Archive for June, 2010

Picking Up the Pieces

June 29, 2010

My review of Adam Haslett’s State of America novel Union Atlantic is now available at 3:AM.

An Opportunity and a Threat

June 29, 2010

Via this gloriously strident piece from Laurie Penny, here’s a long article on the F Word about a fray that’s going to be reopened any time soon.

Lisa Ansell brings fresh points to what often seems like an over-rehearsed debate.

1) Rather than on the health and protection of the patient, the abortion debate is essentially focused on the rights of a fictional person that does not exist in any legal or medical sense.

2) There is not yet a satisfactory objective answer to the question of where life begins.

3) It is the only medical issue in which the patient is deemed unable to understand the moral implications of their treatment.

4) We think that ‘pro-life’ craziness is a vulgar American phenomenon that couldn’t possibly catch on here. Unfortunately:

We have an All Party Pro Life Group within the House of Commons, whose administrator is funded by the innocuous sounding CARE.

CARE is one of a number of Christian lobby groups within Parliament. ‘Christian Action, Research and Education’ has been described as ‘architects’ of various attempts to restrict abortion provision, and its establishment of a presence in Parliament has come under scrutiny from the Charities Commission. Its annual report shows that it has had 20 interns working within the House of Commons, at a cost of £70000, even though it is prohibited from political lobbying. Its interns are present in the offices of senior members of the Conservative party, in the office of a backbench Labour MP and the offices of several Liberal Democrat spokespeople. ‘Christian Concern for our Nation’ spends a great deal of time and money supporting MPs who will further its cause.

These groups are mirroring tactics of fundamentalist Christian groups in the US, with a concerted, long-term strategy of attacking gay rights and abortion. Their influence is being keenly felt within the Conservative party, and their presence is established in a House of Commons which has changed dramatically.

In recent political history, there has been little desire among the majority of politicians and pro-choice groups for abortion to become a political issue – these groups have pushed it back onto the political agenda.

Seventy one of the MPs who voted against the cut in the upper-time-limit for abortion stood down at the end of the last parliamentary session, and little is known about the views of the MP’s who have just taken their seats. It may be tempting to dismiss Nadine Dorries MP when she says that ‘the real opportunity for abortion law reform would arise with a Conservative government’, but pre-election polls showed a majority of Conservative MPs supported a cut in the 24-week limit.

Our Prime Minister and our Equalities Minister both support a cut in the 24-week limit, and regardless of Cameron’s murmurings of ‘abortion on demand’, it seems likely that this issue will find itself discussed in Parliament sooner rather than later.

While it has always been an issue where MPs vote with their conscience, the fragile nature of our coalition government means that the need to support its policies could take precedence over legal, medical and scientific arguments which support a woman’s right to autonomy over her own body.

Image of Argentinian pro-choice demo by Gabby DC

Notes from a Silo Nation

June 27, 2010

My review of Philippe Legrain‘s book Aftershock: Reshaping the World Economy After the Crisis is now available at 3:AM. You can also read Andrew Stevens’s interview at the same address.

In Defence of the Gatekeepers

June 23, 2010

The self publishing debate has so far centred on whether self publishing is good for the writer. Lots of internet writers say it is: I say it isn’t. Laura Miller takes the question beyond this with an essential article on the effect of self publishing on the reader.

She notes that the conversation has so far centred on the self publishing revolution and ‘how gloriously liberating it will be for authors.’ What about the reading public? ‘How readers feel about all this usually gets lost in the fanfare and the hand-wringing.’ She then goes on to the psychic damage that can be inflicted by bad art:

You’ve either experienced slush or you haven’t, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is. Civilians who kvetch about the bad writing of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or any other hugely popular but critically disdained novelist can talk as much trash as they want about the supposedly low standards of traditional publishing. They haven’t seen the vast majority of what didn’t get published — and believe me, if you have, it’s enough to make your blood run cold, thinking about that stuff being introduced into the general population.

Everybody acknowledges that there have to be a few gems out in the slush pile — one manuscript in 10,000, say — buried under all the dreck. The problem lies in finding it. A diamond encased in a mountain of solid granite may be truly valuable, but at a certain point the cost of extracting it exceeds the value of the jewel. With slush, the cost is not only financial (many publishers can no longer afford to assign junior editors to read unsolicited manuscripts) but also — as is less often admitted — emotional and even moral.

It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters — not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés — for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that’s almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn’t been there themselves: Call it slush fatigue. You walk in the door pledging your soul to literature, and you walk out with a crazed glint in your eyes, thinking that the Hitler Youth guy who said, ‘Whenever I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my revolver’ might have had a point after all. Recovery is possible, but it’ll take a while (apply liberal doses of F. Scott Fitzgerald). In the meantime, instead of picking up every new manuscript with an open mind and a tiny nibbling hope, you learn to expect the worst. Because almost every time, the worst is exactly what you’ll get.

Miller argues that the gatekeeping industry (agents, publishers, editors) exists as a vital filtration system that protects the public from slush – that, in other words, protects you and I from the messy, incoherent, self-absorbed id of humanity. ‘[I]t’s a dirty job,’ she says, ‘but someone’s got to do it, and if the prophecies of a post-publishing world come true, it looks, gentle readers, as if that dirty job will soon be yours.’ 

She points out that if and when traditional publishing falls their gatekeepers will simply be replaced by the gatekeepers of the underground, which are no less fickle and cliquish than those of the mainstream. The new model could well be ‘a literary marketplace in which a handful of blockbuster names capture most of the sales and attention, personal connections are milked for professional success, and relatively few authoritative voices have the power to lift some artists into the spotlight while others languish in obscurity. Writers who are charming in person and happy to promote themselves and interact with fans will prosper, while antisocial geniuses may fail.’

Without the gatekeepers, fiction will be devalued. Without financial incentives to plough shit for diamonds, people will simply give up reading: it’s not as if there’s no competition from film, TV drama and video games in turns of fictional stimuli.

A few days of reading bad manuscript after bad manuscript has a tendency to make you never want to pick up another manuscript again, but when finding new talent is your job and your vocation, you keep at it until you’re successful enough to hire someone else to do it for you. If, on the other hand, you’re a civilian, and reading is something you turn to, seeking fun or transcendence, during your precious hours of free time, how long will you persist when book after book has exactly the opposite effect, crushing your spirit instead of refreshing it? How long before you decide to just give up?

Government bases policy on Daily Mail web archive

June 23, 2010

In the speech for his slash-and-burn budget, George Osborne said that ‘there are some families receiving £104,000 a year in housing benefit’. My roving Budget 2010 satirical eye has noticed that the government have quietly admitted that this figure was not based on actual case studies but on potential rates.

The Guardian rang the DWP to check this out. A spokeswoman said that: ‘It is what the rate would be… We don’t have any figures on how many people are claiming that rate.’ The story continues:

However, she added that a search of the Daily Mail and the Sun newspaper websites would throw up stories of people being paid the same if not more.

Case closed!

Also, read Alastair Campbell on this:

In this era of Freedom of Information, surely if such sums were being paid in such a controversial benefit, we would know how many, where they lived and who they were.

But the same spokeswoman admits the £104,000 is based on what a family who were housed in Kensington and Chelsea, one of the wealthiest parts of the UK, WOULD receive IF they were given a five bedroomed home. In other words the chances are there are no such families taking £104,000 at all.

In a weird form of mitigation the spokeswoman says that whilst they have no records of such large claims (we are only the government, eh?) a search of the websites of the Sun and the Daily Mail would ‘throw up stories of people being paid the same if not more.’

The Chancellor made an eye-catching claim, one that will be used to justify major cuts, without any government knowledge that such a claim was justified, beyond reports published on the websites of two tabloid newspapers not best known for their objectivity. Interesting approach to communication of major policy decisions.

(Thanks to Dan and Dan)

Gideon’s Red Box of Doom

June 22, 2010

A few initial impressions from an economics layman:

1) Won’t the concessions to the poor like the raise in the personal allowance be completely swallowed up by the VAT hike/working benefits cuts?

2) Why a cut in corporation tax when Labour left corporation tax lower than it had ever been?

3) Could we not cut the deficit by closing down offshore tax havens? In fact, why no mention of tax havens at all?

4) Given that Obama recently wrote to all G20 nations warning against a slash-and-burn approach, on top of the BP debacle will this not damage our relationship with America?

5) In fact, isn’t the slash-and-burn strategy a massive gamble anyway? Economists like Paul Krugman and Martin Wolf have warned that the right approach is Keynesian pump-priming to stimulate the economy. Wolf’s recent open letter to Osborne (worth the free registration) ends: ‘So remember this: the imposition of futile misery is not an act of wise policy, but rather a sign of folly.’

6) The example of Canada in the 1990s does not hold because it had a prosperous America to trade with and this softened the austerity blow. The UK is next to the eurozone, which is fucked.

7) How do the Lib Dems sleep at night?


This Too Shall Pass

June 21, 2010

He fled the Taliban at fifteen.

He got to Dover with no English, no documents and the clothes on his back.

He is about to graduate with a Cambridge degree in pre-clinical medicine.

A message has arrived to say that the days of sorrow will not last./What happened in the past did not last for ever./And nor will what is in the present last for ever either.

– Hafiz, fourteenth-century Persian poet, quoted by Mohammad Razai

Fridge of Dreams

June 20, 2010

Here’s a little moment I’d like to share.

Saturday morning. I get up, go for a run and hit the Sainsbury’s on the way back. I open the freezer door, and the fucking thing comes off in my hand. My great weakness – well, one of many – is that I don’t know how things work. The photocopier in my office might as well contain a Discworld-style imp that scribbles out the documents.

I call the landlady, and she sends her son round. He sorts out the fridge in a matter of moments. He has spent the entire previous night on an engineering job at a railway station – if it were me, I’d barely be able to walk. He’s an engineer by trade, he tells me, and talks expansively about the work. Travels all over the world, does a bit of construction. We have a smoke on the drive and he starts rhapsodising about the house and the area. He lived in the house for two years and loved it, he’s going on about how great it is to live in Manchester. I agree wholeheartedly. 

I wave him off, and it strikes me that there’s a whole world out there, a whole world of work, that I have never known. 

Enter Alter Ego

June 19, 2010

Mental Health Nurse is a blog run by mental health professionals and service users. Its blogger Zarathustra has been running a fascinating series on the regulation of psychotherapists. The last government introduced proposals for psychotherapists to be regulated by the Health Professions Council – just as doctors are regulated by the GMC and nurses by the NMC. Currently the HPC regulates occupational therapists, physios, paramedics, and the like.

Last year it struck off an arts therapist named Derek Gale. This is why:

During that period you inappropriately treated patient B in that: you inappropriately touched her by pinching her breast; you entertained patients at your home when illegal drugs mainly cannabis, were available… you referred to C as a ‘cunt’ on several occasions in one to one and group sessions… you placed patient D under undue pressure in that you informed the group that unless her demeanour changed, the group would devote the whole of the next session to a discussion of D’s negative characteristics… between 1999 and 2004, you gave C a number of greeting cards in which you signed off as ‘Daddy’… at the opening of the Gale Centre, and on a number of other occasions between 2001 and 2004, you referred to yourself as ‘the father’ and to YY as ‘the mother’.

Even a cursory reading of the charge sheet should tell you that Derek Gale is an abusive, cultish maniac who should under no circumstances be left alone with vulnerable people. From the Panel’s conclusion:

The Panel has already stated that it finds Mr Gale’s attitude to be cavalier, and this is so not only in relation to his clients, but also in relation to the justifications for his practice and in his ambiguous relationship with the truth… Mr Gale’s casual neglect of the HPC’s standards does not inspire confidence in the Panel that he would in the future comply with them either in spirit or in principle… Striking-off is also a necessary and proportionate response to the allegations because of the need to protect particularly vulnerable clients who might consult Mr Gale, and in order to ensure that the public can maintain the level of confidence it is entitled to hold in both the registered profession and the HPC’s regulatory process.

After the ruling, Gale simply carried on advertising his services, except that he now called himself a psychotherapist – which anyone can. You don’t need any clinical training or qualifications to set up as a therapist and no body monitors psychotherapists apart from a couple of self-regulatory organisations called the UKCP (UK Council for Psychotherapy) and UKAHPP (UK Association of Humanistic Psychology Practitioners).

Howard Martin, the original complainant in the Gale case, explains that: ‘These fine and dandy sounding associations and councils actually have no legal status above that of a local golf club.’ As Zarathustra says, a doctor struck off by the GMC will go to jail if he continues to call himself a doctor. A psychotherapist struck off by the UKCP can go on practicing.

They are also very obstructive and evasive to outsiders. Martin (who was never treated by Gale) is pretty much at the end of his tether:

At the hands of these people and their caring sharing ‘humanistic’ complaints process I have encountered more disingenuous, vindictive and outright nasty behaviour than I have ever encountered in my 30 years in the back stabbing, bitch slapping, exploiting media circus that is TV production… Take one step back and forget that it’s me in this process and imagine for one moment you are a vulnerable client who has been abused and is standing alone trying to make a complaint against your abuser.

Government proposals to regulate the laissez-faire carnival of psychotherapy have met with strong objections. The Coalition Against Over-Regulation of Psychotherapy has many name writers and intellectuals on its list of signatories – Alain de Botton, John Gray, Andrew O’Hagan. Of psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals, not so many.

Zarathustra takes apart their arguments, which are a ludicrous combination of anti-capitalist and consumer-is-king rhetoric. The unwritten assumption is that psychotherapy is an art, not a practice, and to regulate psychotherapy would be to break the butterfly upon the wheel.

The thing is, a therapist can make or break the client. A good cognitive behavioural therapist got me back on my feet when I lost it a couple of years ago. She was sympathetic and practical and I still miss her on occasion. When confronted with a dilemma, I ask myself what her advice would be. If I’d been less fortunate in my therapist, I might still be in the attic in Salford, raving to this day.

Zarathustra nails it:

Where I work, in an NHS eating disorders unit, the people attending psychotherapy are not highbrow literati trying to get over a dose of writer’s block. They’re deeply troubled, highly vulnerable people who need help to fight the anorexia that is actively trying to kill them. They are not going through a shopping catalogue of therapies like a basket to be ordered from Harrods. They need careful, expert support to help them develop a sense of control in their lives. Above all, they need to know that the therapist is not going to inflict further trauma upon them through misconduct or abuse. That means regulation.

‘Summer is in the trees! It is time to strangle several bad poets!’

June 19, 2010

Steven Waling has been to the underwhelming launch of overrated Northern poet Simon Armitage:

He was stood at the front, reading from a lectern and looked his usual slightly bemused Northern bloke, reading from his new book, Seeing Stars. He read well, but the whole event had the reverential air of a church service, with everyone else the members of the congregation listening respectfully to the man in the front giving us his wisdom.

I didn’t object to the poetry, which was, as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says about earth, mostly harmless. Quite amusing, in fact, with a slight frisson of soft surrealism here and there. Pretty much Armitage as usual. But a part of me wanted to get up and shout ‘Summer is in the trees! It is time to strangle several bad poets!’ not because the reading was bad, but just to puncture the atmosphere.

Here Steve has pinpointed a major flaw in contemporary poetry – the fact that because poetry is seen as such an exalted art form all poetry is received with a reverence it doesn’t always deserve.

Of course people should be able to hear and enjoy the poems – but Shakespeare could put up with the groundlings in the pit throwing beer over each other during his plays, and that should be good enough for any of us.

Steve contrasts the Armitage event with John G Hall‘s regular Paradox night:

There, with the addition of alcohol and the fact that it was in Sandbar, the atmosphere was much less reverential, and there was music too. In fact, I performed myself. I found myself feeling much more comfortable in that atmosphere. A bit worrying that, as I think I probably drank too much. On the whole I enjoyed the poetry too: and predicted that there was a new San Francisco Rennaisance happening in Manchester. Somewhat over the top, but like I say, I’d drunk a lot.

Steve is a fair man but I know which event I’d rather be at – and which event represents the future of Manchester writing.