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.

Homophobiaphobia: That’s The Worst

February 4th, 2014 by Mike Morris

As a white middle-class straight man, I don’t have a suitable personal anecdote with which to open an article about RTE and the homophobia clusterfuck. I don’t have much experience of discrimination of any kind, really. I could talk for a long time about guilt if you like, the knowledge that I had a leg-up on huge swathes of the population before I was born, although at least the “middle-class” bit has been acquired rather than inherited (still, believe me, you can’t imagine how that guilt feels. It’s worse than anything you could dream of. Insert hollow laughter here). Being occasionally called an “English cunt” while growing up in Ireland wasn’t that pleasant I suppose, but if I’m honest it rarely happened and besides – well, it wasn’t that much of a burden when it did. “You cunt, from a colonial power who subjugated god knows how many countries including this one.” How powerless I felt. Oh the humanity.

I did have to share a house with a homophobic cockbiscuit for a few months, I remember that. I only found out about it after a couple of weeks, when someone-or-other was on the telly and he lowered his voice and muttered to me “I think he’s a queer though, isn’t he?” like he’d discovered yer man was a gangrenous infection or something. I was very brave about this, in that I shrugged and walked off, did my best not to converse with the guy and ignored his comments about queers until I found somewhere else to live. This is because I am a cowardly dipshit who will do pretty much anything to avoid a real confrontation in which I have emotional investment (ones in which I’m not particularly invested are fine. They’re fun, a sport, like tennis. Feel free to add hypocrite to coward if you like).

The only other comparable situation I can think of is when I was twenty or so, working as a van delivery boy for a few months in Manchester. For two weeks, I was in a truck with a driver who was a cheery, friendly, expansive racist. Racists are supposed to be subhuman monsters, but this man was funny and generous and rather kind to me in many ways, certainly kinder than other drivers: he advised me about things to do in a strange city, bought me lunch, sometimes said “I’ll take this box, you’ve been working your bollocks off all day,” let me keep all the tips because “I don’t carry the boxes and you earn fuck-all as it is mate,” and then occasionally broke off to say “Oh fuck, we’re stuck behind a nigger, those fuckers can’t drive.” The ten-minute rant about how he hated Pakis because they thought they were better than everyone else but they were really just cunts was a particular highlight. He was twice my size and could have got me fired, so I just kept my mouth shut and looked away. At this point, please see the conclusion of the previous paragraph. I stopped letting him buy lunch. Whoo, go me.

Now, I know the following is going to sound absurdly navel-gazing, but this is only intended to be a personal response so why not: what those two situations had in common was the feeling of being fenced in and completely powerless, any sort of ability to fight back being drained away. Stomach muscles clenching, a weird fluttery empty feeling in my chest. I’m stuck with a racist / homophobe and there’s nothing I can do about it, I just want to get out of here as quick as I can. Actually, strike that. I should really be saying something here and I’m not, because I’m just completely shit. I’d like to think I’d handle those situation a damn sight better now. I guess I’ll find out at some point, because there’s a lot of wankers in the world.

So I don’t know what it’s like to be black, or Asian, or gay, or disabled, or a woman, and have somebody throw abuse at you for it. The only assumption I’ve ever made is that it must be a damn sight worse than I felt in the cab of that delivery van, and that was one of the shittest things I’ve had to live through (lucky, privileged me). The nauseous feeling of powerlessness I felt then is probably why I’ve always been convinced that discrimination is about power, not about fripperies like “offence.” Now, if you’re gay and Irish, the law of your country treats you as a lesser human being to straight people in some ways – e.g. marriage. There are, de facto, some areas where you’re powerless. That’s discrimination, right there, written into law.

Again, I don’t know how that feels, but I bet it’s ten times worse than I felt in the cab of that delivery van. A lot of people don’t look away and wait for it to stop. They get angry, or defiant, or they try and change things. Good for them.

Another news story, many years back. Ron Atkinson is sacked from commentating for ITV because he forgets his microphone is still on, and calls Marcel Desailly a “fat, lazy nigger.” Desailly was playing for Chelsea at the time, and was one of the most beautiful, intelligent, elegant and incisive footballers I’ve ever seen play the game; even if he wasn’t, even if he was as chubby as Jan Molby or a lump-it-up-the-pitch clogger in the mould of Mick McCarthy, this would be an obviously nasty and unacceptable diatribe. Atkinson accepted his dismissal without rancour, apologised with apparent sincerity, and only a few bigoted people in the world of football (football isn’t short of such characters, sadly) thought this was anything but right. Job done, really.

Skip forward, and Atkinson is limbering up for a second coming. He gives a few interviews in which he says he thinks he’s apologised enough, in fact he thinks he’s apologised too much. In the end he’s the subject of some crass “documentary” in which he goes to the U.S., is introduced to various black people from different social classes, and repeatedly expresses bafflement that black people can say “nigga” but he can’t (no matter how many times it’s gently explained to him). He continues to insist he’s a victim and that he’s “over-apologised,” before finally coming back to the U.K. and meeting the great Darcus Howe who tells him to clean Rio Ferdinand’s boots for ten weeks as penance. Atkinson, tellingly, is appalled at this and says Howe is “bang out of order” for this suggestion.

The one thing I remember, watching that programme, is that Atkinson feels he’s being discriminated against in some way and he’s annoyed by this – he’s annoyed that everyone is being mean to him, annoyed he can’t get any more lucrative commentary gigs and say “ooh, I’ll tell you what, he’s gone down like Buddy Holly” like it’s the soul of wit. Atkinson is – quite clearly – a very wealthy man who can do fine for himself on the after dinner circuit, and all his mates like Jimmy Hill and Terry Venables will slap him on the back and tell him he’s a great guy. One thing I don’t think, watching this lumbering cro-magnon vehicle for sunbed-tan talk indignantly about how badly he’s been treated from his five-star hotel, is god, that must be ten times worse than I felt in the cab of that van.

Now, back to the present day. Rory O’Neill says the Iona Institute, John Waters and Breda O’Brien are homophobic. Helpfully, he goes on to refine what he means: it doesn’t mean beating up gay people, it can be subtle, but ultimately if you think a gay person should be treated differently to a straight person, that’s homophobic. Context.

Now let’s just forget the whole legal action apology thing for a moment. How do we think John Waters and Breda O’Brien and David Quinn felt when they heard this? Did they feel powerless? Who know, perhaps they did. Perhaps John Waters wept silently and convulsively, unable to stop and yet simultaneously blaming himself, hating himself, for his weakness. Perhaps David Quinn was gripped by numb, shaking disbelief, his view of a fair world rocked by a single comment that he thought simply did not happen any more; maybe Breda O’Brien howled in fury and punched a wall and drew blood from her knuckles. I’ve seen people do all those things when they were called a coon, or a faggot, or called a bitch for telling some drunken tosser to take his hand out of their skirt. Who knows, maybe the slur of “homophobic” made John Waters feel the same. Perhaps all three of them were seriously disturbed, with no outlet for their pain and no way to make the cruel world understand, except for the regular opinion columns they have in national newspapers.

Just to clarify the sarcasm beyond all doubt now: I very much doubt it.

Like I said, I firmly believe it’s about power, and none of those people felt dis-empowered. Quite the reverse: they rang their lawyers and got RTÉ to grovel, plus a handy payout. That isn’t a powerless and persecuted minority at work, now, is it? Yesterday, in Britain, disabled campaigner Sue Marsh was invited to some bearpit Channel 5 debate about benefits. She showed up and was told she wouldn’t be needed after all. Katie Hopkins was on, however; a woman who’s never given any impression of being anything other than a vicious, obnoxious idiot, but will probably be invited back on This Week and Question Time to fart her vapid bile into the ether. Meanwhile, all-round superstar Jack Monroe was reduced to tears by Edwina Currie and wrote an open letter detailing how, when unemployed, she tried to kill herself. Who’s powerless, here?

There are smarter people than me talking about RTÉ’s fury-inducing apology and the reach of Iona, well-made criticism of the cack-handed handling of the interview in the first place, and there’s the usual mooing over what constitutes homophobia. In a way though, the question of what is or isn’t homophobic barely matters – especially since Rory O’Neill clarified exactly what he meant when he used the term. What we’re looking at here is something insidious: an attempt to post a false equivalence between being called “homophobic” and being called a shirt-lifter or a fudge-packer or a queer. It’s almost exactly like the “what if a man said that about a woman” or “what if a white person said that about a black person” nonsense. This is bilge for all sorts of reasons, but here’s the easy shortcut: the people who trot out that line rarely talk about how hurt or despairing or shaken or (here it is) powerless it made them feel when Diane Abbott made a slur about colonialism, or when Roy Hodgson apologised for making a joke about a monkey to a black man.

No, they talk about how they can’t say the same kind of thing. They talk about how unfair it is. They’re irritated. The irritation comes from having crude, hate-speech modes of expression taken away from them and equating this with oppression. That’s all.

More succinctly: these people aren’t hurt, they’re just pissed off because “I used to be able to say whatever I wanted, now I can’t” or “People used to listen to me and nod respectfully, now they call me homophobic.” That’s not discrimination or name-calling: it’s privilege being eroded. That’s what this always has been: the powerful defending their power, the privileged defending their privilege, and so utterly bereft of empathy or self-knowledge that they cry “discrimination” as soon as they start losing the battle.

And yet this all ends up being weirdly positive, as Rory O’Neill’s glorious speech is feted worldwide for the eloquent statement about prejudice it is, while both the reach and nastiness of the Iona brigade are widely exposed. Weak, pathetic characters, discriminated against because people they’ve never met want to get married. Quite literally arguing that straight marriage must be more important than anything else or it’s “under attack” – it’s actually an overt defense of privilege, it’s not even subtle.

I’m a generally crap person who hates confrontation so I’m no sodding use. However, I’ll say this to Iona: yeah, you are homophobic: also bullying, vapid, dreary, banal, and pathetic. Sooner or later, someone will set fire to your Ireland. And when it burns, I’ll be one of the millions dancing a jig.

The Night Of The Doctor, and more besides

November 17th, 2013 by Mike Morris

I know it’s a bit churlish to tear into something so inconsequential. So hey, that’s exactly what I’m about to do. My issue isn’t with The Night Of The Doctor so much as what it represents. I’ve liked quite a lot of the series lately, but there are a few things that I dislike intensely and The Night Of The Doctor is almost exclusively made up of them (there’s even a dash of crap sexual politics thrown in!). This review probably takes longer to read than it will to watch the actual short, but rest assured that I’m being deliberately disproportionate. If I pour all my annoyance in here, I might be able to talk about the good recent episodes without complaining. I might even enjoy the finale, if I’m lucky.

So, what is this? It’s not a story in its own right, and it’s not intended to be. It’s a dramatic introduction into a new corner of the Doctor’s mythology, and in the purely functional sense it does what it’s intended to. Paul McGann gets the farewell he never got in any medium. In the 90s you could easily imagine that they would have tried to reboot the series with an opening scene like this, and that – in its way – tells you exactly why the climate in television of 1996 ensured that McGann never became the Doctor he could have been (increasingly, one of the most impressive facets of Rose is the all the things RTD didn’t do). This little short is designed to leave the viewer shouting for more, and it does that in one way only: I really, really want them to do a mini-series starring the McGann Doctor. He’s great.

As for the rest… well, there’s not a great deal to say. The return of The Sisterhood of Karn, though, is interesting for precisely one reason: the question of who they were introduced for. Casual viewers will almost certainly find them baffling, alienating and clichéd, while fans who’ve seen The Brain Of Morbius will be nonplussed by their perfunctory appearance. So they really only appeal to people who’ve read about The Brain of Morbius, but haven’t actually seen it. Doctor Who is beginning to resemble its 80s self in one of the worst possible ways but, as the links to the past tends to be introduced with – let’s be fair – a rarely-wavering fannish accuracy and competence, many fans find this exciting rather than derivative and tired. It’s the twenty-first century, and we’re all JNT now.

One of the odd things about Steven Moffat is how determined he is to style himself as some sort of antifanboy. He’s happy to send up parts of the series’ mythology, ranging from the guff about dancing in his earlier stories, to the TARDIS dematerialisation noise being ascribed to the handbrake being left on in The Time Of Angels. All of that might seem like the actions of a self-styled enfant terrible, except that demythologising elements of the series always seems to goes along with an emphasis on absurdly mythologising the Doctor. Moffat’s not the first writer to do this, but he’s certainly the most relentless; he’s pulled the trick of the Doctor resolving a situation by saying“don’t you know who I am” more times than most of us can count at this stage (lest we forget, Matt Smith’s very first episode finishes up with him frightening off the bad guys by showing them a highlights reel). It reached its apex, or rather nadir, in A Good Man Goes To War, really; that’s a story where the Doctor spends twenty minutes showing up and frightening people just by being there, but – beneath all that sound and fury – he doesn’t actually do anything on-screen. He performs two meaningful acts (that’s literally correct, I’m not being sarcastic), and we don’t see him doing either. Between blowing up a Cyberfleet to show how double-hard he is (which gets the story off to a crass start from which it never recovers) and somehow impersonating a headless monk as if we’re not even supposed to even ask “how” or “why” any more, we get repeated scenes of people talking about him. Look at how important he is! Look, look!

So. Mythologising the Doctor is what this mini-episode is about, and all it’s about. It’s not as obnoxious as A Good Man Goes To War, thank goodness – that’s a low bar, obviously, but the Doctor doesn’t wind up giggling like a sociopath in front of two traumatised parents who’ve just had their child kidnapped – but it’s still the work of a writer who thinks he doesn’t have to even try to impress his audience, he just has to tell them to be impressed and that’ll do. The Night Of The Doctor expects us to be awestruck because the Sisterhood keep going on about the Doctor and prophecies, and that’s it. There’s nothing on-screen to even tell casual viewers why the Sisterhood matter, bar some opaque stuff about their potions; we’re meant to wowed because they foretell vague things in a cave, and – y’know – soothsayer types are always important, right?

Similarly, Cass is scared of the Doctor just because of who he is. In a way that’s appropriate, in fairness, but it still means the interaction between her and the Doctor is just jotted in like dramatic shorthand. We don’t get know her or care about her, really; we get less insight into her than we’ve got into fairly minor characters like (say) the doomed consultant in Smith And Jones, and her death is treated with less importance than that of fairly minor characters like (say) Lynda’s doomed housemate in Bad Wolf. Some people might retort that the story’s not really about her, but it still means that none of the impact on the Doctor feels meaningful. Cass is supposed to be a catalyst for the Doctor doing something momentous but, prior to the arrival on Karn, all we get is two ciphers jumping through character hoops to set up The Doctor’s Big Decision. Get beyond the artifice and look at how these scenes really work: this Doctor’s swansong is terrifyingly similar to Colin Baker’s, except people make Big Important Speeches and the effects are better.

And there’s the second problem – the only way this show seems to know how to up the stakes is to be more portentous than last week. It reminds me of Rob Matthews’ old maxim that the most interesting Doctor Who story is always the next one. This was a wise observation in the days of Gary Russell “novels,” but these days I’d modify it to say it’s the one that’s on now. Why? Because under Moffat it feels like the focus is always on what’s going to happen, and telling us about big things to come is increasingly what this show does instead of – well – actual drama. Moffat was promising us things from the start – Silence will fall, the Pandorica will open, the Doctor will die, his name will be revealed – and it was intriguing initially, but it’s resulted in a version of Doctor Who where the form is more predictable than ever before. It’s like the way that trailers for the show might display different things… but you know they’re going to open with moody close-ups and a voiceover, and then feature fast-cut action sequences and a one-liner before the screen goes black and the music goes thud at the end.

So: we always know there’s going to be an overarching plot for the season, and we know the big questions won’t be answered until the end. Moffat didn’t start this trend (hello Russell!) but, more than ever before, the stories themselves aren’t as important as reaching the Next Big Revelation. It makes the series into an extended trailer, essentially, with all the predictability that implies. To pick the most recent example – there’s no reason that The Name Of The Doctor couldn’t have aired immediately after the Rings of Akhaten or Hide, and just allowed the remaining stories to be interesting in their own right. Unfortunately this just wouldn’t occur to anyone involved, because the stories themselves aren’t as important as disembodied heads shouting portentous infodumps about the oldest question in the universe. Many people described the end of The Almost People as “shocking” because of its plot-twist, but I’d rather have been shocked by an episode that didn’t exclusively feature a load of Caucasian knockoffs from Alien, didn’t have people shining blue light at shadows (again), didn’t conveniently make sure there was only one surviving iteration of everyone by pure coincidence, and didn’t provide a quasi-cliffhanger to a finale regardless of whether it was appropriate or not.

The big example can’t be avoided any longer. Ever since Clara made her appearance we’ve been repeatedly told she’s impossible, and this is why we’re supposed to be interested in her. But bar a backstory they can barely get out of the way quick enough (the Doctor guesses it and rattles it out in six seconds) and the honourable exception that is The Rings Of Akhaten, we hardly know a thing about her. There’s no sense that she even exists. What makes her tick? What does she do when she isn’t babysitting? What are her interests? Did she go to university? Did she have many boyfriends? If Clara were to reveal she’s married, or a lesbian, or has an estranged heroin-addicted brother, or gave a daughter up for adoption… none of this could genuinely shock us, because she’s nothing more than a walking MacGuffin. We know she’s Important, because she’s Impossible, and that’s all that’s really supposed to matter. When her impossibility is finally explained it’s actually pretty underwhelming, a good premise thrown away on a montage sequence that doesn’t really tell us anything about how such an experience would feel, but we’re not supposed to notice because the show’s now expecting us to ask OMG OMG WHO’S JOHN HURT????

To summarise: if the COMING SOON looks momentous enough, this programme now thinks it doesn’t matter how dramatically inert the rest is. Doctor Who is essentially a two-hander of a series (if there’s one companion, anyway) so having one of these as yet another shiny middle-class girl in her early twenties, but with no discernible character traits beyond a Buffy-inspired hyperwit, should be a non-starter. All of which shows you that Doctor Who isn’t really about the drama right now, its about the iconography. Clara is just A Companion, filling a particular niche within the brand, and that’s all that we need to know. The “movie poster” line has unwittingly become the raison d’etre of the whole experience.

And ultimately, that’s what The Night Of The Doctor is. It’s a trailer, a movie poster, leading into yet-another-story promising us big revelations. Which is fine, really, except… except that its one big reveal, where McGann regenerates into John Hurt to kick some Time War arse,  just makes the show less dramatic than before. Part of the allure of the new series is the Doctor’s struggle with what happened in the Time War – but now we’re given a comfortably “rogue” figure into which we can just decant all that tension, and this immediately makes the Doctors of Smith, Tennant and (particularly) Eccleston into less interesting figures than previously. If John Hurt’s not-Doctor is anything, he’s a government-created Bad Bank. He’s NAMA, for fuck’s sake.

So it goes. The more I’m told to quiver in anticipation at the coming spectacular, the more I just want it to be over and done with, get the decks cleared, and hope that Peter Capaldi knocks the self-indulgence out of what’s becoming an alienating corporate behemoth.

From Somewhere Else

October 10th, 2013 by Mike Morris

Prime Time is available worldwide. It takes a bit of fumbling around RTE Player, but it’s there all right. Something for the diaspora, right? I’m there because they were talking about emigration yesterday evening. Hey, I thought, that’s me.

There’s only so much walling myself off from Irish news and Irish culture I can do: ever since I fled to Canadia (the locals don’t like it if you call it that, so I do it as much as possible, natch) I’ve been near-terminally disengaged in Irish news. It’s too depressing and just leaves this yawning, impotent sense of distance. A reminder that I don’t live there any more.

Something’s wrong here, though. This is about tax. I skip ahead, looking for the emigration bit. It’s not there. Hang on though – I did hear there was too much emphasis on tax rates, although this piece is framed as being about tax rates.

Still, I go back and check and yep, that’s it. It’s a piece about all the emigrants leaving because of the tax burden. They list the countries where you pay less tax. There’s talk about competitiveness. George Lee refers to a UCC study, which seems to have generated this piece; 60% of people who’ve left were in employment, full-time or-

And again: hey, that’s me. I was in full-time employment. One of those highly skilled professionals they’re talking about. My background to leaving is a nice, happy emigrant-story: meeting someone wonderful, finding work in Canada, where she lives, and off I went. A lifestyle choice, as everyone seems to call it. The moment of hey-that’s-me swirls and dies: tax rates had nothing to do with it.

That’s not quite the whole story, though. We had That Conversation before I left: so, who’s moving? How do we do this? Should you come here, or…

…but no, it wasn’t even a conversation worth having. What was I going to say? Yeah, come to Ireland! Loads of jobs, loads of opportunities. Health and education – both great, well-funded, treated with respect. Social provision is brilliant, too. Ireland’s really friendly with immigrants. Visas will be no problem. No worries! All good here!

The move to Canadia has gone well, but let’s be clear: I’d have loved to have at least been able to suggest we could settle in Ireland. There are sad spikes mixed in with the happiness; the disappointment-but-brave-face of my family when I told them I was leaving, or the conversation with friends who’ve already seen so many others go. I’m delighted for ya but fuckin’ hell, once you go there’s no-one left.

Ah, forget it. Put me down as a lifestyle choice.

I feel a surge of anger. Tax rates? Are they serious? Leaving was awful. Who the fuck would put themselves through that over tax rates?

They mention part-time workers. Part time – that’s my sister, now a resident of the UAE. She didn’t have one part-time job, she had several. Trying to do a post-grad, a family no longer able to support her, trying to work all the angles and all the hours. She got tired of employers treating her like shit because they could (and besides wasn’t she Lucky To Have A Job?); tired of the news reports who talked about the problem of youth unemployment; tired of the barbs against feckless students who took too much; tired of all the student marches ignored or portrayed as drunken riots.

In the end, you hit a wall. You want money. You want not to be worried about how to feed yourself. Give me a salary, and somewhere to live, and not being told I’m scum.

You wouldn’t blame her, would you?

Back to the studio. An audience member with a law degree agrees tax rates are a factor. Representatives from ISME and Chambers agree. Michael Taft rubbishes them: it’s about pay and work, he says. Someone in the audience who represents nurses backs him up: 80% of graduates leave, and it’s because they get better pay and better conditions elsewhere. The anchor counters that: but if tax here was lower, they’d get more take home, wouldn’t they? The speaker is broadsided; well yes, he says, slightly taken aback.

Piaras Mac Éinrí of UCC is on the panel too. He’s astonished. He lead the report to which they are referring. Tax rates aren’t a factor at all. He spoke to 1500 people. It never came up. He doesn’t know why taxation is being discussed. The woman from ISME says, from her immense position of knowledge, that she was laughing to herself as he spoke. You only spoke to people in Ireland, she begins. No, he says, we spoke to emigrants. Ok, she says,without missing a beat. But regardless of that. Our members say, and-

The talk ranges elsewhere. Capital Gains Tax is raised. Entrepreneurship, Google and Twitter and other nice multinationals are mentioned. Statistics lollop back and forth: the top ten percent of earners in the country pay 73% of the tax, the top 1% pay the same as the bottom 20%. I remember when I’d be shouting at the screen – why is that strange? What percentage of income do the top 10% earn? – but it’s too hard to listen, now. This is farce, exhausted clichés and propaganda posing as insight. That vast, blank sense of distance comes roaring back; it’s quietly, physically painful.

It’s more complicated than that, says the Piaras Mac Éinrí. No emigrant is typical. It sounds almost despairing; he knows the discussion’s rigged, that isn’t really about emigration at all.

True, no emigrant is typical. I’m certainly not. I’m not even Irish, strictly speaking: I moved here as a kid, English-born to English parents. I grew up in Ireland and it’s home, but although my accent is Irish to English ears, it’s not-quite-right to Irish people. I’m not even an Irish citizen – I was entitled, but at a thousand euro and two years to get it, I never bothered. I’ve moved and suddenly I’m just… British. This makes little sense to me, with my Irish schooldays and friends, my Irish-born-and-bred brother and sister. People in Canada ask me if I “identify” as British or Irish, an alien question, just one of many things that help you feel out of your element when you’ve left.

Someone on the film said that Ireland needs to see itself as a competitor the U.K., which just brings a response of… really? This question is about what kind of society Ireland is and wants to be, what kind of culture it wants to propagate, and why it routinely alienates so many of its own youth but thinks this is just normal. Yet it’s being presented as some kind of abstract notion of a few pennies in the pound, in a world where people up and leave over taxation percentage points, and countries are competitors. Everyone is happy to talk about emigration as a tragedy, but nobody is prepared to ask what that tragedy means. That weird survival guilt, the pain of contacting home, the pain of not contacting home. So difficult to articulate it’s flatly impossible to count.

A lifestyle choice, in short.

The discussion winds up. The ISME representative concludes by saying the recovery will come from small and medium enterprises. The audience seem, on the whole, bemused. I just feel uninterested, watching people discuss a version of me that isn’t even close to recognisable. Still, if I was long-term unemployed or a public-sector worker, I’d have had it daily for years. Can’t complain, really.

No, I can’t complain: I’m better off than most. A good job, supportive family, and a really rich and exciting life. All I have to cope with is a loose sense of dislocation and absence in a small corner of my existence. What burns about what I’ve just seen isn’t anything to do with my own piddling little existential angst, in truth. Nor is it the sheer ugliness of the spectacle, with its skewed vision and plastically tired, self-serving recycling of the same mantras. Rather, it’s the knowledge that what I’ve seen is no aberration, but a perfectly-honed edge piece of Irish political discourse; the sudden certainty that, in all its self-serving, cynical rhetoric, this sort of discourse is a key part of what drives so many people away.

Something Tedious About Veils

September 27th, 2013 by Mike Morris

This blog doesn’t often comment on “liberal” issues. The main reason for this is pretty straightforward, actually: I don’t often have the energy to comment on things that should be kick-in-the-face obvious from the start. How people talk about these matters is more interesting, as it’s intriguing to see self-professed liberals talking themselves into positions where bombing Damascus is something we have to do for our children… but articles saying that gay rights are a good thing always strike me as exercises in stating the bleeding obvious. This isn’t to say that such things aren’t important; just that I’ve long since adjusted to the reality that I won’t change the mind of gits who mutter about how multiculturalism is ruining the country. If you like to claim that affirmative action penalises white people, or the problem with feminists is that they don’t have a sense of humour then… then…

Oh, just piss off my website. That’s all.

All of which is a preamble to my talking about the question of banning full-face veils. Niqabs and burqas are a reliable standby to crop up once a year – hell, even this blog once discussed it through the unusual medium of Enid Blyton stories (no, don’t look, it wasn’t as interesting as it sounds) but recently the conversation has seemed more… ominous. Jeremy Browne, UK Minister of State at the Home Office, has called for a national debate on the veil (and he’s a sodding Lib Dem); this was after Birmingham Met College banned them, and then changed their minds. Question Time a couple of weeks ago featured politicians murmuring that ooh, veils were fine, but ooh, they wouldn’t like someone in a hospital to wear one, because ooh, isn’t it? In Canadia, where I now reside, Quebec has proposed a charter of values banning all conspicuous religious dress.

What’s even more depressing is the lack of people telling such voices to fuck right off. Although this is something that crops up at least once a year, I still find it difficult to believe anyone is seriously having this conversation. We’re better than this, surely?

At this point it’s worth talking about political correctness, at least briefly. It is obviously a good thing, broadly speaking (if you don’t agree, see paragraph 2). However it’s not perfect, and the lack of solid refutation of this sordid little debate is more or less exactly how its downsides work. Political correctness tends to blunt people’s ability to actually talk about these matters – by reducing everything to a series of knee-jerk responses to certain trigger-words, you ensure a more polite society, but you also close off discourse. This tends to mean that, if something a bit more complicated than Ron Atkinson saying “nigger” rears its head, the response is muddier than it should be. The question of veils is that of two stereotypically “liberal” issues colliding – sexism versus racism, or at least contorted versions of the two – and the result is that even arguments against veil bans are wrapped in disclaimers: “I don’t like burqas but…,” or “I understand the objections but…”

In fact, the only really strong counterarguments I’ve seen from mainstream voices are based on the principles of libertarianism (that’s liberalism for dipshits, kids), and they centre around the notion that polite societies don’t legislate against what people wear. The problem with that line is that it isn’t strictly true. Birmingham Met is far from the only institution to discover the concept of a dress-code. Quebec’s charter, similarly, refers to government employees rather than people walking about in the street. Come to that, nation-states also pronounce on what people wear. Indecent exposure laws decree you can’t walk around naked. In many countries, similarly, you can’t walk around with Nazi slogans on your T-shirt.

So it’s more accurate is to say that that you can legislate about dress, but you need a bloody good reason to do it. There simply isn’t one here, so it’s worth stopping the pretence otherwise. In the interests of chop-chop timber, it’s time to do the tedious job of dismissing the other ‘arguments’ to the contrary.

“There’s a social contract that, when interacting with others, you do not conceal your face.”

Sorry, but… since when? This isn’t a social contract anybody ever bothered explaining to me and, more tellingly, I have never seen it mentioned in any other context but this one. Even in the grips of hoodie-panic, the objections centred around “it’s difficult to identify hooligans” rather than some nebulous societal etiquette. Nobody objects to people obscuring their features with sunglasses; nor do I remember, back when I was a teenager (and therefore a budding criminal, according to most of the right wing press), people running up to me and demanding I remove the hood of my snorkel-parka. When I was younger still, balaclavas were in fashion. Now, as a kid I wasn’t exactly plugged into current affairs, but I’m pretty sure nobody trotted out pat social contracts to demand youngsters stop walking around in IRA-chic. This see-your-face contract does not, and has never, existed outside the realm of the reactionary’s imagination.

“But there’s a question of security…”

No, there isn’t. People already have to take off veils at customs, which is the only place where this is a serious issue. At this point people like to trot out the usual bullshit about motorcyclists having to remove their helmets when they go in a bank, which is moronic on two fronts: firstly because there are rather more motorcyclists than people in a burqa so the risk is greater, and secondly because there isn’t a cultural taboo against motorcyclists taking their helmets off. Motorcycle-helmets aren’t a quasi-religious norm of dress, not even for Zen Buddhists. If you’re down to motorcyclists, and seriously demanding to know why a niqab is any different, then get help.

“It’s intimidating…”

Is it really? Something isn’t “intimidating” just because you’re intimidated, and claiming otherwise is like a claustrophobic claiming the whole world is terrified of lifts. As a kid, I found people in niqabs to be fascinating and enthralling, not creepy. They just looked like they were wearing clothes that I would have loved to get my hands on (balaclavas were in, remember?). So no, it isn’t de facto creepy not to be able to see someone’s face, as I would imagine my mention of snorkel-parkas made abundantly clear. It might just be that these are the sort of images that appear on the front page of The Sun next to articles about the terrors of Islam.

In fact, here’s another personal anecdote. Growing up in a country with no visible Jewish population to speak of meant that I pretty much never saw anyone wearing a yarmulke, or “those funny Jewish caps” as I used to call them (I was an enlightened young fellow). So the only time I ever saw someone in a yarmulke was on current affairs programmes, and they tended to be extremists spewing racist bile about how they were perfectly entitled to murder as many Palestinians as they wanted. The result was that, when I moved to North America and started seeing people in yarmulkes all around me I actually did feel intimidated, as well as involuntarily revulsed: I had to remind myself that there wearers were perfectly sane and ordinary Jewish people, and I’d simply been conditioned to react to their clothing in a way that was completely unwarranted. More succinctly, I needed to take my head out of my arse and get over it.

Or more succinctly still: if you’re genuinely creeped out by someone in religious or cultural dress of any kind, you might consider the possibility that it’s your fucking problem.

“It’s not just about Muslims…”

Trotted out along the lines of “It’s not discriminatory, it’s all religious clothing.” The speaker usually comes from a cultural background that doesn’t have any real taboos about clothing, and therefore isn’t affected by a ban, but still smugly says “it applies to me as well.” By the same logic, it’s not sexist to pass a law saying that no-one can wear any clothing on their upper body except a T-shirt, and that includes bras… because hey, it applies to men too. It’s a heroically nonsensical viewpoint and should be treated with the contempt it deserves. This isn’t “special treatment,” it’s manners.

“It’s actually not even religious, it’s cultural…”

And that makes it less important because…? The benefit of that particular line does rather explode the next one, which is-

“We should have a secular public realm…”

Oh, fuck right off. Seriously. This is exactly the sort of poisonous bullshit that enables religious fruitcakes to blather about being persecuted.

Secularism is a wholly irrefutable argument that the mechanics of state shouldn’t be overtly influenced by the beliefs of religious groups; it’s about treating religion as no more important than any other special interest. It’s not about singling religion out as a terrible thing which should be hidden from sight, and it certainly isn’t anything to do with banning certain modes of dress or stopping people from observing their religion in public places. In fact, if you want to embrace secularism, one thing the state clearly shouldn’t do is meddle in religious clothing; it’s no more acceptable than decreeing you can’t wear a baseball cap turned backwards on the street, or you can’t work for the government if you liked Sex and the City, or you can’t go into a bank in a Nickelback T-shirt (all of which would make the world a better place, let’s face it).

“They are oppressive garments. This is about women…”

Ah, and here’s the thing.

This blog’s main correspondent and (ahem) reader, Willy Robinson, made a perceptive comment the last time I discussed this: namely, the drip-drip of burqa-banning chat can be linked directly to the relative failure of the military campaign in Afghanistan. That campaign was initially sold as an operation to get that thar Osama Bin Laden and eradicate the Taliban. Unfortunately, as time went by and the Alliance Of Countries Mainly Run By White People remained camped in Kabul, it became clear that on this basis, the invasion was an embarrassing and hopeless failure. And so, quietly, it was redefined as a democracy-dispensing crusade against evil regimes. The oppression of women in these places was, from nowhere, heavily emphasised; items like the burqa were, suddenly, politically potent. Niqabs and burqas have been visible for years in any multicultural Western society, but it’s only in the last six or seven that they have been widely discussed as an affront to the rights of women that should be banned.

It’s the language that gives the game away. Some commentators are shockingly blasé about why women wear veils, will unilaterally declare that they are forced to do so, and to say that – even if not actually forced – no free women would choose to wear such a thing. This is just about the most patronising thing you can imagine, with a hefty dash of racism thrown in. If you see a woman wearing a veil, you have no idea whatsoever why she is wearing it. The fact that you can’t imagine a reason is supremely irrelevant; she doesn’t have to justify herself to you.

(Besides, can you really not imagine a reason? If I were a Muslim woman in any western society today I probably would feel rather pressurised about my beliefs and background; I can see how this sort of cultural item might take on a very personal significance as a badge of identity, regardless of its unpleasant overtones. I just thought of that now. It’s really not that hard to imagine, is it?)

The point is, gazing at someone else’s behavioural norms from the outside and declaring it “wrong” is something you can only do if you hold that other culture in complete contempt. People will happily talk about women being “culturally oppressed” into wearing these garments – but the same is true of hundreds of things women do in our culture, and nobody talks about banning twerking, or lipstick, or lads’ mags, or countless other things the Spice Girls embraced as “empowerment” while (male) music executives counted the cash and wanked over pictures of Emma Bunton. Western society has misogyny squirming out from its bones, but still thinks it can glance at something unfamiliar and mutter “It’s sexist, ban it” without even consulting the women involved.

And this is what it comes down to, really. We live in a world where huge swathes of middle-eastern culture are habitually portrayed as threatening; where people of that culture are seen as terrorists-in-waiting; where we talk about Muslims being “radicalised” as if they’ve caught some new and dangerous lunacy-disease, rather than examine the reasons why this might happen; where we hear those people say they habitually encounter racist abuse, and do nothing; where grotesques like UKIP are gaining traction because they use slightly more temperate language than the BNP; where news reports from Iraq and Afghanistan make it abundantly clear that the life of a single westerner is more important than that of a thousand little brown people. In the middle of this, affluent white people – buoyed by the knowledge that their society is fundamentally “good” – feel that they can have an open ‘debate’ about banning something because, y’know, it’s a bit, well, um, though, isn’t it? It’s a bit… well… wuuuuuuuuuuh.

It’s an act of collective rudeness, nothing more, and it’s pathetic.

And that’s all this is. The justifications are nonsense, and the arguments are vile. So no, Jeremy Browne, we don’t need to debate this point and you’re an idiot for suggesting we do. That’s all.

Full-Fat Who, Part 7: Genesis of the Daleks

June 25th, 2013 by Mike Morris

Season Twelve, Serial 4E, Episode Six.

Broadcast: April12th 1975. Episode Six of a six-part story.

Written by Terry Nation.
Directed by David Maloney.
Produced by Phillip Hinchcliffe.
Starring Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, and Ian Marter.
Released on LP in 1979 and 1988,VHS in 1991 and 2001, and DVD in 2006.

Ah, Genesis of the Daleks. This is the big one: repeatedly voted the best Doctor Who story of all time (pre-NuWho, anyway), deemed repeatable by the BBC on several occasions, even released on an LP in the pre-VHS days. This is the ultimate Doctor Who story.

Watch it in the cold light of day, though, and…

…hell, it’s pretty much as good as everyone says it is. It stands up as a piece of television in its own right, rather than the period-piece enjoyment you get from earlier “classics.” It cements a phenomenally assured Tom Baker as the Doctor.* It introduces Davros. Part Six opens with the Doctor poised to destroy the Daleks before they begin, then stopping to ask whether he has that right. The story’s first scene gives us machine-gun fire cutting down a row of gas-masked soldiers. It’s two years since The Green Death but – here’s the standard refrain – you can hardly tell it’s the same show.

“Classic” is a telling word. There’s little here that’s unfamiliar, on the surface; The Time Lords send the Doctor on a mission**, there’s a ranting mad scientist to contend with, and at heart it’s a runaround with Daleks, giant clams, and a ten-thousand year war between two domed cities, um, within walking distance of each other***. Standard stuff, but… the mission (prevent the Daleks from ever having been created) is a whopper; the loony’s one of the best-performed you’ll ever see, who admits he would destroy the universe just because he could; and it really feels like “a thousand year war… civilisation on the point of collapse”, with the Daleks working so much better as an implied threat than as action-movie villains.

(The giant clams are as rubbish as you’d expect, obviously.)

The new production team**** weren’t shy about getting Terry Nation to raise his game, and the result is a script that’s nastier and more urgent than his usual fair. On top of that, David Maloney brings his direction to the party. The story has a sense of scope and scale, yet at the same time there’s a claustrophobic nastiness to the bunker in which much of it is set; a whole world has been squeezed into these tight, sweaty sets. It’s not just how the guards dangle Sarah Jane over a sheer drop for kicks, or the Doctor’s writhing with a Kaled mutant around his neck. It’s the way Our Heroes always seem to be on the back foot, even before it ends in mass slaughter.

At the heart of all this is a tour de force by Tom Baker. He mixes moments of comedy (“Sorry, can you help me, I’m a spy,”) with arrow-straight scenes with Davros, and is never anything less than compelling. Baker is often taken for granted, perhaps due to his scenery-chewing later seasons, but this performance shows how carefully he could modulate his character*****. Michael Wisher and Peter Miles give a gleeful villain-henchman double act, Ian Marter provides a dollop of square-jawed pragmatism, and Lis Sladen is… well, she’s always great, isn’t she?

Genesis of the Daleks may top polls, but I’d guess few enough fans would actually say it’s their favourite; it wins these things because everyone gives it nine out of ten. Underneath the grimness and the “avert their creation” angle, it’s a standard Dalek caper and most of its riffs are straight out of Terry Nation’s Big Book Of Sci-Fi Stock Scenarios. It works because everyone involved is on top of their game… no, more than that, they’re going that little bit further than they normally do. It’s a standard Doctor Who story pushed absolutely to its limits, and the result is a triumph.

*Genesis of the Daleks was the second-last story of Tom Baker’s first season, but the last to be filmed.
**Standard plot device for the Pertwee era, whenever they decided “Sod it, this earth exile is boring. Let’s have the Time Lords make him go to space for some reason.”
***Genesis has a fair array of gaping plot holes and logic breakdowns, and this one is the most oft-cited. In fact – wait for this – it’s revealed that one faction has a secret passage that brings them into the domed city and right outside their adversaries’ cabinet room. This is such a big, axiomatic flaw that you somehow just go with it; objecting would be like criticising Spiderman because that doesn’t really happen when you get bitten by a radioactive spider. The moral of the story? If you’re going to be stupid, be stupid in a big way.
****Producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes are the most venerated of all the show’s production teams. They presided over the show for three years, now often described some people as the show’s “golden age” – an unspeakably lazy viewpoint which is probably more or less right. Holmes is Doctor Who’s most prolific writer ever.
*****On the DVD commentary, David Maloney at one point calls him “one-take Tom.” Given that later directors only recall endless arguments and point-blank refusals to stick to the script, it’s almost a jolt to hear it.

Full-Fat Who, Part 6: The Green Death

June 8th, 2013 by Mike Morris

Season Ten, Serial TTT, Episode Six.


Broadcast: March 11th 1972. Episode Six of a six-part story.
Written by Robert Sloman (and Barry Letts, uncredited).
Directed by Michael E. Briant.
Produced by Barry Letts.
Starring Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning, and Nicholas Courtney.
Released on VHS in 1996 and DVD in 2004.

Yes, what’s above is another fan-trailer, which is a whole YouTube subgenre and many of which (like this one) are pretty good. In other news, I’ve nearly caught up to the Guardian’s series which lead to all this. Genesis of the Daleks next. Obviously.

The Green Death, in particular its last episode, is such a period piece that it couldn’t possibly have made two years earlier or later. It’s a dead-straight eco-parable where we’re asked to side with a world-famous professor who lives in a hippy commune developing quorn, where computers called BOSS are sarcastic, where psychedelic glam-rock effects dehypnotise baffled double-agents, and where the Welsh are stereotyped so much it’s basically racist. And yes, it’s also The One With The Maggots. It’s 1973 all right.

The joy of The Green Death is similar to the positive aspects of The Tomb Of The Cybermen: it’s the absolute confidence in what it’s doing, the verve of a show that knows exactly what it’s for. Unlike The Tomb Of The Cybermen, though, those ingredients are actually pretty good to begin with.

Shorn of the usual Pertwee alien societies (which they almost never got right), it’s a squarely 70s romp with a serious argument at its core. Jo Grant goes hunting giant maggots with a Nobel-winning hippy scientist in an industrial wasteland, while wearing a fur coat; Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart argues with a wealthy industrialist and gets his arse kicked by a cabinet minister. It’s firmly on the side of Wholewheal’s free ‘n’ easy commune, but the early scene where Global Chemicals promise “wealth in our time” (see what they did there?) at least acknowledges the existence of another point of view.

The alien presence – unless you count the Welshmen, natch – is provided entirely by the Doctor. He goes off on a jaunt to Metebelis III to get a blue crystal* early on, and he then uses this to de-hypnotise people from BOSS’s evil plans. This is accompanied by video effects that wouldn’t seem out of place on a T-Rex performance on Top of the Pops, but…

Oh, who am I kidding? The above sounds like kiddie-fodder of the worst kind, but this just works. The political intrigue, the serious eco-points, the Wagner-humming computer, the world-saving commune and the time-travelling alien with a glam-rock blue crystal… they all feel like they belong in exactly the same world. The giant maggots make perfect sense, here: not only are they extraordinarily well-realised, but they’re exactly what you expect in this world if you dump toxic-waste down a mineshaft. This isn’t our reality, of course, but along with the gruesome images you get a genuine sense of this parallel-earth existing after the closing music. The stock Pertwee set-pieces are there – he drives Bessie and engages in fight scenes – but they’re endearing rather than tedious.

And at the end, Jo goes off up the Amazon with a long-haired scientist to search for toadstools. If you remember Jo as the helpless baggage from The Sea Devils, she’s a different person here. Her relationship with Cliff actually convinces, and their marriage announcement at the end doesn’t feel bolted on.

In fact, this ending is the story’s best scene. The Doctor drains his glass in one gulp, slips away, and drives off into the dark**. It’s a moment of real loneliness; Pertwee leaves and no-one notices, we drift from him to Jo, and the final shot focuses on a silhouetted Bessie in the twilight rather than any moody, haunted looks. In the end, even the camera abandons him. The Doctor has never been more exiled.

There are about seventy-three things wrong with The Green Death, but it’s still an absolute gem. Unless you’re Welsh, in which case you might say that the profusion of “funny little Welshmen” saying “bloddwyn” renders any positive meaningless. Yeah, you might have a point.

*Of which much more anon. One of the impressive things about Pertwee’s tenure is how many threads are woven into the series across several stories, such as this crystal, the Doctor’s old mentor, and Jo becoming all growed-up. The Metebelis III crystal features heavily in Pertwee’s final story next year, and Mike Yates’ repeated hypnotism here is picked up in Invasion of the Dinosaurs.
**Whatever about Rose Tyler or R*v*r S**g, this is the closest we come to seeing the Doctor actually in love, albeit in his own particular way. At the start of the story he overtly offers Jo all of time and space. They did ‘understated’ better back then.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKUlGJFWgdw

Full-Fat Who, Part 5: The Sea Devils

June 1st, 2013 by Mike Morris

Season Seven, Serial LLL, Episode Three


Broadcast: March 11th 1972. Episode Three of a six-part story.
Written by Malcolm Hulke.
Directed by Michael E. Briant.
Produced by Barry Letts.
Starring Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning, and Roger Delgado.
Released on VHS in 1995 and DVD in 2008.

And so to the set-up. Lizard Men in string vests are bringing a terror from the deep. The Master is held in prison yet masterminds it all. It’s in colour, Jo Grant is wearing flares, everyone’s gone synthesiser-crazy and Jon Pertwee is the Doctor. Welcome to the 1970s.

It’s difficult to overstate how much the programme changed in three years. The Doctor is earthbound*, argues with departmental secretaries like he does this kind of thing every day. He has just one girl as an “assistant” – the standard template now, but unheard of in the 60s. What the hell happened?

The short version is that the show almost ended with Patrick Troughton’s departure in 1969. What came back bore only a passing resemblance to Doctor Who; an exiled-to-earth Doctor uneasily teamed up with UNIT** and fought off alien hordes. Initially lean and dynamic, by Series 9 the show boasted a team of friendly soldiers, Jo Grant as the original archetype of the ditzy Who Girl***, and a recurring supervillain in the form of Roger Delgado’s charmingly murderous Master. Even the titular Sea Devils are aquatic cousins of creatures we met in Doctor Who And The Silurians****, two seasons previously.

The Silurians genuinely engaged with the question of what would happen if humanity’s “right” to Earth was undermined, but The Sea Devils plods shallowly through the same themes to prop up a story where green things come out of the ocean and hijack a nuclear sub. Episode Three starts with a long sword fight between the Doctor and the Master, and finishes with a nasty Thing walking out of the sea. What’s inbetween is cartoon stuff, carried by Roger Delgado’s Master; Delgado is such a good performer that you might not notice he’s a walking plot-device designed to make it easy for lazy writers.

And yet this isn’t at all predictable. It’s packed with grown-up characters and naval slang. The off-kilter, hectoring direction make the humans seem as alien as the Sea Devils. The electronic music varies between atmospherically odd and plain awful, but it’s certainly unlike anything else you’ve ever heard. The location footage is ugly and weirdly voyeuristic, as if we’re not meant to be seeing what we’re seeing. Even the incidental touches are curious; people in the Sea Devils seem to be constantly eating. This isn’t particularly revolutionary but it’s not something you really see in Doctor Who, any more than you’d expect Captain Jack to nip behind a rock for a piss, or Martha to be moody because of PMS.

It’s not a straightforward exemplar of the era… but what is? What’s compelling about Pertwee’s tenure is that you know exactly what the formula is, yet no stories quite follow it. Some of this works as 70s glam-era nostalgia; other bits are laughable; some sections are dull; occasionally, it’s genuinely good. Yet the most overwhelming feeling is of strangeness. You might say “dated,” but watching another drama from the time reveals that The Sea Devils isn’t “period,” it’s just… weird. Those moustachioed guards in capes don’t fit into anything else, but here they’re almost natural.

Aside from that off-kilter feel, it’s a broadly successful runaround with touch-the-bases plotting and the depth of an onion-skin. However, off-kilter is the point, really. It fulfills Doctor Who’s basic remit; it’s like nothing else you’ll ever see.

Oh yeah – and the Master watches The Clangers. Seriously, what more do you want?

*The Sea Devils, incidentally, is one of very few stories where the TARDIS doesn’t feature, and is not mentioned at any point.
**They’re the Unified Intelligence Taskforce in the new series, but back then they were the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, an international army-thing set up to investigate the unexplained and protect earth from alien invasions. UNIT’s military resources, international independence, remit and top-secretness varied from week to week, but their British division was lead by the fondly-remembered Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart. The Doctor was their Scientific Advisor, and before you make jokes about how “it’s a good job aliens never tried invading Tokyo,” just be aware that everyone has already done them.
***Jo Grant replaced Season 7 companion Dr Elizabeth Shaw. Liz was a genuine oddity in Doctor Who, and most television of the time; she was a brilliant scientist who actually was brilliant. She rarely deferred to the Doctor, treated genially chauvinistic army bods with weary sarcasm, spotted things the Doctor didn’t and was the only companion (except Romana) to be generally treated as the Doctor’s equal. The production team happily admit that they got rid of her because she made it difficult for the writers, and they needed someone stupid to say “What is it, Doctor?” This tells you a lot about how the production team saw the show.
****Yes, that really was the title, although most fans just drop the first four words. Every fan will tell you he’s not called Doctor Who, and everyone who looks it up on Wikipedia knows that the “Silurians” can’t possibly come from the Silurian era. So this is the clear winner of Worst Title Ever in just about every way.

Full-Fat Who, Part 4: The Mind Robber

May 28th, 2013 by Mike Morris

Season Six, Serial UU, Episode 2

Broadcast: September 21st 1968. Episode Two of a five-part story.
Written by Peter Ling (and Derrick Sherwin, Episode 1, uncredited).
Directed by David Maloney.
Produced by Peter Bryant.
Starring Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines, and Wendy Padbury.
Released on VHS in 1990 and DVD in 2005.

Fans are fond of saying that Doctor Who has no formula, but this isn’t the full story. It might not have a formula as such, but it does have off-the-shelf structures for reuse. Doing a bog-standard base-under-siege is as much part of its heritage as mould-breaking excursions to wondrous places. What’s exciting about the program, even in its bad patches, is its constant potential to do something off-the-wall.

The Mind Robber is based on a simple enough premise, but one unlike anything else in the history of Doctor Who. The Doctor and pals find themselves trapped in The Land Of Fiction, a place where stories are real. The time-travellers are faced by a unicorn and toy soldiers. Gulliver wanders around being nice to everyone. Behind it all is a character called The Master – but no, not that one.

In truth, this isn’t as experimental as it’s often painted. It’s certainly imaginative – like Shrek played straight in sci-fi world – but the narrative is conventional enough. What makes the Mind Robber stand out is that it’s achieved so brilliantly, is driven along by such a well-judged dynamic and perfectly-pitched aesthetic, that it you can almost sing it.

Oddly, Season Six is when just about everything was going wrong*. Episode One, set in the TARDIS and then a white void, is a stunning opening that tells the viewer this is somewhere other, that all the bets are off. At the end of it, the TARDIS explodes. Yet it was a last-minute add-on to the existing story, written by the producer in desperation, and filmed in a white void because there weren’t any sets and only the regulars were available.

So Episode Two is where the story properly starts, in a sense. It’s glorious, one of those instances where just about every decision made by the production team works. There are (genuinely unsettling) clockwork redcoats. Jamie is turned into a cardboard cut-out, which is funny, strange and worrying at the same time. Then, when the Doctor fails one of the puzzles, Jamie returns with a different face**. The set-piece at the conclusion, with our heroes facing down a unicorn, works brilliantly.

The Mind Robber puts Troughton’s Doctor at its heart. We’re told a lot about him – he’s “ageless” and treated as a near-mythical figure – but he’s palpably not in control of events. He struggles with the riddles set for him, gets flustered, and he spends most of this story on the back foot. The genius of Troughton’s portrayal – I don’t say “genius” lightly – is that he doesn’t suggest the latter as a mask for the former, but somehow makes his silliness and his intelligence equally true. He’s magnificent.

The Mind Robber is very much a collection of bits, and you could jump straight from episode two to episode five without missing much plot. It has its own logic, though – the characters seem to be fighting the random whims of an overgrown child, and that’s exactly what’s happening. The world itself intrigues – Gulliver speaks entirely in direct quotes from Swift’s Book, leading one to wonder how real the people here are, exactly.

Let’s not get carried away. It’s not an ontological treatise, it’s a kronky, cheap kid’s show and it’s as baggy as Troughton’s suit. A lot of it is unapologetically, y’know, for the kids. The next story will see the Doctor teaming up with the army: a year later he’ll be exiled to Earth and being altogether more grown up. All of which means that, for a certain type of Doctor Who, this has the feel of a glittering, giddying last hurrah.

*This is a long story, and it’s probably best to find out the details elsewhere. Suffice it to say that The Mind Robber had an episode added on at the last minute due to production catastrophes. In much the same way, the next story (The Invasion) went from 6 parts to 8 very late, and the 10-part finale (The War Games) was originally a 4-episode story that had to be spun out when another story collapsed. “Clusterfuck” is the most appropriate word here.
**Watch the story and you might be amazed at the sudden, left-field recasting of one of the central characters, and his subsequent return in Episode Three. Serendipity again, though; Frazer Hines got chickenpox and missed a week, so they draughted in his second cousin. The fact that they incorporated this into the story without missing a beat tells you what a roll they were on when they made this.