Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The steady accusations of the clock

I suffer, quite often, from sleeplessness. It would be wrong to say insomnia, since I do actually manage to sleep eventually, just never quite when I want to. I'll tuck myself in at midnight like a good boy, and still be wide awake and itchy-eyed when the sun rises, which is usually the cue for my body to pass out and put me in a sleep-coma that lasts all day. I have a pretty good idea why this happens to me, though I'll be damned if I seem to be able to do anything about it. Lying in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, there isn't much to do but ruminate and jumble those negative thoughts around. Thanks to my uncanny ability to remember the worst of times in exacting detail, there are plenty to choose from. During the day there's plenty to keep me occupied, but once I'm in bed... well, that's just my brain's favourite time to stir that stuff up. You try sleeping when the worst of you is jitterbugging in front of your mind's eye.

This is how I devour so many books, and have a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of Daniel Radcliffe's recent interviews (What? He's a goddamn delight and magnetic to watch!). All that dead time that normal people fill with sleep is when I let distractions pour into my brain. Anything - anything at all - to keep myself away from those insidious, creeping reminders that my life is far from peachy right now.

TFD knows what's up

I've done pretty much everything except get dosed up on sleeping pills, engaging in pretty much every method of 'sleep hygiene' that seems remotely credible and some that weren't: visualising energy leaving my body, anti-histamines that cause drowsiness as a side-effect, meditation and even spending the night next to a massive open jar of majoram. I expect it's only a matter of time before I buy a dream-catcher from a car boot sale and start sacrificing goats to Morpheus and/or Neil Gaiman. None of it really works, though, and so I'm left with this cycle of being shattered one day and then full of energy the next, once I've actually managed to sleep.

It's not all bad though. Being sleep-deprived on a semi-regular basis makes the world a funny place to look at. For starters, I am always insanely high-energy after a night on the insomnia-juice. My mind, at least, is sharp as a slightly manic tack and I generally find I get a lot more of my brain crack down on paper. This post only exists because I've been up all night and am desperately trying to find something to do that'll eat up time before I can legitimately go to bed. I find this feverish creativity thrilling, frustrating and appalling in equal measure.

Finishing that brain crack is another matter, however, as my body seems unwilling to keep up with my mind and soon lets it be known that it'd like to sleep. Now, please. No, don't worry about it, just go lie down on the bed. Oh, whoops! Now it's 8pm and dark out! Days like this are generally consist of racing to get as much done as possible before the inevitable crash.

The one significant ray of life in this strange twilight existence is knowing that I'm not alone in it. It's a common problem for people suffering from depression, which I have experienced, and I've got it better than most. I actually can sleep, just not when I need to or want to. Yes, it screws up the odd appointment and interview - the last one I did was fuelled entirely by Tesco's own brand of energy drink, a noxious concoction called KX - and yes I often shuffle around the house like a particularly brain-deprived zombie, but when sleep comes  it is glorious. When your day consists primarily of applying for jobs and then running around trying to find things to do that will fill up all that horrendous empty time, the prospect of being able to pass out into a long, dreamless sleep at the end of the day is amazing. Plus, it's a massive boon if you want to learn about Daniel Radcliffe, so there's that. Hey! Silver linings, right?

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Book Review: Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear

Greg Bear is a big name in contemporary British science fiction, taking his cue from the harder, more epic side of the genre. While refreshing in the face of the glut of 'speculative fiction' like The Hunger Games or Oryx & Crake, his brand of grandiose high-concept storytelling sometimes falls a little short of that magical creativity which marks the work of contemporaries like Banks or Gaiman. That's the problem plaguing Hull Zero Three, which in isolation is a perfectly decent science fiction thriller, but suffers from comparison with some much more worthy predecessors, as well as modern films and video games.

It's a classic tale of a generation ship: an idea first proposed (in print, at least) in the 1920s and used ever since by science fiction authors looking to inject a degree of realism into their work. Considering that faster-than-light travel is impossible (or at least, so we believe), the only feasible way for humanity to colonise the stars is by travelling in enormous arks capable of either sustaining life in suspended animation or allowing the creation and survival of a multi-generational society during the journey. It's an idea that's been used time and time again in books, TV programmes and even some surprisingly mainstream films (Wall-E, for one).

Hull Zero Three is a novel in that grand tradition, opening with the messy and disorientating expulsion of our protagonist from his cryogenic pod, into a nightmare of predatory robots, malfunctioning gravity and confusion. The narrator of the story - unnamed but generally referred to as Teacher due to his demeanour - is a passenger on a generation ship woken early in a nightmarishly confusing situation. The character's total amnesia allows us to discover what's going on at a reasonable pace, given the eventual complexity of the plot and, inevitably, the science. Bear's descriptive prose is stark and clinical, which makes it difficult for the less scientific reader to imagine exactly what's being described; where some would talk about doughnuts, Bear talks about tori.

Minor complaints aside, the problem with Hull Zero Three is not that it isn't intriguing or gripping - it is! - but that it has shades of half a dozen other, more memorable sci-fi settings that tend to crowd your senses and make it hard to enjoy the book for what it is. Given the generation-ship-malfunction plot the immediate connection to make is with the spectacular Non-Stop by Brain Aldiss. This tale of a society built up in the damaged wreckage of a generation ship as it drifts through space is a classic of the genre and is superior in almost every way. The characterisation is better, the world more deftly realised and the pay-off at the end much more profound and affecting.

Early sections of the book are reminiscent of BioShock (and in particular of the Little Sisters) and certain plot elements bring cinematic corridor-horror-fest Pandorum immediately to mind. In books like Hull Zero Three, the setting is the novel and there's only so much you can do with it without stepping on other people's toes. It feels sometimes as though less time should have been spent on establishing the nature of the environment - which after all, is always going to echo past works on a similar theme - and instead focus on character and plot development.

Bear does tread some interesting new ground towards the end; the implications of the epilogue are by far the standout parts, drawing together the speculation and uncertainty of the preceding chapters into something resembling closure. Prior to this last-minute gasp the resolution of events seems strangely unsatisfying, rambling along to a conclusion without a particular climax.

Basically, Hull Zero Three is a passable if not particularly memorable addition to the genre. It adds little in the way of new ideas to concepts first laid down in the late 1950s and, while in any other genre that would expected, for a science fiction novel from such a celebrated writer you can be forgiven for expecting more.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Living with the past

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there"

Well, that’s what people tend to think anyway. It’s not Hartley’s fault; we’ve always liked to distance ourselves from those semi-civilised barbarians who struggled along with their quaint little notions about life, the universe and everything. What do I – sitting here in a coffee shop using wireless Internet on my laptop – have to do with those peasants toiling over their fields in medieval Europe? My ego says nothing, of course, but then it would, wouldn’t it? Biologically the difference is negligible. Our brains haven’t suddenly expanded in size over the last two hundred years to allow us to appreciate all this art, culture and technology we enjoy these days. There isn’t some nodule in our modern brains that enables us to use technology that Edwardians lacked. People in the past were just like us, taking advantage of what they knew as best they could. Dropped into their situation we’d have little choice to do what they did, despite our refined intellectual tastes.

We take knowledge for granted and look down on the people of the past, but how many people could honestly say that they could have figured out that invisible micro-organisms cause disease or that the Earth orbits the sun, without someone explaining it to us? Humanity’s acquisition of knowledge is a collaborative effort that travels down the generations; individually we are no more intelligent than someone living in the middle ages. More knowledgeable, certainly, but not necessarily more intelligent. If anything they probably have the drop on us: for all we can travel across continents in mere hours via aeroplane, not many of us actually know how they work. So maybe there was less to know, but undoubtedly more people knew it.

I wanted to emphasise our similarities because I feel it’s important to establish kinship with the past. One of the reasons people love Shakespeare so much are his “universal themes” but I always thought of that as a strange thing to say. People are the same whatever time you pluck them from and any writer worth their salt should be able to capture their essence. Capturing the human character is not the preserve of a single writer, no matter how good he was, and there are many more reasons to love Shakespeare. Finding a common link with the past, tapping into our common humanity, is not something you have to go to the Bard to find.

One of the most wonderful things about studying history is that you become privy to all these secret little moments locked away in chronicles and personal accounts that most people never encounter. They’re single throwaway lines or stories that plant themselves in your brain screaming “I recognise that behaviour” and then never go away. There’s no great secret to it, no barrier preventing anyone from finding them, but then who is likely to read Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana other than history students? These little gems are important because they serve to remind us that history isn’t some dry, dusty tome on a library shelf but in fact a vitally important and relevant aspect of our society; woe betide a people who become divorced from their past.

Reading between the lines is always necessary of course, especially when it comes to humour. When people think of the Venerable Bede – and take it from me, people do, just not many of them! – they mostly remember his great historical works. They remember his hagiographies of great saints, or his invention of the BC/AD dating system. People tend to forget though, that he was the possessor of a great sense of humour, and a streak of sarcasm a mile wide. It’s easy to read his claims of St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland causing all the snakes in the land to leap into the sea as the credulous, po-faced beliefs of a pre-Enlightenment rube but Bede was no fool. Once you remember that people in the middle ages were not that different from you and me, it becomes clear that even ancient monks can be tongue-in-cheek. He wasn’t an idiot, and I’d be willing to bet that half of the miracles accredited to St Cuthbert in his hagiography of the Northumbrian holy man were invented on the spot to fuel his cult of reverence. The story of him miraculously finding a loaf of bread in an empty thatched house is a little ridiculous even for the most solemn reporter of miracles; it must have been quite obvious, even to the medieval reader, that St. Cuthbert had essentially just broken into someone’s house and proclaimed that the food he found was a gift from God.

Thomas Walsingham, like Bede, was not just a solemn chronicler but also a salacious gossip enthralled by scandal. Writing in the late 1300s principally about Edward III’s deteriorating reign and Richard II’s difficulty in establishing control, his political insight is surprising, but not as surprising as his love of a kiss-and-tell story. The way he skirts around Edward III’s affair with Alice Perrers reads like a cross between Heat and Perez Hilton. “I’m not naming any names but you’ll never guess which king was seen with which low-born harlot…” The man was a gossipy bitch, and delivers his nuggets of information in the written equivalent of a hushed conspiratorial whisper. The tragedy of course is that, given its detail, his Historia Anglicana is now a premier source for the period, warts and all. It’s like trying to gain a complete understanding of Kerry Katona by reading only OK! magazine.

Reading Walsingham is like reading a tabloid; to find the truth you have to wade through the half-rumours and falsehoods. Despite the difficulties, it’s all there to be found: a good historical writer puts you in his subject’s shoes, and reading Walsingham’s account of the Peasants’ Revolt makes you realise that, far from an Historical Event™, we are instead witnessing the terror of a small boy faced with tens of thousands of angry farmers and labourers. It’s also a clear indication that these are not names on a page; Richard II is not a king of yore but a real boy, presented with absolute power at far too young an age. Would you or I necessarily do any better?

Marcus Aurelius is an older man than any I’ve mentioned so far: a Roman emperor who lived and died in times closer to Socrates than Jesus. His depiction in Gladiator was perhaps on the charitable side, but then Ridley Scott’s never been a stickler for accuracy. The real-life Aurelius was not just a philosopher-king but also a quite brilliant strategist and not somebody you wanted to find yourself up against in a war. He’s best remembered now for his Meditations, a collection of scribblings and notes that he made throughout his life as he struggled to live as a stoic philosopher, as well as an emperor. Aurelius didn’t intend for his ramblings to be found, which makes them all the more fascinating. Reading Meditations feels like diving into his mind in a way that no purpose-written philosophical treatise can quite manage. It’s no manifesto of belief, or roadmap to a happy life, just the day-to-day struggles of a man with ordinary problems. It’s a strange feeling, finding out that the most powerful man in the world had to persuade himself to get up in the mornings just like everyone else.

Reading his personal pep-talks feels wrong somehow, like you’re betraying his confidence, but the insight into his mind is startling. Granted nobody today would seriously try to follow the stoic philosophy he adhered to, but a great many of his beliefs fit remarkably well into modern-day Humanism. Seizing life before it passes, happiness as the only good and his general live-and-let-live attitude wouldn’t seem so out of place in today’s society. The man carried the weight of a 40 million-strong empire on his back but he still had to deal every day with the little problems we all face; he was a person with all the usual weaknesses, but a determination to be a better man. Although I risk hammering home the point here, these are not just historical characters: they were real people who lived and died carrying all the emotional and mental baggage that we all do. Despite his great accomplishments, Aurelius had to remind himself – several times – that he was a good person, that he was not useless, that – hilariously for a Roman emperor – he was following the right path in his life. They are our own worries about our careers and the impressions we make on people, writ large.

Our common humanity isn’t just to be found in the authors of historical works, but also in the people they describe. Rebels during Jack Cade’s uprising in 1450 went about their merry way, as rebels do, chopping off heads all over the place. Mounting these heads on poles they then marched to London: so far, so medieval. It’s only when you read that on the way they decided to make the severed heads on their poles kiss each other that you realise that people are the same throughout history. I don’t know about you, but I can even imagine the sounds that went with it. “Oh Sir James Fiennes, you’re so dreamy! Kiss me!” These days we might only burn effigies, but it’s heartening to see that the mob mentality has remained relatively unchanged since time immemorial.

The last person I want to talk about is not a famous writer, nor even involved in anything particularly noteworthy. His life was ordinary in most respects, and that is why he is significant. Domenico Scandella – also known as ‘Menocchio’ – was a local celebrity in 16th century Italy who reaches us only in a few Church records. A simple miller and an important member of his community, over the years he somehow was given access to a variety of theological books. From these – and his own musings – he developed a complex and intricate belief system that pointed out inconsistencies in Church teachings and promoted a rather more back-to-basics approach to worship. Like many people in his time, he was resentful of the monopoly on salvation given to priests, and believed (correctly) that many of the services that they were required to perform were unnecessary.

He is on record as disrupting funerals by shouting “what are you doing giving alms in memory of those few ashes?” He openly mocked the Eucharist by proclaiming “I do not see anything there but a piece of dough? How can this be our Lord God?” He even lambasted the clergy for their temporal ambitions and the profits they made from the poor by keeping business transactions and holy scriptures in Latin. He’s a personal hero of mine, for reasons that should be readily apparent to anyone who knows me even a little bit, or happens to read the title of this blog.

He would have passed through history entirely unremarked if not for the unwelcome attentions of the inquisition, which became aware of his heresy and came down on him like a ton of bricks. Given the platform to orate, Menocchio took the opportunity of the preliminary hearing to explain his theology in great detail and acted altogether more like a prosecutor than a defendant. Facing strict censure and punishment he had the temerity to lecture his inquisitors in public:

“It seems to me that under our law, the pope, cardinals and bishops are so great and rich that everything belongs to the Church and to the priests, and the oppress the poor, who if they work two rented fields, these will be fields that belong to the Church, to some bishop or cardinal.”

The irony of course is that his criticisms of the church and its bloated, confused ideologies would be borne out in time. Today we can look back at Menocchio’s social criticisms and see that he was right: the issue of transubstantiation remains a thorny one and the problem of holy men running their religions as businesses is still relevant today. Indulgences and the days of the Church as a temporal power are largely over. Had he only been born a few centuries later, things would have turned out very differently for Menocchio.

He was persuaded to recant his heresy and return to his small village, but it was not long before he began to decry the local clergy and promote his own theology again. This time the church returned without sympathy, and put him to the stake. Those few records that we have of him exist only because he drew attention to himself at the cost of his life. What has really amazed modern historians is the sophistication of his views and his low-born status. It showed in a stroke that not only did ordinary people care about the intricacies of their religion, but that they were able to develop their own theologies to fill in the gaps left by a canon that wasn’t yet watertight. We don’t know how many Menocchios there were out there who never made it into the history books, but his story has caused a radical shift in our perception of medieval peasants. Just because they toiled away at manual labour and lacked a classical education didn’t mean they weren’t capable of expressing complex ideas just as well as the great thinkers of the age.

I think what Menocchio’s story shows us is that we’re all complicated individuals; we all have unique perspectives to share. It should have come as no surprise that an unimportant man living in rural Italy – an uneducated medieval man of the past no less! – should have a beautifully thought-out theological position, but it was a surprise. Our own egos insist that we must be more intelligent than those who came before, that we are better somehow, but the more you explore the past the more you realise that we are all the same. It doesn’t matter when you were born: the human condition endures relatively unchanged.

I remember reading Menocchio’s story for the first time and it made me realise that history exists outside of our records of it. These people live their lives and have their thoughts and they may never be written down for posterity. We would know nothing of Menocchio had he been a little quieter, a little less outspoken and a little more savvy about his own survival. Billions of people like him have existed throughout human history and left nothing behind. What it all boils down to, I suppose, is that choice of what you leave behind.

A rather more well-known man than Menocchio once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. We all examine our lives and our belief systems; we all wonder about life, the universe and everything. When you die you’re taking all those thoughts and questions with you so the real question is: what will you be leaving behind? We’re all literate these days, and we all have ample room to express ourselves on the page (perhaps too much room, truth be told). So if anything can be drawn from this ramble, it’s this: from now on do all your thinking out loud and on paper. You never know who might end up reading it.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

There cannot be two skies

So Planescape: Torment is probably the best game ever written. An RPG crafted with obvious love and care, set in an utterly unique and wonderful world that to my knowledge has never been recreated since. Though it plays like a traditional isometric RPG - it is from 1998 after all - there hasn't been a game before or since with the intellectual depth, or that dared to leave so much of its plot unexplained. This is not the kind of game where you will visit everywhere you hear about, or understand every riddle and question - what you get out of PS:T is what you put into it.

The initial plot is somewhat cliched - the Hero With Amnesia - but with the twist that your character, The Nameless One, is immortal. Hundreds of lives stretch out behind you, each ending with death, and rebirth on a mortuary slab. Finding out who you are and tracking down who killed you leads you on a tremendously ambitious journey from Sigil, a city where every door could be a portal to another world, to lands where reality is so weak that it can be swayed by belief alone. Playing a pre-built character has huge advantages over games that give you more freedom, not least because it allows the writers to truly embed The Nameless One in the world he inhabits. You've lived and died for a long time, so don't be surprised when echoes of your past lives come back to haunt you - you've been everything from a virtual messiah to an insane tyrant and the game world bears the scars you've given it. Winding its way through your journey of self-discovery is a persistent and seemingly-vital question that will likely have you scratching your head for weeks after completing the game: "what can change the nature of a man?"

The Planescape setting is jammed with evocative and original ideas and blessed with a happy-go-lucky approach to realism. Unlike other fantasy RPGs it isn't afraid to recognise that a fantasy settings means you can do anything. So yeah, Sigil is a giant torus-shaped city floating above an infinitely-tall spire, there are factions who believe ascension to godhood is a matter of self-belief (who knows, they may be right) and there are planes of existence formed entirely of shapeless, ever-changing energies that can only be given form by a sufficiently disciplined mind. The level of detail is mind-boggling, the imagination frankly astounding. I guarantee you will not have encountered anything like this before.

Artist's impression of Sigil (ever tried to draw an infinitely-tall spire?)

There really isn't much I can say without spoiling the magnificent plot (don't go on Wikipedia either, it lays it all out there) so I've come up with a list of some of the random things I love about it. I've stopped at six because the more I think about it, the more I have to add and I don't want to spend all evening talking about it - frankly, now I just want to play it.

1) The chant, cutter. One of the things I love most about PS:T is its refusal to throw you a bone. The new player starts off just as disorientated and confused as The Nameless One, not least because everyone speaks in thick slang; you'll have to explore and talk to people to get the dark of rattling your bonebox in Sigil. Immersive doesn't even cover it.

2) Ravel Puzzlewell. A complex and intriguing character, Ravel plays a huge role in your quest for your identity, and your past. Aside from the wonderful writing, the meshing of humanity and plantlife in her character goes beyond the obvious - her personality twists through the planes like a giant tree, branches reaching out and flowering in all sorts of unexpected places. One of the great, morally-ambiguous characters of fantasy fiction.

3) The Circle of Zerthimon. This curious item, carried by one of your potential companions is well worth investigating if you have sufficient intelligence and wisdom. For me, it represents everything that is different and unique about PS:T. Here, the fluff isn't just something you collect as you go along (as in Dragon Age, Mass Effect etc) but is an intrinsic part of the experience - your character's personal development is tied up in the study and comprehension of an incredibly-detailed philosophical system that reflects on ideas of self-knowledge and discipline.

4) Companions. No elves, dwarves or any of that bullshit. Instead, you will undoubtedly find yourself assisted by mutant tiefling thieves, flame-addled sorcerors, a reformed succubus, a clockwork robot, floating skulls and the ghost of a lawman bound into his armour by the strength of his resolve to dispense justice, to name but a few. Very few RPGs have managed to so deftly sidestep fantasy cliches as easily as PS:T. The whole Modron Maze section of the game is a perfectly-pitched parody of all the things that drive most people away from D&D and other fantasy licenses.

5) The Blood War. An eternal conflict waged between demons and devils over the correct approach to evil: gibbering hordes of insane demons clamouring for an orgy of chaos and destruction on one side, ordered and tidy-minded (but no less cruel) devils campaigning for the disciplined sadism of a classical hell on the other. Think Mephistopheles versus the things from Doom. On the edges, the rest of the planes nervously hedging their bets and hoping that neither side wins out - because then they'll really be in trouble. I personally love the idea of the Blood War but it is woven so carefully into the game that you feel its impact and its importance even though you never directly experience it. A lesser game would have thrown you in at some point and had you fighting in it, but then this isn't an ordinary game.

6) Adahn the Imagined. Though you could probably find out about him on the Internet in seconds, you'll have more fun if you discover him for yourself. Just be aware of the particular metaphysics of the Planescape setting and pay attention when people talk to you about belief and willpower.

2D game world, 3D character development

Torment is a gaming experience without equal, regardless of how you feel about the admittedly out-of-date graphics and the mundane nature of in-game combat. This game isn't about hacking and slashing, but instead is a thoughtful, adult take on role-playing games shot through with dark humour and a beating philosophical heart. I've been playing it for over a decade and I am literally still just realising things about the story, working out plot points, and pondering some of its questions. PS:T has just been re-released and you can get hold of it on Amazon - I guarantee that this is a better Christmas present than that DVD you were thinking of asking for. With the new widescreen mod, which shows off the beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds of the game at larger resolutions, and the various fix packs and tweak mods that re-insert cut content there hasn't been a better time in years.

They don't make them like this any more, and it's a damn shame.

Sigil's ruler, the Lady of Pain. Don't worship her, or piss her off. She will fuck you right up.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Protest narrative

The papers this morning are full of screaming headlines about student mobs and rioting and - of course - numerous pictures of students committing outrage after outrage against National Treasures (tm) like Charles & Camilla, the Winston Churchill statue in Parliament Square etc. I would have some sympathy for their point were it not so cynically put together.

Anyone who has been to a protest in the last few years can't have failed to notice that "kettling" is a bit controversial. Certainly anyone who's faced a line of bobbies who won't let people leave the protest zone, provide any kind of facilities or in fact do anything to defuse rising tension until it breaks out into violence will know what I mean.

You try not to be too conspiracy-theorist about this kind of thing, for fear of being put with the rent-a-mob anarchists who *always* turn up to protests with their faces covered like they're some freedom fighting heroes instead of middle-class kids with a GCSE-level understanding of politics. Nonetheless, this morning when I look at the pictures doing the rounds in the papers I have to wonder - why aren't any of them mentioning the fact that students were kettled in Parliament Square most of the night without toilet facilities when they bring up the urinating on statues thing? What do you expect them to do, piss themselves? Come to that, why did the police abandon a van in the middle of the kettled area in the first protest? Why, when every wannabe political reporter - regardless of whether they were there or not - gets to have their say in an editorial, are there no stories discussing the twitter postings from people actually in the protests, many of which allege police brutality? Why is the discussion all about students pulling a mounted riot police officer off his horse rather than the appropriateness of charging students and schoolchildren with horses in the first place? The Mail has even whipped itself into a frenzy about it, asking rhetorically "what kind of sick mind would do this to a horse?" I think when you're being charged by a police horse, all bets are off frankly.

Most terrifyingly of all, we're being told with deadpan seriousness all over the news that the students were jolly lucky not to have been shot while they were mobbing Charles and Camilla's car. Personally I find it far more worrying that we're supposed to be grateful that these taxpayer-funded security guards didn't fire wildly into a crowd of teenagers or that, in fact, they showed commendable restraint. "If they were throwing petrol bombs, we could have had a serious tragedy here" one talking head sagely threw in on the lunchtime news. Yes, probably, but they were throwing paint. Paint. Dial it down a bit, mate.

Whether or not the violence was justified, or at least understandable, is another issue and not something I want to write about until the dust is settled a bit. I think it's worth asking some questions about coverage while the iron is hot though, because as time goes by the specifics will fade and be replaced with the standard narrative for all of these protests: "student violence".

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Life isn't fair

Sometimes, life is difficult. Life is unfair.

Its always struck me as odd that that phrase - the sentiment that life is unfair - is somehow childish. That admitting this self-evident fact is naive to the point of deserving mockery. We take children at a young age and drum it into them that they should settle down, shut up, and accept unfairness as it comes. For an adult to say so is so unusual that it rarely passes without comment and, sadly, without a sense of scandal. They're playing outside of the rules; they're saying aloud what we're not meant to say. They aren't accepting what we as a society have accepted as 'just the way things are'. Pointing out unfairness correlates pretty well, for most of us, with immaturity.

Far be it from me to suggest that the world is fair. It patently isn't, and we should have no expectations that it should be. We live in a purposeless universe that is not attuned in the slightest to the plight of humanity; of the individual social, economic and sexual concerns of an individual out of five billion, of a single species out of millions on a single planet among countless billions. The numbers don't add up. I don't think this is what people mean by 'life isn't fair' though. After all, many millions of us believe that the great amoral disasters that we face - earthquakes, floods, storms, volcanic eruptions - are driven by purpose, that a god or gods have a plan that involves the wholesale and indiscriminate destruction of people and propety. God will know his own, indeed.

So life isn't fair, but it should be. More than that, it can be. Humanity alone out of any species we know of has harnessed its environment to dizzying heights. Throwing ourselves into space, bouncing invisible electronic signals around the world to communicate, manipulating the fundamental building blocks of life itself to create more productive crops, to give parenthood to those unable by genetic accident to have children. The things we have achieved are marvellous, truly staggering, but we have not achieved fairness. We are dissuaded from so early on to accept the pitiless random happenstance of the world that we live in that we fail to distinguish between unavoidable unfairness and unfairness that we have created and maintain.

Last year UK shoppers spent approximately four billion pounds on their credit cards at Christmas. That's £4,000,000,000,000 in longhand. Granted it's a tired old rote to go on about capitalist excess, especially as I type this on an expensive computer in a well-decorated house just before I head to town for a night out, but I think my own hypocrisy probably isn't so important in the grand scheme of things. I try not to spend frivolously, I give money to charity every month and I tend to buy the Big Issue (so should you - the reviews are tremendously honest!). It's kind of beside the point though - while individual effort is of course valuable, it's kind of like multinational corporations telling us to wash our clothes at 30 while throwing out billions of tonnes of pollutants into the atmosphere. We're important, not because we can necessarily make a difference, but because we can pressure those who can.

Yes, our gross consumerism means that shops open with Christmas stock in October but they operate like everyone else through supply and demand. Just because we can do our Christmas shopping that early doesn't mean we should. Just because it's there doesn't mean we have to buy it. Why not make your own birthday cards instead of buying them? You can't honestly tell me that mass-produced cards (featuring the two themes of "you're old!" and "you're going to be drunk soon!") are better than the ones you could make yourself. Why buy things you don't need at all? Why not suggest the company you work for gets involved in charity work? Life isn't fair, but that's not the way it has to be; we are advanced enough, civilised enough, to stop dismissing unfairness as a fact of life and start working towards something better.

Monday, 30 November 2009

News: facts not necessary

This one has been brewing for a while.

I've taken a bit more of an interest of late in the sheer unbelievable cheek of the mainstream press. Everyday I sit on the Tube, watching people reading the Metro, the Mail and the Express. This morning I was reading The Sun over someone's shoulder and wanting to just snatch it out of his hands. He was tutting over some completely made-up story about banning Christmas, or schools making all the children dress in burqas, or some other fanciful rubbish.

The problem I have with these newspapers - which I will henceforth refer to as papers, until they actually start reporting facts - is not ideological. Granted, anyone who knows me knows that I'm not exactly sitting square in the Mail's target demographic. I think immigration is a good thing, I wish Parliament would bloody well hurry up and turf the Royal Family out of government, I understand that you vote for the party not the PM and I actually quite like wheelie bins.

Chances are that even if these papers were the bastion of journalistic integrity, I would find much to disagree with, but that's not the issue. I think it's a good thing that there are papers that promote both sides of the argument, that focus on different issues. I think it's great that The Guardian wants a liberal government, and I don't have a problem with other papers pushing for a conservative one. There's only one thing that I really care about in journalism and, rather cornily, it's the truth.

Like reporting facts honestly. Being open about your sources. Not just making stuff up. Unfortunately on these fairly basic points both the Daily Mail and the Daily Express fall flat on their faces. Other papers aren't exactly in the clear either - watch The Times spectacularly missing the point of the current "Don't Label Me" campaign by referring to the children in the advert as 'Christian children'. Look at the smug point-scoring and ask yourself: is this meant to be the news? Is this delivering the facts to the readership, or just leading them down the editorial line?

Bias is inevitable. I mean, even by selecting stories to cover there is selection going on. However, that can be done without being dishonest. Bloggers have been speculating for a while now why the Mail worked itself - and its readers - up into a hysterical rage about the student who pissed on a war memorial while blind drunk, but has said absolutely nothing about the repeated, deliberate desecration of graves in Manchester. Is it too far to speculate that this is because they are Muslim graves, and that this story wouldn't go down well with a readership already whipped up into a frenzy about immigration?

Immigration is a good topic to discuss actually, because in reality it seems only newspapers like The Guardian are willing to be adult about the issue. Search the Mail's archive for 'immigrant' and see what I mean. Yeah, fear-mongering much? A conspiracy of silence! £30,000 pay-outs! There's nothing wrong with a rational, evidence-based discussion on immigration, but neither the tabloids nor their readers seem to want that. Richard Littlejohn has been caught lying time and time again about this - about how much immigrants get on benefits (he doesn't actually know), about how most of the crimes in the UK are committed by Eastern European immigrants (he made it up) or about how a judge who made up a load of bollocks about immigration figures was being persecuted over his 'sensible' stance on the issue (he wasn't, he was just an arse). And that's just one columnist. I won't even get onto Jan Moir or Melanie Phillips here (who has the time?)

That's not even touching on their insane fucked-up relationship with sex and (oo-er) 'flesh'. That simultaneous celibate attitude whereby sex is something scary and dirty that good, moral upstanding people entirely repudiate. It's so bad, what this person has done (worn a strappy top, kissed a person of the same gender in public, slept with a few people) that you need to see full-size gloriously-coloured HD images of it! It's a weird self-hating attitude that screams of protesting too much. It takes some real balls to print this and describe it was 'disturbing' and then print dozens of stories a day about how healthy-looking celebrities are 'fat'. Hell, let's just look at Natalie Cassidy, whose revelation that the pressure of staying in shape for the tabloids almost led to her developing an eating disorder didn't stop them printing this revolting piece of shit just a few months later.

The bottom line is this:

The Mail, The Express, all of those trashy right-wing papers, lie. They make up figures, they deliberately fail to convey the truth behind stories and most of all, they fucking lie. They do it shamelessly, cheerfully, and all the while claim they're just telling it like it is. All the fucking time. The worst thing is that people swallow their poison, totally without question. If you're reading a paper like the Mail and just believing in it without doing your own research, you are doing it wrong. Critical thinking, rational inquiry, scepticism: without employing these while reading the news you may as well just be sitting under Rupert Murdoch with your mouth open.

For example, take a look at this superb take-down by Tabloid Watch of the Express' ridiculous headline about breakfast. Turns out the study that indicates that breakfast is, like, totally super-healthy was funded by cereal manufacturers. The independent expert they pulled in to confirm the story has done work for them very recently. Oh, and by the way nutritionist is not legally protected; I could call myself one apropos of nothing - it's that prestigious a title. This is no isolated incident: most of the 'science' stories you read in the papers are little more than trussed up PR exercises for companies looking to shift more products. The papers love using science as a shiny meaningless bauble, which is probably why this patently transparent rubbish makes it unadulterated into print, while the LHC, vaccines and global fucking warming get an absolute mauling. As soon as something is more significant than a minuscule lifestyle improvement it's dangerous and scary. Honestly, this attitude - this fear of progress - totally baffles me.

Actually, just for good measure take a look at this, because it's classic Mail: it starts with a leading headline that sounds like a definite conclusion, which is hugely reinforced in the first few paragraphs with phrases like "something terrible, unimaginable, was amiss..." They then back up the insanity with what they fondly imagine is science: "a small - but not zero - chance" that it will "rip apart the entire universe". They even refer to the absolute mentalists (or "twats" if you're Brian Cox) who think that this is at all likely as "maverick scientists". Maverick's a great word: it implies that you're going against the grain but that, ultimately, you'll be right. You're Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day, you're Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow, you're Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park! Then, right at the bottom, the last three lines - the last three fucking lines, after all the talk of doom, and the massive pictures of black holes destroying the Earth and tearing the universe apart - there's a bit from the scientists, who treat the idea with total derision. Whether or not there are any scientifically literate journalists at these papers is a good question but whatever the answer, it's pretty clear that there are no scientifically literate editors.

What else can I say? These papers have no ethics. They lie, they cheat, they even pay immigrants to break the law so that they can write stories about how immigrants break the law

There is no sound argument to be had in favour of them being anything other than opportunistic vultures who distort the truth and whip people up into terrified balls of hatred who are impotently angry that their country is going to the dogs even though the only 'evidence' of it is within the pages of the Mail. So when I attack the Mail, or the Express, it's not because I'm a liberal who can't stand to hear the 'truth', or even an opposing viewpoint. It's because they are not offering an opposing viewpoint. If you have to outright lie to make your point, then your point is bullshit. The sooner people realise that, the better, because at the moment the thought that the Mail is the second most widely-read newspaper in the country makes me feel sick.