Saturday, 29 May 2010

The Present, The Future

The good weather that initially greeted the completion of exams has dissipated, but no fear. A few more people have finished now and we've been working through DVD collections, an exercise that culminated on Tuesday in about six hours of film viewing, in which we finished off the second half of The Godfather before ploughing through Apocalypse Now and The Usual Suspects. Wednesday was spent shell-shocked, the fear of assassination looming every time I left the house.

Apocalypse Now was the only of the three that I hadn't seen before and I have to admit I didn't really take to it. I'm no fan of Conrad's Heart of Darkness around which the film is based and the themes that were replicated in the adaptation failed to grab me. Some of the surreal aspects made effective points in an amusing fashion, but others, for example the Playboy show, passed me by. At the length the film is as well, it'll be some time before I choose to give it a second viewing.

That's the present. As for the future, on Thursday I accepted my offer for an MA here at York. Assuming I get a 2.1, next year I'll be studying International Political Economy, the area of my degree that I've found most interesting over the last few years, and one that still combines both economics and politics. I've applied for funding but I'm not too hopeful, so the summer will be spent raising funds. As for why I'm doing it, job prospects obviously comes into it, but I also hold a genuine interest in the subject and wish to become more specialised in it.

I also had offers from Manchester and Sheffield that I shall turn down. There was part of me that, for a while, felt that not too leave York would represent a stagnation in life progress, but looking at it I like the city, the uni and the people who will still be about here next year. After next year I intend to move on, be it too a job or gap year. However, right now I'm pretty excited about next year.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

A Pageant of Galling Opulence

My morning routine at the moment involves waking up, half an hour checking the internet, followed by a shower, before heading downstairs to fix up a breakfast of a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee. If the weather's good I'll eat it outside, but more often than not my first meal of the day is accompanied with some BBC News viewing. This usually entails discussions of Icelandic volcanoes, striking BA workers, or the posturings of the new coalition government, but today Huw Edwards, with his dulcet Welsh tones, was on hand for live coverage of the Queen's Speech.

Watching the State opening of Parliament for the first time, I quickly came to the conclusion that it is a ridiculous spectacle of outdated procedure and archaic pomposity. 'Here is the entrance of the Sword of State and the Cap of Maintenance' Edwards announced, as an old sword and pointless piece of headgear were laid on a pedestal. The gathered spectators acted as if the Holy Grail had just been placed in front of them. Alongside our Welsh friend in the studio, Nick Robinson and the three party representatives positively salivated over proceedings and their conveyance of 'history' and 'authority'. To me it all seemed like pure tomfoolery.

Our unelected Head of State arrived, to address our unelected Upper Chamber. As the cameras panned throughout the corridors of Westminster, men dressed as if it was the seventeenth century kept the ceremony moving. In the robing room, Ken Clarke had accessorized his ridiculous garb with a regal looking, clutch bag-cum-purse in which the speech was kept. Once the Queen was eventually seated in the House of Lords some poor man was sent to tell the House of Commons to make their way over. As he made his way down the corridor a police woman yelled 'hats off, strangers', an act that was quickly trumped in rudeness my someone slamming the door in the face of the messenger. Unfazed, he withdrew a big stick and slammed the door with it until they let him in. It was all rather ridiculous.

The speech itself marked the dawn of the supposed 'new politics', but today was a stark reminder of how rooted in history our system is. Some people like that, but I fail to see any merit in retaining these ceremonial formalities. I don't see it changing any time soon, but as I took the last swig of my now lukewarm coffee, I felt rather bemused and very removed from the workings of our democracy.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The Post-Degree High

The invigilator, a bald man who had customised his facial features with a greying goatee and square, thick-rimmed glasses, stepped up to the lectern and calmly announced that time was up and we were obliged to put our pens down. I had finished about five minutes before hand, running rather dry on material for the last question, but this was the official end. The entrance to Central Hall, where exams are sat, is from below, meaning at the start of the exam you emerge into the hall up a flight of stairs, creating a strange gladiator-entering-the-arena type feeling. With answer booklets collected, the invigilator once more leant towards the microphone. 'You may now leave...' The surge towards the door started, accompanied by a crescendo of 'how'd you find it's'. As we headed down the stairs, back into the bowels of the academic stadium, the invigilator again; '...and enjoy your afternoon'.

Your afternoon indeed! I've just completed my degree. I've got the next six and a half weeks off. A month and a half. 44 days. '... and enjoy your afternoon'.

I collected my stuff up and headed out into the afternoon sun. I started wandering around campus on the pretext of getting some money out to get a sandwich, but there wasn't the usual purpose in my stride. I ambled. People scurried past me, anxious to get somewhere, fast. My vision, that had been firmly directed straight down onto revision notes the past few weeks, seemed as if it could scan 360 degrees, without me as much as turning my head. I was taking everything in, not in a detailed processing sense, but in a more general appreciative manner. The trees swaying in the breeze, the sun glinting off the metal railings across the bridge, the stolid brown serenity of the lake. It must have been some kind of post-degree high.

So what am I going to do for the next month and a half? Good question. For starters, read... lots. Back in first year there was a time when I was getting through a couple of 200 page books a week. If I can get back to near that kind of prolificness I'd be pretty happy. I also intend to take advantage of the fact that we have all seven series of The West Wing in our house, though getting through all seven is probably wishful thinking. In a couple of weeks there's the World Cup, during which I intend to chant and rant against England enough to wind up my mates, but not enough for them to turn on me and savagely kick my Scottish ass back where it came from (which is England anyway, so the jokes on them). Then in the last two weeks of term they can return the favour by berating Andy Murray as he fails to win Wimbledon again. For any other spare time? Beer should do the trick.

To the completion of my degree...

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Film Week

Well, for me at least. I've never been a particularly avid movie-watcher, but in the last week with revision taking up my days, and sleep my nights, films have provided the perfect diversion in the evenings. Over the last seven days the three that I've watched are Ae Fond Kiss, Four Lions, and Gran Torino. Although I have no intention of painting myself as an Ebert or a Kermode, here's my thoughts on those said three films.

Last Monday I watched Ken Loach's Ae Fond Kiss on iplayer. It has since disappeared from there but for those who are interested you can find it here on Youtube. It's set in Glasgow and explores the relationship struck up between second-generation Pakistani, Casim, and teacher and Catholic, Roisin, as their different religions, cultures and family situations act as an apparently insurmountable hindrance to their pursual of the relationship.

It's the first Ken Loach film I've watched, and I'm aware that he's directed far more critically acclaimed pictures. The major downfall of this film is that it didn't seem to cover any new or original territory, and harsher critics could accuse it of simply being a grittier, more realist version of Bend it Like Beckham, with several, if slightly strained, parallels between the stories. That, however, shouldn't detract from what is a genuinely well-executed examination of cultural differences in multi-cultural Britain, and the remaining prevalence of religion in certain areas of this country. The Catholic Church is depicted especially cruelly through Gerald Kelly's scowling, dogmatic Priest. The acting is generally good, and the performance of the two main characters especially, provides some touching moments. On the basis of this I look forward to exploring Loach's work further.

On Friday evening, searching for some light relief from the unforgiving task of Economics revision, Digg, Burnley and I went to see Four Lions (picture above). Obviously a film about suicide bombers isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea and there were certain parts of the film when I felt a self-awareness about what I was laughing at. However, watching Four Lions with pre-determined judgements will inevitably lead to missing out on the bulk of the film that is simply dopey, slapstick humour.

The jihadis portrayed in Four Lions are bumbling fools, who would struggle to organise a Doner Kebab, let alone a suicide bombing. Their stupidity helps to distance the events within the film from reality, as does all but one of the ridiculous situations they find themselves in in the film's climax. The fact that there are four idiots to the one straight guy means the idiocy is somewhat overloaded, but it is also true that some of the slapstick moments provide the biggest laughs.

If you're expecting a political message from Four Lions prepare to be disappointed. Critics can talk of the 'touching humanity' of the characters, or 'the brilliant takedown of the imbecility of fanaticism', but, in my view, the most political it gets is the veiled reference to the DeMezenes shooting- 'We shot the right man, but the wrong man exploded'. As would be expected from a film written by a combination of the minds behind Brasseye and Peep Show, Four Lions is simply a very funny film.

As well as never having seen a Ken Loach film, I'd also never seen a Clint Eastwood film, actor or director, until yesterday. In Gran Torino he directs as well as acts, in what he has said will be his last role. Similar to Ae Fond Kiss, it is a story based around the clash of different cultures, yet it is one clearly rooted in America, if not forgotten industrial America, in this case Detroit.

Through the first half of the film it very much seemed like the end of each scene would involve someone pointing a gun at someone of a different race accompanied with a verbal barrage of racist epithets. I personally struggle to engage with books, films and TV shows that have an inherently unlikable main character, and in this case, the bigoted nature of Eastwood's Walt Kowalski rankled far into his apparent rehabilitation.

The second half of the film was better as Kowalski begins to practise the virtues of forgiveness and tolerance in his nurturing of his young neighbour, Thao. Whilst Eastwood puts in an impressive tough-guy performance at the age of 78, the acting of Thao and his sister Sue, lets the film down at times. In the end, Kowalski's gun-toting, DIY-hero, nature leads to troubles that culminate in a powerful finish, yet one that left me thinking whether the film was as much about generational conflict as it was about cultural divisions. Gran Torino is a good film, but appraising it as a social commentary is tough, especially as removed as from this side of the Atlantic.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Cameron Picks his Cabinet

Let's get the big guns in first. Hague to the Foreign Office. He speaks well, though he does sounds a bit funny. He doesn't like Europe much, either. That'll show those Continent-loving Lib Dems. Osborne can be Chancellor. Did they really think we'd let some radical dinosaur like Vince Cable have that? He can go to Business. After all, I did promise George he could play with the money if he kept his mouth shut and his sneering face hidden during the campaign. I know Michael Gove said he'd give up his seat for a Lib Dem but we've invested too much hot air on this 'Swedish free schools' thing. He's the only one that really gets it anyway. A school for free? Sounds ridiculous.

These pesky Lib Dems. Got to slot them in somewhere. Tell you what, Clegg can be Deputy PM. It sounds pretty glamorous but doesn't really mean much. I wonder if he makes a good cup of tea. We'll give them Climate Change as well. They seem to be really into that stuff. I know we say we are, but we only do it because we have to. If it was really up to our members we'd be emitting carbon faster than you can say 'but I'll be dead by the time the icecaps have melted'. We'll give that to the grey-haired one, the one that seems to have been permanently pissed off since he didn't get to become leader a few years ago. Chris Huhne. That's him. And the two ginger ones. One of them must be a Scottish MP. We sure as hell can't get any up there! Danny Alexander. Sorted, Scottish Secretary. And the other? Former investment banker. To the Treasury, David Laws, to the Treasury.

Right. Looks like I've gone and surrounded myself with a group of well-presented, Oxbridge educated, 40-somethings, a couple of over-50 university-lecturer types, and a few lavishly-lunched behemoths, all male, all white. Probably time to get a few women into the cabinet. Cheryl Gillan and Caroline Spelman help to make up the numbers, and Baroness Warsi brings the minority quota up to... oh, just one... unelected as well. Yikes. Last one better be big then. How about Theresa May for Home Secretary. Yeah, Home Secretary. The one that became a bit of a revolving door under Labour as there's so much shit just waiting to hit the fan. Immigration shit, crime shit, national security shit. Yeah we'll give her that.

Oh, and tell you what. Because it'd look a bit stupid giving an old white man Minister for Women and Equality, she can have that as well. Adds a little gravitas. What? She's against equal rights for homosexuals? She can't be any worse than Chris Grayling though? He really blew it. Couple of weeks away from the Home Office and he goes and makes some stupid comment about gays in B&Bs. She voted against lowering the age of consent for homosexual couples to the same as heterosexual couples? Against gay adoption? Against repealing Section 28? Jeez. Try and keep that on the down low. Can't be doing with that kind of hassle. I've got a country to run.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The Deal is Done

As Gordon Brown stepped outside 10 Downing Street to announce his resignation for the second time in two days, I was sat in the library revising poverty and inequality for my Economics of Social Policy exam on Thursday. It seemed fitting. Since I came to any kind of political awareness, this country has been governed by the Labour party, a party founded by the working class to protect its interests against those of big business, against those of the rich. Labour has achieved a lot in its thirteen years of power- minimum wage, child tax credits, gay rights- yet I have never considered supporting it. Yes, there was Iraq, the sustained attack on civil liberties, cash-for-honours and cash-for-influence; but Labour's greatest failure is its record on inequality. The fact that the richest 10% of the population are now more than 100 times richer than the poorest 10% makes for a sad epitaph on the New Labour gravestone.

Not that the Lib Dems will be getting my vote again any time soon. Details are continuously emerging of the deal they have come to with the Conservatives, with Clegg set to be deputy PM and four other Liberal Democrats taking posts in Cabinet. I fear that the yellow bird I placed my cross next to last Thursday may well have been brought to the ground by a pellet from the Tory shotgun, bringing down with it an amnesty for illegal immigrants and a less Europhobic Britain. The resulting main course will likely be an assault on public services, enacted in the Tory's emergency budget. The decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives will surely not be popular with a lot of the parties grass roots, so whilst Clegg may be dipping his hand into the fire successfully on one side, he should be prepared for a flame-thrower from the rear.

And finally, David Cameron, privilege etched from ear-to-ear, enters Downing Street. Though it is not the result I wished for or feel is best for the country, it is the right outcome considering the result last Thursday. He does not hold the mandate he wished to so will have to tread carefully, leaving less of a footprint across the parts of the country that rightfully fear what the Tories could do. Though it is never good to be in opposition, there are worse times than this. Labour must regroup, take time electing a new leader, and consolidate the working class support that prevented it from suffering a deserved hammering at this election. It is only once it has re-established its connection with the people it is supposed to represent that it can look to enter government as a progressive force once more.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Election Night

Swings and things; Takeaways from Efes and Labour (though not enough); A job well hung; The smoke-filled rooms

It's now over two days since the UK staggered into its first hung parliament since 1974 and, as of yet, no two parties have come to an agreement to get it back moving again. Talks are ongoing between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, and the consensus seems to be that a 'change coalition' will be agreed upon sometime soon. However, we shall see. I was going to write something about the election result on friday night but a hangover, a lack of sleep and 18 hours sat in front of BBC One's TV coverage meant that typing something up onto a computer screen was the last thing on my mind. The time that has elapsed since results night, and my alcohol enhanced state as David Dimbleby hauled my attention round the country, means that the chronology of the night is pretty hazy, but what follows is a rough recollection.

Having stocked up for the night ahead there were four of us who took our seats at ten o'clock for the start of the BBC's coverage. The exit poll had just been released, predicting a hung parliament and, more importantly to us- two of whom had voted Lib Dem, and one who would have had he sorted out a postal vote- a drop in the Lib Dems number of seats. The feeling in our living room was not to read too much into it, a sentiment echoed by the stream of politicians who patiently answered the obtuse questions Paxman barked at them like a grumpy St. Bernard.

Elsewhere in the BBC studio, Jeremy Vine was guiding us through a virtual world, that would have been enthralling for those who like their politics with a side-helping of hallucinogenics, but, for those of us not travelling through Interzone, left one feeling slightly queasy. Emily Maitlis had the job of analysing turnout, majorities and swing, within constituences, and was ably aided by Yougov pollster Peter Kellner and a giant iphone. Andrew Neill was on a seemingly pointless yacht moored by the London Eye, with seemingly pointless celebrities, seeking out their seemingly pointless opinion, while back in the studio David Dimbleby held the thing together. After an hour and a half of speculation upon the exit poll figures it was somewhat of a relief when the results started flowing in.

The early seats were safely held by Labour though with a significant swing towards the Conservatives. At about quarter past eleven Ryan bailed, leaving just three of us. He, like most other people in Britain, had normal life to live the next day. Slowly the Conservatives started to make gains, whilst the Lib Dem surge, as predicted, was proving rather shy in showing its face. The first real scalp of the night was the demise of Lembit Opik, who, on his way out will take his celebrity girlfriends and ego with him. Parliament won't miss him. Just after twelve o'clock, Richard also retired, a decision somewhat justified considering he had driven to Manchester and back that afternoon to vote. That just left myself and Digg, to-the-bitter-end veterans of the 2008 US Presidential Election and the 2009 European Elections, to watch the countries future unfold.

Whoever was doing the unfolding was making a right hash of it, tearing corners off and smudging bits all over the country. As we progressed through the Heinekens, each Tory gain was met by a drunken groan of discontent. Yet the gains they were making were scattered. While they took some seats far down their target list, they failed to take some marginals that they though were bankers. Goes to show, you can never rely on a banker. Post-Heinekens, during-Doner Kebab, the first personally important result of the night was announced as my Uncle John took Carlisle for the Conservatives*. Post-Heineken and Doner Kebab, during-Red Wine, my two residential constituencies of South-East Cambs and York Outer went Conservative. By the time the Greens took their first ever Parliamentary seat down in Brighton Pavilion, we were onto the Coffees. At seven o'clock, with a hung parliament virtually assured, I finally dozed off.

I woke again at about 10.30 to find David Dimbleby (who Digg assured me had been to bed for a couple of hours) still fronting the BBC coverage, with a hung parliament guaranteed. Richard rejoined us, fresh after his sleep, as the two of us sat groggy and unwashed, hoping for some quick developments during the day. All three main parties had reason to be disappointed. The Tories had failed to win an overall majority, Labour had seen a massive slip in both their share of the vote and in their seats, and the Lib Dems didn't realise the gains they had been hoping for. Its was as if whilst the three parties had been fighting amongst themselves, the electorate had stepped in and placed three very well-aimed kicks to the groin.

After four weeks of going at each others throats, by eleven on Friday morning, cooperation in 'the interest of the nation' was the new trend. First Nick Clegg announced that the Tories, through gaining the most votes and seats, had effectively 'shotgunned' first go at making a government. Brown followed with a thinly veiled plea to the Lib Dems. Then, at around 14.20, for a brief few minutes we though something might be on.

As the BBC's camera's remained trained on the lectern that David Cameron was due to speak from at 14.30, a banner ran across the bottom of the screen stating that Clegg intended to speak at 14.40.
'That doesn't give him much time to respond to Cameron's speech' I mused.
'Perhaps they've already spoken,' suggested Digg. 'They might both be announcing they've come to an agreement.'
'Or maybe they've spoken, and Clegg's rejecting the Tories and off to make a deal with Labour' I counter-speculated .
It sounded plausible to us.

It turned out there was no substance behind the Clegg rumour, and Cameron's speech was just the opening salvo in the negotiations between parties. If we'd thought it through a bit more we'd probably have realised that to come to a deal that quickly would have been rash, yet in our frenzied state it had seemed possible. As the coverage returned to the studio, an image of Jeremy Vine tumbling down the stairs of his virtual Downing Street flashed across my mind. 16 hours straight of election coverage can really twist the soul.

Two days later and it now seems likely that a Con-Lib pact will be announced soon. After the initial energy burst of election night I'm pretty burnt out by politics now, and my attention is turning to the rather more pressing matter of next week's exams. I've come to be pretty ambivalent about who forms a government, with all parties shaping up like over-exuberant surgeons, scalpel in hand, ready to slash away at public services. Some say this is the time to lose, with the post-operation diagnosis likely being to stay away from that particular surgeon. If if the Lib Dems can get the ball rolling on PR, whilst leaving the Tories to make the tough decisions on public spending I won't be too disappointed. Chances are we'll have the fun and games of another election in the not too distant future.

*Family ties override political allegiances with the Carlisle result. I spent an afternoon leafletting there back at the start of April, and my parents both spent the last week pounding the streets, sticking literature through letterboxes and knocking on doors. I met them yesterday, as they travelled back down to Cambridge, where they described the excitement of the count. With an eventual majority of just 853, at one stage they feared the worse as it looked like Labour may just cling on. However, after running a highly organised, near flawless campaign, the seat was won with a 7.7% swing. On Friday, my Mum, understandably very proud off her little brother, purchased a copy of every local paper going, so currently on my bed behind me, my Uncle lies grinning out of the pages of the Carlisle News & Star, and The Cumberland Times.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

My Vote, My Election

After a couple of productive days in which I was on campus by 9 and spent a good 6 hours revising, I'm now sitting in bed with a thumping headache and a mouth as dry as a backwards county in Alabama. Ironically, it was the presence of alcohol last night, rather than any absence of it, that lies behind my current predicament. I've decided that after tonight's election night frivolities I'll be going teetotal for the next two weeks until my exam's finish, as I can't really afford the lost time lying in bed, letting 6music nurse my hangover. However, for today, Nurse Good has prescribed some Velvet Underground, some Wonderstuff, and a couple of paracetamol to get me in a fit state to go and perform my civic duty of voting.

Since turning 18 back in August 2007 I'm yet to vote, my only opportunities being a couple of local elections and last year's European elections. This wasn't out of any political apathy but more borne out of a general apathy towards the parties on offer. No-one really struck me as a party I wanted to vote for.

In November 2008 a group of us got drunk and stayed up to watch an eloquent African-American stride to power after mobilising many disillusioned Americans with ambiguous words like 'hope' and 'change'. At five in the morning there was still about six of us watching as Obama made his much-acclaimed victory speech in Chicago. Through a haze of beer, wine and spirits it all looked very exciting. Imagine what it must have been like for young people that side of the Atlantic.

Six months later, in the European Elections of 2009, there was just two of us sat up watching as, for the first time ever, a Fascist party was elected in a British election. It had been a long night, and with the Tories and Ukip coming first and second in votes respectively, the BNP's successes were the vile icing on a bitter cake. Like vultures, they had fed off the carcass of voter disillusionment that had been exacerbated beyond all belief by the expenses scandal. My choice not to vote, not because of duck houses or moats, but because of laziness, had contributed to their success. Last month I saw Richard Herring's Hitler Moustache show in Cambridge, in which he discusses issues of race and the rise of the far-right in a very funny, thought-provoking ninety minutes of comedy. He asked if any of us had chosen not to vote in last year's elections. Me and quite a few others rather sheepishly lifted our hands. 'So there wasn't one person on that ballot paper you preferred to a Fascist?' he asked. Rather crudely he had hit the nail on the head. Even if the main parties don't appeal to you, they must strike a chord with you more than a fascist. The BNP actually got less votes than in 2004, but a greater share of the vote due to the low turnout, so every extra vote for Labour, the Lib Dems, the Conservatives, Ukip, the Greens, would have eaten into that share and lessened the chance of a BNP victory. I vowed that in future, if a far-right candidate was running in any election I was registered to vote in I would use that vote to try and stop them.

I'm now more politically engaged than I have been since I turned 18, so even if we didn't have a BNP candidate running I think I would be voting today. This decision is augmented by the fact that York Outer has a notional majority of just 200 to the Lib Dems over the Tories, so my vote will count a lot more than most of the electorate in this country. My vote for the Lib Dems, that is.

Out of the three main parties I oppose the Conservatives, and don't believe Labour's record after thirteen years in office warrants another five years. The Lib Dems aren't the radical break from the 'two old parties' that Nick Clegg claims they are, but they are, in my view, the more progressive of the three. If we had a Green candidate here in York I would seriously consider voting for them as I believe my views are most closely reflected in their policies, but even then our archaic electoral system might have forced be back to the Lib Dems. Perhaps by achieving a hung parliament we will be able to get the electoral change necessary to make Britain more democratic, by making everyone's vote count the same.

Further afield there are several seats round the country I'll be keeping a close eye on tonight. South-East Cambs is now likely to be a close race after the Tories 8,000 majority was rendered null by the expulsion of the Labour candidate just a week or so ago. If the Liberal Democrats can pick up enough of the Labour votes they could mount a serious challenge on the seat. I'm hoping that the Greens can pick up at least one seat, with their best chances looking like Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion and Adrian Ramsay in Norwich South. There are two seats as well, where I'd actually like to see the Conservatives win (please forgive me). One is Morley and Outwood where Anthony Calvert has run an enthusiastic campaign to try and get rid of the menace that is Ed Balls. The other is Carlisle, where my Uncle is the Conservative candidate. Though you would expect the city to be Labour, a divided local party means that the Tories could steal it.

As for my overall prediction, though I don't like it, I expect the Conservative's to get a small majority- no more than 40 though. I'm hoping for a hung parliament, but have little idea of the kind of antics that could potentially take place over the next few days should that occur. After being excited about many things this campaign and generally being let down- the debates for example- I hope tonight is not the same.