Tag Archives: university

Mills and Boon: Sorting the fakes from the real thing


A friend of mine has hit upon the genius idea, in where else but the pub, of starting a Mills and Boon society at his university. “Regular” readers might have noticed my own Mills and Boon parody when discussing where to take the continuation James Bond novels next. Googling Mills and Boon and looking  for genuine extracts is a tricky business indeed, so frequent and believable are the imitations.

http://www.dailyfunnystuff.net/the-latest-mills-and-boon-novel-a-story-of-unbridled-passion

The first time I read this, in a different and less obvious context, I assumed this story entitled “The Welsh Lovers” was an actual Mills and Boon tale. I didn’t read all the way to the end for sometime because I was laughing so hard at what I thought to be the real and utterly serious sentences of a romantic fiction author. It really is extremely difficult to spot the spoofs at times because Mills and Boon is so cliche it is easy to imitate. The line “breathlessly we rolled together in the now damp grass” could so easily be real. “Now damp” is just the sort of far from subtle innuendo certain strands of the Mills and Boon books specialise in.

 

DVD Review: Zombie Undead


This is one of those films with a Ronseal title. There are lots of zombies and zombies are dead, but also sort of lively in a sleepwalking sort of way, hence the “un”. The marketing material continues the no nonsense approach, showcasing a tag line of “RUN.HIDE.DIE!”. Tellingly a footnote informs me that “this disc contains no extra features”. I say tellingly because you really don’t get anything more than a bunch of shirts smothered in red paint and lips sticky with jam.

Sarah has survived a “massive explosion”. She is rather distraught though that the blast has peppered her Dad with all manner of fatal wounds, from bites to paper cuts. Desperately she tries to stop him from bleeding to death in the back of paramedic Steve’s small car, ideal for students or the elderly. Steve tries to calm Sarah as they drive away from the city to an “evacuation centre”. When they get there, Sarah passes out after the doctor plunges a needle full of adrenalin into poor old Dad from a great height.

Sarah comes round to find no one about, apart from a wheelchair parked shoddily and at a skewed angle in the middle of a typical hospital corridor. Perfectly logically she starts to warily shout “hello” at no one in particular. Finally some bloke turns up, tottering towards her, but Sarah can’t quite make him out because of some lingering concussion and a random cut that’s appeared on her forehead halfway through the scene. Her vision clears up just as he’s right in front of her. Unfortunately for Sarah this fella is in a right state; he hasn’t moisturized for weeks and he’s horny as hell.

Thankfully the first of a few fat men in Zombie Undead picks precisely this moment to turn up with a randomly acquired blade (other conveniently placed objects will star later such as torches and a bottle of pills). He swiftly slices the sex pest’s skull like a melon. Then Sarah’s female failings kick in. Instead of showering her rescuer with gratitude she wails and whines, inching herself away from our chubby chopper. It takes him ages to explain that there are a load of “things” like the sex pest, with awful skin and serious body odour issues, staggering about the corridors leaking goo and munching flesh. Sarah slowly accepts the situation, a bit, and vows to help Jay (for that is our hero’s name) find his little brother if he helps her find her Dad.

Sadly for Jay Sarah never quite embraces the survival instinct, always trying to save the zombies and people they encounter when they are beyond redemption. What are women like hey? Jay also isn’t helped by fellow porker Steve, who was the paramedic with the little car from earlier. Weirdly he is the slowest to come to terms with the blood billowing monsters. They find him cowering in a toilet cubicle, in an awfully amateurish immensely suspenseful scene with Jay crashing open the doors one by one, and despite his medical training he’s prone to chucking his guts up at the sight of other’s guts.

There are an awful lot of innards on show. If our fat protagonists could man up a little and acquire a taste for it there are feasts to be had, indeed zombies are regularly shown gobbling up intestines with grunting delight. One scene in yet another toilet (either funds were tight or the director loved the aesthetics of Condom machines and urinals) has what looks like a shrine to Lidl’s chipolatas, drizzled in organically sourced tomato ketchup and served on a bed of recently devoured homo sapien.

Even the gore lacks any variation or quality, despite unhealthy splutterings of it. The direction and editing is clunky, predictable and poor, but its imitation of handheld horror is competent compared to the script. The dialogue essentially has two levels, sounding either like cliché regurgitations of previous films or as if the shockingly bad and evidently inexperienced actors are improvising in a beginner’s drama class. As for the plotting a half hearted attempt is made to make things modern, with vague and contradictory allusions to a biological terrorist attack. It was obviously decided that to leave everything unexplained would be classier, thus depriving the audience of any satisfaction whatsoever from Zombie Undead’s 86 minutes.

Some answers surface from the pools of irritating disappointment as soon as the credits roll however. Why the unusual and implausible fat hero, with the weird undertaker/security guard costume? The film’s writer, Kris Tearse, was also its male star. The primary location was Leicester’s De Montfort University, which explains the extremely low budget feel. So a bunch of students are living the dream with this film it seems, no matter what its failings, some will be ecstatically excited when the DVD is released on the 30thof May. It has nothing new or engaging at all to recommend it. But to help justify the dream I will admit I flinched like a child at one point, and was genuinely surprised, although after the zombies had gone.

Creative Writing: The Handmaid’s Tale and Alice in Wonderland Transformation Mash-up: Part 2


Here is the commentary explaining my creative piece in previous post, which was also a required part of the coursework:

Handmaid’s Tale Transformation Commentary

My transformation is based on the novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Atwood creates a dystopian, totalitarian society in the near future born out of religious fundamentalism and fear. The reader is plunged into this world with no background and merely shown the narrative voice of Offred, until historical notes at the end of the novel offer some outside perspectives on events.

A key change I made for my transformation was to take the narrative viewpoint from Offred and view events and themes of the novel from one of the minor character’s perspective. There was plenty of scope to do this as the narrative is completely focused on Offred’s experiences and descriptions and opinions of characters she interacts with are inevitably coloured by her own relationships with them. For example her impression of the Commander is understandably negative and associated with unpleasant duties.

I decided to write a transformation concerning Nick and also made the decision to avoid the first person approach used in the novel. I also sought to avoid a simplistic change of genre to a dramatic monologue which would merely have Nick explain his feelings and attitudes to the regime.

Despite the conscious decision to avoid a first person narrative the significance of Offred’s narrow and occasionally confused storytelling remained central to my thinking. It seemed to me a vital aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale that Offred began to doubt her own recollections and felt the need to constantly qualify the facts, such was her isolation and desperation. On several occasions she recounts different versions of events, and in the case of the fate of her fiancé she cannot confirm to the reader which is true, as she simultaneously believes them all. Therefore I aimed to create a transformation that explored the idea of reality but also how one person’s story and their version of reality can be insignificant for others.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, with its fantastical dream-like narrative and emphasis on nonsense and meaning, enabled me to explore those themes of reality and storytelling. I settled on a reworking of Alice in Wonderland’s opening chapter Down The Rabbit Hole, centred around themes of The Handmaid’s Tale and the motivations of Nick’s character.

My transformation begins with Nick descending into boredom in ordinary circumstances, as Alice does but also as Offred often does in the novel. In fact at the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale Offred offers us insight into the only world she has with simple description of her plain surroundings, “A chair, a table, a lamp”. Atwood often has Offred minutely describe things and then drop blunt “bombshells” that hint at the scale of the totalitarian oppression around her, as Offred concludes the description began above with “They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to”. I tried to mirror this technique early in my piece with the list of ordinary objects, with the exception of a “uniformed chicken”.  Clearly my “bombshell” is more light-hearted than Atwood’s and is more in the spirit of nonsense found in my style model. However it reflects themes of inactivity, detail and true reality raised in the base text.

I tried to create a distinctive idiolect for Nick through my lexical choice despite writing in the third person. I used the technique of free indirect style to convey Nick’s attitudes; “some bimbo would no doubt fetch him.” The word “bimbo” is clearly Nick’s own rather than the narrator’s and reflects views of women looked at in the base text. I continue to echo this theme when Nick “groped around in his mind”. This sordid view of women, and Nick’s cynical attitude towards the complications of life and business, conflicts with the simplistic optimism of the hen, based on inviolable sacred truths. I aimed to reflect the blind simplicity of religious fundamentalism, a constant presence in the base text, with the rhythm of the hen’s speech and her lexis. I have her use simple but grand abstract verbs like “sacred”, “brave”, “freedom” and “wicked”, that for cynical non-believers like Nick are silly or devoid of meaning. For her, like the believers in the base text, nothing is more straightforward than her faith. Her sentences are often just lists of things that to her are simply facts; “That is you and your Commander and your lover”. I also refer to the religious fundamentalism of the novel in other ways, such as the exclamation of “BLASPHEME!” at the end of the transformation and the hen’s belief in “the Book” and preordained events, which comes back to the unifying theme of narrative.

Identity is important in the base text and I try and reflect this in a number of ways. From the start Nick’s waiting leads him to doubt whether his own employment really suits him and then the hen insists on not being mistaken as a chicken, which should also provide humour. I then reflect the importance of possession and identity in the novel as shown through Of-fred and the Commander, with my own Chief Executive in the real world and White Queen and Red Princess Down the Elevator Shaft. Nick is also confused throughout by the hen’s version of his identity, just as Offred doubts what little is left of herself due to other characters’ views of her.

I reflect the dystopian aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale with the debris strewn lobby setting. I also have Nick descend into chaos (as Offred does) via the fall in the elevator shaft; an image that appears in the base text when Offred describes betrayal as “like being in an elevator cut loose at the top”. I suggest that Nick has perhaps been betrayed, with textual references like “She had told him he had a French face”. I show that something has been taken away, as women’s rights were in the novel, with the list of “no guards…” I also reflect the anarchy seen in the novel through the “joyful abandon” of “trash”.

Adapting good and successful novels: One Day, A Very Private Gentleman (The American) and Room


I’ve discussed the business of adapting books into films before on this blog, and indeed the increasing phenomenon of the adaptation as opposed to original screenplays. I’ve bemoaned the lack of creativity in the film industry, leading to such a focus on both true stories and transformations of already existing fiction dominating this year’s Oscars, for example. But for all my ranting and raving there’s something irresistible about a good adaptation, because if your source material’s good there’s a good chance your interpretation of it will be. It’s like a kind of quality guarantee.

Then again it’s a treacherous tightrope to walk, especially when you’re bringing not only a good novel but a commercially successful one to the screen. Films based on novels with a huge and devoted following will benefit from the diversity and commitment of that fan base at the box office, but perhaps also suffer critically if they don’t capture the brilliance of the book.

After mingling the words in your mind and arranging them on the page, watching their finely tuned order blossom into a bestseller and basking in the praise and revenue, it must be hard for an author to relinquish control of his characters, no matter what the financial compensations. This is presumably why many decide to remain attached to the cinematic versions of their creations as writer or producer or something, even with the risk of their original being tarnished and overshadowed.

David Nicholls did just this for the adaptation of his immensely successful One Day, choosing to write the screenplay himself. There is now a trailer online for the film, which can be seen over at Empire Magazine via this link: http://www.empireonline.com/news/story.asp?NID=30843

I was absolutely absorbed in One Day when I read it and funnily enough I think I read it in roughly one day. It’s one of those books that you have to try really hard not to call a “page turner” because of how limp and cliché that sounds. It really is difficult to put down though. It became an ever present feature of the landscape of bookshops for a long, long time and still lurks prominently in the shadows. No doubt it will enjoy a revival with the release of the film. It was not the usual sort of addictive trash either. There was an organic originality to the concept, a humour and truth to the writing. The two main characters, Dexter and Emma, were fabulously realised. It was at once epic and emotional, experimental and accessible.

It did divide critical opinion, but the overwhelming consensus was that it was a cracking read, a verdict echoed at tills across the country. It’s the story of Dexter and Emma, who meet and sleep together one day at the end of their time at Edinburgh University. In bed they discuss the future, their hopes, fears and dreams for it. The novel follows them on the same date of the year, whatever they’re doing, for every year that follows their meeting. It mostly focuses on their relationship as friends but also charts their development as people, journeying through alternative aspects of British history like dodgy 90s TV along the way.

It was quite a few months ago now that I read One Day but I am still excited about seeing its rebirth in cinemas. It will be difficult to bottle up the simultaneously intimate and epic feel of the book for the audience, but as I’ve said before what really matters is capturing the spirit, the essence and sentiment of a story. The trailer certainly seems to strike some of the right emotional chords, as One Day really was enormously touching and moving as well as gripping. It may simply be that my age, one of transition between worlds, allowed me to inhabit Dexter and Emma’s shoes perfectly and marvel at the rollercoaster of their lives, grounded in those student beginnings. But then again, One Day shows snapshots of its key characters at a variety of ages, so anyone should be able to jump right in and live their human journeys. Perhaps that is part of the secret to its appeal.

Three Cs are very important for a good adaptation: cutting, casting and creativity. Nicholls would certainly have had to ruthlessly cut chunks of his already lovingly crafted and edited novel for the screen, as well as find the right leads. Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess are the chosen ones, and they seem to fit the bill in the trailer, in spite of wavering accents on occasion, as Empire point out in their commentary on the footage. I’ve also recently seen and reviewed The American, starring George Clooney, which was based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth. Screenwriter Rowan Joffe changed aspects of the story rather dramatically, including its conclusion, for a modern and cinematic update to the book. Despite my gripes about the increasing frequency of adaptations, it is possible to be really creative and bold with them, with the added benefit of a proven base material to work with. Joffe was certainly creative, as was Clooney, who needed to exhibit the right physical mannerisms to convey the book’s character in miniscule brush strokes, compared to Booth’s first person narration.

Having now both read the book and watched the film, Joffe appears to have done a good job in creating The American. And as I’ve said, perhaps what is most admirable is that he has created something, not merely transplanted the book to the screen, which can be the worst mistake when adapting something that’s already celebrated art. The original novel, written in the first person about a gun maker nearing retirement, was impossible to adapt as it was. It needed more drama and would lack the charismatic voice of the page. It needed new sources of charisma.

The film does drop key themes of the novel. Interestingly as a student of history, Booth’s recluse (known as Signor Farfalla or Mr Butterfly, as his cover is painting them) is outwardly repulsed by the idea of history and progress, unless it is the history of ordinary men. And yet his narration repeatedly comes back to the idea through imagery, symbolism and anecdotes. Mr Butterfly claims that he is truly influencing history by providing the weapons for assassination with deft craftsmanship behind the scenes. But what the novel hints at, which a film couldn’t do in the same way, is that the narrator is struggling with the idea that after his retirement no one will remember his life’s work. If he has altered history it is unnoticeably so. He never says as much but the light implications are there and extremely fascinating.

Booth was also a constant traveller, as well as a writer of history, which might explain Mr Butterfly’s anecdotes of the world and some of his eye for detail, along with his warped fascination with the past. One of the ways the film captures the incredibly vivid and visual style of the book is through director Anton Corbijn’s direction. Corbijn used to be a photographer, and in the film this becomes Clooney’s character’s cover and he never gains the nickname Signor Farfalla, only The American. This somewhat spoils Booth’s unassuming character blending into any background, but the essence of him remains the same and the parallels with the striking visuals of the film and the descriptions of the book are appropriate.

The American is a very minimalist and restrained production. You get more from the book in terms of the character, but still not a great deal, so Joffe reflects this with the dialogue. This is still a man in isolation with a unique existence, who forms meagre relationships that are still too much for a man of his profession. He is growing too susceptible to these ties with age. What I liked particularly about The American is that it stands alone from the book and one can be enjoyed without the other, just as well as the two together. They are distinctive and different but enjoyable entities of subtlety.

Of course some books should simply never be adapted. Something about them cannot be replicated and without this something any adaptation becomes a pointless exercise. A bad adaptation of such a book is painful and a great shame. I think that Room by Emma Donghue, shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize, is such an un-adaptable book.

It’s been a while since I finished reading Room, and in any case my observations and insights would not compare to fellow blogger Tom Cat’s: http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/room-emma-donoghue/

I will briefly say why I think any adaptation would fail however. Room is reliant on the first person narration of Jack, a five year old who has been imprisoned since birth in a small room with his mother. This is the controversial novel inspired by the Fritzl case. I was sceptical about reading it and presumed it to be an exercise in creative writing drawing rather shamefully off of ghastly deeds in the media.

After I read the first pages of Room however I was hooked enough to buy it. And Jack himself is never abused. The novel is bleak and harrowing at times, but usually because of what Jack doesn’t say. The obvious implications, for example when Jack counts the creaks in his mother’s bed from his hiding place of the wardrobe, are the chilling thing for the reader.

What Room is really about is a unique five year old, nurtured with extremely intimate and confined love from his mother. As Tom Cat points out in his review, the philosophical points potentially there to be explored are many. Instead of really delving these depths however Room is more intriguing for its characterisation of Jack and the original voice Donoghue gives him. He makes incredibly perceptive observations about the modern world through both his innocence and ignorance. Occasionally his impressive vocabulary doesn’t quite sit right and convince, despite it mostly being explained away by his intense education from an early age; sometimes Jack obviously uses Donoghue’s word or phrase rather than his own. But the fact that this only happens now and then is a remarkable achievement.

For the most part Room is a heartbreaking, funny and thrilling story that takes a fresh view of modern life and culture. Everything good about this story derives from Jack’s completely original and skilfully executed narrative voice though. Many of the reviews of Room call its concept unique, but it really isn’t that astounding, simply ripped from extensive news coverage. It’s the clever angle from which Donoghue approaches her story that’s so wonderful and this couldn’t be transformed into film, no matter how they attempted to do it. Voiceover would not work; we are witnessing the thoughts tumbling through Jack’s head not a commentary of events. Jack’s innocence wouldn’t transfer to the screen, so neither would the appeal and success of the novel.

March is Reading and Writing Challenge Month on Mrt’sblog


In a few days time it is World Book Night. Books will be given away and a grand reading event, attended by thousands, will launch a general celebration of literature in London’s Trafalgar Square. As I started my Gap Year last summer I set about acquiring books that interest me along with books I ought to have read for my general wellbeing, enlightenment and intelligence. I vowed that whatever happened this year I would read books. I would emerge a more rounded, informed person, enthused with the vivid experiences of the page.

I also started to try and write more. I have done this and this blog has grown. But as my last post, celebrating this blog’s first birthday pointed out, my approach is somewhat higgledy-piggledy (what a charming phrase). I should be finely tuning my skills as a writer of fiction and non-fiction, rather than just learning about reviews by churning them out. I should be enhancing my writing abilities and knowledge in general by reading. I should be stimulating my brain more.

Today has proved the perfect example of why I must have the resolve to commit to this challenge – a month of extensive reading and writing. That’s right March is reading and writing month on Mrt’sblog. You’re welcome to read and write along with me if you read any of this. There will still be film reviews and I might occasionally be inspired by a certain other issue, but the main goal is to read as much as possible, write about books and try and produce my own work. Today I have been bogged down, struggling to write a review, distracted by the internet and a bombardment of texts. As a result I haven’t done any reading on the first day of my challenge (yet), the closest I have come is watching the final episode of Sebastian Faulks’ BBC series Faulks on Fiction.

But from tomorrow onward I will be posting daily updates about my reading. I aim to tackle a broad sweep of genres; classic novels, modern novels, short stories, biography, history, travel writing and philosophy. In recent months events in my life have meant my reading has ground to a halt, or become a mere trickle, and I really miss it. Last autumn I did read a lot of inspiring and fascinating new books and I aim to rekindle my love with the spring. I’m determined to cure my lack of activity and appetite with an all out blitz. Not only will I post about what I’m reading and how I’m progressing, but I’m determined to find the time to produce comparative pieces, articles, thoughts and creations of my own in the style of what I have read.

In short I’m going to try and study and work, simply from the books I’ve amassed and that I am yet to read. My brain needs exercise and I’ll seek to find it in the stacks of books on my desk. I hope that once the month is up my desire will burn brightly anew and I’ll post more regular reviews of novels or books I have devoured. I need to rediscover the knack and taste of reading before university. I need to end my Gap Year not disappointed by unavoidable confinement. I may not be able to live my dreams of travelling and work and experience of future careers, but I can go on journeys via the written word. I’m anticipating that I’ll still need stamina and resolve however, to get back into a mindset in which I ploughed through books, consuming facts and delightfully written imagery at a phenomenal pace. I want to start discovering all that various books have to offer once again.

This blog is a year old. And it’s time I upped its quality and ambition. It needs a challenging project with some sort of narrative worthy of people coming back day after day. Inspired by my girlfriend’s fabulous recent efforts on Love Pink (see Blogroll right), I am taking my blogging duties further into everyday life so that they become a part of it. Join me as I try to beat the book snobs, harness the power of books and nurture my writing so it’s more concise, original and high quality.

A History of Contradictions: Freedom, Servitude and Niall Ferguson


Last week I rekindled my love for History and looked forward excitedly to the day I would begin my own studies of the subject. Attending a friend’s lecture on Freedom and Servitude at York University, I was reminded of the myriad of issues and possibilities that arise studying the subject, and the endless opportunities for arguing varied points of view. The lecturer did an admirable job, without a PowerPoint presentation, of skimming through an incredibly contentious theme of history in a thought provoking way. He never became boring or grating, alleviating heavy philosophy and figure based sections of his speech with lighter links to an interview with Kate Moss in Grazia about her idea of freedom and an amusing, scandalous Bible story used as bewildering justification for the slave trade for centuries.

I made my own notes and learnt that Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson described freedom as an under theorized concept; something which made a lot of sense. Like love or beauty, freedom is something easier to understand through experience and hard to articulate. Its vagueness adds to its allure though. Equally interesting is that some cultures, particularly in Asia, attach much less importance to what we in the West might term “freedom” or liberty. In Japan they have no word for freedom. Our guilt and direct experience of slavery has led to a freedom fetish in our culture, stemming particularly from the American fascination with it.

The lecture rose numerous other interesting points, which it is not my intention to delve into here. It highlighted aspects of history, such as Greek and Roman dependence on slaves, and the cultural slavery instigated by some tribes, never so much as touched on at school. But crucially its conclusion threw up a controversy, a set of conflicting views about the overall interpretation of slavery.

Traditionally it’s assumed that after the Declaration of Independence in America, the North phased out slavery, and the South didn’t, which led to Civil War and the North imposed the right way on the South. But the North continued to condone slavery in several ways and the push for freedom was far from strong and complete. Inequality would remain even as slavery faded, as any minor knowledge of the civil rights movement will reinforce. The challenge to conventional history then, was did Americans, be it the establishment or the majority or whoever, realise in some way that their considerable freedom depended upon the servitude of others? Just as Sparta’s mechanised and elitist form of society in Ancient Greece depended on the labour of enslaved Helots, did the blossoming prosperity of white Americans depend on the comparable hardships of their black workers?

I relish the considerable crossover with other subjects in History; be it politics, literature or philosophy. And in philosophical terms the conclusion of the lecture could be boiled down to: can freedom exist without slavery, or vice versa? Something that’s always appealed to both the realist and idealist in me is that things can simultaneously be their opposites. By this I mean, as Orwell notoriously wrote in 1984, “Freedom is Slavery”. Perhaps one really cannot exist without the other. I think that when studying History it helps to remember that there will always be a contradictory view and that just because it might completely oppose the more sensible option, does not mean it does not have value or truth or validity. I’m not expressing myself very well, but hopefully my point will become clearer.

I’ve always admired the historian Niall Ferguson. I discovered him through extremely engaging programmes on Channel 4, about Empire, America and War. His ideas and theories challenge traditional views, and this is something the historian should always be looking to do. His interpretations of the past connect and enlighten our immediate future. Often his focus will be economic but he rarely alienates with too many figures. He simply selects the right ones to back the thrust of his story. For me he achieves all the things an historian ought to. This doesn’t mean his conclusions have to be full-proof. Indeed it’s because he recognises History is not straightforward and that it’s constantly evolving and full of contradictions, that I admire him.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/20/niall-ferguson-interview-civilization

In yesterday’s Observer Ferguson gives an insightful interview. The writer, William Skidelsky, does a superb job of marrying the probing of Ferguson’s personal journey with his world view. There is some interesting background to Ferguson’s works, which shed light on them. Overall it’s a fantastic article about the man as well as the ideas. He is truly a remarkable human being and looking suave at 46 I would go as far as to pop him in my exclusive idol drawer.

His latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, is closely linked to an idea Ferguson has been espousing about History teaching in schools. The curriculum, most accept, is too narrow and sporadic. Students leave having studied Hitler countless times but with no clue of History’s broader sweep and its overarching connections. It’s something that puts the comprehensive school pupils at a disadvantage against more traditionally educated, public school types. I can personally vouch for this and as a keen History student would welcome the subject being both better taught and more attractive for future generations.

Ferguson’s new work is targeted at 17 year olds, he says, and it charts the ascendancy of the West over the East since Early Modern times. Ferguson’s recent back catalogue of works have focused on Empire and his views, particularly on the British and American systems, have been controversial. His fusion of idealism and realism is tremendously inspiring. What I tried to express earlier is brilliantly summed up in the conclusions to his work: for example, the British Empire did bad but also a great deal of good or Americanisation can be a force for immorality but also if applied more earnestly and thoughtfully, bring immense prosperity and freedom. I am generalising and simplifying, but as I said he is the best of historians; accessible but scholarly supreme, dynamic and revisionist but pragmatic.

I look forward to his latest work, both in TV and book form and wish him the best of luck with his crusade to evolve the teaching of his subject; just as history itself and his views have done.

Belated thoughts on tuition fees: The ball is in Labour’s court


I feel a tremendous guilt for allowing my political articles to dry up over the last few months. It is not as if there have not been issues to debate, dissect and confront. In fact the coalition’s spending cuts have energised the public’s political opinions more than any other topic in recent years. Whether their policies are right or wrong, this government has shown a willingness to listen to its people and even a tendency to undo unpopular decisions when faced with a sufficient backlash, albeit over relatively minor issues like free milk, sport in schools and reading initiatives.

 I have also not stopped writing about politics due to a loss of interest or lack of activity; in fact the opposite scenario is the case. I’ve welcomed the Lib Dem achievements gained in power. I have joined a number of campaigns against government policies I believe to be destructive and misguided, such as plans to sell off Britain’s woodlands, and marched on several student protests. Hordes of people to seem feel that the gravity of what the coalition is doing demands opposition and not only this but that the very nature of coalition politics makes democratic protest unusually effective.

Why then the failure to articulate reasoned and persuasive arguments against the cuts? In particular why the lack of output in relation to tuition fees? An issue directly relevant to my immediate future and the strength of the party I voted for, now branded as the great betrayers. After all as I’ve already said, it is not as if I would think my actions completely hopeless. Even though the motion passed in the Commons, the foundations of the government’s majority were shown to be extremely weak when great pressure is applied, with both Conservative and Lib Dem MPs refusing to back their leaders. If I added my voice to the online chorus it might not do much but it could do no harm in adding to the ever rising volume of argument.

I suppose I felt compromised. So swept up was I in passionate outrage, camaraderie and the excitement of genuinely doing something historic, that I could not write in a sufficiently detached, analytical manner. The issue was simply too close to home and tied up with too many emotions for me to rationally look closely at all sides of the debate. That is not to say I don’t have opinions I believe to be well supported and accurate about the issue, just that whenever I tried to express them they would sound weak and as if they were merely scratching the surface of something so vitally important to economic recovery, the future of our country and my own education. Of course I managed to write up my experiences of protest but whatever I said sounded inadequate and I felt incapable of getting across how strongly my fellow marchers felt and how justified I believed them to be.

Now though I am finally going to attempt to air my views on the issue, if only for my own personal relief and satisfaction. By keeping them simple and focusing on where the debate goes from here, I hope they can cut through all the complexity to the heart of the matter.

Firstly a note on Nick Clegg and his ministers’ eventual decision to back the plans. I completely understand why he chose to vote in favour of the proposals. He worked hard to inject fairness into the legislation and went above and beyond the safeguards suggested in the Browne report, despite the fact he was unavoidably still engineering a policy that upped the fees he’d promised his party would fight to keep down and if possible, abolish altogether. I think Clegg genuinely believes that despite the rise in fees, the modifications he secured ensure the new system will be fairer, especially for disadvantaged students, than the previous one. However it was still a grave mistake for Clegg not to utilise the clause in the coalition agreement allowing his party to abstain. He may have worried that had the motion not passed universities would have faced a funding crisis and the coalition would have splintered. Or behind the scenes he may have only gained his concessions in exchange for his supporting vote. Nevertheless if the option for him to abstain was truly there, he was foolish not to take it. Or, ironically given the savage demonization of him as a treacherous liar, he is simply too honest to not back a plan he was a partial architect of and believes in. Even after this crisis I am still of the opinion that Nick Clegg is a bold and truly progressive politician, bravely securing real change through compromise. I may disagree with his decision to back the change to tuition fees and stand aside for other Conservative policy, but this is the reality of coalition, and if he had had a majority government (in a dreamy alternate world) he would’ve squeezed the budget elsewhere.

At the height of the protests Clegg desperately tried to champion his hard won tweaks for fairness and criticised the marchers drumming up unfounded fears about the new system. Here he made another catastrophic political error, essentially labelling the protestors, vast swathes of which probably voted Lid Dem, as ignorant. If he’d listened to the prevailing, dominant chant at the protests he’d have understood that the marchers weren’t ignorant and that whatever modifications he offered as sweeteners collapsed under one fact: “NO IFS, NO BUTS, NO EDUCATION CUTS”. Just like everything else the coalition was facing opposition over, these protests were primarily about cuts. The NUS and others had made the mistake of focusing on the rise in fees in their criticisms; perhaps because the thought of paying more would inspire more students to turn up. But in reality it would be several years before the higher fees would come in and some real help had been hardwired in for poorer students. The arguments that a burden of debt would be a huge deterrent, that there would be no proper help for middle income families and that students would choose their university on price not quality, were all valid, but not as clear and convincing as the cuts.

The cuts to teaching and all aspects of university funding were big and would hit the standard and availability of university education immediately. Ideologically what really irked people was that fees were rising to plug the gap from a drop in government investment, thus sparking accusations of a shift to a privatised system predominantly paid for by students directly. Logically the coalition’s insistent argument that the rise in fees was a necessary evil to secure Britain’s world class higher education system long term, also fell apart because of the deficit driven cuts. All the reports say universities need more money to remain competitive. But the government was actually reducing investment and making up the shortfall with a huge hike in fees which might even jeopardise the current quality of education, let alone increase it. Perhaps most bafflingly of all, the government plans, with all Clegg and co’s little alterations for fairness, would still require expenditure and make absolutely no impact on the size of deficit, the coalition’s Holy Grail.

The leaders of campaign groups rant and rave that, as with Thatcher’s Poll Tax, protests will continue despite coalition success in Parliament, until the act is undone. However it looks unlikely that anything other than a hardcore will continue to mobilise on this issue. Unless, of course, a real alternative can be found to march for. This was always the Achilles heel of these protests, and marchers discussed it, wishing someone would get their act together. The ball is now in Ed Miliband’s court, with his new generation of Labour players. Labour must offer a practical but popular vision for higher education, sooner rather than later, if the fight is not to be lost. Of course Miliband’s team needed time to get it right and may need more, but the clock is ticking.

It will be a difficult balance to strike for Miliband. Understandably as a new, fresh leader of the Opposition, he jumped on the bandwagon of protest, stopping short of joining one, but regularly singing the praises of a graduate tax. Ultimately this progressive leap forward may prove unworkable and in any case his chosen Shadow Chancellor opposes any such measure. But if Labour focus on the cuts to higher education they can still offer a fairer, point scoring alternative. Growth is the coalition’s weak spot and Labour should highlight the decisions of other major economies to boost education investment and therefore jobs and tax revenues. A world class university system should drive a sustainable economic recovery. Restore investment and throw in a drop in fees, whilst retaining some Lib Dem additions, and Labour would not only be doing the right thing but keeping alive an issue that could break the coalition, with a credible, sensible alternative.

Peaceful Protest or Manic March?


And of course, following on from my last post, those that died for our country died to preserve democracy, freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest.

If you weren’t marching yesterday the impression you will have gained from the national media is one of troublemaking tearaways, descending on London with their purposeless, ignorant views, intent on causing damage and achieving thrilling highs with each frustration filled kick at the establishment, at unprepared police. If you were at the protest, as I was, you would have seen in excess of 50,000 perfectly peaceful but passionate people with a clearly shared general aim. I say “seen” but really you couldn’t see a lot beyond the immediate placards in front and behind you, but you could sense and feel the masses. My friend described it as a “sea of placards”. I went the whole day blissfully unaware that anything truly violent had taken place. The headline of The Times today reads “Thuggish and disgraceful”, in what I view to be a disgraceful piece of reporting. Of course for the media the story of the day was the eruption of rare violence but it is wrong to falsely brand such a vast swathe of respectful young people as “thuggish”. For one thing The Times headline takes out of context a quote from a police officer who had actually praised the majority of those attending the day, whilst condemning the minority his men were consequently surprised by.

Having said that I did not witness any violence all day, I did make it to Conservative Party HQ at Millbank, scene of the carnage, and the tense atmosphere in the air was chilling. Chilling in an exciting way. I was for the most part not fearful at all during my brief stay at Millbank. High-vis wearing organisers made half-hearted attempts to steer us away from the throng at Tory HQ, but having remembered what it was and just past the MI5 offices (which were apparently locked down at some point), I was keen to get a glimpse. I’d say we got about half way in but there was still a sizeable crowd between us and the doors, so later I could not say if glass had already been smashed or violence was already in progress. There was a fire going though, off to our left over more heads. It was fuelled by placards and the crude wooden sticks used to hold them aloft. Later I would see pictures of Cameron dunked into the flames in the papers, at the time I could only see the glimmer of orange reflected on the roof and smell the thick black fumes. Helicopters swirled past the towers overhead. Enthusiastic chanting, full of essentially harmless vitriol, went on with an endless intensity not noticeable elsewhere on the march. And as we left the sickening boom of an explosion close at hand foreshadowed the grisly scenes I would later learn about.

There was admittedly something exciting and inspiring about the atmosphere at Millbank, something I find slightly shameful having seen the damage caused there at some point during the day afterwards. There was an irresistible sense of something being done, of our indignation and righteousness being more adequately expressed. As someone I saw interviewed later on BBC News 24 said, the coalition now had Thatcher’s riots to go with her cuts. I do not in any way condone the violence, as it has undoubtedly smeared the message the ordinary marcher like myself was striving to hammer home, but there was a feeling amongst us that we ought to do something more than just walk and the added venom at Millbank was intoxicating. The country and the politicians needed to be sent a shocking signal, a wake-up call, which forced them to acknowledge the scale of the cuts was real and catastrophic, and as negative and transforming anything Thatcher or those before her dared to enact. But it’s almost certain the majority of the actual perpetrators were not even true to the cause but the moronic fanatics such large scale protests inevitably attract.

Prior to the seductive feel of the siege at Millbank, the march had been an impressive spectacle but an occasionally tedious and tame affair. The only glimpse of genuine revolutionary zeal before the flickering flames and fists pumping in the air at Millbank, was a red-hatted man with a megaphone in Parliament Square. This extraordinary speaker loitered in the area where protesting banners and signs permanently reside opposite Parliament; the sort proclaiming Iraq to be a war crime and Afghanistan a corporate expedition etc. Like a stand-up comedian he playfully bantered with the crowd, which had ground to a halt so that it was slowly trudging past Big Ben and the Commons at best. Groups were beginning a sit-down protest, with Nick Clegg probably still inside after taking over PMQ duty. Girls mounted traffic lights, litter swirled at our feet and drum beats pounded the air in the distance. He flattered us at first, saying what intelligent students we must be. Then he casually slipped in the conspiracy, urging us to use our intelligence and “connect the dots”. Just as I worried he was getting predictable, came his call to arms: “Think about it there aren’t enough police in this city to stop you all. Marching is good but won’t get it done, join me and occupy the city.” Or something to that effect, but more charismatically phrased. I was struck into excited laughter by the audacity of it. We hadn’t come to occupy London, Hitler and Napoleon had spent an awful lot of money and time and expertise trying to accomplish the same thing. Our spontaneous occupation, led by megaphone man, seemed unlikely to succeed therefore, but at the same time, glancing around me, the sheer numbers told me we would have a good go at it if we all stood together. The fantasy, that of a bygone age of socialist revolution, of people power and the possibilities of sudden change, truly motivated me.

Earlier at the march’s official start point on Horse Guards Avenue, speakers had tried to rally the troops. On the ground and in the thick of the towering placards however, the reality was that you could not hear the rhetoric, merely catching snatches of the speech. Each would unmistakeably end with the refrain “NO IFS, NO BUTS, NO EDUCATION CUTS” though. At times I think it may have been just as well for me that I could not hear the speakers, as I heard a glimpse of something about Trident at one point and there was inevitably other overly idealistic or socialist rhetoric I didn’t necessarily support. The striking white buildings on the avenue, dotted with innumerable windows, looming over us on each side, channelled the wind and the noise so that it was both a loud and cold wait for the off. The time was filled with idle talk about the changes being made by the coalition, its worst effects and the need for an alternative to march in support of.

There is undoubtedly a need for a well thought through alternative if opponents of the government’s scheme are to be credible, but the leading article in The Times today is unfairly harsh about the ignorance of students. It claims that the government system is an improvement in some ways, with the rise to £21,000 salary threshold, and it is only fair graduates pay for their education. However it neglects the deterrent such greater debts will act as to ordinary students from ordinary families, it ignores the fact that £21,000 is still an average wage and will often be earned without the burden of debt by those who didn’t attend university and “benefit” from it and most critically of all The Times ignores the key chant of the protest. We were marching against the absurdity of the government cutting funding by 40% (as well as the vital EMA payment, which needed tightening reform, not abolition) and then raising fees to plug that gap, creating a system which the students effectively pay for themselves and which is no better in terms of quality than the current one. British universities will continue to slide in comparison to international competitors, the government’s key claim, that their plan is sustainable, falls flat on its face.

Having said this I did feel absurd at times, marching alongside some with overly optimistic demands. I also felt bad for the unrelenting criticism coming the way of Nick Clegg. Whilst Clegg clearly made a terrible political miscalculation pledging himself and his party against any rise in fees, I still stand by my view of him espoused on this blog as an essentially admirable politician. As head of the junior partner in the coalition this is clearly one of the decisions that is principally Tory in its motivation. If the Lib Dems had total parliamentary control (an almost impossible to imagine scenario) then the spending could have been structured elsewhere to honour a pledge to students. As it was Clegg opted for some influence rather than none and has to bow to Cameron’s party on the bigger issues. The fact that the violence erupted at Tory HQ suggests the demonstrators and activists know who the real villain of the plan is, but there is still understandable anger about the Lib Dem “betrayal”. Clegg also set himself up for a frighteningly fall with his constant talk of honesty and honour in politics. I’d like to think he would still back a progressive alternative should one be found (hurry up Labour!) and I’m sure he’ll hope to return to the issue, perhaps with different allies. As it is though I did feel uplifted to be marching in solidarity with others against cuts to education; that Clegg should not have accepted so lightly and should have done more about.

When we did finally set off it was at a shuffling, rather than marching, pace. Having built up a lot of enthusiasm standing stationary for long periods, I was keen to stride ahead, but had to be content with feeling part of a massive, snaking entity, writhing through London streets, demanding to be heard. The shuffling continued with the occasional more spacious period, past Downing Street and painfully slowly through Parliament Square, all the way to the drama of Millbank. I took far too much pleasure in muttering to myself that David Cameron was miles away in China, as ignorant students directed personally tailored chant after chant at his famous black doorway as we passed Number Ten. I wished for a widescreen HD overview of events, for an action replay as I always did at live football matches in packed stadiums. It would have been nice to truly comprehend the scale of events from beyond my tiny worker ant perspective; to know where best my many, multiple protesting talents were to deployed. Where did they need me I wondered?

Despite the blinkered vision it was wonderful to feel part of history, to feel part of something greater with meaning, even if in reality it would prove politically ineffective. And as usual I loved wandering around London, seeing the Thames from all angles, absorbing that skyline. I’m getting far too used to and seduced by it. On top of it all I managed to share it with friends, as opposed to my usual solitary travels, some of whom I had not seen in a while. I didn’t get long enough in their company and I didn’t plant my flag within the bowels of Parliament, but all in all me and the beard had a good day out on the march.

Students, Strategy and Style – Sunday Links


In today’s Observer Barbara Ellen gets the issue of the Coalition’s plans for tuition fees spot on. Firstly she rightly insists that for too long the student community, traditionally a proactive, revolutionary portion of society, has remained dormant on the issues of the day. Even before the programme of cuts now being initiated there were challenges like climate change that a youthful generation ought to be passionately highlighting en masse. Finally on Wednesday students will march through London and I will be among them. Those who dismiss the march as futile miss the point. If you cannot be idealistic and stand up for lost causes as a student then what hope is there for the rest of society? And as Ellen points out, the rest of society is about to feel hard-hitting cuts too. Crucially though she insists that the government strategy of portraying students as some sort of better off elite that should cut back with everyone else is misguided and wrong. Yes students may not feel the bite of recession as strongly as some more deserving groups of the poor and deprived, but this does not mean we should accept a deal that is still unfair to students and does not even fix any problems. The withdrawal of public funding for universities announced in the Spending Review means that the rise in fees will simply plug a gap and not secure the future high quality of British higher education. The Coaltion’s constantly repeated promise that greater help than before will now exist for the poor under the new system also misses the point and is simply a smoke screen. The wealthy politicians at the heart of Coalition policy cannot comprehend how fees and debts of £9,000 a year could put off a potential student. It’s also a harsh reality of such means tested funding for poorer students that some genuinely deserving talented scholars will miss out and others who do not need the money will find some way of benefitting. It also ignores the bulk of students from ordinary families who will be too well off to qualify for financial aid but nowhere near the sort of level where they can comfortably pay their own way. The heaps of additional stress alone added to the application process will deter sixth formers from applying. Ellen makes so many good points and destroys the coaltion argument as to why these proposals are necessary and fair. They neither do what is necessary or ensure fairness. Even the raising of the salary threshold, above which debts must be paid back, to £21,000, is not as progressive as the government would have us believe. This is still an average wage and aren’t graduates meant to lift themselves above average? Surely they should only start paying back when their education has delivered its promised benefits? Read her article, which expresses far better than I why students should march in outrage at the creation and protection of elites.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/07/tuition-fees-jon-snow-kate-middleton

A leading article in the Independent on Sunday points out the highly risky phrase “we’re all in this together” frequently deployed by the Prime Minister and his Chancellor. As the tuition fees situation and other cuts show, we simply aren’t all in this together. If cuts and taxes have been aimed at the rich, they have been balanced by other concessions to soften the blow. For example the bank levy is a token gesture when the savings the banks will make from a cut in corportation tax is considered. And as this article points out the Prime Minister must be more considerate in his decision making at a time when millions will feel the pinch as a result of his cuts. Paying a personal photographer is a luxury; the sort he has ranted against, an inefficiency that shows his detachment from the reality of most voters.

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/leading-articles/leading-article-tread-carefully-mr-cameron-2127297.html

Matthew d’Ancona also discusses Tory strategy in The Telegraph and insists that the failings of their plan at the last election highlight why those hoping for a right wing replication of the Tea Party activism gaining success in the States right now will be disappointed. He is spot on when he points out that Cameron’s popularity surge dissipated when the Tories switched tack to warning of the deficit and an age of auterity to come. At the time I viewed the sudden shit in rhetoric as a shameless u-turn, when in Opposition Cameron had often supported Labour’s actions to avert financial meltdown and had not mentioned the deficit before. In his attempts to distance himself from Labour and simply offer the change, any change, that the electorate so desperately wanted, Cameron moved his modern, detoxified Conservative party to the right and this may have cost him outright victory. There will be no repeat of the Tea Party here, not a credible one at least, and the Lib Dems ought to halt any drives to return to radical Thatcherism, or what is perceived to have been her legacy.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/matthewd_ancona/8114949/The-Tories-need-to-be-more-Michael-Palin-than-Sarah.html

My final link is a well written investigation into the resurgent popularity of the flat cap and its history over the years. I recently purchased one and I’m planning to team it with my scruffy beard for the student march on Wednesday. I’ll probably look more like the farming yokel than the celebrities seen sporting them though.

http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/article/TMG8108321/If-you-want-to-get-ahead-get-a-flat-cap.html

Have a good Sunday, hope everyone has enjoyed the fireworks.

Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman


Ned Beauman’s debut novel is a distinctive, original and confident creation that is immensely readable. It is not especially remarkable for young novelists to produce compelling fiction but it is a considerable achievement for Beauman to have pulled off a story based on some controversial ideas and subject matter that may have otherwise repulsed or offended readers if not carefully executed. It is by no means a perfect debut and its often ghastly and occasionally two dimensional themes do grate at times, but its success lies in its bold originality and playful prose.

The inside cover of Boxer, Beetle brazenly asserts that this is a clever, distinctive and entertaining novel. Despite a number of flaws including the unconvincing skin deep characterisation of one of the main protagonists Phillip Erskine and simply an over abundance of weirdness at times, I would not disagree with this confident claim on the cover having finished the book. At times the novel displays all three qualities and its brave comic handling of potentially problematic areas such as the collection of Nazi memorabilia ensures it is a distinctive experience throughout. It probably helped my enjoyment of the book that I found many of its chosen themes of eugenics, fascism and underworld boxing culture historically fascinating, but Beauman also vividly evokes the period sections with well written and sensual description that ought to engage those without a particular interest in the era.

Indeed Beauman demonstrates a gift for colourful and accurate description during the third person period sections of the novel and he also has little trouble in fleshing out believable minor characters with unique idiolects. He does struggle to make the key characters, repressed homosexual and twisted beetle collecting Fascist scientist Phillip Erskine, and rampant homosexual Jewish boxer Seth “Sinner” Roach, into rounded individuals though. It might be argued that Beauman does develop their characters enough, it is simply that I did not like them and neither was I meant to, but I can’t help thinking that Erskine in particular was a little too predictable in terms of prejudice and the attempts to make Sinner endearing in some way by introducing a regret at losing his devoted sister seemed forced.

The first person sections of the novel were always enjoyable however, seen through the quick witted and odd eyes of the impossibly smelly Kevin Broom, nicknamed “fishy” by his rich Nazi collector friend Grublock, who meets a sticky end at the hands of a sinister Welsh assassin searching for clues about the boxer and the beetles from 30s Britain. At times the present day sections felt almost like a comic novel, such was the pace and playfulness of the prose. One chapter begins with the narrator musing about what Batman would do, only to conclude that he could not imagine Batman in a Little Chef and that in general the everyday, mundane architecture of modern Britain was not conducive to a cunning, acrobatic and glamorous gothic hero. Generally the novel works superbly well, even with so many ideas flying about, providing they pass through the lens of the likeable narrator. In the third person sections too many ideas can bog the plot down and make passages with Erskine in particular almost tedious. However the novel rarely becomes an essay, despite a couple of unfocused chapters devoted to invented, short lived artificial languages and the third person chunks set in the past tend to zip along well enough despite the inferior sense of character.

Overall Boxer, Beetle is a satisfying read with a bizarre, strangely gripping narrative populated by characters we are not meant to take too seriously dealing with a cocktail of varying grand ideas and themes. Beauman’s writing style succeeds largely in pulling together a lot of seemingly unconnected subject matter into a coherent and entertaining read. It will be interesting to see how Beauman chooses to follow up such an individual first book but his writing talent is evident and Boxer, Beetle is such a mixed bag you get the impression he could and would turn his hand to anything and make a success of it.