All My Little Words

A Few Links to Bits and Pieces

Posted in Cycling, Local, Media, Politics by nickchristian on July 17, 2015

Restaurant Review: Upstairs, 89b Acre Lane

Posted in Food by nickchristian on April 30, 2015

This piece was originally intended for a magazine that never ended up making it to the printers. It would have been published elsewhere but for the restaurant folding before that could happen. All very unfortunate, this is therefore the first time it’s seen the light of day.

Great game.

Great game.

If someone must dump you over dinner, there are worse restaurants in which they might do the deed than Upstairs, located above Opus Café on Acre Lane.

I was once, for example, rather brutally despatched in the Putney branch of Byron Burger. After announcing the end of the relationship before I’d chosen between courgette fries and coleslawthe girl in question proceeded to detail the myriad examples of my immaturity while I slurped an Oreo cookie milkshake through a straw. An attempted rebuttal, at that point, felt like the definition of futility.

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Natalie Bennett, Green Party Leader, Visits Cressingham Gardens Estate

Posted in Domestic Policy, Economics, Politics by nickchristian on October 30, 2014

This article was originally published in the October edition of Brixton Bugle.

The leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, Natalie Bennett, was in Brixton on Tuesday to visit Cressingham Gardens, the Brockwell Park housing estate which Lambeth Council has marked for “regeneration”.

Joined by Councillor Scott Ainslie (St Leonard’s Ward) and Jonathan Bartley, Green Party Parliamentary candidate for the Streatham constituency which covers Cressingham Gardens, she spoke with residents campaigning to protect the estate against demolition.

Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett visits Cressingham Gardens Estate

Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett visits Cressingham Gardens Estate

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Après le Déluge – What It’s (not) Like To Ride the Tour de France

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on July 24, 2014

There’s no party atmosphere at the top of the Hautacam. No collective jubilation and no private sense of euphoria either. Maybe that would come later. For now the focus is food: Honey bread, salted crackers, orange segments, whatever there is. Then the rain, which had been kind enough to wait until I’d crossed the finish, begins again.

“Go get your medal.” The older chap at the bottom tells me. “You deserve it.” I’d rolled the thirteen kilometres down the mountain to the village, thinking the whole way not of medals but dry clothes, and stopped to ask him where the car park was.

“I think I deserve a bath and six beers.” I reply, resting my leg against my front wheel, seriously hot from all that braking. I didn’t think I did, actually, I just really really wanted them. I certainly didn’t think a medal was in order. I thank him and roll on.

Mark Cavendish was recently quoted as saying that “Road cycling is suffering.” I had just ridden 150 kilometres – 95 miles in old money – of which half were uphill, and at least half – not exactly the same half – I would describe as suffering.

And all I could think was “What was the point of that?”

So what’s it like to ride a stage of The Tour de France?

Probably not much like that, if we’re being honest.

The ride starts from Pau’s enormous Place de Verdun at dawn. Riders enter pens based on their registration number and wait.

Le Depart

Le Depart

Ten thousand unnervingly hairless, scantily clad (mostly white) men. With everyone on one performance enhancing something or other, some chatting excitedly, others lost in solitary thought, the whole thing feels rather like the smoking area of a large Vauxhall club. Only except of course no one would dream of sparking up. Certainly there are as many string vests as you might see on a Sunday morning at Fire.

Most groups doing l’Etape bought their entries together, so have numbers near to each other. We didn’t, so don’t. This means Big Chris is in the 7000s on his own, and starts first, Mark and Lil Chris are both 9’s, two guns later, while I’m 10750, so on my own and last to launch, twenty minutes back.

Passing under the gate I start Strava. We all have timing chips stuck to our number plates and everyone will get an official time but I want more data than that’ll give me. Believe me when I say this is not even the lamest part of the cycling experience.

I want to go fast, as fast as is comfortable, anyway, maybe sharing the work with a few others. As beautiful as the scenery this is not supposed to be a gentle day out in the countryside. I’m not worried about burning out my legs before the big climbs, not on the flatish bits anyway, which make up the first fifty five kilometres or so before the start of the Tourmalet.

Most riders aren’t going as fast as I’d like, though, so there aren’t many wheels to latch onto. People are being cautious early on, which is fair enough. They also generally seem to be sticking to the right hand side leaving the left free. Odd given that this is a closed  road event but I find myself taking advantage of the space, and notice that I pick up the occasional hitchhiker who also wants to go a little quicker than the rest. Some would find this annoying but what difference does it make to me? If they want a tow they can have one.

On the first category 3 climb – a speedbump compared with what’s to come – I meet my man crush for the day. Rider 10621. We’re through the 10’s at this point, surrounded mostly by 9000 numbers and he’s going at a speed that suits me; overtaking people with plenty of space. Based on that alone, I decide he’s a decent guy so I don’t want to take advantage. Instead of clinging to his back wheel and letting him drag me along I keep a reasonable distance and try to mimic his pace. I’m only with him for a few kilometres, but I’ll see him again later.

photo (2)

There’s a simple well-honed technique for clearing your sinuses while cycling. You lean over a little, press a finger from one hand against the corresponding nostril and blow as hard as you can, propelling a ball of mucus to the tarmac. It’s gross but very effective. You’re also supposed to move to one side and look behind to ensure you don’t serve up a splattering to any others in your vicinity. As I’m passing one older rider around the 50km mark he happens to neglect this part of the process and my face is hit with a torrent of snot. It may not be all that sunny, but I’m glad I’m wearing shades.

With their half an hour head start I don’t expect to catch any of our group until we hit the Tourmalet at the earliest. I’m surprised, therefore, when just over an hour in I spy the sleeves of Mark’s multi-coloured jersey and his black Boardman bike. After a quick hello we naturally begin to work together, charging through the little French towns and villages where, the weather still kind, the crowds are out in force. It’s as we take the racing line through a tight corner, with men, women, kids urging us on shouting “allez allez” and “bon courage” that I really imagine I’m riding Le Tour.

Mark’s a lot fitter than I am, but I’m better on the hills, and we lose each other on the third, and last, category three. I won’t meet him again until the finish.   

Col du Tourmalet: 22km. Does that mean to the foot of the mountain or the summit? Either way it’s arrived much sooner than expected. As I approach so the weather begins to turn and my stomach begins to do the same. This will be the first HC (hors category, meaning steep and seriously long) I’ve ever ridden. My first stop of the day is to put on my waterproof – early on I removed my gilet without parking up: what a pro – and pop a caffeine gel in Bagneres-de-Bigorre. Then the climb, and the fun, really begins.

And surprisingly it is fun. Cycling hills – good ones at least – often have signs marking the distance and height to the summit. You’ll either find them encouraging or intimidating depending on how you’re feeling and, at this point, fourteen hundred vertical metres over sixteen kilometres of road, as massive as it is, somehow doesn’t scare me.

The rain isn’t as bad as it could be, nor is it too cold. As my nerves settle. I begin to enjoy the mountain, passing other riders fairly continuously, including one lunatic on a yellow Raleigh Chopper. I shake my head in amazement as I overtake but he’s going incredibly well.

Around 8km from the top the rain gets worse with the only respite coming when riding through the occasional sheltered section. About one hundred metres long one of them has CONTADOR daubed along its supports. He won’t be riding up this in four days time.      

Part of what keeps my spirits and speed up is the memory of watching the 2010 tour on TV. As Contador and Andy Schleck danced through five degree pea soup, the commentators smugly discussed the glorious sunshine they were basking in on the other side of the mountain. That’s what I imagined and I couldn’t have been more wrong.

We ride through a ski resort about three or four km from the top and this is a high point, both literally and in terms of mood. It’s easy to lose the sense of where you are after forty minutes of nothing but uphill road but if ever you need proof that you’re on a goddamn mountain, cycling under chairlifts would be it.

I see the number 10621 on the back of a rider just ahead. I pat him on the back and say some encouraging words that he looks rather perplexed to be on the receiving end of. I’m not sure he actually noticed the bit where we rode “together” earlier, but returns my cheer as we pass the three kilometre marker. I don’t want to make him feel more uncomfortable so I ride on to the summit alone.

At the top of the mountain there’s no sign that it’s going to get any nicer. I’m carrying one more item of clothing that I’m not wearing and although I don’t think it’s going to help, I put it on anyway. It doesn’t help.

I generally think of myself as a fairly nervy descender but I want to get down that mountain as quickly as possible. My reason for risking life and limb is as misguided on this side of the mountain as it had been on the other – it would be warmer, and maybe even drier, at a lower altitude, surely? Wrong. All I could hear as I dropped was the rattle of raincoat against the wind. As I began to lose the sensation in my fingers – first the little one, then the next one up, which probably has a name, then the middle one got a bit tingly, I sort of regretted not bringing the full finger gloves with me. Then I remembered how shit mine are, despite going by the laughable name of “Sealskins”.

The one good thing about this I think, looking about me, is that everyone’s more or less in the same boat. No one is massively better prepared, in terms of their outfit, than I am. We’re all fucking miserable at this point. I’m such a dick. It stops raining for a moment, I feel a wave of relief. It starts again and I’m furious and find myself screaming an obscenity in the direction of the omnipotent.

Aware of my susceptibility to cramp I give my legs a spin. I don’t need to gain any speed, it’s not about that, I just want to know what they might feel like when I call on them again. A couple of muscles in my thigh are complaining a bit but on the whole they feel like they’ll work when I need them to.

Between the bottom of the Tourmalet and the village at the approach to the Hautacam the sun does actually come out for the first time that day. There’s also a brief period here when I can see no one ahead of me, the is the only time I’ll experience that the whole day. A single moment of tranquility amidst six hours of madness.

The foot of the Hautacam is where it gets really emotional, as this is where the participants’ families and friends have gathered to wait. As I make the I turn around the village towards the mountain I’m met with two walls of people lining the road, evoking the scene at the Côte de Buttertubs in Yorkshire on Stage One.

This is incredible, this is exciting and, as blue as the sky is, this is also where the darkness descends. Thirteen kilometres is all that’s left but they’re going to be the most difficult of the lot.

As much as I thought they were okay the muscles in my thighs have cooled down too much. The pistons just aren’t going to fire. The gradient isn’t too bad and I should be able to stay in my big front ring for a fair while yet but I’m quickly down into the small one. I normally spend a lot of the time standing up when I’m climbing but there’s no way this is going to happen now. When my muscles are screaming I can normally drown them out but that’s not what’s happening. One leg is going “I’m sorry, what are you trying to do? No, I’m sorry, no.” while the other is holding a knife to itself and threatening to ping me off the side. I pay attention, drop to my lowest gear and spin. Ten kilometres left.

At the eight kilometres sign (next km 7.9%) I wonder if there is there anything I can put “in” that’ll make this engine of mine work better? I don’t want to stop. At this point, of course there isn’t but I’ll try whatever is to hand. I bite off the top to my last energy gel and squeeze the thing down my throat. These things are horrible. I finish off my water and electrolyte drink as well. The magic fails to appear.

Five k from the summit I’m in agony. Through gritted teeth I’d been chatting with a guy with a Northern accent and discovered an extra gear. It doesn’t help but I’m encouraged and find some extra pedal power from somewhere, leaving him behind. It doesn’t last long, he’ll pass me again shortly.

We’d been a bit obsessed with hydration on this trip with Big Chris paying particularly close attention to the depth of colour of everyone’s urine. I see proof that hydration is not the issue for me when finally I give in, stop, and take what’s politely referred to as “a natural break”. It’s crystal clear, so at least I feel a bit less bad about spilling it on this beautiful scenery. At this point, however, I’m struggling to appreciate my surroundings. I sit down at the side of the road and massage my legs a little, which makes more difference than you’d expect, before I stand up again, clamber onto my bike and reach for the top.

The last four kilometres are a lot easier than the first eight. Unlike on the Tourmalet I can see a line of cyclists above me, as the hairpin turns wind their way up the mountain. I’m know I’m going to make it and when I see the 1km inflatable sign, just above, I’m almost feeling comfortable again. Almost.

I see the last corner and turn into the inside. With the finish line in sight I have no right to sprint after the horror of that climb. I sprint for the line.

And collect my medal at the bottom.

I hate it, but it's kinda pretty.

I hate it, but it’s kinda pretty.

Who Shares, Wins: Brixton and the Sharing Economy

Posted in Culcha, Economics, Local by nickchristian on February 26, 2014

A few weeks ago, like a grown-up, I decided to finally hang that picture that’s been sitting around since I moved into my flat over a year ago. For that I needed a power drill. Only I’m not really a grown-up so I don’t have one, nor could I think of anyone who might be able lend me one. But then Neil lent me a power drill. Until he opened the door of his home on Strathleven Road, a mere sixteen minutes’ walk from mine, I had never met or spoken to Neil before. We don’t work together and as far as I’m aware we have no friends in common. Yet, thanks to the internet – specifically a site called Peerby – I was able to contact him, inform him of my picture-hanging problem, find out that he was able to solve it and borrow the drill. I’ll give it back tomorrow, honest. This is the sharing economy. (more…)

Listening by Numbers: 2013 at Halfway

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on July 12, 2013

At the start of this year I made a vow to be more honest about my music taste, to avoid (as far as possible any misrepresentation) by trusting the numbers as accrued via last.fm scrobbles, and then to evaluate the data impartially. Here’s what my list of albums, ranked by listens, looks like after six months:

last.fm scrobbles

Of course the numbers aren’t infallible, as not only does last.fm not count anything I’ve listened to via anything other than Spotify (I have, for example, the Bastille, Taylor Swift and older Caitlin Rose records on vinyl) but it also won’t include any Spotify listens that were played but not scrobbled, such as when I went skiing, listening offline and was all over the Tegan and Sara.

Even with that qualification the list looks about right to me. It’s felt like a pretty fair fight between the top three, with both the Caitlin Rose and To Kill A King records being added to my Spotify playlist on March 2nd and Bad Blood arriving just two days after that. Still, for there to be only three plays between them is pretty impressive.

For Caitlin Rose to be responsible for a full 5% of my listening this year, she absolutely deserves the top spot and I really do love the melancholy magic of The Stand In – with the exception of the final track which is a bit waltzy for my taste – as much as I did her first.

It’s worth asking if I would have listened to Bastille’s album quite as many times if I didn’t know Dan? It’s impossible to answer that but I suspect a few of those might have fallen by the wayside, if only because I probably would have got to it a bit later. Regardless, it’s a fantastic pop record, the songs suiting every occasion you might choose to hear them in – i.e. just as good in a tent with ten thousand as on my own, at home, in the dark with a large whisky, after a fight with friends. (Which I haven’t ever actually, done, obviously. That’s just an example.)

Cannibals With Cutlery is very different but equally powerful and it’s no surprise that there should be a strong musical connection between these guys and Bastille. I once drunkenly told the lead singer that fans of The National ought to really like his stuff. I’m sure he’d never thought of that before. Still, I stand by the assessment of the album – dark, uncompromising, whistful, wonderful wonderful wonderful stuff.

That’s the big three done and although I’m not gonna go through each of these but a shout out is definitely due to Kacey Musgraves for Same Trailer Different Park. A proper country record but smarter and more self-aware than most of what I’ve come across recently, I love the stories she tells and the way she tells ’em.

Having referred to The National I ought to mention their album as well. After the success of High Violet there was a lot of expectation on the follow-up, even more as it had been such a long wait, and this could so easily have disappointed. Although it wasn’t as easy to get into as it might have been Trouble Will Find Me rewards persistence. I expect to be listening to this for a while yet.

Phosphorescent’s Muchacho feels oddly similar in tone to Trouble Will Find Me but is more sunrise to The National’s sunset. Song For Zula with its wonderfully stereoed strings might be an early contender for track of the year.

I actually don’t like Settle by Disclosure as much as its ranking would suggest, but dancing to this bunch’s live show in the middle of a henge of illuminated perspex boxes will go down as one of my all-time favourite Glastonbury memories.

Frida Sundemo deserves extra praise for making it so high up this list despite Indigo having only six tracks on it. That puts her at seven full listens for the EP and, if we were normalising the data, would propel her up the rankings. I’m not gonna do that though.

In my head Charli XCX and Tricky’s albums are, in some ways, two sides of the same coin. While one is a debut the other the work of a veteran both are a huge amount of fun to play at volume and throw yourself into. It’s been a pretty great year so far.

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One thing I would like to add to this is that Devotion by Jessie Ware, 2012’s table-topper is only not seen in this snapshot because its plays are split between the original release and the more recent Gold Edition. Each of these received a solid thirty seven listens apiece, the sum of which would park it firmly inside the top ten. LOVE HER.

 

Interview with Gomez

Posted in Music by nickchristian on June 24, 2013

This one is from the same summer as the Pipettes interview and again, first published on the online magazine Subculture. 

 

To say that, with their fifth and latest studio release Split The Difference, Gomez have “returned to form” would be an injustice. Nearer the mark would be to suggest that, in the wake of the indie resurgence, their music has become more palatable to the not-so-discerning British public. Having emerged in 1997 with the album that would win the Mercury Music Prize, Bring It On, Gomez have been one of the most consistent British bands of the past decade. With a quintet of studio albums, a collection of B-sides and rough-cuts and a live album to their name the band have faced the slings and arrows that come with the outrageous fortunes of the music world and remained as strong as ever. Subculture caught up with bassist Paul Blackburn shortly before the band’s recent performance at Latitude festival.

Subculture Magazine: Your first album, Bring It On came out in ’97 and you guys have been together for about ten years. How would you sum up the last ten years?

Paul Blackburn: It’s been a bit all over the place really. A lot of travel. Everybody says “rollercoaster ride” and that’s kinda true but it’s been said so many times before that it’s that old one again. So yeah, it’s been life.

SM: And, looking back on them, how  do you feel about your earlier albums?

PB: To be honest with you, I’ve not listened to Bring It On for a long time because we go around playing the songs anyway you kinda hear it when you’re playing it live. I remember the last time I did visit it, it was quite interesting after playing it live so much it sounds a lot slower and a lot more…. I think we rock it up a bit more live.

SM: Are there any tracks that you play live because you’re obliged to, because they’re fan favourites, that you’d rather avoid?

PB: Definitely. I guess there’s a couple of songs that people won’t play. We’ve not played Tijuana Lady for a long time. People definitely like it – I wouldn’t mind playing it – it is what it is I guess. To be honest I don’t really because it’s all stuff that’s your material. Obviously you want to play the new stuff and get people into the new stuff. It’s always going to be a balancing act of new and old, trying to keep all sides happy.

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The Pipettes – Brighton Corn Exchange 22/9/2006

Posted in Music by nickchristian on June 24, 2013

Catching a band that have “made it” on a return trip to their hometown is always going to be a little bit different to seeing them anywhere else. Okay, so The Pipettes aren’t quite the Beatles and The Corn Exchange is hardly the Cavern Club but this is still the nexus of the girls’ support; this is where they came from and they haven’t forgotten that.

I first encountered them almost three years ago – minus Gwenno – when they were bottom of the bill at a crummy seafront bar, opening for a godawful Massive Attack tribute act and a Jamiroquai wannabe twat-in-a-hat. The venue was splitting at the seams when they started and emptied almost immediately afterwards. They were special then, they’re special now: they deserve this stage. (more…)

Interview With The Pipettes

Posted in Music, Uncategorized by nickchristian on June 24, 2013

This interview was originally published by Subculture Magazine in the Summer of 2006. It’s reproduced verbatim as the original, although the introduction has been slightly edited to make me sound like (slightly) less of a twat.

Three girls at once: Honestly

Why do we love The Pipettes? For the obvious reasons, obviously: For the polka dots; for the synchronized ‘50s-American-diner-style dance moves; for their unapologetic, titillatingly tutti-frutti pop songs; for the fact that they are women who, while the music industry is collectively wetting itself over girly indie boys, are unafraid to be girly girls.

Those reasons alone should be enough but having recently spent some time in their exalted presence, we here at Subculture have a few more.

An interview never sounds as good in print. The written word alone cannot render the sincerity and consideration with which these girls speak of their band. Nor is the English language sophisticated enough to depict the enormous variety of giggles that can emerge from three such vivaciously engaging ladies over the course an hour. Only when you come to transcribe the audio from such an experience do you realise quite how fucking useless the exclamation mark really is.

Nick: You signed your record deal a little over a year ago but you were around for a fair while before that. The whole thing seemed to be a long time in coming: did you ever wonder if maybe it wasn’t going to happen for you?

Gwenno: Did you think it was?

Rose: We didn’t really think about it.

Becki: No we just started the band and kind of thought “oh, this is a bit of fun isn’t it?” and then when people started liking it that took us a bit by surprise. And then when we got offered a record deal and stuff it was all a bit like “oh!”.

R: It felt like we just tricked them. I always felt like “Aaaaah!” like we’d managed to slip through the net somehow. We didn’t, and to be honest still don’t really, feel like we have, though aspirational and ambitious, expectations of anything necessarily.

G: No. It’s one step at a time isn’t it? It’s been so gradual, even since I’ve joined.

R: But then you relate it to other bands who’ve been going for years and years and years and actually it’s been quite quick. It’s all relative I think.

N: But you guys, it seemed to me at least, were for a while probably the most well-known unsigned band in the UK. A lot of people had heard of you outside of Brighton yet still it seemed you weren’t getting the attention from the labels. Why do you think that, in spite of the notoriety, a deal was so long in coming?

G: It’s the not fitting in thing I think. At the moment people are signing up any two-bit indie band that comes along in a pair of skinny jeans and a funny haircut. The Pipettes is nothing like that so I think it took a while for….. obviously major labels didn’t quite know what to do with us. We went with Memphis (Records) because they just signed us cos they liked us.

R: They took a bit of a punt on us.

G: Yeah. It was like: ‘kinda like this; don’t really know what it is; sign it!’ seemed to be the attitude.

R: The whole thing at the time was like ‘we really like you but we can’t place you and we don’t know how we’d market you’ and all this kinda stuff. It definitely required someone that was a bit less calculating in that way to get us on board I suppose. (more…)

Thatcher and Her Ism

Posted in Politics, Rage by nickchristian on April 11, 2013

Once upon a time, not so long ago, I was an occasional contributor/compulsive consumer to/of a a fairly popular online forum. I won’t name or link to it. Made up of one subject-agnostic main board and multiple sub-boards catering to smaller groups, discussion could spring from anywhere as threads could be started about anything. The standard of discourse was generally high, the contributors brighter and better informed than your average YouTube commentator: as such I read more than I wrote; I had more to learn than impart. We have two ears and one mouth…. etc etc

Eventually, as one does, I grew tired of it. I had never really fitted in with the community and found the atmosphere to be of an increasingly hostile, Darwinist playground; as a resource Twitter now more than served my appetite for news, essays, opinions and joyous internet nothings. So a year ago I decided not to go back.

Which isn’t really important except that I did go back there on Monday. From before I first visited I remembered that there had been a thread called “Thatcher dead!!!” – there might have been more or fewer exclamation marks but exclamation marks were certainly there – created as a kind of April fool, presumably, to con people into thinking… well, take a guess. There were a few similar threads off which the digital dust was occasionally brushed – Lisa Kudrow RIP being one other notable example – but that one was revived most often. For the lulz.

As long as she was alive, what the thread was about was the promise of jubilation – this is where we will be it said, when that day finally arrives, to record our own exhilaration to pop a digital cork and allow a magnum of vitriolic bubbles to pour forth. After hearing the news the voyeur in me wanted to know if that was indeed what would be happening so I stopped in again briefly. That was indeed what was happening so I didn’t stick around for long.

In a rather more real way that was also what was happening just a few hundred yards from my front door in Brixton. I didn’t like that any more than the online version.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Not even seven years old when she was defenestrated by her own party, some might say that age is what stops me from really “getting it” – “it” being how people feel – but I don’t think you have to have lived through Thatcher and been directly affected by her policies to dislike the outpouring of glee at her death. And it really is, quite specifically, the glee that I cannot stomach.

More than inevitable, it was right and necessary that her admirers and her detractors should immediately take to battlegrounds online, print, radio and television, to debate her impact at the time and her legacy today. Honest criticism of a person who is dead, particularly one so prominent and who had so much impact on so many, cannot be inappropriate and there’s no such thing as “too soon”.

It’s also not that I think an individual’s death should never be source of satisfaction. When a tyrant, such as Gaddafi, is ousted and then executed, what his death delivers and represents is permanence, a promise that that particular rein of tyranny is over. What the campaign to get Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead to number 1 this week seems to either forget or ignore, is that right up to the moment Dorothy’s house dropped on her head the Wicked Witch of the East was an authoritarian dictator and enslaver of the Munchkin people. Liberated in an instant from bondage I can understand why they might want to sing a little bit.

John O’Farrell, who recently took a sound stuffing as Labour candidate in the Eastleigh by-election, was partly undone by the Daily Mail for confessing his regret that Thatcher herself had not been killed by the Brighton bomb in 1984. Fantasizing about or even taking satisfaction in, the death of someone actively powerful, at least makes some sense to me. If you believe that an individual is responsible for harm and that this harm will be interrupted by their demise, while it does not become morally right it at least can be viewed as logically justifiable – or justifiably logical – and is, in fact, the root of every political assassination ever.

Dancing in the street over the death of an old lady who died in her sleep, even one who once wielded great power and committed egregious harm on a people, serves no logical or practical purpose whatsoever. It is instead the manifestation of nothing more than spite, a spirit of unkindness that might even be the clearest evidence that Thatcher did, in fact, win. According to her friends, she would have been disappointed had people not celebrated her departure, so why give her the satisfaction? Those insisting we show no compassion or kindness for her because she showed none for the miners, the steelworkers, the victims of oppressive regimes she befriended and so many others, are the living embodiment of her vision of Britain, and tacitly admitting defeat.

For if Margaret Thatcher represents anything to me, it’s inhumanity, unkindness and isolation – Russell Brand describes her as “an icon of individualism“. Whether or not “there’s no such thing as society” is a quote that has been manipulated beyond its original meaning, for many it serves as an accurate elogy of Thatcherism: even if it was not true at the time she said it, it certainly became so thanks to her. Beyond mere self-reliance to the abandonment entirely of a common good, of tides that lift all ships, to the idea that for good or ill, your standing in life is 100% down to you and you get what you deserve.

The consequence of this has been, much worse than no society at all, one revolving around rivalry and suspicion, that looks up, down, and across in judgment of you as a commodity or competitor before it does so in simple human empathy. Of course the idea that today is less kind than the day before Thatcher could be nonsense; the suggestion that we are more predisposed towards conflict, less towards cooperation than we were before might be baseless; perhaps she was blameless even if such a shift did occur.

Still, what’s striking to me is the contradiction between Thatcher’s capacity to recognize her own unique strengths and her inability to recognise that the very uniqueness of these strengths meant that her experience could not be applied to a population and used as a basis for an organising philosophy of governance.

I agree that, to one extent or another, there is always something we can do to improve our own situations in life, but I also believe that we all need help and that we all are lucky, or unlucky, to varying degrees. My problem therefore, with Conservatism in general, but Thatcherism in particular, is that it denies the very idea that anyone’s opportunities to succeed are inferior to anyone else’s, or that opportunity plays any part in success at all.

Individuals will always say that they want their children to have better than they did – we know we’re making progress as a society if the next generation climbs higher than the one before. Yet for every generation of government since Thatcher’s, to be in need of the support and assistance of “society” is a reflection of personal failure and private weakness: all that’s needed is a kick up the arse and the will to work – no help is needed, none should be asked for and none, if they can help it, will be given.

Yes, the grocer’s daughter can be prime minister, and the scouse kid from the estate CEO of Tesco but only if they’re exceptional, whereas any idiot can be Mayor of London if they went to the right school. As long as the deck is stacked in favour of some over others then a helping hand and a unifying force, in the form only government can deliver, is required. Thatcher and her progeny believed that government that provides for people was a force for evil: then and now, they could not be more wrong.

Zero Dark Thirty – Tortured Logic

Posted in Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Media, Politics, Rage by nickchristian on February 19, 2013

After a couple of aborted attempts I finally managed to see Kathyn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty at the weekend. While perhaps not quite the equal of its Oscar-winning predecessor, The Hurt Locker, it’s nevertheless a remarkable piece of cinema, deftly depicting an extremely complicated chronology of the real life events which culminated in the death of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011.

One of the things I love most about Bigelow’s films – certainly these last two – is the way she presents location as a catalyst of tension: taking the focus off character scenes are frequently preluded with gloriously wide shots of the mountainous Khyber or tighter, lingering glances through a bustling Pakistani market; several seconds longer than others might dare and accompanied only by a natural background bustle. It’s not that something will happen, but that anything could; when the audience is so familiar with the nuts and bolts of the story this is quite a feat.

Jessica Chastain as Maya, the CIA operative at the centre of the hunt for America’s most wanted, is extremely plausible – certainly more so than Homeland’s Carrie, supposedly based on the same individual – as she doggedly, and arguably coldly, pursues her quarry. While her superiors might challenge Bin Laden’s strategic significance to the war on terror, Maya goes hard not home and it comes as no surprise when she get what she wants.

Nevertheless, as impressively as Bigelow presents the “where” and the “who”, this is a film driven by the “how”, and it is this “how” that has provoked the shitstorm of controversy. Amongst them Glenn Greenwald has said that Zero Dark Thirty “glorifies torture by depicting it as crucial to getting bin Laden” while philosopher Slavoj Žižek states that the film depicts the “normalization” of such methods, analogous with their endorsement. There are numerous others out there like them but these two seem to me to represent the main schools of objection to the film. Falling very much within my wheelhouse, having seen the film – unlike Greenwald before he had his say – I can’t help but engage with the critique.

In my view Zero Dark Thirty does:

Suggest that torture can elicit truthful information that sometimes amounts to useful intelligence.

At the same time however, the film does not:

Depict torture in a morally neutral way.

The first of these forms the basis for Greenwald’s objections. Unfortunately, as difficult and distasteful as it might be for many of its opponents to acknowledge, subjecting someone to torture in order to get them to reveal useful information will – sometimes – do just that. Reduce someone to a powerless, helpless, subhuman state and there’s a fair chance that, if they know something, they’ll give it up.

Sometimes they won’t, of course.

Sometimes, even if they don’t have what’s being demanded of them, they’ll likely want to say something – anything – that might make the pain stop. It might be a lie, deliberately delivered to mislead and misdirect, to waste time for and to buy it. It also might be the truth, but not a new truth as far as the intelligence agents are concerned, rather something that they’ve already picked up, or could pick up, somewhere, or from someone, else, in some other way. Because there is always some other way.

Some other way might require more patience, more energy, more money or more luck but it will not require that someone, as Žižek correctly characterizes it, “forsake his or her soul”. But what Žižek seems to conclude is that either no soul is shown to be sacrificed in the making of this movie or that only one is and that’s okay, because she gets her man in the end.

The truth is torture cannot be depicted in a neutral way and if it is, then what’s being depicted isn’t torture at all. Thankfully the interrogation scenes are brutal as they ought to be: no shot conceals; no cut is premature; every close-up is agony. We are also told nothing of who this man is or what he might have done to find himself in a CIA black site and see him only as helpless, hopeless, and terrified. The worst of the worst? Hardly.

For further evidence of the immoral weight of torture remember that the New York Times for a long while avoided using the term entirely, opting instead for such grim Orwellian euphemisms as “enhanced” or “intense” interrogation. Yet Mark Boal’s script twice reaches for the correct term – one instance of which sits atop this post – and does so pointedly enough to tell us what the film’s authors think about it. Make no bones about it, Slavoj, there’s nothing “normal” going on here.

Greenwald’s fear is that by showing torture as even loosely effective, Kathryn Bigelow serves to justify its practical utility. What he and Žižek both seem to forget is that morality is far more robust than that: if they allow the debate to become about the extent to which torture works – implying that it can be justified or supported if it works 100% of the time or a majority, or occasionally – then it’s the left that has made the moral concession, not the right. Just as murder is murder, torture is torture and Zero Dark Thirty is a very good film.

Data Me

Posted in Music by nickchristian on January 28, 2013

Data-2

Years ago, having interviewed him for my university’s student magazine, the newsreader Jon Snow kindly invited me to watch him broadcast the news from the gallery. It was a difficult, rather than slow, news day, which is to say there was plenty happening but, as was explained, there was very little which stood out as especially important which meant the running order was difficult to devise. My sense of the music released in 2012 has been mostly like that; I’ve listened to a lot this year – perhaps more, even, than I did in 2011 – and while much of it has been worthy, there’s been little – just one in fact[1] – that really stands out for me at year’s end.

Because people like me can’t just not write a list what I decided to do, therefore, was to interrogate the data. At its face, this might seem strange: why would I need statistics to tell me what I like? But hear me out.

Firstly, the way our brains are wired means judgement is neither linear nor static[2]. This means that: 1. How you feel about something after experiencing it for the first time is unlikely to be the same as how you’ll feel after, say, the seventeenth; 2. How you feel about something today is unlikely to be exactly the same as how you’ll feel about it tomorrow. Music critics[3] often say, of albums, “it’s a grower” by which they mean it gets better the more familiar with it you become[4], while the context in which you listen to something (including your mood at the time) can make a huge difference to how you respond to it.

What this means in reality is that our judgment, in any given moment, even about things as subjective as our own tastes, is inherently flawed/dishonest, at least as far as representing our longer term “taste”. Asking someone what kind of films they’re into is a very different question to what kind of film they want to see tonight and you should therefore look in very different places to find the answers. For the latter, I would argue, you ought to stick with gut instinct but for the former it might be worth seeking out data. But what data do we use, and how can we best make use of it?

Computer giant IBM[5] claim that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every single day which sounds like a lot to me, being one of those numbers that’s so terrifyingly big I’ve never even heard of it. And it’s a number.

Somewhere amongst that obscene quantity of information, you may or may not be surprised to learn, is a relatively reliable record of my listening habits, as well as those of many others of a similarly geeky lilt. I do this by “scrobbling”. Despite being desperately feeble when it comes to anything technical, my rudimentary understanding is that scrobbling happens when you authorise a piece of software to keep track of what you’re listening to, through Spotify or any similar digital service. You are then able to check yourself out at your own personal profile page, somewhere like this.

While on the one hand you may be of the opinion that quantity does not equal quality, that the number of times you’ve experienced something does not adequately represent your value of the experience, on the other you might consider each individual item of data to represent a discreet expression of preference. Whether you’ve very deliberately chosen to listen to a track, or merely chosen not to skip one randomly shuffled in your ears’ direction, those preferences, when added together, might be enough to constitute, or at least contribute to, “taste”. Viewed in this way data, rather than something abstract and alien, in refusing to weigh a conscious choice more favourably than an unconscious one, is simply aggregated preference.

Data, furthermore, can help keep us honest.

In the course of getting to know someone, you’ll often find yourself interrogating them what music or films or books they like.[6] Chances are the answer you’ll get will be on the dithery side; not just because they’re trying to think of something but because they’re trying to think of something that they’re prepared to offer to you for scrutiny. The reply you get won’t, therefore, be a lie, but it’s unlikely to be satisfactorily truthful either. A better question, therefore, would be what book/film/band they’ve read/seen/heard the most often.

There’s a scene in Friends, almost decades old now, the boys are competing with the girls over how well they know each other, with the winner getting the big apartment. One of Ross’s questions is what Rachel claims her favourite film to be – Dangerous Liaisons – which he immediately follows up to ask what her “actual” favourite film is: “Weekend at Bernie’s”, Joey immediately replies[7].

Making your cultural preferences public presents the same dilemma – how much do you care what your audience thinks of your taste and is it enough to alter it? Even if your audience is small in number, you’re going to anticipate its judgement to some extent[8] (otherwise why would you be expressing your tastes in this way at all?) which is likely to result in at least some distortion. To bring us back to lists I might, for example, compile an initial ten or twenty, based purely on my own sense of what I enjoyed in 2012, only to reflect that it’s not as balanced as I would like it to be: it doesn’t contain enough music by black artists or by women; there’s not enough instrumental or dance and too much drivelly indie[9]; the list is too obscure or not obscure enough. Thus I might review those records that didn’t quite make the cut against those I deem to have snuck themselves in, promoting and demoting as appropriate. Before I know it, the whole thing becomes a LIE – not a massive lie but a lie nonetheless – but at least it LOOKS right to me.

Looking back on last year’s ten I don’t necessarily think I got it wrong, but there’s a few that made the cut that I’m not sure I’ve returned to too many times since, the appearance of which is indicative of a recognizable bias on my part.

Even if you don’t necessarily want to rely upon data alone – the data itself is vulnerable to distortion – it can certainly provide valuable insight which can help reduce this bias. In the information age[10] our data is constantly being collected and passed around and sorted and analysed and resorted and applied by all manner of agencies and corporations. One of the most common reasons they’re doing this is to divine our tastes and interests better in order to better predict our behaviour, to understand how we’ll respond to certain prompts and stimuli, and to subsequently manipulate that behaviour in one direction or another.

If they’re doing it, why shouldn’t we?

Of course list-making is a ludicrous exercise, almost certainly indicative of the presence of one if not several psychological deficiencies but getting to know yourself better, as so many self-help books I’m sure will tell you, is not.  Maybe the data can help?

__________________________________

Update: Gonna follow this up with another post later in the week demonstrating how this approach might work in practice. 


[2] I realise this is a dangerously woolly statement to make, especially from one who is not a neuroscientist, but just go with it, yeah? This article on that subject is very interesting: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/12/sensing-god-and-the-limits-of-neuroscience/266706/

[3] Lazy ones, granted

[4] Pop music tends to be the opposite – designed to hook you on the first listen, causing you to listen to it a hundred times on day one and then never again

[5] Actually I have no idea what IBM’s primary function is anymore. The topline of their Wikipedia entry describes them as “an American multinational technology and consulting corporation” but what the hell does that even mean?

[6] If this is a date, it may not be going well….

[7] Although I had to check what the first film was, I remembered the second easily enough. I’m not proud.

[8] Arguably, a smaller audience might matter more, as it’s more likely to contain a higher concentration of people you know personally and whose tastes you respect in some way themselves.

[9] There’s always too much drivelly indie

[10] Full disclosure: I just typed in “what age are we in” into Google and “the information age” was the third result, so I went with it

28 Things

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on October 14, 2012

I recently approached, reached and passed my twenty-eighth birthday. As I did so it occurred to me that, although a completely arbitrary anniversary it was nevertheless my first “grown up” age and that I should, by this point, know some stuff about the world and life and people and myself. A few months before July 19th I began compiling a list of thoughts and positions and views and opinions, the thrust of which I could be reasonably certain. I recognize that some of the points read like a vile self-help book while a few are uncharacteristically (for me, I hope) saccharine in sentiment; still others are pithy and insubstantial and most need more context and qualification which I may later provide.

Ever changing, the list in its current form is below.

1. I’ve met “the one”

2. Remembering how you felt is the hardest thing ever

3. Friends and family can totally be the same thing

5. A person won’t complete you

6. People might Ω

7. If you wouldn’t turn up if they didn’t pay you, it is just a job

8. There’s nothing wrong with questioning orthodoxy or challenging convention

9. It’s not wise to always speak your mind, but never doing do is worse

10. Patriotism is stupid

11. Underpromise, over deliver ÷

12.

13. If you’re not paying for the drinks, tip the toilet attendant

14. Drunk is (mostly) context

15. Ban private schools and all schools get better

16. I overthink°

17. I can’t not write

18. Thou shalt not worship false idols*

19. You’re only the centre of your own universe

20. The lead singer is never the most interesting member of the band

21. I’d rather be a good friend than anything else

22. No-one gets it right every time – we’re all just muddling through

23. “I think being shy basically means being self-absorbed to the point that it makes it difficult to be around other people. For instance, if I’m hanging out with you, I can’t even tell whether I like you or not because I’m too worried about whether you like me.” -David Foster Wallace Σ

24. I will never complain about paying taxes or grumble about how “my money” is being spent

25. Δ

26. I can’t suffer fools gladly.

27. There is always *something* you can do. Do it.

28. I might change my mind about all of this tomorrow

Notes

Ω Relying on one other person for your emotional well-being just doesn’t seem like that good an idea to me.

Not that there’s anything wrong with taking your job seriously but it’s not as important as your health, your friends, family etc. It’s not worth getting upset about, or upsetting others over, is my point.

These two are related to each other. I’m not a big fan of submissive people, or those who view themselves as victims, basically. 27 is similar, now I think about it.

÷ Sounds like, and is, wanky business speak but applicable elsewhere. Life is generally easier if people have slightly lower expectations of you and it’s fun to pleasantly surprise.

Based on the morbid thought that if you die tomorrow, as sad as they might be, most people you know will still carry on as normal with most aspects of their lives – eating, sleeping, going to work, going to the pub etc etc. Even those for whom you’re the most important person in the world will end up there eventually. Useful for personal perspective, I think.

They might be interesting and charismatic but first and foremost they’re the ego and are seldom especially substantial.

° About people and how they might have interpreted something I might have said or done. Slightly contradicts some of the other points on this list.

* This is about “celebrity”. There’s nothing wrong with admiring people for a particular achievement or ability or characteristic they possess but what I don’t understand is the need to elevate them to a supra-human, sub-deity level.

Σ This quote has probably had more direct impact on my personality than anything else I’ve ever read. What does it matter if someone doesn’t like you if you’ve already decided you don’t especially like them?

Δ Simply perfect.

I Can’t “We”

Posted in Culcha, Media, sport by nickchristian on August 7, 2012
We

As nauseating as this film.

The Olympics has been amazing. Every cynical cell I have has, for perhaps just two weeks, taken temporary leave of my body. Every negative position that I had been incubating – about it being overly commercial, about the special “Games Lanes”, even about the relative legitimacy of one event’s inclusion over another – has been aborted. They will return, I’m sure, but this two week has been about people, largely ordinary and all the more extraordinary for that, achieving astonishing sporting successes for which they’ve dreamed and worked their entire lives.

My only remaining hostility in all of this – truthfully, just this one – is to the volume of “we” that gushes forth every time a Briton adds to the total haul of medals.

Team GB are my team, of that there is no question, but I am a supporter of that team, not a member of it. Winning Olympic Gold at London 2012 has not been my dream for the last seven years or longer and I have not dedicated an uncountable number of hours to get me to that point where that dream might possibly come true. Despite having developed an uncharacteristically sunny attitude towards these games, I have made not a single sacrifice that might have contributed to a medalist’s success. I might have once or twice bought a lottery ticket, but I suspect my motives for doing so were not entirely pure.

As delighted as I am that the team I have chosen to support have performed so well, as much pleasure as I am able to take from every gold medal won, the victories of the athletes (or marksmen, or mincing ponies) are still theirs and I cannot allow myself to claim from them even the tiniest slither of credit. Because that to me is what it sounds like someone is doing every time they refer to how well “we” are doing in the Olympics. While there might be a huge quantity of glory to bathe in, that quantity still feels to me to be finite; in claiming some for yourself, by “we”ing rather than “he”ing, “she”ing or “they”ing, you are reducing the amount available to someone else, someone who might actually have earned it.

I actually appreciated the re-branding of the Great Britain and Northern Ireland Olympic Team as “Team GB” because I thought it more firmly separates us, the spectators, the bakers and candlestick makers, from them, the competitors. We can all call ourselves British but only an elite few can call themselves Olympians.

It might be a misplaced comparison but haven’t we all experienced the silently seethed rage when that smug bastard at work suggests, with his use of the first person plural, that this endeavour, this accomplishment of yours, was somehow a joint effort? Over the two years of my recently completed masters – did I mention I was doing a masters? In Human Rights. Yeah, makes me noble as fuck – my flatmates have delivered me countless cups of tea and made me more than a few meals. This has been a massive help to me, freeing up many an hour for studying, but I doubt they would say this entitles them to some credit for my low passing grade. “We”, to me, implies parity between yourself and the medalists. Even if you think you helped, as the North London school teacher who suggested that “Mo’s a bit quick ain’t he?”*, or the guy in the corner shop that once sold Jessica Ennis a Lucozade, you can’t seriously believe that this wouldn’t have happened without you?

This is not to say that we cannot share in the delight of a victory, but that we should do so at one remove. Rare is it that one gets the opportunity to witness an individual’s lifetime of work and effort, crystallised into a single triumphant moment of realisation. So let them have it. Let it be theirs.

*No offence to Alan Watkinson of Isleworth and Syon School.

The Olympic Opening Ceremony – What Did the Rest of the World Think?

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on July 29, 2012

With the exception of a few Tory MPs and Daily Mail bloggers, the opening ceremony of the Olympics appeared to unite the British literary class, of all stripes, in pride and positivity. Leftie commentators in particular, although described by Andrew Gilligan this morning as “suckered“, were charmed into a temporary suspension of cynicism by an extraordinary portrayal of ordinariness.

But what would the rest of the world think? With in jokes galore, even Danny Boyle acknowledged that much of it may have gone over the heads of those without an intimate sense of the British chronicle, culture and character. But would it? And if it did, would it matter?

With a little help from Google News and a lot from Google Translate, I decided to look into it. The Russian response made me smile.

Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Nicaragua

Lo mágico cobijó la ceremonia olímpica

The magic swept over the Olympic ceremony.

Colombia

La inauguración de los Juegos Olímpicos cautivó las miradas del mundo.

The opening of the Olympics captivated the eyes of the world.

Cuba

Una espectacular ceremonia de color, música, magia y sentido del humor inauguró los Juegos Olímpicos de Londres 2012, en la que no faltó nada de lo que caracteriza al Reino Unido.

A spectacular ceremony of color, music, magic and humor opened the 2012 London Olympics, which did not miss anything that characterizes the United Kingdom.

France

JO 2012 : une cérémonie d’ouverture magistrale lance les Jeux

2012 Olympics: a masterful opening ceremony launches Games

De la musique, des people, des jeux de lumière et beaucoup de magie : hier soir, Londres a célébré le début des JO en grandes pompes dans le stade de Stratford.

Music, celebrities, lighting effects and a lot of magic: Last night, London celebrated the start of the Olympics with great fanfare at the stadium in Stratford.

Germany

Spektakulär und schrill, aber auch besinnlich und anrührend

Spectacular and flashy, but also thought provoking and moving

Russia

Жаль только, что сама королева без особого энтузиазма отнеслась ко всему происходящему.

The only pity is that the Queen herself reacted with little enthusiasm for anything happening. Only once, when it was shown on the big screen on the face of Elizabeth II could we see the barely noticeable smile.

Middle East

ليكون أحد أبرز الفقرات إن لم يكن أبرزها على الاطلاق في هذا الحفل الذي تضمن التاريخ والتراث والفقرات المرحة أيضا.وجاءت الفقرات المثيرة والخلابة لتجذب أنظار متابعي الحفل الذين بلغ عددهم نحو 62 ألفا في المدرجات بخلاف نحو مليار مشاهد أمام شاشات التلفزيون.

The opening ceremony, including history and heritage as well as moments of comedy. Exciting and beautiful sequences were designed to attract the attention of those following the ceremony, who numbered about sixty two thousand in the stands and more than a billion viewers watching on television around the world.

ورصدت هذه الصورة كلا من الريف الإنجليزي ومراعي بريطانيا والثورة الصناعية وفقدان حياة الآلاف في الحربين العالميتين الأولى والثانية وأزمة الثلاثينيات من القرن الماضي وخدمة الصحة القومية التي ظهرت في 1948 ومجموعة من أبرز الأفلام والموسيقى والقرن الحادي والعشرين بما فيه من إعلام إجتماعي دون نسيان أي شيء.

The picture was of the English countryside and pastures of Britain which gave way to the Industrial Revolution and the loss of thousands of lives in World Wars I and II, the crisis of the thirties of the last century and the National Health Service, which appeared in 1948. The ceremony moved from featured clips of prominent British movies, to pop music the birth of the world wide web and social media.

China

直到激昂的音乐响起,劳作的人们拆掉了草皮,几根烟囱平地而起,直插云霄——工业革命改变了英国,也改变了全世界。

The ceremony began with authentic English countryside scenery, the opening ceremony of the warm performances. Performers walk around holding several flowers and huge man-made white clouds, rural youth clumsily playing badminton; Mara move the plow, hard milking women, picnic, family Edwardian village cricket team, and dance people .

Until the passionate music sounded. The work of the people removed the turf and a few chimneys sprung into the sky – the Industrial Revolution changed the United Kingdom, as it has changed the world.

Right, Posh Boys

Posted in Culcha, Politics, Rage, Theatre by nickchristian on June 23, 2012

Posh PLay

So, OK, they want all this stuff, they want the massive fuckoff plasma-screen telly, so they borrow more money than they can ever afford to pay back. They want a big house, they want a fat German car. So they go on a massive spree with this fairy money, they’re obsessed with upward mobility but they’re not prepared to put the work in, it’s all credit cards.

Then when the great New Labour shop in the sky goes up in flames ’cause it turns out there isn’t an endless supply of toys and sweets, there can’t be  – so they call us in to sort it out ’cause yes, we’re good at that. But they don’t want to give up the big house and the massive telly, ’cause now they’ve got used to the idea that they’re worth it.

So rails the Riot Club’s Alastair in Laura Wade’s Posh, currently on at the Duke of York’s Theatre. The play imagines a lavish meal held by a gang o’ chaps loosely based on Oxford University’s notorious Bullingdon Club. How loose is this basis is hard to know. The real-life accounts, of fastidiously formulated, fully financed debauchery, are now lore but still sparse in detail. Gaps remain and questions hang over what happened, when, how and, most importantly, who of our current political crop were involved.

It is to Wade’s immense credit that in her version of an event she does not attempt to fill these gaps, or answer these questions, with parody or caricature. To do so would only serve undermine the play’s message, to take out the terror, by inviting sympathy for the protagonists and rendering them unreal.

For what is so terrifying about the above speech is how plausible it is in the attitudes it expresses, despite being completely illogical and utterly inconsistent. With one breath the Riot Clubbers denounce the culture of entitlement and the work-shy poor; with the next they bemoan the efforts their families must make to maintain the stately seat, all because the inheritance tax denies them what is rightfully theirs.

For if the Posh boys believe in anything, it is in the justness of their own privilege: there are no accidents of birth – their collective semen is pronounced “the finest in all the land” – and no obstacle which status or sterling cannot enable them to overcome.

Great wads of cash – “fifties” –  emerge each time it seems they might not be allowed to behave exactly as they’d like. “We always pay our way” pronounces Alastair at one such point, as “…unlike the poor” hangs airborne, as venomous as it is unspoken. You find yourself asking: Where did this money come from? Ah, of course.

Droning On

Posted in Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Politics by nickchristian on June 17, 2012

Much has been made recently of the existence of Barack Obama’s “kill list” and his use of unmanned “drone” aircraft to eliminate America’s hard-to-reach enemies. “George W. Bush on steroids” was the label, coined by Aaron David Miller, to which The Guardian took a particular liking.

The idea that this seemingly smart, likeable, liberal (surely?), black* president should occasion to order the extra-judicial targeted killings of suspected terrorists by pilotless bomber planes flying at 50,000 feet is, to so many, a disturbing cognitive contradiction and represents, to the Guardianistas, a deep betrayal of the messianic expectation that they felt they had invested in him four years ago. Never mind the fact that it was all projection – they saw the word “change”, combined it with “black” and “democrat” and arrived at “utopia”.

What were they expecting?

Change means “different” and can also mean “better”, but “change” is not synonymous with “transformation” or with “immediate”; for while the position of president of the USA arguably makes the holder the most powerful individual in the world, it is not a role without constraints. The individual elected to the presidency, while he has the power to shape the office over time, is not afforded carte blanche over policy and does not get to start the job from scratch. As distasteful as a new president might find them, many of the policies bequeathed to him by his predecessor must be taken on and “owned”. For Obama this meant operational responsibility for the Global War On Terror.

Yes, that old favourite. While the term might have been rendered obsolete – legally it was always on shaky ground, not that that mattered much to the Bush administration – from a military and policy perspective, it is still very much being fought.

Because 9/11 really did change everything. That was what the hawkish right, as they thumped their war drums, insisted at the time and what many “intelligent” lefty doves decried as propaganda and opportunism. I myself wrote five years ago that the Bush administration was not confronted with a “new paradigm” but constructed one – that it could not be deconstructed upon Bush’s departure is a disappointment but should not be a surprise.

What Obama’s drones proves is that the right were right, even as their prophecies were self-fulfilling. While occupations can be ended and wars scaled back there could be no question of Obama deprioritizing the threat of Islamic fundamentalist extremism – from a domestic political standpoint this would have been tantamount to treason, while the amount of money at stake means defense industry lobby groups and their chosen congressional candidates would take up arms, so to speak, to resist anything more than a modest reduction in budget. For whomever occupies the Oval Office, now and for the foreseeable future, the number one foreign policy priority is and will be the prevention of another 9/11.

The only variable is what tactics the occupant chooses to employ.

And so, to the drones.

Airborne bombings are not nice – their purpose, as almost any tool of war, is to end life – but they are not radically worse than any other traditional projectile weapon and are, in fact, better than many. It’s true that a bomb dropped from eight miles high, on a house or camp in North West Pakistan does not discriminate between civilian and terrorist or between man, woman and child, but it is somewhat more targeted that any one of the thunderstorm of cruise missiles that constituted the shock and awe phase of attacks on Iraq in 2003. As a further comparator, the NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia in 1999 caused the accidental deaths of at least five hundred civilians as (amongst other things) a bus, a Belgrade hospital and the Chinese embassy were all hit.

Those that charge that unmanned drones reduce warfare to a computer game, distancing the soldier from his target and from the consequences of the weapon he’s just fired, have obviously never seen a tank, a rifle, a bow and arrow, or a catapult. I bet they’ve never thrown a stone in anger either. Every advance in the technology of warfare has served the same purpose and drone aircraft, rather than marking a radical departure, represents just the latest.

Do I believe that Obama enjoys playing judge, jury and executioner over the fates of these men and their families? No. He does it because it’s part of the spec of the role he signed up for. That he has designated himself the principal signatory of the “kill list” is not, it seems to me, indicative of bloodlust but of a sense of sovereign responsibility – the same responsibility that Bush and his cronies refused to take as it denounced the few “bad apples” – and a will to safeguard and minimize the number of instances of such extralegal executions. Unlike Bush, I suspect causing the deaths of civilians, women and children does give Obama moral pause.

I do not want to act as an apologist for President Obama, to endorse or make excuses for him. I don’t think that drone attacks on the sovereign territory of another state are legal and they’re certainly not desirable, but they are different to and better, truly, than many of the alternatives. Obama would, I suspect, prefer to be able rely on the Pakistanis, Yemenis and Somalis (to name but three feeble or failed states) to apprehend terrorist suspects but that option is seldom available to him to any satisfactory degree. Until it is, “better” is the best we can hope for.

At full time in his presidency Bush had invaded two countries; was directly responsible for the overthrow of two sovereign governments; opened an island prison camp designed to be a “legal black hole”; instituted a program of the extraordinary abduction and systemic torture of terrorist suspects in CIA “black” sites. Under Obama’s administration one of those aforementioned invasions has ended, while the other is drawing down; extraordinary rendition has been paired back, if not abandoned entirely; CIA black sites have been closed and the torture policy ended. Although domestic politics ultimately stymied Obama’s efforts to close Guantanamo Bay, signing the executive order to do so was indeed amongst his first acts upon entering the Oval Office.

How is this not different? How is it not better?

Update:

Andrew Sullivan, not someone I normally find myself agreeing with, has similarly come to the defence of drones:

 if you’d asked me – or anyone – in 2001 whether it would be better to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq to defeat al Qaeda, or to use the most advanced technology to take out the worst Jihadists with zero US casualties, would anyone have dissented? And remember the scale of civilian casualties caused by the Iraq war and catastrophic occupation: tens of thousands of innocents killed under American responsibility for security. The awful truth of war is that innocents will die. Our goal must be to minimize that. Compared with the alternatives, drones kill fewer innocents.

Of course, we need to be incredibly careful to limit civilian casualties even further. Counting every military-age man in the vicinity of a Jihadist as a terrorist is a total cop-out. We should see the real casualty numbers and adjust accordingly. But we also have to stop the Jihadist threat. It is real. And a president does not have the luxury of pretending it isn’t.

On Marriage

Posted in Domestic Policy, Human Rights, Politics by nickchristian on May 29, 2012

I recently wrote, as the penultimate piece of work for my MA in Human Rights, an essay on same-sex marriage arguing that, far from equal, civil partnerships can only ever be separate and inferior. The full text of the essay can be found here but if I’m honest, I don’t think I have anything to say on the subject that hasn’t been said better by others. What’s more, where once there might have been something approximating a legitimate, interest-based argument against same-sex marriage, today there is only bigotry and even that is diminishing in volume and visibility. Barack Obama sealed the deal a few weeks ago.

The religious doctrinaires can resist all they like: it is going to happen and being on the side of right is all that matters; arguing against the wrong is, therefore, barely worth the effort. So what was interesting about the essay was not what it taught me about same-sex marriage but the way in which it caused me to so profoundly question my own understanding of marriage itself.

Previously I had held what I thought was a principled objection to the very idea of marriage, assessing it to be an anachronistic, patriarchal institution of which I wanted no part. This wasn’t a resistance to being owned but to owning; not an objection to the idea of commitment but a commitment to the idea that people’s feelings change, are in a constant state of flux. I simply didn’t, and don’t, believe that one can reasonably expect someone to know with any certainty what they will want from a relationship tomorrow, let alone ten years from now.

But to focus on that is to completely miss the point, and the meaning, of why (most) people get married. It’s a product, as my boss would say, of my tendency to “overthink”. Except I’ve only found my way past it by thinking some more, so I’m not sure where that leaves us.

To marry is to publicly proclaim, as my friend Dom recently articulated it, that “I want this to last forever”; not that “I believe it will” or indeed, to presume a permanent state of being. The “this” in question also need not mean the relationship, but merely, necessarily, the feeling that comes only with the presence, the existence of this person in your life. You have stumbled, however fortuitously, on something, someone, that is to you completely unique.  Marriage is how that uniqueness is expressed and how it is uniquely, universally understood.

My mum recently recounted the story of the night her friend met her husband and the immediate realization she had, in that moment, that that is what she wanted him to become.  Another close friend, a lifelong resistant to the idea, came round to it in a similar fashion. It is only by looking at those situations through the prism of marriage as a “want” that I can make any sense of them.

Perhaps for many people, marriage is something that is approached from a cynical perspective, with considerations of practicality or maybe motives unclear at its forefront, but it is not from that perspective that proponents of same-sex marriage come. To take a further step towards equality is a desirable and happy by-product but it is not, in itself, the primary objective. Same-sex couples just want to get married and now I think I know why.

Of Free Speech and Free Markets

Posted in Domestic Policy, Human Rights, Law and Order, Politics by nickchristian on April 2, 2012

As those who know me would attest, I am a dyed in the wool lefty, in the sense that I want life to be better for everyone, not just those that can afford it. I think government can be a force for good in that respect; a place where, to quote the West Wing, “people come together and where no one gets left behind.” What that doesn’t mean is that I think the state should be involved in every aspect of everyone’s life in order to make it so. I think a capitalistic society, where it works supports that goal better than the state but where there are gaps – where capitalism fails which, undeniably, it often does – government has a duty to step in.

Simply put I believe the role of government is to regulate imperfect markets. Where something society needs is undervalued the government has a duty to step in and supply it out of public funds. Where something something society doesn’t need is oversupplied, or supplied at a cost to society that doesn’t accurately reflect its value, government has a responsibility to tax it to the point where it pays for itself or supply is reduced. Pollution is one such example, road congestion another.

Where markets work perfectly however, or close to perfectly, the government should keep as far away as possible. Online speech is one such market.

I agree with Thomas Hammarberg, the European Council’s commissioner for human rights, that Liam Stacey should not have received a prison sentence for tweeting racist comments about Fabrice Muamba, following the Bolton player’s recent on-pitch collapse. I *think* most of last Thursday’s Question Time panel at least saw the 56 day sentence as excessive as well.

Where I suspect I stand alone, or if not alone then certainly in a minority, is in my belief that he should not have been arrested or prosecuted at all.

I can say, with little concern for contradiction, that Liam Stacey is a dumb racist fuck. Yet as confident as I am in that assertion, I don’t think that being a dumb racist fuck should be a crime. Not that it should go without sanction, just that I don’t think the state should be responsible. It’s largely accepted that much of what is said in an offhand way in social networking forums – be they Twitter, Facebook, blogs or wherever – is subject to far fewer filters of thought than what we might say in other forms, but probably still more than what might be said in a pub with friends. The main differences lie in the potential reach of these unthinking utterances, the speed with which they can be circulated and the futility of an attempted retraction. Racist fucks like Liam Stacey are often forced to learn this the hard way, but the hard way should not involve a prison sentence.

The hard way should be when it’s picked up on by the likes of Stan Collymore, a former footballer and current radio presenter who has taken it upon himself to lead a crusade – a brave and noble one in my opinion – against online bigotry. Collymore regularly retweets the most offensive comments of those people who think a computer screen and internet connection serve as a protective shield against responsibility for their words. When Liam Stacey found himself the recipient of a barrage of condemnatory replies, the subject of a host of online and print articles about his dumb racist fuck-ness, as well as likely, if not inevitable, disciplinary action from Swansea University, he doubtless became very rapidly aware of quite how unacceptable it is to hold such views, let alone be so publicly proud of them. Does anyone really think that a criminal conviction, and the accompanying prison sentence, is going to be a higher price to pay than the pariah status he will find himself with upon his release? That all of his friends, family, colleagues and peers (not to mention pretty much anyone who meets him in the foreseeable future) will be unable to disassociate him with his racist tweets for a very long time is a far greater punishment than any the state can bestow. This is, in my opinion, the perfect example of the self-regulating market.

What we say online is, for many barely indistinguishable, from what we think and government regulation of online speech is therefore dangerously close to regulation of thought. By widely publicising these public displays of intolerance, ignorance and offence Stan Collymore, amongst others, has shown how it can be dealt with far more effectively through the court of public opinion. The law need not get involved.

For Ollie

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on March 29, 2012

Having A Coke With You

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them

I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse

it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it

Frank O’Hara

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A Christmas Sermon by Robert Louis Stevenson

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on March 25, 2012

Food for thought from 1900.

A dissection of the misguided, “higher” purposes to which people set themselves and a call for a more simple form of goodness. My favourite line:

To be honest, to be kind–to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends but these without capitulation–above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself–here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy. He has an ambitious soul who would ask more; he has a hopeful spirit who should look in such an enterprise to be successful.

 

I’ve wanted to do something with this for a while, but maybe it should just be read.

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas

Posted in Music by nickchristian on March 18, 2012

Last week I tweeted an endorsement of Leonard Cohen’s new record. After two full listens it felt like a really strong album, deserving of praise certainly, but not one that would have necessarily troubled last 2011’s end of year lists. Since then there have been several more trips to the end of the album and back and, well, things have changed.

To understand how, I think we have to return to 2008, Glastonbury Festival, and Leonard Cohen’s Sunday evening performance on the Pyramid Stage. It had been a rough weekend, in the best of ways, and having slept barely at all the previous night, at the end of a glorious summer’s day my legs were past their last. I might have wanted to head forwards to join the many thousand strong standing throng but biology refused. In the end, it didn’t matter as the music and the atmosphere travelled. Boy, did it travel.

From some distance up the hill we sat mesmerised by a master, rumbling through a performance the worth of which was many times more than the sum of its priceless parts. The highlight of the set was always going to be Hallelujah, but it could not have been anticipated quite how high this would be. I couldn’t stay seated any longer.

An unreliable memory has the song starting right on sunset and with sunset that evening at 9.21, the performance having started at ten past eight, that feels about right. Whether the timing was deliberate or coincidental I’m not sure I need to know, but certainly the celestially clear skies were impossible to predict as the last of the evening’s light left the valley and one of the greatest choruses in popular music rang out across the Somerset hills. That was the moment I, along with many others, lost it.

At the time and since I have attributed the tears shed in that field to, as much as anything else, exhaustion, electrolytes and having had one helluva weekend. Last Tuesday morning I listened to Show Me The Place for what must have been the fifth or sixth time and experienced an almost identical response. Bear in mind I was at work.

The troubles came, I saved what I could save
A thread of light, a particle, a wave
But there were chains so I hastened to behave
There were chains so I loved you like a slave.

Maybe it shouldn’t come as such a surprise. It might sound like a lofty goal but music, as all art, should seek to affect; the listener, in turn, should expect, or at least aspire, to be affected. Music can of course serve many mistresses but that is my own principal raison d’ecouter and while that can mean many things besides tears, it seems it’s only listening to Leonard that provokes this particular emotional response.

To my ears Leonard Cohen’s unique brilliance lies in his grasp of the present and the beguilingly beautiful tone he adopts in order to express his outlook on it. Music, I feel, is rarely humble and seldom relatable and on the whole, I think that’s fine but Cohen is a master of communicating meaning and it’s hard not to be grateful.

Old Ideas sounds like an album about having aged. Not about ageing, because it doesn’t seem to speak of process and doesn’t feel comparative, nor of age as the subject matter relates to death, because it doesn’t appear to look beyond itself. Living in the present is a difficult trick to master but Leonard Cohen, impressively self-understanding, appears to have managed it.

The lyrics matter, of course they do, and it is nigh impossible to talk about Leonard Cohen without talking about them. As much as he is musician, he is poet. Still, it is the sound of the words as sung that matters more to me, how that sound compliments and conjoins with the music that proves their worth. The rumbling bass of Cohen himself gently and discreetly balanced by the angel choral harmonies of the Webb sisters. As lovely as the lyrics are they almost deserve a separate study; I’ve scattered a few sets through this piece so if you like these, do seek out the rest.

I’ve got no future
I know my days are few
The present’s, not that pleasant
Just a lot of things to do
I thought the past would last me
But the darkness got there too.

This is not, I should be very clear, an album review, because I can’t promise you’ll experience anything like the same reaction I did. I can, however, promise an album with immense depth and uniquely articulate profundity. If that’s your thing, go get it.

10 O’Clock Live vs The Daily Show

Posted in Media, Uncategorized by nickchristian on March 4, 2012

Channel 4’s weekly satirical news programme, 10 O’Clock Live, is not as good as Comedy Central’s daily satirical news programme, The Daily Show.

The producers and presenters of 10 O’Clock live would probably say that, if you look at the format and structure, they’re demonstrably not trying to imitate Jon Stewart’s style of satire. Except, I think, such protest would be disingenuous: while of course they’re not seeking to produce a direct replica – four presenters not one, LIVE!!!!, very little pre-recorded material and no celebrity interview – they are clearly looking to serve the same constituency aims. Or at least, what they believe those aims to be.

That 74% of America’s young people turn to the Daily Show rather than traditional media sources for their news is a fairly well-known and somewhat impressive statistic. I can’t find a comparable equivalent for the UK but Channel 4’s commissioners have clearly assumed one to exist, approaching the production from the perspective that British “young” people (such a broad cohort as to be effectively meaningless) don’t turn to traditional news outlets at all. 10 O’Clock Live appears to be have been conceived with this opportunity in mind and, regardless of whether you agree that they need it, to seek to inform, engage and educate young people in the world around them is I think, a noble aim. It is, however, hugely condescending to assume that young people are ill-informed and that, following this assumption, the only possible solution is to provide the news with a coating of comedic caramel.

A typical 10 O’Clock live segment starts with the assumption that its audience has no clue what’s going on so first informs, then exaggerates and finally departs from the initial premise entirely. In other words: “Listen to us while we tell you what’s going on in the world, we’ll get to the joke in a minute.” It’s not exactly subtle, it’s not exactly original and it is exactly patronising:

For while a better informed yoof might be a beneficial by-product of the Daily Show’s output, it’s not actually what Jon Stewart and his team set out to achieve. Far from assuming ignorance, The Daily Show is nothing short of deferential to its audience’s intelligence, wrapping any given segment in the bare minimum of context.

What The Daily Show does try to do, is to look at a particular element of a perhaps sidelined story and present it in such a way as to reveal its intrinsic comedic value. They don’t make the news funny, because it already is:

I enjoy Lauren Laverne a lot on the radio; I think David Mitchell is an ascerbic pundit; Charlie Brooker writes good TV and a worthwhile Guardian column; I even have no major problem with Jimmy Carr. It’s just that none of these is an authority on any of the issues that make up the news. Of course Jon Stewart isn’t either but he at least does not purport to be.

The Daily Show is very clever simply because it tries to make clever people laugh. 10 O’Clock Live is not very funny because it tries too hard to be clever.

Why Vinyl?

Posted in Music by nickchristian on February 6, 2012

record player needle

As it was announced recently that sales of music in vinyl format had increased for the fifth straight year, Radio 4’s Today Programme last week invited DJ Liz Kershaw and the PRS’s Will Page to try to explain why.

The reasons suggested included:

a) “Authenticity” – a desire to listen to music as it was originally intended

b) Sound quality

c) Information – liner notes and artwork, basically.

d) The desire to own music in artifactual form.

e) “Capitalism getting back at Marxism”

Putting aside the last slightly batshit suggestion from Ms. Kershaw, each of these has its merits but none, for me quite justifies my own love of the pressed plastic form. I have two main reasons for buying records: to connect and to give something back.

As much as I love the plethora of musical opportunity that the likes of Spotify have opened up I am the first to admit that the ease of access to so much music inevitably diminishes the value of one’s relationship with it. Even if you aren’t on the free version of Spotify it’s difficult to feel a connection between what you pay and any music you listen to. If you want to listen to the new Lana Del Rey album you can do so immediately, entirely on a whim and it will cost you, effectively nothing. If you don’t like it, or don’t like it enough, you can interrupt the experience, bail and you don’t ever have to go near it again. Even albums that you love you probably don’t listen to on repeat in the same way you used to when you bought them in units of one, because there’s always something else tempting you to try. I’d be surprised if I listened to even my favourite album of last year as many as fifteen times and that does make me a little sad.

A vinyl LP purchase, on the other hand, is a statement of intent: It says that I will listen to this album several times and I will commit to every listen because, simply, changing the fucking record is a lot more hassle than swiping to the next track on iTunes. Intrinsic to this is an appreciation of artwork and some desire to own music in physical form, but is on its own not enough – I’ve bought some records with dog-ugly covers and I hate CDs and a bedroom cluttered with crap. (Sidenote: that we still say “change the record” when someone is harping on about something makes me very happy.)

The second reason is to do with wanting to support music and a preparedness to pay what I feel it is worth for the pleasure it provides. While it might make it legal to listen to all the music I want, at £10/month my Spotify subscription doesn’t even come close to a full monetary appreciation, or to giving me the sense that I’m not still ripping off the artists. When you know musicians and are aware of how hard it is for even the relatively successful to make a living, this is and should be a . I, on the other hand, am in a grown-up job, earning a reasonable salary and just as I’m now inclined to buy free-range eggs, fair trade chocolate and locally produced cheese – even if all that stuff costs a little more – it’s worth considering the ethical implications of cultural consumption as well.

Of course I’m far from perfect: I only buy maybe a couple of records a month and I tend to buy them from Amazon which is hardly the equivalent of the farmer’s market. But at least I know that, compared to my £10 Spotify sub, a greater proportion of the £10/£15/£20 I spend is going into the pocket of a musician I admire and whose work I particularly appreciate. That means something.

Image by Dan.

2011 Riots – How does the recent history of law and order policy help to explain the official reaction?

Posted in Domestic Policy, Human Rights, Law and Order, Politics by nickchristian on January 15, 2012

2011 Riots

How does the recent history of law and order policy help to explain the official reaction to “the riots” of August 2011?

“It is plain that he has done nothing which deserves death. I will scourge him, and then he shall go free… But they, with loud voices, insisted on their demand that he should be crucified; and their voices carried the day.”

Introduction

On the 4th August 2011 Mark Duggan, a 29 year-old black man, was shot and killed by police in Tottenham, North London. The following day, at 5pm, 300 people walked from the Broadwater Farm estate where Duggan had lived to Tottenham police station calling for “justice”. At 8.20pm two police cars, left unattended on an adjacent street, were attacked, set alight and “the riots” began.

For the four days that followed “feral youth” roamed the streets of London, terrorizing its citizens, trashing and looting high streets, torching buildings. The most televisual of events, perfectly suited for the age of 24-hour news, this was, at least, how “the riots” were portrayed in the mass media.

This, as it happens, was also how Britain’s political leaders saw them. Obliged to return prematurely from their summer holidays, the Prime Minister and his deputy, the Home Secretary, the Leader of the Opposition and London’s Mayor were beseeched by the media to facilitate the restoration of order, to supply answers and, later, to provide suitable reparation for the victims and punishment for those responsible.

Even as the fires burned, social commentators and stakeholders sought to influence, desperate to be first to provide the definitive explanation for the unrest. Online and in newspapers, opinion pieces covering the broadest imaginable spectrum of judgments were published; the same or similar figures were afforded radio and television airtime to “explain” the causes for the riots; still more heated debate ran rampant online. All “answers”, whether tonally punitive or moralistic, despairing or sympathetic, of press or politician, were united by one thing: preordination. In the days during and immediately after the riots the explanations massively exceeded the availability of facts that might be thought essential to inform them, yet precisely served the political outlook of those that provided them.

Crime and law and order policy in the UK, once an issue for experts and academics and free from outside influence and interference, is no longer characterized by reflection, investigation and study. Instead the approach, of both the political and the mainstream media class, is based upon reaction, rapid response and a rush to the retributive right.

The sense that public policy and expertise have become largely removed from each other is hardly new and far from revelatory. The savvy politician seeking to be “successful” is more aware than ever that success in politics does not necessarily mean getting the policy “right” but is as much to be found in mobilizing the support of both the media and the electorate – often viewed as one and the same. While some eagerness to appeal to public and media support can be found in all areas of policy-making, in none has the distance between expertise and political decision-making become greater and more visibly enshrined and institutionalized, than in the realm of law and order.

Just as Pontius Pilate deferred to a baying mob in the sentencing to death of Jesus Christ, so we find today’s leaders doing the same, as manifested in the popular press and mass media. The difference, as I will demonstrate, is that while Pilate demonstrably goes against what he knows and believes, the alignment between the views of our politicians on law and order, and those of the baying mob is all but total: no resistance is needed; no internal wrangling need take place. The question is not, therefore, how much consensus is there between the different and disparate stakeholders, but how did such a comprehensive convergence occur at all? As the consensus amongst criminologists appears to be that the turning point came in the early years of the 1990s, this essay will look most closely at the relevant events and issues of the start of that decade. I will then discuss the contributions these can be seen to have made to the policies and rhetoric of government officials, and opinions of key media figures in response to the riots.

While the timing and occurrence of the riots themselves were impossible to predict with any precision, over the course of this essay I intend to demonstrate that the rhetorical and judicial responses could have been scripted months, if not years, in advance.  My goal here is not to offer my own response to the riots of August 2011, but to demonstrate that the official response, while intellectually inadequate, was utterly predictable and subservient to the demands of politics, the public and the press.

The Response to the Riots

On the morning of Tuesday August 9th, after three nights of unrest in Britain’s capital, Prime Minister David Cameron arrived back in Britain declaring the riots to be “criminality pure and simple. And there is absolutely no excuse for it.” For Cameron “the young people stealing flat screen televisions and burning shops that was not about politics or protest, it was about theft.” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg similarly declared the rioting to be “needless, opportunist theft and violence – nothing more and nothing less”, while London’s Mayor described the events as “acts of sheer criminality” .

Cameron’s dismissive judgement that “[t]here is no justification for the aggression the police and the public faced, or for the damage to property” bore a strong resemblance to the view of Margaret Thatcher following the Brixton riots of 1981, when she declared that “Whatever the problems, nothing, but nothing, justifies what happened.”

The political verdict that the violence was the act of “criminals” and “criminal gangs within the urban underclass”, riots without reason, was in close step with that of the mainstream press. The newspaper The Sun’s editorial of August 7th stated that “The mob that turned the centre of Tottenham into a smoking ruin were not seeking justice. They are criminal thugs who were hell bent on theft, arson and violence.” For the popular press the answers as to “why” the riots occurred were simple and easily identified, with no need for further exploration into “root causes” and certainly no call to understand the situations of the rioters themselves.

For Professor John Solomos of City University the popular verdict suited very much [into] the Government’s requirement that any particular policy or action/inaction of their own not be viewed as a significant contributing factor to the riots:  “Cameron was keen to use this notion to distance the violence from any policies initiated by his administration and to construct them as the outcome of a breakdown of morality and a sense of order in some families and communities.” In other words, it needed not to be seen as result of governmental failings requiring governmental solutions.

With no significant pressure placed on them to do so, the government was therefore able to dismiss/ignore any solutions that could be considered “welfarist” in nature, regardless of the merits of doing so. Instead emphasis and attention was afforded to the area most easily actioned, that of punishment, with the Prime Minister declaring “if you are old enough to commit these crimes, you are old enough to face the punishment.” Prison sentences handed down to individuals convicted of riot-related offences were reported as being 25% longer than normal and the rate of imprisonment was 70% higher for those crimes that took place within the context of the riots. A senior clerk in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service was reported to have circulated instructions to court clerks that they should disregard normal sentencing guidelines and instead impose tougher sentences than usual. The government was evidently eager to send a message, not simply, or even really, to those involved in the riot but to the media and to the greater public.

Stafford Scott, a consultant on racial equality and community engagement, has said that “seeing the riots as linked to criminality and gang culture has made it difficult to give voice to calls to provide more social and economic resources for the communities that live in the most deprived areas”. In a so-called time of “austerity”, when community services are not just not increasing but being cut, this represents not merely a political inconvenience – it would be portrayed as rewarding the rioters – but an economic one as well.

The rioters, rather than being given too little, had been given too much and expected even more. The answer could only be penal: punishment as deterrent rather than as a right response or execution of justice. The answer was to respond better next time, to provide the police with more resources and broader, stronger powers to act. While government for most of the 20th century was characteristically “welfarist”, in Britain in the 21st century it is politically suicidal to be seen as anything less than “tough on crime”. Next I shall be looking at how this situation came about.

The Roots of the Response

While the government might have been keen to isolate the riots and the rioters from any political context, to minimise the intellectual and investigative scope of the response, we are not obliged to do the same with our analysis of the response. Far from unusual or unlikely, the government behaved exactly as could have been predicted, with the ramped-up rhetoric and raised-stakes of the sentencing instructions epitomising the character of cross-party criminal policy of the past twenty years and more.

While sociologist David Garland points to the 1970s as the time when the public and political mood changed, as several decades of welfarism gave way to a vastly more punitive governmental approach to crime, Lord Windelsham and Jon Silverman separately identify the early 90s as marking the period when law and order policy became a key political battleground, with public and media opinion overtaking expertise as an influence on political practice. Ann James and John Raine, similarly, ascribe the transformation to a shift in ideology under Margaret Thatcher which saw the welfare consensus replaced by the culture of the market and government adopt a neo-liberal managerial approach.

Garland notes that a number of features of law and order policy that would once have been thought unlikely if not impossible, such as “mandatory sentences, victims’ rights, community notification laws, private policing, “law and order politics” and an emphatic belief that “prison works”… have become taken-for-granted features of contemporary crime policy”. For most of the twentieth century the British (and to a lesser extent, the American) approach to law and order, had been characterized by the directionally developmental march of institutionally “penal welfarist” arrangements. He therefore finds it counter-intuitive that it should perform an about-turn in the 1970s when “punitive sentiments and expressive gestures” that appear “oddly archaic and anti-modern” began to reappear in official policy.

One crucial element was the normalisation of crime. Although the riots were themselves far from ordinary they were, in some ways an exaggerated form of a negative experience which we have come to accept as ordinary and therefore part and parcel of day-to-day living. In that vein, we do not think of crime as something that the government (in the form of mobilised police resouces) can really prevent, not entirely, nor do we see crime prevention at a social level as something into which it is worth investing resources. It is, instead “a fact of modern life, like pollution or the perils of heavy road traffic that has to be accommodated.” We have, ourselves, become as responsible for crime prevention as the police.

Paradoxically, while this sense of the limited capacity of government to control or reduce crime has been allowed to develop, democratic electoral politics still do not allow for its admission. This contradiction has, according to former government minister Lord Windelsham, led to “the emergence of punitiveness as a reaction which can be exhibited to the general public even if, in anything beyond the short term, it is likely to exacerbate the social blight caused by such extensive criminality.” For Garland “[a] show of force against individuals is used to repress any acknowledgement of the state’s inability to control crime to acceptable levels. A willingness to deliver harsh punishments to convicted offenders magically compensates a failure to deliver security to the public at large.” Windelsham similarly describes such posturing as demonstrated by David Cameron on August 8th as nothing more than “a rhetorical smokescreen”.

Lord Windelsham, in his dissection of the politics surrounding the 1993 Criminal Justice Act, points to it as a pivotal moment in the gradual and extended transfer of primary influence over criminal policy. This is not to say that the responsibility for this shift – from experts and institutions to the media and the public – lies solely with politicians, but that a degree of accommodation from key figures – such as Ken Clarke’s retreat over a number of contentious aspects of this bill – are seen as some of the earliest and most significant examples of politicians altering law and order policy in the light of sustained and strident popular pressure to do so.

From here on, Windelsham argues, “greater reliance on punishment and heightened sensitivity towards public opinion were soon to emerge as the central planks of a radically reconstructed policy towards criminal offending.” In his tenure as Home Secretary Michael Howard, was viewed by both Windelsham and Jon Silverman – the BBC’s former Home Affairs correspondent – as having been responsible for the greater politicization of law and order policy, for bringing it more into the public realm and further away from the influence of academics and institutional experts. Windelsham describes Howard as being “generally dismissive of professional expertise, including at times advice from his own officials, sensing that the general public was looking for a greater emphasis on punishment than on the rehabilitation of offenders”.

This he was more than willing to deliver and Silverman similarly identifies Howard as being a man of politics before policy, in contrast to predecessors such as Willie Whitelaw and Douglas Hurd. For Michael Howard “Everything was political. Crime was a big political issue because it resonated on the doorsteps and for him, if you made an impact on crime, you made an impact on politics.” Ascribing to Michael Howard a large share of the responsibility to prioritising public perception might be to give him undue blame (or credit). He may or may not have been the one who “fired the starting pistol which set off the penal arms race between the parties” and would ultimately lead to what academic Michael Tonry describes as “the most hyperbolic, anti-crime rhetoric of any in Europe, language that elsewhere characterizes right-wing fringe parties”. Looking back it is clear that the dash that would lead Britain to the populist, authoritarian right would have happened irrespective of whether Michael Howard’s Conservative party decided to join it. Tony Blair, as Shadow Home Secretary and subsequently as leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister is seen as just as important a protagonist.

The 1992 General Election defeat triggered a sea change in the Labour Party’s approach to law and order. Under Blair “Labour adjusted its traditional libertarian stance and style of political discourse on crime and punishment to suit the hardening political mood.” That Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” should become one of the most resonant political catchphrases of the subsequent generation is as much to do with the signal it sounded for the national popular and media approach to law and order, as it was a war cry that would lead ultimately to Downing Street. As criminal policy was becoming, for the first time, a serious electoral battleground, Blair identified the importance of avoiding being “outflanked on the right” – he might not have expected to win the battle, but it was one that it was crucial not to lose outright.

Garland is deeply critical of the politicization of law and order policy and what he describes as “the new populism”, in no small part because, where often politicization is accompanied by positional polarity, penal politics has meant a “narrowing of debate and a striking convergence of the policy proposals of all the major political parties”. Cameron, as he struck out rhetorically at the “thugs” and “criminal gangs”, promising “more arrests” and accelerated court processes, could do so with impunity. By 2011 in Britain, when it came to law and order policy, there was no such place as too far to the right and no room for a liberal perspective.

But was it the politicians, the press or the public that made it this way? The tightening of the relationship between criminal policy and the popular press is surely no coincidence. Still, it is difficult to say whether or not the politicians were attuned to and channelling the national public priorities, as reflected in the press, or whether the press was reflecting the concerns of the public at all and seeking to draw the politicians’ attention to them. Each would blame the other, with the Daily Mail’s Editor Paul Dacre admitting in 1993 that “this newspaper does seek to articulate the concern of its readers and, thereby, harden the response from the Tory administration”, while for Geoff Mulgan, an adviser to Prime Minister’s Brown and Blair, “it is a proper function of democracy that government should sometimes ignore sound evidence and follow a contrary path.”

This path was one that the Government, in response to the riots, would prove more than willing to follow as anti-intellectual catchwords such as “common sense” rode roughshod over information and expertise. Criminology has become an academic discipline that serves only itself,  with little influence on policy and political positioning. As law and order policy has become a major political battlefield, expertise and academic study has been displaced by the media as a political resource.

That little or no reference was made to academic studies of crime, or expertise in criminal behaviour does not mean that such information did not exist, or could not be commissioned, merely that the political interest in it, with regard[s] to the riots, does not. One such paper was published before the riots in 2011 and which sought to explore the – long assumed – relationship between inequality and rioting. This study ultimately found that, rather than inequality causing riots, a lesser privileged group was more likely to commit violence only if they considered themselves to be denied the opportunity to succeed, or to improve their social standing.

In November 2011 the Guardian, in conjunction with the LSE, released a study largely based on interviews with those involved in the riots. While this study must be viewed as inherently self-serving and, at least to some degree, unreliable in methodology, it at least offered an alternative reading of the riots. This naturally meant its lifespan would be limited to the news cycle, as it was immediately dismissed by the authorities while the “tough on crime” juggernaut rolled on.

By “a contrary path” Mulgan also means one driven by results and in keeping with the managerialist, market-based approach to the performing of government functions as adopted and promoted during the Thatcher years. This inevitably resulted in an outlook that prioritised short-term, small-scale victories, akin to those of the business cycle, over long-term, transformative achievements. James and Raine would agree: Instead of making policy through recognized institutions within a climate of agreement and with the support of key professional bodies, the Government sought to deliver through the medium of management. It had become less important to adopt the right policy and more important to enact that which would deliver measurable, demonstrable and immediate results.  Although the Guardian may not like it, riot arrests figures and prison sentences provide exactly that.

Conclusion

The government’s response to the riots of 2011 therefore represents a convergence of convenient forces. It is simultaneously reflective of the economic imperatives of the era, the emergence of an unsympathetic national sensibility, the displacement of expertise by managerialism and a two-decade long race between political parties to be seen in the media as the least tolerant of crime and the toughest on criminals. In such circumstances, a more liberal state could afford to do no more than a conservative one. A Labour government could afford to be no more generous or offer more compassionate solutions to these problems because they were just as complicit in the construction of a climate of punishment.

Would the response have been different had the riots happened thirty years ago? In the urban unrest that characterized the 1980s, we have evidence upon which to draw. Margaret’s Thatcher’s government also condemned the riots as “criminal”. The difference, one feels, is that the political climate of the 1980s required that the government possess at least an informed understanding of the social and economic factors that contributed to the unrest.

In 1981 the government commissioned Lord Scarman to author a comprehensive study into the causes of the Brixton Riots. The conclusion that they were not pre-planned but the spontaneous welling-up of the feelings of angry young men, most of whom were black, against what they saw as a hostile police force” demonstrates an intellectual interest and an effort at engagement. This further reveals a willingness on the part of the government to understand the underlying causes, issues and grievances behind the violence, to solve them for their own value rather than merely to prevent further outbreaks. 2011’s riots saw no such efforts at engagement and, as Solomos puts it, “a strong theme in the official response to the riots has been to see them as issueless riots”. While the body politic in the 1980s was equally outraged by the immediate effects of the riots and inclined towards the punitative response it was  at least not unwilling to listen to opposing views and entertain the analysis of expert bodies and experienced individuals and institutions.

Thirty years on from the Brixton riots, with the distance between expertise and criminal policy comfortably wide, and no political advantage to be had from reducing it, we can expect nothing more influential than the Guardian/LSE study to emerge.

The answer in 2011, which would prove populist as well as economically expedient, simultaneously satisfying the major media institutions and their audiences, was that the riots were their own cause. Rather than being a symptom of a sick culture, one which might call for a cultural remedy for which only government had the capacity to instigate, the solution lay in the communities and with the families of the rioters who had, themselves, failed Britain. Government power to punish the rioters would be maximised, responsibility to help them reduced to nil.

Just as Henry Mencken declared that “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public”, in Britain no politician has, for the past two decades, suffered electoral disapprobation for underestimating the public stomach for punitiveness. Whether the media, the politicians or a natural shift in the public priorities is most responsible for the changes that occurred in the arena of criminal policy matters little: that a transformation took place is beyond dispute and the response to the riots was therefore pre-ordained. The Prime Minister, in his first statement as well as all subsequent ones, reached strong and certain conclusions, repeatedly referencing punishment, sentencing and individual culpability. Just two days after the first wave of violence, no more information was needed than was available. The response was set in stone.

A fully referenced version of this essay is available upon request. © Nick Christian 2012 

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