Archive for April, 2008

Yet another reason not to shop at Tesco

April 30, 2008

Not only is it exploiting workers at home and abroad, and turning our cities into identikit clonetowns, and sueing newspapers (over a story that originally appeared in Private Eye)…

… now it’s trying to jail its critics.

Tesco is suing three critics in the country. Jit Siratranont, a former Thai MP, is facing up to two years in jail and a £16.4m libel damages claim for saying that Tesco was expanding aggressively at the expense of small local retailers. He was served with writs for criminal defamation and civil libel. Kamol Kamoltrakul, a business columnist, is being sued for £1.6m damages for alleging that Tesco Lotus, the supermarket’s trading name in Thailand, had sought to minimise its Thai tax liabilities. Kamol, who was paid £16 for the column, faces bankruptcy if he loses. Nongnart Harnvilai, another columnist, is also being sued for £1.6m after she wrote in a short, tongue-in-cheek article that the company did not “love” Thailand. In the writ, Tesco claimed that the article had damaged its reputation.

I first heard of this disgusting attempt at corporate censorship in Private Eye. The impression I got – which is all I have, because their article’s not online and I don’t have a copy of the magazine – was that one of the above writers had made a minor error, quickly retracted, which nevertheless allowed the conglomerate to go ahead with this shocking action.

Given that many people have concerns about competition and tax issues relating to big companies, a win for Tesco will set a horrendous precedent, and cement the stranglehold that such corporations have over public life. As Lisa Appignanesi says: ‘If discussing the impact of supermarkets on a local economy were a criminal offence in Britain, hosts of prominent journalists would find themselves in prison.

English PEN are on the case and their letter to Tesco’s CEO has been signed by Mark Haddon, Nick Hornby and Marina Lewycka.

As writers and members of the writers’ association, English PEN, we greatly value the tradition of free speech in Britain, and we would like to think that a leading international business like yours would be also concerned with exporting these values alongside your groceries. A strong democracy is one in which a diversity of voices are allowed to flourish, and we think Tesco, in line with your commitment to “treat people as we like to be treated”, could play an important role here.

In 2007, International PEN monitored the cases of more than one thousand writers who were persecuted because of their writing. Many of these writers were targeted as a result of their outspoken criticism of governments and corporations. At English PEN, we are hampered in our support for such writers of conscience whenever governments and corporations in the west endorse repressive laws such as criminal defamation.

In conclusion, we urge you to drop all actions in Thailand, and to impress your critics with the force of argument, not the threat of imprisonment. You will thereby impress us with your commitment to basic human rights. Any other course of action would, we believe, be damaging to Tesco’s brand in the UK and internationally and would be contrary to Tesco’s stated policy.

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Comment is futile

April 30, 2008

Ann Clwyd is a principled leftwing Labour MP who has campaigned against the Ba’ath Party since Britain supported them in the 1980s. She writes for Comment is Free on the week of Tariq Aziz’s trial.

I am chair of Indict, an organisation that gathered evidence of the crimes against humanity committed by Saddam’s regime. We collected thousands of harrowing testimonies from Iraqis all over the world. Aziz has gone on trial in Iraq this week. Let’s use Indict’s testimonies to examine his record. Let’s look at his actions, and his inaction, while he was a senior member of Saddam’s government.

Perhaps those who suggest that Aziz should be free to live out his days in peace should speak to the survivor of the chemical attack on Halabja, who told us: “At the front door I saw my little son … he was dead. I went into the house and saw in the garden my mother who was also dead and then I saw my father together with my little daughter … they too were dead.”

Some 5,000 Kurds died in that attack. Aziz was part of the Revolutionary Command Council that ordered it.

In 1990, the Iraqi regime held more than 1,000 foreign nationals as hostages to guard against coalition attack. If he objected to this, Aziz could have resigned. He did not. In fact he met negotiators from several countries. Indict was told: “Tariq Aziz indicated that … he could ensure … the release of substantial numbers of hostages.” The hostages suffered appallingly: rape, threats of execution, little or no medical treatment, and the anguish of not knowing whether their families were alive or dead. Our investigators spoke to many former hostages: “At one point they dug a big hole in the garden. I asked what it was for. One of the guards … became very emotional and said it was a grave for us.”

Now, aside from the rights and wrongs of the Iraq invasion – and there is so much wrong with it – what is wrong with bringing a career war criminal to justice?

Plenty, as it turns out.

Let’s look at this again, using a special device I’ve patented called the De-BullShitifier.

“I am chair of Indict, an organisation FUNDED BY UNITED STATES CONGRESSIONAL GRANTS that gathered evidence of the crimes against humanity committed by Saddam’s regime IN ORDER TO PROPAGANDISE FOR WAR. We collected thousands of harrowing FABRICATED testimonies from Iraqis CIA STOOGES all over the world. Aziz has gone on trial in Iraq this week. Let’s use Indict’s testimonies UNCOROBORATED FANTASIES to examine his record. Let’s look at his actions, and his inaction, while he was a senior member of Saddam’s government. LET’S TAKE A LOOK AT THE HUMAN SHREDDERS TOO, OH, WE CAN’T, BECAUSE WE MADE THEM UP”

Tariq has blood on his hands does he Ann? What’s that on yours, strawberry jam?

(‘Mr Pike Bishop’)

”Some 5,000 Kurds died in that attack. Aziz was part of the Revolutionary Command Council that ordered it…’

Whilst the Pentagon and Whitehall gave them the maps and gas to use..

Ann Clueless it is you who will be going on trial one day once the game is up in Iraq.

(‘Mac100’)

The most bloodthirsty dictatorship in Iraq has been the Bush/Blair colonial regime.

With a million killed and four million displaced, these war criminals created the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. It’s not really fair to say that Bush and Blair have blood on their hands: they have spilled so much blood that they could swim in it.

When will Indict seek to “hold to account” *these* evildoers for their crimes as dictators over Iraq? Not while the organisation is funded from the US empire’s slush funds and while their chair is this cheerleader for imperialist war, herself a minor conspirator in the crime of aggression.

I don’t expect shame from someone like this, but you’d think that they would at least realise that their public has moved on, and that their lies are worn out, that their moral posing is discredited and that they are widely despised and hated. Ms Clwyd is still spouting the same crap as years ago with no trace of self-consciousness.

(‘AnthropoidApe’)

… and it just goes on like this.

Minimising war crimes, accusing victims of totalitarianism of being CIA stooges, fatuous equivalence between Labour MPs and psychotic dictators… five years ago this would be shocking, and Nick Cohen could write an angry piece about it.

Now, it’s just the status quo.

Two ears, one mouth

April 29, 2008

Last summer, my brother and I began to argue over the merits and demerits of reading contemporary fiction… Reading too much, my brother explained in his English-teacherly way, is a disaster for a writer. To immerse yourself in literature – particularly those of your contemporaries – makes your work derivative at worst, and unoriginal at best. To keep your voice pure, he suggested, you must retreat, Kasper Hauser-like, only to emerge later with a voice as clear as God intended. It was an argument that almost culminated in our first exchange of blows since 1994.

My brother is far from alone in his opinion – though few of his supporters would use such profanity and reference so many embarrassing childhood memories. Over the years, I’ve met many published and unpublished writers who profess a queasiness about modern fiction. They might produce it, but they sure don’t like to read it. While some of these neophobics are scared, as my brother, of the ogre of influence, many other writers simply don’t believe that they can learn anything from recently published novels. Both positions to me seem wrongheaded.

I agreed with the author of this piece, while also wondering why such an elementary point needs discussion. But obviously it does, because like Stuart Evers I have met many – in Andrew Oldham’s disgusted phrase – ‘poets who do not read poetry, writers who do not read prose.’

Interviewed for a place on a masters’ course by Michael Schmidt, the great man said, ‘I see you’ve read Joyce – that’s good, really impressive.’ Surely, I demurred, everyone has read Joyce – if only as part of their formal lit studies. No, he said, the course got a lot of applicants who had barely read anything. And then I thought back to my undergraduate degree and remembered all the students who thought of reading as a duty for studies, not a pleasure of free time.

I am not advocating a list of Great Texts that aspiring novelists should have to plough through before beginning their own fiction. And in these anti-intellectual times, too many people think of reading as a chore – something they really must get around to.

But neither am I convinced by the ‘Tower of Babel’ road to creativity. If you are a writer, you must read – and surely we are all readers before we become writers. It’s reading that inspires us to write. If it’s not, then you’re in it for the wrong reasons – and if you don’t read, it will show in the weakness of your writing.

I worked behind the bar of a golf club for a couple of years. Now, there is not much wit and wisdom that comes out of a Cheshire golf club, but one night we had a PGA referee in. In between the expected anecdotes about Jack Nicklaus, the guy said something I’ve never forgotten: ‘Why did God give you two ears and one mouth? Because you should listen twice as much as you talk.’

Read twice as much as you write. Listen twice as much as you talk.

The Democratiya Interviews

April 28, 2008

My review of this book is now up on Butterflies and Wheels.

‘Not a cry of pain, but the pain itself’

April 27, 2008

Just seen this fantastic piece by Andrew Coates that serves as a fine riposte to the recent nonsense expressed by the pro-faith left.

There are two main answers to those who hold that religion can, at present, be positive political force in general and that Islamicism in particular is can be an ally of the left. And to their criticisms of secularism.

The first is that anyone who believes in the ‘religions of the book’ stands for documents that are less reliable than Heather Mills. We can leave the riddles of Being aside and point to the simple fact that the ‘divine’ they consider real, is not. This is the atheist argument. The secularist one is different. It is not the individual’s imagination, or claims to know that deities exist, that secularists criticise. It is religion as an institution, with public power, and privilege, and the dragooning of people into herds led by ‘community leaders’ (not elected, but with god’s authority). A neutral public space, in which religious politics are fought and removed, is the basis for secular freedom.

The second is that Islamism is not a cry of pain in the heartless capitalist world. It is part of the pain itself. The record stands for itself, from Indonesia, Iran to Algeria Islamists are right-wing, pro-capitalist adepts of violence. They reject human political rule and human rights for Divine Sovereignty and the revealed word of god. In brief, they are oppressors. As Peter Thatchell says, the left should stand with those who are the victims of these bullies, in the countries under the yoke of Political Islam. The planet is ever closer-knit: there are no Berlin Walls separating us from these lands and their politics. We ought never to ally ourselves with the off-shoots of global Islamicism in the UK, from the relatively moderate Muslim Initiative (who still believe in the rule of god), to the far-right Jamaat-i-Islami, passing through a kaleidoscope of other Islamicst formations. Edgar claims that some Muslims now think that human rights trump godly ones. This, it is true, is part of the noticeable evolution of former Islamists away from their former ideology. That is to break with Islamism. This process is not helped by coddling the Muslim religious right, as Murray, and Milne, the StWC, the SWP and Respect Renewal do: it is encouraged by frank democratic dialogue and criticism.

All together now – read the whole thing.

The mythology problem

April 27, 2008

Recently the issue of an academic boycott of Israel has again reared its ugly, obsessed and stupid head.

This first came up in 2005 when the Association of University Teachers proposed an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. This proposal was defeated. Then last year, the new University and College Union which replaced the old AUT again proposed a boycott. This was defeated again when the union received legal advice telling it that such a proposal would breach the Race Relations Act. And now the UCU has again passed a motion recommending a boycott.

In that short paragraph I have attempted to summarise three raging and splenetic years.

One of the reasons I felt alienated from the status-quo left was its obsession with Israel. Although my parents were radical leftists, they were also broadly supportive of the Israeli state and so I didn’t grow up with the standard baggage relating to this issue. Thus, the way others looked at the Middle East or even the whole world through the prism of Israel – either as America’s proxy in the ME or, more sinisterly, as the Zionist tail wagging the American dog – just left me cold.

Israel is the G-spot of the reactionary left. Mention that country’s name and you’ll get a torrent of invective and abuse. I’ll quote a typical example.

It is not “the Palestinian problem” which is at issue but the Israel problem. Israel is a violent sectarian fundamentalist state which has successfully ethnically cleansed much of the indigenous Arab population, stolen most of its land, its property and its water and forced it into miserable ghettos. It has used the most savage repression to achieve its aims, which have been achieved only with the complicity or active support of Britain, the USA and other superpowers. This has been accomplished with the help of an ideology which downplays the long history of sectarianism and terrorist violence inherent in the Zionist project, perceives the Holocaust as primarily a valuable propaganda tool in casting Israelis as victims, and defines criticism of Israel as anti-semitic. So much Palestinian land has now been stolen that the two state option is no longer a realistic solution if justice and equality are to be achieved. (The vision behind Blair’s “road map” is of a pair of shrivelled Bantusans with a quiescent client Palestinian leadership which accepts the losses of the past half century and the abandonment of the 5 million Palestinian refugees scattered in squalid camps around the Middle East.) The only reasonable future in that geographically tiny part of the world is a single state where Jews, Christians and Muslims live side by side as equals, but that option requires dismantling a Zionist state where the essence of citizenship is to be Jewish and where anyone who is not Jewish has second-class status (change ‘Jewish’ to ‘Protestant’ and you’d have Ian Paisley’s paradise on earth).

It’s a measure of this fixation that the author of the above screed is not a writer on Middle Eastern issues, or even a political blogger. He is a retired Brit Lit blogger, talking about a novel by Ian McEwan that has nothing to do with Israel or Palestine. (Note also that he’s against the two-state deal – which is the only sane and workable solution – and advocates the dismantling of an entire country; which is not the most moral and practical course of action, to put it politely.)

Yet our web critic shares the fixation that makes the boycotters keep on plugging away with the embargo plan: in Engage writer Jon Pike’s words, they are ‘like Dr Seuss’s salesmen: ‘All day they’ve raced round in the heat, at top speeds, unsuccessfully trying to sell Zizzer-Zoof Seeds, which nobody wants because nobody needs.”

My own take is this. I have sympathy for the one of the few democratic states in the region, surrounded by governments and organisations who want to kill its citizens for religious reasons. I don’t doubt that the Israeli government has committed, and is committing, human rights abuses against Palestinians. That has to stop and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza must end.

People against a boycott of Israel make the argument that it is being singled out – no one is proposing an embargo against states like China or Syria that commit far worse crimes. They have a point, but we can’t be everywhere at once – isn’t it better to take on a single criminal government than none at all?

But the UCU is not proposing actions against the Israeli government – it’s proposing action against Israeli universities. It is proposing to cut off the flow of dialogue between Israeli lecturers, professors, researchers, writers and their British equivalents. Apart from the shameful notion of severing this free flow of thoughts and ideas, here’s an analogy that will make you realise how stupid the boycott proposal is: imagine if a Palestinian union broke all links with British universities because the British government helped to invade Iraq.

The boycott idea is, then, borderline racist because it identifies a broad sweep of Israeli citizens with its government. At the very least it refuses to recognise the diversity of academic opinion everywhere and the intellectual complexity of human beings. (How many British academics have you met who support the British occupation of Iraq?)

Of course, any boycott proposal will be prefaced by the fumbling disclaimer that criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-semitic. In the same way, it’s not necessarily racist to be against immigration. But if someone says to me, ‘I’m not racist, but…’ or, ‘I’m not against asylum-seekers, but…’ nine times out of ten this will be followed by a statement of blatant racism, delivered by someone who doesn’t even have the guts to be open with their prejudice. Anti-Israelism is the respectable prejudice of the left just as anti-immigration is the respectable prejudice of the right.

So how has such a ridiculous and unworkable idea come close to being adopted by a serious trade union? After all, unions do not exist to make stupid and posturing political gestures. They exist to fight for better pay and conditions for their members. From Pike’s article:

In my field, I know that if a resolution for a boycott went before the British Philosophical Association, then of the three hundred professional philosophers in the UK, two, maybe three would vote for it – and they know who they are, I know who they are, everyone in the profession knows who they are. If the constituency is university academics, then the opposition to a boycott is overwhelming.

The answer is that the UCU, like many unions, has become influenced by the far left Socialist Workers Party. This party joins unions not to help workers or socialists but to increase the power and prestige of the SWP. A Manchester trade unionist told me she was sick of branches being decimated by the placard-wavers. She felt that SWPers sacrifice the basic needs of members in favour of pointless sloganeering. ‘If you say to someone, ‘Sorry, I can’t represent you at the disciplinary because I’m going on an antiwar demo,’ then they’ll tear up their membership card… we’ve had branches in London that have been reduced from thousands to hundreds of members because of the far left.’

The reactionary left has its own mythology and Israel is part of that. The reactionary left doesn’t care about Israelis or Palestinians but about promoting its mythology and narrative. Thus an argument over a small patch of land has taken on almost totemic significance. The conflict has moved from the human to the abstract: as David Hirsh says, ‘an empty vessel for us Guardian readers to fill with our own neuroses.’

It’s not the Palestine problem, or the Israel problem – it’s the mythology problem. From Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great:

I once heard the late Abba Eban, one of Israel’s more polished and thoughtful diplomats and statesmen, give a talk in New York. The first thing to strike the eye about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, he said, was the ease of its solubility. From this arresting start he went on to say, with the authority of a former foreign minister and UN representative, that the essential point was a simple one. Two peoples of roughly equivalent size have a claim to the same land. The solution was, obviously, to create two states side by side. Surely something so self-evident was within the wit of man to encompass? And so it would have been, decades ago, if the messianic rabbis and mullahs and priests could have been kept out of it. But the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further stoked by Armageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews) have made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of nuclear war. Religion poisons everything.

Writing retreats – a waste of time

April 26, 2008

From Joel Rickett’s Guardian Bookseller column:

Writing retreats are now wildly popular. On any given week there’ll be small groups of budding scribes strewn around the Lake District, Wales, and even Tuscany, searching for that elusive blend of solitude and writerly companionship. Now they can go further afield with the launch of “writing adventure holidays” from the Literary Consultancy, which promises “the company of some of our best-known writers and artists . . . in a stunning setting which will open mind and senses”.

I’ve always been suspicious of writers’ retreats and my gut instincts tell me that they are a waste of time and money. This isn’t a popular view – after all, who could object to the idea of writers from all over the country getting together to work in a tranquil environment?

These writing adventure holidays are a new thing. But as I’m discussing writing retreats in general, let’s take a look at the company that provides what is regarded as the writing holiday in this country – the Arvon Foundation.

Its courses offer four and a half days at a range of picturesque locations where you’ll be tutored by a range of published authors including A L Kennedy, Toby Litt and Kate Long – and I even see our past Succour contributor Matt Thorne on there. The price includes accommodation and food, and this year there is even the possibility of having your work read by a top literary agent and literary publisher.

From the blurb:

Our residential writing courses pluck you from your everyday life and place you gently in one of our four writers’ houses, insulated from the busy outside world of email, internet and mobile phones. Whichever house you choose – in Devon, Inverness-shire, Shropshire or West Yorkshire – we will give you the freedom of time and space to write, supported by expert practical tuition and the encouragement of a community of writers.

It all sounds great, but before you reach for the plastic and click my link you should consider a few things.

Arvon centres can’t guarantee a single room or IT facilities. Now, the two essential conditions for writing are: a) a room that you can close the door on and b) something to write with. This means that Arvon are charging people to work in an environment that is not conductive to writing. (And those charges are high – the standard course fee is a cool £550, although in its defence Arvon does have a grant system for people on a low income).

And think about that phrase: ‘a community of writers’. Writers, as Terry Pratchett said, are as antisocial as cats: to talk of a community of writers is like talking of a individual bee or a renegade sheep. Yet the Arvon ethos seems to be that writing is a committee-based rather than an individual act. This attitude isn’t exclusive to the arts: business disciplines also stress the importance of teamwork and the superiority of the group to the individual. (Anyone who’s been on any kind of management training course will already have some idea of what a week devoted to this philosophy would be like.) A love of solitude and a desire for personal space, major traits in the creative personality, appear to be viewed with suspicion.

The workshop is another concept that straddles the corporate world and the arts. The prevailing wisdom is that all problems can be solved by sitting in a circle of plastic chairs (many aspiring writers confuse the literary seminar with group therapy) and the writers’ workshop is treated as a nurturing environment where talent can flourish and grow. In reality, human nature sees to it that any such group is quickly dominated by one or two chronic attention-seekers, and then descends into factionalism and schaedenfreude. (A friend of mine who teaches creative writing once told me he’s horrified at the unashamed hatred that develops every time a workshop participant gets a book deal.)

Stephen King’s On Writing contains a nice chapter on writers’ retreats. He warns against the fallacy of the magic feather – believing that one can write brilliantly if an exact set of conditions obtain. These conditions – a Yorkshire retreat, an oak-panelled desk, the right kind of swivel chair – may help you gain the confidence to write, but these conditions will not always be there. It’s always good to get away from ‘the busy world of email, internet and mobile phones’ but in life, you will not always be able to escape the sinful clutter of modern civilisation. What I object to is a dependence on the abstract external; the idea that you need silence and space so that God, Pan or the Buddha can tell you what to write. It reduces the role of the artist to, in King’s words: ‘stenographers taking divine dictation.’

Arvon’s website lists successful writers who have been on the courses but it’s reasonable to assume that these people made it because they are good at writing, not because of Arvon. To paraphrase King: you don’t need the magic feather to fly, the power was inside you all along.

So is there a point to Arvon other than giving a secondary income to established writers? Without having been on one, I’m going to say that there isn’t. The Tuscany retreats may be different – the weather would be better, anyway. And having your work read by Capel and Land is a good prospect – but should you really have to endure an Arvon course to obtain it?

Of course, one obvious benefit is social – creative writing workshops and courses allow shy and sensitive people to get laid. Even if it does nothing for your writing skills, isn’t Arvon worth the money just to have a good time with like-minded men and women? But there’s a culture of purism that is growing in society, and especially in the literary world. You can all but guarantee that the Arvon studios are entirely non-smoking accommodation and approximately several light years from the nearest pub.

The natural world is beautiful, but cities are beautiful too. The city has certainly given me more ideas for storytelling. By not going to Lumb Bank or Totleigh Barton, I can sit in my room, write all day and then go out to the pub – and still have £550. (I’d probably spend it all that same night, but what the hell).

The art of the possible

April 25, 2008

‘You preach to me constantly the gospel of ‘saving’ and ‘abstinence’…’

-Karl Marx, Das Kapital

Politics is, we’re often told, the art of the possible; the art of compromise.

And over the current tax row, the government has hit on a solution that satifies everybody.

Gordon Brown is happy because his original budget is allowed to go through with only minor alterations.

David Cameron is happy because his party gets to act like an actual Opposition for a change and berate Brown over a tax ‘u-turn’ when nothing of the kind has taken place.

The Labour ‘rebels’ are happy because they get to keep their reputations as fiery left-wingers and to get low-income constituents off their back.

In fact everyone is happy except the 5.3 million people who lose out through this redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.

The compensation package Brown offers consists of benefits that hardly anyone qualifies for, and that are a bureaucratic nightmare to claim. It is expected to help only one in four of the 5.3 million and, on top of that, has not even been confirmed.

This is a textbook manouvre from the political class.

Meanwhile, Polly Toynbee says: ‘Be bold, Gordon, and show whose side you are really on.’

Polly, I think we already know…

Peep Show

April 24, 2008

There’s a new series of my favourite comedy show coming up, which gives me an excuse to resurrect and expand this piece from the old site. I mean, what the hell. I’m not getting paid for this stuff.

Besides, it may be the only critical reading of the series ever written – and probably for good reason.

Peep Show

If you haven’t seen Peep Show, it’s a sitcom about two mismatched twentysomethings forced into sharing a flat together. So far, so conventional – except that every scene is shot from point-of-view and allows us to hear the characters’ deepest thoughts.

I’ve often thought that modern sitcoms like The Office and Green Wing offer more in terms of human insight and character development than much contemporary fiction. (What novelist, after all, would dare invent Dr Alan Statham and Joanna Clore?) With Peep Show, writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong have not gone down the Bottom route of having two cartoonish loser characters who are put through a succession of violent cruelties. This sitcom doesn’t have the mainstream complacency of Men Behaving Badly and Coupling. And the characters, despite their conflicting personalities, really do like each other. Their relationship changes and develops.

Protagonists Mark and Jeremy are both larger than life and realistically human. Jeremy Usborne is an arrogant, deluded moron fixated on the celebrity success that he’s convinced is around the next corner. Mark Corrigan is an insecure credit professional who thinks of life in terms of a military campaign. A mutual dependency is established from the start: Jeremy needs Mark to pay the rent and bills while Mark puts up with his irresponsible tenant because, being more confident and outgoing, Jez has access to a social life that Mark would otherwise miss. Both have unreliable mentors; Mark’s aggressive, volatile boss Alan Johnson (whom Mark sees as a surrogate father) and the walking, rambling drug trip Super Hans, whom Jeremy is convinced is his gateway into the music business.

Women feature heavily in the show, and some of its best and most excruciating moments come with the flatmates’ relationships with the superior sex. Jeremy thinks of himself as a libertine, and between a disastrous green-card marriage he has a brief career as a rent boy and sleeps with his next-door neighbour, Mark’s sister, Sophie’s mother and the defendant in a benefit fraud case.

Mark’s approach is a familiar contrast. He spends the first two series in relentless pursuit of his colleague Sophie, only to discover – having got her – that they have absolutely nothing in common. During this long-term battle plan Mark has other encounters with a party goth and an ancient history student without realising that he is better suited to these more unconventional women than to the supposed object of his heart’s desire. Held in contempt by his father and bullied at school, Mark’s quest for Sophie is a quest to belong. ‘I’m a normal, functioning human being,’ he thinks while having breakfast with his girlfriend, ‘and no one can prove otherwise.’ He invests so much of his time in trying to fit in that he neglects his youth and suppresses the more complex and thoughtful sides of his personality. (Lost youth is a recurrent theme in Peep Show. In its first episode, Mark is tormented by some local kids who give him a psychic double whammy, reminding him both of childhood humiliations and his own wasted best years.)

These more interesting character traits – his recklessness, his knowledge of ancient history (‘Mark is more courageous than I am,’ says David Mitchell, the actor who plays him) – occasionally surface, particularly when Mark and Jez return to the university where they met. This episode is particularly poignant because it illustrates how little either of them have moved on since their student days. While Jeremy is kicked out of his own gig, Mark’s revisit to academia brings up old regrets and gives a tantalising glimpse of what his life could have been. ‘This is okay,’ he says while watching his student fling walk away from him, knowing that he can never see her again. ‘This is just a moment that will haunt me for ever.’

At the end of series three Mark attempted to resolve his situation with Sophie one way or the other by proposing on a weekend break in the Quantocks. Yet things go wrong when Mark and Jez get lost on a pitch-black moor in a sitcom journey to the end of the night. Jeremy gives some good practical advice about Mark’s relationship problems, leading to Mark’s revelation that, ‘Jez, I don’t have to marry her… there may even be other women.’ This is a truly beautiful moment, the Dickensian revelation that one’s whole life lies before you and that it can be changed. But due to a complex misunderstanding Mark ends up getting engaged anyway, and when the series ends he has reverted to his ‘no pain, no gain’ worldview: ‘Not loving her gives me the balance of power. So I win. Sort of.’

The next series focuses on the buildup to the wedding, with Mark trying out various last-ditch escape plans before the predictable chaos at the church. Just before the marriage is about to take place, he confides to Jeremy, ‘I just proposed to a girl in a coffee shop and then tried to get myself run over.’ Jeremy: ‘Don’t you think that’s a sign that things are not entirely hunky-dory?’

Mark’s indecisiveness over the wedding comes down to one stark equation: he’s afraid that if he doesn’t marry Sophie he will never find anyone else. The choice for him is between loneliness and unfulfilment. It’s a telling comment on the realities of modern relationships, although the series end and the series five trailers suggest that he still has a chance of finding true love and happiness.

Jeremy has his problems too. He has to deal with the reality that he probably will never become a successful musician and that his only real talent is pulling women. In some ways he is more pragmatic and more able to make his way in the world than Mark. But he is also a fine portrait of the contemporary bullshit artist. You’ve met loads of people like Jeremy, and his long philosophical monologues are a study in pretension. Jeremy’s wisdom includes: ‘Nothing natural ever hurt anyone – that’s a scientific fact,’ and, ‘It would have made no difference if the Nazis had won the war… we’d have a Hitlerburger and then go down to buy some leiderhosen at Das Gap.’

Yet despite Mark’s bad points – his pedantry, his physical and moral cowardice – it is he who really captures our attention. He’s a tragic contradiction and a walking defence mechanism. But he will fight when cornered, and stand up for himself (after much procrastination). In his integrity and his insistence on Enlightenment values, he is far more of a rebel and an outsider than Jeremy could dream of being.

Peep Show deals with post-university disillusionment and a time of life where you’re not sure what you’re going to do or who you’re going to be. Every line is a quotable classic: ‘I’m bowling alright, Geoff – I’m bowling fruit!’, ‘And I believe that we should kill our clients… actually kill them, with our levels of service,’ and of course, ‘I’m the tank commander now, Barry!’ It also illustrates the truth of Terry Pratchett’s saying: that we become people through people.

The great stork conspiracy

April 23, 2008

You may have heard that scientists P Z Myers and Richard Dawkins have been duped into appearing in a creationist propaganda film called Expelled, where they appear in carefully spliced sections to suggest ‘an inevitable connection between Darwinism and godlessness.’

The film appears to make two basic points:

1) There is a conspiracy by Big Science to keep the intelligent design/creationism theory out of classrooms, fire academics who support it and suppress the evidence for it.

2) Charles Darwin was responsible for the Holocaust.

(Ironically, P Z Myers was himself expelled, by force, from a screening of the film.)

From the New York Times:

One of the sleaziest documentaries to arrive in a very long time, Expelled – No Intelligence Allowed is a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry.

Positing the theory of intelligent design as a valid scientific hypothesis, the film frames the refusal of “big science” to agree as nothing less than an assault on free speech. Interviewees, including the scientist Richard Sternberg, claim that questioning Darwinism led to their expulsion from the scientific fold (the film relies extensively on the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy — after this, therefore because of this), while our genial audience surrogate, the actor and multihyphenate Ben Stein, nods sympathetically. (Mr. Stein is also a freelance columnist who writes Everybody’s Business for The New York Times.)

Every few minutes familiar — and ideologically unrelated — images interrupt the talking heads: a fist-shaking Nikita S. Khrushchev; Charlton Heston being subdued by a water hose in Planet of the Apes. This is not argument, it’s circus, a distraction from the film’s contempt for precision and intellectual rigor. This goes further than a willful misunderstanding of the scientific method. The film suggests, for example, that Dr. Sternberg lost his job at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History because of intellectual discrimination but neglects to inform us that he was actually not an employee but rather an unpaid research associate who had completed his three-year term.

It seems that the filmmakers’ initial approach to Dawkins and Myers did not give the most accurate reflection of the producers’ intentions. PZ Myers has put the Expelled crew’s original enquiry letter on Richard Dawkins’s website:

Hello Mr. Myers,

My name is Mark Mathis. I am a Producer for Rampant Films. We are currently in production of the documentary film, “Crossroads: The Intersection of Science and Religion.”

At your convenience I would like to discuss our project with you and to see if we might be able to schedule an interview with you for the film. The interview would take no more than 90 minutes total, including set up and break down of our equipment.

We are interested in asking you a number of questions about the disconnect/controversy that exists in America between Evolution, Creationism and the Intelligent Design movement.

Please let me know what time would be convenient for me to reach you at your office. Also, could you please let me know if you charge a fee for interviews and if so, what that fee would be for 90 minutes of your time.

I look forward to speaking with you soon.

Sincerely,

Mark Mathis
Rampant Films

This is the synopsis that Dawkins and Myers were sent.

Crossroads: The Intersection of Science and Religion

It has been the central question of humanity through the ages: How in the world did we get here? In 1859 Charles Darwin provided the answer in his landmark book, “The Origin of Species.” In the century and a half since, geologists, biologists, physicists, astronomers, and philosophers have contributed a vast amount of research and data in support of Darwin’s idea. And yet, millions of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other people of faith believe in a literal interpretation that humans were crafted by the hand of God. The conflict between science and religion has unleashed passions in school board meetings, courtrooms, and town halls across America and beyond.

This thoughtful premise was a little different to the film that actually appeared several months later, which posited that ‘educators and scientists are being ridiculed, denied tenure and even fired – for the ‘crime’ of merely believing that there might be evidence of ‘design’ in nature, and that perhaps life is not just the result of accidental, random chance’ and promised to ‘confront scientists such as Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, influential biologist and atheist blogger PZ Myers and Eugenie Scott, head of the National Center for Science Education.’

Anyway, if you enjoyed Expelled you’ll be pleased to know that there is a sequel coming out. You can watch the trailer here.

Here’s the treatment:

Anticipating success with their feature film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Producers Mark Mathis, Logan Craft and Walt Ruloff have already leaked a teaser trailer for the film’s sequel. Their “teach the controversy” slogan seemed to work well in getting the general public to believe that Intelligent Design is a viable alternative scientific theory to Evolution, so the team has moved on to promoting other theories that they feel are being suppressed by the scientific community. Sexpelled: No Intercourse Allowed tells of how Sex Theory has thrived unchallenged in the ivory towers of academia, as the explanation for how new babies are created. Proponents of Stork Theory claim that “Big Sex” has been suppressing their claim that babies are delivered by storks. Furthermore, Stork Theory proponents warn of the serious moral dangers posed by teaching children that sex has a function. They point out that evil dictators such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao all believed in Sex Theory, and they may have even had sex themselves.

There is also a late-breaking new development in the controversy, a new theory called Avian Transportation Theory.

Unlike the original Stork Theory, the modern, sophisticated “Avian Transportation Theory” (ATT) merely points out that there are gaps in the orthodox Sex Theory, and that current sonogram imaging is unreliable. Moreover ATT does not specify that babies are necessarily brought by storks but by “large birds unspecified” (although many individual ATT theorists PRIVATELY believe it is a stork).

(Via Sceptic.)