as a kid, but I can’t claim that I gained any socio-economic insights as an eight year-old. The question of whether or not Scotland should declare itself independent has always been one at which I’ve shrugged my shoulders. The notion of national identity is either a horrendously blunt idea or a terribly complicated, fractured thing, so I suspect that this might be the Scots’ bloody business and that most people concur. Well, except for English people, obviously.

No, okay, that’s unfair, let’s re-run it: except for a certain kind of English person who tends to have a better-than-average chance of ruling the country or running its major news outlets, if those two aren’t the same thing. Let’s be clear: English people think and feel all sorts of things. However there’s a certain mentality in the British establishment that’s unthinkingly Anglocentric and has never quite got past the days of empire – at this point I might as well say “Michael Gove” and you’ll know what I mean, even if the sod does happen to be Scottish. This mindset does tend to worm its way into a broader discourse and, now that Scotland is considering a parting of the ways, it has become desperately apparent.

It’s not that controversial to suggest that, unconsciously or otherwise, Establishment England sees its country as the senior partner of the United Kingdom – somewhere just that little bit more legitimate and more important than any of the others, a proper country supporting bedraggled neighbours. If you want to be completely actuarial, you could even argue it’s true: England has a far bigger population than all the rest put together, and the highest GDP, ergo it’s the major partner. It’s just that it’s a toxic thing to openly state – so in spite of U.K. history being squarely one of English dominance, we have the Better Together rhetoric portraying the United Kingdom as a union rather than a hierarchy, where all the constituent countries / principalities / oh whatever you want to call them are treated as equal players.

This loose statement is clung to by people who proudly identify as British, but it’s self-evidently not true. Look at the West Lothian Question, for starters – that’s the old chestnut that essentially asks why, if Scotland, Wales and Norn Iron get their own parliament, England can’t have one too. This is often used as a way of illustrating some sort of reverse discrimination against the English but in fact, the West Lothian Question really goes to show that “Britain” is really England with some extra bits. If we were to establish an English parliament it would finally confirm the United Kingdom as a properly federal nation, and that would bring with it some uncomfortable realities. Federal entities recognise their component parts as equal, in that they have a platform where they can vote regardless of their size (as per the U.S. Senate, or the workings of the E.U.) or even veto federal measures (as per Canada). Yet a situation where British intervention in Iraq could have been vetoed by Wales, or where the Tory gutting of the NHS could have been stopped by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland voting against the measures, would have the establishment sputtering all over their vintage port.

On the other hand, if you view England as the prime nation of the U.K. and the others as dominions, then the notion of an English National Parliament is just unnecessary. Sure, Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland get represented in Westminster, but all their presence actually does is legitimate a union in which England is the dominant partner. Meanwhile, the not-Dominions-honest aren’t taken remotely seriously and nor are their assemblies. The acid test here is obvious: Alex Salmond is reasonably well-known in England, thanks to the independence debate, but few people could name his predecessor as First Minister of Scotland. I would guess that less than 1% could manage Wales or Northern Ireland. That’s not a union, it’s a last echo of empire.

Perhaps this explains why much of the mainstream English comment around Scotland’s independence referendum contains a thinly-veiled expression of contempt. At best, English commentators tend to be apathetic or keen to divest themselves of moany Jocks. At worst, they’re this close to jumping on a box and saying “you guys don’t even know how a proper country works, anyway.” Let’s not forget that Scotland has been independent for the majority of its existence: it already has its own legal system, school system, NHS, banknotes, parliament, and many more. If you scoured the world, you’d struggle to find anywhere more ready for secession.

This week, George Osborne made a trip to Scotland and made it clear that, if Scotland leaves the U.K., they won’t get to keep the pound. This has been largely backed up by all the main political parties in England, in a way that has self-satisfaction dripping from it like lard from a deep-fried lazy punchline. Some have desperately tried to spin this as a stating of the facts of life rather than an attempt at bullying,  but this in itself is a gobsmacking insult.

These are the words of someone who thinks he can stand on a box and gently explain to Scotland what it can and can’t have. The implication is impossible to miss… it’s that Scottish people don’t understand how to run their own affairs, that they’re letting their ideas run away with them, that they don’t really understand what independence would mean because – basically – they’re not capable of the self-governance they think they want. Hence, a  wagging finger and you won’t get the pound, you know; listen carefully, we know better than you. You might as well tousle their hair and tell them not to worry their pretty ginger heads about it. Only a mindset of unthinking superiority could think reducing international relations to the level of dealing with a screaming child by threatening to take away their Nintendo would actually be effective.

The irony is that, as implied threats go, it’s an entirely empty one. If the independence vote does succeed then, given the heavy interlinking of the Scottish and English economies, a currency union makes perfect sense and probably benefits the rump U.K. more than the Scots. The sheer nose-cutting-face-spiting stupidity of refusing any currency union, out of pique, would be breathtaking: seeing Dave ‘n’ George explain this decision to the CEOs of Tescos, Morrisons and Insert A Dozen Brandnames Here would be wonderful to behold. Besides, even if they refuse a currency union, there’s no meaningful way that England can stop the Scots from using sterling. You don’t need permission to use sterling, you just buy it up as a globally available currency, much as Venezuela does with the dollar. The declarations that “You can’t have our pound” are hollow bombast and that’s it.

Besides, how hard is it to create a currency, exactly? A country as poor and fractured as Ireland did it; Iceland, with a population of less than 300,000 people, manages to keep the shops open and the Kronor in existence even when their banks go stark staring bonkers. Really, the most likely consequence of refusing currency union is that the U.K. treasury gets to keep all the national debt and Scotland gets all the North Sea oil. Maybe the really unpalatable thing for Westminster is that, unthinkably, Scotland is actually in a far stronger position than England: a terrible contravention of the unspoken power-dynamics they’re used to.

I don’t have a real opinion on what’s best for Scotland, because I’m not Scottish, but on the plus side that does allow me to be petty. So here goes: England can be an attractive underdog but it’s an ugly master, and the English debate around Scottish independence has been patronising, nasty and unpleasant. So I hope the Scots do vote to leave the U.K., purely because it will give that kind of rhetoric a beautifully bloody nose. That would be doing a small service for everybody. Especially the English.