Monday, 22 November 2010

Out Of The Blue - an Oxford dream in tatters



THE PRE-PREAMBLE

I know, I know. It's been sodding ages since you heard from me. You must be so angry (or, worse still, just disappointed).

I didn't write; I didn't call.

No. I was too busy blogging about bloody wine, wasn't I?

What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that I took you – my sweet, buttery readers – for granted.

OMG, I murmur to myself. OM sweet G. How could I be so callous?

And so it seems to me there's only one way I might possibly contrive to insinuate myself back into your pants (METAPHORICALLY. CALM DOWN, WILL YOU?): by telling you yet another episode of self-mutilatingly grievous embarrassment from my life.

So. It happened like this.


THE PREAMBLE

There's only one reason any boy wants to study at Oxford University. If you should chance upon some mendacious Oxonian adolescent who claims to be motivated by academic ambition, know this: he lies. There's only one thing he's really interested in.

Singing in an all-male vocal close harmony group.

I, dear reader, was one such entranced aspirant. The vocal ensemble of my choice? An outfit that called itself Out Of The Blue.

Now that's witty, you see, in the manner that only an Oxonian close harmony group can be. Because Blue, you see, also happens to refer to … oh, gosh, never mind. I'm not sure I can even explain wit of this subtlety. But trust me. It's very witty.

Anyhow. The thrust of my gist is this: I wanted to be in Out Of The Blue. Oh how I wanted!

What in fuck's name possessed me?


And it was this ardent desire that led me (like a lamb, my sweets, like a lamb) to the Out Of The Blue auditions.

[For the narration that follows, I urge you to visit the Out Of The Blue website and set some of their music playing in the background as you read. In a manner that's not at all gutwrenchingly annoying, the music starts playing automatically.]


THE AMBLE

There is no terror quite like the terror of walking into a small room to be met by one upright piano and three upright members of Out Of The Blue.

If you asked a member of Out Of The Blue to imagine what it might be like not to possess innate, inbred confidence, his brow would – for a mere second – compose itself into the tiniest frown of puzzled dismay. Imagine the expression that might swiftly pass across David Cameron's face, were he to enter an otherwise empty cabinet office only to witness Vince Cable engaged in a surreptitious fart. That's the expression they'd make.

They're confident chaps, in other words.

I, by contrast, was not.

Still, I managed to squeeze my larynx through a succession of range-testing vocal exercises without discrediting myself too hideously. Though already, only too aware of the mellifluousness of my testers' own tones, I was conscious of a growing sense of futility.

At length – my vocal range ascertained – the time came for performance. The part where they'd give me some music and I'd sing it. That's how it goes.

Right?

Let's listen to what happened next, shall we?


OOTB guy 1: 'Great, Tom, that's marvellous.'
OOTB guy 2: 'Yeah yeah yeah. Now we'd just like you to go ahead and sing us something.'

[Pause.]

Undergraduate Hooligan: 'Er … What do you want me to sing?'
OOTB guy 3: 'Oh, anything you like.'
OOTB guy 1: 'Take your pick.'
OOTB guy 2: 'Yeah yeah yeah.'

[Long, excruciating pause]

At this point, we dive into the internal dialogue that is raging within the Undergraduate Hooligan's mind, amidst that deceptive silence. On one side we have 'Undergraduate Hooligan's Terror Of Prolonged Silence'; on the other we have 'Undergraduate Hooligan's Doomed Sense of Dignity and Self-Respect'. Their exchange sounded something like this:

UH's Terror: 'Oh Jesus, fuck, Jesus. Fuck! They're all looking at us. I think one of them's even frowning a little bit.'
UH's Dignity: 'Calm down, man. Let's just think about thi—'
Terror (interrupting): 'NO TIME TO THINK! Can't you hear HOW QUIET IT IS? We HAVE to sing something!'
Dignity: 'Okay, well, we know lots of songs, so how hard can it—'
Terror: 'Argh! You're taking too long!'
Dignity: 'Christ, will you stop interrupt—'
Terror: 'BWARGH! It's been quiet for AGES NOW! They think we're a WEIRDO! We HAVE to sing something. NOW!'
Dignity: 'How about something classica—'
Terror: 'Think of something!'
Dignity: 'But you're not even giving me a chance to—'
Terror: 'WAIT!'
Dignity (uneasy): 'What is it?'
Terror: 'I KNOW WHAT WE CAN SING!'

[Pause]

Dignity: 'Oh no. No. No!'
Terror: 'It's not ideal, I know, but THEY'RE ALL LOOKING AT US!'
Dignity: 'No no no no. Oh Christ no.'
Terror: 'It's a song! We know it!'
Dignity: 'For the love of God, no. Anything but that.'
Terror: 'I think it's our only hope!'
Dignity: 'Please. Please. No.'
Terror: 'DO YOU HAVE A BETTER SUGGESTION?'
Dignity (sweating, frantic): 'Ah, ah, ah … how … um …'
Terror: 'HURRY UP!'
Dignity: 'Fuck, would you just let me thi—'
Terror: 'NO TIME! WE HAVE TO SING!'

***

What follows may only be endured in the third person. And so it is that we find ourselves floating remote, detached – observing the scene (if you will) through the eyes of one who, like the god of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.

Without emotion, then, we regard this small practice room, in this small College, in this small city, on this small island, on this small, small planet. Standing beside the piano, with the doomed pride of the man before the guillotine, the aching frailty of the slender reed before the broiling storm, is the tender figure of our Hooligan.

He sways a little; steadies himself. His expression grows distant.

And, at length, into the breathless hush, emerges a sound. Words. A melody.

The slowest, slowest, most achingly slow melody. A cappella on heroin.

The sound of death.


'A heart

That's

Full up

Like

A

Land

Fill

A job

That slowly

KILLS

You

Bruises

That

Won't

Heal.'



Never, friend – never – had Thom Yorke's lyrics been simultaneously more incongruous and more apt. For there are bruises on my soul. Bruises That Will Never Heal.

I didn't get into Out Of The Blue.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Freshers Seek Solace In Shit

It is with mixed feelings that I observe: this month, no fewer than five tender e-pilgrims have arrived at my blog following the Google search freshers week is shit.

To them I say: take comfort – you're not the only ones thinking it.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Oh, by the way,

… I started a wine blog. Intellectual enough for you?

Friday, 1 October 2010

Hazel Blears bobs to the surface once again ...

... before dunking herself right back down again.

Yes, we all remember Hazel 'rocking the boat' Blears, don't we? Well, looks like she has once again exercised her canny instincts and admirable ability to steer a moderate and judicious course. If you haven't already seen it (as I realise I'm a couple of days late), take a watch of the below.



(An after-note to whoever that bloke is who makes the 'caught red-handed' joke at the end: mate, you should seriously consider stand-up. Your material, timing and delivery are all outstanding.)

New A* Grade Is Evil Weapon Against Underprivileged Children!

I find it extraordinary that people are seriously advancing the argument that the UK's new A* grade widens the gap between state and private education.

There's a long article on the subject in the TES which explores the issue. Here're a few representative quotations:

In August, before results day, Sir Martin Harris, director of the Government's Office for Fair Access, said he expected the A* to be "disproportionately achieved" in independent and selective schools.

The grade "does increase the risk that the brightest disadvantaged young people may be squeezed out of the applicant pool for the most selective universities", he warned.

and...

John Bangs, former head of education at the NUT and now visiting professor at London University's Institute of Education, [says]:

"The A* is going to become essential for Russell Group (of Britain's 20 top) universities," he said on results day. "They will use it to filter candidates, the interview process will go out of the window, and it will be to the advantage of independent school pupils."

And, finally:

The real question is, did the A* widen the gap?

Last year 19 per cent of A grades went to state grammar schools and 31 per cent to comprehensives - virtually the same as this year. But independents only managed 27 per cent of A grades in 2009 and so have gained a greater share of this year's top grade.

So yes, the gap has widened, although not by a huge amount. Does that mean it will also help independent pupils tighten their grip on places in the most selective universities?

Now, you know that the Intellectual Hooligan is no fan of A level grade inflation. But this is a bizarre and twisted perspective, surely? 'Did the A* widen the gap?'

No it clearly, clearly did not. Imagine we have a windowless room, lit only by a candle. In the dim and flickering light, the vague outline of a small crack is visible in the ceiling.

Someone turns on the light. It can now be seen that this small crack is actually a gaping fissure.

TES then publishes an article asking, 'Did the lightbulb widen the crack?'

I fucking despair.

Let's think about this, shall we? What's going on is that state schools are not (in general) achieving the highest standards, relative to private schools.

That is definitely a problem. Absolutely.

And what would be the ideal solution to this problem? Hey, how about we — maintain an exam system that masks this disparity!

Oh piss off, you shitfaced bunch of intellectual pygmies.

Because I utterly deplore this mendacious tendency by both media and opportunistic politicians/public 'servants' to act as apologists for failing state education by pointing the blame at more-or-less impartial measures that highlight the failure.

(Staggeringly, this perspective would be considered 'right wing' in some quarters, when in fact its implication – that we should focus on actually improving state education – is surely a cause that ought to be entirely central to left wing thinking. Indeed, I can't actually believe I'm writing this post, so bloody obvious is every single one of my points. But when I read a long, evidently laboriously-written article in a publication like the TES that utterly fails to make these blindingly straightforward observations, I begin to wonder.)

How has this arisen? This ugly tendency for any kind of focus on actual standards to be painted as divisive and anti-state? This shoot-the-messenger approach whereby a new grade for high achievement is accused of disadvantaging state school pupils – when what is fucking clearly disadvantaging state school pupils is the goddamn state school system.

I should add that I don't for a moment think that all state schools fail their pupils. All I'm saying is: if a high-jumper doesn't clear the bar because his legs have been tied together, we don't blame the sodding bar.

Oh, wait a minute: I've a solution.

How about if we tie everyone's legs together?

Yeah, that ought to do the trick.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Your Rucksack Cannot Protect You Here

So. I'm on a bus, going into town. As buses go, this is a relatively genteel bus – one peopled by denizens of Oxford's richest quarter.

Such buses tend to be sedate, their passengers subdued.

Onto the bus steps a young chap. Mid-twenties. His suit is new, his shoes shiny. Incongruously, he has on a large, hike-style rucksack.

Rucksuit (as he shall be known) is panting slightly, as he's evidently jogged to the bus stop. He has a return ticket …

… Somewhere in his rucksack.

As befits a hiking rucksack, this receptacle has numerous pockets. Indeed, had its manufacturers wished to highlight this fact via a 'cheekily humorous' advertisement, they could simply have filmed the ensuing search.

Rucksuit is obviously of a nervous disposition: his rabbity movements and hunched shoulders are testament to his increasing panic as he scrabbles blindly through the cursed valise.

He knows: everyone is waiting; everyone is watching.

In 15 minutes time (I'll warrant), Rucksuit is going to be stinkin' with the sweat brought about by this stressful experience.

But, despite his nerves, he is also a thrifty soul. He bought a return ticket and – by God! – he's going to get his money's worth.

At this point, on the very threshold of hearing, a low burbling begins. It is like the sound of Gandalf muttering the kind of incantations that'd cause a Balrog to soil itself in dismay.

The sound comes from an ancient, wizened woman who – sitting there alone on the back seat of the bus – is at this moment more darkly menacing than any rap-playing, knife-flexing teenager you'd care to imagine.

Rucksuit's buttocks visibly clench. By now, his suit trousers are sticking to his legs like cling-film to a pair of spring onions. Tight-sinewed with terror, he fumbles with clips and zips and ploughs through strata of underpants and Kendall mint cakes like a mole through a cornfield as it hears the roar of an approaching combine harvester.

Outside the sky darkens and a wind begins to whip down the Banbury Road. A couple of unfortunate Marks & Spencer shoppers have their eco-bags torn from their flailing grasp. As in the wake of a mighty tempest, the air seems charged, crackling.

Almost incoherent with distress, Rucksuit manages to gibber out some words:

'Oh … ah, ah, ah … I think I might … just … have …'

The veins in his forehead are throbbing, his eyes bulge.

'… to buy … a single ticket.'

And, with the few vestiges of strength remaining at his disposal, he thrusts forward a banknote.

Broken, he shoulders his rucksack and shambles, exhausted, to a seat.

As the bus judders into motion once more, all is silent. Until, in a tone that could curdle Coca Cola, the old woman speaks:

'Well, that was VERY SELFISH. What an IGNORANT MAN. Keeping EVERYONE WAITING.'

Silence returns. Rucksuit scarcely moves. Were it not for the twitching muscle in his neck, he might almost have seemed unchanged.

And on his back, the half-open zip of his rucksack looks for all the world like a treacherous smile.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

A level results continue to do their Weimar Republic thing

Father collects son's A level certificates this morning

Grumble grumble gripe gripe. Tiresome old hooligan laments drop in educational standards. Blah blah it was never like this in my day blah.

(It actually was sort of like this in my day, I should add.)

So, yeah, it's another RECORD YAER!!!!1!

We've got a new A* grade, to mark out the very highest achievement. Which has been awarded to 8% of all entries. Look at the stars! See how they shine for you! And [8% of] everything you do!

Thing is, next year, that 8% will be 11%. Then 14%. Then 17%. Then – oh, looksie! – it's just like the A was, last year.

And I don't really care, to be honest.

Except I pity two groups of people.

The first group is the committee that, in ten years time, has to dream up the new grade to mark out the very highest achievement. Will it be the A*+? Or maybe the A*!? Or should we branch out into whole new typographic level and introduce the ?

Unlucky, committee.

The second group is the first year's upper sixth (should this group ever actually materialise) that doesn't secure RECORD-BREAKING RESLUTS!!!1!

The first year that actually gets fewer A§s than the previous one.

That year will shoulder the collective guilt and self-loathing that goes with breaking the pattern of decades of CONTUNIOUS RECORD-BRAKEING!!1!!!

That year will slide into collective despondency. They will have failed to break the record that MUST ALWAYS BE BROKEN.

And so they will be broken.

Like quails eggs in a blender.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

A bit of parsley with your panini


Good evening, folks.

I thought I'd take the liberty of announcing to you, my loyal blogtrotters, the fact that I have started up a new blog.

So if you can't get enough of me (which you almost undoubtedly can't) – if the internet is a sad and tawdry place for you without frequent outpourings of my verbage – then you may wish to saunter on over to said blog.

It's a bit more focused than this one, though. Hell, it's even trying to be a bit businesslike.

Only a bit, obviously, in both cases.

Anyhow. It's called the Parsley Design blog.

It will add fresh and herbaceous overtones to your RSS banquets, I guarantee.

That's all. Thank you, thank you.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Times Online closes; M&S stocks Coke; Majestic lets you buy 6


HG9FSC4TNUT2

So – Times Online closes today, making way for its paid-subscriber-only replacements.

Marks & Spencer is stocking Walkers Crisps and Coke after god-knows-how-many-years of selling only own-brand products. (Witness embarrassingly poor iPhone snap above.)

And (as @FieldVole informs me) Majestic Wine's profits are up 26% after reducing their totemic minimum purchase from 12 bottles to 6.

The corporate world is changing. That's the aftermath of the credit crunch for you.

But which of the above is the odd one out? Well. Both the M&S and Majestic are shifting their luxury/high-spend (and, crucially, high-margin) market focus a little. They're reasoning – I suppose – that these are straitened times, and they need to follow their somewhat-more-impecunious customers down the luxury scale. Offer them some lower-spend options.

Glad to see it's working for Majestic. Well, actually, I'm not really monstrously glad. Because those bastards once rejected my graduate job application. On the (clearly trumped up) charge that I — I! — am 'not a natural salesman'. Pah!

But, yeah, it's working for them: profits are up. And I guess M&S too may see a rise in sales.

But is it all about rises in sales?

The biggest risk is for M&S. Once you've introduced foreign brands, it's going to be a massive deal to get rid of them again. And by offering your customers a lower price-point, aren't you making it pretty hard to get them to shift back up again when the rosy economic sunrise occurs (sometime in 2020 or so)?

Not such a big thing for Majestic, perhaps. But they're inching that bit closer to a war against supermarkets. And something tells me that Mr Tesco ain't quaking in his boots at that prospect.

My point, I guess, is that having a high-margin, perceived-as-luxury brand image is a massively valuable thing (ask Apple, a company that has done pretty damn well by dominating the high-margin segment of the consumer electronics market, yet never achieving huge overall market share). Selling huge volume at low margins is a very, very scrappy, dirty and vicious business. If you're not part of that scrapping, you probably want to keep out.

So – over to the Times, then. Murdoch and his henchmen have decided that they're fed up with internet freeloaders. Having been engaged in the scrappiest and lowest-margin market I can think of (free, theoretically ad-supported online news), they are trying to haul themselves into the premium bracket.

Will it work? Broadly speaking, I don't know. Personally? I'm sticking with the Guardian.

In any case, I wonder what Murdoch would make of these recent M&S and Majestic strategic shifts …



Okay. So. My last three blog posts: politics, bottom-fondling and capitalism.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

The Vile Bottom-Fondler (The Catalogue of Men, Part 1)


'Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men;
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are clept
All by the name of dogs'
Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 1

When the Intellectual Hooligan was a lad, he possessed a number of 'Spotters' Guide' books. The Spotters' Guide to Birds of Britain, for instance, or The Spotters' Guide to Continental Electricity Pylons.

The premise of these was that one received a number of points for spotting each of the specimens catalogued within the book. The rarer the specimen, the more points one received. The single-circuit 735 kV delta pylon illustrated below, for instance, might have netted a mighty 50 points, so seldom was it liable to be spotted.


Anyhow, I always rather liked these books. But one thing always rankled: why no Spotters' Guide to Humans?

Let's redress that wrong. Henceforward, the Intellectual Hooligan presents (via a series of intermittent installments) its own Spotters' Guide - entitled (after Shakespeare, and in avoidance of copyright infringement) The Catalogue Of Men. Without ado, then, let's have our first specimen:




The Catalogue of Men

1. The Vile Bottom-Fondler

10 points


(Vile Bottom-Fondler as consummately modeled by Nick Griffin. We should note, en passant, that we have no evidence that Mr Griffin is a public bottom-fondler. For him to be such, indeed, would require the abetment of someone prepared to allow his/her bottom to come within fondle-reach – a degree of abetment the Intellectual Hooligan doubts would be forthcoming. Unless any of those meaty bodyguard-type guys he hangs about with happened to be up for it?)


CHARACTERISTICS AND PLUMAGE

The Vile Bottom-Fondler is in his late 30s to 50s. He may well have a gleaming, fully shaven head (complete with a neck-fold or two). He is very likely to offset his nude pate with an ostentatious pair of designer glasses, and may be wearing a polo shirt (also designer) with neck fully unbuttoned.

Whatever the ambient temperature, he will be sweating slightly.

Despite nostril hairs and an expression tending toward the vacant, he is not wholly an unattractive breed in terms of features alone.


THE HABITAT OF THE BOTTOM-FONDLER

You will almost exclusively encounter the VBF in a queue. He will be directly in front of you in said queue, accompanied by his mate, and you will not miss him – hence the low points score. Unlike, say, the Lesser Spotted Surreptitious Fondler, the habits and demeanour of the VBF are nothing if not conspicuous (see 'mating habits', below).


MATING HABITS

The Vile Bottom-Fondler's mating criteria are mercantile as opposed to aesthetic. For here is a man that likes to receive his pound of flesh – in easily graspable proximity.

Paired with his mate, the VBF may invite comparison with the peacock and peahen – for his chosen partner is remarkable neither for the sheen of her plumage nor the sweetness of her song.

But the VBF is not attracted by feather or voice. He is attracted by rump.

Just as the peacock unfurls his majestic tailfan, so the Bottom-Fondler indulges in his own form of courtship ritual – as eloquently described by the species' name. For details, see Methods of Fondling, below.


METHODS OF FONDLING

Interestingly, the simple under-cheek-grope motion favoured by other scions of the fondler genus is infrequently employed by the VBF. Instead, he typically prefers an action characterised by a strong thumb bias (demonstrating, to the surprise of some observers, that he does indeed possess opposable thumbs). The hand motion retains the cupped posture of the under-cheek-grope, but supplements it with a powerful (almost aggressive) lateral movement of the thumb across the expanse of his mate's quivering flesh. The motion almost calls to mind the sidelong twanging of a gigantic string on some obscene musical instrument.


AGGRESSION TOWARD POTENTIAL COMPETITORS

Spotters should be warned that the Vile Bottom-Fondler will exhibit a defiant territorial display towards those he might perceive as a threat. The perspicuity of his perception may reasonably be questioned, as the majority of observers will harbour little to no inclination to compete with him for his mate's attention. Nevertheless, do not expect the VBF to be rational in his displays.

From your queue-bound position directly behind VBF and mate, you may (indeed, you have little choice but to) observe his overt fondling behaviour. He will make no attempt to conceal or moderate his fondles and may, in situations in which he feels particularly threatened, indulge in repeated deliberate 'strums' (as these gestures are termed by fondlerologists) whilst exhibiting a characteristic over-shoulder sneer in your direction. You are warned studiously to avoid eye contact in such instances.


STRATEGIES FOR DIFFUSING AGGRESSIVE FONDLING DISPLAYS IF EYE CONTACT IS MADE

Limited. Especially if you are alone whilst witnessing the VBF in action, you will have virtually no alternative but to cede your position in the queue. Strategies such as mobile-phone-checking and exaggerated skyward whistling have been shown to achieve only moderate success.

As you abandon the queue, therefore, console yourself with the thought that any establishment frequented by the VBF is unlikely to be especially desirable in any case.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

A multitude of Milibands, sleekit and sneerin'


So: Labour leadership contest. I'm a sucker for competition in politics, so – gorged though I may be on election coverage – I remain hungry for more.

Monday's Newsnight sated some of that hunger with a feature on the contest so far. A high point was the coverage of a focus group being asked to consider each of the putative leadership candidates. Shown video footage of each, the group shared their observations (most memorable of which were the girl whose 'friend' fancies Ed Miliband, and the man who likened Ed Balls to a vendor of kebabs).

We were then treated (if 'treated' be quite the verb) to the spectacle of every single member of the panel holding a photo of their favoured candidate in front of their own face. And suddenly we were surrounded by David Milibands, all sporting an identical smile that increasingly resembled a sneer the more it was replicated. More horrific than anything Hollywood has managed for decades.


Focus groups and politico-geeks aside, though, most people don't know much about any of these Labour candidates. "I don't really know who David Miliband is," said (for instance) an info bird with whom I discussed the matter. "Is he the one who looks a bit sleekit?"

Now, the Intellectual Hooligan prides itself on acquainting you with exotic expressions (for this is the blog, lest we forget, that popularised gankin'), so when aforesaid info bird used the word sleekit, the Hooligan's ears pricked up. Sleekit (in case, like me, you were unfamiliar with the term) originated in the 14th century as a description of one who – though charming – is sly, ingratiating and two-faced.

Ouch. But what a great word, eh?

Still, I rather like Miliband. I like him for the fact that he channels Tony Blair like a fucking pro: interviewed by Jeremy Paxman, the first policy areas he mentioned were education and antisocial behaviour. The boy learnt his triangulation on Uncle Tony's knee.

A Miliband Labour would very clearly be centrist. Which means it would be electable. There's a danger that people equate centrist electability (Blair) with 'adventurous' foreign policy and erosion of civil liberties (also Blair) – which is a shame, because the two needn't come as a package. A Miliband Labour also seems as if it might be a little more strategic than Brown's overly tactical administration.

And I like the idea of a centrist Labour. Most of all, I like the idea of all three parties scrapping for the centre-ground like maladroit sixthformers at an all boys school jostling for the common room chair next to matron's daughter.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition - the best outcome for left wingers everywhere


Well played Cameron; well played Clegg. The new UK government looks very much like a resounding triumph of pragmatism over idealism, sure. But any realistic 'progressive' should also accept: this is the best possible outcome for the UK left.

– Eh?

– Bear with me.

I realise, there are many people (most of them to the left of the political spectrum) who are disgusted at the outcome of the past few days' wrangling: a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition.

But I must say, I can live very well indeed with a government in which the ludicrous Europhobia and regressive family-favouring of the Tories and the gawp-inducing international-market-blindness of the Lib Dems' stance on university tuition fees cancel one another out.

And I'm pretty sure that Cameron and Clegg can live very well indeed with this, too. So I say again: well played, both.

Apparently there has been surprise at the degree to which Clegg has not pursued major concessions on immigration … but perhaps there's no need to do so when Cameron's notion of a cap is so much hokum in any case.

I suspect, in fact, that we've ended up with an alliance (in Cameron and Clegg) of two very pragmatic men – both of whom may secretly be relieved at the opportunity afforded by a coalition government to trim the excesses of their respective parties' more extreme (and foolish) wings.

The real losers of today, it seems to me, are the Tory right wing – who suddenly find the power they'd have wielded in any other plausible electoral outcome massively diluted.

Think about it: once it became clear that the Tories weren't in for a thumping majority, all other options looked more right-wing friendly in the medium- to long-term than the one we've ended up with. A narrow Tory victory would have pandered to the extremes of the party, to whom Cameron would have been forced to make numerous concessions. A Lib-Lab coalition, had one managed to totter out of the stable, would have sent both Tory party and Tory press lurching to the right, empowered by Cameron's failure to secure Number 10 – just in time for a crushing Conservative victory in the inevitable election that would've followed a few months down the line.

So whilst this coalition may, on the face of it, seem a grim thing for left wingers everywhere, I'd argue that it is, in fact, the best neutering of the radical right wing that any progressive might have hoped to achieve, given the circumstances.

Anyone else drinking to that, or is it just me?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

UK election coverage: too much extrapolation


Is anyone else sick of being told 'what they voted for' by politicians, journalists and pundits?

Today, for instance, we have Deborah Orr in the Guardian writing:

'Wake up, "progressives" … Sixty-one per cent didn't vote Labour. Sixty-seven per cent didn't vote Lib Dem.'

Before going on to argue that

'Only 23% of "progressives" voted for the party that is committed to genuine proportional representation (rather than the sudden fudge of AV or AV plus). The rest – that's 29% – voted for the party that had 13 years to roll out this grand project, and lost interest very early on.'

Sorry, Debs old girl, but that's a load of arse. People's votes are about as clear an indication of their opinion on electoral reform as their choice of supermarket is an indication of their attitude to battery farming.

In other words, it's a bit more complicated than that.

As you may recall, I voted for Lib Dem Dr Evan Harris (sadly in vain). To some degree I suppose I also voted against Nicola Blackwood, the Conservative candidate. Other parties had (in my constituency, Oxford West & Abingdon) no chance of winning the seat, so I don't think I can be said to have been voting against Labour or any of the other smaller parties (much though I might have liked to vote against some of 'em).

I voted for Dr Evan Harris. I didn't, in fact, feel I'd necessarily have voted for the Liberal Democrats had it not been for Evan Harris (as I outlined in my aforelinked post). As it happens (and as, perhaps, this post will make clear) I also think that electoral reform would be a good thing.

But, see, 'electoral reform' wasn't on my ballot paper.

In the UK, we vote, directly, for our constituency MP; indirectly for the party represented by that MP; and double-indirectly for the policies of that party.

Let's illustrate this, shall we?, by means of a rather ludicrous hypothetical.

I – let us say – am a rabidly pro-Trident Tory. I'm a right-wing leaner by nature, but I am especially passionate about national defence, and my top concern is that the UK retain its nuclear deterrent.

Though it troubles me to request it, I ask you to picture me thus. (How do I look?)

So … In my Oxford West & Abingdon constituency, I have just voted for Nicola Blackwood, the successful Tory candidate. So I'm happy that she's got in, and that her party is pro-Trident.

In a month's time, though, plucky young Nicola decides to defect to Labour.

Because it is Nicola for whom I voted (not the Conservative party), I have no say in this. Technically, she is free to defect as she likes without triggering a by-election.

So now it appears that I (blue-blooded Tory) have indirectly voted for Labour. Alack!

As if things weren't bad enough, Labour then, as a result of political wrangling within its body of MPs and deals drawn up with other parties, reverses its current pro-Trident stance.

Now I'm not saying that this is likely. But my intention is to illustrate the fact that, technically, none of this has in any way gone against my vote. Because my vote was simply a vote of trust in Nicola Blackwood, the person. Likewise, Nicola's membership of a political party is her own 'vote of trust' in that party and its policies.

(Okay. I think I probably made my point. Can I stop pretending to be a hawkish Tory now, please?)

And to go back to my supermarket analogy: I may buy most of my groceries at Tesco because it's 50m walk from my house, it's fairly cheap and the queue's generally short. But I happen to believe that Tesco's meat (yeah, even the organic stuff) is reared less humanely than I would like. But I still keep shopping there because other factors are in its favour. And I don't buy any of the gankin' meat, anyway. So woe betide the person who tells me that my grocery-buying from Tesco means that I am endorsing lower standards of animal welfare.

(Incidentally and for the record, that was another of my illustrative examples. I'm not suggesting that Tesco has low animal welfare standards: I don't know enough about it to opine. More importantly, nor am I suggesting that I buy most of my groceries at Tesco. No indeed.)

Anyhow, yeah, so, to get back to the point – when people like Deborah Orr extrapolate from our votes, they are grossly manipulating the facts. Not a single person in the UK had the opportunity to vote for or against electoral reform. Strictly speaking, not a single person in the UK even had the opportunity to vote for or against a political party – though plenty of people thought they were doing just that, and admittedly the effect may appear very, very similar.

Now I'm not actually saying that this indirect democracy is necessarily a bad thing (though, as I'll outline – contain yourselves! – in a future post, I prefer the version of indirect democracy offered by proportional representation). What I'm saying is this: let's not keep talking as if 'the UK voters' have voted for or against particular policies. Because that is pretending that we have a direct democracy, a system that allows us to endorse policies.

We don't. We have a system that, at its root, simply allows us to trust one single human being to do the right thing.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Election choice: Hobson had it easy.


So. The day is upon us. Soon we must decide.

And our options? They seem to boil down to a charred, acrid paste consisting of three more-or-less unpalatable elements:

1. Gordon Brown / Flailing Indecision. The clunking fist that's more like a boxing-glove on a spring attached to a beat-up old scarecrow on an unpredictably gusty day.

2. David Cameron / Small-minded Decisiveness. The man who does actually seem as if he'd get things done – just probably not the things I want done. The Man With The All-Powerful Cheeks.

3. Nick Clegg / Attractive Eccentricity. The man who has a modicum of actual charisma, but whose party is married to a couple of policies that are crazily unrealistic enough to give MC Escher a migraine.


Humm.

Thank god, then, that I live in the Oxford West & Abingdon constituency – and am blest with a candidate whose calibre marks him as clearly deserving of my vote on his own merits: Dr Evan Harris. Stephen Fry has already explained why, so I shan't bother.

But I'm left with the faint sense that I'm somehow playing this game on easy mode. What the hell would I do if it weren't for my E-V-A-N-H-A-R-R-I-S cheat code?

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Sir Terry Wogan Eats Whore's Pasta (Exclusive)

You read it here first.



So. Hot on the heels of Davina McCall's Spaghetti, we have Sir Tezza chewing away on his Fusilli Putanesca. I presume he does know what 'putanesca' means and is chuckling away to himself all the while.

Who is to be our next culinary Wenceslas? I invited you to add your suggestions on the Davina McCall post – but was bitterly disappointed at the lack thereof. C'mon, blogprodders. There's still time.

(There's always still time.)

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Nick Clegg succeeds where Neil Kinnock failed

No knee-jerker, he


Plenty o' people talkin' about Nick Clegg right now.

Here's my angle.

The first UK election that impinged upon my consciousness was 1992's. I – mere scamp of a 9-year-old – did not have a spectacularly nuanced perspective on the whole shebang. I thought Neil Kinnock was kind of odd, and John Major kind of boring.

But I remember thinking one thing, as I watched the 6 o'clock news to see Labour trundle out shadow minister after shadow minister to respond to Tory policy and deeds in office.

I remember thinking this: You know, if for once these guys just said, "You know what? This time, I agree with the government", or, "Labour's policy on this is actually pretty similar to the Conservatives'" – if they did that, I'd probably start listening to what they say.

Obviously not all the time. But sometimes.

If they started a conversation, rather than a confrontation. If they seemed to be thinking about the lines they were spouting, not just knee-jerking their way through the interview.

Now, as I've said, my pre-teenage political consciousness was very limited indeed. I didn't really understand the notion that (arguably) the role of a strong opposition is to provide the counterargument (yeah, like Iraq and Afghanistan. Hmm ...). I didn't really get the whole parliamentary shebang.

But I did get this: Jesus, these Labour guys are so bloody negative. They're always complaining and saying how much better they would be.

And this brings me to Nick Clegg's genius. His ability – exercised time and again during the TV debates – to make a transition from adversarial politicospeak to conversational directness. His talent at seeming genuinely to be thinking about things and responding to people in an inclusive 'let's think about this' kind of way, as opposed to trotting out formulae, following the agreed line, defending the camp.

Think of it this way: how different would the Tories' We can't go on like this line have played coming from Nick Clegg rather than David Cameron? It would have come across as earnest frustration. Something like 'We must be able to come up with something better'. Instead, alongside David Cameron's polished jowls, the line read as mildly didactic irritation (rather more like 'I say 'we' but actually I mean you can't go on like this, making the wrong electoral choices, you foolish public.')

I'm not a fool, and I know well enough that Clegg has his own formulae, his own line, his own camp. But he is way, way better at humanising, at blurring the edges, at stepping off the metaphorical podium.

Because both Brown and Cameron are politicians of the Now let's be absolutely clear about this … ilk. They give the impression (however well-schooled their vocal tones and delivery, however monstrously hard they might attempt to smile and adopt a 'man of the people' tone) that they think they know better. Their reflex is to take a position and defend or attack. Even if they aren't sure what they actually think.

Clegg is the only one who gives the impression that he's not a political knee-jerker (some might choose to leave off the 'knee-'). And for me, I find (so perhaps my inner 9-year-old isn't that far away after all) this makes him – instinctively – far more appealing.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Marina Hyde - Best Election Pundit So Far


So, on Monday I wrote about David Cameron's Party Political Broadarse. Today, by way of a chance to take a second slurp at the tempestuous tannins of the UK election (the cup is slopping onto the saucer), may I treat you to a recommendation?

I may? Excellent.

Well, on the strength of current form, I'm endorsing Guardian columnist Marina Hyde as my favourite UK election pundit. Just like I endorsed the lovely Michael Tomasky in the run-up to the US election, way back yonder.

In the last 4 days alone, Marina Hyde has written three absolutely superb pieces on the election, combining (in various ratios) humour and insight.

Of the two more comically inclined articles, the first draws an inspired religious parallel between Cameron's campaign team and Jesus' disciples, whilst the second masterfully skewers George Osborne like a quivering piece of diced chicken thigh, ready for the barbecue. Very funny indeed.

The third, as well as being funny (one standout being a reference to 'Westminster villagers who've spent a decade masturbating to the West Wing box set and rather tragically imagine the debates have finally made them a central character in the UK version of the show') also makes an extremely good point about the political use of wit. I thought the following was an excellent observation (in reference to the dearth of jokes in the leaders' debate):

Yet as time goes on, if you don't "own" the humour, then someone else will. People want to laugh, and failure to provide the laughs means they'll find them at your expense. No matter how righteously repulsed one was by Tony Blair's faux-self deprecation, when Cherie was overheard insulting Gordon Brown at a Labour conference, the then PM still managed to defuse an increasingly toxic story with a simple line. "Well," he said, "at least I don't have to worry about her running off with the bloke next door."

Very true.

So, Marina Hyde. Officially endorsed by the Intellectual Hooligan. Now that's something to perk up her journo-CV, innit?

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Davina McCall Makes Spaghetti That Much More Enticing

Every so often, the Intellectual Hooligan is filled with a primeval urge to howl an anguished, resonant, almighty WTF. We've already – not so long ago – had bile-duct-rupturingly awful logo design. Now, dear reader, I give you —

Davina McCall's Spaghetti Amatriciana



The email above landed in my inbox a while back with an ominous, turd-like thud, courtesy (if courtesy be the word) of mid-tempo-food chain ASK.

Why, in the name of Satan's elbow, did someone think that I'd want to eat Davina McCall's anything?

And the question is begged (YES, DEFIANTLY I USE THE PASSIVE VOICE): what's next?

  • Bruce Forsyth's Toad in the Hole?
  • Ant & Dec's Dough Balls?
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber's Turkey Supreme?
  • Cilla Black's Stewed Prunes?
  • Alan Sugar's Big Creamy Sundae?
  • Anne Robinson's Sour Bake?

Over to you, dear readers, for further suggestions.

Monday, 19 April 2010

'Well, at least these guys are giving it to me straight'




This is the new Tory party political broadcast (rapidly conceived, apparently, after the original ad was panickingly binned, following the Leaders' Debate on Thursday). I'm afraid I don't have any insightful political commentary on this, just a bit of juvenile mockery.

(C'mon, indulge me: pretend you're surprised.)

I'd like to direct you to the fuckin' DUDE at 0.24 and 0.46. That's the youth vote in the fucking bag. I nearly soiled myself laughing.

Anyway, I reckon it's a pretty weakass ad. Cognitive dissonance 'n' all. But nice light in Camo's back garden, I must say.


Edit: Has anyone else noticed that David Cameron has the most expressive cheek muscles in politics? He's able to radiate a kind of stern, ever-so-slightly camp aura of we-can't-go-on-like-this concern using nothing but his cheeks. It's miraculous: the man is a Paganini of the jowl. If you don't believe me, cover up the whole of his upper face as you watch.

Man's Best Friend Has Unconventional Way Of Showing It


I've written before about public-transport-related woes. But I was reminded today of another ignominious incident I have hitherto neglected to share with you. An incident in which your beloved protagonist (me) suffered distress and humiliation. You love this stuff, don't you? And since this blog moves ever closer to being merely a vehicle for self-abasement, I have scant excuse not to share the tale.

For one reason or another, I found myself in the splendid metropolis of London. The city where nobody stops, where everyone is in a hurry.

I was tired; it was late. I'd spent a day at work, then travelled to aforesaid metropolis of ceaseless movement to attend a three-hour evening class in typography at St Martin's (highly to be recommended, I might add). Ahead of me I had the 90-minute bus ride back to Oxford.

I was waiting, friends, for that bus.

Imagine me, casual bus-awaiter, louchely propped against the railings of Hyde Park. Looking for all the world like A Man Who Knows A Bit About Typography. Radiating power-commuting nonchalance. At my side, cast there with elegant carelessness, my extremely stylish rucksack.

(I know, I know: 'stylish rucksack' – it's a tautology.)

So, with narrowed eyes, I scanned the horizon for the welcome glow of an approaching bus – half-hypnotised by the crossrhythms of the ceaseless traffic.

Mellowing stuff.

Encroaching gently upon my mellowed consciousness – almost soothingly – came a faint hissing. The sound, perhaps, of distant fountains trickling in a grand, Kubla-Khanish oriental pleasure dome.

Except that this wasn't actually all that distant.

Indeed, it was remarkably close. And it dawned upon your hero: 'My bag is hissing.'

Swivelling my eyes downward, howsoever, I was surprised to see a friendly face gazing up at me. A grinning, happy face. A face that seemed to say:

'I like you, friend. And I think you probably like me.'

It was a canine face.

And that canine face, dear reader, was attached to a canine body. A fully functioning canine body that (it emerged) was the source of that gentle hiss.

Just exactly what is it, precisely (I ask of you), with me and wrong-place-wrong-time nocturnal urinations?

Although I suppose it wasn't so much me that was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It was my rucksack.

My modest, functional, porous rucksack.


***


There are times (we all know) when one really hopes for an empty bus. I hope you will believe me when I say that I have never hoped so fervently as I did that night.

But it was not to be.

I was thus me with a dilemma for which the most meticulous of upbringings could scarcely have prepared me. A dilemma which might be framed thus:

'What is the etiquette for taking one's seat on a crowded omnibus, should one's valise, suitcase or pocketbook happen to be dripping with dog piss?'

Holding the offending, saturated article at arm's length (or as close thereto as could inconspicuously be managed), I shambled and shuffled my way onto the bus. I know not whether I left an incriminating trail of drips as I made my way mournfully up the aisle, finding my way to one of the few unoccupied seats.



As the bus' engine juddered into life, I consoled myself: the bag can be washed. The contents aren't valuable. The journey is not long. And at least – at least – I am the only one aware of the noxious marinade to which my luggage has been subjected.

Such meditations were (once again) interrupted, as I realised that the middle-aged woman in the seat behind me was speaking. And once again, as I turned my eyes in her direction, I was met by a grinning face, its head slightly cocked askance. In lilting accents, as if addressing a child, it spoke to me:

'Did the doggy do a wee on your bag?'

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

A Parade Of Old Posts

Bit of a burst of new subscriptions to this ol' blog, lately. Greetings, greetings, my sweets.

(If you were a sweet, which would you be? Ponder that. Feel free to add your answer and accompanying Cartesian rationale in the comments, should you be so moved.)


FOCUS, MAN, FOCUS.


Yes. So I thought I'd write a post to welcome y'all, newcomers. Long may your feedreaders be pointed in my direction.

An apt kind of welcome would be to tell you what this blog is about. [Insert dry & mirthless laugh].

See, I realise that blogs should occupy a niche. That's how you get traffic – by becoming an authority within your specialism.

But that requires having a specialism.

Now, I thought long and hard. I scoured the recesses of my mind (and, boy, that was a grim and disturbing process). But specialism came there none. I may be nicheless.

But there are patterns to this blog's erratic output, nevertheless. And just as the best way to understand how a family works is to meet a few family members, the best way to comprehend the Intellectual Hooligan is to take in a few posts. They all have something to say, so get to know 'em all. Even Great Uncle Barnabus, who smells a bit odd.

So, without ado, here are some of the (plastic) jewels in the Intellectual Hooligan's crown: posts, you might say, of yore. And I've even put 'em into categories, in a vain attempt to make up for the lack of niche.


Category 1: Mocking the Mediocre

Category 2: Painful yet Cathartic Self-Revelation

Category 3: Lite-erary Criticism

Category 4: Attempts (not always successful) At Having A Grown-Up Opinion

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The Forward Writer

[Establishing shot: sunrise on a midwestern town. Camera slowly pans. Deep, resonant voiceover begins.]

Voiceover: There was once a man …

[Cut to shot of normal suburban house]

Voiceover: … who had …

[Cut to interior shot: we move along the hall towards open bedroom door]

Voiceover: … an extraordinary talent.

[Quick fade to black. Fade up to closeup of thin, sweaty hands manically typing on a cheap, clacky keyboard. Several symbols along the top row of numerals have been replaced by various smilies.]

Voiceover: In his hands, any email became …

[Cut to closeup of computer screen. Windows 95, email compose window. Bright red text. Comic sans font. Exclamation marks.]

Voiceover: … a forward.

[Sudden fade to black. Fast breathing, close to mic. Final volley of keypresses; then silence. After 2 seconds, 'new mail' sound is heard.]

Voiceover: He is — The Forward Writer.




* * *


… Because haven't you noticed: every single 'FWD: fwd: re: fwd: LOL! You WILL NOT BELIEVE THIS' email you get has actually been written by the same person?

The one same person who, furthermore, has discovered the secret of eternal youth via a timewarp that holds them forever in the mid/late 90s? Because FWDs are so 90s they hurt. More 90s than Britpop. Than The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Than Creutzfeldt-Jakob's.

Anyway. I know the setting of my cinematic teaser above is domestic, but I actually think some big yet shady e-corporation is keeping this guy (it's a guy, believe me, it's a guy) holed up somewhere, in a secret, heavily-guarded basement. He's not allowed out: he just stays in the same lightless, 90s-in-formaldehyde room, twitching and shaking, dosed up to the nostril hairs on Skittles and Opal Fruits (not, mark ye, Starbursts).

Elsewhere – high, high up in the glistening glass-and-chrome interior of the e-corporation HQ – there's another office, in which sit a man and woman named Duncan and Gabrielle. They're on iMacs. And, day after day, they scroll through innumerable thousands of inbound emails.

Largely, they work in silence; at intervals, however, one will look across at the other and speak. We join them at one such interval:

'Hey. Duncan. I'm getting it from one of my sources that there's ... there's demand for emails about women's shopping habits.'

Slowly, Duncan looks up.

'Women's shopping habits? My god.'

'I know,' replies Gabrielle.

'Well. What can I say? It's a crazy idea … [he pauses thoughtfully] … but, d'you know – I think it might just work. Women's shopping habits, you say?'

'Yes Duncan. Women's shopping habits. This is uncharted territory – I don't mind admitting that, straight off the bat. But, hell, I've just got that feeling about it. The feeling that this could be MASSIVE.'

'Damn it, Gabrielle, you're starting to convince me! Hell, it might even go viral.' He starts to his feet, takes a few paces … 'Women's shopping habits. Women's shopping habits … There's – got – to – be – something!'

Gabrielle follows him with her eyes. 'You're a fine man, Duncan, and I almost don't dare say this … But neither you nor I have it in us to get to the bottom of this. To write something daring –something searingly comical, invigoratingly fresh and yet forehead-smackingly true to life – about (of all things) women's shopping habits. Duncan, I just don't think we can do it.'

Abruptly, Duncan halts and shakes his head like a man beleaguered by many woes (or possibly a horsefly).

'Damn it, Gabrielle, it hurts me to say it but I think you're right. We both know it: there's only one man who can help us now.'

They lock eyes. For a moment, neither speaks. Then, as if motioned by some hidden cue, they utter in unison:

'The Forward Writer.'

Monday, 22 March 2010

A horrible, horrible logo


CLIENT: Our logo is a square on top of 9 coloured circles. What we need you to do is to make a Super Awesome loading page based on that logo but more awesome.

DESIGNER: Hmm. Okay. But your logo does already have a gradient on each of the circles and a transparency effect on the square. That's quite a lot of effects already.

CLIENT: Our logo is not awesome enough. It's boring. People want logos that are more colourful and fun than this. It needs more effects. The orange and purple you have here aren't bright enough. Make them brighter. I want them to BURN MY EYES.

DESIGNER: Er ... well this is how it would look with the saturation boosted to maximum. I think it's maybe a little too ---

CLIENT: Perfect! But it needs to jump off the page more.

DESIGNER: Are you kidding?

CLIENT: I've got Photoshop, so I know the tricks. There's this awesome effect you can do where it puts a shadow underneath something. Automatically! Seriously, it's awesome. You should try it. I want to put shadows underneath the balls.

DESIGNER: Balls.

CLIENT: Yes. Balls.

DESIGNER: [wearily] Okay. There's a drop shadow.

CLIENT: No, not enough shadow! They won't notice it when it's that pale and small. The shadows should be massive. I want it to be like these balls are almost touching but simultaneously millions of miles away from one another in outer space, lit by a massive star that's almost touching them all, but at the same time just a few inches away from a totally flat slice of granite!

DESIGNER: [by now utterly resigned, demoralised] Like this?

CLIENT: Yeah! Cosmic! But I don't like that font you've used. We should change it to Arial. Arial's the most readable font.

DESIGNER: That's not entirely true ...

CLIENT: I think you'll find it is. We had a health and safety presentation and they told us it was. Anyway, just change it: I don't pay you for your opinions. Yeah, that's better. Make it yellow, because yellow text stands out the best.

DESIGNER: Not so much when it's on an orange background ...

CLIENT: Just do it. But I'm worried people won't get the name. Could we do a reflection of it in each one of the 9 balls? I think it will look more realistic that way, but simultaneously more awesome as well.

* * *

So. The above screengrab is what I see every workday when I start up the WCBS PASS database that holds our school records.

Yes, not only do I have to load Windows XP via Parallels (sufficient indignity, you might think); I also have to see this godawful polished turd of a logo. Every day.

Unfortunately, I couldn't think of any witty wordplay involving words that might rhyme with PASS – otherwise that'd've made a perfect closing line for this post.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Why King Lear is Shakespeare's most brutal play

… and why the current RSC production steps back from this brutality.

The other week, I saw the second half of King Lear – performed by the RSC at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, directed by David Farr.



Yes. That's right. The second half.

During the first half, by contrast, I was staring at the largely motionless rear end of one Mégane.

One Renault Mégane.

… All because some incontinent tanker (Cockney rhyming optional) had emptied itself across the M40's northbound carriageway.

So by the time I made it to the theatre (after trading a few hundred grams of Pringles with some teenagers in exchange for directions to the Courtyard Theatre – see, my travels were little short of Odysseian) people were already scrambling to wet their parched gobs with halftime cups of lemonade.



But no matter. I was in time for the best bits.

King Lear is a brute of a tragedy. A massive, bastarding great brute. The kind of brute who'd club you in the face with a fire extinguisher, kick away your legs then leave you to be mauled by his slavering pitbull.

It is the most savage, the most unrelenting, the most utterly bleak of Shakespeare's tragedies, making Hamlet look like Punch & Judy.

(I exaggerate, my friends, I exaggerate. You know this, don't you? If you don't, may I refer you elsewhere?)

Lear has a fair deal in common with Othello: he's not a Hamlet-esque smartarse; on the contrary, he's actually sort of dumb. And that's no surprise, is it? Because even before he'd finished writing it, Shakespeare hated Hamlet. His late tragedies tend to focus on heroes who are much less inclined toward the intellectual, the introspective.


And Lear is possibly the least introspective, least intelligent of them all.

His arrogance and his poor judgment become evident (fairly quickly, to the audience and, at length, to Lear himself). But we are dealing throughout the play with a man whose capacity for profound insight is extremely limited.

So while Hamlet may move us as he meditates on existence, or appearance vs reality, Lear dwells (and worries upon) extremely simple and immediate themes. He is not abstract. And when he is reunited with Cordelia (his wronged, faithful daughter), his words are immensely, chokingly direct:
'Pray do not mock me
I am a very foolish, fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you and know this man,
Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me,
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.'

This – if you'll pardon my observation – is fucking outstanding. As with so many of Lear's speeches, we can practically hear the cogs turning. Shakespeare brilliantly inserts faffy (and not always entirely sensical) digressions ('not an hour more nor less'; 'And to deal plainly', 'Where I did lodge last night'). The effect is curiously reminiscent of a not-quite-quick-enough politician interviewed on the Today Programme, playing for time while he formulates answers to unexpectedly tricky questions.

Anyhow, you can read a great deal about King Lear, you know. It's even been covered by a few relatively famous critics and the like. You'd be surprised. I shalln't go on.



… But what I wanted to talk about was a specific piece of direction in Farr's production of King Lear. And all the above was (I felt) necessary to establish aforehand.

So, as Lear draws toward its climax, we think we see a time-honoured narrative pattern emerging: an initially misguided hero realises his folly and begins to see things as they are.

This ties in with a feature characteristic of tragedy (Shakespeare's and those of many others before and after him): the movement toward a moment of tragic insight: as the hero reaches his point of defeat and demise, then (and only then) does he fully and clearly see the whole of his plight and his actions for what they are. He apprehends his tragic flaw and sees (with a piercing clarity) the manner in which it has undone him.

It's a moment that undoubtedly serves in many cases to intensify the tragedy. It is to some degree ennobling (the pathos being in the fact that the hero transcends his flaw by realising it – but does so too late to escape death); to some degree (oddly) optimistic and affirming. There is a reconciliation. That whole catharsis thing that everyone always bangs on about: the hero dies horribly, to be sure – but he dies in a state of comprehension. He – and we – learnt something, in spite of it all.



And this is where we come back to my earlier charge of gross (inspired) Shakespearean brutality.

Because Shakespeare, in Lear, is savage. He doesn't give us catharsis; he gives us entropy. And he rips the arse out of the moment of tragic insight. Let's look, shall we, at Lear's dying speech:

'And my poor fool is hanged. No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life
And thou no breath at all? O thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
[to Edgar] Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her: look, her lips,
Look there, look there! He dies.'

Now, it's not entirely clear what's going on at the end of this extract, and I realise I can't resolve the essential ambiguity of the text. For what it's worth, though, it seems to me that this is Lear (as the critic Bradley argues) calling attention to a movement of Cordelia's lips. In other words, dying in the belief that Cordelia is – after all – alive. (He has, a short while earlier, been holding a feather to Cordelia's mouth in order to test whether she is breathing.)

If you hold with me (and Bradley) in this interpretation, you'll also note that a member of the audience at this point knows no different – and is relying on Lear's words. For all they know (not close enough to discern subtle movements) Cordelia is moving her lips. In the widespread versions of the Lear story predating Shakespeare's (and with which his audience would have been familiar), Cordelia does not die here.

And so there is an uneasy moment (as has occurred earlier in the play, during the Dover Cliff scene) during which the audience is thrown into confusion, or at least doubt: is she alive?


No. She isn't.

Lear dies on a pathetic (in the sense of pathos-inducing) error. Believing a falsehood. Hell, even if you disagree with me and my mate Bradley – if you don't think those last lines imply a misapprehension – you have to grant that at very least they are confusing and confused, and that the whole speech is far from profound, noble or insightful.

It is fragmented, irrational, chaotic, raw.

And I don't think that its lack of nobility is meant as a criticism of Lear specifically. Instead, I'd say it serves to ram home the desolate incoherence and arbitrariness of death: messy and impenetrable.

It is this more than anything else that (to me, your Hooligan) makes Lear such a brute of a play.


But the RSC wimped out.

Directing this production, David Farr obviously couldn't bring himself to acknowledge this bleak interpretation. Instead? He makes Lear look upward (not downward at Cordelia in his lap) during those final two lines.

In other words: Lear (in Farr's portrayal) dies with a vision of Cordelia resurrected, shimmering in the air, towards whom he yearningly gazes.

You can see how different this is. And the text doesn't rule it out, I admit. But I find it unconvincing: the text's myopic focus in Lear's final lines upon a physical feature – the lips – does not (it seems to me) signal a spiritual vision (which would tend to be heralded – surely – by a textual 'zooming out'). For my money, I don't think Shakespeare would've been so ambiguous had he intended such a mystical interpretation.


Of course, Farr might even agree. Perhaps he simply decided, in the end, to spare his audience the full brutality of what seems to me to have been Shakespeare's savage intent.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Tom Parnell Google Wars

Oh no you don't.


Yes, Tom Parnell, Intellectual Hooligan. The Real Tom Parnell. That's me.

(And, with an almighty and resounding pffft, the shrunken and flabby remainder of my online anonymity flaps around the room before collapsing, shriveled, to the ground like a burst balloon.)


... And the Tom Parnell Google Wars begin.


You see, a name like mine (Tom Parnell – got that?) is just about uncommon enough to be googlable. For those John Smiths and Jane Joneses amongst you, this is an unfamiliar sensation: you (and everyone else) realises that googling your name is not likely to return results that pertain to you.

At the other end of the spectrum, you Xavier Mountjoys and Barnabus Bantamwrestlers will rest sure in the knowledge that Google is yours and yours alone. No interlopers, pretenders or usurpers.



But spare a thought for the Tom Parnells.

(Or, in fact, specifically for this Tom Parnell.)

Tom Parnell is the kind of name you might expect to slot into Google and be met with a jackpot of relevant results. You might not be on your guard against faux-amis amongst the Tom Parnells that fill your screen.

ESPECIALLY if one of those Tom Parnells happened to be about the right age, in the right country, working in about the right industry and featured in about the right kind of newspaper.

In that situation, surely, you'd think: 'This is the Tom Parnell I'm lookin' for.'

Which is a pity. Because here is Google's number 7 result for the search 'tom parnell':

Blind date: Ursala Roy meets Tom Parnell
Ursula Roy, 28, outreach officer meets Tom Parnell, 28, web editor.
www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/jul/.../blind-date-relationships

As if that weren't bad enough, click through and read the whole degrading article, why don't you? No photograph to disabuse the reader and (calamity indeed) a humiliating mismatch in 'ratings' very much to Tom Parnell's disadvantage.

So not only is this bastard bringing shame upon the Tom Parnell name by indulging in public, newspaper-publicised blind-dating; he's also GODDAMN RUBBISH AT IT.

Damn him!

As if it weren't bad enough that Thomas Parnell was a depressingly mediocre 17th-18th century poet. (Any poem that includes the phrase 'pants in your heart' is surely fit for a kicking.)



In conclusion and summary:

Tom Parnells of the world, would you please buck up your ideas? If you're going to do something, at least do it well. And preferably, even if you do, KEEP IT OFF GOOGLE.



How You Can Help

How would you feel (damn it) if people were potentially mistaking you for a scruffy, spark-free Guardian blind dater and 'insane babbler' every time they googled you? SPARE A THOUGHT.

You really can help me on this one. All you have to do? If you have a website or blog – however small, however infrequently frequented, link to this post. Link to it with link text 'tom parnell'.

Tell Google who's the Real Tom Parnell. For me.

Please.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Juicy flies on the Web (2)


Occasionally (very, very occasionally), the Intellectual Hooligan finds good things on the Ninternet.

(Because most of the time, let's be clear about this, the Ninternet is boring as hell.)

And when the Intellectual Hooligan finds good things, the Intellectual Hooligan shares those good things. So, without ado, here are some recently-uncovered gems, unified by a theme of thematic disunity.

  • Human typography. This is a fantastic idea, rather beautifully executed. One of those 'from self-imposed limitations comes brilliant ingenuity' instances. Very clever indeed. (Thanks @ThinkingType)
  • That's Why I Chose Yale. Absolutely inspired: I cannot praise this sufficiently highly. Deserving of viral epidemic status. One (smallish) facet of my own job is the shooting and editing of promotional video for my College, and I know exactly how hard it is to avoid a slight cheesiness. So this is the perfect solution to such a problem: embrace the cheese. Necessity is transmuted to virtue. A*
  • How to categorise human beings. This is the kind of thing that fascinates me: an elaborate 'swatchbook for humanity'. (Thanks @Trison)

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