Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Welcome to the depression election

I'm going abroad tomorrow. I'm not running away from the election campaign, but boy am I glad to see the back of all the bitter, depressing turgidness of it all. I had a terrible moment the other night: I was watching TV and the thing I was half-watching finished and the news started and there was David Cameron's puffy, shifty face spouting tosh and I tried to change the channel and the TV decided it didn't like the remote (they have an ongoing, fractious relationship) and then I couldn't get out of the sofa because the sofa is broken and saggy and I had a bowl of hot soup in my lap and there was nothing I could do except yell in horror for the duration of the several minutes it took me extract myself and make it across the room to deliver a good slap to the off-button. I expect the neighbours thought I was being murdered.

Sometimes, watching the election coverage, I've thought I wouldn't mind if I was. This is the most awful, depressing political spectacle I've ever witnessed. It's like a festival of joylessness in which the parties compete to numb the electorate into giving up their votes out of sheer resignation. It's like a competition of bad, in which you're offered various flavours of awful, and you get to decide which you're least unenthusiastic about.

I know this seems startling, but politics used to be about optimism. Political parties would compete to offer voters a better vision of the future. Sometimes the vision was bogus, selfish, unlikely, or unachievable, but the point was you could envisage it and sigh a little bit, picturing it in your mind as you delivered up your x. If you don't believe me, look at this lovely lovely Labour Party poster from the 1920s. (This is not me endorsing the Labour Party by the way, but that is one hell of a poster)


 Politics recently, on the other hand, has mostly been about offering voters, at best, something less shitty than that which they currently endure. As I understand it, the party offerings right now look more or less like this.

UKIP: Less of yer foreign shit
Conservative: Same shit as last year
Liberal Democrats: We like shitting in the Downing St toilet
Labour: Slightly less shit than the Tories
SNP: Keeping the shit in England away from Scotland
Green: Enough of this shit

Even when the parties talk about things you might actually want, they frame it in negative terms. Support the NHS? Sure, most of us do, but the NHS is something you rely on when you're sick. I don't want to be sick, I don't do it for entertainment. Is any party offering anything to help you to be healthy? How about better quality food, more green space, making it easier to walk or cycle? The Lib Dems are keen are to tackle mental health, as well they might, as apparently there's an epidemic of depression. As I understand it, though, they aren't actually offering anything to make Britain less depressing, they're just suggesting more money for medication to dumb the pain.

The weird thing about all the NHS-loving is that when it was set up in the 40s it was done in the context of a massive roll-out of things that would improve people's lives. Stinking, leaking houses would be pulled down; nobody would be hungry; schools would churn out a healthy, educated populace to work in well-regulated, safe, factories and workplaces. Time off from these workplaces would be filled by touring symphony orchestras and trips to the beach and cheap access to books and classes and museums. It might not have all worked out like that but everyone who signed up to this vision understood that the safe workplaces and dry houses and books and daytrips and municipal swimming pools were as much part of it as the free doctors visits. Having come out of a war they understood about morale and people hanging together and that symphony orchestras are as important as aircraft production because humans are humans and need to be inspired. It's just that in the intervening 70 years we forgot all that, the clean dry housing and the parks and all the good bits of the deal, and instead arrived at a situation, culturally and politically, where it's the done thing to beat the crap out of people, and when they fall apart, you send them to the NHS. Because we think that looking after the sick is politically acceptable. Doing all the things that ensure people don't get sick in the first place isn't, apparently.

Please don't misunderstand me, I don't think all these parties are equal or as bad as each other. I just don't understand why the entire thing is being framed in such miserable terms. It's like the epidemic of depression infected the whole body politic. Nobody is allowed to suggest anything that might be slightly desirable without all the other parties and the media leaping on them. It's like 'But how are you going to afford it?' is the slogan for the entire campaign. Well, let's start: we're one of the richest countries in the world. We're going to pay for it out of tax receipts, that's what the tax collected is for, it's for us to do things that we want to. As the government, we get to decide how to spend it. We'd like to spend some money on making people's lives better, rather than dealing with the repercussions of their lives being shit. That's all, thanks.

Can you imagine any politician saying that? No, I don't think so. Because no-one is apparently allowed to mention hope, or joy, or flowerbeds or diving boards or ice-creams or anything ever except the possibility of it might be minutely less shit if we're in charge. Any attempt to mention these things is squashed, ruthlessly, and rolled out as evidence that the person muttering about them is deluded, out-dated or insane. Evidence of personality is also ruthlessly leaped-upon, leaving us with only the anodyne, lying management-speak of speeches written by committee.

The weird thing about all this isn't there isn't exactly a crisis. I say exactly because I'm coming to believe that there's actually two types of crisis, a crisis of movement, in which nothing is able to stand still, and a crisis of stagnation, in which nothing is able to move. It's like we're living through the latter, a slow grinding-down of encroaching shittiness that removes anyone's ability to respond. So in a sense, there is a crisis. It's just not the financial one they're telling you about (endlessly). I think people usually recognise the first kind, it's harder to spot the second, until, perhaps, it's passed.

I've written before about the adoption of horrible as some kind of cultural aspiration, but I do wonder at what point we all voted for this terrible abyss of joylessness. Even when Winston Churchill told the nation that he 'had nothing to offer but blood, sweat, toil and tears' he managed to make it sound a little bit glorious. I'm not sure death and glory is the best of political principles but at least you get to march up the high street with girls throwing flowers before you get to get mown down.

With most of the current offer you won't even get to get off the sofa, and there will be no flowers involved.

The whole thing is so depressing, it makes me think I'd settle for pretty much any offer of any positive thing, rather than an offer of 5% less shit.

To be honest I'd settle for a new sofa. Or an ice-cream, or a flower-bed, even some plastic ones in a vase. Or a postcard with a nice picture that I can look at while I'm voting. Just as long as they all stop screeching 'YES, BUT HOW WILL YOU AFFORD IT' at me, ok?

I'll be back before the election. Unfortunately.

In the meantime, I'll be on the beach.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Economics Is for Everyone: Boom Bust Boom Conference Reviewed

Last week I had a work meeting in Manchester, which gave me an ideal opportunity to catch up with this, the Boom Bust Boom Conference at Manchester University, organised by the Post Crash Economics Society and Rethinking Economics. The Post Crash Economics Society was founded in Manchester in 2012 after a group of economics students got fed up with the fact that the only economics they were learning was the kind that'd led to the crash, and that no-one was questioning - or encouraging them to question - the assumptions behind this.

If a three-day conference discussing economics sounds really dull, it's probably because we've been encouraged to think of economics as technical, dull, mathematical and nerdy, and entirely inaccessible to ordinary people. On the news we've often presented with economic facts as it they arrive by divine intervention, rather than as a result of human actions and interactions. The society and the conference are set up to challenge this.

The conference had attracted some really top-notch speakers including Ha-Joon Chang and Paul Mason, but sadly they were mostly on the first day so I missed them. One of the events I missed was the UK premiere of Boom Bust Boom the movie, a film made by Monty Python star Terry Jones, which attempts to explain how we ended up in this mess.

Happily, as at many events, it's often the people you've never heard of who make the most interesting contributions. 

The most interesting talk I went to was by Devrim Yilmaz, a diminutive Turkish academic who was once on the staff at Manchester. Yilmaz is the only person I've met who was able to explain clearly and simply why the Eurozone is perpetually in crisis, why it will be perpetually in crisis if it continues as it is, and why some people are doing very well from it - in short, that it isn't a crisis at all. Clue: it's all about keeping the weaker economies inside the eurozone, while keeping them weak, so that the value of the Euro stays down, thus making the exports of the richer countries more competitive. Their reward for putting up with this should be capital transfers from rich to poor countries, but now rich countries are getting grumpy about that end of the deal. In short: austerity, it doesn't work, won't work, and he had the graphs to prove it. It was quite fascinating and enlightening. Yilmaz used to be employed at Manchester, and helped the students set up an alternative economics module, after which his contract wasn't renewed. Censorship: it doesn't exist in the UK, or our universities, people. Yilmaz is now at Kingston, and I rather suspect their gain is Manchester's loss.

The other talk I found very interesting was by Karel Williams, who talked about something he called 'foundational economics'. This is the idea that most of the services that we rely on - food, power, healthcare, education - can't simply be bought anywhere or sourced from the lowest bidder as they are geographically located. This means that they are not really subject to the market choice which modern economics claims they should be, and are in effect protected from the open market. Companies which operate in these protected, immovable sectors should be expected to meet a different set of standards - in effect, social standards - than those which operate in a really open market, where, should the consumer not like their offer, they are at liberty to refuse their products. I hope I've understood this right: Dr Williams kindly gave me a copy of the book about all this but I haven't read it yet. He also talked about the resilience of this part of the economy, and how we should base a healthy national economy around things we all need, like food, utilities, healthcare and education, rather than on intangibles or exports. I've met - and I'm sure you all have too - dozens of people setting up their own businesses with some kind of social slant, their hobby/passion for cheese or beer or teadresses or tents mixed with an emphasis on locality and sustainability, but I had never met anyone who was able to provide an intellectual basis and justification for this kind of homegrown social economy. I did ask Dr Williams if the hipsters were going to save us all, and like a politician he dodged the question, but did concede he quite liked craft beer.

I also went to a workshop on feminist economics, which sadly, was very underwhelming. All in all it was a fascinating day and there was quite a wide variety of people attending. One of the things I liked was how little discussion there was of traditional 'left vs right', almost as if for many younger people, the distinction is no longer live. It was refreshing to be in such a boiling pot of ideas, without people lining up along a set of tired old lines.

I really hope that we could have a similar event in Bristol: I am sure there would be a lot of people interested in attending and adding to the discussion.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Review: Fanny Hill vs 50 Shades

Last week I went to see Bristol Old Vic's new production of Fanny Hill. This is a theatre version of John Cleland's 1748 erotic novel, banned until the 1960s. I have read the book and much of it you couldn't put on stage, on film or screen, which is why adaptations are often a bit limp. Anyway, I couldn't help wondering how it stood up against this week's other sex blockbuster, 50 Shades of Grey. So I went to see 50 Shades. Readers, the things I do for your pleasure. For a start, that's £8 I'll never get back. The Old Vic, on the other hand, gave me one for free, the sluts. Look, I don't want to end up in some kind of compromising situation, this isn't the the Telegraph, you know. Anyway, in the interests of full disclosure I should point out that I insanely adore Fanny Hill the novel. I dumped 50 Shades, the novel, at page 173. That done, let's get started:

Overview:
Fanny Hill (the play) adapted from the funny, literary pornographic novel, which follows the trials tribulations and ah, other activities of Fanny as she goes from hapless rural orphan to brothel jail-bait, through true love, whoredom, and a good many scenarios besides.
50 Shades (the film) adapted from the unfunny, unliterary pornographic novel, which follows the trials tribulations and ah, other activities of Anastasia Steele as she goes from hapless literature student to being the mistress of controlling, BDSM-obsessed tycoon Christian Grey.

Acting
Fanny Hill (the play) 5/5 Sometimes TV actors are rubbish on stage, but Caroline Quentin looked very much at home. All the supporting cast, especially Gwyneth Keyworth, were excellent.
50 Shades (the film) 3/5 I feel sorry for Jamie Dornan. If he were to beat anyone with a whip, I think should probably be his agent. This is such an awful, implausible character to portray, the fact that he did it without visibly looking like he wanted to die is credit to his acting commitment.

Likeability of central character
Fanny Hill (the play) 4/5 Funny, rude, lewd, assertive and businesslike: but this version of Fanny Hill, as an older woman attempting to recount her youth as a whore, is a static creation, and less engaging than the one in the book, who changes as the narrative progresses.
50 Shades (the film) 2/5 Despite the best efforts of the actress who plays her, Anastasia is a clueless, personality-less void of a human doormat. In the book, she's like that so that readers can insert themselves into the narrative (there's a name for this, only I can't remember it). She's so thick that when Christian does stuff she doesn't like, she doesn't even use the safe word he's given her, she just starts crying instead.

Likeability of love interest
Fanny Hill (the play) 2/5 very disappointed in this. In the book, Fanny escapes the brothel to live with love of her life, Charles. Charles is skint but he loves Fanny, and when his horrid family find out they have him shipped off to the navy against his will. Later he comes back to find her, and he's such a nice guy he never even reproaches Fanny about working as a whore, he's just damn glad to find her. In the play, Charles has been completely removed as a character, thus destroying the central conceit of the story, which basically runs the gamut of sex from depraved lust to the passion of true love.
50 Shades (the film) 1/5 He might have ripped abs and loads of cash, but Christian Grey is really an unattractive man. He has no wit, no humour, and no interests apart from weird sex. Also, he has fucking terrible taste in interior decor. Christian Grey reproaches Anastasia about everything.

Sense of humour
Fanny Hill (the play) 4/5. Lots of humour, but got bogged down in political correctness at some points.
50 Shades (the film) 1/5. None. Though I did LOL at a couple of things that weren't meant to be funny.

Costumes
Fanny Hill (the play) 5/5 oh these were brilliant. Everyone involved, male and female, looked brilliant and scorching hot. Fab fab fab 18th century costumes. Bring back breeches I say.
50 Shades (the film) 1/5 these were awful. Christian wears expensive, dull suits, and Anastasia is so free of free will or personality of any kind that she mostly wears jeans and white T-shirts.

Design
Fanny Hill (the play) 3/5 there was a great box that opened up to show an 18th-century bedroom but overall I felt the look wasn't as dank and dark and atmospheric as might have been justified by the period.
50 Shades (the film) 1/5 Christian Grey's oh-so-expensive penthouse apartment is furnished like the window of House of Fraser furnishings dept. The room he makes Anastasia sleep in is like a suburban dream of sophistication that wouldn't look amiss in a semi-detached in Surrey. Everything around him has that soulless, characterless look of an upmarket chain hotel.

Music
Fanny Hill (the play) 5/5 this was great, wonderful fiddling and bawdy singing by all involved.
50 Shades (the film) 2/5 Pleasant enough background, but I literally can't remember one thing that stood out.

Faitfulness of Adaptation
Fanny Hill (the play) 2/5 I do understand it's difficult to render 240 pages of varied shagging in a manner that won't get your theatre closed down. But they literally lost the plot! The whole thing became massively less interesting by the removal of the dramatic arc. Quite miffed about this.
50 Shades (the film) 4/5 Basically the plot intact but with the fortunate removal of EL James unfortunate writing style.

How long you have to wait before getting any
Fanny Hill (the book) 9 pages. About the same on stage.
50 Shades (the book) A godawful 146 pages. The film mercifully a lot less.

Actual levels of sexiness:
Fanny Hill (the play) 3/5 Bawdy and funny, but not particularly titillating.
50 Shades (the film) 1/5 Christian Grey made me think of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. I literally can't imagine anything worse. The entire thing was completely devoid of erotic charge, unless you get an erotic charge by thinking about being able to buy all the things in the House of Fraser furnishings dept.

Quality of Climax:
Fanny Hill (the play) 2/5 This was good fun for a while, but ended more with a whimper than a bang, and to be honest I'd lost interest about ten minutes previously.
50 Shades (the film) 2/5 Anastasia leaves in a lift after Christian slaps her bottom too hard. I can't describe the feeling of relief.

Best bit:
Fanny Hill (the play) Caroline Quentin hanging off a chandelier with a bloke's head up her skirt.
50 Shades (the film) The helicopter. Look, we'd all like a free helicopter ride.

Worst Bit:
Fanny Hill (the play) All the tortuous attempts to be politically correct about sex work.
50 Shades (the film) Every single bit of furniture in Christian Grey's apartment.

In conclusion:
Fanny Hill (the play) 35/50 A decent effort, a good night's entertainment with great acting, music and costumes, but ultimately let down by the pointless, post-modern messing with the narrative of the original novel.

50 Shades (the film) 18/50 A soulless, charmless lovesong to corporate capitalism, and less sexy than a James Bond movie. The only startling aspect was being in a cinema full of women. I say full. I mean half-full. It's like someone actually noticed that we're allowed out on our own.

The conclusion, concluded:
Fanny Hill: Try reading the book
50 Shades: Try watching Secretary