Chinese Whispers

Regular readers will recall that I often return from China with thoughts, on voting (see Brexit, pursued by a bear), the Rape of Nanjing (The fish that is black and Notes from Nanjing), insect bites (Bite me), asking and answering questions, both in interviews (No means no) and when drawn from the Embarrassing Questions Box (Please use power wisely, Shake it all about and Open the box) and salmon-skin suits (A small, mysterious corpus). This year (and what a year it has been!), it has taken me rather longer to process my thoughts. Of course, being in any city a few weeks before the G20 carnival comes to town would be interesting. Every journey that involved actually leaving one’s hotel room required the approval of a small man in white gloves and a nondescript blue uniform, sitting at a desk with a bunch of other uniformed and remarkably non-threatening people standing around it. His desk was right by the lift, and one was required to provide one’s room number and passport before proceeding to the upper floors. The hotel restaurant was on a mezzanine only accessible from the lobby, which meant we all had to take our passports to breakfast, and then carry the wretched thing with us for the rest of the damn day. I kept mine inside my copy of Night Watch[1] on the grounds that a whole book was easier to keep track of than a skinny little passport, which meant that like a teenager with a spot, I was constantly running my fingers over it to check that nothing had changed. Hangzhou was looking its best, including the twin globe-shaped hotels, one intended to resemble the moon and therefore lit up with white lights, and the other the sun, lit up with yellow ochre (it looked rather like a pumpkin, but a very splendid one). The waterfront, beautiful lakeside parks and (that peculiarly Chinese thing) musical fountains were all poised to welcome President Obama, although I note that the first piece of music chosen for the fountains while we were there was ‘Time To Say Goodbye’.

Hangzhou is a charming place, but the highlights of the trip are always the students. For example, there was a student called Peter, with such a strong perfectionist streak that I had to physically remove his laptop from him to stop him continuing to tinker with his (excellent, finished PS). A quiet, perpetually worried-looking student named Hannah used The Power of Maths to demonstrate that Professor Sir Tim Hunt’s comments about female scientists being ‘distractingly sexy’ were nonsense. She also argued (successfully, in my view) that male scientists who found their attention wandering needed to pull themselves together, in the following deathless sentence: ‘I can concentrate all the way to the end of an experiment, even if there is a boy in the room.’ Another student (rejoicing in the name Jordan at the beginning of the summer school and renamed Bernard by the end)[2] expressed concern about the character count in his PS:

Bernard: You told me to use ‘she’ in all my hypothetical examples, but I need to cut the characters. Can I say ‘he’?
Me: If you want to, Bernard, but it’s becoming common practice in academia to use ‘she’.
Bernard: Why?
Me: Centuries of oppression.
Bernard: I have no further questions.

This year I also threw together a pub quiz on the subject of the United Kingdom in a few hours, learning a great deal about my students in the process. The incredulity in the room on being told that our Commander-in-Chief is a little old lady, for example, was highly educational. I asked them to name their teams after something British, which generated the predictable Big Ben, British Boys and Spice Girls, as well as the frankly baffling Spicy Chicken (I’m told this is a terribly funny pun in Mandarin). I grouped the questions into rounds, of course, including one on food that required them to draw a traditional tiered wedding cake (everyone got this one right), asked which food is served sunny side up (‘sunflower seeds?’), and how fish and chips is made. The answer ‘boiled and then set on fire’ received no marks, whereas ‘plunged into boiling oil’ got an extra mark for making it sound like an answer from the previous round on medieval history. Unsurprisingly, their knowledge of British history was scanty at best; the question ‘Name the two sides in the Wars of the Roses’ was answered correctly by one team only (the only team with a PPE student in it), although I also gave a mark to Spicy Chicken who happened to guess ‘red and white’. ‘When was the Civil War?’ drew answers from across the centuries, including one team who thought it was in the 1980s; and the question ‘How did Charles I die?’ was answered tersely by the team that went on to win with the grim little sentence ‘he have no head’.

The round on international politics asked the students to name the countries with which Britain enjoys the Special Relationship (every team answered ‘China’)[3] and the entente cordiale; here, incorrect answers (nobody got it right) included Sweden (‘cordiale sound a bit Swedish’), Germany (‘because I think entente sounds bad and I know Germany is bad’), Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Another round cherry-picked ten striking pieces of vocabulary from their PS drafts (i.e. at least one student in the room ought to know what at least one of the words meant) and asked them to tell me whether the word was an adjective, verb, noun or preposition and what it meant. This turned out to be a bit like the Uxbridge English Dictionary. The words were as follows: conurbation (‘when someone build a town without ask’), orca (‘orc that is lady orc’), zooming (‘making a zoo’), feudal (‘place where eat food’), Anglophile (‘place to file things’), nevertheless (‘definitely never happen’), kidnap (‘when child is sleepy’), compliment (‘you look nice’), complement (‘you look nice but no-one notice’) and collate (‘you are late because your friend is also late’). Bearing in mind that the only sports that capture the interest in China are badminton and basketball, I also put together a round on sports popular in Britain, including the question that offered them a point for every team they could name from the Six Nations. I was pleased to see everyone score at least three for naming England, Scotland and Wales (two teams, with a certain amount of inevitability, also suggested ‘Northern Ireland’, for which they got half a point: the answer was wrong, but the thinking was good), but the remaining suggestions ranged wildly around the world and included many nations that have no rugby culture whatever (my favourite was ‘Madagascar’). The only question from this round that everyone got completely wrong was ‘What is the profession of Mervyn ‘The King’ King?’ Brilliantly, they all answered that he was the Governor of the Bank of England, forgetting of course that this was a round of questions on sport.[4]

At the end of the (raucous, laughter-filled) quiz, after the points had been totted up and the prizes awarded, with what little voice I had left, I asked some of the students how they had learnt so much about the United Kingdom, given that they don’t study history and receive very little unfiltered news from the outside world. It seems that almost everything starts as a rumour that they might or might not bother (or be able) to verify, remarkably (and depressingly) like Chinese Whispers. The real joy, of course, always comes from letting the students ask questions rather than answering them, and thus the following day we braved the Embarrassing Questions Box.

eqb1
Eight months later, I still have no idea why this student felt the need to cut their question into the shape of a bus.

In a previous post, I declared my favourite question from the Embarrassing Questions Box to be from a student named Kim (‘Can you tell us everything you know about sex?’; see Open the Box). Chinese Whispers is a game without a winner, and it’s fortunate that I don’t have to pick a favourite here as 2016 was a vintage harvest of Embarrassing Questions, including the following gems: ‘Which area in the UK has the greatest number of handsome boys?’; ‘How do you dry your underwear every day? Because you can’t possibly use dryer every single day, right?’ and ‘How to find a boyfriend in the university?’ I love this last one because it suggests exactly the fruitless wandering I did so much of in my first few weeks at university (I wasn’t in search of a partner, but rather various rooms and noticeboards).

eqb4
‘How do I date a foreigner? Is it by making my face really sneaky? Is it?’

My favourite question this year, however, was this: ‘What do you think of real love? What is it?’ As I read the question out, I must admit that I wondered how on earth I came to this: standing in an air-conditioned room in Hangzhou, wondering if I was going to be able to make the projector work well enough later on to show them The Man in the White Suit, clutching a cardboard box in one hand, looking forward to my evening bowl of noodles and trying to answer philosophical questions about love. I actually didn’t find the question difficult to answer, but the fact that it was asked at all should give us pause. Two weeks of asking and answering questions all day (including mock Oxbridge interviews; see also No means no) causes both question and answer to feel rather slippery after a while, just as repeating a phrase over and over can both reveal and strip away layers of meaning. I said, ‘real love makes you feel that, even at your worst, you deserve to be loved.’ I’m quite proud of that as a spontaneous explanation; I jotted it down in my notebook immediately afterwards, which is why I’m able to quote it with such confidence. This was the last question and as we broke for dinner, my student Zoe told me that it was her question, and that she liked my answer very much. One shouldn’t have favourites, of course, but Zoe was my favourite this year, partly because she was such a thoughtful young lady: both in the sense of being considerate to other people, and also in the sense of turning things over in her mind constantly. In each interview I did the following day, I finished by asking them Zoe’s question. One of the best answers was, ‘If you don’t know the difference between real love and not-real love, it is not real love.’ (‘That’s a good answer’, I said. The student replied, ‘Yes. I think about that question all day. It stick in my mind’). In the face of huge, Trump-based global-scale nonsense, it’s hard to feel able to exert any kind of influence over events, but it seems to me that anyone who teaches, asks or answers questions has more influence than they realise. The whispers of a good question go on forever.

eqb2


[1] I took both Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (his finest work, second only to Thud!) and Night Watch by Sarah Waters (her finest work by a mile), for no reason other than it pleased me to do so.

[2] Bernard was concerned that his name might be a little old-fashioned, and when I asked him what other names he liked he said, ‘Jim, or Humphrey.’ Thus did we uncover his love of Yes, Minister.

[3] Enjoys! What was a cosy flirtation is about to becoming a savage buggering.

[4] Mervyn ‘The King’ King is a darts player. Even had the question been ‘Who is the Governor of the Bank of England?’, Mervyn King is still not the correct answer, as Mervyn King the Baron of Lothbury was replaced as Governor of the Bank of England in 2013 by Mark Carney.

Brexit, pursued by a bear

Once, when it was time for the clocks to go back, I got up on the kick-step, took the Departmental office clock down and changed the time. As I was getting off the kick-step, I twisted my ankle very slightly. Noticing my limp later in the day, my boss asked me how I acquired it. ‘Ah’, I was told, ‘No. You either have to call someone from maintenance to get up on the kick-step and change the clock. If you want to do it yourself, you have to go on the Ladder Awareness course.’ Further conversation established that i. this wasn’t a joke; ii. I was only being let off filling out the Accident At Work form because neither of us could be bothered with the resulting paperwork (my ankle was fine the next day); and iii. I simply couldn’t bring myself to call maintenance twice a year every year to ask them to adjust a fucking clock.

The Ladder Awareness course was astonishing: that it existed at all; that it was three hours long; and that it contained only one take-home message, which was that when ascending a ladder, kick-step or other elevating device, we should under no circumstances wear high heels and tight skirts. The people in the room were as follows: the earnest chap teaching us, who was wearing a pair of those slightly shiny trousers that make a noise like a tent being unzipped when the legs brush together, and eight Departmental administrators, including myself. The other seven were middle-aged, dressed in sensible shoes and called Doreen. We sat in stony silence as he paced around, trousers threatening to burst into flame, occasionally gesturing at a tiny bit of truncated ladder propped pointlessly against the wall. Later, we each climbed up and down it to demonstrate that yes, we could go up and down two steps without injuring ourselves. Yes, we are now fully aware of ladders. Yes, we can all successfully complete your tedious quiz, the first question of which was ‘When a task that requires someone to go up a ladder needs to be performed, is it acceptable to ask a student to do it? Yes/No’.[1] Yes, we promise to forgo our usual attire of stripper heels and mini-skirts. Yes, we would like to fill out a feedback questionnaire. The first question on the feedback questionnaire is what I want to apply to the EU referendum: ‘On a scale of one to five, how much have you learnt today?’

Firstly, some voters[2] seem to have learnt that their vote made a difference to the overall result. This blows my mind. First of all, everybody’s vote made a difference to the overall result. In a general election, it could be argued that my vote for the Green candidate in a staunchly Conservative constituency didn’t matter, because the majority of people in my constituency voted such that my vote had precisely zero influence on the final result. In a single-issue referendum, however, every single damn vote matters, regardless of how or where you voted. Secondly, I know everyone is either very angry or very smug (or, in the case of multi-tasking racists, both) and I don’t want to make that worse by calling people names. However, I can’t help feeling that everyone currently experiencing voter’s remorse has only themselves to blame.[3] What can you possibly say to someone who waits until the day after the vote to frantically Google ‘Jesus Christ, what the fuck is the EU?’, or who really, truly believes that Boris Johnson (who was sacked by a national newspaper for making stuff up) is an honest chap, or that the Sun is an impartial source of balanced and nuanced information?[4] I cannot comfort someone who muttered ‘good point’ when Nigel Farage urged us to take back control from people who haven’t been elected, when Nigel Farage isn’t even an MP.[5] The protest vote argument is the most laughable: if you voted Leave as a protest vote and now wish you hadn’t, what you are really saying is ‘I thought responsible voters would save me from myself.’ I have absolutely no sympathy for those currently wailing, ‘How could I possibly have known that a vote for Leave could lead to an overall majority of Leave votes?’ If you didn’t think anyone would take your vote seriously, why did you vote at all? Do you even understand what voting is?

It’s important to teach people (the hard way if necessary) that yes, your vote does matter and yes, you need to do your research and at least some thinking before you decide how to vote, rather than simply turning your existing prejudices and fears over in your mind. That sounds like it’s aimed at Leave voters, but of course it isn’t: since we have a secret ballot it could apply to anyone, and any vote. I also think there is something very dubious about the idea of re-running referenda/elections etc. until we get the ‘right’ result (especially as they aren’t actually legally binding). For one thing, political campaigns are really boring: the last four months have seemed interminable, with two lacklustre campaigns mangling the issues, until everyone just throws up their hands and says, ‘fine, yes, alright! I honestly don’t care anymore – just stop going on about it!’ Personally, I’m furious so much of my time has been wasted. I thought hard about my vote and I listened to the views of people that know more than me i.e. even more Radio 4 than usual (including, God help me, two editions of Moneybox). My carefully-considered vote counted the same as the vote of someone who rolled out of bed and put a cross in a box because he once had a Polish builder he didn’t care for. It counted the same as the vote of the person who called me a ‘liberal wanker’ on Facebook this afternoon after I commented that he must be very proud to have voted for the winning side (his stated reason for doing so was that he was fed up with Brussels ‘interfering with bananas’). It counted the same as the vote of the person who described me as a ‘xenophobe’ because I pointed out that voting Leave meant voting alongside racists, and that I thought that was very dangerous. I chose the word ‘alongside’ very carefully (more carefully than he chose the word ‘xenophobe’, anyhow), and was still misunderstood. On Twitter this morning, I saw this: ‘Of course not all Leavers are racists. That would be a terrible thought. But all racists now think 52% of the population agree with them’ (I was going to amend this slightly with square brackets, because 52% of the people that voted voted Leave, not 52% of the total population, but on reflection I’m going to let it stand because I think 52% of the population is probably closer to what the aforementioned racists actually think).

If you’re experiencing voter’s remorse, understand this: when you cast your vote, there isn’t a free-text box where you get to explain why you voted the way you did. That means we can’t differentiate between people who voted Leave as a protest of some kind, people who voted Leave because they have legitimate concerns about the EU, and people who voted Leave because they’re racist. Similarly, we can’t differentiate between people who voted Remain despite David Cameron and George Osborne urging them to do so, and people who voted Remain because they think Cameron is a fine statesman and that, despite appearances, Osborne is not at all a human weasel.[6] A cross in a box is not nuanced information. You may wish to convey something complex with your vote; you may even believe that you’re doing so, but that’s not how voting works. You were asked, clearly and specifically, about Britain’s membership of the EU. Answer the question you were actually asked, moron.

While I’m utterly horrified at the result, the potential break-up of the United Kingdom and the legitimisation of racism, I’m also very dubious about the idea of a second referendum. Yes, there is voter’s remorse, but there also seem to be many people becoming even more certain of the position they already hold, and even more contemptuous of the other side. If we were to have a second referendum in (say) two months, would the country bear the collective weight of being so unutterably bored and divided all over again? A second referendum would be no more legally binding than the first, because referenda are not the same as laws. For us to leave the EU, both Houses of Parliament still have to vote on the relevant legislation, a situation not dissimilar to our regretful protest voter hoping someone more responsible (Parliament? Really?) is going to ride to the rescue. And yet, it’s also very important that we don’t tolerate misinformation and lies, particularly in political campaigns that actually matter. Does that also mean we shouldn’t wear the results of votes in which the public were misled? Some of the misinformation was clearly very misleading and very persuasive. For example, the figure of £350 million per week being ‘sent’ to the EU quoted by the Leave campaign has been debunked many times (I also question the use of the word ‘send’: I don’t ‘send’ dinner from my kitchen to my house, since one is inside the other). Now that Leave has won, and the falling pound has wiped several times that amount off the value of the UK economy, we get to see IDS et al. saying, as nonchalantly as they can, ‘aha, yes, well, I never actually used that figure’. Rode around on the bloody bus, though, didn’t you?

Secondly, here’s something else I learnt from the referendum result, and it really pains me to say it: Michael Gove was right when he said people had ‘had enough of experts’. Mervyn King said in an interview on The World at One that he thought people didn’t want to be told what the former head of the Bank of England thought about Britain leaving the EU, but rather wanted some proper facts and figures so they could make up their own minds. He then refused to give his view either way, saying it would take at least two hours to give a properly balanced answer (‘Please’, I begged the radio, ‘give him two hours of airtime to do that, then!’). The following, from a book that has nothing whatever to do with politics, captures it nicely:

We are obviously going to present our view, but our overriding desire is to engage you via the evidence in a debate that is very much ongoing across several research communities, rather than simply convince you that we are right.[7]

People should make up their own minds, and they should listen to expert views while they do so, and then form their own view on the basis of the information presented to them and the expertise of the person presenting it. This is surely the fallacy at the root of all celebrity endorsement. Mervyn King’s view of the EU is important, well-informed and maybe even interesting (and I stand by all of those descriptors even though I don’t know what his view is). Can the same be said of David Beckham?[8] Moreover, seeking expert views is something we do as a matter of routine. We seek other people’s opinions when we buy anything from a house to a compost bin; we read and write reviews (see Iron Get Hot Now); we Google everything from individuals to cities. Seeking advice from people who know more than you do is a sensible, commonplace act. For example, if I was asked to (say) write an essay on economics, the first thing I would do is read the work of some economists. I’ve picked economics because a. I know very little about it; and b. it’s a discipline in which it is normal for experts to disagree violently with one another. Therefore, I would approach each expert view with a critical eye, thinking all the time about forming my own view, but also aware that I was becoming more informed as I went along, and therefore more qualified to express that view with confidence. I’m not arguing here that people who haven’t bothered to inform themselves about a given subject shouldn’t be allowed to vote on it; rather, I’m pointing out the cognitive dissonance in Gove’s position. He is suggesting that, because there were economists who failed to predict the crash in 2008, it is reasonable to ignore all economists. He is suggesting that it is legitimate to make uninformed decisions. If that’s what voting is, we don’t need four months of dreary campaigning: we just go into the booth, pretend we are characters in Yellow Submarine and pick YES or NO on general principle. I have even seen a couple of people stating defensively on social media that they ‘didn’t listen’ to any of the referendum coverage (how? It has been day and night for all of eternity) and voted based on ‘what I thought was right’. These are people who are actually proud of how uninformed they are, and how little opportunity they allowed themselves to have their views challenged, shaped or finessed by people who know more than they do, including people who agree with them.

How I rejoiced when Farage failed (again) to win a seat at the last general election! A terrible overall result, but at least Farage is going to go away and shut up, I thought. No such luck.

Farage
Non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage

 

Non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage says and does appalling things as a matter of routine. See, for example, his statement (above) that ‘we won it without a bullet being fired’, which I would have thought was the minimum requirement, and, oh yes, there were those bullets that killed Jo Cox MP on the same day as Farage’s hateful pseudo-Nazi ‘breaking point’ poster was unveiled, something he described as an ‘unfortunate’ coincidence. For other people, one comment like that would be the end of their career. Trump, Gove, Johnson, Farage and the like get away with it because they aren’t appealing to people’s thoughts, but their feelings. Farage tells people who already agree with him yes, the ‘feelings’ you have are totally valid: membership of the EU does somehow make your local hospital a bit crappier, your policemen scarcer, your child’s school crowded with African refugees and your road bumpy and full of pot-holes. It seems to me that whether or not there is a causal link between the EU and your local woes, your feelings on the subject are really neither here nor there until you have some actual data. What Farage et al. have achieved is to state out loud, in public that the data is neither here nor there, and feelings are everything. Are people like Farage and Trump[9] very clever, then, or are the people that listen to them very stupid? The point is that the question is irrelevant: they don’t need to be clever. They just need to be slightly cleverer than the people who think they agree with them. Farage has run for election to the House of Commons seven times, and every time he has been unsuccessful. This shows that he doesn’t need to be right; he doesn’t even need to be elected. He just needs to sound absolutely certain that he’s both.

The third and final thing I have learned from the referendum is that I have no idea why people vote the way they do. We ask people to vote, but as I pointed out earlier, we don’t ask them why they are voting the way they are (and as I’ll argue below, I’m not sure people can articulate why with any great accuracy). Further, because we don’t know why people voted the way they did, the data we do have can be interpreted and/or manipulated in any number of ways. For example, we can point to the suggestion that more educated people tended to vote Remain, and conclude that ‘being educated causes you to vote Remain’, but that’s not a strong inference. It may be that people with a degree are more likely to have met large numbers of young, well-educated, articulate and charming foreigners during their time at university (I certainly did), and therefore think of ‘migrants’ in completely different terms to someone living on a council estate in central Leeds surrounded by people speaking Foreign. It could also suggest any number of other things. My father pointed out that many people in his age group appear to have voted Leave, but that doesn’t mean their age was the cause of them doing so. This morning, Radio 4 reported on ‘David Cameron’s analysis of the referendum data’ and really, I’m dying to know: what analysis? What data? The people may have spoken, but I think mainly what we said was, ‘wait. What? WHAT?’

Similarly, notice how quick everyone was the morning after the 2015 general election to tell us that Labour had failed to engage their core vote; that David Cameron energised somebody or other by rolling up his shirt-sleeves and taking off his jacket; that the polling was misleading (remember that, before it disappeared into the maelstrom of news with barely a ripple?), and so forth. When the general election in 2010 resulted in a hung parliament and then eventually a coalition, journalists informed us ruefully that, ‘the people have spoken’, forgetting that ‘I’d like a hung parliament, please’ wasn’t on the ballot paper. In the 2015 general election, within a few hours of the result Labour politicians were giving interviews about what Labour had done wrong and what they needed to do differently, when they simply didn’t have sufficiently sophisticated data to know any of that. They spoke as if their ideas were self-evident, and yet somehow not self-evident enough to have occurred to them before the election. The Conservatives responded to UKIP’s pre-election campaign by attempting to appease potential UKIP voters, banging on about immigration even more than usual, and promising the referendum we’ve just had. However, I think it’s worth noting that UKIP won one seat in the last election, and 3.9 million votes. The Green Party also have one MP, and around 1.1 million votes, which is very nearly as many as the number of votes for the SNP (1.4 million, resulting in 56 seats). Of these four smaller parties, only UKIP and the SNP are taken seriously. Nobody responded to the Green vote by saying ‘crumbs, we simply must include more environmental measures to appeal to all the people that voted Green!’ and there is absolutely no suggestion that we should take the Lib Dems or their voters seriously (2.5 million votes and eight seats). I suggest that this is because the Tory party (and the dominant voices in the media) chose to interpret these data as ‘we simply must talk more about immigration and the EU’ and shuffled to the right in order to engage the 3.9 million UKIP voters, when they could just as easily have interpreted these data as ‘we simply must talk more about the environment and social issues’ and shuffled to the left in order to engage the 3.6 million Green and Lib Dem voters. I suggest that, much like the voters, politicians use data to confirm what they already think, to justify decisions they have already made, and to stay in their comfort zone. It seems that the two main parties are more interested in reinforcing the existing views of ‘their'(?) existing voters, rather than gaining new ones. Also, I conclude that Tories don’t care very much about the environment or social issues (and are very bad at pretending they care about these things); they do care about immigration and the EU, and so here we are.

Going through old teaching notes from Shanghai, I find the following statement on a mock interview for PPE:

Caroline comments that she thinks Russian voters expect masculinity from their political leaders. She illustrated this point by quoting a Russian friend, who said, ‘I saw him [Putin] with his shirt off on a horse once and I liked it.[10]

Google ‘Putin on a horse’ and you will get 394,000 hits. And yet, I’m sure that if that same Russian friend was asked by (say) a journalist why she voted for Putin, she’d say something politically relevant (about foreign policy or whatever) so that she didn’t sound like a moron.

Putin
Maybe Putin started by rolling up his shirt-sleeves and taking off his jacket as per Cameron, and the horse is thinking, ‘well, that escalated quickly’.

 

Do we actually have any reliable data that tells us why people vote the way they do? I like to get my information from the radio, and recycle newspapers, leaflets and copies of The Watchtower that come through the door without reading them. During elections and/or referenda, I only answer the door to the postman, because I work from home and don’t have time to debate politics with the local BNP candidate (actual example. The conversation ended with me telling him to fuck off back to wherever he came from). The point is that I’ve literally no idea if that’s typical. I’ve seen several friends on social media who were very active in the Remain campaign saying that they wish they had done more, but would it have made a difference? We behave as if leaflets, picking off voters one by one on the doorstep, interminable interviews on TV and radio, newspaper opinion pieces and sharing thoughtful videos and statements on social media are persuasive. Are they, or do they merely confirm the views people already have? Also, I think I know what caused me to vote Remain, but do I really? I think I voted Remain because I don’t like being lied to, and I felt the Leave campaign was lying to people; because I love Europe and think other Europeans should know that; because I think, given our history of empire and war-mongering, we should take more (way, way more) refugees than we actually do; because, much as I dislike doing things that make David Cameron and George Osborne more powerful and smug, I dislike that less than doing things that make non-Member of Parliament Nigel Farage more powerful and smug; and finally because it seemed to me that a vote to leave was also a vote for the break-up of the United Kingdom, with both Scotland and Northern Ireland on the table. If I was asked to give my reasons for voting as I did, that’s what I’d say, but it may be that my real unspoken reason is that I was at school with people like Boris Johnson (by which I mean financially comfortable, male and mediocre) and resented their assumption that they were entitled to rule the world. For many of these people, this sense of entitlement was so strong that they didn’t bother with trivia like homework or preparation, an attitude we can see in everything Boris Johnson has ever done. Look at his face. Read his terrible columnHe doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do next. According to his Wikipedia entry, Boris Johnson lost his wedding ring an hour after getting married and, for all his spoutings about immigration, was born in New York and has US citizenship. I suggest that this is not a man who thinks things through. Contrast the panicky, ‘tired’, bumbling Boris Johnson with Nicola Sturgeon, currently zipping around Europe being a sensible, calm leader, who actually had the sense and humility to make a fucking plan.

In my upper sixth year, my Cantonese boyfriend was chosen as Head Boy, and I remember being told (by someone who clearly thought he, a white, blond rugby player of very little brain, would have been a better choice) that my bright, kind, thoughtful and hard-working boyfriend shouldn’t be allowed to be Head Boy, because he only represented the Chinese students. When I pointed out that there were more Chinese students than there were girls, i.e. they were a sizeable minority, I was told there was no need for a Head Girl either, precisely because we were in the minority. Note that the objection was not ‘I’d be a better Head Boy because x’ or ‘I wish I’d competed better’, but ‘this shouldn’t be allowed’ i.e. the system had delivered a result he didn’t like.[11] Note also the cognitive dissonance: if you choose a Cantonese representative from a mixed gender, mixed race (i.e. white/Cantonese) group, he only represents the Cantonese males. If you accept that premise (and I don’t think you should), the suggested solution can be glossed one of two ways: either (a) ‘a white male represents everyone in the group regardless of whether they are white or male themselves’; or (b) ‘a white male only represents the white males in the group. That leaves both the Cantonese and the girls in the group unrepresented, but fuck minorities’. Let’s be clear: the group the aforementioned blond rugby player wanted to protect from the perils of under-representation was privileged white guys. Boris Johnson reminds me strongly of this boy, and I struggle to think of anything that might persuade me to vote alongside (or for) Boris Johnson.

If we really want politics to become more responsive, more informed, more interesting and less territorial, we all need to be more honest about our own motivations, and clearer about what actually persuades people. I think it is very easy to hurl ourselves furiously into activity: attacking/comforting immigrants; campaigning for this or that; signing petitions for this or that; seeking to apportion blame, and so forth. However, I suggest that we might want to spend some time considering which activities make the best use of our energy before we leave the stage. Brexeunt.


[1] The correct answer is ‘no’, Fact Fans, because students aren’t insured to get up on the kick-step, and can’t attend the (vital) Ladder Awareness course.

[2] Of course I understand that not everyone who is currently experiencing voter’s remorse voted Leave; I’m using a Leave voter as an example purely because the majority of voter’s remorse appears to be on that side.

[3] A report I read today put the number of people declaring themselves to have voted the ‘wrong’ way at just over 1.5 million, including people from both sides.

[4] Even if one had thought (erroneously) for several decades that the Sun was marvellous, surely the recent coverage of the Hillsborough enquiry would have given pause for thought?

[5] Farage has been an MEP for some time, but is not and has never been an MP. Therefore, since he is so keen that everyone knows who is elected and who is not, I think we should refer to him in public discourse as ‘non-MP Nigel Farage’. As I have argued elsewhere (see Punch drunk), I feel similarly about how we refer to convicted rapists in public life (as in, ‘Today, convicted rapist Mike Tyson unveiled his new range of men’s underwear. Nobody cared and he was later seen weeping quietly in a car park’) because a. rapists are, overwhelmingly, multiple offenders who show little remorse for or understanding of their crimes, and therefore this would be a public service, designed to make everyone safer; and b. we need to counterbalance the message that rapists can get away with it if they appear to be upstanding members of society, particularly if they are good at sports. We help them believe this is the case by protesting that they ‘always seemed nice’ when the crimes come to light, and then forgetting their crimes incredibly quickly. If it’s legitimate to remind an entire Trump rally that Mike Tyson used to be a champion boxer, it’s also legitimate to remind those people that, around the same time, he raped an eighteen-year-old, lied about it in court and was sentenced to ten years but only served three. He later wrote in his autobiography that he didn’t rape anyone and then blamed the victim for going to his hotel room in the first place, a stance that Donald Trump recently recapitulated. Then, just as the police failed to intervene when O.J. Simpson started beating his wife, everyone forgot about any of this because SPORTS.

[6] Me: Is there a box for ‘I’m voting to remain, but I also want it to be understood that this should not be taken as an endorsement of Cameron and George Osborne in any way, because fuck those guys’?
Official Polling Station Man: You’re the fourth person to make that joke today.
Me: It’s not a joke.
Official Polling Station Man: I’ll get the Special Pencil.

[7] Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2015), p. 9.

[8] I don’t care what David Beckham thinks because I see no evidence that he knows any more about the EU than I do. John Barnes, however, had several very interesting things to say after Gove misrepresented what he said about the possible consequences for British football of leaving the EU.

[9] Want to cheer yourself up with something Donald Trump-related? This Chrome extension automatically replaces the words ‘Donald Trump’ with an unflattering description from Jezebel. It really did make me feel slightly less depressed about geopolitics.

[10] Me: why do you think this vision of Russian ‘masculinity’ doesn’t include chest hair?
Caroline <shrugging>: People are stupid.

[11] The system was simply that the staff chose a Head Boy and Head Girl from the senior prefects, who they thought would be good. I think we might have been asked for our views, but there was certainly no campaigning or hustings etc.

Better together

I have written before about conflicting ideas of roles within relationships in young people (see Some bad words); the idea of a ‘normal’ introduction to relationships (see Punch drunk); and the place of relationship skills in sex education, as both student (see Shake it all about) and teacher (see Open the Box). I’ve argued (see Shake it all about) that isolating sex from the wider context of relationships is like teaching someone about baking by throwing eggs at them.[1] The over-arching argument I’ve been trying to make in all these posts is that good relationships and good relationship skills are enormously important, and something we don’t see enough of in wider society. Today, I’m interested in what makes a grown-up relationship work, in the context of the General Election.

Here is a brilliant video via Jezebel, showing parents talking to their children about ‘where babies come from’. My favourite things about this film, in ascending order of how much I love them, are as follows: the little girl in purple that says that God sends babies down to be born, particularly her epiphany face when her mother adds some basic biology to her basic theology; the kid and his mum who say variations on the word ‘vagina’ to each other until he’s happy he’s saying it correctly; and another little girl in purple, who identifies the primary physical difference between her parents as her father having ‘bigger hands’ and greets her father’s pocket-based explanation of sex with a perfect Sceptical Toad[2] face and the comment ‘eugh’ (as well she might). Later in the video, however, this second little girl in purple, whose name is Melody, completely nails the whole of sex, marriage, parenting and any co-operative relationship in two words. Her father says, ‘when two adults want to have a child, they have to … ’ and Melody fills in the gap for him. She says, ‘work together?’

The upcoming General Election annoys me for many reasons; there simply isn’t the time to go into them all here, particularly since one of the things that has annoyed me is how long the campaigns have taken (urgh. Is there really a whole week to go?). Therefore, I will confine myself to just two Annoying Things. Firstly, the infantile tone of the debate. Some of the politicians that get interviewed speak as if that very morning they were issued with a mouth and ears for the first time, and are still having trouble negotiating the trickier elements of both listening to what they are actually being asked and responding in a meaningful way. These are people who speak in public, on a given range of subjects, for a living. Why are so many of them so terrible at it? Why do they recycle the same General Election Bingo terms until you could swear you had already flung the radio across the room, and the babbling in your ears is actually the rushing of blood? The lack of cross-referencing in the way some of these people speak about each other and about issues is breath-taking. For example, we are all perfectly capable of remembering the soft soap of the Better Together campaign, suggesting that it was better for both Scotland and the rest of the UK for everything to stay Just So. Regardless of whether that’s the case, we all remember the way the coalition attempted to frighten everyone into doing what they wanted. Skip forward to now, and suddenly the Scots are the enemy. I don’t understand the tactic of wheeling out Sir John Major (knighted for services to People With Boring Voices) to argue that the SNP are dangerous nutters who will flounce off to eat porridge and toss cabers the minute negotiations become strained, thereby destabilising the government whenever they feel like it. Does nobody remember any British history? Of the various parts that make up the United Kingdom, is Scotland really the country most likely to bully others into doing what it wants? I don’t recall Scotland having an empire spread halfway around the world, subjugating other nations, stealing their natural resources and eradicating languages and traditions, but perhaps it happened when I was in the aforementioned radio-based red mist.

I also think it’s bonkers to attempt to frighten potential SNP voters with the notion that the two main parties are ‘unable’ to work with the SNP. This suggests to me that independence would be vastly preferable to being effectively shut out of British politics altogether, by either Cameron or Miliband taking the huff. You’ll notice also that both leaders of the larger parties continually invoke Alex Salmond as the bogeyman representative of the SNP, because Nicola Sturgeon is likeable, professional and popular both sides of the border, so a. let’s pretend she doesn’t exist; and/or b. she’s not really in charge. Alex Salmond is standing for election in a Scottish constituency, but he’s been well out of the limelight since leaving office, isn’t the leader of the SNP and hasn’t been for six months. Despite that, and despite (for me) Nicola Sturgeon putting on a consistent show of leadership skills and general competence, yesterday on PM, she was asked a series of questions implying that Alex Salmond was secretly in charge. Why? This isn’t as bad as the way Hillary Clinton’s gender is used as a stick to beat her with (see The man doctor will see you now), but I doubt very much that a male political leader as popular as Nicola Sturgeon would be asked if he was ‘really the leader’ in this way.

My second Annoying Thing is the way in which so many of the politicians (particularly the men. Imagine my surprise)[3] feel they have to assert themselves by banging on about who they will and won’t collaborate with. Here’s something I’ve learned from my various jobs: I am very lucky to be able to choose who I work for and with (see Exemplum Docet and I was flying from the threat of an office life), and in being able to negotiate the balance of power within each working relationship. However, the majority of people get the colleagues they are stuck with, and have to make the best of it. That is because choosing a new head of department (say) is a collaborative process, and won’t/can’t involve absolutely every person who will be required to work with the successful candidate once they are in place. Similarly, MPs don’t get to choose who we elect. Once we’ve elected them, all the MPs in government, as part of a coalition or whatever, should show that they are grown-up people who respect the choices made by the electorate by working together. In any context, but particularly in the context of the Scottish independence referendum and how close it was, it simply doesn’t make sense for either of the larger parties to say ‘we won’t work with the SNP’, when the SNP members will have been elected by exactly the same democratic processes used to elect the person speaking. Yes, you will work with the SNP (or the Lib Dems, or UKIP, or the Greens, or Plaid Cymru, or whomever). If you don’t, you are denying the democratic rights of every single constituent that politician represents. Moreover, those potentially SNP-voting constituents are, I hope, smart enough to realise that ‘I shouldn’t vote for the SNP because the Conservative/Labour party is too childish to work with them’ isn’t sound logic. You may want to throw your toys out of the pram; you may not like having to work together, but in such a close election full of uncertainties, one of the few things we can be sure of is that whoever is in government will have to work with at least some people they find distasteful.

Finally, consider this: just as everyone else has to work with people they may not like much, everyone has to deal with disagreement within their relationships. Everyone. Imagine a coalition/collaboration between (say) Labour and the SNP. Imagine that partnership as a difficult marriage (see Delete as appropriate) and it becomes clear fairly quickly that, again, Melody is spot on. You won’t agree with your partner on every single damn thing and sometimes you will argue with each other. Our metaphorical spouses are going to be exhibiting classic Dysfunctional Couple Behaviour and arguing in public.[4] In a political context, again, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. A healthy relationship is not one in which the partners never disagree; that would be both weird and dull. A healthy relationship is one in which disagreement is expected, because you are both complex, passionate, grown-up people with your own opinions. A healthy relationship is one in which those disagreements are handled in a calm, mature and open way, probably involving compromise on both sides, but which ultimately makes the relationship better. Therefore, if political disagreements lead to more public debate, fine: the largest governing party will be unable to rely on an overwhelming majority who can be whipped to vote a particular way, but instead will have to actually persuade a bunch of people who don’t agree with them in order to get anything passed. In other words, they will have to do politics properly.

————————————–

[1] The kid in the video I mention in the second paragraph who describes having a child as ‘sperm egg collide blah blah blah’ is the closest read-across to our current sex education, except we don’t bother with the ‘blah blah blah’ part.

[2] Also the eponymous central character of my first children’s book, Sceptical Toad Goes to School. 

[3] Contrast that with the group hug between the three female party leaders during the TV debate, and the way various female politicians talked this morning on Woman’s Hour about co-operation and working to change British politics as a whole.

[4] ‘I don’t care if you like the own-brand chickpeas better!’ <flings can into trolley>

‘The man doctor will see you now’

I love Woman’s Hour. It’s a super program, full of thoughtful, passionate women talking about things that actually matter. I admit that there is sometimes an almost audible grinding of gears as they segue from (say) an interview about women being stoned to death in Iran for adultery to (say) an earnest discussion of whether the maxi dress is back, but otherwise this is good radio. Today, however, the phrase ‘women politicians’ issued from the speaker and I can’t let that go.

‘Woman’ is a noun. ‘Women’ is a noun. Nouns. Not adjectives. NOUNS. The adjectival form is, strictly speaking, ‘womanly’ and I’d pay good money to hear someone refer to, I don’t know, Theresa May, as a ‘womanly politician’ (‘she’s womanly, by which I mean it’s legitimate for us to talk about her shoes rather than her policies’). We should not be saying or writing ‘women doctors, ‘women politicians’ or ‘woman presidential candidate’, but ‘doctors’, ‘politicians’ and ‘Hillary Clinton’, because in none of those cases is the gender of the person concerned remotely relevant to what they are doing (even in Hillary Clinton’s case, this is true: she may be remarkable in part for what she is doing for women and the way we are perceived, but she would still be a remarkable politician if she were male, especially with regard to her work on Chinese stoves, of all things).[1] Therefore the word ‘woman’ is not only grammatically dubious but redundant. If one is speaking or writing about a situation in which gender is relevant (e.g. a discussion of whether ladies will be allowed to become bishops in the Church of England, or whether all the excellent women should simply splinter off and form our own church, leaving the sexist rump to arrange their own Goddamn flowers), then one should say ‘female bishops’.

As with so much in grammar, it’s largely a matter of opinion as to whether it’s acceptable to use ‘woman’ as what we call an apposite noun i.e. a noun that is used to modify, identify or explain another noun. The argument goes that, firstly, using ‘woman’ as an adjective (‘woman bishop’) changes the modified noun (‘bishop’) more than using ‘female’ would, and therefore the ‘woman-ness’ of the bishop in question is emphasised. Secondly, ‘woman’ only ever denotes adult female[2] humans, whereas ‘female’ could refer to anything from a whale to a statue, and therefore using ‘woman’ is more respectful.

I think both these arguments are nonsense. Firstly, I think that emphasising the gender of the bishop (or the doctor, or the pilot, or whatever) is simply a way of folding sexism into the grammar, as one might fold an unnecessary flavouring into an otherwise pleasant cake. It’s a way of saying, ‘hark at me! A woman pilot! A pilot who is also a woman! HOW CAN THIS BE?’ See, for example, the splendid old-fashioned chauvinism of She’ll Never Get Off The Ground by Robert J. Serling,[3] a novel that makes its intentions clear in the subtitle: A novel about a woman airline pilot …?![4]. The awkwardness of the language (and no-one can tell me that ‘woman airline pilot’ trips off the tongue) echoes the awkwardness that we are supposed to feel about the whole concept (see also ‘midhusband’ and ‘male nurse’). Secondly, I suppose it might be argued that being referred to as ‘female’ is degrading because the same word could equally be applied to a cow wandering vacantly round a field, a spider with half her mate sticking out of her mouth or a dog that’s licking itself, and so it can, and I don’t think that matters at all. What does matter is that ‘female’ cannot be used to denote something intended for use by females e.g. ‘female toilet’. This implies that the toilet itself has gender, which of course it doesn’t. The toilet is not female, any more than a skirt or a bra or a tampon is female; toilets, skirts, bras and tampons are, mostly, for the use of females.[5] I suspect that this horrible phrase is used to avoid the knotty question of how to punctuate the possessive plural (Ladies’ Toilet, the toilet for ladies). If you don’t know how to punctuate a possessive plural, wouldn’t it be better to ask someone with a basic education how to do it, rather than choose a different word to misuse as a workaround? Females objecting to being called ‘female’ is so stupid that I almost can’t be bothered to refute it. ‘Female’ is a perfectly good word. It’s not remotely offensive (or, if it is, it’s a lot less offensive when applied to a woman that it is when applied to a toilet).

Consider French grammar for a moment. David Sedaris says the following:

Because it is a female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine. Vagina is masculine as well, while the word masculinity is feminine. Forced by the grammar to take a stand one way or the other, hermaphrodite is male, and indecisiveness female … I was told that if something is unpleasant, it’s probably feminine. This encouraged me, but the theory was blown by such masculine nouns as murder, toothache and Rollerblade.[6]

The word elles refers to a group of women. The word ils refers to a group of men. Ils also refers to a mixed group, made up of equal numbers of men and women. It can refer to a mixed group in which women predominate and a group in which they don’t. This tiny word ils can, in fact, denote a group made up almost entirely of women, provided that the group also contains a man. Or a male baby. Or a male dog. In other words, the masculinity of a single panting dachshund (even a comparatively effeminate one) in that group, a group which could contain thousands of women, trumps the existence of every single woman there. The same applies in Spanish (and no doubt many other languages that I’m not familiar with). This, it seems to me, is highly objectionable and should be challenged (and changed). Grammar changes all the time, usually for the worse through sloppy usage. It can, therefore, change for the better if enough people decide that it should. This is a battle worth fighting: women objecting to being described as ‘female’, I would argue, is not.[7]

We should seek equality in all things, including grammar. One does not say ‘the man bishops today decided that, actually, some of them would quite like to arrange their own flowers’, any more than one might say ‘the cabinet is made up primarily of man politicians’ or ‘the man doctor will see you now’. We say simply ‘the bishops’, ‘of politicians’ and ‘the doctor’, because we all assume (as does the grammar) that the gender of these people does not need to be stated. This should be on the grounds of irrelevance, but actually, of course, it doesn’t need to be stated because we know what their gender is already: they are all men. This is the default position of both society and the English language: the word ‘man’ would be removed from ‘man doctor’ on the same grounds of redundancy as I suggested above. So the uncomfortable compromise we have reached is to say ‘doctors’ to denote male doctors, and ‘women doctors’ to denote something freakish.[9] This contradicts the basic purpose of grammar, which is to remove ambiguity of meaning from language. ‘Woman doctor’ is anti-grammar: it introduces ambiguity in the meaning. Does it refer to a woman who is also a doctor, a doctor who primarily treats conditions found only in women (as one might say ‘bone doctor’ or similar), or perhaps some kind of weird hybrid of a woman and a doctor, using ‘woman doctor’ as one might use ‘witch doctor’? ‘Doctor’, however, is clear; and ‘female doctor’, in a situation where the gender of the doctor matters, is clear; and ‘man doctor’ is just silly.[10]


[1] Notice how her opponents can’t stop reminding you that she’s a woman. Why is that important? Because political leaders are men, Indira Ghandi, Benazir Bhutto, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Mary McAleese, Aung San Suu Kyî, Angela Merkel, Michelle Obama and Nicola Sturgeon notwithstanding, we assume. I should also point out that strong female politicians are now such a commonplace that, while I admit I checked a couple of spellings, I didn’t have any trouble in coming up with this list off the top of my head. Rather than attack Clinton’s policies, her opponents attack what they consider to be her weak spot (her gender), and they do it in a way that would be beneath a group of sexist teenagers, most recently with badges that read ‘KFC Hillary Special: two fat thighs, two small breasts… left wing’. What can one say about a group of people so profoundly childish, other than ‘FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T VOTE THESE PEOPLE INTO PUBLIC OFFICE!’?

[2] Did you see what I did there?

[3] Mr. Serling is also the author of The President’s Plane is Missing, which was presumably being flown by a woman who wanted to stop off on the way to Washington to purchase a pair of tights and some lipstick. It appears at number 13 in a diverting list of terrible book titles, which also includes the ‘Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories’ at number 25, a title that has grammatical problems all of its own in the dangling modifier is-it-being-used-as-a-noun-or-an-adjective? confusion created by the placement of the word ‘Lesbian’. Are these stories about horses for lesbians, stories about horses and lesbians, or stories about lesbian horses? (‘Strangely Brown Beauty’s nostrils flared. She certainly hadn’t expected to be entered at Aintree’).

[4] The incredulous suspension points and interrobang (compound question mark/exclamation mark) also won Most Insulting Use of Punctuation 1967.

[5] One sees this on Ebay every day: ‘Woman’s dress, size 16’ says the heading. As opposed to …?

[6] And Professor John Raven. A role model for small, as yet un-heteronormatived/gender-role’d children if ever I saw one.

[7] He’s quite right: the French word for vagina (le vagin) is masculine, despite a. coming from a feminine Latin root and b. OH COME ON. David Sedaris (2000), ‘Make That a Double’, from Me Talk Pretty One Day (London, Abacus), p. 188.

[8] You can read more about the woman/female debate in the New York Times. Or just use an adjective as an adjective and a noun as a noun and stop pissing me off.

[9] Thereby reinforcing the idea that a woman attempting to also be a doctor is something to be exclaimed over.

[10] I hope we can all enjoy the clash of stereotypes here: a man can be a doctor, but if he’s unwell he doesn’t have to go and consult a doctor until parts of his body start turning black and withering away.

‘GAH! Michael Gove!’

Seymour nominated me for the Leibster award, a thing which draws attention to, you know, blogs. WIN. The rules are that I post eleven facts about me (chosen by me); I answer eleven questions (chosen by Seymour); and finally, I pose eleven questions for eleven other bloggers I nominate to do the same exercise. So here goes:

Eleven facts about me

  1. I don’t own (and have never owned) a mobile ‘phone, a microwave, a toaster or a freezer. I have never read a Harry Potter book (because I’m thirty-three, for God’s sake). I will also shortly be without a television, as per the instructions of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. I have never watched an episode of Big Brother or any episode of any soap opera. I don’t watch news on the television and I don’t read newspapers, so all of my current affairs-related information comes from Radio 4. I only have the TV at all for films, box sets and televised sport (athletics; gymnastics; figure skating; rugby; snooker if I am ironing; and, in the days when I could still drink, darts, so that I could really enjoy shouting at the TV).
  2. I don’t drink. Sometimes when people ask me why this is, I tell them I’m Amish.
  3. I have a stress-related bowel disorder, caused by working in higher education for ten years. It’s painful and humiliating and is the real reason I can’t drink anymore. Dostoyevsky said the following, which I think describes the bulk of that hellish decade very neatly: ‘If one wanted to crush and destroy [literacystrumpet] entirely, to mete out to [her] the most terrible punishment, all one would have to do would be to make [her] do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.’ Now I work for myself, and can’t imagine doing anything else.
  4. I’m scared of daddy-long-legses (or craneflies, if you prefer). They are so much worse than spiders. I don’t much like spiders (except garden spiders – they’re awesome), but at least spiders are sensible creatures with a purpose and a bunch of skills. Plus, when disturbed they tend to scuttle away and are usually amenable to (nay, grateful for) being caught in a suitable receptacle and returned to the outside world. Craneflies, however, are utterly pointless and seem to delight in zooming about rooms that they shouldn’t be in, legs spread and quivering and making a noise that haunts my nightmares.[1]
  5. Bees don’t sting me, even when I pick them up or plunge my hands into their hives. I did this once at the bee place in Portreath. According to the guy there, ‘some people smell like bees to bees’ and don’t need netting or smoke or whatever, a group of freaks that apparently includes me. There was a time when a swarm of bees settled in a garden belonging to friends of mine, where we were peacefully playing croquet, and I was able to pick up whichever ones I thought most interesting (and rescue several from concealed spider-webs) without so much as a suggestion of a sting. I am the Bee Whisperer. The only time I have been stung by a bee was when I found a queen bee in some grass and was so excited to see one up close that I picked her up to have a good look. She was freaking huge, not best pleased to be manhandled, and stung me viciously on the finger. I wonder if some people smell like queen bees to bees?
  6. Where other children might accidentally call their teacher ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ at school and then be mortified, I called my father ‘Sir’ at regular intervals throughout my childhood (and once or twice in adult life), which we both thought was just fine.[2]
  7. I think almost everyone looks better in glasses, including Superman.
  8. I don’t like mushrooms. I don’t allow them into my kitchen: they linger outside in the hall on top of the boiler to dry out.[3] Then I put the horrid things into jars and give them away to understanding friends.
  9. I was once asked in an interview what my ideal job was. I can’t remember what my actual reply was, because I was putting so much energy into *not* saying ‘I want to be Colin Sell’ (it wasn’t a job that would have involved playing the piano).[4]
  10. I am a tenor, and have been for about ten years. My range is tiny: C3 (C below middle C) on a good day, but most days barely-audible D3, up to C5 (C above middle C). C5 is sometimes called the ‘tenor C’, because it is the upper limit of what tenors are required to sing in standard repertoire, although I must say I’m only rarely asked to sing as high as that. I have sung with the same church choir for fourteen years, and the acceptance and joy I have found from doing so means everything to me.
  11. Some can sing; some can dance. I can make marmalade.

 

Answer eleven questions from Seymour

  1. Tattoo? Yes. I used to have one around my ankle, which read ‘Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’ (a quotation from the hymn ‘Praise My Soul The King of Heaven’) during a period of religious enthusiasm. If only I had channelled this energy into something more meaningful than a tattoo. I had it removed when the black ink went green, which hurt like hell but fortunately did not leave much of a scar.
  2. Have you ever collected anything a bit odd? Thimbles.
  3. If you had the time and money to further your education, what would you study? Theatrical costume design.
  4. In the Hollywood feature film of your life, who would you like to play the title role? Jennifer Grey, with her hair as per Dirty Dancing.
  5. What was the last song or piece of music you listened to? Ascendens Christus in altum’, by Tomás Luis de Victoria (I was learning it for Ascension Day). For pleasure, the last song I listened to was ‘Love Has Come For You’ (Steven Martin and Edie Brickell, from their new banjotastic album of the same name).
  6. If you were stuck in a lift for an hour, which historical figure would you most like to have for company? Maurice Sendak.
  7. What is the next book you hope to read? Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’ve read it five or six times, but it’s an infinitely rewarding book that deserves to be read in times of crisis (and at other times, too).
  8. In a house fire, which of your possessions would you most like to save (apart from the house)? My laptop (which contains my novel and all my work) and as much of my fabric stash as I could carry.
  9. What would be your ultimate comfort food? Homemade meatballs with tomato sauce, spaghetti and lots of cheese.
  10. Where do you stand on politicians, from “I don’t vote” to “they are our only hope”? Women died so that I could have the vote. So I vote. But politicians continue to disappoint me, over and over.[5]
  11. Could you summarise how you see your mission in life in a single sentence? (What would it be?) I am deeply suspicious of people who can summarise their mission in life in a single sentence (who has such an uncomplicated purpose?). Maybe it’s my mission in life to teach people the following thing: sometimes using more words is absolutely fine. More words can be clarifying, specific and elegant, while fewer words can mean that a message becomes smeared into something so vague and homogenised that it ceases to mean anything at all.

 

Pose eleven questions of my own for other bloggers to respond to

  1. Is making music purely for yourself and those you make it with and/or for, or should it be (at least a little) for the people that can hear you?
  2. Does a gift that has been made for you rather than purchased still mean more if you really, really hate it?
  3. Wings or a tail?
  4. Stripes or spots (or, most excitingly, both together)?
  5. Night owl or morning lark? Do you ever wish you were the other one?[6]
  6. Name some things that you wash but don’t iron (my list: sheets, duvet covers, underwear, towels, bath mats, flannels, tights, tea towels).
  7. Name some words that you love (my list: frangipani; anaglypta; cocoa; cruciform; crackerjack; anacrusis; circumflex; archaeopteryx; nostril; macaroon; thurible; tangerine; toad).
  8. Name some words that you hate (my list: moist; nasal; douche; boil; pouch; slick, esp. when used as a verb e.g. ‘slick on some lipstick’ argh argh).
  9. I once took four of my young nephews to Bristol Zoo, shuffling them to the front of the crowd around the lion enclosure just in time to see that the lions had decided this was an excellent moment to reaffirm their bond through the physical act of love. As an introduction to sex, what it lacked in intimacy and tenderness it made up for in snarling and clawing at the ground. However, when I thought about it afterwards I was at a loss as to what *would* constitute an appropriate introduction to sex for children under the age of ten. Discuss.
  10. I love textiles and I love music. However, I have a passionate hatred of textiles printed with musical notation. Musicians are always having this nonsense forced on them (‘look! It’s got music on it! And you like music, right?’ Good Lord). Do you have any similar beloved x + beloved y = hated z situations?
  11. Really, what is the point of Just For Men? I would really like to know.

 

Nominate eleven other bloggers

I just don’t read that many blogs, and several of those that I do read (Brainpickings, for example) don’t really need attention drawing to them. So I’ve nominated some that I think deserve to be better known.

  1. Seymour at Seymour Writes (yes, I know he’s already written a Leibster post, and this is my way of making it easy for you to read it);
  2. Emily at Through the Lattice (Seymour has already nominated her, but see above);
  3. Lilian at Bookmouse;
  4. Garden Naturalist, who really ought to blog more often. It’s been years;
  5. Bakingbiologist;
  6. Alex at closetphysicist;
  7. Robin at Robin Coyle;
  8. Alice at Alice Laird;
  9. Andie at andiesplace;
  10. Catt at DECIPHer, although she’s probably not allowed to come out and play; and finally
  11. Mark at many headed monster (ditto, although he could always do this exercise from an early modern perspective).

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[1] That’s what she said.

[2] He’s a teacher, not a knight of the realm. Maybe one day he’ll be both and *everyone* will have to call him Sir.

[3] I think of this as killing them. I know.

[4] I am a splashy pianist at best, so this would not end well.

[5] They also scare me, because (as I said) I get my news from the radio and am therefore prone to starting back in horror when confronted with photographs of public figures I am familiar with, but have never seen (‘GAH! Michael Gove! MY EYES!’).

[6] I’m writing this at fourteen minutes past midnight. Hoot.

Give a little whistle

I have been taking advantage of all the extra time I have now that I no longer have a proper job to catch up on some reading. It shows how behind I am that the quotation which prompts this post is from the London Review of Books, May 13th 2010:

Michael Gove, who increasingly resembles a defrocked pantomime dame, did quite well under post-manifesto interrogation from Jeremy Paxman, but I’m afraid that while he spoke at least half my brain was taken up by a heckler who was yelling: ‘I don’t want any sermons about democratic participation from a man who claimed a £34.99 foam cot mattress on his Parliamentary expenses.’[1]

I know the expenses scandal is a long time ago, but since I didn’t hear anybody making the point I wanted to make at the time, here is my take on it. In particular, I am interested here in the use of the word ‘conscience’, and the closely-related (but different) word ‘conscious’.

Most of the discussion of the expenses scandal was about ‘the system’. The system of reclaiming expenses and what was allowed and what wasn’t was described as broken, confusing and unfit for purpose. MPs queued up to say how dreadful it was: I even heard an MP on The World at One explaining that it was perfectly reasonable for people to put in claims for all manner of things, including things that they were fairly sure weren’t allowed, on the grounds that these items would simply be turned down and no harm done. Nevermind that this is a tremendous waste of everyone’s time, or that it implies that MPs are unable to understand or even acquaint themselves with the relevant rules, or that it removes the burden of making difficult decisions from people who have supposedly been elected on the basis that they are suitable people to make a whole load of difficult decisions on behalf of their constituents. In other words, it was not necessary for MPs to be conscious of what the rules were: there was a whole department to do this for them, and to apply said rules, and to send them the money deemed to be theirs by right.

Clearly, the system for claiming expenses was inadequate, but that’s not the point. The point is that this shouldn’t matter. If one works with an expenses system (or indeed any other system) in which the rules are either unclear or applied inconsistently, then the rules do not regulate one’s behaviour in a meaningful way. The only thing regulating one’s behaviour is one’s conscience. It is simply not good enough to say ‘the rules allowed me to claim for a duck house, so I claimed for a duck house’ i.e. the rules alone determine what I take to be morally acceptable. Do you really mean to say that you, an over-educated, highly qualified member of parliament, are not capable of deciding for yourself whether the taxpayer should pay for your pets to have housing appropriate to their needs? Moat-cleaning, cot-furnishing and the accommodation of waterfowl aside, there was of course also the case of Eliot Morley, who reclaimed mortgage payments on a mortgage he knew he had already paid off. What these by now well-rehearsed examples amount to is doing whatever you like as a default position. If you get caught out, then (and only then) you feel bad about it. If you don’t get caught, this allows you to believe that what you have been doing is morally acceptable, and indeed has in some vague way been sanctioned by somebody or other. Parallel lines of pseudo-logic can be seen in the ‘she was asking for it by wearing/drinking/saying x’ defence of rapists; attempts to declare the Iraq war ‘illegal’ when surely ‘immoral’ should have been more than enough; ‘I wore red socks to school and the teachers didn’t say anything, so they must be part of the uniform now’ (one of my dimmer students); and a former burglar I heard on PM recently saying that the people he had robbed ‘deserved it’ because he hadn’t found breaking into their house sufficiently difficult.

The vast majority of staff at the University Which Continues To Have No Name So That I Don’t Get Sued massively under-claim for their expenses, through embarrassment at processing a 67p receipt for a packet of biscuits (say); through forgetting to keep a receipt in the first place; through not really knowing what the rules are about things such as mileage or meals with guest speakers; or through actual principles about what they feel it is reasonable to charge to the university. However, one particular colleague used to claim for absolutely everything he could think of. I’m going to refer to him as Dr. Banana Republic (not because he bought his clothes in Banana Republic, but because he behaved as though being the dictator of a small, heavily-oppressed nation took up most of his time). I’m going to insist on the title ‘Dr’ also; he always insisted on being referred to as Professor, despite being no such thing, for reasons that I won’t go into here because THEY DON’T EXIST. Books of stamps (I wrote ‘use the franking machine next time’ on so many post-it notes that I might as well have had a stamp made, carved from purest irony) and packets of drawing pins (Me, again via post-it: ‘is there something wrong with the drawing-pins in the stationery cupboard?’; Senior Lecturer K: ‘what stationery cupboard?’) were the inexpensive end of the wedge. At the other end was a £45 fax to Nigeria, and his inability to apply any sense of moral moderation to the rule that allowed staff to claim up to £5 per meal for any meal purchased while on university business for which they were not able to produce a receipt. Every single expense claim of his that involved travel would always include three ‘meals’ per day, each of which had apparently cost him precisely £5, and none of which he could back up with a receipt. This often added several hundred pounds to each claim. Dr. Banana Republic defended this exactly as above: the rules say this is OK.

If it were up to me, there would be no rules whatsoever about what could be claimed, by both MPs and members of academic staff. The only stipulation would be that *everything* they claimed appeared prominently on a website with their name and photograph on it, below the statement ‘I think somebody else should pay for this.’ We could call it www.jiminycricket.org.uk.


[1] This is from a post on the LRB blog by the brilliant John Lanchester. He is also the author of two of the best new books I have read in a long time: Mr Phillips and The Debt to PleasureI am ashamed to admit that I have at least one more of his books in the library which passes for my house, which I have so far failed to read. I’m sure it’s magnificent, though.