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October 29, 2015

Living in the margins (a short story)

There’s a book in a second-hand bookstore. It’s an unassuming book, by an author you won’t have heard of. If pressed, about ten people would call her their favourite author, but none of them have ever met each other. To most people, it’s just another book.

This unassuming book by an unassuming author with its unassuming story goes unnoticed by most, but inside that book, something wonderful has happened. Written in pencil and scraggly handwriting in the margin of every page is another tale. A second story that deftly weaves it’s way around the book’s printed narrative. Picking up on plot points, themes and characters it expands, expounds enhances the story, turning it into something far greater. In many ways, the story in the margin far surpasses the story of the book itself.

But for all it’s brilliance, the story in the margin is never part of the book. It might react to the events of the book, it might comment, reflect, sneer or applaud at the happenings, but the book itself remains stoic. No matter what the story in the margin may do to the characters, no matter where it may take the story, the book itself will never acknowledge it. The book remains isolated, separated. Its story is already written, and while the reader may branch off into something new when they peruse the margins, they’ll eventually return the unmoving core of the book itself.

And that story in the margin? Alone, it’s nothing. It’s taken the book and made it a part of what it is. Without it, it’s simply the disjointed scribbles of a mad man. But it knows that while it may be part of the book, the book will never be a part of it.

One day the bookstore owner absentmindedly picks up the book and flicks through it. Noting the scribbles, he figures that can’t be right, and spends the afternoon cleaning up the ‘damage’ with an eraser. By the evening there’s no evidence left that the story in the margin even existed other than the fading scent of rubber and few scuff marks.

The writer of the vanished tale sits at home and knows that one day he’ll find someone that wants to tell a story together.

September 24, 2015

Cameron: does it actually matter?

So what does the Cameron-pig incident actually tell us?

One you get over the visceral horror of the image – the Prime Minister sticking his dick in a dead pig’s mouth – one starts to wonder what it means. Beyond Cameron forever being seen as “a bit gross”, does it speak in any way to his political ability? I think, in a way, it does – though not necessarily the way you might expect. Here’s some of the “defenses” I’ve seen used of Cameron:

A man’s sexual proclivities are none of our business
See this one is true. Even though necrophilia is illegal, and beastiality is illegal, if you do both at once it’s not actually a crime. Nor should it be, really – if we’re allowed to eat it then defiling it sexually doesn’t seem much worse. It’s just… sorta gross. The thing is, we’ve all done things in the bedroom others would consider weird or even gross. And the media, Twitter, et al would have reported this with just as much glee had it been revealed that he ever did anything remotely kinky. And that would piss me off.

But then, this isn’t about sex is it…

“It was just a silly student dare”

And this is where I start to worry. I was a student. On occasion, I was dared to do stupid things. Occasionally I did. We got up to all sorts of “wacky behaviour” – y’know, like stealing traffic cones or climbing a thing you’re not meant to climb. But I can, hand on heart, honestly tell you, that were I, or anyone I hung out with at university, dared to get our cock out and stick it in a dead pig’s mouth, the response would be a clear and undebatable “fuck off”.

And that’s a worry, isn’t it? If we accept there was nothing sexual about it, that Cameron got no pleasure from doing it, then the conclusion has to be: he didn’t want to do it. And yet, he (allegedly) did it. Isn’t that a problem? That he didn’t have the backbone to stand up to a bunch of bullies asking him to put his cock in a dead pig’s mouth? Much was made before the election about how Milliband just wasn’t “tough enough” to be PM. That if he was in a room with Putin, he would just fold. That might well be true. So now instead we have a PM, who, in a room with a bunch of friends, was convinced to stick his knob in a pig’s mouth. And yes, he was drunk. Best hope Putin doesn’t offer him any Vodka before the negotiations.

[On the other hand, if we’re going to governed by a Tory, maybe I’d prefer being governed by the one that got bullied rather than the ones who did the bullying.]

“But we all do stupid things when we’re young, don’t we”

Generally, yes we do. But perhaps more telling is a variation on this:

“If there’s a dead pig’s head in the room, someone is going to stick their cock in it”

That might well be true. I wouldn’t know. Neither would most of the country. Because most of us have never been to a party where there happened to be a dead pig, especially not as a poor student, and even if in our later years we’ve been to a hog roast, we’ve never been to one where it would be appropriate or permissable to even take one’s todger out, let alone put it in to the food.

And that’s why Cameron wouldn’t win another election. It’s somewhat of a moot point, as he won’t be running again, but the problem for most people won’t be the initial disgust at what he did, it’ll be them asking themselves “how does that even happen?” We, the “not-rich”, comprehend things like the Bullingdon Club in abstract terms. It’s where rich students make “trouble”, smash up “things”, burn £50 notes infront of “beggars” (who even the middle and working class tend to look down on). This brings the nature of those rich, domineering institutions right home in a way the abstract ideas about them never did. In a sentence it explains graphically the level of decadence in which our PM lived. That he could go somewhere as a student, where there happened to be a dead pig, and that people would get their cocks out and violate said pig. And it’d all be fun and games. It marks him and his experiences out as truly alien to 99% of the electorate. It’s like not being able to eat a fucking sandwich.

The electorate need one of two things in a PM. They need to believe that they’re “one of us”, have had similar experiences and are relatable. Or they need them to be so far above us, so unflappable and statesmanlike so as to appear perfect. Milliband had neither: he was a bit nerdy and awkward, which would be okay, but rather than embrace it he ran from it trying to be the statesman figure instead, and ended up in the middle ground which was useless. Likewise this one story both destroys any attempt Cameron makes to be above the fray, while also ruining any chance he has to be seen as “one of the people”.

All academic of course, at least until someone offers Lord Ashcroft a lot of money for information on George Osborne’s initiation.

August 19, 2015

An Open Letter to the Labour Party

Dear The Labour Party,

Hi guys! I know you’re having your election at the moment so must be very busy, but just wanted to drop you a line to just make sure you were aware of something. I’ve always voted Labour. I’m politically on the left, and generally I like you guys. I’ll probably be voting for you in 2020! But I want you to know, regardless of who you elect as leader, you do not have my vote.

I like you, you’re probably the party I’m most aligned with politically, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get my vote by default. You’ll have to earn it. You’ll have to do something. You don’t have to be perfect (who is!) and I get that to win an election, you’re also going to have to do things to appeal to those in the middle who maybe voted Tory last time round (the little buggers). I do get that. But if you focus entirely on them and ignore me, then you won’t get my vote.

Despite a second Tory term, politics is exciting at the moment. The Greens made huge gains and while they have their problems, they’re an option. And y’know, I do okay. I’m actually better off under the Tories! I don’t vote Labour for my own benefit, I do it because I genuinely believe we should be helping out those less fortunate than us. But faced with a choice between Tory and Tory-lite… part of me thinks maybe we should just commit to something, y’know?

And in your own party, Jeremy Corbyn looks great. I’m not going to tell you who to elect – that’s your business. Some of my friends have upped and joined you in order to vote for him, they like him so much. That’s not me. I just don’t feel that way about you, sorry.

Still, Corbyn has been making noises that would get my vote, but I’m sure some of your other guys would too. They just haven’t explained how yet. But don’t forget, no matter who you decide is best for you, if you want my vote, you’re going to have to try. You’re going to have be a Labour party I want to vote for. If you don’t, you won’t get it.

I’m not being mean, this isn’t blackmail, I just wanted you to know this now, because your election thing has had a lot of people talking about how to get Tory voters back. Not about how you’re going to keep people like me. I don’t want you waking up the day after polling day in 2020 and going “WTF guys?” because I didn’t vote for you and you were sure I would. So I just figured I’d say something now.

Anyway, have a good election-thingy, hope you have fun!


A life-time Labour voter.

August 03, 2015

Why Corbyn is the logical, centrist move

I like Jeremy Corbyn. But I’m also not an idiot. I can perfectly well comprehend the argument against the Labour party electing him leader. He’s a gamble. The rest are not. The others will make minor gains from the Tories, which will be enough to oust them from their majority, and SNP-willing, put Labour back in power, albeit in an uneasy, difficult coalition.

Corbyn is a roll of the dice. I believe he’s the only candidate capable of winning an outright majority in 2020. I also believe he’s the only candidate capable of actually losing Labour seats. So on that evidence, it’s too risky, right?

Except there is no real risk. The next election is five years away. If Labour elect him as leader (and give him a genuine chance, or at least don’t actively undermine him), they can spend a few years watching what happens. If he crashes and burns, oust him and put someone new in. Hell, Corbyn is the one person standing in this election that would step down of his own accord if it looked like he had no shot at an election.

The reason he was on the ballot in the first place is a bunch of Labour MPs supported him in order to broaden the conversation during the process, and incorporate a greater variety of views. They didn’t expect him to win. And that’s actually sound thinking, but it’s thinking you can apply further – why not do it on a national scale, broaden the debate nationwide for a couple of years, show what a true alternative looks like and see if anyone might be interested in voting for it.

Yes, there will be some damage, that’s a couple of years that you’re not building up the media profile of a fresh new face, and yes, it might put off a few people for good. But honestly, if you’re one of the other leadership candidates and you’re worried two years isn’t enough to overturn a Tory majority of six then you really shouldn’t be here.
The irony is, of course, that the only reason this approach is possible is because of Cameron’s Fixed-term Parliament act. Without that, a Tory majority this small, watching a recently elected leader crash and burn, might well call an early election in order to strengthen their numbers while they had the chance. That’s no longer an option.

May 06, 2015

Is it fear–mongering or are they afraid?

One thing I’ve found odd this entire election is the Tories attempting to blame the recession on Labour, and take credit for the recovery themselves. While we can influence a little the impacts of both, this was a worldwide recession, and we account for 3.9% of the world economy. If we look at that in terms of alcohol content, the idea that Labour were responsible for the crash is as realistic as running my car on Stella.

But the Tories are perpetuating this idea that letting Labour in is dangerous, as under them, the economy might crash again. Weirdly, they’re right. The fact is, the economy of the entire world is in a delicate state of recovery right now, and a second crash is certainly possible. And if the world economy tanks, it’s taking us with it, regardless of whether it’s Cameron or Milliband in Downing Street.

And that is what the Tories are afraid of. They know another crash might not be likely but is certainly possible. Now, you may say there’s very little difference between Labour and Tory economic plans, and you’d be right. Neither will make great shakes either way. But that’s the plan now. That’s the plan for recovery. What happens if we do crash? What if we end up in a Greece-like situation but with no EU bail-out available? How will we cope in that crisis?

It’s in a crisis like that you will see the true difference in the parties. What emergency fixes would Milliband consider? 90% top-tax rate? A raid on the bank accounts of the richest? Perhaps. One thing is for certain: those won’t be policy that a Tory cabinet even consider. They’ll first be looking at 30% VAT and a 25% basic tax rate.

And that’s why they’re afraid. It’s not about which party might ruin our economic recovery. It’s about who’ll be in power if the plans that both parties are mostly agreed on don’t work. It’s about who will bear the actual cost of a genuine economic emergency, should it occur.

May 05, 2015

How to use a vote

There’s a lot going on with this election, a lot of questions and suggestions as to how or if to use your vote tactically, about coalition agreements, about confidence and supply and so on. They’re all focused on how you, using your vote, can best get the result you want.

But an assumption has been made, by pretty much every party on the campaign trail, about what the ‘result you want’ is. Namely, the ‘result you want’ is the Government that will do the most for you. You may well read that and think it’s self-evident, and wonder what I’m going on about, and that, is very much the problem.

Let’s be frank: there’s nothing wrong with voting purely in your own self-interest, and if someone wants to do that, then I’m not going to complain. What I have a problem with is the the notion that anyone may want to vote for different reasons has been roundly ignored, by the media and those standing for election.

The vast majority of us do things on a regular basis that are not in our self-interest. We donate to charities. We volunteer. We take care of our friends and family when they’re suffering. And so on. There are some people that do none of that, that care for no-one but themselves. But I’m happy to live in a world where those people are in a minority.

Why then, is the assumption being made that everyone wants to use their vote to benefit themselves, and not in a more altruistic fashion? Why is this entire election about what you get rather that what we can give?

I know people who have a problem with immigration. It’s easy to dismiss them as backwards racists or such. Indeed, that’s what most left-wing columnists do. Or talk about some nebulous numbers about how immigration is a net benefit to the economy or such. Taking that approach to people who live in areas where immigration levels have been high, and has changed the culture of the community and environment in a way they don’t like is pointless. And when you’re in an area with either little immigration, or one where your environment is changing in a way you do like, it’s an easy approach to take.

But I haven’t seen a single person make the argument that, while they understand the personal effects it might have on that individual, there are huge improvements to the lives of those who, by pure accident of birth, were born elsewhere, come to our country in search of a better life, and we offer them that. I was going to write “proudly offer” right there, but I’m not sure we have any pride in it anymore. No-one is making the argument to them that, “yes, voting UKIP might marginally help you (but they can’t turn back what’s already happened), but it’ll hugely hurt a tonne of other human beings”.

Likewise I found myself utterly depressed by the Green copyright fiasco. Regardless of the truths or otherwise behind the policy, the number of creative liberals, many of whom I respected, suddenly declared they couldn’t possibly vote Green any more because of the negative financial impact it would have on them directly (with no though given to the huge benefit it could have for everyone else) showed up the fact that, while it nice they were going to vote Green, they were only doing so in their own self-interest. Let’s face it: it’s easy to vote for a party that is promising to give you and your interests more money. Green is an easy call if you’re an artist and they’re promising more arts funding. And again, it’s fine to vote in your own self-interest. But pretending you’re doing it to help everyone else out is disingenuous.

So what do I want people to do? Simple. Before you make your final choice about who you’re going to vote for, stop and asking yourself how you want to use your vote. Do you want to vote in your own self-interest, or do you want to use that vote for the benefit of other people. It’s an important question to consider, doubly so as it’s clear that no-one in the media or the parties you’re voting for want you to do so. And if, in the final reckoning, you choose to vote in your own self-interest, then own it. Don’t pretend you’re doing everyone else a favour, and don’t pretend that you actual believe in Tory trickle-down-wealth nonsense. And do that in the knowledge that you could have voted differently, and you did have a choice. You just had to put other people first.

July 28, 2014

The 50 Shades Problem

So the 50 Shades of Grey trailer came out the other day, setting off another round of conversation about the books and what’s within, to the point that, for some reason, I feel compelled to write about it. Partly because I don’t see my thoughts on the matter represented anywhere, and because thousands of people are at each others’ throats over it and seem to be missing the point. And partly because I have mixed feelings on it myself. I should stress I’ve probably read significantly more about it than I have of the actual books, and am happy to be corrected on any points. So here we go.

1) 50 Shades of Grey presents an abusive relationship
It does. The folk at 50 Shades of Abuse cover this pretty well, even though I disagree with their belief the book should be banned, for reasons that will become clear. But the relationship, as portrayed, is abusive. Now here is important distinction A: it is not abusive because it involves whips, pain, nipple clamps or bondage. It’s abusive because of everything around that. The way it gets to that point, the lack of consent, the way those things are used to control her in a way she does not want. It is perfectly possible to have a healthy, loving BDSM relationship, but that is not what 50 Shades depicts. Indeed, anyone who knows anything about BDSM tend to be very unhappy about how it depicts BDSM relationships, especially because for many people, it’ll be the first time they’ve read about anything like it.

2) It’s totally okay for 50 Shades of Grey to present an abusive relationship
Because it is a piece of fiction. A fantasy. And it’s a novel, with a plot, a plot that has to go somewhere and thus requires drama and conflict. If you have no knowledge of the BDSM lifestyle, it’s quite possible you’d find a book that documented a real-life, loving BDSM relationship pretty interesting. But those books do exist. And they don’t sell as well as 50 Shades because, ultimately, once you get over the novelty, without conflict and things actually happening there’s not much of a story to tell. This isn’t about how BDSM works, it’s about how storytelling works.

The second thing to note is that the book is, in many ways, a literal sexual fantasy. Now, our brains are capable of amazing feats of cognitive dissonance. We’re able to get off on stuff in fantasies that we know in real life would be abhorrent. Somewhere between 31% and 57% of women have rape fantasies but it goes without saying that those women do not actually want to be raped. It doesn’t mean that “what women really want is to be raped!”. Yet after 50 Shades was published, the media got all excited and started talking about how “what women really want is their own Christian Grey”. No they don’t. Speak to anyone who enjoyed the fantasy of that book, and ask them if they would actually want to be Ana, with all that entailed. The answer will be ‘no’. They enjoyed the fantasy of Christian, perhaps even enjoy the idea of someone doing some of the things in the book to them, and should maybe explore that with a partner in a safe, sane and consensual fashion. But they don’t want to be in that relationship. This is important distinction B: enjoying the fantasy of being Ana, or even trying some of the techniques show in the book, does not mean someone wants to live out the fantasy wholesale.

To me, that’s where the media excitement around the book has been far worse than the book itself. Holding up Grey as some sort of role model is harmful. At this point, it’s worth noting that EL James has been problematic herself in some of the statements she’s made after the book came out, claiming that the relationship show isn’t abusive, when it clearly is.

3) Ignorance breeds confusion
So what we end up with is a clusterfuck of ignorance. Some people don’t see that that relationship is abusive (remember: it can be abusive and still make you horny without making baby Jesus cry), and so try and defend it. Some of those people have a vague notion that people actually have similar BDSM relationships that work and are not abusive, and so think that the same applies here. People in those relationships get angry because now people think they are like Christian and Ana, when actually they’re nothing like that. It’s a mess.

And it’s problematic. The idea that what’s depicted in the books isn’t abuse is a problem. But the solution to that problem isn’t to ban the book. There are plenty of books that depict abusive relationships, either as a side-plot or the main thrust of the story. We don’t ban them. The problem is when we (or the media) start treating that abusive relationship as aspirational, rather than just a cheeky fantasy. When “actually, I want to try being whipped” somehow becomes “I want to be unwilling seduced and pushed into a world I know nothing about with no way out”.

I once went to a Buffy The Vampire Slayer convention and dressed up as Spike. I don’t actually want to be a soulless vampire. Is that so hard?

January 01, 2014

One Interesting Thing

So this was meant to be a post on a new blog I was setting up, but my PC just up and died, so that’ll have to wait. But I’ll just write about the new ‘thing’ (writing project) I am doing this new year here instead. It’s called ‘One Interesting Thing’ and it’s fairly simple: for every show I see, TV series I watch, gig I go to, game I play, album I listen to, book I read, etc… I’m going to write about it.

Now, the issue with doing this before was getting hung up on the concept of a ‘review’. These are not reviews. Instead the task is simply to pick the one most interesting thing (good, bad, or indifferent) about it and write about just that. This will generally mean pieces will be shorter, maybe even just a few hundred words, but it also doesn’t preclude larger pieces when something raises a particularly worthy point.

This does three things:
a) it gets me writing again;
b) it gets me writing interesting stuff that people might want to read, rather than just another review and;
c) if I ever consume a piece of culture and can’t find something interesting to say about it, I’ll know it’s something I should stop wasting time on.

If anyone else wants to join me, you’re quite welcome to, either on your own blogs or on mine when I get it up and running (damn PC). You can also set your own boundaries of what you’re going to cover (I’m not doing every episode of a TV show, or gigs that I run myself, or restaurant trips) – though I’d encourage people to set boundaries and stick to them, rather than just pick and choose interesting stuff, because that’s far too easy.

December 31, 2013

My Sherlock prediction

Just to get this up before it airs.

I don’t have a full-blown theory for how Sherlock faked his own death, but I do have an idea about the one obvious clue that everyone missed that Moffat mentioned a few times.

The preceding episode. The Hound of the Baskervilles one. There’s a chemical there that makes people hallucinate their own worst fears. When Watson sees Holmes fall off the roof, his worst fear would be that Holmes is dead. So when he checks the body, that’s what he sees.

I won’t speculate on the rest of it, but I’m almost convinced that will factor in somewhere.

October 02, 2013

The medium is not the medium

For a good while debate raged on the internets over the truth of McLuhan’s claim that the medium was the message. These days, when it comes to the arts, I’m not sure that the medium is even the medium any more.

Exhibit one: Gone Home . Gone Home claims to be a “Story Exploration Video Game”. In it you play as a girl returning home after a year of traveling, to find the house your family moved to shortly after you left strangely empty. By exploring the house you piece together what happened to them over the past year, and discover why no-one is there. You do that by picking through rooms and finding scrawled notes, diaries and, well, things. Your Dad’s collection of old, unsold novels. A mixtape given to your sister by a school friend. Your mother’s correspondence with her best friend. The whole thing is tied together with entries from your sister’s diary, narrated out loud at various points as you progress through the story.

Now Gone Home looks like a game, it controls like any first-person 3D game, but unlike most, you don’t have a gun. It’s distributed on Steam, a digital distribution system for games, and it’s created in the same software used for Temple Run and plenty of other games.

But the game elements are close to non-existent. At no point should you get stuck – you simply wonder around the house, exploring, reading and listening. Discovering a story. There are a couple of places where you get keys in one room that will open up another, but these aren’t designed as puzzles, they’re merely there to restrict your exploration slightly, so the story unfolds in roughly the right order. It’s also perhaps notable that Gone Home was created by a bunch of people with a background in video games, rather than theatre or elsewhere.

A few times in discussions I’ve claimed that Gone Home isn’t a game for a fairly simple reason: Gone Home could have been made at any point in history. Because Gone Home does not need to exist on a computer. You could build Gone Home. You could get a house and stick all this stuff in it, and let people explore. And at that point, no-one would try and claim it was a game; it would be an interactive-theatre experience or a piece of installation art. The idea of telling a story using objects in a physical place isn’t new, it’s just generally not financially or logistically viable. Especially for something like Gone Home, where to create the right atmosphere, you’d have to open it to just one person at a time.

That said, the principle of it is used all the time in historic sites and museums, where you may wonder around an old building while reading signs or listening to an audio guide telling you how that space was used in the past. It’s just far rarer to do that for fiction (though it has been tried, and we’ll discuss Mark Watson’s The Hotel in part two).

So Gone Home is essentially an installation-based narrative, that just uses the technology and grammar of video games to make its existence feasible. It’s not actually a game. But what’s interesting is that it works the other way around too. Enter exhibit two: Hint Hunt . This is a room escape game similar to the online game Crimson Room or The Room on iOS. You explore a room, find clues, solve puzzles, and eventually find your way out. Except this isn’t on a computer. This is a real-life room whose puzzles you tackle in a team of 3-5 people, with a time limit of 60 minutes.

It is, undoubtedly, a game. The puzzles are the focus, and while both current rooms have a back-story to give them context, it’s extremely brief, and the narrative doesn’t develop at all as you solve the puzzles. In some ways that’s a shame: the focus is solving puzzles, not trying to solve a mystery, though it’s somewhat understandable as with a one-hour time limit, you’re not going to have time to piece together a story and solve a bunch of puzzles.

But the lack of any narrative element to Hint Hunt means that however you try to describe it, it’s in the context of it being a game. It offers it a certain purity that makes it interesting in this discussion (a purity that something like a murder mystery party doesn’t have). It’s not interactive theatre and it’s not installation art. It’s not trying to tell you a story or evoke an emotional response. It’s just trying to give you a game to play for an hour.

So there we have it. A narrative-driven interactive art exhibit that thinks it’s a video game, and a video game made flesh in the real world.

There’s going to be a second part of this where we’ll look at non-linear fiction through the work of Christine Love and new project by Mark Watson, then I might do a final bit about The Cyberdrome Crystal Maze, The Shrewsbury Quest, and Tales of the Arabian Nights. At which point I hope you’ll all be sufficiently confused about where one medium starts and another ends.

September 13, 2013

My problem with No More Page 3

Or How you can support a cause while attacking the motives
Or Fuck I love boobs though

I’ve had about five different discussions with people about No More Page 3 in the last month, and inevitably I’m always on that strange third side of the argument that neither of two main sides agree with.

“I wrote some time ago”http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/loved/entry/page_3/ about why I have a problem with Page 3, and you can read that but to summarise: having a daily, set, traditional place in a national paper where women are objectified and lightly mocked isn’t on. So I support the goals of No More Page 3. But I sure do have a problem with their motives.

If we lived in an ideal world, it’d be fine to have both naked men and women in our newspapers, there for us to enjoy having fun looking at their hot bodies. But we don’t. We live in a world, – hell, a country – where sexism is still rife, where misogyny is common, where rape is still depressingly commonplace. Page 3 is a symptom, not a cause, but since we’re still decades away from sorting out the cause we might as well tackle the symptoms. And one of those is a national paper maintaining a tradition of objectifying and belittling a woman on Page 3 every day.

Now, the way much of the press treat women is pretty awful, and most people I’ve spoken to tend to agree that things like the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame full of voyeuristic bikini and upskirt shots of female celebrities is far worse than Page 3. But Page 3, because it has this weird status as a British institution is a really easy and obvious target. It’ll help get people on board, it’s a great first step, and that’s why No More Page 3 is targeting Page 3 of The Sun and not, for example, whichever page happens to have Jeremy Clarkeson’s latest woman-hating rant on it. That’s why they’re targeting Page 3. Not because of something silly like nipples. So I thought.

Then something interesting happened. The Irish Sun dropped Page 3 . Except it didn’t really. It agreed not to print topless women on it any more. It was replacing them with “shots of women in swimwear”. So this is when I got excited [oh grow up]. This was it. This was when No More Page 3 were going shout from the rooftops about how the Irish Sun had totally missed the point. That the problem wasn’t with nipples, the problem was in having a page in their national paper which every day objectified and mocked a woman. And that they hadn’t changed that at all. And that a woman was no less objectified if she was in a tiny bikini, for men to lust over, than if she wasn’t wearing a bikini at all. That the problem wasn’t nudity, the problem was the casual, daily, inappropriate objectification of women.

Their actual response? “We think this is a huge step in the right direction and we thank the editor, Paul Clarkson, for taking the lead in the dismantling of a sexist institution like page 3. We are hoping that the UK Sun will follow suit and ultimately hope for an end to all objectifying images and a truly equal representation of women within the British press.”

Huh? No! It wasn’t a step in the right direction at all. It’s a step in the right direction if your final destination is “women in newspapers should be covered up”. It’s not a step in the right direction if that final destination is “women shouldn’t be objectified in the national press”. It’s a step sideways at best. A step in the right direction would be taking the smarmy comments out of the captions. A step in the right direction would be running Page 3 two days a week instead of five. A step in the right direction is not hiding the nipples. For that to work you have believe that a woman is somehow more objectified or demeaned if she’s displaying all her boobs for the pleasure of men rather than just most of her boobs. And that sort of thinking is entirely incompatible with any sort of sex-positive view of the world.

The signs were there of course, I’d just chosen to ignore them. In multiple places the campaign called Page 3 ‘pornography’ which is technically correct it seems. The line between sexy and pornographic is apparently nipples. But it’s a powerful word because if you say “what if kids see boobs in The Sun?” people will just laugh, because most of us don’t see that as a big deal. But if you say “what if kids see pornography?” it sounds so much more wrong.

And of course, the petition that kicked this whole thing off only talks about dropping the naked breasts. Nothing else. Not a single mention of objectification. Just an objection to boobs.

That’s my problem with the campaign. And I know lots of my friends and other people support the campaign because they’re after the end result, and they broadly agree with me. And the campaign has traction now and might actually do some good so I won’t criticise too much.

But when it comes to the people running the campaign, for them this is not primarily a campaign against objectification. It’s a campaign against nudity. I don’t know why. I don’t think they’re a bunch of crazy Mary Whitehouse-ite fanatics that despise sex and nudity. But somehow they saw getting women to cover up on Page 3 a win. And it worries me because this notion that the less clothes a woman is wearing, the more objectified she is seems to run very, very close to certain misogynist bullshit spouted about the morals of women that go out in skimpy outfits.

So that’s why I’m just a little bit cautious about these folk. And why when I see friends openly supporting them on social media or whatever I tend to offer a gentle nudge to be sure the stuff they’re linking to is actually what they think and that they’ve given some thought as to why they have a problem with Page 3, and if it really is the same problem that the campaign does.

Edit: it appears that since my last blog on the subject The Sun has dropped the “News in briefs” – the bit where they sarcastically mock the intelligence of the model. Unlike the removal of the nipples from the Irish Sun, No More Page 3 has neither commented on this change or called it a “step in the right direction”.

The old Left, The new Left, Billy Bragg and practical activism

There was an interesting moment in the Leftfield tent at Glastonbury this year, the ‘beating heart of the festival’ where they mix music with political talks and generally have a good time while pushing a solid message.

Billy Bragg curates the whole thing, and he was on stage and talking about the sad passing of anti-nuclear activist Crispin Aubrey, someone who had been heavily involved in the festival since the very start. It went something like this:

“He was a huge campaigner against the proliferation of nuclear armaments around the world”

Huge cheers from the crowd.

“And he campaigned against the expansion of nuclear power in the UK”

A few people cheer. Mostly an awkward silence.

In the UK right now, there’s a new Left. But they’re a Left born out of practicality, rather that principal. We know nuclear power isn’t great, but we also know that the previous generations ignored renewables while gorging themselves on coal and oil, and that it’s now just too late for a renewables-only approach. Or a nuclear-only approach. We’re quite aware that we’re screwed unless we get both of them sorted pretty sharpish. That’s the only feasible option on the table. In our hearts we’d love to run the country on solar and wind but we’ve yet to see a concrete, workable proposal on how that can be done with the timescale we have right now.

And so this week the privatisation of the Royal Mail has been in the news. Here is the Billy Hayes article being bandied about by the likes of Billy Bragg and the rest of the old Left.

Standfirst: “Privatising Royal Mail will destroy a cherished institution. The Labour party must commit to renationalise it”

First paragraph: “So the government is pressing ahead with flogging off our national assets. This time it’s Royal Mail, one of the country’s oldest and most cherished institutions, and which a Sunday Times poll last weekend showed 70% of the public don’t want privatised. What a disgraceful betrayal of the British public.”

You can read the rest if you want but short of small mention of working conditions, it’s more of a same. It’s philosophical, ideological arguments with no talk of the actual practical implications. And ideologically, I’m on board. I’d rather our infrastructure be owned by us than by the government. Practically, I just don’t care. We’re of a generation that sees posting letters as an anachronistic luxury. We’re of a generation who find it hilarious that the Royal Mail are struggling when they insist on delivery to every house in the country six days a week. Because if something is urgent we call, text or email someone. If important documents need sending, we use Special Delivery which needs to be taken to the post office, paid a fiver for, and uses mostly different infrastructure anyway. If regular first class post was dropped to three times a week, we wouldn’t notice. If it was reduced to once a week, we wouldn’t mind. And before anyone tells me we have to protect the poorest in society, you can get a cheap mobile phone for less than a book of 12 first class stamps.

And yes, some of the older generation still like to send letters and it’d be nice to keep doing that. But at some point the postal service, as it is right now, really did move from necessity to luxury. We’d rather have it than not, but there are far more important things to worry about. And when you look around the internet you find the likes of Laurie Penny quiet on the issue, while angry people call up Radio 2 phone-ins to complain about it.

Yet it’s interesting, isn’t it, that the media and the press are all over this Royal Mail privatisation story. Yet they were eerily quiet about the backdoor privatisation of the NHS. Apparently the right of everyone to send and receive letters is more important than the right of everyone to be treated for deadly illnesses.

Back at Glastonbury Billy Bragg is complaining. Apparently people keep asking him “why aren’t there as many political bands as there were in the 60s and 80s?” and apparently the answer is, “It’s people first. If young people go out there and start marching then people will start writing songs about what you’re aspiring to. It doesn’t work the other way around. Martin Luther King didn’t march on Washington because Bob Dylan wrote The Times They Are A Changin’, it’s the other way around.”

It’s a cute soundbite, but shows how out of touch the Old Left really are. In the 60s and the 80s marching was very much the only platform, the only way to make a noise and get heard. There’s not as much of that as there used to be, but now there’s the internet. Activism is no longer limited geography and physical possibility. There are 100s of leftist blogs that have a huge audience and are a great platform for our views. I genuinely don’t think that left wing activism has ever been so strong in our history. But the likes of Bragg don’t get that. We’re not marching, so it must be in decline. We’re making our points with social media because we can’t be bothered to march.

He doesn’t get it. Most of them don’t. We’re doing things different, better, to how they did things and they don’t understand that. They want to save the Royal Mail, not for practical reasons, but because it’s a British Institution. They want us to march, not tweet, because it creates a greater spectacle, not because it reaches more people. They want to achieve the same things they’ve always wanted to achieve despite the world moving on without them

And if you’re of Bragg’s generation, that’s an easy thing to do. You get to campaign against nuclear power from an idealistic standpoint because by the time the oil runs out, you’ll be dead. Meanwhile our generation are staring down the barrel of a gun, worrying less about creating some wonderful utopian society and more about just ensuring we have any sort of fair and workable society in fifty years’ time.

We don’t have the luxury of their ideology. We’re the realists of the Left. And we’re trying to make sure our generation isn’t utterly fucked.

August 25, 2013

The Frank Turner arena tour and the changing nature of a live show

So today Frank Turner announced a UK tour. Of arena venues. And despite being my favourite act to see live over the past five years, I find myself not being not desperately excited about getting tickets. But bear with me, this isn’t a venue-size/popularity thing. There’s something more going on that I’m trying to figure out.

It started at the last Frank Turner gig I went to, when for the first time in about ten gigs, a mosh-pit formed, right in front of me. Which is fine. Not my sort of thing – I like a bit of a dance but throwing myself into other people doesn’t really do it for me. It’s also a bit annoying when it forms right in front of you as you can’t ignore it (without risking becoming part of it) but you can just move. You get a worse view maybe but it’s not my place to tell people how they should be enjoying the music they all paid to come and see too. Hell, I was one of the annoying kids jumping around to James in 2001 while the fans from 1991 looked on mildly perturbed.

But then, towards the end of the set, he played I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous, for the fans who had been with him for a long time. And I realised something interesting: you can’t mosh to Prufrock.

The first time I saw Frank live, he spent as much time on stage playing solo as he did with a band. As the shows have gotten bigger that’s mostly vanished and the band and setlist louder and rockier. And less of something I want to see.

Now I’m happy for artists to change and evolve, and I don’t expect or even want them to cater for me at the expense of doing what they want to do. But one does get a feeling of losing something. Had my last Frank Turner show been my first, I probably wouldn’t have gone back. I’d have accepted it as “not really for me” and moved on. But when you’ve enjoyed it previously and seen it change, you feel your missing out a bit. Ironic in the case of Frank Turner as I’m sure there’s a ton of Million Dead fans that felt let down when he first picked up an acoustic guitar.

But what I do wonder is how much of this change is down to Frank, and how much is down to a perceived necessity to do things this way in order to play larger venues and to cater to a crowd that want to mosh themselves silly. Indeed, the latest album, Tape Deck Heart, is possibly the slowest and most restrained album yet. Which is perhaps why only two or three songs from it have been regularly making the live setlist.

This isn’t a solo versus band thing either. The full band versions of St. Christopher is Coming Home, Journey of the Magi and Father’s Day are hauntingly beautiful in a way that can’t be done solo, but generally absent from the set in favour of the faster, rockier numbers. And even within the same songs, the live arrangements are getting less and less on the folk end of the scale and moving further to the punk/rock end.

I’m trying very hard not to sound like too much of a cock in writing this, as I’m very aware it could easily be seen as just whining that an artist isn’t do what I want him to do.

But my point is more that there’s been a fundamental change in how Frank performs live as he’s moved to larger venues, and that’s why I might give the next tour a pass. He’s still one of my favourite singer-songwriters ever, and I’ll continue to get very excited about new album launches and so on, but perhaps the live show just isn’t for me any more. Or perhaps I’m just getting old.

August 05, 2013

Edinburgh Fringe 2013 picks for Londoners

Or The Edinburgh Fringe 2013 guide for people that live in London and are going to Edinburgh and want to see acts that aren’t the same people they see in London all year round

My social life, and hence the comedy I see, is split about 50/50 between the Midlands and London, and while many performers cross over between the two, there are plenty of London acts that I never see anywhere outside of London, and plenty of acts from around the rest of the country that rarely perform in London.

Edinburgh, of course, is where these two groups collide. So rather than write up regular Fringe recommendations, this is a list for Londoners traveling up to Edinburgh that want to see great acts that the rest of the country know are great, but that aren’t on in London all the time. We all know you’re going to go see Simon Munnery and James Acaster and John-Luke Roberts and Tony Law regardless, even though they did ten previews in London and will be performing the show there later in the year anyway.

A few caveats: there are some great Midlands-based acts that aren’t on this list purely because they perform in London so much that you’ve heard of them already: the likes of Gary Delaney, Joe Lycett and such. There’s also bound to be some people I’ve forgotten, sorry! It’s also entirely coincidental that most of these shows are free, and only one costs more than a tenner even on weekends. But it might mean something.

Paul Savage – Cheerful Shambles
Dragonfly, 16:20, Free

I’ve seen Paul go from completely new act to seasoned professional over many years, and this is his first solo Edinburgh hour and well worth catching. Upbeat, friendly, relatable – and very funny. It’s on at just the right time of day too for some fun light-hearted jokes and observations. He’s an act that continues to get better and better so this straight-forward, unpretentious stand-up show is a great way to fill that awkward 4pm gap in your afternoon schedule.

You can also see Paul in another show – The 3rd Annual Free Tea And Biscuits Show, The Speakeasy, 12:05, Free with the wonderful Aaron Twitchen, another of my favourite Midlands acts, and some great guest headliners along with the inevitable free tea and biscuits.

Joke Thieves
Laughing Horse @ Espionage, 22:00, Free

This is Will Mars’ new concept comedy night and is already consistently selling out. The premise is simple: the first half of the show comics perform five minute sets. In the second half, they perform the set of the act that was on before them.

The brilliance of this will lie in watching different comics subvert and mess with a wonderfully simple formula to create the sort of one-off comedy moments you just won’t get anywhere else. And for a comedy nerd it’s like a dream come true. This is the one thing I’m most gutted to be missing seeing in Edinburgh this year but fingers crossed I can bring it to Leamington at some point.

Will also has a great solo show (Will Mars: Americana, Laughing Horse @ Meadow Bar, 19:30, Free) that I very much recommend. You’ll probably be offended by it, but that’s kinda what I like about it – there’s a dark nihilism to it where Will comes across a bit like a passive-aggressive Jerry Sadowitz. It’s funny, but if you’re a comedy geek you’ll have fun after the show deconstructing why certain bits rubbed you the wrong way.

Tom Binns Does Ivan Brackenbury and Others
Heroes @ The Hive, 21:00, Free

Tom is bringing the wonderful Ian D Montfort to the Fringe elsewhere (Pleasance Courtyard, 18:40, £11.50-£14.50) and if you’ve not already seen that character or heard him on Radio 2 you really really should. But more excitingly this year there’s a free show featuring best of Ivan Brackenbury (his old Perrier-nominated hospital radio DJ character) plus a first look at some of the new stuff he’s working on.

The new stuff is more what you might consider ‘traditional’ stand-up, but Tom still brings a unique twist to it. Given that the last two things Tom did in the comedy world have been major hits, this is a great chance to see the start of something new. Plus most of the show is Ivan Brackenbury and if you weren’t around six years ago when he was a big deal then getting to see it for free this year is a no-brainer.

Sally Anne Hayward – Hey Follower!
The Stand Comedy Club II, 16:50, £7-£8

Sally is a fantastic comic who has been doing the Fringe for a long time and is, frankly, brilliant at it. There’s some wonderful material in her new show and she should be far more popular than she is. Friendly, laid-back and probably the most traditional show I’m recommending here but dammit sometimes you just need a good solid hour of funny stories and jokes.

Diane Spencer: Hurricane Diane
Gilded Balloon Teviot, 17:45, £8 – £9.50

High-energy, over-the-top, ridiculous, somewhat filthy, storytelling. At one point I wasn’t sure how much of Diane’s stories to believe, but then she posted photographic evidence on Twitter and it turns out her life is genuinely that weird.

She’s actually my new go-to response for when idiots tell me “women comedians aren’t funny” (because apparently Sarah Millican “doesn’t count” now) – and if you’re not sure all three of her previous shows are up on YouTube in their entirety (and legitimately) so why not find out how right I am.

James Cook: Adventures On Air
Laughing Horse @ Jekyll & Hyde, 21:00 (18-25 only), Free

I’m fairly sure this is James’ first full-length solo stand-up show in Edinburgh (being a follow-up to last year’s fictional outing, Beatrice’s Fortnight at The Frozen Ballroom) which is utterly ridiculous. He’s one of the best stand-ups I’ve ever seen with the pacing and timing of someone who’s been doing this twice as long as he has. The way he can control an audience is astounding. If you’re in Edinburgh the one week this is on you have to go.

James is also part of a second show – Assemble: The Lovely Men, Laughing Horse @ Jekyll & Hyde, 21:00 (5-17 only), Free – a four-man sketch show that I haven’t seen so can’t outright recommend, but I’m sure will be brilliant. And lovely. And have men in it. And sketches.

Owen Niblock – Calculating Comedy
Ryan’s Bar, 1.15pm, Free

You know that feeling you get sometimes in Edinburgh? That you’re having a lot of fun but you’d also like to learn a bit about computational humour and AI while laughing at some point?

Shows combining comedy and science are all the rage these days (especially down in that London) but Owen has been doing this sort of stuff before Robin Ince made it ‘cool’. He doesn’t just talk about computational humour, he a computer science graduate with a genuine robotic double-act partner.

This is pretty much the ultimate science nerd show. At one point he even puts the source code up on the projector.

Owen also has a second show, and I’d love to tell you it’s more ‘normal’ but, well, maybe not. It’s a greatest hits/compilation show of Owen’s club material. But Owen doesn’t tend to play normal clubs. It’s somewhere at the intersection of a venn diagram of Simon Munnery, Boothby Graffoe and Luke Wright (Twisted Whimsy, Voodoo Rooms, 3.40pm, Free).

The Bob Blackman Appreciation Society Bonanza
Laughing Horse @ The White Horse, 15:30, Free

These guys won the Malcolm Hardee award a couple of years ago and despite that they’re still not hugely popular, even amongst most comedy nerds who should love their weird deconstructionist approach. In writing this I’m realising why: the show is literally impossible to explain in writing. Also Stewart Lee hasn’t seen them and put them on TV yet, but he would if he had.

Johnny Sorrow is a Midlands-circuit legend, an old school working mens’ club comic trying to make it on the alternative circuit, a character which he pulls apart wonderfully. Tim Swann is a one-liner act with about three jokes. This show adds in a bunch of weirdness and pig-masks on top of that to make something… oh I don’t know. I really suggest seeing this on the same day you go to see Tony Law, just because it makes him look mainstream.

Honorary mention

Peacock & Gamble: Heart-throbs
Pleasance Courtyard (the bit outside on the left before you go in but get tickets from the box office inside please thankyou), 21:45, £8-£11

These guys don’t really count, as they’re London-based and do a ton of gigs in London, but despite that they don’t appear to be on the radar of any London comedy fans I know, and don’t tend to perform at those sort of gigs, hence aren’t in the club and so warrant a mention here. Also they’re bloody brilliant.

See, this isn’t a sketch show. Okay, it does have things sort of identifiable as sketches in it, but primarily this is a good old-fashioned double-act. A genuine, two blokes on a stage playing off each other like double-acts used to be before they basically died out. It’s wonderful, silly, joyous stuff, and I can’t write too much because I haven’t see this year’s show but I’m sure it’ll be good.

Don’t see:

Matt Richardson: Hometown Hero
Pleasance Courtyard, 20:30, CANCELLED

So yeah, Matt first performed this show nearly two years in Leicester and it won an award. He’s been honing and improving it ever since, getting ready for his solo Edinburgh debut. Matt’s a natural performer, wonderfully likeable, engaging, full of energy. The recommendation here was going to be “go see him before he becomes the next big thing and is all over TV”.

But typical Matt – he went and became the next big thing earlier in the year and got the job replacing Olly Murs on The Xtra Factor, so now you can’t see him in Edinburgh. So you already missed your chance, bad luck!

July 25, 2013

Fantasy, reality and the Conservative party

So along with the introduction of this optional, but default on, pornography filter came a far more worrying piece of suggested policy: David Cameron also wants to ban ‘rape porn’. Now lets put aside the huge slew of legislative problems that will produce in actually defining what that actually is, because I’m starting to wonder if there’s more to all this.

This article in The Independent made me think a little – the crux of the article is that we’re all quite capable of separating reality from fiction, and by equating pornography with the actual act, you equate fantasy with reality, which the opposite of what you want to achieve.

So here’s the thing: we should be confused that this is coming from a Conservative government. They are, theoretically, meant to about hands-off, small government policies. You cut back social services, the NHS, libraries and so on because of the overriding principle that everyone should be able to fend for themselves. As such, nanny state actions like this, the internet filter, minimum alcohol pricing and so on seem at odds with that.

But then it comes back to that line from earlier: we all know the difference between fantasy and reality? But do we? Is that actually a quality we all possess. See, I know, because I have always had fantasies – I’m not talking of a sexual nature now, I’m talking far bigger: fantasies of wealth and maybe power. We grew up wanting stuff and knowing we couldn’t have it. We got older and got jobs and wanted stuff but knew we couldn’t afford it. We sometimes play the lottery and think about what we could do with the winnings.

Now stop for a second and imagine that never happened. Imagine you grew up in a rich family where, if you wanted something, you got it. As a kid, if you saw an awesome toy you just asked your parents and you had it next week. When you grew up you had the best possible education with all the options in the world open to you, and you were born smart enough to take advantage of them. You got a high paying job, could easily buy a nice house, and if you saw something you wanted you just bought it. You weren’t particularly attractive, but you could afford expensive clothes, personal stylists and a nice car so you were hardly starved for attention from the opposite sex.

If you grew up in that world, a world where you had everything you wanted, up to and including being part of a small group of people who ran the whole country, would you know the difference between fantasy and reality?

I’m not sure you would.

July 18, 2013

The transforming face of The Apprentice

With the ninth UK series of The Apprentice drawing to an end, it’s interesting to see that it’s finally following the trajectory of it’s US cousin. See over the past few years The Apprentice has become a joke. It started as a mildly serious business competition, and slowly devolved into a farce.

It’s not really the show’s fault – as any reality show progresses the applicants start to skew more towards people that want to be on TV rather than be in business, and with the state of the economy at the moment, successful business-people simply don’t abandon well-paid jobs for a one in sixteen chance at anything. So the show gets sillier and sillier, the mistakes get stupider and stupider and it all becomes a joke.

But something interesting happened this series: the show got it’s own joke. It’s in the music cues, the editing, where the show focuses – it’s now a comedy, and the producers and directors are acknowledging that. As such the show focuses almost entirely on the silly statements, mistakes and screw-ups made by various candidates, and plays them for laughs. Seeing Charlie Brooker show clips of the show and then taking the piss out it on 10 O’Clock Live was like him showing a clip of Only Fools and Horses then mocking Del Boy for falling through the bar. Dara O’Briain’s “You’re Fired” show is also becoming increasingly redundant as it’s mandate to take a light-hearted look at the events of the week’s episode is tough when the episode itself is a comedy.

This tonal shift made the final a little odd as it reverted back to treating them as serious business people after eleven weeks of taking the piss. It seems the only person that doesn’t get the joke is Lord Sugar himself. Actually wanting to start a serious medical business using the face of the winner to market said business demonstrates a complete failure to understand the average person’s opinion of an Apprentice candidate.

June 12, 2013

Page 3

While we’re in ranty mood: The Sun’s Page 3 turned up again today in Parliament, as Caroline Lucas went from an awesome, incendiary, subversive protest by wearing a t-shirt calling for it to be banned in the House of Commons, to covering up and asking if the government would please help her ban it. Which seemed a bit like shouting “wanker” at a policeman before asking him to help catch the guy that ran off with your phone but anyway…

Page 3 is a horrid thing, but the reason I dislike it isn’t the reason a lot of people give. But I think it may be the reason a lot of people actually find it more uncomfortable than the likes of Loaded or Zoo. See when Page 3 launched, and for most of the 90s too, it was simple. “Here’s a hot girl, you can see her boobs, isn’t that great?” and I like boobs, and I like hot women, and I like seeing hot women’s boobs. I don’t really need it to be in a newspaper but it’s no big deal. Occasionally there’d be a bit of text about the girl, often with a double-entendre but it was playful and fun.

These days, not so much. The caption has been replaced with a joke. It’s the same joke every day. Here is Kelly from Daventry today:
KELLY is not surprised at the huge backlog of migration cases. She said: “It’s such a complex body. As 20th century author GK Chesterton once said, ‘Large organisation is loose organisation. Nay it would be almost as true to say that organisation is always disorganisation’.”

Haha! Hilarious isn’t it! Because she’s a girl with her boobs out, so she couldn’t possibly have read Chesterton or have an interesting opinion on immigration. So funny.

Now obviously you can make the argument here that I’m the sexist one, that those opinions are legit and written by the model herself. And that by saying it’s a joke I’m the misogynist. You could make that argument, if you wanted to defend The Sun. Thing is, even if the opinions are legit, even if The Sun aren’t purposefully joking about topless models being dumb (note: they are), with the best of intentions it’s still a shockingly patronising “Naked girls can be smart and have opinions too! Who knew?”. I mean The Sun has a Sports section too but they don’t feel the need to ask Wayne Rooney for his opinion on the issues of the day at the end of a match report.

And that is my problem with Page 3: it’s not a woman appearing topless in a national newspaper that demeans her. She’s hot, she has great breasts, people enjoy looking at them. Maybe she’s also an amazing mother, maybe she’s a particle physicist, maybe she’s the best salesperson in her job, maybe she raises tons of money for charity every year. Maybe she’s none of those. Maybe she commits benefit fraud. Maybe she’s a violent alcoholic. Maybe she hits her kids. It doesn’t matter. She’s on Page 3 that day for one reason: because she’s hot. That doesn’t mean that’s all she is. But it’s okay for that to be all she is in that context on that day. Now, if the only presence of women in the entire paper is with their boobs out (Hello, Sunday Sport!) then there’s a problem as that’s presenting a very skewed world view. And it’s been a while since I read The Sun, but I can certainly believe there’s an inherent, uncomfortable tone of sexism throughout the paper in general. But that’s not a problem solved by removing Page 3.

Because Page 3 is at its least offensive when it isn’t trying to be more than it is. When it’s just ‘hot naked girl’. Once you try and add context, comments, made-up quotes, then it becomes a problem. Because then the question becomes “Well why does this woman need to have her boobs out to tell us about immigration?” and there’s no good answer to that.

I think when people claim Page 3 is ‘playful’ or ‘innocent’ that’s what they’re getting at really. Those current captions aside, it used be “What’s this girl here for?” “For men to enjoy looking at.” That’s an honesty people find appealing, because you go to the Daily Mail website and there’s a sidebar full of women in various states of undress with flimsy justifications written for why it’s important we see holiday snaps of Tamara Rutland in a bikini or Britney’s latest nipple slip and you ask “Why?” and it’s “People want to hear about celebrities!”. We turn on the TV and there’s adverts with women in nothing more than underwear and you ask the “Why?” question and it’s “To sell you shampoo”. You open a woman’s magazine and there’s Photoshop’d photos of stick thin models in lingerie and you ask “Why?” and it’s “To make sure you keep buying our magazine for diet tips”.

I’m not really defending Page 3, I don’t give a crap about it really, it’s not like it’s hard to find tits on the internet regardless, but I struggle at understanding how Page 3 is any way worse than those examples in the previous paragraph. Surely if anything, you go after those first? The Mail especially seems to have far more boobs in it than The Sun, but because they belong to celebrities, are often taken without consent, and appear on different pages every day, it gets away with it.

Why ebook piracy sucks

I have a Kindle, but I’ve never felt the need to engage in ebook piracy. I’m not a big reader, I’ll get through one book a month if I’m lucky (and they’re short) and given the average price of a Kindle book is £4-£5, I can spare that monthly stipend for literature.

But since I (sort of) work in publishing, I have a look around from time to time to see what’s going on, and man, does ebook piracy suck. But maybe not for the reason you think.

Let me explain something: services like Steam (for PC games) and iTunes (for music) got where they are today by making one important realisation: the main driver for piracy is that the pirates offered a better product than the official sources. One could get a PC game without leaving the house, not have to faff around with registering for some DRM account system and not need the disc in the drive. One could get music without going to the shops, or having to risk buying online and being locked into a single device, or getting songs in a format that wouldn’t be around in five years.

Steam and iTunes said “fine, we’ll let you do (nearly) all of that”, plus we’re guaranteed virus free, a quicker download than you get on a Bittorrent, and no feelings of guilt”. See, that’s a sales pitch. See the first thing they had to do was be sure they were offering a product at least as good as what the pirates were offering. Because if they didn’t do that, they had no chance.

Here’s the thing: e-book piracy is already not offering as good a service as the legitimate publishers do, but the sucky thing is: you might not realise.

Last night I nosed around a bunch of pirated versions of ebooks I’d bought recently, or owned paperbacks of: some Star Trek novels and some Iain Banks stuff. Some of them were great: they’d clearly taken the files from Amazon or wherever, stripped the DRM and uploaded them again.

Some of them made me throw up in my mouth. Full disclosure: I used to work as editor, so I’m trained to spot this stuff. But this is stuff that will affect your enjoyment of a book, it’s just you won’t even know it.

Here’s the two most common problems I found with the pirated copies:

1) Lack of italics. Yes, no italicisation (and no bold) in the entire book. Not a big deal is it? Italics barely get used do they? Go to your bookshelf, pick up a fiction book, and flick through it and look for italics. Go on. I’ll wait…. There’s loads aren’t there?

Thing is, authors use italics for a lot of things. Not just emphasis like I did there. They use it to, for example, distinguish a character’s internal monologue from speech. To delineate terms in other languages (which in fantasy/sci-fi, may well be made up languages). For the names of ships or brands or other proper nouns. Here’s a thing: in Star Trek novels, when the characters are communicating via communicator (the away team is talking to the ship, for example) italics are used to represent speech over the comms. That’s the Pocket Books house style, and it’s so heavily ingrained and used so consistently in the novels, that after setting it up early on, authors just use it as short hand to avoid the whole “he said / she said” thing.

The net result of that is Star Trek novels without italics in are nigh-on unreadable the minute someone taps a comm badge, as you’ve no clue which dialogue belongs to which side of the conversation.

Of course, the issue here is that I’m telling you this. Had you never seen a legitimate copy of the book, you might think the writer was just a bit crap. Or that the author was trying and failing to do some weird stream of consciousness thing by not separating the character’s thoughts and speech. You’d be confused, but you wouldn’t even realise it was because some idiot pirate stripped the italics out of the file.

Oh and Discworld novels where Death doesn’t talk in bold.

2) No paragraph spacing, no paragraph indents. I’ve seen both of these as individual problems, and also together where they become a complete nightmare. In books, spacing matters. Each novel may do it differently, but early on you quickly learn exactly what spacing means. You don’t realise it, but in the early chapters the author teaches you almost a ‘grammar’ of spacing for that book, and then later uses that. For example, most commonly, books will indent every paragraph, but only space on a scene change. They’ll also indent speech as new paragraphs so you can quickly follow the back and forth between a bunch of characters. Some books will also use double spacing to represent a change in point-of-view character (or they’ll use a horizontal rule or other symbol, also often stripped out).

If you don’t do this stuff, things start to go wrong. No paragraph indentation means knowing when a new paragraph is starting is often difficult, which gives that whole ‘wall of text’ effect that just makes things hard to read. It also makes speech a complete pain to follow.

No spacing means scene changes can just come out of nowhere and confuse the hell out of you. The worst example I found was one where every paragraph had a line space after it (no indentation) except for when there was a scene change, where the paragraph was just run-on directly without so much as a carriage return! The complete opposite of what your brain has been trained to expect. I read a few pages and it was a complete headfuck. If you’re an author and really want to mess with your reader, try doing that.

And then there were the versions that lacked both spacing and indents, and so seemed to eschew the whole concept of paragraphs entirely.

There were other issues: typos, lack of proper chapter marks, all that stuff. But those two big ones make such a huge difference to your reading experience, and they’re things you might not even notice if you don’t know they’re meant to be there. You’ll think the author is just being weird, or worse incompetent.

Now, there’s a reason this happens, and the legitimate publishing industry itself is partly to blame. When ebooks first became a thing, lots of books were not available legitimately, so a bunch of enthusiastic people went out and scanned them and OCR’d them, and some of those were done quite badly. Then after that, plenty of publishers realised they should get their back catalogue out in an electronic format, so paid people to scan and OCR them. And some of those were done pretty badly too, and certainly weren’t proof read.

Things are better now. Not perfect, a book likely still won’t get another proof done at the electronic stage so the occasional spacing issue or typo can turn up, but nothing so egregious as the examples above. The companies that do conversions have gotten better, and the big publishers can now handle it in house. Many are returning to the back catalogue and fixing those errors (and Amazon will notify you if a book you bought has been updated) and this is where the pirates will let you down. They won’t go back, get the new version, and upload a fixed pirate copy. As far as they are concerned, if a pirate ebook exists, it doesn’t need doing again. They’d rather pirate something new or something very old that doesn’t exist in any format. And they can do what they want, but some of their existing stuff is nigh-on unreadable.

As an experiment, I tried to track down the collected works of my favourite author, the now depressingly late Iain (M) Banks. Of 27 fiction books (Raw Spirit isn’t available electronically anywhere, as far as I could tell), 6 of them did not have an accurate pirate version (I was comparing to paperback copies, and legit electronic versions from Amazon). To obtain the other 21, I had to download three separate “complete works” files, each of which had good copies of some books and awful ones of others, and piece a collection together. Even then there wasn’t a single version of Complicity with italics intact. All the Amazon versions are wonderfully formatted and well worth picking up by the way. Especially Complicity for £3.79 if you’ve not read Banks before.

But that’s an author who, while not at a Brown/Rowling level of mass market fame, is one you’d always find near the front of displays in Waterstones, a critical darling. Yet if you sample his work illegally, there’s a one in five chance you’ll get something that’ll put you off him for life.

In a way it’s nice that there’s a good incentive out there for people to actually pay for the work. It’s great that the publishers are beating the pirates in terms of the service they offer to customers. What worries me is that people don’t know this even happens. After all, if you get a ‘bad’ copy of a movie, it’s generally obvious: you can see the cinema audiences’ heads, or it has un-removable Chinese subtitles. If the pirated version just had the actors missing their cues on occasion and few scenes the wrong way around, you wouldn’t know, you’d just think it was bad.

This is what is happening now in literature. So if you must pirate, at least use Amazon’s handy ‘look inside’ feature to compare the legit version to whatever you downloaded, and make sure it at least looks right first. If it doesn’t then for god’s sake just buy thing instead of ruining it for yourself.

April 14, 2013

The Ding–Dong Thatcher controversy

I’m not going to talk at length about the whole Thatcher business, suffice to say the reaction and back and forth on social media has been quite interesting.

But then 1000s of people go out and buy “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” on iTunes, and the BBC has a very public fit over whether it should play it or not. Some have said the BBC is caught in a tough position: play it and be deemed distasteful or not play it and be deemed censorious.

But had the BBC wanted to keep it’s nose clean, they should have just played it. Because it’s not whether you play it or not, it’s how you play it. People have gone out and bought it just waiting for that moment on the chart show to see how it gets acknowledged.

For the BBC, therefore, all they need do is brief the host to just play the thing without comment, joke, or underhand reference: “And at number two here’s a classic number from The Wizard of Oz”. All those tuning in to see what the BBC say let out a sigh, see nothing interesting has happened, and the thing is done. There’s no clip to go viral or anything like that. It’d be a non-story.

Instead the BBC made a big song and dance over “will we play it or not?” in the end deciding not to play it in the chart show, but play a clip of it in part of a news story. I can’t think of a worse possible choice. Firstly you annoy one bunch of people by not playing it, then you annoy the other bunch even more by explicitly linking it to Thatcher in a news story, making everyone aware of the context and giving voice to the movement that you were trying to avoid engaging in the first place. It’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard and benefits no-one.

When the BBC banned “Smack My Bitch Up” by The Prodigy many years ago, they played a lyric-less version on the chart show. They didn’t then run a news story where the host read out all of the lyrics to the song to explain why they didn’t play it in the first place.

August 06, 2012

The Offensiveness Manifesto

Or A guide to being offended for comedy audience and performers

COMICS: You have the right to tell offensive jokes

AUDIENCES: You have the right to laugh or not laugh at a joke you find offensive. You also have the right to walk out of a show, and most honest promoters will, within reason, give you your money back.

AUDIENCES: You do not have the right to not be offended (in comedy shows, or life generally).

AUDIENCES: You do not have the right to interrupt a performance to loudly to point out how offended you are by it but…

COMICS: That protection only goes so far. If you decide to take issue with someone not laughing or looking offended at a joke (or frame you offensive routine around a piece of audience interaction), you’ve then chosen to enter into a dialogue with the audience. And yes, some people will happily laugh at jokes about kiddie-fiddling, rape and abortion, then not like a joke about lung cancer. That’s not hypocrisy or double-standards, it’s just human.

COMICS: You don’t have the right to attack, belittle or mock an audience member for being offended by something. They can’t help it. And if your ‘edgy’ and offensive routine involves bullying an audience member, you don’t then get to be annoyed when someone else in the audience ‘heckles’ you in the middle of it.

BONUS HINT: there’s basically just one reason someone will be offended by a rape joke. You probably don’t want to try and turn that into a bit of jolly banter.

AUDIENCES: If you’re offended by something and feel there’s a reason it shouldn’t be a subject for comedy, you have the right to approach a comic after the show and calmly explain why. Under those circumstances, you’re far more likely to be listened to and have sensible consideration given to your viewpoint than in the middle of the performance.

COMICS: You have the right to ignore someone that wants to tell you why they were offended after the show. But if they’re being polite about it, maybe you should listen. You may just have different opinions on the matter and that’s okay. Or maybe you’ll see something from an angle you didn’t notice before and reconsider that joke.

COMICS: It’s not a betrayal of the art form to drop a gag because it’s too offensive. Similarly, managing to offend someone isn’t a comedy badge of honour. It’s one less potential fan. If you’re Frankie Boyle then no, you probably don’t need that one person. If you’re a new open spot, you probably do. So if you’re going to offend people, you best be sure it’s worthwhile.

COMICS: You don’t have the right to tell someone they can’t be offended by something. Offence is a reaction, it’s taken, it’s not a considered, though-through viewpoint. You can explain why you, personally, don’t find the joke offensive, but you can’t tell someone that their being offended is wrong. The corollary to that….

AUDIENCES: Offence is a reaction. If it’s three hours after the gig and you suddenly realise that a joke you laughed at the time is ‘offensive’, it’s not. Or at least, it’s not to you. You don’t get to ‘be offended’ on behalf of other people not at the show. The easily offended don’t go to see Jerry Sadowitz or Frankie Boyle for a reason. If you then repeat the joke you think your friend might find offensive to them in conversation, on your blog, or in an e-mail to the Daily Mail, congratulations, you’re now the one offending them.

AUDIENCES: You do not, ever, have the right to request that comics be censored, banned or arrested because you were offended. You do have the right to not go and see them again.

EVERYONE: What offends differs from person to person. I’ll laugh at rape jokes but find the audition stages of X-Factor where kids are set up to fail and then relentlessly mocked hugely offensive and quite upsetting. So I just don’t watch X-Factor. We’re all adults. Just because no subject is taboo for comedy, doesn’t mean it’s necessary to test every aspect of that theory all the time. Nor is it necessary to let everyone know every time something happens that offends you.

Offence is a part of life. It’s not a great part, it’s not something we should aspire to create in others but nor is it something we should run scared of ever experiencing or inflicting. It’s just there. Maybe we shouldn’t make quite such a big deal of it?