Archive for August, 2012

Someone Is Wrong On The Internet

August 27, 2012

A curious piece in the Observer yesterday from Peter Beaumont, who complains about the ‘fiercely polarised debate’ of recent weeks, and discourse that has been ‘widespread, fragmented and bitter.’ He says: ‘public conversation in western countries is already in the process of becoming more extreme and angry’ and speculates that ‘old unwritten rules have come to be influenced by exposure to the more brawling style of the US’. It is all the internet’s fault, apparently, and Beaumont quotes a string of writers and theorists who explain how the web has destroyed English manners. Author Patrick Ness told an Edinburgh conference that ‘instead of bringing us all together in an omnipresent, multifaceted discussion, the internet instead has made sectarianism an almost default position’. Academic Cass Susskind has said the web enables people ‘to isolate themselves from competing views… [creating a] breeding ground for polarisation, potentially dangerous for both democracy and social peace.’ The net, Beaumont argues, ‘makes us confuse emotion for rational thought.’

Beaumont strikes a chord. The writer Zoe Lambert summed up to me the dissatisfaction with online conflict: ‘Half the internet gets involved in pointless arguments. The other half posts pictures of cats. I prefer cats.’ I’m realistic about the limitations of the blog medium – it’s never going to replace actual journalism – but, come on: the rancourous condition of public discourse isn’t just a problem generated by online writers. As Chris Dillow has pointed out, blog writing has become more restrained and nuanced whereas print opinion has fallen off a cliff. Fleet Street is full of journalists who write stupid, ill-informed and offensive copy with no clear motive other than to generate reaction.

A recent example of the top of my head: the Daily Mail‘s comment writer Dominique Jackson’s piece on workfare, in which she argued that ‘The German slogan ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ is somewhat tainted by its connection with Nazi concentration camps, but its essential message, ‘work sets you free’ still has something serious to commend it.’ After Twitter got hold of this, the Mail revised its article: Alex Hern notes that ‘Hilariously, at least at the time of writing, the piece was so hastily edited that the font size in the new paragraphs is noticeably different from the old.’

You wonder why they bothered. Jackson, on her personal blog (subseqently deleted) described herself as ‘a kind of human sausage machine, sucking up the subject, cooking up 400-800 words of hopefully coherent comment and opinion and, within an hour or so, pressing send to shoot it off into the ether for an eventual slot on the website… Nobody needs to read it and I suspect that hardly anyone, apart from a few of my old school friends, even bothers.’ But newspaper websites have an interest in printing this stuff because clicks generate ad revenue at a time when newspapers are in a general decline. Private Eye ran a rumour that the Telegraph Blogs site ranks its contributors by the amount of hits they generate, with potential dismissal for writers in the lower percentiles. (The Eye’s source claimed that climate change nut James Delingpole consistently comes top in these rankings because ‘he really is batshit crazy.’)

So, blogging ain’t perfect, but neither is mainstream comment. Blogging gives you the space to be serious. There’s no deadline, no pressure to get attention. There are bloggers like Norman Geras who write measured, reflective pieces backed up by years of scholarship; others, like Jeremy Duns and David Allen Green, undertake serious investigative work that many newspapers don’t have the resources or inclination to pursue. These guys are worth a thousand Brendan O’Neills.

My second point is that comment should not always be measured. The British are obsessed with tone at the expense of content. Beaumont cites the Assange case when he speaks of ‘fiercely polarised debate’ and ‘widespread, fragmented and bitter’ arguments.

Let’s take a step back. This is a guy who has built a Che Guevara activist cult around himself through his courageous work in recklessly endangering the lives of Afghan and Belarussian dissidents. The Swedes are trying to extradite him for several counts of rape and molestation, alleged to have been committed by Assange in August 2010. He’s a guy who doesn’t want to answer some hard questions, and has parlayed this reluctance into a gigantic US conspiracy against him. The Wikileaks freedom of information organisation has become personalised around Assange’s persecution fantasies with an increasingly dramatic and surreal Twitter feed, rumoured to be written entirely by Assange himself. It comes to this: the digital revolution against state secrecy and war crimes ends with a man tapping furiously on a smartphone in an Ecuador embassy cupboard.

Here’s what makes people angry. Liberals spent decades trying to convince police and courts that complainants of rape should be taken seriously. Rape suspects should enjoy the presumption of innocence like any other defendant, but like any other defendant they have certain obligations, not least of which is to turn up and face the music. That’s all Assange’s critics are asking for. But this is a struggle against imperialism and there’s no time for petty bourgeois frivolities like due process and women’s rights. These women aren’t real rape victims. They’re CIA honeytraps. So it’s okay for us to name them and slut-shame them. And, come on, let’s not be politically correct about this. You know what women are like. And what is ‘rape’ anyway? Galloway, Pilger, Benn, Milne, all the old men of the authoritarian left have basically said to women: shut up, and know your place.

The mainstream media’s record on this case is not good. Comment is Free published a bullshit piece by Seumas Milne, which repeated the conspiracy theory; then a piece by a far left rape activism group in an attempt to give feminist legitimacy to what was by then becoming a pretty nasty campaign. Silliest of all was a long piece by Assange apologist Glenn Greenwald devoted to proving that the Swedish government could make a guarantee against US extradition. This matters because the far left case is that of course Julian would go to Sweden if its government would guarantee not to then send him to the US – as if the Swedes could offer any guarantees that would be believed by Assange and his paranoid acolytes, and as if a fugitive and suspected sex offender should be allowed to dictate the terms of due process. Greenwald’s article relied heavily on an analysis from Mark Klamberg, a professor of international law at Stockholm, who then pointed out that Greenwald had distorted his conclusion. Klamberg wrote: ‘my conclusion is that a guarantee for non-extradition from Sweden not possible, i.e opposite to what @ggreenwald is arguing’. This is a national newspaper, here.

Meanwhile the real work on the case has been done by legal and feminist bloggers who can see a fraud at twenty paces.

I’m reading Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New, and there’s a striking similarity between what people were saying about the internet in the 2000s, and what people were saying about architecture at the beginning of the last century. Compare China Mieville’s recent aspiration to abolish piracy laws and have all novels ‘remixed’ on the internet with 1910s German architect Paul Scheerbart’s assertion that all buildings should be made out of glass. The digital world has suffered from wild-eyed futurism and Beaumont’s article is part of the backlash.

And yes, by all means, let’s be civilised, and reasonable. But emotion and anger are sometimes justified, too. And how these arguments happen is less important than the fact that they take place.

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Caveat Scriptor: Stephen Leather

August 25, 2012

If you’ve been into this controversy on the social networks then the following post will interest you. If you’re new to the case it will just seem like a ‘Someone is wrong on the internet!’ thing. It’s a complex story and a disturbing one, but I think it matters, for reasons that’ll hopefully become clear.

Back in July, I went up to the Harrogate crime festival. I wrote down some observations on one particular panel, which was about ebooks.

What really got people talking – I’m sure I remember an audible gasp in the room – was this open and proud admission by bestselling novelist Stephen Leather:

I’ll go onto several forums, from the well-known forums, and post there, under my own name and under various other names and various other characters. You build this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself. And then I’ve got enough fans…

Well, I think that everyone … well, are the readers aware of it? No … But they’re not buying it because of the sockpuppet. What you’re trying to do is create a buzz. And it’s very hard, one person, surrounded by a hundred thousand other writers, to create a buzz. I mean, that’s one of the things that publishers do. They create a buzz. One person on their own, difficult to create a buzz. If you’ve got ten friends, and they’ve got friends, and you can get them all as one creating a buzz, then hopefully you’ll be all right.

There is a recording of this panel.

There’s a debate here over whether the use of fake identities to sell books is an ethical thing for someone in Leather’s position to be doing. Novelist Jeremy Duns thought it wasn’t, and investigated Leather’s practices. During that investigation, a lot more has come to light, and as Jeremy says the argument isn’t really about ebook pricing any more. I followed the developments, and kept adding updates to my Harrogate post, to the point where it has become unwieldy and cumbersome to read.

Some of the stuff that’s come out of this is frankly unsettling. The bullyingThe evil jokesThe casual racism. The incest pron angle that I am at a loss even to describe.

None of this would be known, had Stephen Leather not boasted of his fraudulent sales techniques at Harrogate.

Now, finally, Leather has responded to Jeremy’s findings.

It is all a big witchhunt:

The problem is that I have been advised to say nothing.

But it is just so darn unfair that blogs like this have repeated allegations as fact without making any effort to check whether they are true or not.  Ditto all those who pile in to comment on the allegations. It really is a mob mentality and is unfortunately not uncommon on the internet these days.

I’ve been ignoring most of what has been going on because it’s impossible to win against a mob.

He ‘stands by’ what he said at Harrogate, and doesn’t explore the moral and potentially legal dilemma in promoting your own fiction through false identities.

Pretty much all the allegations that Duns is making are untrue.  I stand by what I said at Harrogate but he has twisted and lied and stretched the truth in a way that has stunned me.

Leather did at one stage threaten to sue both Jeremy Duns and another crime writer, Steve Mosby, who was on the panel with Leather and challenged his sockpuppetry. Apparently, this is now not going to happen:

At one point he made a defamatory statement about me on Twitter and I tweeted back that he had crossed over into libel. He then began tweeting that I was suing him.  That is an absolute lie. I never said that and I have no plans to sue him. If nothing else he has so little in the way of assets that a libel action would be pyrrhic at best. Since then I have just ignored him.

Translation: ‘I have been advised that a libel action would cost a lot of money and, in the unlikely event of it getting to court, would make me look like a complete idiot’

Duns phoned a friend of mine and spent almost an hour getting him to try to criticise me.  He taped the call but still ended up twisting what was said.  I have a full four-page statement from that friend about the way Duns behaved. I also have a letter from him saying that in no way does he regard me as having bullied him.

I’m assuming this is self published writer Steve Roach, his faithful Smithers, who Leather harassed online for months after Roach criticised his promotional techniques on an Amazon talkboard. Incredibly, Roach remains loyal to Leather despite being subject to Leather’s petty malice and bullying.

Then, more self-pity:

Mosby alone has blogged on me FOUR times and has sent more than a hundred tweets slagging me off.  Duns sends dozens of abusive tweets about me every day, including sme that are very personally offensive.

Finally, the whole thing degenerates into a pissing contest about sales.

According to Neilsen, Duns has sold a grand total of  3,278 books in the UK. That’s over his whole writing ‘career’. According to Neilsen, his latest book, The Moscow Option, has sold 162 copies.  I think you need look no further than that for an explanation of the jealousy that is driving Duns. I sell more copies in one week than he has sold in his life.

Mosby is as unsuccessful an author as Duns. According to Neillsen, he has lifetime sales of fewer than 7,000 books for his titles. With that level of sales neither Duns nor Mosby has a future as a writer. That more than anything is what I think has been driving them over the past three weeks.

This childish one-upmanship is the only real card in Leather’s hand. He’s still a sordid bully – albeit a rich, and successful, sordid bully. As Steve has said: ‘when all you have intellectually is a hammer: everything looks like a nail.’

I think that is the only response we are going to get from Leather on this. And it’s an evasive, misleading and self-pitying non-response, that does not address the serious issues that have come to light.

What an arsehole. Even Johann Hari offered a mea culpa of sorts.

Stephen Leather is Jeffrey Archer with a broadband connection. And a lot of nasty ideas.

Update: Jeremy Duns has been suspended from Twitter. He has responded to Leather on his blog.

Another update: More from Jeremy Duns, who is still suspended from Twitter.

Apparently, there have been ‘automated complaints’ about the account.

I don’t know the site inside out, but I think, in theory, it is possible to have someone suspended by bombarding Twitter HQ with vexatious complaints.

Something similar happened to Nick Cohen.

This is all just speculation, of course. We don’t know why the account’s been suspended.

A mystery worthy of Inspector Zhang.

More: I don’t have much more time to spend on all this but if you are reading the books pages you will have noticed that sockpuppetry and literary fraudulence in general has hit mainstream coverage in a big way. Please consider signing this statement against sockpuppetry and fake reviews.

The unpleasant, and disturbing man, Stephen Leather. (Image: Observer)

Capitalism Doesn’t Care That You’re Single

August 22, 2012

Ewan Morrison is an interesting fellow. He wrote a brilliant novel, Swung, about a dysfunctional couple who join the swinging scene. The internet partner swap market depicted in Morrison’s book is sordid and unkind, but the experiences Morrison’s couple go through affirms their love for each other. It is a perverse paean to monogamy.

It’s also a romantic thesis, that Morrison repeats in this article, where he argues that ‘What we once thought of as radical – staying single – may now be reactionary.’

The long-term relationship, like the job-for-life, is fast being deregulated into short term, temporary arrangements with no promise of commitment, as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has been warning us for over a decade. It’s hard for two people to be self-employed, with no promise of a stable future, together. Capitalism now wants us to be single.

Being single, has since the 60s been seen as a radical choice, a form of rebellion against bourgeois capitalist conformism. As sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann says, the shift away from family life to solo lifestyles in the 20th century was part of the ‘irresistible momentum of individualism’. But this ‘freedom’ looks a lot less glamorous when viewed through the perspective of planned changes in consumerism.

It now makes economic sense to convince the populace to live alone. Singles consume 38% more produce, 42% more packaging, 55% more electricity and 61% more gas per capita than four-person households, according to a study by Jianguo Liu of Michigan State University. In the US, never-married single people in the 25-to-34 age bracket, now outnumber married people by 46%, according to the Population Reference Bureau. And divorce is a growth market: one broken family means that two households have to buy two cars, two washing machines, two TVs. The days of the nuclear family as ideal consumption unit are over.

As capitalism sinks into stagnation, corporations have realised that there are two new growth strands – firstly, in the emerging singles market and secondly in encouraging divorce and the concept of individual freedom. This can be seen in changes in advertising, with products as diverse as burgers and holidays being targeted towards singles – in particular single women. New ads for Honda and Citibank expound solitary self-discovery and relationship postponement over coupledom. As Catherine Jarvie says, ‘top-pocket relationships’ where ‘neither party is looking for long-term commitment’ are the new way – witness the meteoric rise of dating website Match.com. In the US, Craiglist ads expose the subconscious connection between disposable consumerism and self-selling: one reads ‘Buy my IKEA sofa and fuck me on it first, $100’.

Consumerism now wants you to be single, so it sells this as sexy. The irony is that it’s now more radical to attempt to be in a long-term relationship and a long-term job, to plan for the future, maybe even to attempt to have children, than it is to be single. Coupledom, and long-term connections with others in a community, now seem the only radical alternative to the forces that will reduce us to isolated, alienated nomads, seeking ever more temporary ‘quick fix’ connections with bodies who carry within them their own built-in perceived obsolescence.

A few thoughts.

For the last half century there has been a backlash against the 1960s and we forget how limited people’s options were. Establishment politicians aren’t individualists. They are part of this romantic and communitarian backlash. They talk endlessly about the family and community, to the extent that – as Isabel Hardman pointed out – politicos now say ‘families’ when they simply mean ‘people’. Backlash thinkers will piss and moan because the 1960s social revolution didn’t trigger the ideal state they wanted. But these freedoms are worth having even if they don’t guarantee a less capitalist society. But then the radical left cares little for freedom and, as we’ve seen, less for women’s rights.

In fact it is easier to start a family now than it has ever been. Potential parents have free IVF treatment, subsidised housing allocated by need, flexible working, paternity leave, and a raft of child-related benefits. The problem for families, particularly young families, is the rising cost of rents, fuel and living expenses, aggravated by the failure of austerity. A working parent has to put everything selfish aside for the sake of his children. He has a moral imperative to work any job, make any sacrifice, get exploited in any way he can if this puts food on the table. A position more vulnerable to the vagaries of capitalism it would be difficult to find.

Morrison says: ‘The irony is that it’s now more radical to attempt to be in a long-term relationship and a long-term job, to plan for the future, maybe even to attempt to have children, than it is to be single.’ Again, it’s an interesting point – but when it comes to relationships it’s better to be happy than to be radical. We don’t have a duty or obligation to make these commitments just because of a countercultural thesis about late capitalism. No relationship is better than an abusive or unhappy relationship.

No, Morrison’s utopia of Facebook baby photos does not appeal. As Cerys Matthews once sang: ‘And as for some happy ending/I’d rather stay single and thin.’

What Ever Happened to 3:AM Magazine?

August 13, 2012

You may have read in the grown up books pages that the online journal I write for, 3:AM Magazine, recently vanished from the internet. It’s a bizarre episode. I felt like the guys in Red Dwarf must have felt, when they lost Red Dwarf. My editor, Andrew Gallix, takes up the story:

3:AM’s servers (located in Dallas, Texas) were owned by a company (based in Saint Joseph, Missouri) whose website was down. Emails bounced back and the phone had been disconnected. We naturally assumed that the owner – whose main claim to fame was his contribution to the penis-enlargement business – had done a runner. But as soon as the word was out, we were inundated with heart-warming messages of support and offers of help via social media, and within a few hours, Twitter had located the owner’s whereabouts. 3:AM readers informed us that he was now the landlord of – or an employee in (there were conflicting reports) – a tattoo parlour. Someone even kindly mailed me an overexposed picture of the aforementioned establishment.

American novelist Steve Himmer spotted that he and the alleged fugitive had a friend in common on Facebook, who was able to send a direct message. London-based author Susana Medina friended him and striked up a conversation. His mobile phone number and personal email addresses were soon unearthed and passed on by amateur sleuths. Blogger Edward Champion conducted a phone interview with the errant entrepreneur in which the latter claimed that he had wound up his web hosting business in 2008 and had no idea that he was still hosting us. He mentioned a ‘server admin in Bucharest’ – name of Florin – who had been handling the company’s ‘lingering details’. If this is all true, and it could well be, 3:AM had been running on some unattended phantom server. I also wonder whom I have been paying all these years.

Our travails were also reported in the Independent. The note of pathos in Gallix’s last line is a delight:

Mr Gallix is trying to track down the person responsible for the servers. After a few false leads, as well as a disconnected phone and emails bouncing back, he believes he has tracked him down.

‘At this stage, we do not know if we’ll ever be able to speak to him and if he can switch his server back on long enough to allow us to move 12 years’ worth of content to another, more reliable host,’ Mr Gallix said. ‘I should have backed it up somewhere else, but it never occurred to me.’

There’s a happy ending to this as our digital tech guys have been working like demons all summer to get the site back online. It has now been relaunched, with a new design by Rhys Tranter, and pretty much all the content has been resurrected.

So it’s time to contextualise some more links. Here’s my review of Sam Thompson’s Booker longlisted Communion Town: also, I have an essay on John Irving, using his new novel In One Person as my hook. Also, a short story, ‘Say Your Lesson,’ has been published on Squawkback.

The line in my Communion Town review: ‘a womb garden that rivals the real’ is from Jim Morrison’s poem ‘The Womb Garden’, available in the collection The Lords and the New Creatures.

‘Sir, we did not lose 3:AM. 3:AM was taken from us, by person or persons unknown’

The Rules of Attraction

August 9, 2012

I long resisted Jane Austen because of a preconception that her style was dense and prolix. In fact, when it comes to the pre-1900 novel, I am more or less a functional illiterate – one Dickens book, Middlemarch (at university) Mark Twain, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and that’s around it. However, I just read Pride and Prejudice and was surprised how much I enjoyed it. The thing fair rattles along.

John Rentoul, frontline warrior in the war against cliche, includes on his Banned List Austen’s first line ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged’ – cannibalised over and over by broadsheet hacks to give second-hand wry literary gloss to pedestrian articles, many of which have nothing to do with Austen, literature, marriage, romance or Georgian England. No one ever quotes the second para, which sums up Austen’s conventions just as well:

However little known the surrounding feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

The Bennets are cursed with five daughters, not enough money and no male heir. Employment ain’t an option for the Bennet girls, so from an uncertain talent pool they must find a ‘single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year’ or else the estate will be taken over by the ludicrous Mr Collins, a clerical cousin of the Bennets. What got me was how much Austen laughed at these conventions. Mr Collins is a Georgian David Brent, full of sycophancy and solipsism, completely unconscious of the needs, reactions and personal space of others, who blusters through social scenes leaving discomfort, embarrassment and offence in his cringey wake. He has a powerful patron, the aristocrat Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who he continually praises for her ‘affability and condescension’: because of this connection, Collins considers himself quite the catch, and in the self-regard of his magnanimity decides to marry one of the Bennets to ensure the estate will remain under the family’s nominal control.

His proposal to Lizzy Bennet is a laugh-out-loud scene. Collins takes her unequivocal refusal as flirtation – ‘it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept’ – and Lizzy cannot persuade him that no means no. From Collins’s point of view he has convention on his side, he has money and position, Lizzy has nothing, how could she possibly refuse? The final para of this chapter is masterful comic writing:

To such perseverance in wilful self-deception Elizabeth would make no reply, and immediately and in silence withdrew; determined, that if he persisted in considering her repeated refusals as flattering encouragement, to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as must be decisive, and whose behaviour at least could not be mistaken for the affectation and coquetry of an elegant female.

Lizzy seems genuinely not to care about the rules. A woman with a ‘lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous’ she is unfazed when Mr Darcy, with a startling lack of gallantry, insults Lizzy Bennet in Lizzy’s presence (‘tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me‘) she shrugs this off not out of forced defiance, but because she really doesn’t care. When her sister falls ill at a distant manor, Lizzy strides for miles across rainy shire pulp, arriving at Netherfield withot apology or explanation, all ‘weary ancles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.’ Martin Amis highlights this scene in his essay, ‘Force of Love’, and adds: ‘By now the male reader’s heart is secure (indeed, he is down on one knee).’

When Darcy and Elizabeth finally fall in love, the gatekeepers of convention half kill themselves to stop them. There’s a letter of warning from Mr Collins, whose patron disapproves of the match: then, an unprecendented visit from the lady herself. There’s no more affability and condescension from Lady Catherine: she’s heard rumours of a wedding, and confronts Lizzy in order ‘to insist upon having such a report universally contradicted.’ Lizzy defies her outright: ‘How far your nephew might approve of your interference in his affairs I cannot tell; but you have certainly no right to concern yourself in mine.’ Lady Catherine is reduced to the classic last resort of the celebrity on the wrong end of an argument: ‘Miss Bennet, do you know who I am?’ To no avail. Not only do Lady Catherine’s representations not work, they also play a role in bringing Darcy and Lizzy together.

From this angle, the novel seems almost feminist. Lizzy isn’t forced to lower her expectations. Elizabeth, Amis writes, ‘will never settle for anything less than love’ – and she doesn’t have to. But Amis notes that her little sister Lydia is wrenched into something like a period cautionary tale. She runs off with the rakish officer Wickham into a rushed and penniless marriage that quickly loses its fire. At the end of the novel she is tolerated and subsidised but not accepted. There’s little sympathy from the other characters, almost none from Austen herself. From Amis’s review:

And this despite the following mitigations (which gallantry, as well as conscience, obliges one to list): that Lydia’s fall was precisely and vividly foretold by Elizabeth; that its likelihood was blamed on parental and familial laxity; that Elizabeth was at one point entirely gulled by Wickham’s charms and lies; and that Lydia, during the course of the novel, only just turns sixteen.

No matter. The British love romantic conventions, and the friction they produce when you brush against them. But you can fuck with the rules of attraction so far – and no further.

Austen has obvious contemporary resonances. The plot of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones loosely follows Pride and Prejudice. Bridget and her contemporaries are locked in a similar stampede to the altar. But the driving force has changed. Instead of money and estates, it’s the timeless cliche of the biological clock – the desire to have children, and the expectations of family, peers and society that one should do so.

It’s astonishing that the novel was such a contemporary hit. Bridget is far less independent, and more submissive than Lizzy Bennet – Darcy’s thoughtless comment at their first ball would have triggered weeks of tearful self-analysis and hazardous dieting. In fact popular fiction traces an arc of female servility – from chick lit to Fifty Shades by way of Twilight (‘Oh, Edward, you are a vampire. How dashing!’) I reread Bridget Jones’s Diary recently and was struck by how cold the book was. There is more of Austen’s invention and spirit in the cult hipster novels of Martin Millar.

Fielding did introduce an original element: the introduction of the Bad Man. Her Mr Darcy has to compete for Bridget’s hand with the philandering Flashmanesque Daniel Cleave. The Bad Man is unreliable and ultimately impossible to live with, but there’s a sensuality there and a candid mischief that keeps him forever in the game. There is no Cleave equivalent in Austen – even Wickham is more lazy and hapless than actually wicked. More than one woman has said to me that Bridget should have married Daniel Cleave – at least he made her laugh.

In my view, TV drama Green Wing tells the old story much better. If you didn’t see this show in the mid 2000s, it’s a surreal comic burlesque set in a hospital, and scored with gorgeous electronica. You can drop a pill and dance to it. Surgical registrar Dr Caroline Todd is torn between two potential suitors: the Good Man, Dr Macartney, and the Bad Man, the textbook FHM medic Guy Secretan. The characters are better developed: Macartney is modest and taciturn while Fielding’s Darcy just comes off as remote and aloof. Daniel Cleave is a bastard who never changes. But we never really hate Dr Secretan because his macho pomposity is so easily deflated. Guy develops a genuine love and care for Caroline, which in turn makes him more vulnerable and likeable. Mac too is in love with Caroline, but their relationship is continually disrupted by the vagaries of chance.

Green Wing acknowledges the biological clock. Sitcom women are usually portrayed as unattainable goddesses or domestic foils. But the female characters in Green Wing are as idiosyncratic and fucked up as the men. From the raging corporate vamp Joanna Clore to the insane sexual dynamo that is liaison officer Sue White, they go to comic, desperate and extraordinary lengths to find romance. The Mac-Guy-Caroline triangle is mirrored in Joanna’s relationship with Dr Alan Statham, a consultant radiologist defined by self-important whimsy and a multitude of sexual tics. Statham is the comic highlight of the show – you’ll never again hear the phrase ‘One hundred per cent’ without smiling. But he genuinely cares for Joanna, and their kinky autumn love forms a parallel to the central romance.

The last episode of series two begins with the Kinks song ‘Tired of Waiting’ – Mac’s favourite band and appropriate for his relationship with Caroline. In a cruel irony, it turns out to be Mac that’s running out of time. He arranges to meet Caroline at the station. A weekend away is his last try at getting the relationship back on track. On the way, he has a routine medical appointment – where he’s handed a terminal diagnosis. With months or maybe just weeks to leave, he decides to get out of the game. Caroline, waiting at the station, decides too to give up the relationship – ‘He’s let me down again’ – and instead it’s Guy who comes walking out of the smoke. She accepts his proposal – and it’s a measure of how strong the writing and character development is that by this time we’re happy that she says yes.

There’s a happy ending to Green Wing, as there always is with romantic comedy. But there’s an edge to it as well, because you only get a certain amount of time in the world to be happy, and at the back of your heart you’re always aware how easily and seamlessly the dance of love segues into the dance of death.

Update: for Austen criticism from people who actually know what they’re talking about, I recommend Normblog’s exhaustive Janeite resource.

(Image: Wiki)

Because Life Ain’t Fair, You’re On Your Own

August 5, 2012

There was a stir a little while back when liberal education writer Janet Murray explained her decision to send her child to a private school. This provoked predictable ‘mugged by reality’ jokes from the right and defences of the state system from the left.

Education policy in the UK is a politicised mindfield. We are proud of our comprehensive system and rightly so. Attempts to ‘reform’ it – from the Blair/Adonis academy programme through to Michael Gove’s turbocharged Blairism – are shouted down by leftwing pundits and the teaching unions. Gove is seen as a 1950s throwback who wants to turn every state school into a Hogwarts parody and sell the playing fields to News International.

I’m a product of the comprehensive school system, and I’ve done okay. However, support for free education does not mean you should ignore problems in its current provision. A damning report from the Torygraph claimed that almost half of school leavers have ‘poor literacy’ and that the army has to reject hundreds of new signups because they couldn’t pass the most basic literacy tests.

It’s the Torygraph and it has an agenda. But my own experience supports the argument. I am constantly surprised at the number of people I meet who cannot make themselves understood or write a coherent sentence. Schools have a lot to do. They have to teach our children how to read and write and count up, they have to ground some kind of appreciation of arts and history and our place in the universe. They also need to provide life lessons about money, sex, and how to handle yourself in a hard world. I’m not convinced that all our state schools are doing this.

It’s not necessarily the fault of the schools. They have been hit by the 2000s baby boom. In parts of London kids are taught in rigged portakabins. Schools are so overcrowded that council bosses are considering setting up classrooms in disused businesses and warehouses and also ‘split shift’ teaching, a system currently used in war-strafed Gaza.

Despite everything, England is still in love with its aristocracy and the private alternative continues to fascinate. There’s a brilliant piece by Christopher Hitchens where he explores the public’s absorption with the education of the sons and daughters of the elite, from ‘Boys’ Weeklies’ to Harry Potter. He quotes Orwell:

It is quite clear that there are tens and scores of thousands of people to whom every detail of life at a ‘posh’ public school is wildly thrilling and romantic. They happen to be outside that mystic world of quadrangles and house-colors, but they can yearn after it, daydream about it, live mentally in it for hours at a stretch.

Easy to enthrall, easy to ridicule. Nonsense uniforms, piping and braying public schoolboys, connotations of homosexuality, male rape and what Amis calls the ‘English nostalgia for chastisement’, songs with hundreds of stanzas and sports that are almost impossible to understand – these are part of our shared culture of comedy. There’s also a distaste of intellectualism there, the idea that to read and study makes you effete, ludicrous, somehow less than human and cut off from the world. We like to pretend that we came up through the university of life, and that everything about us comes from hard worn experience rather than leisurely abstraction. This idea comes from the schoolyard but gets carried on into adult life.

In this context, Michael Gove type ideas of bringing back Latin and sending every school a King James Bible sound crazy. Intellectuals, of course, say and do some harmful and stupid things. But the working class rejection of intellectualism has done them no good at all. Not in a country where you need a degree to get an office job and you need to fill in a stack of forms to get a shelf stacker job. Government has made things worse on this, by introducing worthless vocational qualifications that don’t go anywhere. Conservatives recognise this and moan about BTecs in hairdressing. But conservatives are part of this culture of reactionary philistinism. They sneer at any degree course that doesn’t have an immediate vocational application in the private sector. They ignore the practical value of the humanities. They look down on working class kids who like to use their imagination.

Is Michael Gove’s alternative vision any good? Maybe. Free schools horrified people when they were first proposed, but now, sane leftwing heads are coming round to the idea. But a third of the schools set up are religious schools, and a few are even creationist. This ain’t just a secularist issue. Would you support a maths teacher who taught pupils that 2 + 2 = 5 or a history teacher who was convinced the Holocaust never happened?

But – and finally coming back to Murray’s piece – the crux of this argument isn’t about politics at all. You may have a utopian vision but how are you going to help your child in the world as it actually exists? You want the best for your children and nothing is as selfish as a mother’s love. Allocation season is a vicious clusterfuck, which again has been made worse by the population boom. Janet Murray runs through the ways parents game the system:

But the state sector is full of parents buying advantage. They kid themselves that what they are doing is somehow morally superior. The truth is that every person who moves house to get into a catchment area is playing the system. So are those who pay private tutors, or consultants to help with school appeals (both booming businesses). Parents who suddenly discover a faith in God to get their children into a certain school are lying and cheating. There will be people reading this – including some loyal Education Guardian readers – who have done some or all of these things.

If we lived in a meritocracy with excellent free education – then you could argue that Murray’s choice is unjustifiable. But we live in a sclerotic post-imperial backwater where so much depends on family and connection. That’s not going to change any time soon, and until it does you cannot blame people for trying their best to fight their way through a rigged game.