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The Campaign Trail, 2005: the inevitable fear and loathing…

… but is that a side order of despair with that, sir?

Time to start blogging the election, then.  But what to say?  Normally I’d be exhorting you to vote Labour, like in 1997 and 2001; though those were before the days of blogs (for me, at least).  But this year.  This year it’s different.

I could of course warn of the danger of sleep-walking towards a Tory government, as Ken did.  And that would be true: there’s no doubt that the Tories would be much worse than Labour or the Lib Dems for the economy and public services.  Plus the idea of it is just repellent; especially for those of us who lived through the Thatcher years.  Who, like me, was politically naive (and fortunately too young to vote) in 1979, and thought something along the lines of, “let’s give them a chance to see how they do”.  And then watched as public services and manufacturing industry were systematically dismantled, as everything good at the heart of this country was attacked by the greedy, money-grubbing scumbags who wanted to turn us into a “share-owning democracy” by selling us the stuff we already owned.

So yes, I could warn about that.  About how Michael Howard was one of Thatcher’s henchmen, about how he presided over the “No repetitive beats” Criminal Justice Act which attempted to criminalise public partying.  About how Howard Flight’s secret revelations are probably understated, and that Tory sleaze didn’t go away after 1997, it just went underground.

But this is 2005, and we don’t have to try to depose a sleazy Tory government any more.  It’s much worse than that.  We have to try to depose a sleazy Labour government; and we have to do it without letting the Tories in.

There is an obvious answer, in theory, at least: we should vote for the Liberal Democrats.  And that wouldn’t be so bad.  I could do that (I might have to).  But the trouble is, most people, disillusioned as they are with the other two, won’t vote for the Lib Dems.  Many people seem to have this strange desire to vote for the winning party.  This is a curious attitude that I have never understood.  Obviously you  want your side to win.  You believe in their policies, or thnk that an individual is the best person to represent your constituency, so you want them to win.  That’s how a representative democracy works.

What I don’t understand is the attitude that seems to say, “I’m not going to vote for them, because they won’t win”.  Well of course they won’t, if nobody votes for them.  But you’re not trying to bet on winner, you’re trying to choose a representative.  It doesn’t matter (in one sense) if you lose; it matters that you vote for what’s right.

The government is crap.  New Labour is crap.  It’s not just Iraq and the whole US-poodle thing; I could see my way past that.  It’s much worse than that.  it’s ID cards.  It’s house arrest.  it’s an attack on civil liberties so extreme that even Thatcher wouldn’t have attempted it.

I live in a safe Labour seat.  My MP, Brian Sedgmore, kicked government arse in his speech on house arrest.  I could happily vote for him again.  Unfortunately, he’s standing down at the election.  I’ve just being doing some research on his replacement candidate, Meg Hilllier.  She is worryingly silent on ID cards.

I miss old — rather, proper — Labour; I miss having people you might actually want to vote for.  Hell, I even miss 1997-grade New Labour.  I almost miss having Thatcher in power.  At least then it was easy to know who to vote against.

But I wouldn’t want them back.  I’d spoil my ballot before I’d ever vote for those scumbags.  Unless — just maybe unless — they came out against ID Cards.  If they did, though, I wouldn’t trust them.

Never mind a Tory government: we’re sleep-walking towards hell in a handbasket.

Let’s rock again

Burn (tickettothewest) are back in action.  Yes, after a gap of only just over four months, we have rehearsed again.  Some of you will know that scunner, our former lead guitarist, left to work in Geneva last spring.  We quickly spent several months deciding to recruit another old Edinburgh SF Soc friend, Andrew.  We then leapt into action at a rate of a rehearsal every fortnight to three weeks.

Or so I’d have said.  A quick check of last year’s (electronic) diary suggests that our last rehearsal with Ol was in March; and the next rehearsal was in October.  Can we really have left it that long?  Well, maybe not.  We can be fairly sure that the reocord is incomplete, as it only shows one in October and one in November, and I can remember at least three, and I think probably four.

However our most recent was definitely November, which means, as swisstone said last night, that we would increase our frequency if we went to a quarterly schedule.

Given all that, though, last night went surprisingly well.  We remembered the stuff well, particularly Andrew, who is least familiar with it, and we sounded good: helped, no doubt, by being in Backstreet‘s best and biggest room, number 1,

In contrast with the plastic chairs of the other rooms, number 1 has two sofas.  Not that we used them.  Oh no.  We were much too busy rocking out to sit down and take a break. Honest.

Still, our workrate is higher than that of the Stone Roses, or My Bloody Valentine. Hmm, except that they released albums at the end of it. Oh well.  karmicnull suggests a target of a gig by the end of the decade.  I think that’s realistic, don’t you?

Rounding up the year so far: still here

A combination of lack of inspiration, Christmas, and reading for and starting my new Open University course, (A210: Approaching Literature) has made me miss an entire two months of posting. Or almost: I posted about HST’s death. Oh well, a roundup here, and I’ll try to do better in future.

The other big time-sink for my evenings recently has been a dangerous addiction. We signed up for LoveFilm, an online DVD rental service, a few months ago, and soon started catching up on something that we had missed when it was first shown, and never wanted to join in the middle: The West Wing.

At the time of writing we have recently finished season four, and it has raised the bar so much on TV programmes that I could hardly be bothered to watch the excellent Desperate Housewives the other day. Actually, I think it may also be that the latter has gone on too long without having enough to reveal, but we’ll see.

I didn’t call you here to talk about TV programmes, though. Rather, I have a few links to post. First, if you were a fan of John Peel and you didn’t hear it on Radio 4‘s The Now Show — or if you did, and want a copy to keep — you should grab A Minute’s Noise, by Mitch Benn. It’s the perfect tribute; and in particular a lot more honest than those biographies that were knocked out in time for Chrstmas.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on them: I did glance over one of them in a bookshop and found it quite moving. But they came out so soon after his death that its hard not to use the word ‘unseemly’.

You should all be aware of WriteToThem, by the makers of FaxYourMP; a generalised way to contact your UK MP or other representative (local councillors, for example); and all done as a free software project intended to be easily-transferrable to other countries’ political systems.

Gonzo death song

God motherfuckin’ damn! It’s like everyone I respect or admire in public life is dying these years. Hunter S Thompson was my favourite non-fiction writer. He was also the most interesting, the wildest, the freeest voice in American poltics — hell, in world politics.

Sure, no-one expected him to last even this long, but what business has got dying now, when the world needs him more than ever? And yes, he was a gun nut: but sometimes its good to know that some of the guns are on the side of right.

I always expected to hear that he’d died from one of his favourite things: you can’t die from writing 1; but I always thought it would come from booze, drugs or cars. Or more likely a mixtture of all three. Not guns. And not self-inflicted. Jesus. I expect that we’ll now hear that he suffered from depression, and all the excess was ‘self-medication’. I don’t know. But without the excess I doubt we’d have had the writer.

And what a writer. If I believed in religion I’d say he wrote like an angel; or that it was like his typewriter was wired straight into hades. Instead I’ll just say that he wrote like his life depended on it, and no-one else could touch the clarity and vision he could achieve.

It was always a kind of comfort to know that he was out there somewhere, pounding the keyboard of an IBM Selectric typewriter, Wild Turkey by his side, slapping page after page onto the mojo wire. No longer.

I guess the going got too weird even for that old pro.

1. Not directly. Not in a democracy. Not in America.2 Though watch out for conspiracy theories over the next weeks and months.
2. Warning: footnotes may contain traces of irony.

Disrespect the Authoritah!

I can scarcely believe it. Apparently a film is being made of His Dark Materials; but according to a BBC news story, they’re removing all references to god and the church!. To paraphrase a comment I read on Slashdot recently, they’re going to have to fit seatbelts in the cinemas for this one, to stop the audience being sucked into the screen by the suckiness of it.

That report itself says:

The books tell of a battle against the church and a fight to overthrow God.

The film, therefore will tell of nothing at all, it seems. The reason for this is that

“They have expressed worry about the possibility of perceived anti-religiosity,” Weitz told a His Dark Materials fans’ website.

Perceived? Perceived? Madness. Yet apparently Pullman doesn’t mind. In fact, it also says Pullman has denied his books are anti-religious. Which, I’m sure, contradicts everything he’s said before. Incidentally, how do you tell a website something?

In other news, Peter Jackson will be removing all references to the so-called Dark Lord from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  After all, we don’t want to offend anybody, do we?

Writing, identity, and voting

I’m not doing too well at the ‘regular posting’ posting part of this blog lark, am I?

Well, I can always blame NaNoWriMo for missing November.  I didn’t manage to write 50,000 words, but I did manage 20,000, which I’m pretty damn pleased about; and I’m carrying on with it, too.  Maybe by next year’s NaNoWriMo I’ll have it finished.  It’s strange how a completely arbitrary, but externally-defined, deadline can boost creativity.  In theory I ought to be able to set myself a deadline and get the same effect, but to date I’ve never managed to do so.

If 50,000 is a Nanowrimo, though, I declare myself to have completed 40 Picowrimos.

Other news: in a shock move I am close to resolving not to vote Labour at the next election.  If they carry on with their ID cards madness they will have to be stopped.  I intend to write to my MP and to the Home Secretary (who has other things on his mind at the moment, which with any luck will distract him from his authoritarian tendencies).  The former will only have my vote if he promises to vote against the bill at every possible opportunity (and does so).

It will break my heart to put my cross in the wrong box, as well as exposing us to the danger of another Tory government;  but the ID cards scheme — and even more importantly, the database that will support it — is unconscionable . One encouraging thing I saw this morning was the letters page in Metro: all the letters about ID cards were against them. That’s a very small sample, but Metro is owned by the same group as the Daily Mail. If publishers with an authoritarian right-wing background are turning against the idea of ID cards, then maybe they can be stopped yet. You would expect liberterian right-wingers to be against them, of course. I’m reminded of one of Heinlein‘s sayings (probably through Lazarus Long), which I recall as: When a society requires its members to carry ID, it’s time to leave that society. A spot of googling, however, reminds me that it really was:

When a place gets crowded enough to require IDs, social collapse is not far away. It is time to go elsewhere. The best thing about space travel is that it made it possible to go elsewhere.
Oh well.

The No2ID people still have their petition up, so you should sign that if you feel as I do.  And write to your MP.  Or fax them.

If this paternity/visagate business takes Blunkett down, will he take the ID cards bill with him?  I hope so, but expect not.

Post-teenage memories are pretty hard to beat, too

I’ve been thinking about Peelie, and I remembered going to see him live, on the John Peel Roadshow. He used to do the rounds of Britain’s colleges and universities.

He came to Edinburgh, possibly every year that I was there, and me and my mates Steve and Johnny used to go along to Chambers Street Union (now vacated, I read at that link) for the occasion. It wasn’t quite like listening to his radio show, of course, because he didn’t talk that much, and probably didn’t play such a wide variety of records. But what you were sure of getting was a club night — or ‘disco’, as we used to call them — of absolutely top quality music; and this at a time when the normal club or disco played nothing but absolutely execrable chart rubbish, and had a dress code into the bargain. Some student nights were OK, but once a year there was a night you knew was going to soar.

“I’ll play ‘Release the Bats’ if you’ll dance,” I remember him saying. He did. We did

One year, when we were sitting in the bar before it started, we saw him sitting across the room, with some people from the union committee. We’d have loved to talk to him, but we were too shy to just approach him. So we came up with a plan. Steve and I were on the committee of the Edinburgh University Science Fiction Society. Why not invent a new class of member, Honorary, to go with the existing Ordinary and Life, and make Peelie one? So we did.

And still being too shy, Steve and I sent Johnny (who wasn’t a committee member, remember) over to make him the offer and give him the membership card.

Though unless Steve always happened to have a few spare membership cards on him (unlikely), we must have planned this out in advance, to some degree. Memory plays tricks. Anyway, Johnny reported that he had said he was happy to receive anything that was free, and took the card graciously. I like to imagine that it still lies somewhere in a drawer at Peel Acres.

The only other time any of us spoke to him was afterwards (and Steve wasn’t there, so it must have been a different year), when we were hanging around outside, and Peelie was loading boxes of records into his car.

Johnny asked him what his real name was (why, I don’t know, and I doubt that Johnny will remember after all these years).

“John Ravenscroft,” Peelie said.

“Oh, I thought it was something else,” Johnny said.

The real triumph, though (and this must have been a different year again, but I can tell you the exact date: 20th January 1985) was when we got a record played for Johnny’s 21st birthday.

The Roadshow fell on the actual day, and at some point, one of us (and it was probably Steve, as I don’t remember doing it (though he won’t either)) went up to the DJ booth with a request. As the night drew to a close we began to fear that he the great man hadn’t managed to get to our request. But then, with only around three minutes left, Peelie said, “I’ve got a request here that says, ‘Please play something by The Skids as it’s John’s 21st.’ Well, I doubt it’s really his 21st, and I don’t have any Skids with me, but John, this is for you.”

And then (at the right speed) came the opening drumbeats of the track that everyone from Radio One to Newsnight has been playing in the last couple of days: “Teeenage Kicks.”

And we all danced. And Peelie went home.

We won’t see its like — or his like, of course — again.

Pack up Radio 1 and dismantle its transmitters…

… we won’t be needing it anymore.

John Peel is dead.

I didn’t listen to him often enough in recent years, and I’ll always regret that. But he helped me through my teenage years, through university, through life. Always on the lookout for something new. always firmly rooted in, and deeply knowledgable about, the past, he was a lesson to us all.

I was going around all through lunchtime with REM’s ‘Favourite Writer’ running through my head. And here it was my favourite DJ who’d died.

The time has come to rumble, to inject a bit of fun into politics

Over the last ten or so years, whenever things have been exceptionally interesting in US politics, I have found myself wondering what Hunter S Thompson would say about it. Usually I wouldn’t find out until a year or so later, when his next book came out.

But now we have the net, and in particular, HST’s latest article in Rolling Stone:

Did you see Bush on TV, trying to debate? Jesus, he talked like a donkey with no brains at all. The tide turned early, in Coral Gables, when Bush went belly up less than halfway through his first bout with Kerry, who hammered poor George into jelly. It was pitiful… . I almost felt sorry for him, until I heard someone call him “Mister President,” and then I felt ashamed.


Richard Nixon looks like a flaming liberal today, compared to a golem like George Bush. Indeed. Where is Richard Nixon now that we finally need him?

If Nixon were running for president today, he would be seen as a “liberal” candidate, and he would probably win. He was a crook and a bungler, but what the hell? Nixon was a barrel of laughs compared to this gang of thugs from the Halliburton petroleum organization who are running the White House today — and who will be running it this time next year, if we (the once-proud, once-loved and widely respected “American people”) don’t rise up like wounded warriors and whack those lying petroleum pimps out of the White House on November 2nd.

Nixon hated running for president during football season, but he did it anyway. Nixon was a professional politician, and I despised everything he stood for — but if he were running for president this year against the evil Bush-Cheney gang, I would happily vote for him.

That’s Hunter S Thompson saying that.


As a further example of the accelerated time in which we live, it turns out that HST’s latest book is out: Hey Rube : Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness: Modern History from the Sports Desk

Via BoingBoing.

On having my life back, and academia

OK, so on Monday I posted the final TMA for my OU course, A103: An Introduction to the Humanities. It was long, and broad, and mostly very good (though don’t get me started about the History of Science block). So now I have my life back: I can read whatever I feel like reading, and not just coursework and the texts I’m studying; I can write what I want to, and not just the essay for the current assignment.

You have no idea — or rather, I had no idea — how much reading time a thing like that takes up. I do most of my reading while commuting nowadays, and sure enough, I did most of my studying while commuting. An hour each way makes ten hours a week. Subtract the times I didn’t do that, and add in the other time I spent, and I suspect that’s about the average time I spent overall: ten hours a week. Which is probably more than I did as an undergraduate 22 years ago. Well, OK, not counting going to lectures and stuff.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but these days I frequently wonder whether I did the wrong degree. I’m glad to have a scientific background, and I don’t doubt that it helped me to get job as a programmer; but recently, given that I’ve been doing well on the OU course, I’ve been wondering whether I shouldn’t have done English all those years ago. Maybe, though, I wouldn’t have been so successful at it back then: perhaps I needed the experiences I’ve had over the years before I could tackle the Humanities with enough understanding.

But I certainly think I should have done Computer Science rather than (or as well as) Physics. I did, in fact, express an interest in doing a half course in CS during my first meeting with my Director of Studies. It wasn’t possible (he told me) to fit it in with the half course in Astronomy that I was doing because I intended to do Astrophysics: they were both in the afternoons (unlike most lectures) and that would have left no time for my Physics lab. I was too shy and unassertive to argue the point; he was too uninterested to discuss alternative possibilities. Note that his role was ‘Director’; not ‘Advisor’ or ‘Counsellor’. Indeed, I put my failure to study CS squarely down to the failure of the Scottish educational establishment of the time to give me any careers advice worthy of the name.

I accept partial blame for the latter failure, of course. At the ages of sixteen and seventeen, when I had what passed for careers advice meetings at my school, I wasn’t in the least interested in having a career (unless it involved rock ‘n’ roll); so I didn’t exactly involve myself in my careers discussions. University was just somewhere to go to get away from home, have money, get drunk, and all the usual student things; plus it was what my parents expected (not so much the getting drunk, etc, bits, but you know what I mean). But you would think that they (the careers advisors) could have worked out (or helped me to work out) that the only thing I really liked at school (I was good at Maths, Physics and Chemistry, and for that matter, not bad at English and Spanish, which werere the Highers I did, but I would never have said I actually liked them) was being in the Computer Club, where we learned to program in BASIC.

It really never occured to me that I could study Computers at University. I knew, of course, that Unis had lots of subjects that we didn’t do at school, but I had no inkling of how you would go about starting one. I guess I was pretty unimaginative in that way. There was one guy in my class who was planning to do CS, but he already knew much more about computers than I did (hell, he even knew some Fortran) so that put me off the possibility even if I did consider it: clearly you had to know much more than me to study such things. I wonder what happened to Billy Gibson; the last I heard he had dropped out of Uni.

If I had done CS, I don’t know that my life subsequently would have been that different. I suppose I might have got a job sooner, since I’d almost certainly have had a better degree; and it’s possible that that wouldn’t have been in London, which could have made a huge difference. But even if that had happened, London had been Calling for a long time, so I’m sure I’d have ended up here eventually. The main thing is whether I’d have been doing a particular philosophy course at the City Lit at the end of 1992. Not doing that would have made a big, big difference.