Thursday, May 29, 2008

Let's have a moral panic about the Daily Mail for a change

Britain's most spiteful newspaper, The Daily Mail is on a hiding to nothing with its recent attack on poor emos, who are responding by conducting a peaceful protest on their offices on May 31.

You don't need to read the article but here are some choice bits "dangerous cult", "self-harm", "sexually unthreatening", "teenage girls are frightened of manliness", "deadly glamour", "cult of suicide", "real and horribel consequences".

Good for the emos. The Daily Mail regualarly picks on vulnerable or disadvantaged groups (gays and lesbians, single mothers, refugees and asylum seekers etc) who are an easy target because they can't always fight back. But the DM hasn't realised that many emos are intelligent, sociable, highly organised, and more than capable of making a concerted collective response.

I suspect that emos will be running the country in 20-30 years. And I hope they'll make a better job of it than the current lot.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Out of touch already

Our department recently had a vote regarding whether, when our students get their final exam results posted up, they should be identified via their names, or via their library card number. Apparently, a lot of students had complained that it is very stressful to get their results, and for other people to see them, especially if they have not done very well.

Anyway, at our departmental meeting last week we all had a vote on it (there is a wonderful chapter in Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man which describes the banality and ridiculousness of university departmental meetings), and it was voted to go with library card numbers from now on.

I voted to keep names, aligning myself with the mainly old white men in the department, who argued that it is a matter of pride to have your name up, and that we are supposed to be preparing our students for the real world, where people's failures or successes tend to be a lot more public.

Perhaps I'm just being horrible. For some reason our students do seem to get very stressed about their exams, moreso than I did in the early 1990s (when there was a recession on and jobs were incredibly scarce - oddly though, none of us seemed to get that worked up about our marks). In the previous few years though, it's not uncommon for a student to have a panic attack in the exam hall and have to leave. And requests for extensions for coursework are increasingly common. At my university, there wasn't such thing as a coursework extension. And it was seen as incredibly uncool to turn up to an Open Day with mum and dad in tow. Now it's normal, and we lay on special talks for parents. On the other hand, we've been told that our university gives out too many low marks and not enough firsts - and that other universities are giving out higher marks, so we a) "do a disservice to our own students" and b) "our university's national rating is lower than it should be, because it is partly based on the grades that students get". So with the exam marking I did at the weekend, I made sure that after I'd marked the papers, I gave an extra 5 marks to everyone, ensuring that there were more "firsts" than in previous years. Give things another 30 years, and everyone will be getting a first. All of these things, I feel somehow are "wrong". Yet perhaps the argument that we are supposed to prepare our students for the outside world is true - if the outside world is changing too.

So I realise though, that I am becoming increasingly out of touch with popular attitudes in Britain. Somehow, in the last 5 years, I turned into Colonel Disgruntled of the Home Counties. On reading this story, about yet another horrific murder of a teenager, I was struck by the phrase "Police are keen to identify the young man, who is Asian and smartly dressed in white tracksuit bottoms, a white "Bench" top and black trainers." When did wearing tracksuit bottoms mean smartly dressed? When people start going on about buying composters for all their rubbish and announcing that they cycle to work to save the environment I want to scream at them "What's so great about the human race that we deserve saving?" When yet another of my "friends" starts talking about how they had such a great night out the other night, which involved getting so drunk they couldn't walk, and then having to spend most of Sunday in bed, I just think "How is this fun?" When I turn on the BBC news and realise that any story about football, such as whether the manager of Chelsea is going to resign, is given priority over real news, I just don't get it. When you can buy jewellry for little girls with the Playboy logo on it, and tv shows like CSI are considered entertainment, all I can think is why? And when the Labour party have carried out changes to the tax rates so that my dad (who is a school caretaker) is actually taking home less money than before, I realise there is no longer any political party left in the country that I can vote for.

So the vote over exam results is just one thing out of many where I feel that I've been left behind, and that my own opinions and interests are no longer popular. I suspect it can only get worse. And I suspect that this is what everyone feels like as they get older. I just never thought it would happen to me.

Monday, May 26, 2008


Katie Boyle - who hosted the Eurovision song contest 87 times between 1930 and 1978 (and went on to pretty good advice page in the back pages of the TV Times throughout the 1980s).

I watched some of the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday night. I haven't paid much attention to it since my student days, when I used to take it very seriously (making my own score cards and forcing visitors to fill them in).

Still, it looks like I haven't missed much. At first I thought I was watching a re-run of the contest from the 1980s; the costumes, the songs, the bad Euro accents, Terry Wogan's sarcastic remarks - I was sure I'd seen it all before.

But old Terry got increasingly bitter as the voting started and the UK barely got a look in. We came last again, with only two countries giving us votes. The winner involved a few fey men in mullets (one who did ice skating).

Terry said that it was no longer a music competition and made dark noises that he may quit. There's always been an element of co-operative voting - in the 1980s Terry used to always complain about how the Scandanavian countries always voted for each other. But now, with so many new East European countries entering the contest, it's increasingly easy to predict who will vote for whom. It makes you wonder why some of these countries ever declared independence from each other - when they're Eurovision scores show that they like each other so much. Eurovision now resembles Survivor - where contestants are allowed to discuss strategic voting in advance and the winner isn't the best contestant but the one with the most chums. On Sunday morning Cary Grant (the skinny lady with the crimson hair, not the dead actor) was on the BBC news having a go at it as well.

Should we pull out? Because the UK give so much money to Eurovision every year, we never get relegated - unlike about 20 or so countries each year who do. I suspect that might not engender sympathy to us. Personally I don't think there's any way of judging any song in Eurovision as "better" than any other. From my stance, they're all hideous exercises in camp and you'd need your drag queen genes to be highly functioning in order to tell any of them apart. Everyone in the UK acknowledges this, and it's not really viewed as "serious" or "quality" pop music. Could you imagine if the Arctic Monkeys or the Kaiser Chiefs sang in it?

So I think if we don't pull out, we should simply mock it further. What's the point in making any effort whatsoever if we'll never beat the East European voting bloc? How about next year the British entry consists of: a woman screaming while in childbirth, cats in heat, heavy machinery, and the voices of Alan Titchmarsh, Jeremy Clarkson and Michael Winner (three men whose voices make my teeth bleed), being asked to give their opinions on any subject. Clearly we wouldnt' win - but at least we'd get to inflict all that on the rest of Europe.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Mustn't grumble

I was 36 a few days ago. This means

a) I have now lived away from my parent's home for as long as I lived there.
b) I am twice as old as our first year students.

This is a list of things I was worried about when I was 18: being too thin, not having enough money to buy food or pay my rent, having an accent that none of my friends could understand, wondering whether my friends would hate me if they discovered I was gay, a sense of over-powering social awkwardness, wishing people thought I was "cooler" than I actually was, wondering if I would ever find a boyfriend or even have a sexual experience.

This is a list of things I worry about at 36: that my partner will die prematurely, that I won't be able to find someone to look after the cat when I go on holiday, that my hair might fall out, that if I eat fast food and sweets I will get fat, that I am getting boring, that my misanthropy and political cynicism means I am turning into a bitter old man who will spoil his next ballot paper.

Apart from that (and I acknowledge that most of the stuff on both lists are absolute nonsense and also a pretty good gauge of what a nice life I've actually had!), I can't complain.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

My worrying virtual life as a gansta

Almost a month since my last posting. Why is that? I've been busier than usual at work. But also, I wonder if blogging is "wearing off". I suspect that many people who read blogs are now ensconced in Facebook these days - it certainly feels a lot quieter in some of the parts of the web that I often visit. And I refuse to have anything to do with Facebook - collecting "friends" seems like a silly waste of time. I've always maintained I'd rather have 1 good friend (or none at all) than 100 crappy ones.

I've been spending a lot of time in the virtual world Grand Theft Auto IV lately, which also probably explains my absence. I put off buying the game for a long time, after reading reports about how violent and amoral it is. But eventually, I was seducted by the beautiful graphics and the fact that they're rendering an approximate version of my favorite city in the world - New York. Also, I didn't want to fall into the trap of being one of those people who complain about something having never actually seen it. So I rather shamefully bought it. At least I can complain about it now with a little bit of credibility.

It is beautiful and absorbing. And I haven't even reached the "Manhattan" bit of the game, still stuck in the Brooklyn equivalent. And it's also wonderfully cynical and parodic of American society. If you get bored with car chases you can go and sit in your apartment and watch tv for hours (of real time), viewing shows like "I'm Rich!" which is a humorously nasty take on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. And on many of the radio shows that are available when you drive around, kicks are made of aspects of American life and politics - mobility carts for obese people, the war on terror, homophobia, election campaigns etc. Right-wing attitudes have never looked so hilarious.

Yet it's a worrying game in other ways. The central themes are violence and crime. Even though the character you play is a (relatively) good guy, as the story develops, he quickly gets involved in organised crime, which means that in order to "succeed" in the challenges, you have to smash up people's property, steal cars, beat people up and kill them. When the game began, for example, I was determined to try and maintain some degree of moral integrity. I wasn't going to go through red lights or run over the pedestrians on the street. I wasn't going to steal a car to get somewhere. I would be a good boy. But as the game progressed, I realised that you couldn't compelte some tasks without stealing cars and driving through the lights. And soon it becomes too tempting to drive around without paying attention to the Highway Code. At one point, when my character got drunk, I got to experience what it was like to go drink-driving, with the screen wobbling around and fading in and out of focus.

I don't have any desire or curiousity about what it would feel like to go around running over pedestrians, attacking random people in the street or buying a prositute and then killing her. But if that's what you want to do, then the game allows you to do it. And that's utterly disturbing. I don't believe that doing such things will make people go out and commit those sorts of crimes themselves (although maybe a very small minority will). But I think it does lead to a desensitisation of violence and more acceptance of crime as a "lifestyle choice".

Additionally, the characters in the game swear almost constantly, and homophobia is frequently used as a way that characters interact - with comments like "Your father takes it up the ass", "How's your boyfriend?" being frequently heard etc. Interestingly, other than the main character being referred to as a peasant because he is from Eastern Europe, there is very little overt racism in the game. Perhaps this is because racism is now viewed as unacceptable in American culture (despite the fact that structurally the country is one of the most racist in the world, and no amount of positive representation in the media will help lift all those millions of black people and Latinos out of poverty and give them access to better health and education). Additionally, some stereotypical aspects of black culture are now viewed as glamorous by (some) white people - and it is precisely that which the game seems to embrace. Drugs, gun crime, prostitution, bling etc - GTA gives middle-class white boys (of all ages) the chance to experience the surface aspects of that culture in a consequence-free and commodified way. They can listen to radio stations that blast out the N word and engage in violent crime, but once their PS3 is switched off, they can walk away from it all, in exactly the way that a black person growing up in the projects cannot.

With a game which is so completely beautiful to look at, it's a shame that its content is so ugly. Just like the complicated maze of streets in the game, in terms of morality, there's a similar amount of confusion, ambivalence and contradiction in GTA IV.