Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bewitched, Bewildered and Vajazzled

From the middlebrow pleasures of Downton Abbey, I turn now to The Only Way is Essex - another "staged reality" programme, which seems to be Britain's answer to Jersey Shore. Essex, a county to the east of London, has long had a reputation for siring boorish, uneducated, flashy men and stupid, promiscuous, vulgar women. On the few occasions that I've visited Essex, I've found it just like the rest of Britain, with no fewer or more of those sorts of lazy stereotypes than anywhere else in the country. But the caricature sticks, mainly due to the media giving special attention to people from that part of the country who fit the stereotype - inasmuch the same way as the only openly gay men allowed on tv have to be ultra-feminine.

My husband walked in halfway through last night's "Best of The Only Way is Essex" and ended up spluttering in incoherent rage when he realised what vajazzling was (it involves women glueing tiny jewels onto their pubic regions). When I explained it to him, he thought I'd invented it, as a kind of parody of what fashion-conscious young people might do. But it's real alright.

The people in The Only Way is Essex are all very gendered. The Alpha-male is Mark, who describes himself as Mr Essex. Mark is a very cocky 23 year old who embodies the word swagger.

Do my eyes look dead in this?

There is a Beta-male called James, who wants to be Mark, and may be secretly a bit in love with him. Another Beta-male is called Kirk, who also looks like James and Mark.

The girls are even harder to tell apart than the males. Lauren is Mark's on/off girlfriend, while Mark's sister Jessica is a model, though for a long time I thought she was Amy, a beautician and bejazzling "professional". There is one very very camp and skinny gay man called Harry, who is "fab" and "glam". His special skill is that he can do the splits at a moment's notice, and unlike the other characters, he is desexualised, his main role being as cheerleader and shopping companion to the girls, as well as incidentally making the heterosexual men appear more masculine.

Not much of consequence happens. The characters' beauty regimes take up a lot of their time. When they are not getting fresh vajazzles, they get spray-tanned, or have sun-beds ('beds). Sometimes they sit in one of those jazzucis with little flesh-eating fish in them that appear to have suddenly sprung up all over Britain. Beauty regimes occur before modelling auditions, which come prior to visits to nighclubs or exclusive parties, where the characters get even more dressed up and then have furious encounters where they confront each other for sexual indiscretions, real or imagined. Dialogue generally consists of a series of randomly generated cliches, all made famous from shows like Big Brother: "Shat up!", "At the end of the day, right!", "Aw Babe!"... Occasionally, someone will have a "blonde moment", such as identifying an elephant as a rhino, or not knowing where North London is. To describe this state of intellectual desolation as a "moment" is perhaps the show's only under-statement. Such "moments" appear to be several years in length. It would be more accurate to note the rare points where characters are not ignorant, as them having a "normal moment".

Their ignorance aside, I admire these people for their irrepressible confidence. But I do worry for them. A rather cruel aphorism is "Beauty fades, stupid is forever", and I am reminded of Jodie Marsh - another Essex girl, who only a few years ago helped to pave the way for the current crop. After being voted first off Big Brother, having a false feud with Jordan aka Katie Price, releasing an unintentionally hilarious autobiography and blog (a bit like an extended Alan Bennett monologue), Jodie seems to have sunk back into obscurity. The shelf-life of an Essex girl (or boy) is only slightly longer than a bag of frozen peas. Mark and co - stay off those 'beds.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Do Ask, Do Tell

America lumbered further towards its grudging equalisation of gay people yesterday, when its Senate voted to repeal unfair "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", which stops openly gay people from serving in the armed forces. The law, a perfidious compromise by Bill Clinton, basically stated - "It's fine for you to risk your life for your country but don't carry pictures of your partner in your wallet. In fact, don't have a partner. We find you disgusting." While I am happy for them, I wish we didn't live in a world where armies had to exist. Or if they did exist, it would only be in order to help people during floods etc. So I feel a bit like how I felt when one of my friends got a job as a footman at Buckingham Palace. I was everso pleased for him, but at the same time, I'd make the Royal Family live on a council estate, and turn Buckingham Palace into a glorious home for orphaned children or children with severe disabilites.

While America was once a role model for gay liberation, it has increasing appeared anachronistic and callous, as more socially progressive countries have first caught up with then surpassed it. Of the 26 NATO countries, at least 22 allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military. Ten countries allow same-sex marriage, including Argentina, South Africa and Spain (not countries you'd necessarily expect to be more tolerant than the US), and a further 18 or so have recognition of civil unions, including Uruguay, Slovenia, Ecador, Hungary and Ireland. (Where America does excel, of course, is in commericalising gay culture, so that you can only belong if you buy stuff.)

Part of all of this sphincter-retracting homophobia is mainstream America's rather dreary obsession with appearing macho, which runs through almost every aspect of its culture. Take Star Trek for example. Beefy, swaggering Captain Kirk got to be the hero, shooting from the hip and bedding green-skinned alien beauties. Over in the UK, we got nerdy Dr Who, who talks science-babble and eschews violence. Another part of it is religion (I do hope that George W Bush dies painfully from a disease that could have been cured had he allowed stem cell research to take place when he was president). Even with a Democrat government, the pace towards repeal of DADT has been so fraught and slow that it has been like watching a snail race - with the snails blindfolded.

At least it seems to be getting a move on finally - compare slow progress to the no progress that would have happened in the twisted Parallel Univerise where John McCain and Sarah Palin won the presidency. McCain's response to the repeal says it all: "Today's a very sad day. They will do what is asked of them but don't think there won't be a great cost." (My response to McCain - "You are a cunt." - he might be a poor loser, but I'm an even worse winner - and I'm gloating gloating gloating on air.)

And if any sexy American sailors or marines have been reading my blog in secret, and would like a well-spoken British penpal with impeccable manners - then do get in touch. I won't even have to say your secret is safe with me, which is just as well, as I'm hopeless at keeping secrets.
What, exactly, IS a weekend?

I should be in Tunisia, but my flight and connecting flight were both cancelled yesterday, so I didn't even bother showing up at the airport - which, from news reports sounds like it has turned into a scary dystopic society with trapped angry drunk people now living in shanty towns in the ticketing queues. In the rare event that a flight does manage to take off, then passengers have to engage in a death-match to get on it. It's British Airways Thunderdrome!

Instead, I'm watching Downton Abbey on DVD, ITV's expensive period drama/soap about rich people and their servants 100 years ago. Rob James-Collier (Liam from Coronation Street) plays Thomas - a naughty gay footman who likes to seduce all of the young gentlemen he's supposed to be looking after. But the best role is Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess, Violet. She carries an expression of disapproving hauteur which makes her seem as if she's permanently sat on a thistle covered in dog-shit, and if anyone speaks to her, her eyes swivel in pained disgust and then her mouth opens and out comes a sardonic put-down that would render the most fierce and spiteful drag queen inarticulate for ten minutes.

Period dramas must be back because the BBC have responded by resuccisitating Upstairs Downstairs - which covers pretty much the same ground. While I enjoy historical dramas about rich people, I wonder if this is subtle "nudge" propaganda - a way of getting us to accept the ConDem's shock treatment of cuts cuts cuts, which will disproportionately affect women, the poor, the young, northerners and people living in Labour consituencies. When people complain that the ConDem's don't care about social mobility they are WRONG. The ConDems want social mobility alright. But they want the poor to move further downward and the rich to move upward. In essence, they want to recreate the world of Downton Abbey, where a few fragrant and pampered rich families live in enormous mansions, while the rest of us slave away under the stairs to make sure that they never have to dress themselves or think an unhappy thought ever again. Maggie Smith's Violet is so out-of-touch with the lives of ordinary people that she hasn't even heard of the concept of a "weekend". Why would she? She's never had to work or do anything normal. "What IS a weekend?" she asks in distate, when someone uses the word. It's hilarious and shocking all at once.

While Downton Abbey could be written as a kind of critique of the British class system, it is actually quite jolly about it all. The Lord of the Manor is represented as a kindly fellow who cares for his servants and loves Donwton Abbey so much. The lowly male relative who is going to inherit the lot at first struggles when his assigned butler wants to do up his collar, but within one episode, he accepts that everyone has their role and function in this world, and who is he to deprive someone of that. And some of the servants are presented as thoroughly rotten. No, the key message here is not that this is an unfair system - it's that there are good and bad people everywhere. Scenes of hunting is accompanied by jolly gallopy music and shots of everyone looking happy. We don't see the bit where dogs rip a terrified fox to bits and everyone licks their lips in sadistic glee.

And like they used to say on Battlestar Galactica, this has happened before. I recall the 1980s (with Dowager-like disgust), where our council estate was like a ghost town on Saturday nights at 8pm, when we all settled round to watch the immensely wealthy people on Dallas and Dynasty, sipping champagne and eating breakfast next to their outdoor swimming pools. We were meant to identify with their problems, to care about these rich characters and want the nice ones to succeed, even though our own lives were immeasurably different from them.

My mother used to say "Look! Money doesn't bring happiness after all - we're better off than them!" when Blake and Krystal and Bobby and Pam were shown to suffer. But she didn't realise that these were FICTIONAL CHARACTERS and in reality the rich live much nicer lives than the poor, and in the odd cases where they do have problems, they can just throw lots of money at the problem and it tends to go away.

So I think Downton Abbey is going to prepare us for a new Britain. If you're young and you don't already own a massive house, you may as well start practising how to carry a silver tray full of wine glasses. Because that's the best you're going to manage. Even with your degree.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Glad you voted Liberal?

Tomorrow, the British parliament votes on whether to raise undergraduate fees to up to £9000. As a lecturer at a "top 10 UK" university, I've been following the debate with interest. My university may raise fees to the maximum £9000. This means us lecturers can all rest easy, particularly the Arts and Humanities lecturers, as we are having our funding decimated. This government doesn't like people who do Arts and Humanities because these tend to be subjects that attract Socialists, Marxists and Feminists (stroppy, difficult people in other words) and it thinks that we don't contribute enough money to society - unlike all those people who teach Business, Economics and Management theory (and somehow failed to predict the recession).

I'm against the fee rise because I think it will deter teenagers from poorer families from going to university. Even though they won't have to pay the fees until they start earning a wage, I still think £9000 a year is too high particularly when house prices have gone up so much that most young people won't be able to afford mortgages unless their parents help them out. I think the fee increase will further the rich/poor divide in the country and reduce social mobility, which is already going down. As someone from a council estate who's Dad was a bus driver, going to university in 1990 was difficult enough, and I was lucky not to have to pay any fees, but instead get a grant of £800 a term. Even then I had to work two jobs to pay the rent. But at least when I'd finished, I had no debts and was able to borrow £5000 to do an MSc - which is what helped me get a job during the last recession. I'm a Tory nightmare - the kid from the poor family who broke out of the poverty trap despite having the odds stacked against me, and although now I'm a relatively high earner, I still stubbornly refuse to embrace self-serving Tory (rich person) values. Tax the rich until they bleed. Increase the minimum wage. And if the rich get in a huff and want to go and live somewhere else, then I'll pack their cases for them. Missing you already!

Making the rich richer and the poor poorer is exactly what the Conservative Party want. So it's hardly suprising that so many of their policies will do just that. What's more disappointing is that the Liberal Democrats made an election campaign promise to oppose fee raises. Many people, including first-time voters, voted Liberal precisely for this reason. This sense of betrayal, coming only months after the Liberals managed to gain office through forming a coalition with the Conservatives, is unlikely to ever be overcome. Indeed, the LibDems have gone from being the party of choice for people jaded with the shadiness of New Labour spin and its "end of boom and bust" rhetoric to the party of hypocrisy and lies. I almost fell for Nick Clegg's nicey-nice above-the-sleaze persona that he projected during the election debates in May. When the Tories failed to achieve a majority, I expected that the Liberals would offer to support them on some things, but would draw the line on fees. But after so many decades in the political wilderness, that novel taste of power must be like blood to a starving vampire. They can't risk losing it.

First time voters have had a wonderful lesson in politics - no matter what the party, those in power will lie, sell out and betray you to stay in power. The Liberal Democrats are to be credited for politicising a whole generation of young people - people who will be voters and campaigners for a very long time to come. And who are unlikely to believe a thing that the Liberal Democrats say again. That's a shame, because there are some very decent and honorable Liberal Democrat MPs - like Tim Farron, who won't be voting for the fee increase. And while much of the anger is directed at the Liberal Democrat liars, we miss the point that it is the Tories, who did not gain a majority of votes, are putting forward a series of economic and social changes to this country, which make Maragaret Thatcher look like a socialist. The Liberal Democrats act as a lightening-rod, taking pressure off those who really have the power.

But ultimately, the message from all this is a depressing nihlistic one. There was no "good choice" at the last election. Just a series of increasingly bad choices. None of the three leaders (Brown, Cameron, Clegg) deserved to govern this country. I wish I could have ticked a box saying "Sack all three leaders and hold another election when you've found some better people, or some better parties even."

One thing about left-wing people, is that they seem to have all the criticisms, but rarely seem able to come up with any answers. My answer would be to link fees more closely to ability to pay. Fees should be on a sliding scale, based on the social class and earning power of a teenager's parents or guardians. For the children of bankers, I'd make the fees £300,000 a year. It'd only take a couple of annual bonuses to cover the cost of them. For children of road sweepers - they'd get grants to go to university rather than have to pay fees.

I'd also reduce most undergraduate degrees to two years. As I said, I teach at a university. The first year is mainly a doss. Your results don't count towards your final grade, and on many courses students only have a few hours of teaching a week. The rest of the time is spent hanging around, getting drunk, staying up all night and sleeping in late. They do this because they can. I and almost everyone in my year did it because we could. If students were given a more intensive education, then costs would go down. And students would go to university because they wanted the education, not because they wanted an easy three years or to delay their entry into the real world. It'd also make them much more prepared for the world of work.

And I'd put limits on the numbers of people allowed to study certain subjects. Business, Management and Economics degrees that place emphasis on teaching people to persuade others to buy things, to manipulate people into doing what you want, and into making maximum profit without caring for ecology or human suffering - it's those subjects which got us into the recession mess in the first place. They have no place in universities, just as Nick Clegg has no place in this government.
The aliens are coming

At Everything Is Terrible I've been laughing at video clips of The Unarians, an unbelievably flamboyant and kitchsy cult which believes in reincarnation and space aliens. It appears to have taken its fashion guides from Liberace, John Waters films and 1960s episodes of Star Trek. Its leader/founder, Archangel Uriel, aka "Ruth Norman" looks and sounds like an insane old lady drag queen.

Among others, Ruth claims to have been Poseidon (founding Atlantis), Socrates, Mary Magdalen, the Dalai Lama, King Arthur and Peter the Great. That's what's great about the Unarians - not only are they reincarnation royalty - but they are reincarnations of people WHO DIDN'T EVEN EXIST IN THE FIRST PLACE.

Like many cults, the Unarians have predicted several times that there will be a Great Event that will change life on Earth forever. The last one was supposed to be 2001, when we would make inter-planetary contact with 32 alien races. Wrong much? Never mind, get out your flags, put on your cloaks and rainbow sash and get in that car park, where it's time to parade around a model spaceship...

Unarius from Airwave Ranger on Vimeo.

Over at the Unarian's blog (of course they have a blog), there is a rather depressing story about someone who underwent "past life therapy", and claims to have been an evil alien in a planet in the Orion Empire. She/he helped to create viruses as part of an aggressive inter-planetary expansionist policy. She/he is now been punished for such past crimes, by suffering from "several kidney and bladder infections, numerous digestive tract problems, and rheumatic fever due to strep throat, which caused minor damage to one of my heart valves."

While it's very easy to laugh at the Unarians, I'm not sure what makes them any different from any other religion (other than a slightly more kitsch sense of style). What's more believeable? - 32 space-ships are heading for Earth (perhaps delayed - maybe Jupiter has some really good shopping outlets) or there's an invisible super-being creator who knows when you've been good or bad so be good for goodness sake!

And while cults like this are hilarious, ultimately, they make me very depressed. It's another example of how humans are so completely delusional, uncritical and flawed. After seeing their nonsense, I almost wish that 32 alien spaceships would come to Earth - and wipe the lot of us out. Because really, if even a few of us are we are capable of believing crap like this - then there's no hope.
The 13cm rule

1) Is it me, or are Christmas cards shrinking? This year I have received cards so small that I could barely make out the writing on them. They seem to have been made for and by tiny elves. I normally have three "levels" of Christmas cards, which are sent to people depending on how much I love them. So close family members get huge luxury cards, friends who I don't see much get smaller ones, and people from work get smaller ones still. But I have a limit. I won't send anyone a card that is less than 13cm in height and width. It's a passive-aggressive message of hatred. Or at least it is in my eyes. Why bother giving someone something if it's crap?

However, a small Christmas card pales in comparison to these other Christmas communication disgraces:

2) Not sending anyone a card but sending a mass email to everyone you know saying you have donated money to charity. That's just lazy and misses a crucial point about Christmas - which is about showing you care enough about someone to write a few words to them, lick a stamp and walk to a post office. Not acceptable.

3) Sending an e-card. I hate to break it to you but the 1990s are over. What might have appeared novel when done once, now just comes across as churlish and again LAZY. You can't hang an e-card on your mantlepiece. Sending them just makes you look cheap. Even cheaper than the "I've donated money to charity instead of sending you a card" person. So don't do it.

4) Sending a family newsletter. Arrrrrgh. This is the worst sin of Christmas. It basically says "I can't be bothered to acknolwedge you directly - so I'm going to send you the equivalent of Christmas junk mail - a mass produced missive to all my non-friends, just to let you know how far down in the friendship pecking order you have gone." If you hate someone so much that you can't even PRETEND to send them a personalised message, by cutting and pasting bits and pieces of a newsletter-type-email, and starting and ending it with a couple of paragraphs that have been crafted with an individual person in mind, then ask yourself - why are you contacting this person at all? Why not simply call it a day and delete them from your memory.

Because, in fact, family newsletters aren't really about showing that you care about someone at all. They are instead about boasting. One I recently received was almost like a parody of a family newsletter. It boasted about fabulous holidays spent with friends (all of whom probably got proper Christmas cards from the sender, and not an impersonal mass communication), amazing achievements (charity runs, grade 4 oboe - that sort of thing) and the amazing acheivements of their children (gifted of course and in the very best schools).

Christmas has gradually become degraded with negative qualities over the past few decades - commercialised, expensive, tacky, dragged out longer and longer, excessive. I am not religious at all, but the one thing about Christmas which I do appreciate is about being nice to people and showing them that you care. So send someone a proper card (13 centimeters!)

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Eye Fizz

My husband had Laser treatment on one of his eyes on Friday afternoon. We booked a 6th floor corner room in a nearby hotel, where he was to recuperate that evening. I'd had my own laser eye surgery almost a decade ago (date: September 12th, 2001 - talk about opening your eyes to a "whole new world"), and have enjoyed great vision ever since, so he was quite excited about "eye fizz day".

After the operation, he put on a massive pair of sunglasses and we emerged into the snow of Manchester, walking through a German Christmas market to get to the hotel. He can't have been in that much pain because the first thing he did was insist on getting Starbucks. I think that if people have had surgery, they should at least be indulged afterwards, so I'd bought some chocolates from Selfridges and he had a nice mixture of various ganaches and pain-killers while tucked up in bed.

Laser eye surgery has come a long way since I had it. He has been given a complicated regime of four different types of eye-drops, that have to be adminstered at different points (about every 30 minutes on average). So that's what I'll be doing for the next month. And unfortunately, I have discovered that there is no way that a man can give another man eye-drops on a crowded train platform, without drawing attention to himself. Still, he's experienced no pain at all, unlike me - who was transformed into a crouching, shrieking bitch within an hour, once the pain-killer wore off.

That night, television was out of the question so we did the crossword in the Manchester Evening News, then he asked me to entertain him by reading out the most depressing stories - there was a particularly tragi-comic one about a man who had kicked his partner with his wooden leg after flying into a rage when he'd misplaced his tobacco box. The fact that the police had been called out 67 times already, and that "she still loved him", made it verge on the tragic rather than comic.

We then listened to a CD of a Radio 4 Agatha Christie dramatisation called "Towards Zero", which I last read aged 13 and had no memory of. I am getting quite good at working out how Agatha Christie's brain works, and guessed "She always makes you suspect it's the most obvious person, then it turns out they have an alibi so attention goes elsewhere, but by the end it turns out it was the most obvious person after all." We ended up having a long disagreement over whether one of the murders actually was a murder. It involved an elderly and frail judge who had a heart attack upon climbing a staircase as the "murderer" had put a sign on a lift saying "out of order". My husband said it was a clear-cut case of murder, but I pointed out that nobody had put a gun to the judge's head and forced him to climb the stairs. Agatha Christie - still providing controversy in the 21st century.

I had been intending to look out of the window that evening and claim to have seen a wonderful display of celestial fireworks (as in Day of the Triffids). Then, in the morning I was going to pretend that the world had ended and he was the only person to have survived. My friend Tim had even suggested that I rub two cabbages together, in order to emulate the noise of Triffids outside in the corridor. But he woke up with perfect vision, so instead he tested his new eye by successfully reading all of the signs on the buildings opposite.

Now that I have a partner with good eyes, I am slightly worried that he will noticed that I am no longer in my 20s. You can get away with quite a lot when you know that you look like a post-impressionist print. Now that I'm in HDTV maybe I should start a moisturising regime...